The imaginary horns celebration came to define Darius Miles, or, at least, it became his most recognizable trait. The horns are the one aspect of Miles’ disappointing NBA career that will survive the longest in NBA lore, the first thing people will discuss whenever Miles’s name randomly pops up on an August weekday, whether the mention of his name comes after he gets arrested for carrying a loaded weapon into the airport or somehow, improbably, hypothetically, in the future, makes a return to professional basketball.
When Miles signed a non-guaranteed contract with the Boston Celtics on August 22, 2008, my 21st birthday, I offered the imaginary horns to my three brothers. I didn’t expect anything to come from the signing. Miles hadn’t been relevant since 2006; that was when he suffered a right knee injury so bad that the NBA deemed it career-ending and gave Portland salary cap relief for Miles’ contract. But this was Darius Miles who the Celtics signed — 6’9, third overall draft pick in 2000, arms longer than an airport runway, legs containing jet packs, once scored 47 points in an NBA game, had a cameo in “Van Wilder”, still only 26 years old — and so I gave the imaginary horns symbol to my brothers, the same symbol Miles and Quentin Richardson had presented to each other after every highlight play, or simply whenever they figured a situation merited pounding their heads.
That Miles never played a single regular season game for the Celtics came as no surprise. He had relied almost solely on his athleticism during his unsatisfying NBA stint, and his legs, deadened by the injury, resulting microfracture surgery, and two years of inactivity, no longer acted as trampolines. Adding to that, Miles was known as a problem child. Once, he shouted racial epithets at head coach Maurice Cheeks. Cheeks told Miles to leave the team’s film session, and Miles responded, “Make me.” When catching a fruit is no longer worth the juice, careers end and imaginary horns get put to sleep.
Miles did return for 34 games with the Memphis Grizzlies during the 08-09 season, but by then he was little more than a novelty act. Two years later, a couple days ago, he was arrested for carrying a loaded gun into the last place on earth anyone would carry a loaded gun, the airport. His basketball career is almost certainly over, another prodigious talent wasted to injury, drugs, crime, and/or a work ethic that couldn’t keep up with his outrageous physical talent.
So what makes a player become a bust? Why did Kwame Brown never become more than a serviceable NBA player, even though NBA scouts once salivated over him? Why did Micheal Olowakandi, drafted ahead of Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter, become the butt of jokes rather than an All-Star center? Why did Lenny Cooke go from being Lebron before Lebron to a second-round draft pick who never played a single NBA game?
Cooke haunts me. Not in the way that I lay awake thinking he’s hiding underneath my bed waiting to hurt me, but in the way that I think about him a lot more often than I should. I never saw Cooke play live. I never spoke a word to him and probably never will. I hold no ties to him whatsoever except that I read about him when I was younger, and his potential floored me. But whenever a young player fails to pan out, I think about Cooke. I wonder why he never became an NBA star. Did he turn to drugs? Gangs? Did he stop working out? Eat too much? Listen to bad advice? All of the above?
Search for Lenny Cooke highlights on YouTube. The only video you’ll find is a grainy one entitled, “Remember when we played with Lenny Cooke?” That’s all we have left of the Lebron before Lebron, one of the most-hyped high school athletes of all time, a player who was ranked No. 1 in the high school class of 2002 for years, who dropped to No. 4 during his senior year (behind players named Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and, um, Raymond Felton), whose stock only dropped when he was ineligible to play high school ball as a senior, who flew with the eagles and was said to see the game three passes ahead, whose only professional basketball experience came with the Columbus Riverdragons, Brevard Blue Ducks, Brooklyn Kings, Purefoods TJ Hot Dogs, Shanghai Dongfang Sharks, and, most recently, the Minot Skyrockets. A player who possessed the talent to become a cultural icon has only one YouTube highlight reel. It’s as poorly-constructed as Cooke’s plans to maximize his potential, and it only serves as a reminder of Cooke’s steep and sudden downfall.
In the NBA, the differences between players can be minute. One of the largest differences between J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison is that Morrison smoked two packs (or so) per day. Redick worked hard, understood his basketball mortality, redefined his game, and carved a role for himself. Morrison could not, or would not, do the same. So his NBA career lasted many fewer years than Kevin Ollie’s, who had less than one-tenth of Morrison’s offensive repertoire but kept himself in world-class shape at all times.
Ollie couldn’t hold Lenny Cooke’s jock, yet he surpassed everything Cooke did in the NBA by 13 years, 2,496 points, 1,501 assists, 1,018 rebounds, and $20.1 million worth of salary. $20.1 million pales in comparison to the $51 million Kwame Brown has earned been paid during his career. A year before Brown became the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft, he competed in the Adidas ABCD Camp. The MVP of that camp, which included Brown, Eddy Curry, Ben Gordon, Randy Foye, and Sebastian Telfair, among others, was a sophomore named Lenny Cooke.
I have now gone full circle with my six degrees of separation, NBA bust division, but what I’m trying to say is that talent alone is not enough. In the NBA, where every player is gifted beyond belief (err, almost every player — Scal comes to mind, among others), so many things can derail careers — drugs, a shabby work ethic, injuries, bad advice, bad eating habits, emotional illnesses, and whatever else I’m forgetting. We know Darius Miles suffered from injuries, we know he dabbled in drugs (or worse), we suspect he suffered from a poor work ethic, and we imagine that his basketball career is now over.
So if you drink a beer tonight, pour out a sip for Miles — NBA bust, marijuana dabbler, physical freak, criminal, and the creator of something far more memorable than his own NBA career: the imaginary horn celebration, a celebration that highlighted Miles’s youth and exuberance and perhaps, just perhaps, the first sign that he was too immature to succeed in the NBA, and maybe even outside it.