Why We Watch: JaVale McGee, The Unexplainable

If it seems like JaVale McGee is playing a different type of basketball than everyone else in the NBA, it's because he is. He's playing it the way he sees it.
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In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a groundbreaking essay, “What Is It Like To Be Bat.” He argued that the very difficulty of answering the question suggests that there must be something irreducibly extra-physical that generates the mental experience of being like something, which we call consciousness for short. Nagel’s argument, in brief, was that theories of the mind that tried to explain conscious experience as something reducible to different physical states of the brain (more or less), could not account for the feeling of being a conscious being. Nagel challenges the reader to think about bats, or more specifically, to think about being a bat. You could—and you might as well, there are worse hobbies—learn all there is to know about the physical laws governing a bat’s cognition, the circuitry of the bat-brain, the function of the bat’s sensory systems. But for all that knowledge, you will still be none the wiser when it comes to understanding the qualitative experience of batness.

This all relates to JaVale McGee not simply because both he and bats are comfortable off the ground and broadly uncanny, although there’s that. It’s more that JaVale McGee presents a similar philosophical challenge: what might it be like to be JaVale McGee, to move around in that body, with that mind?  

Granted, figuring out what it’s like to be seven feet tall -- with arms that stretch another half a foot beyond that and a 32-inch vertical leap and an avant-garde brain—might be as difficult as imagining navigating through a dark cave with echolocation. It doesn’t necessarily help that the results of JaVale’s cognition can appear just as confounding and foreign. Running back on defense when your point guard is dribbling at the top of the key? Apparent innocent ignorance of the rules governing goaltending? You don’t need Andre Miller’s basketball IQ or Shane Battier’s extra-numerate savvy to figure that stuff out, right? And the details of McGee’s biography, while interesting, are not particularly useful in explaining the mystery of JaValeness; if anything, his family’s basketball-heavy bloodlines should have selected against just this airy cluelessness.

But none of that, really, explains how JaVale McGee is JaVale Mcgee. He is his own creation, and lives in his own space in his own way. At times, it’s not clear that he quite knows what it’s like to be JaVale McGee, himself.

***

JaVale is hardly the only extremely talented NBA player with a tendency to behave mysteriously on the court. But JaVale’s particular brand of blithe knuckleheadness diverges from the great Talented Headcase NBA archetype. Ron Artest has a psychology that’s multiply abnormal, but genuinely and meaningfully so; Royce White has an actual mental illness. JaVale isn’t violent or troubled or even apparently haunted so much as he’s just JaVale, his own weird self. In that sense, if maybe only in that sense, he’s just one of us.

This is, actually, a remarkable thing. Because what would it do to someone, to anyone, to be born with a body and collection of physical gifts that essentially guaranteed a decade of employment in the NBA, no matter what? And moreover, what if that person could score simply by taking long strides around the basket and jumping higher into the air than anyone else? And as such could regularly send most shots near the rim into the stands? And if that person just enjoyed doing those things in a mostly uncomplicated way, and for good measure also had asthma? Or, more to this point, what if that person who is JaVale McGee was you. It is not necessarily any more difficult to imagine life as a bat.

***

Let’s start with the first great JaVale moment, or in this case, series of moments. The triple-double. In a March game in 2011, the Wizards were down in the fourth quarter against the Bulls. Down by a lot, as it turns out; the Wiz would finish the season 23-49, while the Bulls would finish with the league’s best record and make it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.

JaVale already had 12 rebounds and an astonishing 12 blocks, but only nine points with 3:43 remaining the game. And so the JaVale Moment began, enfolding some very determined if not necessarily helpful fadeaway jumpers and off-balance leaners and attempts at taking his man off the dribble. Finally: a huge dunk, in traffic, from the beginning of the restricted area, and then immediately subsequent a technical for hanging on the rim and celebrating. An ESPN writer said McGee was “acting like a buffoon.” Kevin McHale called it a “bad triple-double.”  

I got a triple-double,” was JaVale's response. “Who can say they got a triple-double? I’m not really worried about it.”

His performance at the dunk-contest that same year, in which he had the misfortune of going against a telegenic young All-Star who was set to dunk over the Official Car of the NBA, also evinced an enthusiastic, naïve, and otherwise a Totally JaVale approach to competition. He was doomed, of course—only one participant got to dunk over the Official Car of the NBA, and it was not going to be the runner-up. If this bothered JaVale, it was not immediately evident in his performance, which was dedicated less to maximal product placement leverage than to simple maximalism. Blake Griffin dunked well, but JaVale—after four tries—dunked three basketballs at once. Griffin dunked on just one rim, so JaVale dunked on two.

This dedication to overage—to doing more, in pursuit of doing the most—ensures that JaVale's fans treasure (and tweet, and embed) his failures roughly as much as his successes. There's something very contemporary about the way that the spectacle McGee generates is de-linked from its actual impact on a given game, but the point—for McGee and his acolytes alike—is that this is some premium-grade spectacle. This is how Wesley Matthews goes up for a dunk and is miraculously stripped when he and the ball reach their apex… by the same goofus who threw himself an off-the-backboard dunk when his team was down by six. The only consistency between the two moments is that they’re both JaVale, combinations of physiology and psychology that are utterly idiosyncratic

Someone who has imbibed the ethos of professionalism and team sports—that is, nearly everyone in the NBA—wouldn’t have attempted something like McGee's self-oop; few players in the NBA or anywhere could have managed that mid-air Matthews block. Only McGee would or could do both.

