Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Price Of Flight Is Weight And Size

I'm writing up a post about the Suns' and the Nuggets' defensive psychoses, but it won't be here until tomorrow. In the meantime, check out something I wrote in jubilation last year after the Warriors whupped up on the Mavericks. For old time's sake. (I'm crying inside.) This is barely readable, incidentally.

I took a class on the history of music in the 20th century last summer. It was taught by the smartest man I've ever met, and was the best class I've ever taken. Most of the classes in the program are full of in-jokes and bonding, memories and irreplicable moments - not this class. We never talked to each other. We were too fascinated by what we were learning to manufacture in-jokes and make deep, lasting friendships. In that, our class was unique among all the classes there. And what we learned was unique. We didn't learn about the evolution of rock and roll through blues and R&B. We learned about the evolution of Expressionism through reaction to Impressionism. We learned about the influence of Wagner on Slayer and of Edgard Varése on Frank Zappa. Louis Armstrong? No. Herbie Hancock. Not Elvis - bebop. Dada and musique concréte. Mainstream, classic? No. Reactionary and revolutionary. Everything in art is in reaction to something else, and art is what you make it. Art is expression - Der Bleu Reiter. Art is blank - Fountain. Art is what you say it is. What's important is what's different, audacious, what wants to change for the sake of change, for the sake of art itself.

Anyone can follow rules and make beautiful things. Anyone can lay their emotions along set patterns, their talents inside set paths. Those outside the lines, those who follow their own way - they are the only ones worth learning about, the only art that matters. Why play piano with your fingers when you can slam the keys with your fists, your forearms, your head, just to hear what it sounds like? Why play one song at a time when you can play four? Why play an instrument the way it's always been done, when you can use it in completely new and different ways? Why accept the limitations of modern technology recording when you can create it anew? That's truly the heart of it - there's no reason to accept limitations when you can create new ways. There's no reason to do something the way it's always been done, just because it's the way it's always been done. Play the piano's strings like it's a huge, horizontal harp. Play multiple tape loops at once, taking advantage of tape's mechanical flaws to create new music altogether. Play artillery as percussion. Play anything, any way - just play. React, or create something entirely new. That's what we learned.

Thus, the Golden State Warriors. Lost in the excitement of their upset of the greatest team in the NBA, masked by the fact that so few people in the wider basketball community have seen them play, is how completely unique they, as a team, are. Basketball players, when they're young, are taught how to play. Don't shoot over a taller defender. That's dumb. Don't shoot if there's nobody there for a rebound. That's dumb. Set plays, run your offense the way you've been taught. There are specific rules, specific roles, and that's the way the game is played. And yet, and yet. Golden State refuses to play that game.

They're all in the same height range, roughly, midsized, plus a skinny seven-foot Latvian kid. Rules and roles don't matter They shoot, shoot, shoot, run, run, run, and damn the consequences. They are helter-skelter beauty in basketball form. You can shoot seven-for-seven from three, or sixteen-for-thirty-five. GSW knows what will get you more points, even if other teams refuse to take that many chances. No one else would pull up on a fast break and shoot the three, with no one under the basket to catch the rebound. No one else would get the ball on a second pass of a possesion, with no play set, and run into four confused defenders for a spectacular dunk. This is revolution. Why wait until you're open to shoot when you're taller than your defender? Why fear taller defenders when you're faster than them? There's a way to play, but there's more than one way to win. You win on your superstars, or you win on the brilliance of your coaching, one of the two. No. You win on stifling defense, on clock management, on perfectly set and executed plays. No, fuck that. Fuck skill and coaching. Win on exuberance, and speed, and talent, and shooting, shooting, shooting.

The difference between Golden State and the Dallas Mavericks, between them and every team in the league, is that they just don't care. They don't care about who they're playing, where they're playing, or how they're supposed to play. They are Dada, without the self-conscious individualism. They are a teenaged Frank Zappa, listening to Ionisation over and over, not understanding why his friends don't understand or care. They are Patti Smith or the Stooges, and Dallas is Deep Purple. They are bebop jazz and the basketball establishment is Tie A Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree. Golden State knows the price of flight, and it's weight and size. The revolution begins now.


evan said...

So do you think that they are an inevitability come to life? After 1.5 decades of what became smotheringly-bad basketball, were they not the unintended love child of a player who held onto the most exciting part of 80s basketball (Mullin) and the coach who thought that we've not really advanced since 1988 (Nelson).

Since you brought Herbie into the discuss, I think that the Warriors are more like Rockit if the rest of the league was his standard catalog. That song had been in his head, but it took the 80s and applying electronics to jazz to make it tangible. And the thing about GS that caught most people by surprise was the lack of a dominant player. Davis was the catalyst, but was almost immediately replaceable by the other best player on the floor. Now, they're going through a shift where a main man is about to emerge (Ellis), but he thrives in the old system.

