"Safe to Say, This is What Saturday's Should've Been"-TK

Let no one ever tell you I don't take this shit serious, or write just to hear the sound of my own sweet, sweet voice. The whole dust-up last spring over whether the Lakers were FD or not, that was just frustrating. The debate over what the championship Celtics gave up to win, well, I think their play early this season showed we could all be made happy. But the LeBron debacle this weekend just plain embarrassing. It was sloppy, clueless, and obscured what I actually want to say about a new duality worth watching, one that could be even more central to the league's future than Kobe/Bron. And so, with a hearty shout-out to my new friends at the Real Cavs Fans board, here's a second take that will, when necessary, acknowledge the wreck that preceded it.

Why did I fuck this one up so badly? Because those LeBron threes were, clearly, definitively, LeBron James threes. All the power, fury, excess, and iron-clad assurance that defines James everywhere else on the court, they finally came out in his long range shot. Remember, I played a large part in a book that sought to understand basketball acts in terms of a "Periodic Table of Style," asserting a direct correlation because effectiveness, comfort level, and individuality. I know that James has hit three-pointers in the past, some at key moments. I've also been mightily impressed by the progress his stroke has made this season. But the reason for all the ninth-grade existentialism was that, for the greatest players, there's an idea, or a feeling, that pervades their every act. We call this "style," and it's the symbiotic relationship between how one approaches the game and how one carries out a generic act like "go left." I think superstars can go through several incarnations—most obviously, the various Jordans, but more recently Kobe through the years, or Wade then and now. What makes James both awe-inspiring and at times frustrating is that he seemingly has the ability not to spontaneously expand his capabilities, but pull off shit as if he weren't present in it.

Yes, I will single out his three-point shooting prior to Friday. When James takes two dribbles and then staidly fires away from the top of the key, that's almost a distraction from an epic work in progress. What makes James James? His uncanny combination of size and speed, which has gotten even more inexorable in the open court, off the dribble, or anywhere around the paint; the emergent defense nightmare he's become; his court vision, which insistently delivers the ball to whichever Cav happens to be closest to the basket; a nose for rebounds that comes with just understanding the action better than anyone else. All some combination of peak basketball IQ and/or outlandish physical gifts, traits he's applied more seamlessly, and synthesized with greater ease, as he's matured. This is the education of LeBron, and what I talk about when I imagine the "authentic" James. It's also, to be sure, a process, but one quite different from those that—ahem—mere mortals face. As we quoted in the book, Kobe consider himself to be "chasing perfection," aspiring to an absolute. James isn't so much trying to make perfection his own (he does have a few flaws) as he is transcending it, putting together a game that replaces a (false?) idol with his own frightening visage.

What I saw as "video game" LeBron was his knack for knocking down threes with no personal, stylistic context; why this troubles me is that it's at once in some ways unreal, or glib, and thus—at least according to the way I view the game—proof that he hasn't fully made the shot his own. For most players, we'd say "hasn't assigned a style guide icon to it;" for James, I think we expect nothing less than the invention of a new icon. Friday, he accomplished this. Those were shots that get labeled "video game" because they're impossible, but to me, "video game" signifies impersonal and facile. It refers not to the act, but the tone of it. And, in typical LeBron-ian fashion, what should've been a fundamentally unreal and unlikely way of doing things ends up seeming more fitting than "the real way" of doing things. That's why James is something other than mortal—not because he's already perfect, but because he exists beyond perfection. He's almost its mirror image, functioning always just on the other side of impossible. Does that make him less human than Kobe? No, but it certainly makes Kobe's journey something mere mortals can relate to, a parable of ambition, toil, and vanity that at least vaguely applies to other people.

Without getting all the implied religious analogies even more tangled, Jordan is obviously the idol of today's NBA. In the past, we've discussed Kobe as Jordan-centric classicist, Bron as defining a new paradigm for the future. What if we introduce Durant as the third element, the Air Apparent not in game per se, but in, well, Jordan-ness? Here's the crucial distinction, which might well blow up in my face: Kobe may be mortal, but there's something inhuman about single-minded pursuit of an ideal. It's clinical and, while subject to fits of passion, ultimately rational. There's a tacit assumption that with enough work, he'll match MJ's greatness. The problem is, Jordan's career isn't a template, it's a narrative, a series of organic occurrences that gave rise to the illusion of perfection. Perfection is the limit of what's possible; James inverts this structure, Kobe looks only at the finished product. Duran both steps out of MJ's shadow as a player and, with a honorable nod to Allen Iverson, has more of a flare for drama, more of a sense that his greatness grows out of the moment and is then added to the prototype, than anyone since Jordan. There, I said it.

