Thursday, March 8, 2012

the beautiful game

That's what they call soccer.....but only because when that phrase was coined, basketball wouldn't leave the short-shorts era for another 40 years, and was being played almost exclusively by white guys taking set shots.

Every sport has its appeal.  Basketball's is that every team has a personality that is either greater than or less than the sum of its individual parts.... but rarely exactly equal.  In college even more so.  The game-personalities of the players shine through in a way that reveals itself over the course of the season.  More so than in football or any other sport you care to name.  It changes every year as players come and go, as they begin to assert themselves more than they did in the past, as they develop new skills and habits and discover what they can (and can't) do on the court.  Every year it's something new.  Particularly this year.

One thing that's awesome about NASCAR is the degree to which a car must be destroyed before it's considered unraceable.  As long as all four wheels go round and round and you're not shedding parts, get out there and make it happen, son.  This year?  It's like when one of those cars is circling the track without any sheet metal on the front, only it's not being lapped by the whole field every two minutes.

Consider the situation:

-- The point guard can not, will not, shoot a jump shot.

-- The shooting guard is really another undersized point guard.

-- The small forward hails from a town that wouldn't even fill Davenport Field, let alone the JPJA.

-- The power forward is the perfect basketball player.  Ever.

-- The center is a lanky giraffe with lousy hands.

Or he was until last month.  Now he's got lousy hands and a broken foot.  The guy taking his place is far more athletic, and somehow, less skilled.  The other reserves are a flat-footed oversized guard, a kid who looks like an emaciated prisoner, and another kid with a perpetual scowl, like his dad told him for the thousandth time to stop listening to that hippity-hop garbage and get a damn job.  One of these guys has a broken hand to go along with the other's broken foot.  One's got ankle troubles brought on by those flat feet. 

And those aren't even the ones that've had multiple ankle surgeries, of which there are at least two.  There is literally one player who's never had health problems, plus two more that are freshmen and don't count because they haven't had time to have health problems.  Of course that one player is the guy who some people thought would make a better running back than point guard.

The best shooter on the team rides the bench every single game, because he is the coach.  He doesn't have more than one or two facial expressions, and when he gets really incensed at the refereeing, he raises his voice a little.  He made his name shooting the ball, yet he's taught the team how to play an elite, suffocating defense.

Somehow, the whole thing works.

Despite every little flaw, it works.  It makes those flaws endearing, not infuriating.  It works because, included in that personality is a lack of adversity awareness.  That adversity stuff is normal, so they play through it like it was just another game against Somalia State.  They defy stereotypes; the kid from rural Washington, and the one from the prestigious Philadelphia private school, are as tough as the ones from inner-city Hampton and northern Senegal.

And then sometimes you wake up to a new game and the flaws are no longer even there.  Those lousy hands aren't so lousy anymore.  The hole left by the nonexistent jump shot is filled with a newfound drive, scoop, and score.  The scowl is still there, but now it's because somebody else got told and now the ball has to be fished out of the second row.  The perfect basketball player just invented a new way of making someone look silly.  And there through it all is that defense, where the personalities disappear and mesh and play as one five-headed monster.  Others call it ugly, but that's because they have to try and score on it.  I call it a beautiful game.


The Ole Philosopher said...

Absolutely poetic column, Brendan. I just found your blog and love its elegant and intelligent writing.

Anonymous said...

Yes, lovely and painful. The article and the team.

Which is fine, because this a romance, and it'll inevitably end in heartbreak and tears, but you live for the ride along the way.


Anonymous said...

Very nicely done. The NASCAR analogy is particularly apt: lately it seems the wheels are coming off, but somehow the team keeps going. (That's been the feeling in a lot of individual games, too.

The problem is, because this team has so admirably gritted its way through all this adversity, I really, really, really want them to get some kind of payoff. One big memorable win. And they've come up short repeatedly.

Only one chance remains.