Got to Get Off This Never-Ending Combine
Merry Christmas to you, and to all a brave tale! On this day of expanded NBA programming, Rough Justice of the smart-n-snazzy blog There Are No Fours comes to you with a heaping philosophical question and fodder for your viewing guide. Be well!
" All languages offer the possibility of distinguishing between what is true and what we hold to be true. The supposition of a common objective world is built into the pragmatics of every single linguistic usage. And the dialogue roles of every speech situation enforce a symmetry in participant perspectives.Who is the most athletic player in the NBA? Picks would differ, but if you polled a group of people up on the league, you would get stars like LeBron, Dwight Howard and Dwayne Wade (Kobe probably also makes this list for a few years yet) but also players like Tyrus Thomas and Nate Robinson. The question that never seems to get asked subsequently, though, is what precisely constitutes "athletic" in this context. Literally, the term is pleasantly tautological, meaning simply pertaining to an athlete. For our purposes here, it seems reasonable to define it as "possessing physical characteristics beneficial in the game of basketball".
- Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking
It's pretty easy to figure out the yardstick we're all mentally using to figure out the "athletic" list. Put together some combination of vertical leap, top speed and lateral quickness with bonus points for strength and height and you'll have a pretty good approximation of "athletic". But that's leaving out a lot of the physical tools that are beneficial to a basketball player. Take, instance, David Foster Wallace talking about the issue1:
Successfully returning a hard-served tennis ball requires what's sometimes called "the kinesthetic sense," meaning the ability to control the body...through complex and very quick systems of tasks. English has a whole cloud of terms for various parts of this ability: feel, touch, form, proprioception, coordination, hand-eye coordination, kinesthesia, grace, control, reflexes, and so on.Hand-eye coordination is certainly vital to basketball. Without it, you'll have terrible handle, and even if you're a big who doesn't really need to dribble, you have to be able to handle the pass into the post. Body control is vital to taking contact without losing control on a drive. Fast reflexes obviously matter. The list goes on. So why do we limit the discussion of athleticism to jumping and running? It's pretty simple: A) We focus on the obvious. B) We pay attention to the impressive.
1: Yes, obviously he was talking about tennis, and I've yet to see Roger Federer run the fast break. Everything he's saying, however, is directly transferable to basketball.Sit anyone down and show him/her a few minutes of a game, and he/she'll be able to point out which players can really jump. The guy that dunked, the guy that blocked a shot. It's evident and impressive when someone makes a play up in the air. Similarly, we can all tell when someone turns on the jets to get ahead on the break for an easy basket. It's right there to see, it's effective, so it gets noticed. A lot of the elements of this physiological cloud are subtler. Who has the best body control in the NBA? Nobody knows. You can tell if someone is on one extreme or the other if you watch them a lot, but no one could begin to rank everyone in the league. Who has the best hand-eye coordination? These aren't the things that are or even necessarily could get tested at combines, but they are things that partially determine how effective someone is on the court. If an individual athlete's cocktail of traits is low in several, he probably is going to wash out to the D League or Europe pretty quickly no matter what kind of ups he has.
"Athletic", then, has more to do with explosive than athletic. No one is touting (for example) Steve Nash's athleticism; all the talk is of his court vision, shooting skill and general savvy. I'm not trying to downplay his basketball IQ or court vision2, but watch this video and tell me he's not a physical specimen. The reason is narrative. We don't think of players as a spreadsheet of skills, we think of them as a story. Steve Nash is a creator who sees the court like no one else and capitalizes on that. His hand-eye coordination gets explained as passing and shooting ability. His speed and agility is part of how he reads defenses and goes where they can't stop him, and his body control isn't really part of the story, even though I suspect his stellar proprioception plays a surprisingly large role in his effectiveness.
All of the physical tools that make him great are subtle, so we don't think of him as a stellar athlete, even though he is. Similarly, I think a lot of what determines an undersized player's success, unless he chooses to specialize in outside shooting, is body control, coordination and touch. AI's dominance was predicated on his aggression, but a willingness to take it into the paint against men twice his size and explosive quickness are no guarantee of greatness. Yes, he was lightning fast, but he could also take and adjust to hard contact and still finish. The way he could absorb a blow and still get the ball in the hoop played into and reinforced the narrative of uncompromising dedication, but had as much to do with his inner ear and broader athleticism as it did his steely resolve.
