An ode to a different kind of NBA failure

Just before last night's comfortable 103-89 victory over the Washington Wizards, news broke that a three team deal had been agreed in principle between the Los Angeles Lakers, the Houston Rockets, and the New Jersey Nets.  The deal sends two first round picks (one from L.A., one from Houston) to New Jersey, who plan to use those picks as further enticement in a trade package for Carmelo Anthony, troubled shooting guard Terrence Williams moves from New Jersey to Houston, and the Lakers pick up Joe Smith as further insurance against the health of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Theo Ratliff.  But the deal has a final piece; Just like that, Sasha Vujacic is no longer a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Sasha "The Machine" Vujacic might be the unofficial winner of the undistinguished award for "Most disliked player in the NBA."  Fans don't like him.  Players don't like him.  Coaches don't like him.  There may be more fans who dislike Kobe Bryant, and for that matter, LeBron James might be running away with the category.  The people who dislike those players certainly do so with more passion than gets reserved for a relative nobody like Vujacic.  The key difference, however, lies in the fact that just about all of the vitriol directed at those two players comes from outside of their home fanbase.  Within the friendly confines of their home arenas, Kobe and LeBron are gods.  Sasha faces animosity from all sides.  Even Laker fans don't like him.

Sasha's career arc can't really be described as a roller coaster; it's more of a sharp peak, like the sales of a one-hit wonder, or the trend graph of "double rainbow".  On paper, Sasha fits the mold of so many NBA disappointments who have gone before him.  This is his seventh season in the league, and only one of those seasons is remembered fondly.  That season just so happened to be the year before his free agency, and on the basis of that year, Vujacic received a 3 year/$15 million contract that now makes him massively overpaid.  It fits the mold of one of the NBA's most generic (and accurate) cliches, the NBA player in a contract year.  It's a well known phenomenon that players who are in the final year of their contract try harder and perform better, in the hopes of landing a lengthy and lucrative contract.  Many of these types go right back to under-performing as soon as they get paid.  Tim Thomas had an entire 13 year career based entirely on playing for a new contract every third season.  However, to attach that phenomenon to Sasha Vujacic is massively unfair.  The hallmark of a "contract year" player is laziness,  that he will only perform his best with the motivation of being paid more staring him directly in the face.  Sasha has never been lazy, never lacked motivation.  The problem with a "contract year" player is that he doesn't care enough to try his hardest unless he sees a direct, personal gain to be made.

Sasha Vujacic's problem is, and has always been, that he cares too much.

Sasha Vujacic plays basketball as if every second on the court will be his last.  This description is sometimes used metaphorically to describe someone who plays hard all the time, someone who never leaves anything in reserve.  It's usually considered a positive quality.  Such usage, though aesthetically pleasing, is inaccurate.  Hollywood consistently idolizes how people spend their last moments, illustrating heroism and calm.  In reality, unless final moments involve a great deal of mental and physical preparation, they are often marked by the most powerful and instinctual of emotions: Fear and panic.  Very few people on this earth have the mental strength and composure to think clearly with a gun pointed to their head.  Sasha plays with a gun to his head every time he sets foot on the court.

That mentality is why he has become so universally despised.  Fans and players from opposing teams don't like him because he takes unnecessary three point shots at the end of blowout wins, or because his goal from the second he enters the game is to be as annoying as possible to his defensive mark.  He doesn't play by the same code as all the other professional athletes, because to him, this is not a matter of profession, but a matter of life and death.  Add those factors in with non-basketball related qualities (his nickname is both arrogant and massively misplaced, he plays for the Lakers, he wears a girly hairband) and it's easy to see why the majority of world outside of Southern California doesn't appreciate Sasha very much.

Within Lakers Nation, Sasha is disliked because his mental approach to the game causes foolish decisions.  He fouls people 50 feet from the basket with two seconds left in the half.  He shoots long jump shots with 18 seconds on the shot clock in garbage time.  He rushes an open shot in .3 seconds when he could take twice that much time to set his feet and gather himself.  All of these decisions are stupid within the context of the game, but for Sasha there is no context.  Another tried and true effort-related cliche is the one about the player who's motor is always running, but even the most energetic of players knows that he needs to keep that motor at 95% or he'll be out of control.  Sasha Vujacic is red-lining at all times, and he cares too much to know how to turn it down or shut it off.  If Kobe Bryant's veins are filled with ice, Sasha must bleed molten lava.

It's a pitiable condition, but if you really think about it, isn't it also just a tad bit refreshing?  Sasha is hardly the first NBA player to fail to live up to his potential.  There are tons of player storylines which mirror Sasha's in terms of production, and in the end, what a basketball player can do on the court is all that will define him.  Most of the players that fit into this category can all share the same criticisms:  Player X didn't work hard enough, Player Y's heart isn't in basketball.  Shouldn't we have a soft spot in our hearts for a guy that wants it so bad that he trips all over himself trying to get it?  As fans, we see so many players who fail to make it in the league and think wishfully to ourselves "If only I had his talent/size/skills/athleticism", but we can't say that about Sasha.  The truth is, where you might look at Sasha and see nothing but nerves, failure, and long hair, I see one of us.

It takes a certain mental makeup to be successful as a performer in any trade.  You have to be able to cope with pressure, to perform well as other people watch your every move.  No matter who you are, it takes time and experience to have the confidence to perform under these circumstances, but, just like any other skill, there are some people who are more adept at it, and some who just can't do it.  If, overnight, you became 6'7", developed a sweet shooting stroke and the other necessary skills and athleticism to compete in the league, do you really think you'd be able to step on the court and perform at a high level?  I'm honest enough to know that I couldn't do it.  Maybe over time I could learn, but right at the start, I'd play like Sasha does.  And there's a decent portion of the population that would never be able to improve under those circumstances.  The honest truth is that there may not be a player more relatable to the common man than Sasha Vujacic.

Sasha is hardly the only person in the world who could never deal with the pressure of performing, but it is a rare feat to make it all the way to the top without developing a certain amount of composure.  I'm sure that there are thousands of people who had all the necessary physical tools to make it as an NBA athlete and lack the mental capacity, but most of these people wash out well before reaching the peak of their profession.  That is what makes Sasha unique.  I have no idea how he made it this far.  Maybe it is only the pressure of the NBA, or of being a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, that he finds suffocating.  Maybe he has made an entire career out of being a "practice player".  Either way, it makes his one good season all the more remarkable.  For one glorious year, Sasha Vujacic's mind operated on the same ethereal plane as the rest of the NBA, and the result was a potent scorer and feisty defender who was good enough to be the 6th man of an NBA Finalist.  If his story were made for Hollywood, it would have ended there with a fade to black, and possibly a 10 years later shot where we see that Sasha had a successful NBA career from that moment forward.  Reality will not be so kind.

For that reason, I encourage you to think fondly of Sasha "The Machine" Vujacic.  Remember him not for his foolish mistakes, but for the fact that nobody, not even Kobe Bryant himself, cared more about being a Laker, and a basketball player.  Don't deride him as overrated, or criticize him for tricking a GM into an overpaid contract.  Instead, reflect on the one season in which he was allowed to live his dream, and think about how you'd react if you were in the same situation, and the dream started slowly slipping away.  Sasha Vujacic is the closest thing to one of us that exists in the NBA.  On Sunday, he entered the game against the New Jersey Nets at the end of the first quarter, and played a grand total of eight seconds.  You can bet, just as we might do, he played that eight seconds like it would be the last he would ever play.

Finally, tragically, at least as it pertains to being a Laker, he was right.

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