The Mind's Lungless Ankle

Twice in the last few weeks, the esteemed Silverbird has called me to report that Gerald Wallace had decimated a first half. Once I was busy watching that movie where Charlotte Rampling fucks a teenager; last night, I fired up League Pass but ended up wandering in and out of the room. Now don't get me wrong, Gerald Wallace is one of the absolute cornerstones of my basketball universe. And believe, an infinite expanse of time and space still must have anchors. But the truth is, you never need to see one of Wallace's command performances. If you know his game, you can roughly imagine what happened without feeling that you've missed an important micro-stage in his career's arc.

But if Kobe goes for 40, I regret having missed it. I don't just want to know that he did it, but how he went about it. Some people might jump to attribute this to FreeDarko's style-fixation which, I'm sad to report, was never really as simple as fur coats and windmills. For a certain brand of player, you're waiting to be shocked or surprised each time they touch the ball—not because they're creative, but because of what that creativity means to your running definition of who they are. Yes, it's about having an arsenal of moves and a highlight that, in a world governed by law, there would be royalty points on. More importantly, though, this special breed of players are writing their legacy, defining their identity, play-by-play.

I'm not usually one to rail against the assembled forces of marketing darkness, but they have fundamentally changed the way athletes get constructed. Used to be, one's feats on the field—bolstered by off-field color—were the flour and matches that exploded into a lasting persona. Now, there's a concerted attempt made by commercial interests and the media to characterize a guy before he's earned the right to exist. For the benefit of the very smart and the very stupid: ESSENCE NOW PRECEDES EXISTENCE. As Billups observed over the weekend, this has a lot to do with why game action no longer seems to matter. That urgency has been drained from contests; we don't see players as needing them to reveal who they are.

That doesn't mean, though, that the former way of life has died. Merely, it has receded from public consciousness, and relies on brave champions such as ourselves to note its gleamings. FreeDarko is certainly guilty of essentializing players like Wallace, which is to say we're normal with different targets. But in figures who by their very nature protest this move, we are forced to take up a radicalized version of the past. And this, great otters, is point at which style enters the door. I hate watching players touch the ball who can contribute nothing to my understanding of them, who have nothing in their being to allow for constant self-revision. Only in rare cases can I cast them as Wallace-like divine objects; usually, they're stuck being pawns in the team narrative, which extends only across a single game or possible a season. Being of a higher consciousness, I am thinking far farther across the plains.

If you want basketball players to be subjects, and you want "career in a grain of dribbling" to signify dynamism and not reduction, you must subscribe to the ever-flowing ooze of narrative. Every play, every action, every twitch goes toward our amassed understanding of how a player is and how he matters. Context exists, but it is itself swallowed up by the context of totality. Anything else is lazy sports watching, akin to a dog trained in jammies.

Yesterday, Pooh deposited on Matt Yglesias's doorstep a frightfully useful comment regarding Gil and improvisation. I will now reproduce a section of it in order to advance to my next point. Only in part because it invokes my name.

What makes Gil interesting, as a basketball player rather than as a 'personality', is the same with AI, and to some degree, Kobe, in that the repeatable pieces are much 'smaller' - he doesn't need to be at one of certain spots, or in the same rhythm off his dribble, to be comfortable getting into his shot. Other, lesser, players can venture outside of their comfort zone, but it never looks quite right, and the results are usually significantly worse.

I know Shoals hates the basketball-as-jazz metaphor, but this is really one of those instances where it is appropriate - the true improvisational greats are playing free jazz, while the others, your Melo's, your Wades, your Ray Allen's are soloing within a much more defined structure. They both can work, but the ability and understanding to pull the former off is as rare as it is undefinable

First, BASKETBALL IS NOT JAZZ. Secondly, I take back having ever said that basketball was like funk. Basketball is like a Maceo Parker solo over hard funk. But what I'm really floating off of here is that, Pooh, like it or not, you agree with me. This isn't music, it's storytelling. It's personal storytelling. . . in the form of personalized basketball storytelling. Since it exists as a long aggregate of stylized actions, self-expression and self-invention are one and the same. There's a man behind the style, but there's also a man being made through it. The feedback loop grins, experience can end up shifting a style, and anyone who doesn't believe me can look at players who mature.