I'm running out of superlatives for Durant, and I don't want FD to turn into am unreflective parody of itself. But I find it critical that, for a player whose on-court demeanor is unflappable calm masking a yes, MJ-esque need to win, the element of drama is absolutely key. So far, every major event in his career has been a surprise, a shock, a sudden leap: the explosion at UT, sudden maturation late last season, All-Star numbers in run-up to the snub, absolute rule over the Rookie/Challenge game, comeback in HORSE (not important in itself, but helped make ASW his, itself a truly amazing narrative development), and now the freakish production since the break. You could blandly cast this as "Durant keeps getting better," but the reason I dare invoke MJ is that for KD, he's got that emergency gear that kicks in whenever failure or rejection starts to peak out from behind the corners. It's not anathema to him, or a strange unknown creature; it's a demon that haunts him and co-mingles with any ego he builds up from one game to the next. If his demeanor is one of unknowability and ghostliness, the game that pours forth from him is unmistakably human in its emotional thrust. This isn't about proving shit, or scouting out some other plan of existence. It's about a player who has a hair-trigger when it comes to pushing himself, and for whom "pushing yourself" involves lots of pushing and lots of self.

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At 2/23/2009 5:04 PM, Blogger Joey said...

um, more of a general Lebron/Kobe/Jordan question: where does Magic Johnson fit into all this? because ive always seen Lebron as a mutant, bizarro Magic.

At 2/23/2009 5:27 PM, Blogger j said...

since this discussion's double helix is the mere act of unconsciously launching thirty footers with seemingly no warrant, rhyme, or reason, where does Gilbert doing it, often to legitimately decide between spoils and spoiled no less, fit in? i know their principles are vastly incongruent, gil and bron's, but-and not to be irritatingly socratic-in the realm of irrationality, does that even matter? do these players different archetypes come with differing and able-to-categorize confidences-in-oneself, too? or is that what we're talking about here, and I just plain missed it?

At 2/23/2009 5:45 PM, Blogger Reed said...

Can you re-post the entire Durant section of the original post as a comment or elsewhere?

At 2/23/2009 5:49 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

I went back and used the parts that I thought fit. The other stuff either relied too heavily on the fallacious Bron contrast or was written like shit.

At 2/23/2009 5:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2/23/2009 6:15 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

ZJ, I see you!

Obviously I read all the comments, and I'm sure some of them crept into this new version. That said, I think it's more a matter of several of us being on the same wavelength here, and my having expressed myself poorly the first time around. I definitely drew some guidance/inspiration from the discussion this weekend, and it was part of the reason I felt like these ideas deserved a better post. So thanks to everyone who participated, I hope no one feels ripped off.

At 2/23/2009 6:21 PM, Blogger luckypierre said...

If James did in fact invert the paradigm "perfection is the limit of the possible", it'd become, literally, "the possible is the limit of perfection". A beautiful formalism! And relevant to what you're saying about Lebron, I think: he's on the other side of perfection, operating not towards perfection, but from it. As you say, I don't think it has to mean he's already perfection incarnated - instead, it's that what he does is perfection made possible. I wasn't around for the Kobe/LBJ comparisons, but this all seems to make James rather Christ like.
You seem right about Durant: he does seem like he's operating toward perfection, but not necessarily Jordanian, like Kobe.

At 2/23/2009 7:04 PM, Blogger Dan Filowitz said...

So, out of curiosity, what is the new Style Guide icon for this new LeBron 3 going to be?

Even more now, I want to see Durant get himself on a good team (or turn his current team into a good team.)
That's because I think the on court battles between LeBron, Durant, and even Wade and Carmelo, all against each other, all playing in games that matter enough that they are 100% present for them, those will be as dazzling as anything any of those on-court rivalries of yore.

At 2/23/2009 8:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I don't want FD to turn into am unreflective parody of itself."

Ha. That train left the station long, long ago.

At 2/23/2009 9:01 PM, Blogger Crabbie said...

The thing I liked about the previous incarnation is that now I will never be able to think of Durant without also thinking of Mifune, which is a connection that I should have made a long time ago, and never quite clicked until then.

I think FD was, indeed, an unreflective parody of itself for quite a while, but also like it's left that territory this season, for a variety of reasons. I think that the writing of the book probably helped, as did Robert Sarver, the Golden State front office/coaching mess, the Sonics' death and rebirth, the depression, Obama's election, and the past few draft classes.

