Now that Kevin Love is a Cleveland Cavalier and has changed his jersey number from 42 to 0 the jokes have begun to make the rounds. The number 0? Oh, that makes sense. 0 as is in zero playoff appearances for Kevin Love. 0 as in zero chances to hold Larry O’Brien’s trophy. 0 as in the number of blocked shots Kevin Love will have all year. 0 as in Kevin’s Love’s zero effort on defense. 0 as in his ability to share the ball. The jokes write themselves and every time Kevin Love falters they’ll reassert themselves in the game recap, this low hanging fruit writers cannot seem to avoid.
Gilbert Arenas wore the number 0 because he wanted to be reminded how many people believed in him. Translation: nobody. Arenas was abandoned by his mother and raised by his father and his life story has little in common with Kevin Love’s sort of privilege.
Love’s father Stan was in the NBA, his uncle began the sixties band The Beach Boys. Kevin Love has the middle name Wes, a tribute to NBA Hall of Famer Wes Unseld, a friend of Love’s father.
But privilege does not shield anyone from critical attacks and Kevin Love has heard it his entire basketball life. There is the obvious: he is a white power forward in a league where black men are the standard. There is the subtle: he plays beneath the rim, he spreads the floor, he plays only offense.
I remember a college game when Kevin Love was with UCLA. It was against Oregon, the state where Kevin went to high school. His entire family came to see him play, it was a large crowd in the stands and his family was in the middle of the craziness doing what families do when their children are on stage. They were cheering one of their own. It was innocent enough, it was normal and ordinary until it was ugly. Attacked by members of the crowd, his entire family suffered through an unnecessary humiliation. They were bullied and jeered and taunted and the object of indecency only because they were related to Kevin Love. There were homophobic signs and taunts and fans who threw trash and of course there was profane language.
Kevin Love’s only crime was leaving the state of Oregon and choosing a college in hated California. It seemed, at the time, particularly cruel and pretty classless what his family had to go through and perhaps, in hindsight, that was Kevin Love’s introduction to how sports can be so twisted in this country.
What happened that night in Oregon was not an outlier. The NBA attempts to control savagery in the stands but fans can still be brutal especially when they sense they have been manipulated.
It is all too convenient to believe it was organic, that one thing happened and then another thing happened and they were independent of each other. Lebron goes home to Cleveland. And then Kevin Love pulls out of the World Cup. And then he decides he wants to go to Cleveland. And the Cavs conveniently have the #1 pick to lure him there. And no one cares about these ‘basketball decisions’ when it is Cleveland because it is a small market the league is trying to deify.
Kevin Love has become a polarizing figure. There are three very distinct camps. There is the Kevin Love is overrated camp. This crowd looks at his absence in the playoffs as the eternal flame. It is the line in the sand that begins any Kevin Love narrative. In the last 30 years of NBA talent, no All-Star with six years of NBA experience has been so broken. It’s pathetic really, his inability to deliver team success. This truth transcends whatever metrics you believe in: great players carry marginal teams. James Harden took an above average Rockets team to the playoffs. Kobe Bryant took a mediocre Lakers team (the Smush Parker years) to the playoffs. Dwayne Wade took an inconsistent Heat team to the playoffs. But Kevin Love in six years can’t lead a team to the 8th seed? Really?
There is the Kevin Love is the best power forward in the game camp. They recite his numbers, his rebounds, his on court productivity. They reach back into his Olympic experience and drag up how he was so effective playing with greats like Kobe and Lebron and Carmelo. They will mention names like Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Kareem Abdul- Jabaar in the same breath as Kevin Love and they will do this with a straight face.
They will mention that 29 of his former teammates are no longer on a NBA roster: Maurice Ager, Calvin Booth, Bobby Brown, Brian Cardinal, Rodney Carney, Jason Collins, Will Conroy, Jonny Flynn, Sundiata Gaines, Mikael Gelabele, Ryan Gomes, Jason Hart, Lazar Hayward, Josh Howard, Nathan Jawai, Malcom Lee, Mark Madsen, Rashard McCants, Darko Milicic,Brad Miller, Kevin Ollie, Oleksiy Pecherov, Craig Smith, Sebastian Telfair, Alando Tucker, Damien Wilkins, Shelden Williams.
And then they will say his failure is not his fault.
There is the Kevin Love is selfish and he refuses to play defense camp. He is a stat guy. He doesn’t care about making anyone better. He eats first because all Kevin Love cares about is getting paid. He is an awful leader. His effort on defense is dismal.
And the truth is all those things are true because Kevin Love is a composite of the best things people think about him and the worst. His leadership skills are below average. He did care about his numbers. He is a freakish rebounder and is one of the top 3 point shooters in the league. He will never get past his not getting to the playoffs despite what he does in Cleveland because it matters, it says something when you are being asked to do everything and you just can’t.
In an interview several years ago Kevin Love admitted he chose the number 42 because he liked Connie Hawkins and how he played. Hawkins who was simply known as ‘Hawk’ played in both the ABA and NBA. He wore number 42. In his first season with the Pittsburgh Pipers he led the team to the ABA championship in 1968. He led the ABA in scoring that year. When he made it to the NBA it was with the expansion Phoenix Suns and he averaged 24 and 10 his first season. In the last game of the regular season Hawk had 44 points, 20 rebounds, 8 assists, 5 blocks and 5 steals. In the playoffs the Suns went up against a Lakers team with Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain and Hawk averaged 24 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists in seven games. Hawk never won a title but he established himself as a double-double phenom.
Even if Kevin Love wanted to continue wearing number 42 he couldn’t. It is retired by Cleveland. Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond wore #42. Thurmond, an Ohio native, who played most of his career for the San Francisco Warriors ended his NBA career with the Cavs. In 1975 he was traded to Cleveland and the 35 year old led the Cavs to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the Celtics. Thurmond was the first player in NBA history to record a quadruple double: 22 points, 13 assists, 14 rebounds and 12 blocked shots. He was a 7 time All-Star, 2 time NBA All-Defense First Team.
A jersey with 0 on the front and 0 on the back will be Kevin Love’s future. It will be sold all over the country. There is the obvious tennis imagery. In tennis love=0. What does Love= in the NBA? This much is true. No player in the Hall of Fame has ever worn the number 0.
In terms of mathematics, the number 0 is neither positive nor negative. The same cannot be said of the lens through which Kevin Love will be dissected this year. He will have his sycophants and his excuse makers. And he will have his haters. Lots of them.