If you want to get why I hate Dwyane Wade, this is largely it. If you want to know why I so fetishize Amare over Dwight Howard as Big Man of the Future, here it is. And if you're having trouble seeing why watching Gilbert Arenas is far more important to me than reading his quotes, lap it on up. I will continue to deify Gerald Wallace for what he stands for, which, in some ways, is inconsistency as a false version of narrative. When it comes down to it, though, the players who beckon my attentions are the ones who are finding and expanding themselves on a regular basis. Sure, they practice, and yes, something like Howard's dunk over Duncan has this same quality. Yet there's no denying that the true measure of stardom is the ability to keep the world watching. And the greater the tremor of suspense, the larger the potential to shake the foundations of the known, the more sense the "must-see" tag starts to make.

My laptop will soon be dead forever, so I want to leave you with this: while I've only mentioned megadudes in here, it's not only them. This is the science that makes the Warriors and Hawks watchable, and the Suns and Mavs such an insult unto the rest of the sport.


At 3/06/2007 7:00 PM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

Please put together a new FD shirt built around the phrase "Fur Coats and Windmills."

P.S. To try a previous comment in another way ... To some it may be pointless navelgazing, but to others, the FD compendium is a worthy adventure in self-analysis/autocritique performed by analyzing/critiquing the games of NBA players as both revelatory of and a means of constructing their selves (no pomo). We like the symmetry of a snake that eats its tale. i.e. MORE AGENT ZERO ANALYSIS!

At 3/06/2007 7:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Darkofan: If Freedarko had been around in the early 70's , who would be its Kobe Bryant's ?

At 3/06/2007 9:57 PM, Blogger max said...

Earl Monroe or The Big O?

Clyde Frazier in the quirky Gilbert role?

At 3/06/2007 10:54 PM, Blogger T. said...

who would be its Kobe Bryant's ?

Jelly Bean Bryant, most obviously. Not just the familal relation - but the game too - stylized, slightly under the radar - too street for the lig. All unrealized potential and athletic gifts.

Connie Hawkins, Clifford Ray, Bobby Jones I think also fall under the FD umbrella.

At 3/06/2007 11:08 PM, Blogger stopmikelupica said...

Dr. J? Well, I guess he's more late 70's, but the man, and the ABA itself, is the original FreeDarko, no? Funky uniforms, funky ball, 3PT shots, dunks, crazy team nicknames and mascots - nothing to date has contributed more to NBA styling than the ABA.

At 3/07/2007 1:05 AM, Blogger T. said...

I had thought about Dr. J (and all the style icons of the 70s - Gervin, Bing, McGinnis, Big Red, Clyde) - but FreeDarko is as much about unrealized potential as it is style - witness the love of Multiplicity and Gil (pre the last two seasons) . ..

all of which makes the non-care for Livingston's narrative puzzling. But, growing up in LA, watching Showtime - there's nothing I love more than oversized point guards.

At 3/07/2007 1:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't pretend to be as eloquent as you all are - okay, I pretend but can't get away with it here - but I have to take a stab at disagreeing with you BS, come what may.

The notion that basketball is not jazz but is storytelling seems a touch forced. I'm guessing you hate the jazz analogy because it's obvious and overused (mostly by people who don't know Kenny G from Dexter Gordon). But that doesn't make it inherently bad. To you, basketball hints at ex-Parliament. To me, it's Wayne Shorter and the last minute of "Gibraltor." (Or maybe Jaco, Zawinul and the whole damn piece.) Don't see why one choice is inherently superior to the other. Hate the sinner, love the sin.

This isn't music, it's storytelling. It's personal storytelling. . . in the form of personalized basketball storytelling.

What does that mean? Why can "personal storytelling" be an acceptable metaphor for basketball but not music? Why is one arbitrarily "good" and the other "bad"?

Doesn't this whole piece assert that greatness (or lack therof) lies in the man behind the style?

Suspense for its own sake does not greatness make. Conversely in the hands of a master, the mundane becomes alchemical, shaking the foundations of the known to its core. That is what great personal storytelling - whether writing, art, basketball and, yes, jazz - is all about.

