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.
- Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking
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".

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.

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At 12/25/2009 11:47 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Two thoughts come rushing in:

Traditionally athletic, even freakish, players tend to improve their "X" athleticism over time, and rely less on their formative shit. Amare's the most dramatic, and forced, example of this, but Kobe certainly falls into this category.

Paradigm-smasher: Monta Ellis is at once freakishly athletic (ups and such) and has a level of body control I'd only describe as "freakish."

At 12/25/2009 12:45 PM, Blogger grillo said...

i really like the player as narrative point, and the steve nash example, very well worded. a lot of athletic ability is not truly apparent from measurements. i for one was surprised to learn that farmar has an incredible vertical, or that if you factor in the combine results of reach and vertical derrick rose seems unable to clear the rim enough to dunk it.

At 12/25/2009 2:28 PM, Blogger Jaxson O'Mark said...

The problematic aspect of this sort of of completion is that it subverts the idea of athleticism being purely inherent, making it a less useful definition. As B.Shoals points out, a player may improve his "X" athleticism rather dramatically. So not only is it unknowable, it is also fluid.

And since potential is inextricably tied to athleticism, if the latter is given a fluid definition, the former becomes a rather pointless concept, something you inadverently hint at with your Ty Thomas footnote.

That aside, a thoroughly enjoyable read. TANF has been bookmarked.

At 12/25/2009 3:37 PM, Blogger Mouth said...

A fractured understanding of "athleticism" is responsible, yes, but there are absolutes within the many tiers of comprehension and connotations of relative athleticism. Multi-sport athletes (who are actually good at 2+ sports), I would argue, truly have a quantifiable measure of superiority among their colleagues. (Steve Nash is a helluva soccer player.)

Other examples of the Josh Smith/Gerald Wallace-type elevation of one's game that paradoxically subdues our focus on his athleticism:
-Chauncey Billups used to be just about the fastest guy running, with or without the ball, in the NBA; now he's more apt to change speeds, and he's an All-Star and Champion.

Excellent post, Mr. Shoals. As soon as I'm done improving my own athleticism (triceps, chest, and a little shoulders today, plus abs of course, while my favorite point guard picks apart the Magic on the tube in front of the treadmill), I shall return to the keyboard in search of others' comments on this issue that vexes this ever-curious amateur linguist. I love being in the Never-Ending Combine!

At 12/25/2009 3:43 PM, Blogger Mouth said...

Oh yeah, the ambiguous Nate Robinson love continues in another debate of an ambiguous aspect of NBA greatness:

At 12/25/2009 5:20 PM, Blogger Mouth said...

My definition of athleticism does not heavily rely on hand-eye coordination.** One might as well say that golfers are great athletes. There’s no room for that inclusion. I like to see the freakish combine measurements translate well into actual NBA games and seasons better than I like seeing some scrub overachieve.
[**Nor does the definition rely on the ability at 6’1” in the paint to one-hand an offensive rebound into an immediate assist, though Rajon Rondo just did that. “Athleticism” has little to do with turning a steal into a fluid, perfectly timed behind-the-back pass on the ensuing fast break, though Mr. Rondo just did that.]

Counterexamples and anomalies:
-Steve Francis
Here’s a guy who maybe should have continued to improve & rely on his physical gifts instead of doing whatever he did that extinguished his career.

-Dirk Nowitzki
Our account of athleticism does not give much credit to the ability to hit a 13-foot fadeaway, with one’s legs flailing and a hand in one’s face, either. Dirk has done this better than anyone this century, and he’s a great player, but far from the best athlete in the NBA.

-Shawn Kemp
Though he once played point guard pretty well in the All-Star game for a few minutes, I’ll always remember his one-dribble-from-30-feet-away-probably traveled-but-whatever-that-was-awesome-dunk as an indication that young Shawn Kemp was a freak.

-John Stockton’s conditioning makes him a great athlete, but his relative deficiencies in most other areas (some more quantifiable than others) made him a (relatively) below-average athlete among even his less-successful colleagues.