At 2/23/2009 11:08 PM, Blogger Michael said...

God, FD is getting so meta. I'm glad I started reading when I did (not to mention that I got a chance to see this original post before it was torn down) because I feel like a comicbook fan at this site: you have to know some serious history in order to understand just what's being discussed here.

That's not a knock, I love comic book, but damn...it's getting deep.

At 2/24/2009 3:53 AM, Blogger Samuel J said...

Kobe is chasing his dreams, Lebron is above the league and really just playing with it. Durant is trying to sneak in and pull the rug from under it.

But Melo, Melo is the spiritual embodiment of the league.

Seriously. When the league was on it's fast paced offensive peak with the Suns, Warriors and Nuggets running the crazy up and down running game Melo was a single minded scoring robot.

Then the Celtics win the championship and the economy goes to shit, Suns sell out and Kerr tries to Shaq them a title, Warriors push it too far and collapse, and Melo's Nuggets accept the help of Billups. Melo goes all Jerry Sloan and steps up his team play (assists, rebounds and defense have all improved)

Durant, Kobe and Lebron are league forces all trying to push or pull it in their direction, but Melo is the dude that show's the league how far it will go.

At 2/24/2009 9:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shoals...I kind of liked your first reaction to his 50 point performance. Are you backtracking? or just retracing your steps more carefully? Is that an attempt to be more clear or not piss people off? I like it when your Sheed comes out. Perhaps this is your post technical A game.

I think Bron is a bizarro Magic just mixed with a dash of Early Chuck. But he fucks with my head cuz I am not always sure if he seees the best way to the win or is just working above the game (MJ shoulder shrug).

As a unliberated fan (go Celts), I get excited when LeBron starts shooting threes, because other teams can stay in the game with the miss. As a liberated fan I enjoy the swag that comes with the make.

At 2/24/2009 10:39 AM, Blogger dave said...

might i suggest Robocop as the Style Guide icon for the LeBron 3?

appropriate, i think, in that there is an obvious willful and teleological element present - LeBron's self-actualization to embody the ideal.

but in terms of "style", he is limited to operating within the bounds of his programming - the Prime Directives of the Global Icon - which ultimately make him emotionally inaccessible.

At 2/24/2009 12:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shoals - I tried to rewrite my post so it was clear that I was merely happy that I got your meaning, rather than infer that you were ape-ing my post on the original essay for this re-done version. If that makes sense.

@KC - In the illustrious words of our former VP: Go fuck yourself

At 2/24/2009 1:23 PM, Blogger Alan DeNiro said...

If Jordan is Christ, then there might be a Peter vs. Paul dynamic between Lebron and KD respectively (their implicit battles shaped the early church and provided the essential framing mechanisms for Christianity that are with us today). It's Jordan-as-event and how one reacts to that event.

At 2/24/2009 1:54 PM, Blogger ghengis blond said...

kevin's about to get rejected by the playoffs, pimpin. i get the impression that you're very player-focused but, even as cow-eyed stargazers like us prefer to understand and discuss discuss oncourt cabinets as lubricant for herculean thrusts toward championship chocha, players wear jerseys as components of their respective teams.

when the playoffs come around, we won't get to consider kevin's game as a relevant factor in the present. his jersey's gonna be a nightgown. he can't credibly make aggressive overtures at the upper echelons before he's done his numbers and boinged up to proper graduation from koch. gotta get that joint venture with sony. it's like holy matrimony.

i'm from tacoma.

At 2/24/2009 8:26 PM, Blogger Dubya said...

I think there is something interesting in LeBron's image - a dramatic slant - just not the way people are accustomed to having their drama.

I actually find LeBron a fascinating figure in his whole more-than-mortal, Godlike demeanor, and to be honest, I think one of the most compelling things about his story is his Quest to a Billion Dollars. That admission of his life's goals makes people despise him; he's corporate, he doesn't play for the love of the game, he improves himself because he knows he has to be the best to make his commercial empire a reality. To which I'd reply: so what?

It fits. There's a consistency of story about him. He doesn't play personalizing the game Jordan did (and I imagine Kobe does now), finding personal satisfaction in destroying his opponents on the court and proving himself the very best; he KNOWS he's the very best, he plays on a plane removed, he has even bigger goals (he talks in the third person, for God's sake - but doesnt that's FIT as someone who can actively, detachedly see himself as a Global Icon?). And something about this new hypercapitalist elite, acutely self-aware of their own obsessive capitalism, intrigues me. LeBron trumps up his connection with Jay-Z for a reason; they are mirror images in music and sports, the same born-to-be-great, the same flippant "I am richer, better, more talented, and that's the way it is; who the fuck are you?", the same aura of MONEY, but not filthy money, not money spent stupidly to be flashed, but money for the sake of simply showing that they can make more than anyone else in the world. And this self-aware capitalism intrigues me, because at that point, it's not about greed; it's about a whole other challenge, scoring the most in the money game.

