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.