-Chris Webber
Big and relatively well-built since his teenage years, I always thought he was garbage and a relatively un-athletic player. I hated watching him do well, but I grudgingly admit that he did some things well and posted good numbers most of the time. He still reminds me a little of a present-day Rasheed Wallace, but at half-speed and without the range, willingness to be a non-primary option, or any of the physical grace on the court.

At 12/25/2009 8:35 PM, Blogger Rough Justice said...

See, I don't know about the fluidity of "X" athleticism. I relegated the mental to a footnote in the post because I wanted to try and focus on the physical, but I think it does affect how someone plays in the league. There is certainly a learning curve here, and a guy that could outjump the competition or outmuscle other NCAA big men suddenly has to dip into other things because he is swimming with the big fish. I think subtle skills don't improve any more than vert et al. do, (I think they can be improved by exercises, but I also think that anyone in the NBA has probably about maxed out their potential already.) so it's about mental adjustment to the game at that level. Some can, some can't, but it also depends on what that player has in their physical toolbox. I would argue that athleticism is inherent, it just can't get fully measured, and adjustment to the pro game depends both on it and on the mental adjustments a player can or is willing to make.

At 12/25/2009 11:51 PM, Blogger Dylan said...

Frankly we rely too much on athletic ability when grading players. Skill always takes players farther than athleticism. Gerald Green is a prime example. Great dunker (cupcake dunk), bad player. It's only the athletes that refine their skills that become great. LeBron could have become just another great athlete, but he acutally honed his skills to the degree of other great players. Athletes like Josh Smith and Dwight Howard only became good once their skills improved. Most players are very athletic. It's the ones who have true basketball skills that succeed.

At 12/26/2009 12:33 AM, Blogger Mouth said...

Gerald Green represents one of the most painful experiences of my many speculatively great players/athletes scouting jobs. I was thoroughly miffed when Charlotte took Sean May ahead of Gerald Green. This perhaps raises another aspect of the whole "athleticism" debate. With the "right coaching" or the "right situation," could someone like Gerald Green (who, by the way, has a helluva 3-point stroke, not just hops) be as great as his athleticism ought to allow him to be? I mean, even Tyson Chandler was a borderline All-Star thanks to Chris Paul feeding him. MJ won with Luc bloody Longley and Bill bloody Wennington, for chris(Happy Birthday!)sakes.

At 12/26/2009 1:03 AM, Blogger SeanBS said...

Maybe the fluid part of X-athleticism is just the degree to which those talents are adapted to basketball use. Guys with big verts still have to be coached to elevate on jump shots and leap for rebounds. Likewise, someone with great balance and body control has to translate that to basketball movements. They have to be aware of their natural abilities and know how to use them. I think I remember Nash having some sort of "physiology coach" that teaches him things like how to move efficiently and maintain proper posture while playing. You could take that as evidence for X-athleticism being entirely fluid and trainable, but to me it seems more like applying inherent abilities to basketball actions.

At 12/26/2009 1:54 AM, Blogger Toasterhands said...

Manu Ginobili.

At 12/26/2009 12:38 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I agree with most things you said, but I will just add that in last nights laker-cavs game, JVG and crew had an entire discussion concluding that Lebron was the most athletic player ever to play basketball. They failed to use the word freak. And I don't think that freak is used in the way described--I think it is merely a hyperbolic term, just as when you said Tyrus Thomas "leaps out of the building to block a shot."

At 12/26/2009 12:46 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

When Bron missed that dunk, Mark Jackson said "it moments like those where you realize he's actually human."

At 12/26/2009 1:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To me, Rondo is a freak. Athletic or otherwise. If they peeled his skin back and dude was a robot or alien or some shit I would not be surprised. The foot speed, leaping ability, timing, body control, giant hands, generally weird and icy (skating) disposition, inability to hit/or even take an outside shot but able still be tremendously effective anyway. Freak!

What were you guys taking about agian?

At 12/26/2009 2:05 PM, Blogger Sos said...

Beside Nate Robinson, don't forget such athletic 'little' men such as Earl Boykins, Spud Webb, and champion baton twirler, Calvin Murphy. Rondo is known to be an impressive roller skater and Paul Pierce is an excellent billiards player.
There's also the seemingly unathletic player who gets the most out of their physical ability- see Matt Bonner, Brian Scalabrine, Kermit Washington, etc.