I think the best and worst part about them is that you can really replace most anyone on that team with any other player who wants to run. It's like giving someone a pen and pad after they've only had an etch-a-sketch for creativity.

m. Alana said...

In a way, yeah. Like I said, everything in art is in reaction to what came before in some way, and the Warriors were, and are, definitely a reaction against slow and aesthetically displeasing basketball. On the other hand, though, Nellie's been doing this for years - it was only at Golden State last year that he had truly free reign. The fact that he had no top-level stars, or at least no one completely unique like an Iverson or LeBron, is exactly why it worked so well. In a way, I think that's why that Warrior team was basketball in a very pure form - five guys and a ball, without having to mold the offense around any one player. This is what let them be as free as they were, I think, that anyone could shoot and anyone could score. "Get the ball to LeBron and get out of the way" can be fun to watch, and clearly works well enough, but in some ways I think this so-called revolutionary style of basketball is more true to the game.

That's a perfect point, actually, about Rockit. Hancock took the bebop jazz he worked with, which had begun life as reaction and revolution, and then revolutionized it all over again. The song is a very good metaphor for the Warriors, in a lot of ways. Even today, more than twenty years later, it's still used in advertising to show trendiness and even futurism - it was so before its time that we haven't even gotten to its time yet. The song exploded briefly, but there never were others like it that reached its success, and it couldn't match the sales of the big hits of its time. And I think the Warriors, as they're presently constructed, couldn't maintain success in a league that's not yet ready for them.

And that's exactly what I meant, with all the rambling about art - Golden State is like a blank page, while most basketball teams are like a fill-in-the-numbers painting. Or an etch-a-sketch, with only so many ways to make lines. Except the Warriors have their limits too, and they're painfully obvious when they lose - maybe they're a totally blank page, but with only so many colors of paint? I think I've carried this metaphor about far enough now.

Like I said, I wrote this a year ago - when I knew a lot less about basketball and the league (and, clearly, about writing) - so I'm surprised that so much of it held up. Or that it held up at all, actually.

evan said...

With the age of your thoughts, do you think that the NBA is going to enter some kind of post-XXXX atmosphere? The Post-Bird/Magic years were specifically dominated by garbage team ball and the single-superstar model.

Are we on the ascent right now and can the ascent be a post-90s statement?

Also, do you think anyone is as unique right now as the Warriors were then? I'm really feeling the idea that the current Celtics are far closer to the Champion Gators than any commensurate NBA team.

m. Alana said...

Well, small-ball's not showing itself as much of a movement right now. It may be bourgeois to judge a team by its success in the playoffs, but ultimately that's what matters, and small-ball has not acquitted itself very well at all. Shawn's departure from and Shaq's return to the West has killed the dream, whatever dream that was. Then there's the question of what makes this nebulous concept - running? Denver could be argued as fitting in with GSW and the Suns, yet with Carmelo, Camby and K-Mart across the front, they're one of the biggest teams in the league. I definitely think we're going into an era of faster, higher-scoring basketball - that we have been for a few years now, and that it's spreading across the league, rather than just concentrated in a few high-scoring teams. Hell, D'Antoni spread the ideal to Coach K, of all people, when they coached USA Basketball. The run-and-shoot offense is going through college, therefore, too. The league's in a post-90's era right now, but then, that's kind of obvious considering we're in the 00's now.

I think the league is going in a very exciting direction. An ascent, yeah. There's an influx of talent and, with the age limit and a year in college, good players coming in have the hype that only great players did before.

I think that Boston is in some ways analogous to the back-to-back Gators, and in some ways not. 1. Boston is a team of three stars, and the Gators were a team of five great players that played brilliantly together; none of them were very hyped, and though they were all very good, none of them are one-of-a-kind stars the way KG is, and none are god-given-talent athletes (like their age-mate Kevin Durant). 2. Boston's Big Three are a forward, a small forward, and a big guard; Florida's "Big Three" derived most of their dominance from their size. Yes, Corey Brewer is a long-armed small forward, but 6'7" is a lot bigger in college than it is in the NBA; all it takes is size and shooting to dominate in college, and they had both in such great quantities that they blitzed through the opposition. 3. I agree on the team concept being similar - the difference is that, on the Gators, any of the starting five could go off for thirty in any given game (that's why they all averaged about 10), and usually only the three stars can go off on the Celtics. 4. They have a similar style of play - lock-down defense, inside-out offense, and great post play.

So what I'm saying is: the Gators took the concept and spread it across the team; the Celtics take the concept and boil it down to its essentials. The Gators' version was perfect for college, and the Celtics' is perfect for the NBA.

I'm going to make a concerted effort to not ramble like this. In future.