The crew in the locker room really wanted to tell me what Lucas Nogueira had called out for on Friday night. With the Raptors in good spirits after a win, Bebe pushed for Norman Powell, in the process of being interviewed, to mention his underwear. (You can vaguely hear it at the start of this clip.) The idea was presented to me as something elemental to the Bringing Up Bebe ethos, a story ready to bloom to life directly from, uh, Bebe’s bloomers.
There’s a moment in Ted Chiang’s short story “Seventy-Two Letters” when the protagonist is confronted with the evil he has unwittingly abetted. If you’ve read it, you know of which I speak. If not, let me explain.
Chiang’s tale is set in a Victorian-aged world where automatons (robots!) are brought to life via little name cards inserted into their bodies. The names — made up of, you guessed it, 72 letters — are designed to imbue simple life to these golems along with functional directions. The story’s main character, Robert Stratton, is convinced he can design dexterous automata for the working class so as to open the industrial process of the day to them and improve conditions for everyone. (For if workers could control the means of production...) As expected, his vision is met with resistance, before being co-opted by the mysterious Lord Fieldhurst, who has different ideas.
Fieldhurst and company have discovered in their research that humanity is doomed to extinction after five generations. (Long story, just go with me on this.) A secret crew, including Stratton, is assembled to solve the problem. The solution is found in a combination of automata nomenclature and weird predictive genetic manipulation. I swear this makes sense in the story. It’s a great day for Stratton, until Fieldhurst casually mentions that now he and the gentry can more easily direct humanity’s fate — they can effectively create, control and manage the so-called “lower” class. This, as you should know by now, is bad. It’s names run amok.
The naming of things so as to give them power is hardly a new idea. You can find it throughout theological texts and within cultural items as diverse as Planescape: Torment and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi. (Fittingly, Chiang’s story has a character who calls himself a Kabbalist, a group which regards nomenclature as a path to transcendence; like I said, long story.) This feels like solid starting point when considering Nogueira, he of multiple names.
This past week for the Raptors has been rather uneven. It began with rousing win over the Bucks — after which Bebe got talkative about his underwear — before tumbling into an “atrocious” loss to the Magic, a too-close win over the Pelicans, and a humbling at the hands of Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics. Nogueira’s presence in these games has a causality you can track simply by scrolling through the rolls of text on Twitter and scanning for the word “Bebe.” (Or maybe “Long Weeknd” depending on how many shots he is blocking.) It’s awesome to watch in real time. But Bebe also confounds this expectation.
In the Raptors wins this week, Bebe — his most emotive, random form — was a negative in the curious plus/minus stat (-3 vs. the Bucks, -4 vs. the Pels). In the losses? A combined +16. Sometimes things defy easy description, and order cannot quite be asserted. They continue to stand out as themselves, for better or worse. In the case of Nogueira, I contend that this remains cause for celebration.
But what then provides form and functionality to Nogueira’s role on the Raptors? He’s needed to staunch the defensive bleeding sometimes given up by the starter, Jonas Valanciunas, but Bebe does not offer the same singular presence on offense. He’s mobile, but not always in the side-to-side way required of players lured out to the perimeter. He can block shots, but is sometimes stuck watching as players get to the rim anyway. He’s soft, but the demand is to be hard. He contains multitudes on and off the court.
The Bebe name in and of itself can also be considered a way to diminish the man and his contributions. If nothing else, Nogueira continues to insist, week after week, through the jokes and jibes that inform and extend his legacy, that he is a viable and useful NBA player. There are still questions as to where the Raptors’ use of him will lead; likewise, whether or not he truly belongs. We don’t know Nogueira’s ultimate fate (or that of his team, if we’re being honest), but we assume and hope the nature of his life will guide him. And no unseen hand will interfere.
Level of High Level
Names and words cannot truly shape a person’s destiny. They can label someone, fairly or unfairly, or create perception — but there is still action to be taken. In the end of Chiang’s story (spoiler alert!), Stratton resists this higher power and uses his own ingenuity to subvert the will of Lord Fieldhurst by injecting genetic freewill into his creations. There’s no climactic confrontation between these two men (the violence of the story happens earlier when Stratton survives an assassination attempt on his life; again, this story is dense), but the ending is satisfying anyway.
High Level Result: 8 out of 10 — So, sure, it was a 50-50 week for the Raptors, but Nogueira — or Bebe, or Long Weeknd or every other name you want to apply — is working on his best self right now. And when you’re told after the fact that Nogueira wants to talk about his underwear — with hearts on it, by the way; we can’t forget that piece of information — you just have to listen and let him. The man creates the story which builds the man.