Saturday, June 13, 2015

The qualitative dimension of victory

I was watching a basketball game last night.  I've taken to basketball with enthusiasm due to the remarkable overlap that I see between it and karate.  Before I get to the thought that I wanted to discuss I'll outline that overlap, as I see it, thusly:

1) Both are endeavors where skill development and attribute development go hand in hand.  Being able to jump high alone does not a good basketball player make.  To be a good basketball player is to develop the skill of shooting.  To be a good karateka, at least from the standpoint of jutsu, is to develop the skill of moving at the last moment and capturing the initiative.  In both, everything else is mostly an afterthought.  It doesn't much matter how big or fast you are if you aren't controlling the initiative just as it doesn't matter much how well you can jump or run if you can't shoot.  All those attributes are meant to maximize the skill.

2) The invariant contribution of emptiness of mind (or embodiment) in the application of skill. Mushin - the no-mind of sublimating your mental processes to your physical self.  In basketball if you think about your shot, it's a miss, plain and simple.  In karate, if you think about the technique, you get cut.  In the moment of technique, a karateka becomes the gap (called suki in japanese) in the opponent's defense - the technique just emerges without a thought, like water running downhill.  In the moment of release, a basketball player may appear to be a physical being separate and discreet  from the object of the ground beneath his feet, the object of the ball in flight and the object of the rim. But this is just what is seen from the outside - inside, the shooter, the shot, the ball and the rim are completely fused. You couldn't ask the shooter what his name was and get the answer; at that moment there are no words.  He is the shot.

This type of focus is obviously present in other sports but there is a purity and refinement of this condition in basketball I find for two reasons: one, unlike football or baseball, every player on a basketball court will at one point have to handle, manipulate or shoot the ball making the meditation of the shot a necessity for any one that plays; and two, the immense amount of offensive possessions and the more or less expectation of scoring on every possession in basketball makes consistency of the shot the determining factor - a clear priority to any one who has ever played.  In soccer or hockey, a turnover or change of possession is commonplace and even if it weren't, the goalie will also determine whether you score.  In football, a turnover can be dire, but not necessarily result in a score. In baseball there are no turnovers and depending on the pitches you see, you might never reach first base, let alone score.  But in basketball a turnover more than likely means both that you did not score and that the other team did score, because it is perfectly possible to generate a quality shot attempt every possession.  Because a good look at the basket is really just a matter of time, every basketball player has to be able to shoot dependably for when that time comes or they'll simply find themselves at the mercy of those who can.

3) The growing appreciation in professional basketball for the quality that I always instinctively understood to be the most important factor in basketball - spacing and ideal spacing.  Or as we call it in karate - ma and ma-ai.  Spacing creates the balance between shooting from range and driving. Spacing creates the opportunities to drive which collapses the defense (what we call kuzushi, in karate) that causes the defensive effort to become increasingly compromised and disordered.  Just like in fighting, the more defensive you are, the more effective becomes the enemy's offense.  This spacing exists both at the strategic and tactical level, both between all players on the court and between a single player and his defender.  Thus have I found that 'one-on-one' basketball is a spectacular venue for the use of footwork to destabilize the defender and capture the initiative to attack in much the same way that kumite attempts to use footwork and handwork to destabilize an attacker and capture the opportunity to counter.

But I'm probably just seeing things that aren't actually there ;-D

Anyways I was watching a basketball game yesterday, one between the two last teams standing in the 2014-2015 NBA season: the favorite Golden State Warriors and the underdog Cleveland Cavaliers. Both teams have earned the right to be at this stage through more than just winning.  Cleveland has persevered in spite of awful injuries to key personnel and Golden State won 67 games during the regular season - a consistent, historic and proven level of nightly excellence against every team in the league. Cleveland fields he who many consider the finest basketball player in the world today, LeBron James, and Golden State is driven by the phenomenal skills of this year's Most Valuable Player, Stephen Curry.  Like the teams that they lead, both players couldn't be more different in their means to sublime impact in the games they play.

