Monday, April 15, 2013

The Bounds of Basketball, and How They Are Being Broken

Earlier in the semester, we discussed the dimensional limitations of basketball and the deliberateness with which James Naismith set the bounds of his playing area. Since Naismith's invention, the game of basketball as always had specified measurements (albeit, some have evolved over time). The hoop is 10 feet off the ground. The court is 94 feet long, 50 feet wide. The diameter of the center circle is 12 feet. The length of John Stockton's shorts must cover no more than 1/8 of his entire leg. Et cetera, et cetera.

What I mean to say is that there is a fixed, bounded space in which all basketball players have competed since 1891, when Naismith's fever dream became reality. It's almost as though the players are playing in an invisible box. It isn't even an opened box if you consider the height restrictions of the playing area, i.e. the bottom of a typical NBA or college arena scoreboard as the upper vertical limit. One can stretch the limits of this enclosed space. They can shoot the ball from 28 feet from the basket as opposed to 15 feet (resulting in a 3-point basket instead of a 2) or jump high enough to forcefully "slam" the ball into the hoop as opposed to laying it in off the backboard. Another example of this is if a player heaves a 3/4 court shot at the end of a quarter, which is roughly a 70-foot shot. Could the player shoot a similarly distant shot from the baseline? No, because the length of the baseline restricts the length of a baseline shot to 25 feet, and they would be essentially in the stands. As a result, these limits imposed by the rules of basketball can be stretched, but they can never be fully broken.

Flash to February 11, 2011, a regular season matchup between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers. Dwyane Wade rebounds a missed Danny Granger 20-foot jump shot. LeBron James, who was guarding Granger on the play, sprints the length of the floor and advances ahead of Indiana's transition defense. Wade recognizes his teammate's advantageous floor position and heaves the ball in his direction.

What happens next is unprecedented.

This is the play in full.

LeBron easily catches the full-court pass (at this point he has leaped towards the rim) and gracefully lays the ball off the backboard and into the hoop. It is beautiful in its effortless motion, the way that Wade — upon snatching the rebound — turns over his right shoulder, pivoting around his right foot and, in an effort of power and accuracy that would make the great Dan Marino proud, spirals a pass down the floor. LeBron acts as wide receiver, a role that he is not unfamiliar with. He majestically soars and grabs the pass, and instead of merely landing in the end-zone (like a WR or a TE would do), he unflinchingly redirects the trajectory of the ball into the basket. A superhuman feat of athletic competence and skill, a blurred mosaic of both basketball and football.

I think that this is as close as we're going to see an athlete (or two) break the restrictive bounds of a basketball court. It's hard to judge which part of the play is more impressive. Is it Wade, who easily heaves a pinpoint pass 92 feet down the court? Or is it LeBron, who just as easily catches the laser pass and lays it in?

It's tough to say.

What's easy to say is that we've come to a point in the history of basketball where the players are stretching the bounds of Naismith's playing area to a seeming maximum. This begs the question: where do we (they) go from here?

Friday, March 29, 2013

Deconstructing the DeAndre Jordan Dunk

A couple weeks ago during the Clippers vs. Pistons game, Clippers C DeAndre Jordan threw down a MONSTER (yes, all caps is necessary) slam dunk over the helpless and pathetic body of the Pistons’ Brandon Knight. The video of the “homicide” instantly went viral. Within minutes, “RIP Brandon Knight” was trending on Twitter. Blogs, sports websites, and other media news outlets were playing the footage over and over and over. Analysts and commentators on ESPN had a field day on Sportscenter that night, debating and quarreling about whether or not it was the dunk of the year, the dunk of the last ten years, or the best dunk ever.

Here it is.

Notice how even Knight's own teammates crowd around him, not sure to help him up or keep their distance from the evidence.

As a Pistons fan, my immediate reaction was to cringe.

