Home > Essays > Essay: Mad Men and the NBA, A Study in Character Significance

Essay: Mad Men and the NBA, A Study in Character Significance

In case you weren’t already aware, Mad Men’s 5th season premiered last night. What most consider to be in the conversation for greatest program in television’s storied history, this show’s long awaited return has created a transcendent buzz among pretty much everyone who enjoys engaging in popular culture related discussion. And for all the right reasons. Aside from the dapper wardrobes, nostalgic atmosphere, and, of course, the drinking of multiple Sidecars before lunch, this show is most beloved for the unpredictability and richness inhabited by each and every character (even the young Bobby Draper, who I’m positive will have his own spin-off series green lit by Fox in at least three years’ time). Watching them co-exist within the confines of an office atmosphere—something almost everyone can relate to—places us both back in time and inside the television.

The game of basketball is really cool, but the NBA’s characters are what make the league so undeniably singular. Just as there is one Don Draper, there is one LeBron James. There will never be another of either. We watch the NBA for the same reasons as Mad Men. Both are unpredictable entertainment at its peak. Both have us re-watching broadcasts in an attempt to pick up subtle nuances we may have missed. We strive to know as much about both sets of characters as humanly possible, and the only difference (albeit, kind of a huge one) is that one reality is based in fiction while the other is all too real.

I’ve decided to take eight NBA players and compare them to seven characters from Mad Men primarily because it was fun, but also because in doing so I was able to learn a little bit about each side. While I don’t view anything involving either form of recreational entertainment as “a waste of time”, hopefully reading this article will present you, the reader, with some semblance of the useful insight I personally gained while writing it.

Blake Griffin is Joan Holloway

Both Blake Griffin and Joan Holloway stretch their respective realms beyond obsessed maniacs who’d be watching anyway, out towards the casual fan who’s dying to know what all the fuss is about. They both fall outside the traditional box of what society views to be a traditional sex symbol, but going deeper, both are more simple and one-dimensional than they first appear. Joan is a hollow woman who once believed sleeping with every man in the office would permanently place her on top of the Women in the Workplace totem pole. She’s very sly, very sassy, and is in constant need of reassurance that every man who holds a decent amount of power would in fact enjoy her company within the confines of a queen sized mattress from the hours of 1-6 AM.

We like watching Joan because she stirs the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce drink and looks REALLY good in a tight red dress, but out of almost every character on the show she might be the least interesting (which isn’t saying anything meaningful. Every character on this show is extremely interesting). Griffin is the same way in that the honeymoon he shared with America during his incredibly exciting rookie year has officially come to an end. We drool(ed) over the dunks and other-worldly athleticism, but as fellow players in the league begin to despise him, subconsciously so has the general public. Just throwing this out there, Griffin isn’t good enough to get the calls he so badly wants. He’s a bit farther than most assume from becoming a go-to offensive threat, and has quietly lost a whole bunch of one-on-one match-ups with the league’s other top power forwards. Every time he scowls at an official, I wait for them to turn and snap back about how it’s not like placing him on the free-throw line will make much of a difference on the game’s outcome anyway.

I compared Blake and Joan because right now they’re both capable of drawing a large audience in, while simultaneously pushing those who know better far, far away. Also, would it surprise you in the least if you heard they were dating?

John Wall is Sally Draper

Sally Draper is your typical 10-year-old girl growing up in a time when the country’s culture is rapidly shifting towards a more rebellious era. Last we saw her, Sally was blindly trying to find her place in a broken family, with hardly anyone to look to for any answers. She’s curious, and in a way, learning on the fly both who she is and the type of world she’s living in. John Wall is Sally Draper because he’s struggling to find who he is on a team that’s arguably more dysfunctional than the cuddly Draper/Francis dynamic. (Or at least they were before the trade deadline.)

Wall has yet to understand when it’s time facilitate Washington’s offense and when he should unleash his unguardable coast to coast transformation from man to bullet. He leads the NBA in turnovers yet gets to the line more often than Derrick Rose. Will he become the next Tyreke Evans? A miscast point guard who thrives when the sole responsibility revolves around setting nobody up but himself? Or can he ever be in the Chris Paul/Deron Williams mold of elite, well-balanced floor general. Wall’s limitless talent leaves this question up for open debate, but before we place a claim on which side he’s more likely to end up on, let’s remember he’s only 21-years-old. Like the maturing Sally, he’s young and impressionable, still existing as a block of soft clay.

Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose are Peggy Olson

The humble attitude exuded by Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose is new, fresh, and almost as rare as both their abilities on the basketball court. These two superstars are finding unprecedented levels of success at such a young age. Both have a legitimate shot at winning their first championship this season. Just as they’re in the middle of re-writing a new script for what a superstar’s ego in the NBA is supposed to look like, Peggy shows up to work everyday with hopes of establishing a new, respectful perception of women in the office. The three of them are comfortable in their own skin as trail blazers—whether or not they’re aware this is true—and are currently equipped with blinders to continue doing what they believe is the “right” thing.

It’ll be interesting to see it their views on society sour if they run into a lack of success down the line. In Durant and Rose’s case, if both are unable to claim a championship in the next five years, and the public chastises them as being ill-equipped to win it all, will they still possess the same unassuming public image, or will the (unfair) criticism cause their personalities to make a negative transformation?