LeBron is a genetic marvel.  It is for this reason, I think, that the standard for him held by others is so high and also that his ardent supporters are drawn to him.  The latter see the possibility of humanity in LeBron: swiftness, agility, speed, strength and power - like a lion given the form of man, power directed and channeled into basketball.  The man who can beat size with speed, the man that can beat speed with strength, the man that can outlast skill by simply doing more.  On top of that, LeBron has an instinctual mind for basketball - one of the few people in the world that could play at an elite level against the best, most experience basketball players in the world at the age of 18.  Only two players in the NBA ever won Rookie of the Year and the MVP in their inaugural season - Wilt Chamberlain and Wes Unseld.  Unseld did it at 22 after spending three years playing college basketball at Louisville. Wilt was 21 having spent two years playing college ball at Kansas and was like LeBron, a mountain of a man.  LeBron at age 18 was averaging 21 ppg; a year later he was at 27 ppg and among lead leaders in scoring.  He just got basketball, right from the first time he played.

But those same incredible physical gifts, likely in equal measure genetic gift as they are refinement through strength training, are exactly what those who diminish LeBron's impact speak to in support of his supposed 'underachievement'.  These people say that LeBron's excellence in basketball is no marvel - on the contrary, it is obvious and banal.  Because LeBron, built as he is, would probably have excelled at every sport known to man: football, baseball, soccer, hockey, rugby - he's built to be competitive at a world class level.  His accomplishments are those of nature, not any particular virtue of his own.  If less physically able athletes in his sport had his physical attributes, their combination of acquired skill and physical abilities would make their accomplishments in basketball far exceed LeBron's.  He is superlative ability in physical form, vastly superior than his peers to such a degree that at no point in his life did he need world-class refinement.  If Michael Jordan or Larry Bird or Isiah Thomas had been built like LeBron, they would far outshine him.

Fair or not, these are the stereotypical arguments.

In stark contrast to LeBron, we have Stephen Curry.  Whereas LeBron was a star from the moment he came into the league, Steph was considered a role player in the making.  Whereas LeBron leapt from high school straight to professional basketball, Steph, the son of an NBA player, was denied a scholarship to his father's alma mater and had to accept his second choice of college.  Smaller than average for an NBA player, slower than average for an elite point guard, Steph Curry led a team to 67 wins in the Western Conference this year.  He led a squad to a historic season and while that squad was talented and diverse, his impact simply cannot be overstated: Golden State was actually outscored when he wasn't on the court.  When he is on the court, they outscore opponents by 17 per 100 possessions; when he sits the team is outscored by 1.  In other words, this 67 win team should logically lose more games than they win in a season if Steph wasn't on the floor.  How has this one, not-particularly-tall, not-particularly-fast player had such a massive impact?

Simple.  He can shoot and handle the ball.

It remains a skill game.  Steph can shoot 44% from behind the arc in a league where the overall shooting average for all shots - layups, midrange and long-range - is 45%.  He shoots for an extra point about as well as other guys shoot everywhere else.  So he puts up a lot of them - record breaking amounts of them.  When he's scoring three after three, this makes the defense come out with more urgency to stop him - compromising the integrity of the defense's spacing outward just as a LeBron drive to the basket compromises its spacing inward.  So when they come out, he runs past them with some of the best ball-handling skills in the league or he sets up his excellent shooting teammates for very open shots. Him being one of the best shooters of all times, his consummate skill, changes absolutely everything that happens on a basketball court, to the same degree as a once-in-a-generation player like LeBron, in a way that completely belies his size and physicality.

In this way, Steph represents the opposite type of figure to LeBron: while LeBron is inspirational as a glimpse of what humanity can be, Steph is aspirational as an example of what each person can be through hard work.  Not everyone can be LeBron, but anyone can be a great shooter that changes the game, because shooting is completely up to you.  Because of this, King James and the Baby-faced Assassin both have their ardent supporters.

