NBA Soul

Soul is hard to explain and easy to recognize, and the NBA has always had a lot of it.
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Can you dig it?

Illustration by Eli Neugeboren.

We know soul when we see it, or think we do. Sam Cooke has it; MC Rove does not. Muhammad Ali, yes; Bill Belichick, no. This seemingly intrinsic feeling of a thing, the immediacy of our intuition that, say, “Factory Girl” simply drips with soul, while “She’s So Cold” categorically does not, is one of the concept’s defining qualities.

But this ease of recognition—plus our comfortingly facile, historically specific understanding of soul’s origin (in your best dork-o white-guy voice: "…music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm & blues into a form of funky, secular testifying…etc, etc")—obscures more than it reveals. Yes, soul was that thing that Otis Redding had, but what about: a novel-in-verse by a 19th century Russian aristocrat; a silent film about Joan of Arc; a record made in a French chateau by a group of spoiled, dissolute Englishmen? How is it that these things could possibly be a part of the same phenomenon?

When we talk about soul, we’re talking about spiritual style. In its absorption of both the religious urge and the secular concerns of modernity, soul represents an entire set of gestures and attitudes and conveys a particular spiritual relationship with the world. This relationship contains a sensibility that acknowledges the enormity of the worldly forces and structures availed against us, and the limitations of our own power and efficacy in the face of all those forces. But that is not where it ends. Woven in with all that pain is a great desire and no small amount of weary joy. The desire and the joy feed a belief in the possibility of transcendence that, in turn, feeds the performance we recognize as soul.

Like the music that gave the term its first popularized meaning, the NBA rose in the 1960’s and centrally featured the physicality and expressiveness of African-Americans, the league was seen early on as a reservoir of soul in popular culture. It didn’t hurt that, particularly in the ‘70’s, as soul—and the politics of black identity—reached their cultural zenith, professional basketball featured George Gervin and his mellow finger-rolls; Dr. J. and his marriage of explosive force to cool, languid grace; the wizard Nate Archibald, stylistic forefather to both Isiah Thomas and Allen Iverson. History and demographics surely played a part in making these players into icons of the soulful, but they don’t quite explain our intuitive response to the supremely moving things they did on the court.

Indeed, a tendency toward the soulful is part of the game’s fundamental structure. Like all team sports, professional basketball requires meticulous group coordination and the attunement of individual players to the needs and prerogatives of the team. But in elite basketball, each action of the group requires individual acts of astounding skill. These acts—turning the corner on the pick-and-roll, challenging a shot at the rim, driving and kicking—provide an opportunity for players to burst out of that communal context and create moments of transcendent individuality. More than any other professional sport, basketball is a playing field for the productive tension between the demands of the group and the urge for individual expression. That expressiveness is always visible. Basketball players’ bodies are exposed and vulnerable, their facial expressions on perpetual view. Their identities are laid bare, effaced neither by equipment nor by bloated rosters and mass substitutions. Like most sports, basketball provides myriad opportunities for pain, fatigue and failure. But in basketball that pain is on full display. As Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett demonstrated in the last decade, each battle for rebounding position, each one-on-one showdown, each collision at the rim makes manifest the sheer grueling struggle of being a person. And in the NBA, that struggle is performed with unparalleled style and skill. This style and skill, the players’ deep expressiveness as they face the fatigue and the failure: that’s where the joy is; that’s the transcendence. Soulfulness is woven into the game.

***

In most ways, the culture of professionalism that has grown in the NBA since its 1980’s commercial renaissance is a good thing. Players are fitter, more athletic and more skilled. Defenses are more sophisticated. Everyone—players, coaches, scouts—is better prepared to do their job, and not only because they're not fogged in by near-visible hangovers. But the absorption of the NBA into the corporate culture factory has taken some of the edge off of the game’s wild expressiveness. The best players in today’s NBA—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant—are, without a doubt, compelling and beautiful. They do impossible things with great style and ease.

But they also hew closely to the Michael Jordan Formula for Superstardom: icy, near-psychotic competitiveness on the court; focus-grouped, family-friendly blandness off it. One gets the sense—with Kobe, Wade and LeBron in particular—that even their in-game displays of emotion are calculated for self-branding effect. Such personas, glossed as they are by American consumer optimism, tend not to admit to weakness or despair or suffering and, for that reason, circumscribe their own expressive potential. The human-as-commodity might be saleable, then, but he doesn’t tend to be terribly soulful. Last season’s Heat were at their most soulful in defeat, when their high-sheen narratives of success dissolved, leaving them to face their own imperfections like actual human people.

Where to turn, then? AI has faded into senescence; KG’s ecstatic desire has curdled into something a bit less inspiring and more cruel. Nash and Amare were, in tandem, the perfect balance of craft, ferocity and lush style, but the soulfulness of each one has been tempered by the loss of the other. Derrick Rose? Too freakily, mechanistically focused. Russ Westbrook? Too petulant. (And petulance is not soulful, which is part of what keeps Kobe off the list.) Jeremy Lin? Ricky Rubio? Too young, too eager to please; not weathered enough by the storms of life.

We have to dig a bit deeper to find the soul in the contemporary game, to find the players that best embody that marriage of style and desire that we call soul. And so I present to you my completely subjective, fatally incomplete list of five players who keep the soul alive in 2012.

