Michael Beasley's contract was bought out by the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, supposedly because he was arrested in early August for marijuana possession -- his third arrest since joining the Suns last offseason -- and new GM Ryan McDonough has "high standards for all our players" and "[expects] them to represent the team and the community in a positive manner both on and off the court." Put another way, McDonough, who was hired in May, has inherited someone else's waterlogged record collection and is in the process of discarding all the stuff that is hopelessly damaged. Beasley is the chipped and warped copy of One Nation Under a Groove -- brilliantly vulgar, but ultimately useless. You throw it on the turntable once, it sounds predictably like a garbage can full of toads rolling downhill, and you trash it. Oh well.
It's remarkable how rapidly our esteem for an athlete can deteriorate. It's easy to conceive of Beasley as a giggling washout now, but he wasn't a project or an underachiever coming out of Kansas State. He put together one of the most impressive collegiate seasons of the last decade in his freshman year, posting 20-and-10s on a nightly basis and looking like he belonged in the Atlantic Division instead of the Big 12. His physique and versatile game resembled Carmelo Anthony's at Syracuse. Beasley was selected second overall in the 2008 draft behind Derrick Rose, and in front of Russell Westbrook (fourth), Kevin Love (fifth), Brook Lopez (10th), Roy Hibbert (17th), Ryan Anderson (21st), Serge Ibaka (24th), Nic Batum (25th), and George Hill (26th). Nikola Pekovic, Mario Chalmers, DeAndre Jordan, and Omer Asik were all selected early in the second round. Yet, as his contemporaries are enjoying or entering their primes, Beasley exists at the NBA's outer edge.
The Beas is only 24 and just finished his fifth season in the NBA. His history in the league seems longer than it actually is because he's gone through the stages of bust-dom at an accelerated rate and in full view of three separate fanbases. At least Greg Oden was injured and absent for long stretches. Hasheem Thabeet was D-League material from day one. Beasley has been loudly and flamboyantly terrible nearly his entire career. He was a promising offensive talent (year one, in Miami), then a failed Dwyane Wade sidekick (year two), something Miami gave away to clear cap space for LeBron and Chris Bosh (summer of 2010), a reclamation project (year three, in Minnesota), a shot-jacking pariah (year four), and then a shot-jacking pariah again, but in a warmer climate (year five, in Phoenix). This gif of him massaging Anthony Tolliver's knee is both a funny gag and probably his greatest achievement, though you may be partial to this magnificent lion mane coif. These are the sorts of debates one has about Michael Beasley: Hilarious Knee-Rub Goof vs. Majestic Hair. He is more like something plucked from an NBA nerd's weed-nap than an actual basketball player.
Beasley's continued presence in the league is a net positive for sportswriters who like goofy and interesting athletes, but I'm not sure why any NBA GM would want him. He shoots too much; he seems uninterested in rebounding or defense; and, like clockwork, he gets arrested a couple times every year for doing something stupid (driving with an expired license) or more problematic (alleged domestic abuse). Only some ultra-resilient belief in his talent could convince a fourth team to take a chance on him. Doc Rivers asserted his faith in Beasley after Beas' somewhat redemptive season with the T'Wolves in 2010-11, but that was a handful of police incidents and hundreds of clanked jumpers ago. Beasley's reputation has aged like an egg cracked open on a countertop.
Whether or not we'll see Beasley in a new NBA city this season is difficult to say. The Suns, one of the worst franchises in the league, have chosen to pay him seven million dollars to go away, which is the nuclear option teams usually exercise on an ancient veteran who signed an overlong contract or a former all-star who suffered a career-altering injury: Guys who have, in other words, outlived their usefulness and are actively hurting the team. It's not hard to figure out Beasley's utility, but the problem is it resides almost entirely in the imagination. One has to dream up scenarios in which Beasley might be useful to a team, perhaps as a bench scorer for a title contender. Even then, there are a lot of ifs involved: if he could stay out of trouble, if he could embrace the role, if he could at least give a token defensive effort. You have to conceive of him as something other than what he is -- and believe in his potential to become that -- in order for him to make sense on any NBA roster.
It was easy to mock Phoenix's decision to give Beasley a three-year, $18 million contract, and no one is shocked the experiment ended swiftly and poorly. (Even the Suns accounted for this scenario; the contract wasn't fully guaranteed.) I think many of us made a choking sort of whuh? sound when that deal was announced because the price seemed excessive, but at a different figure, our disapproval might not have been so unequivocal. As much as NBA fans enjoy guffawing at and snarking on tragically ill-advised front office decisions, we would much rather watch an until-now failure like Beasley make good on his ability.
Brian Phillips, commenting on Roger Federer's waning prime in 2011, wrote that "the saddest moment in the career of a great athlete is the one when he's tagged with the word 'still.'" As in, a former Cy Young winner's curveball doesn't quite have the bite it used to, but it's still effective. An aging wide receiver lacks the agility he once had, but he's still a tough cover. We usually reserve "still" for athletes that once electrified us on a consistent basis and now do so only sporadically. This is often shortly before they fade into oblivion. They are not "still" anything. They are old and no longer great.
Michael Beasley has pushed the limits of "still" in a peculiar fashion. I think one of the implicit functions of Phillips' Federer piece is to show us the way in which talent makes us optimistic. Superior athletes give us glimpses into transcendence, and we never want to stop believing in their ability to provide us with it. This is part of why we're fascinated with the decline of athletes, because their greatness does not dissolve at a steady clip. They are occasionally capable of reminding us of what they once were and what we once felt watching them.
What we do with promising talents is dream of what they might be in the future, and the beautiful and unique things they might show us. We develop a connection with the one day-great athlete that's similar to the once-great athlete. We are optimistic that he will eventually be special, like we are optimistic that the once-great athlete can still be special.
The last hopeful moment in the career of a one day-great athlete is when he stops being tagged with the word "still." Beasley is likely past that point, though we'll find out soon, see if he gets invited to any training camps. The way we think about Beasley now -- either on his very last chance or completely out of them -- reminds us that optimism has its limits, and belief eventually has to reckon with reality. "Still" curdles into "won't," and we realize there will never be much to remember.