I'll go back to lurking now. Be gentle.

At 3/07/2007 3:24 AM, Blogger T. said...

Panger - I'd also wager that the "basketball is not jazz" is the domain of Shoals himself, and perhaps not the other contributers (DLIC, BRE, B-b-b-b-b-billups!, TAN, etc.) - but oftentimes I think there's a "opinion of Shoals equates opinion of FreeDarko" movement going on amongst the commentarians, which might not be true.

I don't know that the other Masters dislike Wade's game - but since Shoals is so often front and center - it becomes dogma.

Shoals - I totally dropped the ball with them Rockets tickets. I'll make it up with some cool Chinese sports stuff.

At 3/07/2007 8:51 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

first off, the structure of basketball isn't like jazz. that's why i gave the other music example.

there's no winning or losing or moral in jazz. individual style fits into the group interaction, and there is a tension and shape to this. but that doesn't get you to sports' level of consequence.

it's a story about aesthetics. at best, it's an impressionistic metaphor for human stuff. history and legacy in sports have far more direct, and apparent, meanings. it's clearly an identity tied to events, not just creativity.

At 3/07/2007 1:54 PM, Anonymous cyanide said...

Man, this ish has gotten serious the past week or so. I feel a FreeDarko Civil War looming on the horizon thanks to the venomous anons, heh. Can the golden age of cartoonish analysis of Euros be brought back?

Is nobody else concerned with what Tskitishvili is up to?!

At 3/07/2007 2:02 PM, Blogger Pooh said...

First, thanks for the shout. I was actually thinking of that comment as I read the first half of the post.

'This isn't music, it's storytelling. It's personal storytelling. . . in the form of personalized basketball storytelling.'

What does that mean? Why can "personal storytelling" be an acceptable metaphor for basketball but not music? Why is one arbitrarily "good" and the other "bad"?

My question as well. I choose to go with music metaphors because of the immediate yet ephemeral nature of 'performing.' While there is a performance aspect to 'storytelling,' it is far less interactive and far more rote than either music or athletics.

there's no winning or losing or moral in jazz. individual style fits into the group interaction, and there is a tension and shape to this. but that doesn't get you to sports' level of consequence.

Nor is there 'winning or losing' in terms of narrative, at least not in any self-defining way - the only measures we have would equate with declaring Wade the best player because Gatorade says so (though you have to admit that this was awesome the first time you saw it...do it again, Shoals, do it again...)

If I may back out of the basketball context even further, one of the blessings and curses of humanity is our ability to see things in terms of dialectic. On the one hand, it is far easier to understand things in this way - and as applied to things past it's remarkably effective. However, the problem is when we try to see current events through this prism. I only direct you to a certain Penn. Ave resident to illustrate why viewing outcomes as inevitable endings to a story is, at best, misguided.

So, in a way, you are correct to view the games as the building blocks of the end story - where you run into problems (and we're all guilty of this: see the reaction to Artest, Ron in Sacto - he's changed, man) is to try to make sense of the story as a whole before the ending has been written.

At 3/07/2007 2:10 PM, Anonymous Abacus said...

there was "winning and losing" in jazz before the be-bop era. all of the improv, self-expression was quite functional still - it was dance, or concert hall, music. the object was to entertain and make $$$. it wasn't purely an aesthetic pursuit...

in that context i guess i agree with you. it would be a shame if the same thing happened to basketball that happened to jazz. if it became all about esoteric, introverted style, rather than the team concept with style being a means to an end.

At 3/07/2007 2:13 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

i'm not saying that there's winning and losing in narrative, but that you can construct a narrative through sports actions, which involve things like success/failure and winning/losing. there's not that same thing with "jazz actions."

narrative can absorb sports, but not jazz. there's a narrative quality to jazz, but without these touchstones, it's hard to tell why it would be headed anywhere in the first place.

exception that proves the rule is coltrane, since his work so clearly stands out in wanting to establish some sense of means to an end and process along the way.

At 3/07/2007 2:16 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

abacus, that's a good point. and it would be absolutely amazing if the blanton/webster band became freedarko's jazz-basketball touchstone.