At 12/26/2009 8:57 PM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

I find the idea that athleticism includes things like coordination and touch to be insane. What is a non-athletic skill in basketball if we include coordination and touch? Clock management? I would say that athleticism is any ability that comes almost exclusively from muscles: power, endurance, leaping, speed, quickness, etc. I disagree that athleticism comes from the interaction of muscles with the nervous: body control, touch, hand-eye system.

You shouldn't necessarily listen to me; I think Vince Carter is the shit and dislike David Foster Wallace.

At 12/26/2009 11:29 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Great sports blog you have here. I have a couple myself. There are a lot of us out there. We need to stick together. Let's exchange links so we can help spread some traffic around. My two sports blogs are listed below my name. Please let me know if this link exchange is possible.


At 12/27/2009 3:14 AM, Blogger Trey said...

"And since potential is inextricably tied to athleticism"

Players considered to be potential-laden who aren't 'athleticism' guys: Durant, Rubio, Kopponen, Stuckey, Beasley, etc.

"Inextricably" is wrong. "Often" works though.

Also, Mouth, c'mon son. Steve Francis got hurt a lot, sapping him of his athletic gifts. And Chris Webber at Michigan, Golden State, Washington, and early Sacramento was hyperathletic. YouTube it.

My 2k10 resolution is to be nicer.

At 12/27/2009 7:53 AM, Blogger The Other Van Gundy said...

I have a hard time following Mouth's logic, and also spanish bombs. Yes, but all traditionally accounts, golfers are anti-athletes who got good at something which takes no physical gifts to compete in. Look at John Daly! But of course, have you played golf? I've only played a few hundred holes in my life, and the kind of coordination you need to take a moving club face and apply it to that little pill is astonishing -- just ask my ridiculous, boomeranging banana slice.

But my point is not that GOLFERS ARE ATHLETES, rather that we should acknowledge the subtle athleticism Rough Justice outlined with the help of DFW. Great athletes have great hand-eye: great hand-eye does not necessarily make you a great athlete.

As for one of Mouth's examples, I feel like Dirk is a tremendous athlete. Marshalling a body that big takes some doing, and for him to get one of his diving, writhing, face-contorting drives to work, that impresses me. Also, his ability to adjust his shot mid-fire is a testament to his body control.

Spanish bombs muscle-centered definition just doesn't cover it. That's pure muscle power. Have you ever played basketball with weightlifters? I play pick up with them sometime whenever they want a cool down from their lifts. Powerful as they are, they frequently have no idea how to harness that strength in a useful way on the court. And it's not just a lack of familiarity with the sport, but rather a fundamental misunderstanding of the way their bodies inhabit and interact in space.

Great athletes are those kids growing up who took to any sport, the ones in gym class who could make things look effortless. That kind of grace amazed me then, and the NBA is an even better stage for those displays of grace to wow we myopic, weak fans who still like to believe, when we hit the baseline turnaround or eurostep around somebody for the finger roll, that we're athletes.

Thanks to rough justice for bringing up the conversation.

At 12/27/2009 11:02 AM, Blogger salt_bagel said...

Agree with TOVG and disagree with bombs: Basketball (and "athleticism" in general) is so much more about balance and postural reactions than you would realize. It all has to do with the interaction between the nervous system and the muscles. You simply can't jump high if you can't align your body right.

Muscular strength can improve your maximum output, but without nervous control, you will never reach that. Hence, the bodybuilders playing basketball story.

wv: blest

At 12/27/2009 11:50 AM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

TOVG: I would say that weight lifters are very UNathletic. They only possess power and completely lack speed, agility, endurance, and the lean frame required for leaping. My example of someone exhibiting pure athleticism would be something like a decathlete, who does not necessarily need to possess huge amounts of hand-eye, etc. (Yeah, you need some for hurdles and jumping, but not really that much.)

I also agree that basketball requires attributes other than strength (or other pure muscular attributes such as speed, leaping, endurance, agility), but I would categorize most of these as a skill, which I feel is different than pure athleticism.

At 12/27/2009 3:22 PM, Blogger Mouth said...

