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Kentucky's Marcus Lee isn't Dennis Rodman, and further comparisons are equally as tired


Kentucky forward Marcus Lee dances at Big Blue Madness on Friday. | Photo by James Pennington

Kentucky forward Marcus Lee dances at Big Blue Madness on Friday. | Photo by James Pennington

 

Comparisons from current figures to historic ones are especially abundant in sports, and probably for a handful of reasons. Primarily, they’re easy. They allow a learned son of the sport to describe a current player to another learned son of the sport without wasting too much energy. Remember this guy? That’s him! This is the young one of him!
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It’s no surprise, then, that athletes aren’t 100-percent warm to being reduced to shadows of other athletes, even if the comparison is meant to be flattering. Take Marcus Lee, for example. Kentucky coach John Calipari called him a “young Dennis Rodman,” and that’s fine for those who understand the reference. It was a quick way for Calipari to praise his player’s rebounding ability, defensive prowess and infinite energy. Anybody who watched Rodman play knows those things to be Classic Rodman, so Calipari said those things about Lee without actually saying them. He said them in a sound bite, and Calipari is no stranger to crafting sound bites that can get his point across and fit on anyone’s newscast no matter how long the segment is.

 

But Lee didn’t really embrace it. First of all, since such rich comparisons provide easy narrative, it was just about the first question from every reporter—and there were a lot—at Kentucky’s media day last week.

 

“You should have been here, like, eight minutes ago,” Lee said to a reporter who had just walked up and asked about the Rodman comp. “I got the same question.”

 

Lee wasn’t irritated—he actually laughed it off—and he followed to say that any basketball team needs a player that can energize the whole group through the way he plays. A coach said one thing, a player verified that thought, and there it was: a tidy nugget of information, boiled down to three words (‘young,’ ‘Dennis’ and ‘Rodman’), easy for safe-keeping in the back of your head any time you watch Lee play this season.

 

He was then asked if the comparison flattered him, and he let down his guard a bit in his answer.

 

I think comparisons are just what they are: They’re comparisons. It’s a word,” Lee said. “I really don’t think about it very much, because we still have to go work out in an hour or so. I’m not really thinking about it. The first thing I’m thinking about is this practice. Finally—I’ve been in class all day, so I’ll finally be able to be with my brothers and practice.”

 

A reporter then playfully jabbed back, asking if Lee also shared Rodman’s fashion sense. The circle of reporters laughed, and Lee chuckled uneasily. It then became clear that Lee didn’t understand the reference, which is fair in retrospect. Rodman’s most infamous fashion statement was when he wore a wedding dress and a blond wig at an event in May 1996 to promote his newly released autobiography. When that happened, Lee was still a few months shy of his second birthday.

 

Player comparisons, though generally well-intentioned, only set up both the compared and the one comparing for failure. How would it be possible for Lee to be a young Dennis Rodman? Rodman is arguably the best pound-for-pound rebounder ever to play professional basketball, and Lee just turned 19 years old and is likely going to be coming off the bench in his first season at Kentucky.

 

Calipari surely was not subconsciously setting up Lee for failure; again, he was providing a sound bite and a quick frame of reference for how he plays. And Calipari was feeding it into a system of media that, in some corners of the Internet, is widely embraced. Media and fans embrace the comparisons because people like to know what they’re going to see. You can call a player a great defender and rebounder and an energetic player, but those are abstract qualities; Dennis Rodman is something most basketball fans have seen.

 

That analogy extends out to teams, too. Of the 30 questions asked to Calipari in his media day news conference, 10 asked him to compare some element of this year’s team to a team he’s coached in the past (often last year’s disappointing team for contrast, or 2012’s championship team for similarities). If one can get a grip on something one has seen firsthand, that makes for good insight, right? So the thought goes.

 

It also closes one’s mind off to possibilities outside those seen previously seen. If this year’s team falls in a shooting slump, it will be compared to 2010’s team with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Can’t it be some other reason? If it rolls through its schedule with no apparent weaknesses, it will be compared to the championship team. Don’t those two teams have entirely different rosters?

 

This year’s team doesn’t seem to have many analogues. Its point guard, Andrew Harrison, stands 6-foot-6. Julius Randle is 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, and he plays at times like a smooth guard, a skilled swingman and a powerful big man. It may achieve results to teams Calipari has fielded in the past, and it may not, but it will be unique in how those results are achieved. And it, like every other team and player in basketball or any sport, or any book you read or song you hear, deserves thoughtful consideration over easy, even if innocuous, comparison.


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