Why We Watch: Steve Novak, Catch and Shoot

Steve Novak is not like any other NBA player, which makes him confoundingly and a little bit inspiringly like us.
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The theater artist Anne Bogart, when teaching fledgling directors, reminds her students that, onstage, expectation creates experience. At the same time, though, expectation—what we've been conditioned to see when we look at a certain thing, what we've learned to see in a person or place or circumstance from life or art—can impose some limits; we get a floor as a solid place on which to stand, but we get a ceiling blocking our view. And so, if you want to craft a dramatically compelling moment onstage, you can ultimately do only two things: You can either fulfill the audience's expectations, or go to war against them. Basketball, which is itself a type of performance, offers the same conflicts both in terms of the basic drama itself—who will win and who will lose, and why—and in the other, subtler and more individuated experience(s) we have as the audience. This is where we take the conflict on the court and make it into whatever narrative we want or need it to be, and find our expectations either made whole or smashed.

Because he is gawky and slow where basketball players are supposed to be nimble and fast, and because he doesn't rebound or defend particularly well at all, Steve Novak is a hugely imperfect basketball player. But, he may be the NBA's most perfect and most complicated dramatic vehicle. His existence is a constant cycling between those two polar opposites, a relatively stationary athlete who is also a weird whirl within which fulfilled and broken expectations exist simultaneously. That and he makes a lot of three-pointers.

EXPECTATION BROKEN: STEVE NOVAK IS A JOURNEYMAN BALLPLAYER AT BEST

After a hugely productive college career, Novak slipped into the second round of the 2006 NBA Draft, then carved out a semi-respectable, hugely migratory NBA existence, earning occasional floor time with the Rockets, Clippers, Mavericks, and Spurs over his first four seasons. In none of those stops did Novak exceed 16 minutes per game. This was because, no matter how gaudy his top-shelf ability to tickle the twine from deep, his inability to contribute in any and every other aspect of professional basketball seemed to consign him to lifetime membership in the Tall Gunners Guild.

That august society's membership is well known to NBA devotees: Matt Bullard, Scott Padgett, Matt Bonner, late-career sloe-eyed Sam Perkins; their shared minimalist methodology even more so. No less an NBA wag than Jeff Van Gundy deemed Novak the best 3-pont shooter in the league and simultaneously damned him with faint praise by adding, "He has one great skill." You, we, all of us, know who this type of player is, and what he does, and what he might and ought not be expected to do. And so Knicks fans and everyone else knew what to expect when Novak signed a one-year, minimum salary deal before the start of last season. He was supposed to play the role that players like him play. He was supposed to be the twelfth man, and light up warm-ups, and that was about that.

This is not what happened. While it lacked the cultural impact or sheer gobsmacking, Twitter-melting anomalousness of Jeremy Lin's emergence, Novak's transformation from afterthought to thoroughbred-grade one-trick pony was impressive nonetheless. This happened more or less the only way it could've—after injuries to Amar’e Stoudemire, Josh Harrellson, Carmelo Anthony and every other Knick taller than Toney Douglas—but it happened nonetheless. Novak led the NBA in three-point percentage (.472) and tied for third in threes made despite logging approximately half the minutes of the players ranked ahead of him: Ryan Anderson, Jason Terry and Kevin Durant. He didn't attempt enough shots to qualify, but his adjusted shooting percentage of .675 would have placed second only to his fellow ‘Bocker, Tyson Chandler (.679) and he'd have ranked seventh overall in points per shot. Though his shooting numbers were within range his careers norms, no one expected this from this guy. Even Steve Novak could not have expected this. There was no prior evidence, even, that suggested it was an expectation anyone could've had.

EXPECTATION FULFILLED: STEVE NOVAK CAN SHOOT THE ROCK

It’s not that, some idle offseason, Novak travelled to Dirk Nowitzki’s secret German clinic, where every limb was injected with a mysterious, platelet-rich serum that magically expanded his game. Rather, he found himself under the tutelage of Mike D’Antoni, who, if nothing else, will move heaven and earth to find playing time for and craft a system that benefits a dead-eye shooter, no matter how allergic to defense s/he may be.

It also must be noted that the unleashing of Novak was inextricably bound to Linsanity. As what had been a stagnant, clump-intensive morass evolved into something like the drive-and-kick, pick-and-roll churn of D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less dream teams, Novak showed a rare aptitude for finding soft spots on the perimeter. When defenses collapsed on Lin's forays to the rim, Novak was left by himself, on his favorite place on the floor and with plenty of time to do his favorite thing.

Over the entire course of the strike-shortened, 2011-12 season, Novak attempted only one shot inside the painted area. That’s not a typo. One. One shot. He missed it.

