Pilgrims Caked With Trash

The other day I tried to convince the Recluse that point guards are uninspiring. When doing this, I was especially wary of plummeting into the "ALL I LOVE IS SCORING" abyss. I figured, hey, a grown man can admit he's partial to dunks and drives over measured jumpshooting; why can't there be a similarly rational aversion to once-removed production? I know how the fulcrum tumbles: those who admit being partial to emphasis and bombs are unsubtle, uncultured, and unavailable to most any intelligent burble.

I failed miserably, not in the least because it's very convincing when the Recluse gets convincing. He said what all of us were already thinking: that of course it's totally awesome when a PG sets someone up for an unexpected shot. The Suns rule in large part because of Nash's hand legering; what makes LeBron such a bedeviling proposition is his ability to find a teammate when all signs point toward a choked shot attempt. In fact, our gospel of competitive style should by all rights prize passing above all else. After all, what better exemplifies practical flourish than Steve Nash's distributing? Lo, many of the things he does would be unimaginable without something commonly classified as "style."

But I will yet insist that the passing game has its own set of aesthetic criteria. And by and large, these consist of the giant gaping possibility of negation, or at least monstrous qualification. Look, please: the scorer either scores or he doesn't. No matter what precedes the interaction of ball and goal, the event disappears forever if unsuccessful. The super-example of this is each and any time Vince Carter drives, busts a three-sixty, and then misses after shedding every defender in sight. Or all the many days Lamar Odom has eluded whole teams, only to brick a point-blank lay-up. I have championed their memory, but only rarely do we even get so much as a replay. Behold, another way in which Josh Smith is leaving the sport's very structural shoelaces scattered in his wake.

The pass, though, completes itself and yet quite frequently longs for more. Say Nash pulls off a special pass. If it leads to an open jumper or lay-up, it's muted slightly by banality. If the shot is missed, then the act stands, but is tarnished by its yearning. At least the blown shot can vanish with dignity; the thwarted assist, especially the flashy one, ends up being a lasting confrontation between desire and limitation. The only way the assist can truly resolve itself is through a splendid finish, and even then, too profoundly difficult a basket overshadows the pass that preceded it. And I don't think I speak for myself when I say that Amare is the aesthetic heart of that team exactly because he punctuates all the fluidity and skill.

The major flaw here would be my attempt to posit the pass as a score-like act. Perhaps it's supposed to be humble, selfless, and wholly uninvested in its own future. But if the block, steal, rebound, and even the screen can be self-contained units of meaning, then that leaves only the assist. Certainly, it has been fetishized and tickled with ideology, such that this quirk goes unnoticed. A pass can be appreciated regardless of how little feeling it leave us with, feeling that grows only out of that piercing sense of success. I feel it be high time that we bring the assist up that mountain—even if on the way, it will have to let itself be dragged through the blindness ahead.

In some sense, the assist was born to suffer. Its meaning is forever dependent on its eventual outcome, and yet it retains some squeaky bundle of self-definition. The dynamic between the two is indeed an uneasy one; at times, each seems powerless against the other, while in theory they strive toward perfect harmony. I refuse to idolize the pass-in-itself, but in accepting its troubled dialectic we ourselves closer to a fully-recognized picture of the assist. Though this may be petty, and it may be totalitarian, the end result is an interpretation that captures its uneasy poetry. Foundation be damned—give me the drama of the buckling ground floor!!!!!!


At 3/26/2007 11:36 PM, Blogger stopmikelupica said...

Someone's gonna to have to explain what Battlefield Earth has go to do with this post?

And if you are gonna go Travolta on our ass, why not Saturday Night Fever? After all, isn't the assist the dance moves; without the smooth moves setting it up, all you got is a nice suit that looks good and flashy, but isn't scoring at all. But with the right moves, you can score....

At 3/27/2007 12:11 AM, Blogger T. said...

Shoals - for many, I believe, this might be a generational issue. Those of us who grew up with the NBA on CBS and two 6'9" guys from middle America as the face of the NBA . . . for us, the pass is the ultimate expression of skill. Hell, every scored in the 1980s NBA. Joe Barry Carroll averaged over 20 ppg. Kiki Vandeweghe was in the top 5 in scoring.

While those of a slightly younger demographic, whose NBA was dominated by a 6'6" bald tongue wagging Nike pitchman - scoring is the ultimate arbitrator of skill and technique in the league. With Detroit's Bad Boys and Riley's Knicks - scoring became the ultimate expression of speaking truth (points) to power (the domination of the hand-checking, chucking you through the key, grabby defense played by most teams circa 1990-2000).

Probably a simplistic analysis at best, but I spent all morning writing powerpoint presentations.

At 3/27/2007 12:17 AM, Blogger MC Welk said...

ach so, that's why the Jazz isn't freedarko

At 3/27/2007 12:49 AM, Blogger max said...

Shoals - Amare is the punctuation of that team, but how much of Amare's earth-shattering, paradigm shifting power would we be seeing if Nash wasn't snaking a pass through three defenders to hit Amare right in the letters?

On a different note, by defining passing as assists--that all passes must lead directly to baskets or they are worthless, serves to over look the things passes do for the game unrecorded.

Think about how vital, yet overlooked and untaught, the ability to throw a consistently good entry pass is. Think about how important it is to have a competent inbounder in late game situations. Think about how pleasing well executed ball movement is to watch, and how important it is to a team's ability to play offense.

