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Monday, May 27, 2024

How an angel became a villain

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Angel Reese’s characterization has far less to do with who she is and much more to do with the spectator’s insatiable need to place people in distinct categories. Hero and villain. Good guy versus bad guy. Or in this case, good girl versus bad girl.

What we do know about both Reese, who was a forward at Louisiana State University, and Iowa Hawkeyes’ Caitlin Clark, the hero to Reese’s anti-hero, is they are both collegiate-level athletes. This means they both had the will and skill to make it into this elite league. Both have worked for years perfecting their game. Both have attained academic success, being admitted to two of the top schools in the nation. Both have become leaders on their respective teams.

Notwithstanding their individual statistical achievements on the court, the narrative that has become pervasive is that Reese is the antithesis of Clark. One is exemplary while the other does not show enough grace or class. One is the beacon of hope for the future of women’s basketball while the other is viewed as a blemish to the sport. There is no room for gray or nuance. There is no allowance for each person to possess both good and bad. There can be only one good girl, only one hero.

It must be noted that race plays a role in how each is perceived. That notion was never more obvious than in the way the public responded to the now infamous “you can’t see me” hand gesture. Both women used the gesture, though Clark used the gesture far more frequently than Reese, but only one received the backlash. Yes, race is a factor in this scenario. Black women carry the burden of being seen as angry, aggressive, loud and unruly before they even open their mouths. Reese is no exception. The mental contortions and acrobatics Black women put themselves through to appear more palatable is both unfair and exhausting.

This phenomenon, however, is not solely about race. I recall when the Lakers played into this same good guy/bad guy narrative. At the time, in the early aughts, Shaquille O’Neal was made out to be the overweight, lazy teammate who just did not work hard enough. Kobe Bryant, who was decidedly the future of the Lakers franchise, was positioned as the shining golden boy. Years later, O’Neal revealed that he played along with the story arc because behind the scenes, Bryant was the least liked of the two. Widely respected for his work ethic, Bryant shared that he often worked so hard because he was not well-liked by his teammates and he took refuge in his ability to outwork everyone. Posthumously, Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality” is now synonymous with this commitment to excellence.

Michael Jordan’s all-American, good guy image was meticulously crafted. People have now learned that Jordan was one of the biggest trash talkers in the game. Dennis Rodman played the wild man/bad boy to Jordan’s good guy.

The Reese/Clark rivalry is good for the sport. If Clark comes to Indiana, her arrival will be a boon for the state that prides itself on being “basketball country.” The unfortunate casualty of the rivalry is Reese’s character. Knowing little about who she is as a person, basketball fans en masse have decided that the woman who is literally named “Angel” is the villain in this scenario.

For every good, there needs to be a bad. There is a human need to create a yin for every yang. To make Clark the hero, people needed to create an anti-hero. In comes Angel Reese.

Reese is wrong for boasting. She is wrong for yelling. She is wrong for breaking down and crying. She is not even allowed to win in peace. She better not win too loudly. When her team won the NCAA title, she did not exhibit enough grace when First Lady Jill Biden invited both LSU and the losing team to the White House. Though this invitation was never before extended to both teams, Reese was supposed to accept this change gracefully. She felt slighted and she expressed those feelings. But basketball fans must prefer it when their angels do not have feelings, or at least they prefer not to see them.

There is a desperate need to cling on to these archetypes. Fans feel like they must have a hero to root for and a villain to malign. No matter if the person has earned villain status and without regard to the toll it takes on the so-called villain’s mental health, it’s just a part of the game. In Reese’s case, only an angel could withstand this amount of pressure and fly above it all.

Contact Editor-in-Chief Camike Jones at 317-762-7850 or camikej@indyrecorder.com.

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