This data point might reveal a player who knows his limitations all too well and has adjusted his game accordingly. It could also reflect a purism that has collapsed into something impractical and maybe a little fascistic; an attempt to warp the game until it conforms to this one player's perspective and needs. It is not a practical or expansive or especially basketball-ish vision of the game, but it's a vision. Messy, unpredictable variables are eliminated; Novak's ungainly flaws are not exposed, because they are effectively eradicated, vanished as Novak shrunk the game down to the one thing he can do better than anyone else. What was left was a single, singular variable—the distance between Steve and the hoop— or a perfect, impenetrable Zen bubble amidst the chaos of contingency and chance and the uncontrollable. 

And that shot. That shot itself is the transcendentally gorgeous opposite of chance, like three or four frames from an old “Red on Roundball” clip brought to full, three-dimensional life. Once Novak started to gun with regularity, the crowd at Madison Square Garden (and the entire Knicks bench) would start to rise as one whenever he got the rock behind the arc. Before the ball left his fingertips, a guttural, cresting, fizzy-lifting, anticipatory rumble would rise. The pre-launch expectation that Novak created was almost as delicious as the eruption of joy after the ball made its way through the net. When the odd heave would clang horribly off the rim—the shot always looks perfect, but basketball, like most things in life, is far from perfect—it was existentially jarring, as if some fundamental flaw in physics had suddenly revealed itself.

EXPECTATION BROKEN: STEVE NOVAK SOMETIMES TRIES TO BE A BADASS

Like the ancient Chinese rug weavers who intentionally left a thread out of place in one of their creations so as not to offend God, Novak found the ideal, earnestly goofy counterpoint to the poetic, borderline-Platonic splendor of his treys. This celebration/homage lifted from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers: post-triple, Novak would trace an imaginary championship belt around his midriff. The gesture (with a tip of the cap to Madison Avenue/the State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company) became known as the Discount Double Check.

It’s not like Novak was consciously trying to create the dorkiest moment(s) of last season. This was Steve Novak with his earnest swag on overload, resulting in a fantastically endearing gesture that fails and succeeds simultaneously. Steve’s clutch buckets were worthy of some showmanship, but this particular flourish… well, check this out.

Watch it a few more times, maybe. Stop watching when you stop grinning.

EXPECTATION FULFILLED: STEVE NOVAK IS WHITE

Right, this too. Steve Novak is white. He’s so pale (How pale is he?) that he appears almost translucent.  More than that: he mostly lacks professional-grade muscle tone and never quite breaks into a full sprint on the court. Rather, he ambles goofily, with his sloping, shoulders dangling idly, as if they knew the precious, limited kinetic energy contained within had to be carefully rationed for any and all shot attempts. His entire face seems to be made out of a soft cheese that wildly contracts at random moments, as if this cheese were also a deep sea creature reacting to the presence of a predator.

Which is to say that Novak just plumb doesn’t look like the kind of person who could earn a paycheck as a professional basketball player, in this or most any era. If you didn’t know he was 6-10, were just shown a picture of his mug and a snippet of him talking, and then had to guess what he did for a living, many responses would fall along the lines of: “An oddly chipper but overworked GS-9 examiner at an IRS Regional Examination Center somewhere in the Midwest; a nice guy who nonetheless lives in a shadow of total fear and despair—both apocalyptic visions of the total destruction of society and a terror of personal inadequacy.” In a recent interview, Novak named the Cheesecake Factory as his favorite place to get pasta in the New York area. He looks like that guy.

And Novak is that guy: not just racially white, but culturally white. This is not his fault, or a priori a bad thing. What it does, though, is make it possible for fans—like me, and like many others, including those who are not athletic (or white, if that matters)—to indulge the childish fantasy that, were we a foot or so taller and profoundly different in some other serious and distant ways, we could be out there on the floor doing what Steve Novak does. We can believe this because he appears every bit as uncool as we are, but is also every bit as virtuosic as we might wish/hope/dream to be.

EXPECTATION FULFILLED AND BROKEN: STEVE NOVAK

The NBA, and this series, is full of players with one superhuman skill and a host of human/dweeby grades everywhere else. That Novak's case is the one that inspires Knicks fans—like me, but not just like me—so much surely has something to do with his race. But there's a broader improbability to this happy and satisfied new reality of his—the backstory, the history, the color and the shape—that broadens his appeal beyond crass clannishness.

The clannishness is there, of course, and palpable and not the proudest thing. We watch basketball not only because of a base desire for Manichean us-versus-them battles or as a distraction/diversion from the far more complicated problems of “real” life, but because the act of being a spectator, a fan, reveals something about ourselves.

So Novak, if we flatter ourselves, seems—in his unlikeliness and singular and inexplicable and seemingly self-willed greatness at this one thing—actually to reveal us as we imagine we might have been. Race is a part of this; race is a part of everything, it’s practically the air we breathe. That said, the greater part of Novak-as-avatar, which is also a part of everything, is our vanity. The drama of Steve Novak—beyond the improbable journey and that beautiful shot—is in large part just a fan's dream of an imagined, better self, or, as Shakespeare put it, the pass and fell incensed points of mighty opposites. The sublime and the ridiculous, catch and shoot.

Illustration by Robert Silverman.


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