No other aspect of basketball that is quantifiable (in assists), can also manifest itself as subtly as something wholly unquantifiable, like being able to move without the ball well.

At 3/27/2007 1:11 AM, Anonymous bloodofthewig said...

Kinda tangent, but also on point. Talk about pushing the envelope of the whole muscul-skeletal arrangement.

People talk about Goat Manigault having grabbing quarters But I've never see anyone really come close. Top of the backboard. James White.


At 3/27/2007 1:20 AM, Blogger d.d. tinzeroes said...

Methinks Battlefield Earth is, if movies were basketball, the biggest fucking brick ever laid. And, as such, no one wants to see the replay. Ever.

Strangely, my strongest memory of BE isn't the pointless slaughter of cattle or horses but the notion the final battle should have been replaced w/ a winner-take-all 3-on-3 game of basketball (when movies bore me I make up better, more entertaining versions of them while I watch).

At 3/27/2007 2:05 AM, Blogger T. said...

Think about how vital, yet overlooked and untaught, the ability to throw a consistently good entry pass is. Think about how important it is to have a competent inbounder in late game situations. Think about how pleasing well executed ball movement is to watch, and how important it is to a team's ability to play offense.

And the hockey assist. Maybe it's because I watch the Rockets most of all - but I think because they're an inside out/ 3 point shooting team, Yao Ming would have 5-6 hockey assists per game, because he usually doesn't throw the cross court out pass, instead he hits the nearest wing player who swings it diagonally to a wide open Battier/Alston/Head/McGrady/Synder. No stats recorded for Yao, but his presence and court vision totally made the basket easier for the recipent on the other side.

At 3/27/2007 2:57 AM, Blogger The Electric Zarko said...

In a way, I think this is part of why I don't value the "assist" as a stat in soccer, which has become more of a thing in the last 15 years ago.

For one thing, one of my favorite soccer teams once won a championship with a playmaking midfielder who finished the year with the statistical line of 0 goals and 1 assists, because the passes that he made were always the hockey assists, the pass before the final pass. He sat deep and concentrated on retaining possession and allowing his teammates to receive the ball in an advantageous position.

The recent "documentary" about Zidane also could tie into this (for reference, the film is a full soccer match with 16 cameras, including 2 military-level HD cameras, doing nothing except focusing on Zidane for the whole game, music by Mogwai, highly recommended).

At 3/27/2007 8:41 AM, Blogger Emil said...

What's the name of that Zidane flick?


At 3/27/2007 10:07 AM, Blogger PostmanE said...


I think that's it.

Speaking of military-grade HD cameras, is anyone else watching Planet Earth? Holy crap. (Sorry, this has hijack potential.)

At 3/27/2007 10:11 AM, Blogger evan said...

What about the alley-oop? The pass from Nash that is more of a shot that he is getting his teammate to commit to an assist on the finish.

I argue that in many cases, the point guard will create the opportunity for the shot and remove his target from the scoring burden. Placing the ball in a spot which the defender cannot defend and the offensive player can do nothing but score is an exceptional art.

This is why Nash, Kidd, et al are more dangerous than most because a specific pass can create a high percentage shot where there would none otherwise for the PG or finisher.

At 3/27/2007 10:14 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

this post is kind of a mess, but it was such a mess that i didn't see the point of trying to make it be a different person.

the real point here is that the meaning of an assist is tied up in what happens next. but, paradoxically, the assist does have some degree of autonomous identity. i'm interested in the ways in which the basket (or lack thereof) can change the way i perceive the character of an assist.

At 3/27/2007 10:15 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

actually, i'll just add some version of that to end.

At 3/27/2007 10:27 AM, Anonymous Kaifa said...

I agree with Shoals that a beautiful pass not followed by a make loses a lot of it's significance. The only exception:

(And maybe that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAnSWCztlJc)

But when a truly amazing pass is finished successfully, I couldn't care less if Amare dunks it or Barbosa lays it in. Sometimes the easier the score the better the pass beforehand.

And while Max is talking about the kind of passes (enttry passes etc.) that Shoals probably wasn't aiming at, he does make a good point that there are passes of value not related to scoring. And even those can be full of style (at 2:00 into the video):


At 3/27/2007 3:23 PM, Blogger The Electric Zarko said...

Emil & PostmanE - that's the one, yeah.

At 3/27/2007 5:15 PM, Anonymous iverson said...

How good would Chris Wilcox be if Phoenix had drafted him and he got to play 3 years with Nash?

At 3/29/2007 1:35 AM, Blogger Ritchie said...

Think about question from the perspective of comparing a surprising shot to a surprising pass. Surprising passes tend to be my favorite part of basketball. Often they involve a player driving and finding a seam I never would have seen to get the ball to another player for the finish. That's fun basketball. Whereas a surprising shot tends to be a questionable decision like taking a long three or shooting with another guy in your grill. The act of scoring is not interesting, how the player arrived in position to score or overcame a disadvantaged position is interesting.

Think about jumping into a passing lane to intercept the ball and take it down to the other end for a score. The only time the climax or actual scoring event is interesting is if the player is a talented dunker. If Kirk Hinrich makes that play the event is the steal and the score is an inevitable and pretty boring layup. If a great dunker makes the play the dunk is an event but not because he's scoring. The dunk is exciting because the dunker is in the open court able to finish with style.


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