It's entirely unlike the next two most marketable athletes - Jordan and Tiger. Jordan is relentlessly commercial-friendly, but I honestly believe that is because he doesn't have the convictions to be anything else. All his convictions are on the basketball court; the conviction to totally dominate his enemy. It's just that his looks and demeanor helped serve as a commercial-perfect pitchman to augment his true appeal: the fierce exceptionalism of his game. Tiger is even more so this way: he's taking the endorsements because he's so fucking perfect an image and he gets so many of them, but you think he stays awake actively figuring out how to expand his commercial presence? Those athletes carry no interest beyond their presence in the game. But LeBron is a whole fucking new meta-thing, inseparable from the market, fully self-aware, so much so that I'll be continued to be interesting in him as a story, and rooting for him to become the first billionaire, after he retires.

But that's on a meta-dramatic sense. In terms of pure ball aesthetics - I appreciate LeBron in that sense because he's such a counterpoint to Kobe - all force where Kobe is all precision. But I have to say, if LeBron ever gets a picture-perfect jump shot, he'll be fucking boring to watch. Can you imagine LeBron with say, a Ray Allen J (I was going to say T-Mac but T-Mac gives the wrong impression of falling in love with his jumper and taking stupid shots)? It'd negate a whole lot of the Force of Nature quality about LeBron, because right now in LeBron's game there's the sense that he needs to be the force of nature to compensate for his lack of the pretty parts of the games - the jumpers, the footwork, etc. If he gains all of that, there will be no distinctive carving in the image. It will just be perfection, except something in LeBron's game exudes too much force to make perfection as pretty as Jordan and Kobe make it look; and then it will be the worst of all worlds, ugly perfection, with the jumper or the meticulous footwork (whichever comes first) diminishing from the battering ram that is currently James.

At 3/24/2009 1:42 PM, Blogger Marvin Barnes said...

Jeez Louise

and I thought I was a basketball fanatic!!
I think it is pretty presumptious to try and gauge the "context" of a players style or the socio-political-(metaphysical) aspects of it. It is an interesting conversation though.. That being said. If you wanna go down that rabbit hole do not forget about the good Doctor. He was the real archetype or blue print for the basketball super hero. He transcended winning, his style which was so locked in and reflective of his generation that you could almost look at him as a musician or an artist. There has never been a player who had a song WRITTEN for them. Grover Washington JR wrote the tune " Let it flow for Dr. J" Not only that, but might be the only player who the opposing teams fans rooted for. In 83 some lakers fans wanted him to win the title. Then just talking about his style, man, his shit had a grace and the quality of his self exspression through his game in my opinion is still unmatched.
Anyways, thats my 2 cents.

At 3/25/2009 3:52 AM, Blogger Evan said...

"Kobe may be mortal, but there's something inhuman about single-minded pursuit of an ideal. It's clinical and, while subject to fits of passion, ultimately rational. There's a tacit assumption that with enough work, he'll match MJ's greatness. The problem is, Jordan's career isn't a template, it's a narrative, a series of organic occurrences that gave rise to the illusion of perfection. Perfection is the limit of what's possible; James inverts this structure, Kobe looks only at the finished product."

This statement sums up much of your argument.

But this is conjecture. If anyone gets the feeling that Kobe's chasing Jordan, it's probably because beat writers having been hammering this dynamic into our skulls from the start. They share a coach and play the same position. They have roughly the same build. But these are circumstantial factors and in no way reflect Kobe's current drive to emulate MJ. Pure conjecture, my friend.

Totally separate point:

Let's give Kobe a LeBron-body from the start. The size, speed, everything. Would he have the all-around, complete unselfish game from the start, as LeBron did. No way. But he'd probably have a 34 point career scoring average with common outbursts in the 60s and 70s, maybe even the big 100 once or twice. Kobe's brain = kobe's skill set. Add that to LeBron's body, and you may not have the unique LeBron, but you'd have the greatest scorer of all time, by far.

At 3/25/2009 3:57 AM, Blogger Evan said...

I have the same criticism of your portrayal of Durant. Inner demons?


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