From The Elbow: On Jason Williams' Greatest Pass

It's tough to say that any one pass, among the many in any NBA game, could qualify as seminal. But Jason Williams' elbow pass is not like other passes.
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On February 17, 1913, The International Exhibition of Modern Art debuted at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. The Armory Show, as it came to be known, was a massive exposition of modern art, born primarily of styles that had been percolating in Europe and well outside the American art scene’s regular purview. The show featured over 1,300 works from more than 300 artists, including Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso, Gauguin, Monet, Seurat and Cezanne. These artists are now thought of in critical and historic circles as heavy hitters; their work adorns our coffee mugs and bathroom walls. But in 1913 they were virtually unknown in America, and just trying to sell their paintings to make a living.

To say these works were outside the box does a great disservice to metaphorical artistic, cultural and social boxes everywhere. The works in question didn’t so much step outside the box as they went after it with a matte knife and duct tape, assembling their own abstraction of the art world’s stylistic norms. The fractured perspectives of Cubists, the strikingly wild palettes of Fauvists, the thematic abstractions of Futurists—this was a convention for breaking with convention, modernism frozen in time, framed and exhibited.

What was so inflammatory and unfamiliar about these works was not the subject matter, nor the techniques with which they were created. It was the ideas communicated by their stylistic aesthetics. At that point American art was about capturing reality—beauty, the feral wild, the harshness of existence, those sorts of capital-t Themes—but almost always within the confines of literal and detailed presentations of those realities. The Armory Show brought a new approach, folding ideas in upon themselves and disguising them in other forms. These works of art stretched the utility of form. Form itself became the method of communication, not just a template upon which some familiar all-caps message was scrawled.

This was a fundamental rethinking of the role of art in our lives, how it was meant to reflect our existence and inform our experience. It was a shift from straightforward simile—loneliness is like being alone in a boat on a placid body of water—to syrupy-thick metaphor—loneliness is the restriction of color, rough and ragged linen, and recognizing inherent futility in the massive labors of daily existence. That sort of thing.

These forays into art’s undiscovered country were, still, mostly contained by geographic boundaries and the technological limitations of the time. Art was seen in galleries and studios, and in those days you had to actually, you know, be there to see it. These artistic revolutions were unwittingly but undeniably isolated, restricted to neighborhoods and small pockets of creative congregation.

The Armory Show was a portal through space and time, crossing oceans and giving American artists and the American public a glimpse of the future. But describing this moment as a quivering fork in the road for both art and culture is too stark a binary. It was more like the introduction of a virus. Modernism began to spread, slowly in some areas and more quickly in others. Some traces of this particular ideology already existed in the environment, but this was a much more contagious strain. The pure form introduced at the Armory Show was instantly affected by the environment, mutated and cross-bred with the existing American aesthetic. Those mutated forms seeped throughout our culture. They made their way into the bloodstream of Rothko, Pollock and de Kooning and established a symbiotic relationship with the prose of Faulkner and Lorca. A sort of cultural evolution picked up the pace. This brings us to Jason Williams, the basketball player.

***

On February 11, 2000, at the Oakland Arena in Oakland, California, this happened:

The Elbow Pass, as it has come to be known, was also a shocking act of stylistic expression. Like the Armory Show, it was completely incongruous with the zeitgeist in which it appeared. Like the Armory Show, it was maybe more than its intended audience was ready for at the time.

The NBA’s template had been defined, at that time, by a certain 6’6 shooting guard with a certain distinctive flair—he was in Space Jam and is still in Hanes commercials, you know the name. A rising tide of turnaround jumpers swept the league and young star after young star attempted to Xerox his game. No artist would so fulsomely attempt to Be Like Mike, but no visual artist has ever dominated the way Michael Jordan did.

This focus on the individual created a dearth of individuality; a Borg-like hive-collective of offensive approaches and defensive counterpoints straitjacketed the game. Isolation ball was the offensive norm and defenses settled into a rut of bruising physicality. It was an epoch of forearms and fisticuffs, low blows and low scores. The league’s premier rivalry was the Knicks and Heat meeting for playoff rounds of “last man standing” that were, often, indistinguishable from uncommonly formalized bar fights.

Jason Williams was not of this world, and seemed blithely set on burning it down. He was the point guard for a Sacramento Kings team that seemed like a populist uprising, a revolution of joy. They would become more refined, and ultimately more potent, with Mike Bibby at the helm, although they’d never even make the NBA Finals. But that initial version of the team, driven by Williams, was boisterous, chaotic bliss, and a wild counterpoint to the brawl-in-a-phonebooth norm in the NBA.

The Kings danced with speed and shooting, forming an egalitarian brotherhood devoted to the pass. They were riding a tidal wave of variance while Daryl Morey was still working as a consultant and weighing the expected value of various brands of pomade. Years before “Seven Seconds or Less” became a mantra, the Sacramento Kings began the modernist movement in NBA basketball. Their Armory Show was held at the Cow Palace, 41 times per seasons.

This will maybe seem overstated, unless you’ve seen the team play. Those Kings used a creative variety of ball movement to breathe life into their highlights; movement and fluidity were the foundation of their process. It was a version of reality, an implied structure creating the illusion of intent; offensive cohesion that could only be captured with peripheral vision. They took an offensive ideal and instead of trying to duplicate it, presented it as they saw it. They were, in a word, impressionists. They were really good.