All that aside, they both played some awful basketball yesterday.  It happens to the best of us. LeBron missed 23 of his 34 shots.  Steph was even worse, missing 18 of his 23 shots and 13 out of 15 three-point attempts.  LeBron, for the second time in two games, missed a chance at a game winning basket: Steph with a chance to put his team up late in over time shot an airball.

An airball.  From the guy who is usually deadly from 25 feet...

Which finally at long last brings me to the point of this post.  LeBron has superlative basketball gifts. Steph is changing our ideas of what matters most.  A final between the two of them should be a celebration of two of the finest basketball talents ever, with a level of technical execution and artistry that should inspire all onlookers regardless of which team they wanted to win.  But instead, through a combination of nerves, injuries, and plain, ol' desperation, the first two games of the Finals have been an ugly, scrappy, slug-fest showcasing not the skills and abilities of coaching staffs, teams and players but rather the endurance of LeBron who is playing basically every single minute, and the rebounding skills of both teams having to absorb a whole lot of basketballs that were shot quickly, anxiously and poorly.  Players run up and down the court without anyone scoring and that is when they are lucky - when they aren't they won't even get a shot attempt because of errant and incomprehensible turnovers.  The turnovers that you stopped seeing in middle school basketball: trying to thread a needle that is already well-closed or jumping in the air to pass a basketball, before knowing your target.  Fast breaks that end up with a ball rolling out of bounds.

Instead of seeing the best of the best at their best, we are seeing them as they are when winning becomes so important that they can't even function properly.

My question is this: What satisfaction is there to be had in a victory that comes so ugly?

Obviously winning in sport is the primary consideration.  As Vince Lombardi said, it is not a sometime consideration; it is an all-the-time consideration.  But at this highest level, is that the standard that the audience should expect of the players and that the players should expect of themselves?  That they play to win however they can, scraping and clawing for every call, every foul, every free throw?  Is that the only consideration the audience or a fan should care about - that their team wins?  Or shouldn't the expectation at this level be that they win through some not-outlandish application of the skill and abilities that they displayed night in and night out?  That we actually see what it means to be the best, firing on all cylinders, at a moment that matters most?

Is it too much to ask that they have their best games in the Finals?

Nerves and anxiety obviously come to play, but they must have their place.  To be unable to put them in their place seems to go against any notion that we have of 'champion'.  One who succeeds should be able not only to outscore the opponent, outrun the opponent.  They should also be the one that is most themselves - most dependable to themselves and able to rely on their skills when they need it most.  This is the notion of highest merit in all of sport - not merely winning.  Many people win NBA rings who did not contribute in any meaningful way to the outcome.  But to be 'clutch': dependably reliable in the moments where the stakes are high, this is the true dream of sport and of karate - not merely crowning the last team standing, but crowning the team that was their best when nothing less would do.  It is my fear, listening to some of the reactions to the atrocious shooting display that we have been seeing in the Finals, that clutch is somehow becoming synonymous with victory.  That if you won, you were by definition more clutch.  But when LeBron shoots 34% from the field and wins, while we may laud him for his perseverance in the face of adversity and things not going his way, can we actually praise him for excellence?

These Finals have thusfar been a showcase of the wholescale surrender of skill to attributes.  Winning becomes more important than how you win and now it becomes a war of attrition.  Confidence in taking the shot has been replaced with concerns about securing a rebound.  You can see the tension in every step of every player, they way they hold themselves, the way the breathe and move.  They seem to think that if they hold onto that desperate hope, that prayer and wish for the future, that if they hold on long enough and simply fight long enough, they'll get there.  But in reality what they need to do is let go.  They need to let go of what they want and be who they are.  Let the ball fly.  They need to let go of the concerns of winning and losing and let those things be settled by their actions.

They say that winning is everything and in sports, with money and fame at stake, it certainly comes to seem that way.  But not all victories are created equal.