I have deep, deep empathy for Brandon Knight. This isn’t the first time he’s been punked on the hardwood this season. But you have to give credit to him, he's shown that he won't back down from competition. In the All-Star weekend clip, he banked in a 3-pointer after getting his ankles sprained by Irving (figuratively, I mean; he literally sprained his ankle the day after the Clippers game against the Jazz, because, come on, why not add injury to insult?) The ensuing 1:30 of gameplay showcased Irving and Knight going one-on-one against each other, Irving perhaps getting the best of his Central Division rival point guard. But what Knight undoubtedly proves, in my opinion, is his rock-hard resolve. The Jordan dunk, while making a victim of him to the point of mockery, displays that resolve in Knight as well.

Before the dunk happens, you can see how the Clippers set up the play — might I add a brilliant one drawn up by Vinny Del Negro and his coaching staff. Chris Paul takes the ball down the right side of the court; indeed, the right side is the strong side of the play. The Clippers wings, Caron Butler (guarded by Kyle Singler) and Matt Barnes (guarded by Knight) set up on each of the corners, Butler to the right, Barnes to the left, or the weakside of the play. The two Clippers bigs, Lamar Odom (guarded by Charlie Villanueva) and Jordan (guarded by Greg Monroe) approach Paul's man, the newly-acquired Pistons PG Jose Calderon, as if to set a high double-screen for their All-Star floor general. Odom sets what ends up being a decoy screen while Jordan hightails towards the basket as he reaches the three-point line. Villanueva doesn't move off of his man, and rightly so (although I would love the vindication for my hatred of Charlie V.); he's reacting to a potential ball-screen. Instead of taking that screen, however, Paul bypasses it and dribbles toward Butler in the corner. Meanwhile Monroe, perhaps gravitating toward the potential play-making ability of Chris Paul, strays from his man, DeAndre Jordan, leaving Jordan a wide-open lane to the hoop. This is the mistake of the play. If Monroe isn't lulled by Paul, then he can potentially break up the alley-oop attempt by playing the passing lane a little bit tighter; however he isn't fully aware of where Jordan is relative to Chris Paul. The help comes weakside, from Brandon Knight who valiantly — and pitifully — attempts to stop the Jordan dunk.

The brilliance of the play is in its deception and execution. The decoy of the high double-screen (and concentration of Clippers on the strongside of the play) frees up Jordan, a highly-athletic 6-11 265lb. center, and forces the much smaller Knight (6-3, 189lbs.) to rotate defensively. The prospect of Paul either taking a mid-range jumper or driving to the basket allured Monroe to slide back off of Jordan and play a pseudo-zone. Paul's lob is perfect; just far away enough from Knight to ward off a potential steal and just close enough to Jordan for his ungodly wingspan and finely-tuned hand-eye coordination to throw it down with authority.

The dunk will surely be remembered for awhile, cemented in posterity through blog posts like this one and Top-Ten lists.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Cultures of Basketball, Part 2

I'm writing this in the wake of the Wisconsin game. I'd like to acknowledge it in a very limited capacity, because if I dwell on it again I'm apt to lash out in a primal and uncontrollable fit of rage.

At the end of class on Wednesday, Yago strategically (I think) left the Fresh Five with what seemed like a nonchalant final comment. He told them that he had a lot of family and friends from Wisconsin (seeing as he grew up in Madison) and that a Michigan victory on Saturday would really be great for him. "Win one for the Yagger," were his facetious, yet implicitly serious words (a play on Notre Dame's obnoxious and sensationalized mantra, "Win one for the Gipper"). I think this was a deliberate act on Yago's part. He wanted to leave an indelible impression on the Fresh Five's mind that would then favorably translate to the hardwood for Michigan on Saturday. It would be as if they'd be letting him down if they didn't secure a win in his name. He tried to guilt them into a victory.