I thought the primary purpose of the post was to find a way to compartmentalize athleticism, if possible, so as to arrive at a better understanding of it and, secondarily, why it is or is not the most important aspect of a great basketball player. Without the "subtler forms of athleticism," a role player who is a great athlete, I think, can still be the best athlete on his team even if he never is the best player.

I know I'm a great athlete, though I'm, at best, an average basketball player. All my Army combat teammates can run fast and far, even with 100 pounds of equipment attached to them. Most of us were probably the kids in gym class who effortlessly dominated classmates, but now we kick ass. We train hard to reach and maintain this level of athleticism. No one considers marksmanship, muzzle control, or the ability to adjust to nightvision part of our athleticism, though. Just because we can't all do a Euro-step without traveling or unconsiously jump with our right foot to finish a lefty lay-up (It feels so unnatural!) does not mean that Deron Williams is a better athlete than any of us. Tyrus Thomas, though, is demonstrably a better athlete. The combine tells us so. The fact that he put up 21 & 9 last game doesn't hurt his case, either.

Jason Kidd can thread a pass (Remember when he through one ahead of his triple-covered teammate on a developing secondary transition, and he put backspin on the ball to give his man a chance?), but he'll never be the athlete that Dwyane Wade is. JKidd will have more triple-doubles and will be admired for being such a phenomenal point guard, flaws & all (Call him "Ason" because he doesn't have a 'J', hardy-har, har.), but DWade tosses and finishes alley-oops. No contest as to which is the better athlete.

I'll allow that much of the perception of athleticism is subjective--it still just gives me a headache to watch Chris Webber do practically anything.

At 12/27/2009 8:25 PM, Blogger Jaxson O'Mark said...

The above arguments seem circular to me. Essentially, you're saying this expanded definition of athleticism doesn't sit well with you because it doesn't agree with the traditional definitoin. Well, sure. But that's the whole idea. As RJ points out in his piece, the term is tautoligcal - if you reach for the OED, you'll see lovely bits of definition like "of the nature of, or befitting an athlete". So it's perfectly sensible to play with it.

Moreover, I don't at all agree with Mouth's 2 examples. For one, Deron Williams was ranked 10th his combine year c.f. Tyrus' 22nd in 2006.

As for Kidd v. Wade, I could rattle off umpteen guards more talented than Wade at the art of finishing lobs. I'd struggle to name 3 guys who've been faster with the ball than in-his-prime Kidd. So while Wade maybe more explosive, Kidd's athletic gift is far rarer.

At 12/28/2009 6:58 PM, Blogger Mouth said...

At the request of our host to continue this excavation, I'll refer to where our host wrote, "Paradigm-smasher: Monta Ellis is at once freakishly athletic (ups and such) and has a level of body control I'd only describe as 'freakish.'" In this sentence, there is a defined difference between his athleticism and other characteristics--body control is separate. Strictly regarding the subject of this post, I won't suddenly think more highly of Monta Ellis's athleticism if he bowls a 300, chips for an eagle, or goes 8 games without any turnovers. It'd be impressive, but one's judgment of his athleticism will remain the same.

This is essentially an issue of semantics, though I've had fun arguing. I'm happy with the separation of athleticism and body control, athleticism and finesse, athleticism and skill, athleticism and "possessing [OTHER] physical characteristics beneficial in the game of basketball."

Incidentally, I've played lots of intense, high-level pickup basketball with and against some outstanding athletes who are primarily bodybuilders. Also, my summer 2004 roommate was a law student who happened to be a decathlete on the 2001 University of Tennessee NCAA Champion Track & Field team. He outperformed me in every athletic feat and competition (throwing a spiral, standing flip, sprinting, ultimate frisbee, attracting women. . .) except for 2--running backwards and playing basketball. Considering all those things he did better, I can not consider my ability to outplay him at Kresse Arena an indication of superior athleticism. I can't be the only one who suspects that Dwyane Wade would outperform Jason Kidd in any physical competition outside the basketball court.

At 12/29/2009 10:49 AM, Blogger The Other Van Gundy said...

