They Can't All Be Winners, Part 25: Boston Celtics

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His name was, not a little grandiloquently, Jorge Resurrección Merodio, until his little brother started to speak.

“HOR-hay,” the older boy would say, pointing to himself. The toddler would look at him, his tongue not yet able to navigate that robust, rolling Spanish R, and opt for the diminutive instead: “KOH-kay.” By the time he joined Atlético Madrid’s youth academy at eight years old, that’s what everyone called him.

I have seen his face change. It was blanker before, wearing a sort of brave child forever learning of his parents’ divorce anew expression. Now it has lines in it, when a bad pass rolls away from him or while he’s tracing the path of a run with his eyes. He lacked purpose a few years ago, when he was giving everything he had just to survive, but he has a fine focus about him these days, doing nothing for the sake of it, always at work trying to solve a problem in a particular way.

The Xavi comparison isn’t apt insofar as Xavi wasn’t earthly and Koke plays like he’s made of the grass he’s running on, but the players are similar in the sense that there’s not much about them that seems instinctual. Athletic movements, especially in a sport where margins are often decided by some strange carom or the rapidity of a defender’s reflexes, rarely look like thought in motion. Even when Messi or Hazard make those runs where they slash and swerve past five defenders, they don’t appear to be carrying out some sort of plan; it’s all near misses and the holy ghost screaming out of their pores. I imagine their internal monologues in those moments are pure onomatopoeia: tit-tit-tat-FWOOSH-tit-SKRT-VRMMM. Xavi was narrating one-twos aloud as he was playing them, like a TV chef breezily walking an audience through meal prep. Intentionality is the word for it. Whether what he tried worked or not, there was consideration behind it.

Koke has become like that. His positioning is the strongest aspect of his game, knowing he needs to be in one particular spot and not another one a few feet to the right, because if he gets the pass, then the wide midfielder’s going to step toward him, which should free up the forward, who will in turn... He’s constantly parceling this stuff out in his head, like he has a self that plays and a self that sits outside him and daydreams about what might happen eight seconds from now, and those two selves have a set of walkie-talkies. He makes thinking into an active verb. He thinks himself into space, then thinks a teammate open, and finally it’s down to his feet to do the rest of the work. More than anyone else on the pitch, he is aware.

And unceasing awareness will put lines on your face. By the end of his Barcelona days, Xavi sported a grave semi-frown that suggested a mental-emotional dyspepsia common to adjunct philosophy professors. As much as any of the game’s many gnostics, Xavi was convinced he knew the truth about soccer, and the years of proving it through example took a toll. The crinkles in Koke’s face are a squinter’s. When he stands behind a corner kick, he looks as if he’s sizing up a sledding ramp. His consternation is rooted in concerns more frivolous than his predecessor’s. He is taking his fun seriously.

The midfielder who isn’t fast but sees where he needs to be, who can visualize the pass several moments before he places it, who scrunches his visage and searches for clarity is the writer’s kind of player. He exemplifies the anxiety between knowing what to do and doing it. He is irreconcilable: both ahead of himself and stuck in the present. The great ones, like Xavi, and the good ones, like Koke, make this difficulty look almost pleasurable. In one sense, they are in pain, and in another, they’re time traveling.

Previously on TCABW: Charlotte Hornets | Philadelphia 76ers | Houston Rockets | Los Angeles Lakers | Dallas Mavericks Indiana Pacers | Oklahoma City Thunder | Memphis Grizzlies | Chicago Bulls | Washington Wizards Cleveland Cavaliers Brooklyn Nets New York Knicks Denver Nuggets Miami Heat Los Angeles Clippers Atlanta Hawks Utah Jazz Sacramento Kings Milwaukee Bucks Toronto Raptors Detroit Pistons New Orleans Pelicans | Phoenix Suns

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