It seems as if Yago has just as much of a vested interest in this team as I do, perhaps more.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon. Tim Hardaway has just hit an improbable fadeaway three-pointer after a Mitch McGary high ball screen to take a three point lead with just over two seconds left in regulation. Wisconsin's Mike Bruesewitz in-bounds to Ben Brust running in stride, who heaves a half-court desperation shot in the face of Michigan's Caris Levert, and, just as Ohio State's Evan Turner did to Michigan three years ago in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament, drains it. My immediate reaction in my head wasn't Turner's shot, but was a flashback to a notable Michigan home game in late February against Wisconsin two seasons ago (a game that I attended), when Wisco's Josh Gasser banked in a three-pointer to beat Michigan. But Dan Dakich, the color commentator for the broadcast of today's game, quickly reminded ESPN's viewing audience that Brust's heave was in fact uncannily reminiscent of Turner's. Watching the replay now (why am I doing this to myself?), it's almost a facsimile of the Turner shot. Not only is Brust just a couple feet away from where Turner released the ball (just across the timeline), Michigan once again made the ill-fated decision to not guard the in-bounder (three years ago it was OSU's David Lighty; today, it was Bruesewitz). Why doesn't Beilein put a defender on the in-bound man?

Unlike three years ago, today's game went into overtime.

(I'd just like to note that I have indeed been overcome with compulsive and overwhelming feelings of frustration and anger, boiling over into a fit of cursing and yelling after rehashing the last seconds of regulation with a couple of my housemates. That's three times now today...It's amazing to me what sports can do to a normally level-headed person).

In overtime, Brust hits another momentous three pointer (also over Caris Levert, who had just been substituted in for Nik Stauskas for his reportedly stellar on-the-ball defense...go figure) to put Wisco up by three with about 40 seconds left. After Hardaway misses a leaning 12-foot jumper and Wisconsin's Ryan Evans misses the front end of a one-and-one at the free throw line, Trey Burke attempts a game-tying three pointer with five seconds left. It clanks off the back rim, Wisconsin grabs the board, and the game is over. Michigan's path to a Big Ten Championship has just gotten a little bit more difficult.

A couple of reactions to the loss (besides the obligatory complaint about the refs):

1) In my eyes, the Michigan State game on Tuesday is a must-win.

2) Wisconsin is really getting on my nerves, and that's an understatement. Wisconsin is really really really getting on my nerves. Think about how lucky they've been against us, what with this shot today coupled with Gasser's bank-job from a couple years ago. The devil-incarnate Bo Ryan (and by that I mean he often looks Satanic) and his band of pesky Badgers have been a thorn in our side for far too long.

But let's forget about today. On to "Cultures of Basketball" stuff. (How's that for a "very limited capacity?")

To the contrary of my last post, we didn't discuss the Indiana game on Monday. Romanticism be damned, we instead focused our attention on the Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain debate. After Yago tallied up everyone's votes, it was concluded that, according to the class, Wilt Chamberlain was a better basketball player than Bill Russell. Yago asked various Chamberlain proponents why they had answered the way they did. The consensus response was that Wilt was the more skilled player, that is to say, if he and Russ were to play a game of one-on-one, then Wilt would come out on top a majority of the time.

The Russell apologists, including myself, rebutted by saying that basketball is a team sport, and Russell was the consummate teammate. He meticulously scouted his own guys — players like Cousy, Bill Sharman, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, and Tom Heinsohn — and played to their weaknesses, so that the Celtics would be a more complete, and subsequently dominant team. He had the ability to achieve outrageous statistical feats (perhaps not the astronomical 50 points and 25 rebounds per game as Wilt had done in the 1961-1962 season), but instead sacrificed his personal accomplishments for team success. This unselfishness resulted in 11 NBA championships over a span of 13 seasons, and, ironically, thrust the unassuming Russell into the NBA stratosphere as a mythological figure and a basketball prophet. He was the heart and soul of the 60s Celtics; without him, there wouldn't be all those banners hanging in Boston. Wilt was innately immune to this type of ethos.

