Time for Muhammad to be player, not phenomenon

This is not about basketball. This is about a phenomenon.

Shabazz Muhammad is a basketball player. He’s a good one, a likely first-round pick in June’s NBA Draft. He has his flaws, of course, his size and his lack of defense and the rumored teamwork issues.

Even so, he’ll be a first-round pick.

Which leads us to the Shabazz Muhammad I’m concerned with here. Not the basketball player. The phenomenon.

On Thursday, not even three months after Muhammad aged a year in the course of a day thanks to the L.A. Times’ discovery of his birth certificate, another wrinkle emerged in the story of the former UCLA swingman. His father, Ron Holmes, was charged with fraud.

That’s the same father who at first denied that Muhammad was 20, not 19, until he realized his case was sunk and admitted it. He’s the one who engineered the lie about the age, after all, the one who’s been treating his son as a basketball commodity to be marketed and promoted since Muhammad was a child.

He’s the one responsible for Shabazz Muhammad, phenomenon, this thoroughly modern and utterly manufactured development in sports.

The minute the news of Holmes’ fraud broke, the pontification began. This hurts Muhammad’s draft prospects. NBA teams, beware. And look, Muhammad isn’t the prospect he’s billed to be. Look at how little he did at UCLA. Look at how dysfunctional that team proved. Oh, how conversation can spiral.

It’s true that this is all tied together in some tricky, tenuous way. However, Muhammad should not be responsible for the sins of his father. He’s an innocent 19 – I mean, 20-year-old kid. He was pushed into this at a young age, told to be younger and thus stronger and bigger and more powerful. He’s been a marketing ploy for years, and it’s not his fault.

But still, this isn’t really about fault, and this latest story hurts. It hurts because it makes the cast of characters just a bit more nefarious. It hurts because it makes us all think again about the ramifications of what Holmes did when he fudged that number on that birth certificate.

When you’re a teenager, one year makes a difference. A big difference. Add to that Muhammad’s underwhelming performance his freshman year, and the player whose team lost to a moribund Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA tournament is looking less and less like a lottery pick, less and less like a first-round pick, either.

Just a year ago, we were talking about Muhammad in the same sentence as Nerlens Noel, tracking where each would attend school and expecting UCLA along with Kentucky to be a powerhouse. Now, Noel will likely be the first pick in spite of an ACL tear, while Muhammad sees his already slippery stock falling even further.

The worst thing for Muhammad right now is any reminder of what he once was, any reminder of his father and his age. What he needs right now is to play basketball and somehow prove the critics of his game incorrect, and any time the name Ron Holmes comes up, it puts that in jeopardy.

As the June 27 draft approaches, it’s still Muhammad the phenomenon, not Muhammad the player. And phenomenon, as you’ve likely gleaned by now, is hardly a good thing. Phenomenon here involves some illusion, some commodification, a healthy dose of fallacy.

It’s hard not to wonder who Muhammad might be if he’d been allowed to admit to being born in 1992, if he’d have just finished his sophomore year in college, if he’d maybe been something else before he was labeled as a future NBA star. Look at Otto Porter, one of the highest-rising stars in this year’s draft; he never played AAU ball and barely left his home in rural Missouri before attending Georgetown. No one knew who he was when he arrived in Washington D.C., and now, not even two years later, he could be picked first and likely won’t go much past third in the draft.

If there’s an argument against self-promotion, it’s Porter, perched on those draft boards 10 or more spots ahead of Muhammad and slated to make millions more when he inks a deal a month from now.

Because so much went in to crafting this image of Muhammad, it creates this opposite question. We wonder if without it all, he’d be no one. Not a first-round pick, maybe not even a pick.

That’s false.

There’s no way to know who Muhammad would have been without all this, and he might well have been just as talented of a player, one capable of coming off the bench in the NBA and being an effective role player. In fact, he might be better suited for that role than he is now, as someone who’s never been anything but his team’s no. 1 player.

So what do we make of this? That’s hard. This next month is when questions are supposed to be answered, and all this does is remind everyone how many questions there are.

It’s not Muhammad’s fault. None of this is. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an effect. This is the time when Muhammad is supposed to be a player, not a phenomenon, and stories of fraud and fudged birth certificates don’t help that transformation.