Flip Saunders, then the coach of the Wizards, was visibly disgusted after McGee assisted on his own dunk; he was fired a week later. At the end of last season, the Wizards broke up the McGee-centered goof squad that was the link to the stranger days of the Gilbert Arenas Administration. McGee wound up in Denver, where new coach George Karl told ESPN that JaVale "needs to take the crazy out of his game." From the perspective of Denver's success as a team—and JaVale’s success as an NBA player—Karl is surely right. But this is not something that can be done through practice, or visualization exercises; removing that spirit of conscience-less chaos from McGee would require something more like an exorcism.

It is difficult to imagine a JaVale McGee who—instead of taking two long strides across the paint and throwing the ball at the basket—turns himself into a lankier Greg Monroe after a few more dour summers in the gym with Hakeem Olajuwon. That JaVale would diligently run the court—despite his asthma, and the thin mountain air, and his preference to not do so—to fend off the more energetic Kenneth Faried for his share of Denver's 60-foot alley-oops. That JaVale talks on defense, sweats the small stuff. It is possible, of course, that JaVale McGee could become that kind of basketball player. But he wouldn't quite be JaVale McGee if he did, and won't be if he does. It is worth mentioning that McGee is playing fantastically well thus far this year, and has been the best player on one of the NBA's better teams, while still more or less playing like himself.

***

In his essay about Michael Joyce, who was then the 89th best tennis player in the world, David Foster Wallace reached an unsettling conclusion about professional athletes, even non-immortals like Joyce. The physical and emotional commitment required to become even the 100th best tennis player in the world, Wallace wrote, requires “a subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit.” The result for the athletes? They “live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very small.”

“Immature” is a favorite epithet for McGee, and it's true that the endlessly meme-able player who inspired Deadspin's "That's So JaVale" tag—the one who tweets as an alter-ego named Pierre, who sings Adele songs in his car, who announces a burrito party on Twitter and is upset when only one fan shows up—does not exactly present himself as an in-line, on-message professional. But what makes JaVale so stubbornly difficult for our ossified adult-to-adultish minds to understand is less his immaturity or childishness, than the way he embodies something authentically and exuberantly childlike. 

We don't know anything about JaVale's inner life, or indeed even if such a thing exists. But his work on the court embodies a certain unique and backhandedly admirable set of values; his play is exhilarating because of how truly playful it is. To all appearances, McGee's is not a life circumscribed by the rigors of professional sports, but instead governed by his apparent and unfettered wonderment at his own abilities, and by his equally evident joy and discomfort in deploying them and seeking their outer boundaries. If he lives in a child’s world, it’s all the bigger for it. Most humans don't get to live like that. Lucky for us that we get to watch.

Illustration by Aaron Dana.


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Comments

JaVale is maligned by much of mainstream basketball analysis for being "immature," "childish," and the like; all those descriptors stem from the same criticism- that he is somehow wasting his God-given gifts, and if he were only to knuckle down in the gym (preferably with a former superstar as a coach to teach him all manner of post moves) and spend a couple summers exercising Kobe-esque determination and single-mindedness, he would quickly rise to the top of the game. This is probably true, but it is anathema to his essence. Asking JaVale to knuckle down in the gym is like asking a dolphin to climb a tree. It's just not what he does.

The problem, though, is that to most of the basketball cognoscenti, JaVale's refusal to embrace that mindset will always prevent him from becoming truly great (thankfully, the NBA talking heads go lighter on the question of ELITEness, or whatever). We saw something similar with Lebron James from 2008-2011: "Maybe he'd just rather have fun instead of winning... Maybe he just doesn't have the Will To Compete (TM) that Jordan had." Of course, Lebron's face against the Celtics in the ECF last season told us all we needed to know about his Will To Compete, and the storyline was sufficiently buried (at least until he loses again).

But the JaVale McGee experiment is starting to take an interesting turn, because he really is improving in Denver. Like, a lot. And he's not doing it through the expected narrative of "growing up"- he's actually doing it THROUGH his goofiness. He's not "sacrificing" his playful instinct; he's HARNESSING it. Because of his physical gifts, JaVale is able to execute the oddball plays that his basketball brain concocts mid-game. Rather than boxing him into a big's role, he plays basketball the way that he wants- and that is very, very scary.

The self-actualized JaVale is an unpredictable force on both sides of the court who sees the game steps ahead of the competition, gleefully reacting to whatever machinations an opposing coach tries to draw up to stop him. His limitless potential on every play freezes defenders, as opposing big men are woefully unprepared to deal with the master trickery that is JaVale's freestyling brain and body.

The question, then, is whether or not JaVale can reach those heights through his current approach to the game. Is it only the Kobes and Jordans of the world who truly rise to greatness? It certainly has been up to this point. But JaVale and Lebron are hinting at a new paradigm for ELITENESS, albeit one that is harder to fit into greater sports narratives. They're hyper-creative and inherently improvisational. Can that mindset stand up to the current rubric for greatness (as designed by Jordan)? That remains to be seen.

Even though JaVale McGee had one of the best games of his career during the most important game of his career on Tuesday night against the Lakers, the most lasting image of that game is another classic McGee moment. Seconds after being told by Craig Sager to “hold on to that game ball, Reno food delivery