JaVale McGee is ganglingly tragic. He does, strictly speaking, know how to play basketball, but he regularly forgets: swatting shots into his own teammates’ chops, flopping on a three-second delay, imperiling pigeons with layup attempts, and generally seeming only occasionally in control of his giant body. He’s both splendidly athletic and the least athletic man alive, spinning and stumbling through the league, crossing himself up and falling down. There’s a beautiful little line the soccer commentator Ray Hudson uses to describe tricky dribblers. Sometimes, Hudson says, he even sends his shadow the wrong way. The inverse could be said of JaVale. There’s no poetry to his game. It’s all jaunty, sped-up trumpet music and the loud pssh! of seltzer hoses with him.
What has endeared JaVale McGee to many NBA fans is that he seems to know that he’s ridiculous. Independent of his on-court comedy, he’s a guileless and goofy guy. A few summers back, he created an alter-ego for himself, insisting with a straight face—though it’s hard to gauge how straight JaVale’s face ever is—that he would like to be called Pierre. He’s been known to career a motorized shopping cart through a supermarket spice aisle. If there’s one thing to admire about JaVale, it’s that he maximizes the advantages afforded to him by playing a game for huge sums of money. He lives a life that, on its surface, is mostly devoid of seriousness. He is, almost always, just messing around.
But no one lives comfortably as a punchline forever, even if they’re a little bit in on the joke, which is why JaVale and Shaq are currently screwfacing each other in the media, speaking in lame jibes and peanut emojis and empty hold-me-backisms. Mothers are getting involved, which sounds about right given the juvenility of the dispute. If there’s a more wrong party here, it’s Shaq, who’s peculiarly venomous when big men fail—you’ll remember his years-long beef with Dwight Howard, which felt like selfish legacy-guarding more than it ever did an argument about a stupid nickname—and he has been relentless in his McGee mockery. The lanky fella is a ripe target, but he’s not a worthy one. Shaq has gone after him like he’s George W. Bush at the peak of the Iraq War’s pointless bloodiness. And the jokes themselves: they’re not very good. Any jamoke with a lav mic can yell Ja-Vairball! over some footage. It’s subterranean fruit.
McGee claims Shaq is besmirching his name by turning him into a meme, but in truth, he doesn’t have much of a career to defend. There were a couple years there, in Washington and Denver, where JaVale was a somewhat useful dunker and paint-clogger, but it says something that in the middle of his most productive season, the Wizards sent him to the Nuggets as if to say we gotta get rid of this guy while people are under the false impression that he’s getting his stuff together. His utility is mostly in his height and leaping ability, which is okay. Guys like that stick around the longer than you’d think because there aren’t many of them. The league has decided time and again that JaVale McGee is an NBA player. Hell, he might be an NBA champion soon. His ring will be as hugely tacky as Kevin Durant’s.
If we can’t defend McGee as a basketball player, we can at least defend him as a person. He is out there every night trying—bustin’ and brain fartin’—and he’s never done anything truly bad. He doesn’t deserve scorn. He has never, as far as we know, committed an act of domestic violence, or driven drunk, or spat some ugly slur at a fan or referee. He’s blown a defensive assignment or twelve and performed some of the more baroquely boneheaded feats ever seen on a basketball court. But those are mistakes, and mistakes are forgivable. Nothing JaVale McGee has ever done has been any kind of big deal. We’ve chuckled at his clumsiness or spaciness and moved on.
And really, the game is enriched by his presence. If he is not exactly educational or inspiring, he is certainly fun: an athlete right out Jacque Tati’s mind. His failures reveal the lack of the stakes in sports. Real world screw-ups can have painful consequences, but when JaVale trips into the baseline cameras and unsuccessfully tries to save the play by whipping the ball toward an empty space along the three-point line, all you can do is laugh. Shaq must understand this on some level, else his comedy segment wouldn’t exist, but to weaponize it and turn it into a campaign against a single player—JaVale McGee: bad around the rim, bad for America—is unnecessary.
In the end, the league office is probably going to step in here and get Shaq to let up on JaVale. We might get an awkward Inside the NBA segment where the two manfully pretend to make up and talk like dueling D.A.R.E. officers about mutual respect while obviously still hating each other. It’ll be the sort of theater we wish we could walk out on. But whether things get patched up or not, whether JaVale continues to draw Shaq’s guffawing ire, he will go on playing in his blunted, unwieldy, long-limbed way, producing anti-highlights for the ages. It’s not an argument or a performance or even particularly conscious. It is just what he does—pure, hilarious, and unexpected. That’s what JaVale gives us: an accidental gift. Shaq can choose to harrumph about it from the sidelines while the rest of us enjoy it.