As you say, Mouth, this is largely an issue of semantics, and I'm not putting holes in my wall because you prefer to segregate explosive athleticism from its subtler manifestations. That said, what umbrella do these "other characteristics" fall under, if not the athletic? I suppose you're making the claim that skill is earned, as opposed to gene-given athleticism. But your ability to acquire physical skills like shooting three pointers and threading passes must be governed by your athletic skills, the reflexes and coordination you're working with.

So let's keep going with the J-Kidd thing. Aside from the fact that yes, JKidd in his prime was a sensational finisher on the fast break, the man's still an amazing athlete. On that pass to Terry you mentioned, not only did that require a great basketball IQ, but also the physical ability to execute it. I could probably see that pass as well, but could I make it with precisely that degree of english against elite players? Probably not.

The bodybuilder's playing basketball thing was intended to highlight the fact that if you want to reduce athleticism to its most obvious traits -- power, quickness, and leaping ability -- people who excel at those things can still look pretty damn gawky on the court. Naturally, bodybuilder types can still be great at basketball, as evidenced by the delts of David Robinson, Karl Malone, and Dwight Howard.

And I'd totally think more of Monta's athleticism if he chipped an eagle. Same way Steve Nash's absolutely casual booted three pointer made me say "Now hold on a second." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIA7x6UmfgI)

At 12/29/2009 10:55 AM, Blogger The Other Van Gundy said...

Also, I think it's important to note that Jason Kidd, the butt of those "Call him 'Ason'" jokes you referenced, has developed in this late stage of his career an effective if ugly set shot, one he's converting at a 40% clip -- better than teammates Dirk, Jet, as well as 3pt shootout winners Stojakovic and Kapono.

I'm guessing you would see this as another skill, but again, I doubt a non-elite athlete could develop that stroke even through countless hours of repetition.

At 12/29/2009 12:36 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...

Combine results are what led the Jazz to draft Kirk Snyder, Kris Humphries and Ronnie Brewer!
Then they trade talented waif Maynor.

At 12/29/2009 5:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joey Graham sucks at basketball.

word verification: tanties-the tantalizing tease performed by Tyrus Thomas's potential after every dunk/block.

At 12/31/2009 4:42 AM, Blogger Jason Gill said...

re: 'x' athleticism.

I think that the examples of Kobe and Amare aren't indicative of a fluid athleticism, but rather the unmasking of a nascent athleticism by deterioration of the more conventional breed (by age and injury, respectively).

A good example will be the trajectory of John Wall's career, he does certain things that make him great that won't last a decade. I suspect he has some tricks up his sleeve that will play when his engine slows.

At 1/01/2010 1:24 AM, Blogger Oil Can Samson said...

This is sorta long, sorry guys.

My biggest beef with this essay (full disclosure: I'm the other dude from There Are No Fours) is that it doesn't really address what I see as the biggest difference between "obvious" and "subtle" forms of athleticism: while "subtle" athletic traits determine the grace and consistency with which your body does things, "obvious" ones delineate which things it is physically possible for your body to do. Anyone with working hands and feet can cross over an elite NBA defender and get to the rack; anyone can do it 9 times out of 10, even, or 90 out of 100, although the odds of most of us doing so approach infinitesimal awfully damn quickly. But that's the point: the odds approach zero, but they never reach it. Such "subtle" limits are by nature asymptotic: they're all about margin for error, and lucky breaks do happen. In contrast, the vast majority of people will never be able to dunk on a 12' rim, no matter how much training they do. Luck's got nothing to do with it. Or, to take an extreme example, if it takes you 25 seconds to get from the three point line to the basket, you simply will not be able to make an in-game unassisted layup. There is a qualitative difference here beyond simply what is obvious and impressive.

That said, I agree wholeheartedly that the standard usage of the term "athletic" is sloppily conceived and misleading. It ought to conflate the whole variety of relevant physical traits. Like Wittgenstein says, "I can choose the language which I use, but my description is then determined by the grammar and vocabulary of the language chosen": the deeper problem is that the vocabulary we have isn't really sufficient to support a sophisticated conceptual framework of athleticism.

At 4/19/2013 3:52 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Merry Christmas to you too. It is quite an impressive pictures with the ball and muscles, brain and etc.

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