Elijah Johnson is not finished with you

Credit: @RobotEJ

Elijah Johnson’s basketball career is a good argument against drawing conclusions.

Before he arrived at KU, I was talking to someone who had been around him a fair bit as a high school kid, and I asked what he was like.

“He’s kind of a surly, asshole kid,” the person said.

So I’m a KU beat writer at the time, and I’m dreading this guy. We reporters do wear people down, and turn otherwise cheerful people into surly asshole kids, and it’s not like it really matters, but these players are people you’re going to be dealing with a few times a week for a few years and it’s just nice if they start off friendly.

Then I met Elijah, and he was not surly at all. He seemed introspective and emotionally dynamic, sometimes a little weird. Those traits can make a person seem rather like an a-hole at times, but I didn’t perceive him as generally selfish, condescending, mean or any of the common symptoms of an a-hole. I could be wrong, obviously — it’s not like we were friends. But that’s the way it seemed to me.

I don’t mean to imply Elijah was some kind of darling. He could get … dark … sometimes. He either can’t fake it, or has no interest in doing so. And he’s one of those people who is often either giddy or brooding. At one point early in his career he made it pretty clear he thought he was better than Tyshawn Taylor (and he might not have been wrong), and yet other times he was Mr. Team Player. One time, after a game at Oklahoma, he came out for postgame interviews and seemed downright loopy. Those of us who were there talked about it. Had he gotten a concussion? Was he on some kind of medication? We never found out and, again, it’s not like it really matters. It’s just that right when you think you’re ready to draw a conclusion about Elijah Johnson, you find out you’re not.

Straight out of the capital of Nowhere, he scored 39 points Monday night in an overtime win at Iowa State, which was the most anybody at KU had scored since Paul Pierce. His performance was heroic and historic and yet the first thing he had to do after it was all over was apologize for doing a pointless uncontested dunk as time expired.

“I shouldn’t have dunked that ball,” he said. “I got caught up in the moment.”

This is a guy who in a blowout loss at Kansas State dunked on somebody and then got  tech’ed up for taunting on the way up the floor. And Monday wasn’t the first time he’d been accused of using the dunk shot as a weapon of mass insult, either. So I don’t know, maybe this guy is an a-hole after all. Or maybe he’s not because he does seem genuinely contrite when he apologizes for this stuff. This stuff he keeps having to apologize for.

His play has been no easier to define. As a recruit he was described as a ball-dominating slasher who’d go chucking at a moment’s notice. His first two years at KU he was a ball-mover and a defender and for quite a while he had this confusingly great assist-to-turnover ratio and an equally surprising percentage on 3-pointers. It looked like one of the coaches had told him “If you want to play, you have to not turn it over and shoot only when you’re wide open and in rhythm” and he followed those orders to within the strictest possible tolerance.

He often explains things with that kind of simplicity, anyway. He did it again Monday, when he attributed his performance to a conversation between himself and coach Bill Self. He did not reveal any details of this conversation, nor did he even bother to characterize its nature, but he assured the audience that he and Self had shared some 39-point words with each other.

Beyond the simplicity of that story, I don’t have any reason to doubt it. It does sound plausible, especially for a guy who seems to be so emotionally absorbent. And I’m sure he and Self did have a conversation and I’m sure Self’s goal was to coax his player into the proper mindspace. I think most of us can identify with just needing to hear somebody say something, and sometimes it doesn’t even matter if you believe they’re being sincere.

But there are other times. It wasn’t three weeks ago that Johnson looked like he was done — doner than a diner steak, doner than Dane Cook, doner than the dishes in Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. There’s no point in getting into the statistics, but Johnson could not make a shot and seemed to have blown a gasket in whatever mechanism controls dribbling too. It looked sad, not because a basketball player wasn’t playing well, but because a person appeared to have lost his confidence, which is one of the  most heartbreaking disasters of the human mind.

We call these things “slumps” or “funks” and those are terms that say, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.” I did not think Johnson was in a funk; I thought he was broken.

But, no,  he was just in a funk.

What he did Monday in Ames was technically legendary. Years from now, KU fans will still sometimes talk about the time Elijah Johnson scored 39 at Iowa State. But this one feels different, because most legendary performances are made by legendary players and I feel quite strongly that Elijah Johnson is not a legendary player.

But you don’t want to speak too soon.

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What ‘God made a farmer’ did and didn’t say

I think it’s important I disclose this right up top: I am not a farmer and never have been, although my dad grew up on a farm and I lived on a farm for the first five years of my life. I grew up in a rural part of Kansas. I now live in Houston, Texas.

Ever been in church and felt like the pastor was speaking directly to you? That’s what it feels like when I watch commercials made by the Chrysler Corporation these days.

