Magicians, Surgeons and the NBA

All basketball players work in the same medium, with something like the same tools. This doesn't mean they're all the same type of artist.
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One of the first critical essays I read in college was Patrice Rollet’s 1990 piece, “The Magician and the Surgeon,” which addresses the differing relationships that film and painting had with reality. Rollet makes the case that the painter is a magician, interacting with reality from some natural distance to create a new thing, slightly altered from the real world yet a whole unto itself.

Magic, on the other hand, is effective if necessarily not entirely human. The surgeon has no such distance. She is all up in the gory truths of the world, directly and irreversibly. There is no distance whatsoever, and no fully coherent reality. Instead, a new and crystalline lattice is constructed, rearranging some existing parts of reality into an original artistic vision. Rollet argues this cut-up reality is more relevant to us; its simply closer to our lives than the fabricated world of the painter. We naturally seek to appreciate art that can illuminate the human condition, and the surgeon is therefore the more ‘valuable’ artist, because elucidation is more vital than escapism.

It’s not all that great a stretch to think of basketball as art. At its core, basketball is a series of heuristics. For all the styles and differing procedures utilized, there is only really one goal: to finish the game with more points than the opponent. But if we think about basketball as art, the end goals are less than absolute; what matters are the styles, and what matters to us off the court is the experience those stylistic expressions give us. This is not to say that PER or actual effectiveness are irrelevant, but they’re just one (very important) criterion to assessing artistic value. The x-y graph of skill vs. aesthetics probably looks like a diagonal line, slope ≈ 1.

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Some do live above the line. I will always believe in Monta Ellis, no matter what any of you (or any columnist, or any of his former teammates) say. My Sacramento patriotism allowed me the chance to appreciate Isaiah Thomas on his silly, silly team. But, overall, it’s just more fun to see tasks performed soundly. More specifically, it is consistently entertaining to watch talent express itself in performance; there’s a certain shitty action movie spectacle to watching wild-but-bad players -- think Nate Robinson in Bad Nate Robinson Mode or early period Russell Westbrook or any period Byron Mullens -- but that’s necessarily hit and miss. Sometimes a dude throwing a truly terrible pass is just a dude throwing a truly terrible pass.

To be either a magician or a surgeon within the NBA landscape, a player has to be a significant character, a performer distinctive enough to have a distinguished and relevant style and active enough to have canvas for their on-court expression. Not a lot of great art gets made during garbage time.

But there is art there to find in the game, layered and strange and vivid, a little play-within-a-play embedded in each game that’s scaled up towards epic scale in the playoffs. We, as much or more than the players themselves, are the ones doing this scaling up. We create characters and narratives out of what is essentially just ten tall dudes interacting with each other and a leather ball in a 3-D space; we do this because we want to see something more than athletic competition, something more fully and meaningfully human. We do this all the time, of course, with everything. But each NBA game gives us a great deal to work with, and we chip and blast and polish away what doesn’t matter to us until we see the thing we set out to see in the first place.

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The magicians and surgeons of our league are, at least to a certain extent, avatars of ourselves. Players like Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant are both extremely good basketball players, for instance; they’re the defining talents of their generation, even before Kobe’s Twitter feed is taken into account. Stylistically, the two are underrated, probably because their dominance has been so sustained for more than a decade. Duncan still creaks and groans his way to stunning stat lines and is part of the prestigious minority of NBA players who manage to look massive on a court shared with other NBA players. Bryant has refined and advanced his game with such vicious obsessiveness as to have effectively become Michael Jordan without anyone quite noticing it. The way in which Kobe has added pieces to his game, and formulated the most efficient ways possible to use his energy and remaining miles is coldly and inspirationally mathematical; even fans who loathe him mourned his ruptured Achilles tendon in some way. The game is just richer when he’s in it.

