Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young is great at playing the villain, and he’s fine with that role.
Trae Young knows that people are going to talk about it. Trae Young wants people to talk about it and so Trae Young goes out of his way to get them talking.
Young walks a fine line between spontaneous combustion and rehearsed theatrics. He has probably spent hours behind closed doors rehearsing the arson. He thinks he looks good in a dynamite vest.
Young orders shenanigans on the regular from ACME — but he almost never bothers with the instructions, at least not in the public arena. Instead, he’s all bashful cockiness.
Young clearly understands the world we all live in with its walls and its boundaries. He smiles at it. Then he snarls. Then the snarl becomes a smile, and the smile becomes a snarl. A facial expression from Trae is always enjoying the torment his actions produce. He enjoys being the bad guy, but not because he is inherently evil.
After all, he is just playing an antagonist in the game of basketball. No one really dies from this, just hopes and dreams and fantasies. He’s just ruining some kid in a jersey’s birthday celebration. He’s just making some sad sap in the whatever row of seats he could afford with his last paycheck sadder. He’s just heckling apathy and mixing it up. He wants us yelling at our televisions and tweeting in ALL CAPS. That’s just the kind of guy he is. He is the Jack Nicholson of basketball.
Trae Young is the villain the NBA needs
Young can’t see that in all his joking beauty the jokes are eventually coming for him. Every dagger he throws now sets up the daggers he’s soon to take. But he can’t think about that right now because a villain needs to live in the moment. A villain has to believe that the hair-brained plot he’s contrived and twisted into rusted being is bulletproof. He has to know he’s the smartest one in the room. He has to feel like he’s the strongest. He has to live that illusion for real.
And that’s what’s so horribly great about Young. He will die knowing Giannis and Steph and KD all played in his shadow. He will know he was the one giving orders, not taking them. He will know, and we will all know something else. That is the pact we have made. And last night Young provided a beautiful setup.
Late in the fourth and with a season in the balance, Young does what any point guard wouldn’t do and hoists a three while dribbling on the other team’s center court logo. Then he shimmies from his hips and into his shoulders. You can hate Young, and many a basketball fan with a New York zip code does, but you have to love him also. He makes the plot work.
He’s slicing and dicing. He’s early Bart Simpson on a skateboard. He’s carving a city. It could be Springfield. It could be your hometown. You better hope it’s not your hometown. The feeling will leave you sick, and no hair of the dog will cure you.
Young is a fantastic villain. He’s better on the road. He’s better skateboarding past signs saying he doesn’t belong and that loitering is not permitted. You want him going where he’s not supposed to go. How else is he going to fall into a vat of acid or cling to a building by his fingertips?
You want him scheming down by the railroad tracks. You want him tying boa constrictor knots around a damsel in distress and snarling underneath his cartoon mustache. There is no hero without Young barking, “Riddle me this” or “Here we go.” Trae enjoys watching the world burn, and he’s worth the price of admission as he slides down a snowbank’s worth of cold hard cash. And, when all is said and done, he’ll have done it better than Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger.
The Hawks don’t really have to win. Young is winning. His floaters are spitballs caked to the school bus ceiling. His layups are thumbtacks in teachers’ chairs. He’s despicable, but he gives everyone something to talk about at the dinner table. Mom or dad asks, “How was your day?” and instead of muttering, “Good,” a person can now spin a yarn about Young’s wild ride through the school day.
You could drop him in Public Enemy or White Heat. You could reshoot Scarface again and again, or replace Joe Pesci in any Joe Pesci role with No. 11 and you wouldn’t be downgrading the picture.
Young dropped 32 points in the second half against Cleveland. He’s on top of the world.
We all know how this ends — it ends in flames and ash. It ends with Young in a straitjacket. It ends with him hatching a new idea. It ends with a daring escape. It ends with sirens and missing persons reports. After all, your favorite home team has just gone missing. Who else could it have been? There is really only one grotesque and incomprehensible answer in today’s NBA.