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.
Share |

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.


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.


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.


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.

Share |


The most of consumers prefer to choose offers that provide additional features after getting insudance policy. That is why Geico is such popular in providing home, life or auto insurancde services for all categories of policy seekers. Geico is huge structure that works precisely like clockwork, providing advantages in price and additional options to policyholders. Geico insurance

Your substance is absolutely splendid from numerous points of view. I think this is drawing in and educational material. Much thanks to you such a great amount for thinking about your substance and your perusers. escorts in beirut

This is just so wonderful to read. I can say this without any doubt that this is one of the best articles of this year Real Estate Coal Point

Therefore, this is a opportunity to expand your business through increasing your presence on YouTube by buying views on our social media panel. YouTube has a very huge customer base where you can gain targeted leads. buy instagram likes

We keep up with the latest techniques of building and have qualified tradesmen to ensure that your job/project is carried out safely. newcastle real estate

I did enjoy reading articles posted on this site. They are impressive and has a lot of useful information. serato dj crack

When looking for a pay day loans without a credit check, make sure you do not pay any upfront fees for the application. You should never pay an application fee for a payday loan.

Very useful post. This is my first time i visit here. I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially its discussion. Really its great article. Keep it up. taxi edina

I did enjoy reading articles posted on this site. They are impressive and has a lot of useful information.
geico insurance renters insurance

Best Money Lender in Raffles Place I did enjoy reading articles posted on this site. They are impressive and has a lot of useful information. Best Money Lender in Bugis

Want to write blogs for money? Blogging is one of the easiest ways ever to create your own home business.

Great write-up, I am a big believer in commenting on blogs to inform the blog writers know that they’ve added something worthwhile to the world wide web!..

Singapore Corporate Gift

Great post full of useful tips! My site is fairly new and I am also having a hard time getting my readers to leave comments. Analytics shows they are coming to the site but I have a feeling “nobody wants to be first”.

Drone pas cher en chine

With each open door comes individuals prepared to profit in slanted ways, they tend to either neglect to give the administrations or give poor ones. twitter followers | clash of clans cheats

Wow! This could be one particular of the most helpful blogs. We have ever arrive across on this topic. Basically Great, I am also an expert in this topic therefore I can understand your great job.
exercise tips

The writer understand better the mind of people what they want to learn through their writing therefore this article is outstanding. Thanks!!!
type my essay

I truly cherished perusing your web journal. It was exceptionally all around composed and simple to undertand. Not at all like extra sites I have perused which are truly not tht great. I likewise discovered your posts exceptionally fascinating. Indeed subsequent to understanding, I needed to go demonstrat to it to my companion and he ejoyed it too! tattoo supplies

much appreciated this is great web journal. haarverlängerung düsseldorf

Hmmm that's nice.. good to be here in your article or post, whatever, I think I should also work hard for my own website like I see some good and updated working in your site.
this link

Much obliged for sharing the data, keep doing awesome... I truly delighted in investigating your site. great asset... beirut escorts

Buy backlinks I was very pleased to find this site.I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post Dofollow Blog Comments

Hmmm that's nice.. good to be here in your article or post, whatever, I think I should also work hard for my own website like I see some good and updated working in your site. tips for hunters

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, jeux gratuits pour enfants |
psn code generator free

We provide service at your place of residence or business if you are unable to travel to our location (for more details please go to paralegal services) We have reduced fees depending on client’s family net income, We charge our clients per job and do not ask for advanced money and usually give clients approximately cost of litigation and time of payments before starting the job. Paralegal services

A very awesome blog post. We are really grateful for your blog post. You will find a lot of approaches after visiting your post. I was exactly searching for. Thanks for such post and please keep it up. Great work. Elite Proxy Service

I simply want to tell you that I am new to weblog and definitely liked this blog site. Very likely I’m going to bookmark your blog . You absolutely have wonderful stories. Cheers for sharing with us your blog. high pr commenting

You have a decent point here!I absolutely concur with what you have said!!Thanks for sharing your views...hope more individuals will read this article!!! messebau frankfurt

Thanks for writing such a good article, I stumbled onto your blog and read a few post. I like your style of writing...Hay Adams Hotel wedding

At Spa Samira Laser Clinic, our number one priority is customer satisfaction. Highly experienced staff, certified aestheticians, and competitive prices are among reasons why our clients choose us. With services ranging from facial peels and waxes, to laser treatments and permanent hair reduction, we strive to exceed your expectations by offering exceptional customer service, employing state-of-the-art technology and using top-of-the-line products. Contact us to schedule an appointment, and one of our aestheticians will be happy to talk to you. microdermabrasion scarborough

I might want to say this web journal truly persuaded me to do it! Much obliged, great post. geschenkideen weihnachten

Positive site, where did u come up with the information on this posting ?I have read a few of the articles on your website now, and I really like your style
this link

I am happy to find your distinguished way of writing the post. Now you make it easy for me to understand and implement the concept. Thank you for the post.

toastmaster bread machine

Wonderful blog post. This is absolute magic from you! I have never seen a more wonderful post than this one. You've really made my day today with this. I hope you keep this up Clash of Clans Hack

Magnificently composed article, if just all bloggers offered the same substance as you, the web would be a much better place.. home remodeling marietta ga

Decent information picking up article. This post is truly the best on this profitable subject. click here for more

You know your projects stand out of the herd. There is something special about them. It seems to me all of them are really brilliantred wine decanter shapes

This is really the sort of data I have been attempting to discover. Much thanks to you for composing this data. dofollow backlink

Farah is a top Real Estate broker at home Life Bayview, with a particular focus on Richmond Hill in York region and Toronto. Farah is amongst the top 5% Agent in Canada and has earned numerous awards in the last 10 years for her quality services. richmond hill real estate

I havent any word to value this post.....Really i am inspired from this post....the individual who make this post it was an extraordinary human..thanks for imparted this to us. high trust flow backlinks

Brilliant .. Astounding .. I'll bookmark your online journal and take the nourishes likewise… I'm glad to discover such a large number of valuable information here in the post, we need work out more procedures in such manner, much obliged for sharing. best selfie phones

I experience considerable difficulties my contemplations on substance, however I truly felt I ought to here. Your article is truly awesome. I like the way you composed this data. lebanon sexy escorts

This may be a really good hints mainly that will the ones novices at blogosphere, shorter together with complete information… Kudos meant for posting ours buy Instagram account

high tf backlinks Great article Lot's of information to Read... johntechseo Great Man Keep Posting and update to People..Thanks trust flow backlinks

Decent to peruse your article! I am anticipating sharing your undertakings and encounters. site here

An intriguing dialog is value remark. I feel that it is best to compose more on this matter, it may not be an unthinkable subject however ordinarily people are insufficient to chat on such themes. To the following. Salud. see the details

I am glad to discover this post Very valuable for me, as it contains part of data. I Always like to peruse The Quality and happy I discovered this thing in you post.stamped concrete new hampshire

college paper so happy to find good place to many here in the post, the writing is just great, thanks for the post.

The review will explain features of the book in detail. You will get to know about the pros and cons along with my personal experience about it.program details

Much obliged for setting aside an ideal opportunity to examine this, I feel firmly about it and love adapting more on this point. On the off chance that conceivable, as you pick up mastery, would you mind overhauling your website with more data? It is greatly useful for me. here I found it

so happy to find good place to many here in the post, the writing is just great, thanks for the post. waste king garbage disposal