Theirs is a mastery of known quantities. Duncan uses angles and the maximum length of his arms almost  algorithmically, reaching and re-reaching the logical zenith of personal effectiveness every play. Bryant utilizes his incredible shot-fake and dribbling skills to defy geometry; for all the fury of Bryant’s mystic will, he’s not just a technician but an ace tactician. These two are the NBA’s most prominent surgeons.

Both operate within the existing framework of NBA reality, chopping and screwing components to form a whole that reflects their personal styles. A surgeon is effectively a gestalt of basketball skills; when aspiring players work on their games, they’re trying to build surgical skills. There is little alchemy to all this, it obviously takes talent to rise to the elite level of Bryant and Duncan, but if life imitates art, life also imitates this particular style of basketball art. Grab a calculator and fix yourself.

In contrast, the magicians of basketball utilize processes that are inimitable and mysterious and a little uncanny; you know magic when you see it. The king wizard of the moment, and in recent memory and perhaps eventually of all time, is LeBron James. This is no surprise to anyone who watches basketball, although LeBron himself is still capable of evoking wonder in surprising and subtle new ways.

During LeBron’s unprecedentedly efficient hot streak earlier this season, I brought a friend from New Delhi to a game between the Heat and Grizzlies. I pitched it as a battle of the most transcendent player in the league against the team with the best defense, but hoped for my friend’s sake and mine that we’d witness some LeBron-ian spectacle.

But instead of showing out in classically LeBron fashion, he put up his worst shooting game of the season. Still, despite James missing 10 of his 14 shots, my friend was still impressed. My friend, who was new to basketball, did his best to understand the game by trying to guess where the ball was headed judging by the positions and roles of the other nine players. He got pretty good at it by the end of the game, except when the ball came to LeBron; then, he was as helpless as everyone else. This is the key to James, the thing at the center of his magic: he plays the game in the same physical space as the talented mortals who surround him on the court, but he engages the game on another plane.

It helps, of course, to be able to do this, and the shocking ease of LeBron’s transcendence remains the most consistently startling thing about him. But while LeBron intuitively grasps the proper angles of attack and defense -- he’s a magician to the core, but a pretty solid surgeon as well -- he also has both the cognition to look a few steps ahead of the action and the size, strength and sublime skill to live in that liminal future tense. Watch all the film on LeBron that exists, practice as hard as you wish, but there’s no way real way to play basketball like LeBron. That’s pure, practical magic.

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In an essay on Nicolas Jaar and consumption fatigue, Jeff Weiss makes the point that the best music makes him not want to write about music or have to explain it to anybody. There’s something to this: it’s not giving away a trick so much as it’s a running up against the limits of language and analysis. Some things exist in a space beyond assessment, and some players -- LeBron and Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook and a few others -- play their games there, too.

Where the league’s surgeons work in a style based on craft and applied talent, the magicians are able to work in a stranger space that’s not necessarily within the context of conventional basketball thought. This isn’t to say that the magicians work any less hard on their games than their craft-bound counterparts; they obviously don’t. But what makes them extraordinary can’t be taught, or maybe even learned; it just seems very deeply and strangely known. Westbrook’s refusal to conform to any previous conception of what a point guard might be or do has worked, for him and his team, because he has the uncanny ability necessary to will his idiosyncratic new concept into being. Irving’s dribbling skills are such that he doesn’t quite seem bound by laws of basketball physics; he goes where he pleases, just as James Harden splitting a double-team seems to violate an old and perfectly reasonable physical law against moving one solid object through another.

Rollet posits that the surgeons of the art world are more relevant to understanding the human experience, but the magicians of basketball do something wilder and more transporting than that. There’s a great deal of grace and inspiration in the way that basketball’s surgeons improve on known quantities and refine skills incrementally, but they can’t create the new and shocking mini-realities that the magicians build within this more familiar one. The surgeons inspire, too, giving us access to the fantasy that more practice and study could make us more like them. The NBA’s great magicians inspire reverence and awe, of course, but they’re at work on something else entirely, some greater and more enthralling creative endeavor.

Illustrations by Kalen Bergado.


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