That's true, the Wiltonians responded, but Wilt wasn't blessed with the stability of a brilliant coaching system throughout his career like Russ was, a system that was so quintessential to the Celtics' success. Who knows what would've happened if Red Auerbach had coached Wilt's Warriors instead of the Celtics? Without Red at the helm, along with his run-n'-gun philosophy, how many championships would Boston have won then? Huh? Ultimately, there were too many moving parts — including his hyper-subservient teammates — to assert that Russell was the biggest catalyst of the Celtics' hegemony.

Unsure of ourselves, Yago definitively stepped in and offered his opinion (and conclusion) to the argument. He said that historically, the majority of writers, analysts, and other observers have argued that Russell was the better player (contrary to our class poll). But our debate is proof that there is certainly support for Wilt. Even Yago himself admitted that he's wavered back and forth on the issue, and that he finally had the wisdom to come to a conclusion.

There is no correct answer.

No one can say who was better, because its impossible to say who was better.

What has shaped the debate, he said, is race. Yes, both Russ and Wilt were racially identical (being black), but their off-the-court personae weren't identical. Russell kept to himself outside of basketball. He lived in a modest home outside of Boston. He didn't particularly live in extravagance. His on-court personality purported himself as humble and subservient.

On the other hand, Wilt flaunted his fame. He used it like capital. He bought night clubs. He bought expensive cars. He commuted every night after games from Philadelphia to New York, because he wanted to live in the City, not the city of Brotherly Love. He slept with an unfathomable amount of women (roughly 20,000, according to Wilt). He essentially gave a big middle-finger to Conservative, Pious America, and it rubbed them the wrong way. Russell, in comparison, looks like a saint. That's why these white authors, white broadcasters, white analysts, white fans and white on-lookers have overwhelmingly sided with Russell. Because they can relate to his morals better. Or, on the contrary, not relate to Wilt's morals.

Now, I don't know how much I can speak to this theory. I'm still ruminating on the whole situation, especially since Bill Simmons was so persuasive in his Book of Basketball that Russell was by far the superior player. But I can certainly recognize that Yago's opinion is a legitimate one. Race is so intertwined into our conscience as Americans, that it's bound to be at the heart of the Russell vs. Wilt debate.

Anyway, that's all for now. Until next time...

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Cultures of Basketball, Part 1

My brother-in-law is a basketball geek, like me. Also like me, he attended Michigan, except during his days as an undergrad, he was languishing in the mediocrity of the Amaker era. Unlike me, he didn't have the opportunity to take this class.

I called him up the after the first class of the semester and told him immediately that the five Michigan freshman basketball players were in the course. I told him that I had nervously sat in front of Mitch McGary and that he had personally handed me the stack of course syllabi. I told him on the Monday after the Ohio State game, that Nik Stauskas had admitted to us that the Buck Nut fans were the "loudest I've ever heard a crowd in my life" and that when he was running alongside Trey Burke during a fast break in the second half that Burke couldn't even hear his frantic screams for the ball over the raucous student section. I told him that Caris LeVert doesn't ever talk. I told him that the textbook for the class was by the same guys behind FreeDarko.

His response: "I'm jealous, man." Which I know is an understatement. I know he's more than jealous.

He would kill to be sitting in my seat.

I feel it necessary to answer a rhetorical question. Why am I taking this class? Why was I so persistent in my emails throughout the last 3 years to Yago, begging to get into his elusive "Basketball" class? Other than the superficial fact that the university is offering a fucking class devoted purely to the study of basketball. (Seriously, how awesome is that?)

