Given that the person enacting the little moment of transcendence is a goofy, gangly teenager with a J.R. Reid box haircut, there's something surprising about the reverence and old-fashioned awe that follows a blocked shot by Kentucky's freshman center Nerlens Noel.
There have been young players and big players and young big players who have done this sort of thing and evoked this sort of response before—Kentucky had one just last year in Anthony Davis—but that does nothing to diminish the sheer stunning shock of it. Davis blocked more shots than any first-year college player ever has, but he didn't block them quite like Noel has—Davis worked on classical planes, in familiar ways; Noel is all twitch, instinct and nerve. Noel's blocks are memorable. Which is good, because we will need to remember them.
On Tuesday evening in Gainesville, Florida, millions watched as Noel came beating down the floor full-bore to block an opponent’s layup, only to come down awkwardly and plow into the stanchion. Whether Noel's ACL blew out on the landing or on impact with the padded but nonetheless immovable stanchion doesn't really matter much; by the time he fell to the floor, it was blown out all the same. Noel lay there, screaming in pain, for several minutes before being carried off the floor by his teammates. Millions more have seen the injury in the days since on replays and on the Internet. The photos of it are everywhere. One is above. They're ugly.
And that may very well be the final memory any fan has of Noel as a collegian. Projected before the season as one of the top picks—and quite possibly the top pick—in this summer's next NBA Draft, Noel’s freshman season is now over. Barring a surprise decision to return for a second year in Lexington, Noel is almost certainly done as a college basketball player; the next time we watch him rising with that oddly violent effortlessness to send back an opponent's shot, he will likely be wearing the uniform of the Cleveland Cavaliers or Charlotte Bobcats or whatever other awful NBA team drafts him. By then, Noel will be just another big, athletic, extravagantly compensated professional. We’ve already got way more of those than we need, of course. And yet there was probably room for Noel to have joined those ranks this year, had the NBA's age-minimum not sent him to Kentucky for this painfully abbreviated and strange sort-of-season.
Noel’s 24-game stint at Kentucky was remarkable, even if it wasn't ever quite surprising. What Noel was—the potential national Defensive Player of the Year, the NCAA’s top shot blocker and a soon-to-be NBA millionaire—was precisely what is expected from a highly ranked recruit. It is what his coach, John Calipari, is paid a wild ransom—and exponentially more than any other public employee in Kentucky—to bring to Lexington.
Those are all loaded words, of course. Noel, the third son of Haitian immigrants living in Boston, came to Kentucky bearing many of the trappings that both fans and critics of college basketball have come to associate with elite high school players. He held a press conference to announce his college decision, which seems grandiose until you consider how many members of the media showed up. There were the requisite questions about unsavory characters surrounding his recruitment. Noel shaved the Kentucky logo into his distinctive high-top fade haircut, a move that all but screamed “marketing ploy.” When traditionalists grump and grouse about big-time recruits, they are grumping and grousing about swaggering, staggeringly talented teenagers like Nerlens Noel.
But from the moment he arrived on campus, Noel also displayed a work ethic and dedication to improving his game that was both admirable and rare for such a decorated and oft-praised teenaged basketball player. Like Davis, the 2012 National Player of the Year, Noel was considered raw but gifted—a player who epitomized various familiar species of buzz and dimensions of potential, but who would finally be exactly as good as he made himself be. He was never supposed to play more than a year at Kentucky, because he never really even needed to play the one. Still, Noel never acted like college hoops was beneath him, or like he was just there because he had to be. This even though he was only there because, due to NBA rules, he did indeed have to be.
Where the NBA makes its money by branding and marketing and selling its players’ images, college basketball does the opposite. College hoops sells itself as an unconsciously and unostentatiously conservative thing: programs and coaches, student-athletes playing for the love of the game and the pride of a fan base, and not—or not immediately—for the new Bentley or the sprawling Florida manse or whatever other codger-irking NBA symbology you choose. There’s not enough time in the world to debate the merits, or veracity, of this image; it is, like most marketing gambits, mostly false. But it’s the prism through which college basketball seeks to be viewed, true or not. For one year, it was how Nerlens Noel would be seen.
Players like Noel, and programs like the one he attended at Kentucky, flaunt, even mock this image. While some commentators lament the lack of basketball fundamentals and praise the gutsy-and-maybe-talentless walk-on, college basketball's elite freshmen—the ones who, like Noel, are clearly just passing through en route to bigger stages and paydays—are equally glorified and pilloried. They represent, to those who want them to represent as much, streetball attitude and institutionalized AAU skeeziness gone rampant, and so are an affront to the holy and wholly structured game dominated by glum red-faced white coaches like Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski and John Wooden. When you hear the term “AAU culture,” what you’re really hearing is a dog whistle. It's not all wrong. But no program can win it all—and many can't win at all—without these transient to-be-pros.
When the New York Times did a story about Noel in which, by proxy, it was implied that he was connected to shady would-be agents and rogue assistant coaches, skeptical fans across the country nodded their heads approvingly—this was a familiar story, and the response was reflexive. Noel only fed the beast by choosing Kentucky, Calipari’s NBA factory in the Bluegrass State. But the convenience of yoking stereotypes to player and program ignores the reality that was Nerlens Noel, the college player. As a person, he's no more knowable than any other 18-year-old; it's silly to pretend otherwise. As a player, he's unfinished. But to make him a symbol, or an avatar in some cheap hoops culture war, is a disservice on multiple fronts. Especially because he's so interesting a player.
Noel is awkwardly gangly, but massively effective. He looks more like an Olympic athlete suddenly dropped into a game of basketball than he does a natural, fluid player; there is no polish on his game. But his dedication to defense fit as squarely with the ethos of college basketball—that holy team-first scrappiness and selfless sacrifice the hoops intelligentsia valorize so well—as that of any towheaded tryhard walk-on. It's no coincidence that Noel’s injury came not on a dunk, or while flexing for the camera, but rather on a defensive block off a teammate’s bad pass, on a play in which Noel caught the Florida player from behind and stopped a sure two points before crumbling to that screaming heap.
Noel’s injury will fall into the same category as other prominent, televised ones, if only because of the loud, unavoidable and excruciatingly human moan that came out of him. It was guttural and awful and real. It was the sound of an 18-year-old kid dealing with immense pain and a crushing disappointment at the same moment.
It is, happily, not likely that Noel will suffer lasting damage to either his playing ability or future earning potential. But if you’re a fan of college basketball, or of talented humans, it’s still a shame to watch one of the elite players in the game writhing on the floor in agony. He'll play in the NBA, and may even be a star there, but we will never get to see what this talented player—this combination of rare skills and unrelenting effort—could do in the college game. He was just scratching the surface when he went down; he won't penetrate it as an amateur.
And so we will likely never see him play in an NCAA tournament game. We won’t watch him block 12 shots in a game again, as he did against Ole Miss. We won’t see him hustle back to defend the rim from midcourt, rising and stretching his full wingspan to make up ground that should not, by rights, be made up. College basketball may never see what he could really do. It's a damn shame because he's a beautiful player, but it's a shame, too, because he never quite got to show and prove just how different—how unlike his familiar caricature—he truly was, or could have been.
Noel was not some hoops culture war caricature: a spoiled shoe company whore in distressingly baggy shorts, complete with some surly entourage. Kentucky fans knew this, and loved him for it. He was, instead, a kid—one who worked as hard as any teammate, but who was blessed with an awe-inspiring array of physical skills, too. He was that rarest of things in college basketball, a player worth watching because of how unfinished he was, because of the thrill of watching him figure himself out. He'll be fine, but we're all still poorer for not getting to watch him become what he will be.