On This Day of Contemplation
Every once in a while I read a book, and in doing so, am forced to consider exactly how my ideas—if taken seriously—fit into some kind of larger discourse. One thing I've become especially sensitive to lately is the fact that the themes of style, identity, and personalized functionality in basketball hardly began with FD. They've been around at least as long as Nelson George's Elevating the Game, which makes me wonder if this site isn't the intellectual equivalent of the white players who introduced the jumper and no-look pass to the mainstream. These weren't stolen so much as learned from another tradition and then revealed in a space where they were taboo. Still, kind of a buzz-kill.
Last night I was reading Gena Caponi-Tabery's "Jump for Joy," which takes as its basic premise that jumping has a socio-cultural significance and, not coincidentally, emerged as an innovation in dancing and basketball at the same time. I don't think I could ever get away with writing that. But there were two things in here that pinpoint exactly how I see FD relating to this strain of scholarship.
First, there's section about the 1967 Alcindor Rule:
The most extreme example of personal style, slam dunking is a jamming of the ball into the basket that has no parallel in any other sport. A football player may spike the ball and dance in the end zone after making a touchdown; a baseball player may make a victory run around the bases but no other sports allows the athlete to celebrate his individuality at the moment of triumph to "personalz(e) the act of scoring. Of its banning Jabbar wrote, "The dunk is one of basketball's great crowd pleasers, and there was no good reason to give it up except that this and other n[egros] were running away with the sport." Former college coach Robert Bownes said "Look, if a guy is seven feet tall, he is going to score from close in whether he stuffs or just lays the ball in. That rule wasn't put in to stop seven-footers. It was put in to stop the six-foot-two brothers who could dazzle the crowd and embarrass much bigger white kids by dunking."
See, that's the kind of thing that made me jump out of bed. I'd never underestimate the importance of style, what it tells us about a player's identity, or what meanings it might hold that affect fans, coaches, and other players on the level of culture. But the dunk, while totally fucking rad, simultaneously hangs out on the margins and casts a long shadow over the foreground of this discussion. In a way, it's a red herring. With very few exception, the sheer act of finishing, or dunking, is not the most meaty part of a play. The will to dunk, whether it appears at the last minute or fuels an entire individuals or team action, is far more important—and is responsible to a lot more meaningful content—than the finish in point. Case in point: Iverson or LeBron.
But then, lower down on the page, there's this:
Part of the essence of that game is something composer Olly Wilson calls the "soul focal moment", a point of unity between audience and player that occurs when a player—whether musician or athlete—performs what is necessary with exceptional ease, grace, and flair, taking a risk while maintaining control. The soul focal moment is not gratuitous showmanship—its artistry is functional and accomplishes what the moment requires, but with a degree and twist of virtuosity that is unnecessary and unexpected. The audience gasps in surprise, exclaims with pleasure, bursts into applause, and audience and player are united in the endless inventiveness of human expression.
Yeah, that made me grimace, too. I'd say this applies to the Showtime Lakers, or peak Jordan, or the first Dream Team, or whatever. But it just seems naive, and a little foolish, to try and apply this kind of superlative to even the most FD teams. I know that the Warriors, Hawks, Garnett on the Wolves, etc. are flawed. And probably less likely to succeed than if they did things the right way. That's what has always bugged me about this intellectual current: Not only is style important, and meaningful, it's also the key to absolute goodness if applied responsibly.
I don't want And1, but it also bothers me that the application of style could be so monolithic. What fascinates me about the players I like is the unevenness and experimentation that occurs as people try to succeed with this kind of outlook. Style for its own sake, or hood for its sake, is boring and doesn't work. At the same time, as the Spurs and this year's Celtics have shown us, style and personality are on some level antithetical to winning. What interests me is the drama that occurs as individuals or teams try to change that law. It is all about compromise and disaster, but this ongoing work-in-progress can never be totally defeated nor solved through one mere paragraph of generalizations.
At the risk of sounding like a woman, process is important here. The development of players. Their personal histories. The ups and downs of young teams. What exactly leads up to the dunk, block, or other chest-pound worthy incident. How it is that players can be effective while acknowledging that The Gospel of Style is no less absolute or impermeable than that of The Right Way. It's trial and error, give and take, tightrope and abyss. To presume that a playing being himself is the key to freedom is to admit that with freedom comes a whole new set of problems.