I think part of it is an urge to fill the gaps in my personal dossier of basketball knowledge. Two years ago, I read Bill Simmons' Book of Basketball, a lengthy (to put it mildly) book which meticulously traces the history of the NBA. Being in Yago's class would only complement all of the random shit I read in Simmons' book, giving it a social framework with which to contextualize it. Well, I can say that what I've learned about so far in the class has been fascinating — the mythical quality to James Naismith's invention of the game, the quirkiness of the original rules and how they evolved into what they are today, the barnstorming teams of the early 20th century and the eventual formation of the NBA. All of this new knowledge enhances the Simmons' text; my conceptual knowledge of the history of the game is slowly rounding into form.

But if I were to be honest with myself, the biggest motivating factor in why I wrote all those emails was because I wanted to come into contact with the basketball players themselves. And when I say "come in contact," I mean to watch, to observe, to listen to what they have to say. I think as fans, we're fascinated by how the stars we see on TV act in real life. We want to identify with them. How are they like as people as opposed to basketball players? It's hard to discern their true character traits when they're answering questions at a press conference. They're guarded. They recite politically correct responses that their coaches taught them to say. This class is my opportunity to catch a glimpse inside the mind of future NBA players. Their true, open and honest mind. How many fans have that kind of access? Not many.

I'm trying to wrap my mind around what it is happening right now. As I sit here typing, the Michigan basketball team is the #1-ranked team in the country. I repeat, in the country! A feat, Yago pointed out at the end of our last class on Wednesday, that Michigan hasn't accomplished since the Fab Five twenty years ago. Tomorrow night, Michigan plays third-ranked Indiana at Assembly Hall. ESPN Gameday will be there, along with Jalen Rose. It's the first time ever, that two of the top three teams in the country have played in that hallowed arena. And on Monday afternoon, after I and the rest of the country has witnessed what has happened in Bloomington and digested it all, I will have a backstage pass to a raw, unfettered question-and-answer session with five of the quintessential members of the Michigan basketball team. Though I would like to, I can't shake the feeling that this is kismet.

This team is special. With the exception of the 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons, this is the most fun I've ever had watching a basketball team that I actively root for. There's an overwhelming sense around the people that I've talked to, including myself, that this team will be raising not one, but perhaps two or three championship banners by the time the season is over. I'm secretly scared that I'll somehow mess the whole thing up, that because my life has now come in contact with them, their team chemistry will be thrown off, their subsequent victories and trophies will somehow disappear into oblivion. This, I understand, is irrational. But I guess that's a natural response when being near the athletes that you admire.

What I'm trying to say is that I'm extremely lucky that I'm in this situation, that I'm in this particular class, during this particular year, with these particular people. And I'm trying to relish it as much as I can. I know that my brother-in-law would.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Yo, Yao Ming retires

In the wake of Yao Ming's reported retirement, I'd like to share some thoughts & memories on the Chinese basketball ambassador.

I saw Yao play once in 2005 at Conseco Fieldhouse against the Pacers. I admittedly don't remember much of the game itself (I was only 14), but I do remember there was quite a lot of boisterous Yao fans dispersed around the arena, with an even larger Yao contingency clustered in the upper-deck, periodically draping and waving a large Chinese flag whenever he used his enormous 7'6" frame to his advantage.

And that's what's sad about his career. He had the tools. At times, his game was effortless and beautiful; the way he would just flick those 10 foot jumpers at full extension was virtually unblockable, with one infamous exception. At others, like during his debilitating injury stints, it was tragic. He had the support. He brought an unprecedented unity--once thought a dream-- between the people of China and American professional basketball, while simultaneously popularizing the sport in the world's most populous country. (I worked with a Chinese native named Edward this past semester whose eyes lit up whenever I brought up Yao. He told me how famous he is in China). We wanted him to succeed, but ultimately, his injuries derailed him.

Today on Around The Horn, Los Angeles journalist Bill Plaschke said he thought Yao should be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. As an ambassador, yes. A player, no. Sadly, his statistical and historical credentials are not good enough to enter the Hall, but as Edward as witness, he pioneered a movement in Asia, and for that, he should be recognized by some judging power.

I'll end with this:
Yo indeed.