Paul Pierce

The truest classicist the game has right now, Pierce practices a rickety, floor-bound offensive game, predicated not on Iversonian quickness or explosion but on crafty shifts of pace and balance. That and, of course, miraculous shot-making: the flat-footed, off-balance fadeaway; the swooping scoop. His weary, ambling gait seems to bespeak a long and difficult life humping up and down the hardwood, joints protected by nothing more than Ace bandages and rubber-soled Ponys.

And that face. It’s really a great face. It is beautifully hangdog and heavy-lidded, jowly and deeply creased, like the swarthy, prematurely aged faces of the NBA's pre-Showtime era. This is the face of a man easing into a recliner and ordering his grandkids to bring him another High Life. Also, Pierce once punctuated a missed free throw by dropping to the floor and doing pushups. You could drown in the gallons of soul overflowing from that move.

Manu Ginobili

You might say that flopping and moaning to officials and jutting one’s legs out on jumpers to draw fouls are definitively un-soulful acts. But certain images just will not leave my mind: Ginobili attacking loose balls and then casually flicking them behind his back to a streaking teammate; Eurostepping through the lane and then launching impossibly angled floaters over a horde of defenders; nailing step-back three after gutsy step-back three. Ginobili’s game is characterized by an idiosyncratic stylishness made all the more compelling by his sheer furious activity. That commingling of style and heart-rending hunger is exactly what we’re talking about.

Gerald Wallace

For years now, many of them spent as the best player on terrible teams, Wallace has played punishing minutes at a relentless pace. He is rangy and disruptive on defense; he throws himself after loose balls; he runs the floor and explodes to the hoop. His body is long and lithe and ferociously athletic, but his movements and demeanor have a languid, molasses-dipped quality; despite his astounding athleticism and bristling energy, he is always playing on the back end of the beat. Rarely has a player this single-mindedly energetic, who lives so resolutely at the margins of exhaustion, also been so stylish and mellow. And have you heard his voice? It’s like Chuck D and Nina Simone made a friendly southern baby and hired David Banner to baby-sit.

Al Jefferson

Even as a very young guy, Jefferson seemed prematurely old and weary, prematurely freighted by life’s exhaustion. Perhaps this is a product of an inherited southern fatalism—a fatalism which, in Al's case, comes with a wicked, dry sense of humor. Perhaps it owes more to the fact that he has given his labors to a string of mediocre-to-awful teams, or that he was traded by both the Wolves and Celtics just before their respective rises to relevance, or that he arrived in Utah on the eve of the Deron Williams/Jerry Sloan implosion.

Also, though, there are those creamy post moves: the spinning, leaning baseline up-and-under; the inside pivot; the elbow jumper and its counter, the elastic up-fake. They unfold slowly and methodically until the many nuances of footwork and body-position finally find the defender on his toes or leaning toward the middle of the floor, helplessly watching Jefferson exploit that inch of daylight. Pragmatically speaking, Big Al would be “better”—more statistically efficient, more “productive”—if he would play more simply; if, rather than skillfully avoiding his defender, he would take more direct lines to the hoop, create contact, get to the line. But that would not be as beautiful. The coupling of Jefferson’s melancholia and stubborn commitment to beauty is pure soul.

Chuck Hayes

You know that scene in Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep where Ray (who, remember, works in an abattoir) buys the car engine and attempts to carry it back to his truck? Remember that scene’s shocking mix of existential absurdity and rough-hewn realism? The thing is impossibly huge and heavy and Ray wants to own it so badly. That’s Chuck Hayes. This season, Hayes has been banished to the spiritual wasteland that is the Sacramento Kings, an environment unsympathetic to his particular gifts. But during his time in Houston, the improbable battles Hayes waged with the legion of taller, longer, more preternaturally gifted centers that populate the NBA—that is, every center that isn't him, and most of their backups—were nightly lessons in manful, stoic effort. All the while, his face, like Ray’s, remains both serious and serene; it is the face of a man at peace with the rugged work he’s called on to do. Not everyone is tall and beautiful and gifted. Some of us slaughter sheep for a living.

Dirk Nowitzki

The contemporary concept of soul was practically conceived in opposition to the kind of tight-lipped, Northern European Protestantism that Dirk represents. But if soul is partially a coming-to-terms with life’s suffering and its beauty, then Dirk can be seen as a model of that reconciliation. See, for instance, the tension between his body’s lurching angularity and the astonishing skill and efficiency with which he creates space for his shot. Or between the awkward lean of his jumper—knees and elbows jutting, feet barely leaving the floor—and the grace with which the ball leaves his fingers and settles through the net.

Until last season, it seemed Nowitzki’s calling to weather disappointment. There was the Mavs’ agonizing 2006 Finals loss to the Heat. There was their shocking upset, the following season, at the hands of the Warriors and the years of playoff futility that followed. But even as the Mavs lost and lost again to younger, deeper or more resilient teams, Nowitzki played with growing brilliance and expressiveness, with an increasingly moving synthesis of stoicism and desire. By the time the Mavericks finally pushed over the top, Dirk had come to embody that aforementioned weary joy. Finally, recognize: at the moment of his greatest triumph, the man fled the court so that he could weep in solitude. Sing it for me.


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