From the first moment he took the floor for the Lakers at Las Vegas Summer League, Alex Caruso has been a walking meme, a player whose amount of times going viral probably exceeds their productivity. This is probably because he’s a balding white guy, and most balding white guys can’t dunk on Kevin Durant, which makes him both a bit of a novelty and a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
But on some level that’s also distracted from an important truth: Caruso is a really good basketball player, and in his first full NBA season this year he’s demonstrated his value, serving as a tenacious defender and key off-ball threat for one of the NBA’s best teams. It’s an incredible journey for a player who originally went undrafted and spent a year in the G League full-time before becoming the Lakers’ first ever two-way player, working under that contract for two years before finally getting an NBA deal last summer.
At the same time, all of the (sometimes facetious or sarcastic) hype around Caruso has sometimes distracted and detracted from what is a genuinely inspiring and newsworthy story, and on a recent episode of “The Lowe Post,” Zach Lowe of ESPN asked Caruso if that’s ever bothered him. Caruso’s answer was really insightful into what it’s like to live through the push and pull of viral fame that he’s navigated so well:
“It’s a fine line between joking about it and people having fun with it, and people kind of disrespecting how hard I’ve worked to get to this point, right? ... I’m a professional basketball player, this is what I do. They didn’t just give me a two-year contract because I threw the ball in the hoop one time and dunked one time and everybody got excited on Instagram or Twitter. I’ve put in my time, I’ve worked on my game, my body and my craft to be able to get to this point.
“There’s a fine line between having real fans that appreciate what I do and know how hard I play, and what I actually bring to the game, and then... there’s a bunch of casuals who one, either don’t like it because all they see are videos of me on Bleacher Report, or House of Highlights or SportsCenter, which they probably do play too many times a month. They probably are overproducing Alex Caruso content. But then there’s the other half that are like loyal fans that appreciate how hard I’ve worked.”
How hard he worked to get here is probably why Caruso makes it clear he isn’t surprised by his highlight dunks or other such plays: He’s been playing basketball his whole life, and this is how he makes an impact. He’s never really tried to force things or play into that virality, it’s obvious he wants to be taken seriously as a basketball player, and on some level, it’s probably incredibly frustrating to have that minimized or trivialized just because he happens to look like a blogger who got really serious about P90X.
But let’s be real about what we’re talking about here: Lakers fans have been celebrating Caruso’s successes since he got his limited bursts of opportunity as a two-way player. There has always been an appreciation, at least among the die hards, for how much he’s had to grind to get to this point. They’ve celebrated his accomplishments with memes and hype mixes ever since he first burst onto the scene to lock up De’Aaron Fox in Las Vegas Summer League.
This only became a real discussion point this year, when instead of being an occasional viral sideshow on national brand accounts, Caruso started playing every game, and those accounts started appropriating those jokes into the ground by using them nearly every game while clearly lacking an understanding of where that appreciation was coming from, leading to posts that in many cases boiled down to “wow white guy sure dunk good” along with a few fire or snorting emojis and some caps lock sprinkled in.
When a national NBA account turns into a Lakers fan blog three nights a week, it’s easy to see how fans of the other 29 teams (and maybe even some Lakers fans) could feel as though it was overkill, which led to the bulk of the anti-Caruso backlash, and a somehow serious discussion on Twitter one day about whether or not Alex Caruso was the reason NBA ratings were down (spoiler alert, he is not).
What got lost along the way in that discourse, however, is all of the people Caruso’s journey has genuinely inspired, and it’s part of why he told Lowe he’s happy to take the good with the bad when it comes to his status as a fan favorite:
“I’ve had so many people reach out to me, and obviously I can’t respond to everybody on Twitter or Instagram, but people who tell me ‘hey man, I recognize what you do. You’ve worked hard, you’ve earned this, I appreciate you, you’re inspiring to me to do that.’ I can’t knock one side and get mad at the people who think it’s overkill, or think I’m just here for fun, because there is a side who truly believe in me and what I’ve done to get here. And those people are obviously who I play for, right? I love playing for fans, I love playing for crowds that get excited. It gives me juice and energy to play. So I love when there is genuine appreciation.
“I don’t know if this is going to be the year when people decide to stop talking about me. I’m sure being on the Lakers helps this a lot, and maybe sometime down the line of my career I won’t be a Laker, but for the time being I know it’s not going to slow down just because of how much exposure there is with the brand of being a Laker. And I’m not going to slow down, so there’s not going to be any loose ends on my end.”
It’s a little sad in some ways that Caruso has become a divisive figure in the broader NBA community because of the amount of hype he gets, or how many All-Star votes he got. But he deserves credit for always seeing the noise for just that: noise. He’s sold a few “Carushow” shirts, sure, but he’s never overplayed into the branding aspect of all of this. He freely admitted that he wasn’t an All-Star instead of campaigning for a spot, even jokingly. He’s never seemed to let all the hype give him a big head, and it honestly just makes him more of an endearing figure.
As an admitted fan of dry humor, hopefully Caruso knows that in the case of most Lakers fans, even the jokes come from a place of appreciating his journey and what he brings to the team. Because if the past is any indication, we’re certainly not going to stop making said jokes, but hopefully he understands that most of us are laughing with him, not at him.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.