At 3/07/2007 2:33 PM, Blogger Pooh said...

Also Shoals, I don't think we ever disagreed in substance, just terminology.

Where we disagree is in terms of the relative weight to give to aesthetics vs. results. I find the D-Wade/Tim Duncan-style "we both know what I'm about to do. Do something about it, I dare you" mesmerizing as a sheer study of willpower, while at the same time there is still enough aesthetic grace so that it's not merely an exercise in Newtonian physics, a la, Shaq in his prime.

At 3/07/2007 4:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

inadvertantly erased my response and am too mentally tired to retrace my steps, but lemme try to hit the "high notes."

yes, shoals(can't call you BS, sounds pejorative), the structures of jazz and basketball are different. but i'm likening the two at a deeper level. i can only speak from personal experience but for me, basketball at its best transcends the earthly confines of winning/losing, structure, storytelling, right/wrong... it just is.

when i am lost in a game, the experience is very much akin to being in a dark room with coltrane's "ascension." the game/music holds my complete attention,the boundaries of the observer and the observed disappear, the two meld into one. it is the purest joy i know... well, other than great sex.

upon reflection, i don't think we're disagreeing, rather talking "apples and oranges." apologies for not being clearer the first time.

abacus and pooh, thanks, you said more artfully what i would have. no need to belabor it.

as for cynanide... no anonymity here and i'm not marching into war anytime soon. only two days ago, i offered that FD is the best read on the interweb right now. nothing's changed.

to the best of my understanding, the comment section isn't reserved only for hosannas nor is the free exchange of ideas considered sacrilege. bottom line, shoal is one fucking brilliant guy. i'm certain he can stand up to a couple questions from the back of the church every now and then.

but you make one good point: just what is tskitishvili up to? mia since the knicks.

At 3/07/2007 5:37 PM, Anonymous youshoottoomuch said...

in terms of the livingston issue, i would assume that the love of him for potential was mainly frustrated by him never really delivering on the stylistical/spectacular scale that a wallace or arenas does. as a previous shoals post once pointed out, if wallace doesn't get off to good start his entire game suffers, but at least there are nights when he goes destructo and murders everyone.

show me a youtube livingston highlight reel. i mean, i'm sure he had some nice 15 and 10 games but seriously, did he ever deliver like wallace or agent zero. i'm open to being proved wrong.

At 3/07/2007 6:21 PM, Blogger sam said...

Personally, my impression of Livingston is less shaped by his game and more shaped by


the essential tragedy of Parent Forcing Dreams onto Child that underpins his NBA career narrative.

At 3/07/2007 6:22 PM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

if Kobe goes for 40, I regret having missed it. I don't just want to know that he did it, but how he went about it.

Seems almost prophetic in light of today's suspension, doesn't it? Seriously, the league needs to stop suspending players for incidental contact during the game. This is the second time this season the league has suspended Kobe for accidentally smacking someone while he's trying to draw a foul with the game on the line, and in both cases the players that got smacked said they don't think he did it on purpose and that he apologized immediately. So much for a Redd-Kobe rematch after Redd went off in LA earlier in the season.

At 3/07/2007 8:18 PM, Blogger T. said...

Skita is now playing in Spain for Sevilla.

Or was nobody really looking for an accurate answer?

At 3/07/2007 9:01 PM, Anonymous cyanide said...

T., the Skita comment was for levity, but I won't try and hide my pleasure that he's still balling somewhere. =) Thanks for the update.

as for cynanide... no anonymity here and i'm not marching into war anytime soon. only two days ago, i offered that FD is the best read on the interweb right now. nothing's changed.

Oh, brah, definitely didn't mean it as an attack towards you. Hope you didn't take it that way.

I was just thinking about some of the recent posts that have ended up with a lot of conflict in the comments section, but your follow-up makes me now see that in a different light. I dunno, maybe I was just in a rank-and-file, don't-question-authority sort of mood earlier, heh.

At 3/07/2007 9:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for clarification, cyanide. no offense taken.

for the record, sistah. :)

At 3/07/2007 10:04 PM, Anonymous cyanide said...

Haha, my apologies. I just seem to be on a roll today... =/


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