They were also remarkably fun to watch. The modern day Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs use ball movement to dissect their opponents, all part of a grand design with precision as the point of emphasis and malice aforethought. But what Jason Williams’ Kings did looked and seemed and maybe was instinctual. Rick Adelman’s system stretched the canvas and prepared the palette for his players. From there, everything was done by feel.

They passed with their gut, played with their hearts. But even in that generous collaborative, no one had thought to pass with his elbow. How would you even do that?

***

By the time he arrived in Oakland for the Rookie Challenge, Jason Williams had been spraying the league with obscene passes, each an affront to the scriptures of geometry, for a season and a half. This was five years before the birth of YouTube, but his work on the basketball court was busily creating a demand for its invention. Vlade Divac, Chris Webber and Williams made SportsCenter into must see TV in those days. But with a home in the Pacific Time Zone and a record of success that didn’t yet demand wall-to-wall national television exposure, many hadn’t seen Williams work in real time.

The Rookie Challenge (or Rising Stars Challenge as it’s now known) is meant to be an exhibition and is effectively only tangentially related to actual competitive basketball. It also happened to be the ideal creative environment for Williams. He treated it like a blank wall and a milk crate full of spray-paint cans in the shapes of Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce and Antawn Jamison, and finished the game with nine points, five assists and one stunning display of creativity. This was the elbow pass.

Watching it live was an exercise in confusion. Even after multiple replays from the limited angles available it was hard to decipher exactly what had just happened. Sashaying up the floor in transition, Williams snaked the ball behind his back for a pass only to have it come rocketing out in the other direction. There is no perfect angle, no complete documentation of the act. From above, the moment of contact between ball and elbow is obscured by Williams’ head and torso. From behind, the contact can be seen, but the movement and angle of his arm is covered by the ball. In the end we are left with fragments, and tasked with filling in the gaps ourselves.

Unfortunately, the final outcome of the pass was a spectacularly anti-climactic fizzle. A swipe from James Posey sends Raef Lafrentz to the free throw line and robs us of an emphatic finish. Lafrentz can be forgiven for not seeing the pass coming. This was not just a pass of unexpected timing and delivery, after all. It was a manipulation of the very boundaries of basketball’s applied physiology. Elbows are for bending, for launching jump shots, for swinging at the heads of opposing rebound hunters or for celebrating on the sidelines with your best backyard sprinkler imitation. Using them as methods for the directional bouncing of basketballs is not a recommended use.

But Williams had stepped outside the arbitrarily defined borders of basketball form. This was an act of pure art, and not just because it was utterly and entirely superfluous. Any matter of standard sparkle could have gotten the ball into Lafrentz’s hands and past a frozen defender. Instead, Williams took the behind the back pass, firmly entrenched the NBA’s canon, and stylized it to the high heavens.

Creativity for the sake of creativity, art at its most basic level.

***

Unlike the artists of The Armory Show, Williams’ revolutionary work has not been canonized by the basketball world. For many artists, that exposition was not just the first step towards recognition of their process and style, but towards recognition of their historical importance as individuals. But not so for Jason Williams, whose most glorious moments mark him as a YouTube creature and an outlier; he had a very good career and made a lot of money, but much of his career’s second act was marked by a gradual recession from playing like Jason Williams to simply playing like a NBA point guard.

The artists of The Armory Show had, in many cases, a full lifetime after this exposition with which to continue honing and extending their craft, allowing it to percolate and contort the popular culture. Williams had just over a decade to make his mark, and only three years with the Kings before was shipped to Memphis in exchange for the steadier hand of Bibby. This move raised the ceiling on the Kings’ success (at the expense of a certain measure of fun), but it limited Williams. It was a message that professional continuity required a measure of control that wasn’t inherent in his game. He could be himself and be a journeyman, or he could be a little bit more like everyone else.

So Williams became a Grizzly and a fainter version of himself, sneaking the occasional behind-the-back assist in among a mountain of standard entry passes. Piling irony upon irony, Williams helped change the league but not fast enough to keep it from changing him first. If some mechanism of science could have allowed him to extend his prime to the present he would be a folk hero; think Ricky Rubio before everyone figured out he couldn’t shoot. This is not just because the connectivity and interactivity of modern media would allow his exploits to be celebrated by a wider audience, but because the audience and how it watches has changed, and because the game itself has pried itself open somewhat. There is a place for unique brands of sparkle and shine, and it’s no longer on the fringes of the league.

For all the efforts of analytics, logic and rationality, modernism—as defined as the rejection of objective versions of reality, in favor of subjective explorations—has a firm grasp on the NBA. For the vast majority of people, professional basketball is still about art and entertainment. Today’s NBA is limitless variations on a theme, style and creativity, individual personality. Those variations are valued for their own intrinsic differences; it is widely understood that the parameters of form are flexible.

Jason Williams’ elbow pass didn’t invent modernism or convince the basketball world of its merit. That pass wasn’t just something we’d never seen before, it was something we’d never even imagined. It was a reminder that there were stylistic choices beyond the duality of either “old-school” or “Jordanesque.” To my knowledge it has never again appeared in an NBA game, during All-Star Weekend or otherwise. But traces of it—echoes of its influence and variations on that wild-eyed theme—run throughout every 48 minute segment of the NBA season.

There has been no singular moment, no one act that has holistically transformed the NBA into the beat collective it has become. It has been a meandering stream, joined at every turn by new forks and channels—Free Darko, spread pick-and-roll, Russell Westbrook, Twitter, sweater vests and glasses with no lenses, getting Mozgov’d and defending with verticality. But there is also that wanton, singular, beautiful elbow pass. We won’t see it again, but we see it every game.


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