In Peggy’s case, if she is passed over as Don Draper’s natural successor due to the fact she’s a she, will her drive disappear? Will Peggy give up on her feministic crusade, deem it a lost cause, and accept the stagnant limitations she’s expected to endure?

Andrew Bynum is Pete Campbell

Let’s take a look at the basic similarities here:

Pete Campbell is an embryo who believes he can coast through life on his family name and good fortune. He wants things handed to him that he may or may not be prepared to handle, and the value he brings to his firm is one that he didn’t work to gain, but instead was born with.

Andrew Bynum is an immature man-child who believes he can coast through the league on towering physical attributes (earlier in his career he decided receiving advice from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t worth his time). The value he brings to the Lakers rest entirely inside his incredible size.

Both are ambitious because they’ve been told it’s a requirement to succeed (as opposed to it being embedded in them as a natural personality trait) and both pout in an overly obnoxious way when things aren’t going the way they’d like. Both have an established man in their path who they see as half wonderful mentor and half frustrating roadblock. On the bright side, both have plenty of time to grow and mature into a leading role, and both will be given every opportunity to do so. That said, sometimes people don’t change, and it’ll be interesting to see how both handle the inevitable power and influence that could soon to be thrown in their lap.

Dwight Howard is Betty Francis

Betty is my least favorite character on the show. She looks pretty, babbles on and on about how she wishes she didn’t look so pretty because it’s made her miss being a model, and is unprepared/unwilling to work at being a decent mother/human being. Yet through all of this, Betty continues to have serious value as a face of the show, existing as one of its main plot drivers. No matter what happens in her life, chances are Betty is going to smile and go on being unhappy. That last point defines how I also feel about Dwight Howard.

In my opinion, Howard is no more important of a superstar than any of the others (except for LeBron, who’s on his own level of team-oriented significance). He’s a great player, but appears perpetually miserable and reluctant to hold any blame on his own broad shoulders. Howard’s unhappiness is directly related to his intelligence level, and time after time he’s made public statements that would force a weaker minded public relations manager to step out on a ledge. My bottom line in comparing these two is that while both deserve a lot of attention, they’re given way more of than should minimally be required.

Kobe Bryant is Roger Sterling

Neither of these men know what’s best for themselves. They’re smart and respected within their domain of expertise, yet fundamentally pigheaded as men. Despite suffering from two heart attacks, Sterling continued to keep his own mortality at a distance by washing down a daily whiskey sour with two vodka gimlets, then sucking down a fresh cigarette every 15 minutes until it’s time to wake up and start the routine all over again. Kobe just chooses to shoot. It doesn’t matter if the Lakers are up 10 or down six, Kobe is shooting. It doesn’t matter if he’s double-teamed or his All-Star teammates have advantageous match-ups, Kobe is shooting. He is who he is, and no amount of losing will deter his incessant need to turn basketball into a one-on-five gauntlet.

Both of these men have been around the block; whenever a problem arises that’s perceived by everyone else to be a full on apocalyptic crisis, Kobe Bryant and Roger Sterling crack a joke, laugh in your face, and sip a lil’ liquor (or take some shots).

Nobody knows what they’re actually thinking—whether they enjoy your company or view you as a threat—and that’s how they like it. The main difference between the two is that while I find myself thanking Roger Sterling for being totally awesome and giving us viewers an endless supply of wit and comical relief, Kobe’s remarks come off as insensitive, pathetic, and tiresome.

They’re both self-destructive beings who ignore their most obvious flaw, and that’s why we can’t stop watching.

LeBron James is Don Draper

Don Draper is an enigma. Pessimistic, rightfully arrogant, and, yet, the office anti-bully. His vices are many: women, liquor, being stubborn.  He’s a leader, yet privately unsure of himself and his own identity. Without him, there is no Mad Men; he’s the first face that pops into people’s heads when the show comes up in conversation.

In light of all this, who is he? Due to Draper’s mysterious aura and unfamiliarity, I’m not sure he’s directly comparable to anybody in the NBA because thanks to Twitter and an obscene amount of media exposure, it’s almost like we already know everything about everybody. After four seasons of Mad Men, Draper has become slightly less unpredictable while still remaining difficult to understand. That being said, the similarities he shares with LeBron James are difficult to ignore.

Whether you like it or not, James is the face of the league and its most recognizable name while indisputably being its most talented player. The power he has with every tweet and every sound bite is unprecedented due to the age we’re now in, and while some players use the tool as an honest form of self-expression—a gateway into their most inner thoughts and feelings—James is much more careful. He’s a manipulator who desires to expand his brand by promoting a manufactured image. It’s a never-ending climb to becoming a global icon, and apart from a select few in his inner circle, nobody really knows what his intentions are. (We absorb as much useful information from all the Sprite commercials and PSA’s warning kids not to drop out of high school that we do from cover stories and media interviews.)

Ironically, the way he plays basketball is the exact opposite. He’s so dependent on those around him to step up and fill their roles. He spent years in Cleveland fishing for his teammates and feeding them each and every meal before realizing it’d be easier to share the spotlight with someone who knows how to cook on his own. LeBron James is too selfless on the court, yet is battling a selfish reputation off it.

LeBron and Draper are experts at letting those around them know what they want them to, which is impressive when you look at the pressures each of them faces on a daily basis. To them, nothing is worse than uncontrollable exposure, and both do a wonderful job at keeping the buzzards at bay.

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