2: Part of the trouble here, of course, is that the subtle skills bleed into the mental realm. How fast I can run has everything to do with the fast twitch muscles I have, but the ability to thread the needle with a pass depends on (optical) vision, hand-eye coordination, the inclination to try and past experience. There's no way to disentangle them and isolate the merely/solely physical.
Another funny bifurcation exists within the treatment of players who are on the far right of the bell curve of obvious physiological traits. When is the last time you heard LeBron or Dwight Howard referred to as "athletic"? It doesn't happen. When a player is jaw-droppingly gifted in the obvious ways and dominant on the court, he is termed a "freak". This may be because his non-evident physical gifts are commensurately ridiculous (Dwayne Wade, I suspect), because they're at least acceptable and his strength/size makes him unstoppable (young Shaq, Dwight Howard) or both (this, I think, is what is so unfair about LBJ's abilities); regardless, he gets otherized by this categorization.
It would be easy to dismiss this as hyperbole in the mode of current sports coverage, but there's more to it than that. It is partly a result of the mythologizing of greatness, that a player is so gifted he is more than human. You see it in Jordan as messianic figure and its aftershocks of James as the Chosen One, but it's more decentralized. Howard as Superman. Wade as Flash. Half Man/Half Amazing3, even. This otherization cuts deeper, however. They are freaks not merely because they are so obviously amazing, but because theirs is a problematic greatness. Labeling them as a freak moves them outside the discourse of normality and allows us to consider them uniquely and not reconcile them with any other player. They become an exception to the norms of physique, and so therefore not subject to them. They're certainly athletic, but they aren't "athletic" because the second we move them to "freak", considerations of athleticism that aren't about them don't include them. We shove them onto another plane rather than reconcile them to ours so that we don't have to account for them in our evaluations of everyone else.
Instead of undermining the simplicity of our categorization and forcing us to account for why explosiveness translates into effectiveness for some but not others, they reinforce our categories by not having to fit inside them.
3: I would love to see someone give this nickname the exegesis it deserves. Given the trajectory and conventional packaging of Carter's career, its ironic accuracy is stunning.
So players, or at least players after their first year or two, tend to get labeled as "athletic" only if they're disappointing. The Tyrus Thomases 4 of the world tantalize you when they leap out of the building to block a shot or thunderously dunk, but they can't seem to put it together. The question hanging around such a player's neck is, if he can make that play, if he can make everyone else on the court look like they're standing still, why can't he dominate? Why can't he consistently take over a game? He stays "athletic" because we can't fit him into another narrative slot.5 He's not successful enough as a role player to be cast as a rebounder or a scoring swingman or even a lockdown defender. If a player succeeds in one of those roles, his athleticism becomes a trait, not a defining characteristic.
Ironically, it's often the lack of the subtler forms of athleticism that hampers this growth and stalls a career at "athletic". If he doesn't have the subtler skills to round out his game and instead is a leaper who makes one amazing play per game but can't consistently produce. The clumsy moments when a play doesn't come together for him aren't an abberation, a lapse of unharnessed motion, but rather as telling of the borders of his kinesthetic ability as the dunk. Because of the transcendent moments he'll stick around for a while, but because he doesn't have similarly high-level subtle athleticism, he is merely "athletic". The label, despite its surface connotations, is more indicative of a negative absence than a positive presence.
4: I realize Thomas is young and may yet live up to his promise. He is at least partially here a stand-in here for the type.
5: This is why you won't see Josh Smith or Gerald Wallace essentialized as "athletic" anymore. Josh Smith has settled down and now is a dangerous wing scorer, while Wallace's rebounding explosion has moved him into "freak" territory. Their gifts haven't changed, but because they're more effective this season our profiling of them shifts.
We do ourselves a disservice when we fall into the trap of the obvious. Conventional wisdom is dangerous not just when it's wrong, but also (and more often) when it's incomplete. An unnecessarily narrow understanding of athleticism informs a wan view of the NBA as a whole. If we focus only on explosions, we undervalue the rest of the spectrum of ability. Quiet excellence is every bit as interesting and important as loud excellence, it just doesn't give itself up as quickly. A debate like "most athletic player" has as its core an assumption that athleticism is both quantifiable and linear; neither is remotely true. A fractured view of athleticism that acknowledges the impossibility of full knowledge may at first blush seen irritating or gnostic, but is in fact the only responsible approach.