Tuesday, July 29, 2008

HustleJunkie: Speak, Body

Graydon Gordian is the author of 48 Minutes of Hell. His Hustle Junkie column appears weekly here at HP, in spite of our continuing efforts to destroy him. This week's discussion is on the body, and its voice in the game.

Last week, my piece was meant to serve as a personal introduction. This week, it will serve as a theoretical introduction. My column will not be limited to the questions I raise here, but they will assuredly haunt my writing from here on out.

I have always been a firm believer that basketball, and sports in general, are far more than just games. Many people, whether they be casual observers, complete fanatics, or entirely uninterested, would agree. Sports have oftentimes been a site for social progress (Jackie Robinson's integration) as well as a window through which our society's shortcomings are exposed (Tim Hardaway's homophobia). As more and more sports became professional over the last century, they increasingly abandoned the nobility of mere "men at play" and began to shine light on the reality of the economic culture in which we live. Neither of those suggestions will likely meet much resistance if offered up for consideration. But to earnestly make the argument that sports have a rightful place in the discussion of aesthetics has always drawn a bit more skepticism.

Aesthetic language ceaselessly bubbles to the surface during the discussion of sports. Commentators frequently describe plays as "beautiful," and yet people hardly take the time to consider the nature of that beauty, and whether the term even rightfully applies. I for one have a ferocious belief that it does. I also happen to believe that basketball in particular has a unique capacity to reveal that beauty.

The origin of this beauty is what I like to call "the immediacy of the human body." Last week I began my column with a quote from Woody Allen's Annie Hall in which Alvy's (played by Allen) second wife chastises him for lurking in the back room at a dinner party so he can catch part of a Knicks game. She condescendingly asks, "What is so fascinating about a group of pituitary cases trying to stuff a ball through a hoop?" to which Alvy quickly replies, "What is fascinating is that its physical." For all the criticisms that I have of Woody Allen, in this instance his instincts could not be more accurate.

It sounds self-evident: what is beautiful about sports is the human body. But how often do we really take the time to reflect upon the expressiveness with which movement is inextricably endowed? We discuss stats, tactics, personalities. But more often than not we neglect to recognize the poetry inherent in human musculature.

As I said a moment ago, I find basketball to have a uniquely expansive relationship with that physical poetry. The game does not disguise the human body. There are no helmets. No pads. Just a ball, a hoop, and an endless variety of ways to put one through the other. Manu Ginobili's erratic head fake. Kobe Bryant's elegantly calculated pull-up jumper. Paul Pierce's slovenly accurate outside shot. Each fragment of action can be viewed not merely as a tactic, but as a testament to the idea that there is no point at which dance ends and athleticism begins.

With that "immediacy" in mind, let's move away from abstract discussion and reflect upon actual flesh and blood: Let's talk about Josh Smith.

Smith was not originally going to be the subject of the second half of this piece. Initially my thoughts drew me in the direction of Stephen Jackson. Jack's swagger, so pleasantly realized in his relentlessly casual 3-pointer and resurrection from criminality, make him a scion of vanguard artistry. As one of the more thoughtful sportswriters out there currently has noted, when the Warriors play, it's like jazz.

But as I began to write, I found myself constantly mentioning Smith. I was continuously making excuses for why Jackson had become my chosen topic. As I wrote, I realized my inability to avoid mentioning Smith only highlighted why he was exactly who I need to be discussing. The impossibility of avoidance lies at the heart of my suggestion.

I discovered Smith much later than many hoops addicts. Before this season I watched the Hawks infrequently at most and not at all in actuality. But one day a friend casually pointed out one of Smith's shockingly impressive stat lines (which at the time I legitimately thought must have been a typo by the stat keeper), and I immediately knew I was missing out on something special.

Then came the first round of the NBA playoffs. Like most rational people, I thought the Boston Celtics would sweep the Atlanta Hawks. Maybe the Hawks would steal one at home. We all know I was wrong. We all watched intently as the Celtics crept dangerously close to collapsing on an epic scale. I won't rehash those days, however electric they may have been.

I do want to focus in on one particular play. It wasn't a surprising play, at least not for a talent like Smith, but it struck me nonetheless. The Celtics had stolen the ball and Rajon Rondo looked well on his way to successfully completing the fast break. He sprinted up the floor, ball in hand, past the half court line, the 3-point line, and through the paint, finally leaping into the air surrounding the rim. As he went to lay the ball softly against the glass, a hand swept swiftly from left to right, rocketing the ball towards the away bench.

Smith, holding firmly to the maxim that there are no easy buckets, had hunted down Rondo just in time. Being positioned directly behind him, Smith had to rise high enough that he completely eclipsed Rondo's body. He extended his arm fully and with a swift and accurate movement removed the ball from Rondo's hands. If they weren't so trite, I would employ any number of avian metaphors at this moment. Suffice it to say that Nijinksy himself would have been impressed with Smith's spirited grace.

Length. Balance. Leaping Ability. Many of the characteristics prized in ballet dancers such as Vaslav Nijinsky can be found in NBA players such as Josh Smith. So why are the parallels between their skill sets never discussed? Many people would argue the comparisons aren't made because art and sports have different goals. I don't want to act as though I know the "goal" of art, or whether art even necessitates a goal, but I think it’s safe to say that the goal, unlike sports, is not to win.

Yes. Sports are necessarily pointed in a way that art is not. Smith's balletic block was not just some grand jete that happened to occur on the hardwood. It was inarguably performed in the pursuit of victory. But does this mean that its elegance cannot be mined for significance that extends beyond the man’s hunger to win?

Oddly enough, despite its standing amongst cultural elites, dance is not written about as extensively as music or the visual arts. In Julie Charlotte Van Camp's "Philosophical Problems of Dance Criticism," she notes that the majority of writing on dance has been history, biography, technical discussions of dance techniques, and the sociological and ethnological context of dance. Not coincidentally, sports writing is oftentimes limited to similar discussions. I think this is partly because the body is a hard topic to expand upon intelligently without collapsing into anti-intellectualism. To be fair, many of my claims have been decidedly anti-intellectual, falling back not on reason but on dubious conceptions of what I find to be undeniably visceral.

This is not meant to be conclusive. It is not meant to set up a framework or establish a terminology through which we may discuss the aesthetics of sports. But I felt the idea needed to be presented. I felt it was necessary because I, like many of you, believe that sports are more than just another mass opiate. I don't believe they are an escape or some distraction. I believe they are living, breathing narratives. A space for triumph and tribulation. And I believe it is an instrument through which the body, having so much on its mind, is granted the opportunity to speak.

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