It started with that Eminem spot for Chrysler, which I’m sure you all remember. The motif was that of a comeback, specifically for the City of Detroit, for the American auto maker and, to an extent, American manufacturing at large. Eminem narrated it, and the instrumentals for “Lose Yourself” played in the background. I got chills the first time I saw it.

The second was the spot in which Dodge (successfully) expressed what you might call “The American Spirit” using muscle car and Revolutionary War imagery. Chills again.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another ad campaign that stirs the soul the way this one does. It makes me feel like Dodge is saying so many things I would like to say about cars and America, and it’s obvious I am not the only one. These commercials wormed into parts of the American psyche I think a lot of us have let sit off to the side. It was like our psyche was a thick soup that had filmed over on the top, and this Dodge campaign was a big wooden spoon that mixed it all up again and turned on the heat.

For some of us, anyway.

Last night Chrysler dropped another one that made me take a couple deep shaky breaths. God Made a Farmer was the idea. It used an old speech by Paul Harvey, whose voice you know if you ever listened to an AM station in the Midwest and heard someone say “And that’s the rest of the story.”

That commercial summoned all sorts of feelings for me, almost all of which I was happy to feel. But a lot of people disagreed. More people disliked this ad than disliked the Eminem or Challenger spots, it seems, and I think it’s informative to explore the reasons why.

The first kind of person who didn’t like the spot is someone who thinks farmers are plain and corny and backward and stupid. This is someone who thinks he’s better than a farmer because he wears ironed pants to work and voted for Obama. This person is a bigot just like any other kind of bigot and doesn’t deserve to be listened to.

Some more open-minded people have no issue with farmers or the celebration of their craft, but don’t like it when people say God created things. They also may have felt it sounded a bit like Paul Harvey was delivering a sermon designed to make them feel guilty for not being a farmer, and found that to be off putting. This wasn’t my reaction, but I get it.

Still others enjoyed everything about the spot, right up until the end, when all these wonderful words and beautiful imagery about farmers was spoiled by a cheesy tag line — “To the farmer in all of us.” — and a cynical attempt to hock Rams, even though the connection between the Ram and farming is only sort of meaningful.

I experienced that same icky twinge right at the end, which was curious because I hadn’t felt that way at the end of the Eminem or Challenger commercials, even though Chrysler was doing the same thing in all three — stirring the soul with patriotic and nostalgic ideas and connecting them to an expensive machine.

But here’s why that happened: The Eminem commercial was an attempt to sell a car, but can you even remember what the car was? I think it might have been the Chrysler 300, but it hardly mattered. Chrysler wasn’t selling a car with that ad, it was selling American Cars or, more broadly, American Manufacturing. It was trying to inspire belief that American cars, and Detroit, would again be what they once where. And this is important. It is important that America makes good things, and it is important that Americans believe America makes good things, and Detroit is such a perfect metaphor for the whole thing.

Chrysler had to stretch a little further with the Dodge Challenger commercial, but if you know anything about the muscle car era, you can appreciate the connection. The original Challenger (after which the new one is styled) was the product of one of the most important periods in American history. The years between World War II and the election of Jimmy Carter were without question the golden age in the American auto industry. Nobody in the world made cars like Americans did. They were big and fast and beautiful. They had huge chrome bumpers and fins that reminded you of spacecraft, which was because we were literally sending people into outer space at the time. As the 50s and 60s moved toward the 70s the designs got a little sexier and a little less regal. The engines got bigger. From 1970-74, Dodge made the Challenger, and what a name for a car built at that time, on the heels of the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam.

To connect the new incarnation of the Challenger — released in 2008, by the way — to the genesis of the United States was a mouthful, but if you understood what a muscle car really was, it was one you could swallow.

The Ram has no such associations. We associate farmers with pickup trucks, but the pickup truck does not register with me as being more culturally important than any other kind of implement. Sometimes people drive trucks as an expression of personal style, the same way some people wear cowboy hats. But the real reason the cowboy hat exists is to keep the sun off your neck, and the real reason pickup trucks exist is so you can throw stuff in the bed. These things are iconic, but they’re iconic because they’re ubiquitous, and they’re ubiquitous because they’re necessary.

In short, there is not a farmer in all of us.

That tagline undermined everything Paul Harvey said. It took two minutes to build it, and two seconds to destroy it. The whole point of the commercial was that farmers are special, and then it swoops in at the end to tell us that we can be a farmer just by buying a Ram? What’s the message here?

I don’t mind that Chrysler was trying to sell something. You’re watching the Super Bowl — you know somebody is trying to sell you something every second you’re watching .I think if not for that tagline, the commercial would have been perfect. Just show the Ram at the end and don’t say a word. Paul Harvey said everything that needed to be said.

But if you rolled your eyes because you thought Paul Harvey was stretching the truth a little bit, then you obviously don’t know any farmers.