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Vince Thomas

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Do LeBron James and the Cavaliers have swagger, or just silliness?
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Some teams -- Cavs, Bulls -- still looking for some swagger


Posted Dec 8 2009 10:09AM

For the past year or so, "swagger" -- or "swag" -- took over for previous slang-turned-cliches, like "real" and "gangsta," as the term of the day. I'm about sick of it. Any time Baby Boomers start incorporating a slang word into their lexicon, it's time to retire that word. But, before we do, I feel like we need to set the record straight.

Just like with "real" and "gangsta," there's a lot of misuse in the overuse of "swag." Just because a team is full of confident men or, as a collective, have confidence in themselves doesn't mean they have swag. Swag pertains more to perception. Which begs the question, which teams actually have swag?

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Merriam-Webster defines swagger as an intransitive verb that means "to conduct oneself in an arrogant or superciliously pompous manner; especially: to walk with an air of overbearing self-confidence." That's pejorative. The contemporary linguists at urbandictionary.com come a little closer to the nouveau street definition.

One entry reads: "Swagger is to to move with confidence, sophistication and to be cool. Swagger is to conduct your self in a way that would automatically earn respect." Another entry employs a sports example: "An attitude characterized by well-deserved confidence and arrogance; A way of carrying oneself in a way that you know you're going to [bust] someone up without any trouble; The attitude of the University of Miami Hurricanes, especially the teams from 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s."

Oh no doubt. "The U" dripped swag. So did the 1990-1991 UNLV basketball teams. The Runnin' Rebs won the '90 title, beating a Duke squad that played that game cowering in damp shorts. Then Duke returned the favor in '91 handing UNLV its first loss of the season in the Final Four. The season after that, the Blue Devils owned college basketball with the swag-meter turned all the way up. The Bad Boy Pistons had swag, even before they won their first championship -- just not as much as Larry Bird's pious and sneering Celtics.

But not every good team had swag. The Rockets' back-to-back championship squads were good, really good, but they most definitely weren't "cool" and exhibited very little swagger.

The same goes for today. Swag is actually a really elusive aura.

Take last week's near fracas between LeBron James and Joakim Noah. You know what that was? It was a testament to both teams' lack of swag. I'm sure most of those guys strut through life with plenty of swag in their personal lives (especially LeBron and Noah), but, as teams, the swag tanks are near empty.

LeBron's antics and that of his teammates have been a polarizing issue for the past two seasons. All the choreographed pregame stuff and the New Edition/Temptations dance routines on the sidelines (during games) are supremely entertaining to some fans and media, but ridiculously grating to others -- especially opponents. If you read Noah's disgusted lips, he called LeBron, amongst other things, "corny."

Without getting into the issues of sportsmanship, tact and all that, Noah's "corny" tag is a very apt description for LeBron taking his Katt Williams routine from the sidelines to the actual baseline -- while play was in progress on that side of the court -- and yukking it up. A less demeaning way to describe the Cavs' over-the-top celebration habits during blowouts is to call them "silly." Silly and swag don't mix. Whatever it is, it ain't cool. It's more Biz Markie than Jay-Z.

And then there's the reality that LeBron and his crew probably felt emboldened to behave this way because they don't have a healthy respect or fear of the Chicago Bulls. And, really, who does? Good young team? Absolutely. Dangerous playoff opponent? Ask the Celtics. But it's a squad filled with too many unassuming, low-key characters to register on the swag-o-meter.

Chicago and Cleveland are in good company, though. Dallas, Portland, Utah, Orlando -- there are a lot of good teams whose composite identity doesn't conjure Denzel Washington, Miles Davis or Broadway Joe.

But you know what teams have some to spare?

Boston: Boston's three Hall of Fame vets know they're good and they carry on like they know you know they're good. And if you have an inkling that they might not be as good as they think they are, the Cs will bark and scowl you into submission. Why do you think KG and Paul Pierce yap so much? Then their two youngsters follow suit. Kendrick Perkins might be THE tough guy in the league and Rajon Rondo basically told Chris Paul (the best player at his position) to kiss his ring. It's a mix of bully and championship swag.

San Antonio: Don't get it twisted. The Spurs don't have to strut around like Bishop Magic Don Juan or 50 Cent, but they have swag. Professional swag. Organizational swag. Swag that says, "From the top down, we've done everything the best for the past 10 years." Swag that comes from entering every training camp in the Greg Popovich/Tim Duncan era as bona fide contenders. Classy swag.

Oklahoma City: Remember when the Fab Five nearly beat defending champion Duke as freshmen? I'm not talking about the championship game, I'm talking about the late-December matchup earlier in that season. Duke was No. 1, Michigan had yet to really capture the nation's imagination -- all five freshmen weren't even starting, yet. Long story short, Michigan took Duke to overtime thanks largely to the five youngsters that hadn't even played a half-season. The Fab Five were completely unimpressed with Christian Laettner & Co. and attacked them with a "we want what you got" hubris. This Thunder squad is not as brash, but they play with the same impatient covetousness.

Atlanta: I still can't figure how/why the Hawks let the Cavs sweep them out of last season's playoffs. Ever since they took eventual champs Boston to seven games in the 2008 playoffs, the Hawks stalked around the league as this mercurial, semi-volatile team that kinda thought they were a little better than they actually were and loved tussling with the big boys. As a squad, they were like the dude at the bar looking for a fight, the guy that tastes blood from his busted lip and flashes a sinister grin. But then Atlanta goes out with a whimper this past May. Never understood it. Anyway, they're back at it this season -- an emerging contender with an attitude.

Denver: The Nuggets are undoubtedly one of the elite teams in the league, yet it seems like they enjoy dwelling in the shadows. It's like they should play games with hoodies on. The Nuggets remind me of Marlo Stanfied from The Wire. Nah, actually more like Bodie. Maybe Avon Barksdale. No -- it's Omar. Denver reminds me of Omar from The Wire. In one classic scene, Omar walks up to a project building and whistles ... then a bag of money drops from a window. The hood knew Omar was out there, knew he was coming and he still walked away with some jewels. That could easily be Denver at the end of the season -- some stickup men walking away with championship jewelry.

Lakers: Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson operate with a hyper-confidence that many would call arrogance, maybe even pomposity. Their "I'm better than you and you know it" personalities dominate the team. Superiority swag.

Arrogance, pomposity, swag. There are lots of ways to say it. Next time, I say we go Yiddish with "chutzpah." You with me?

Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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