This is an essay about a small point — about those who aren’t necessarily misinformed or delusional, but somehow nevertheless manage to see something in a game of basketball that simply isn’t there. While there is research that shows that someone who has played basketball is able to recognize a basketball play better than someone who hasn’t played basketball, I think that this phenomenon is also the result of — and bear with me — a relationship between the mental-verbal process of inventing an image for something that is absent coupled with a lack of appreciation for knowing what the body wants in landscapes both small and exactingly defined — that is to say, on a court — as well as ones that are seemingly amorphous and certainly large, be it the country, the city, or something in-between.
The writer, critic, and artist John Berger argued in Ways Of Seeing that images were created to signify something that was absent. In hovering over ESPN like a sports version of Chris Matthews, the commentator Stephen A. Smith is as intent to create an image that is absent as anyone else in sports journalism: he regularly uses LeBron James as both a performative hero and as a demonstration that a performative hero is absent on the court. Smith has not played basketball since college, where the Coach suggested that Smith had “a suspect jump shot” and where — in seeming response — Smith wrote in the college newspaper that the Coach should retire for ‘health issues.’ There is a gap between what he sees and what is actually there.
Stephen A. Smith says LeBron James “virtually non-existent.”
Stephen A. Smith says LeBron James “will never be Michael Jordan.”
Stephen A. Smith is “sick” of the LeBron James topics.
Stephen A. Smith wants to tell you something about how amazing LeBron James is.
Stephen A. Smith goes off on LeBron James for his ‘excuses’ about his struggles.
Stephen A. Smith says James Harden is ‘head and shoulders above’ LeBron James.
Stephen A. Smith defends LeBron James: He doesn’t deserve to be judged before playoffs.
— A Random Sampling Of ESPN Headlines.
I do not mean nor have any tremendous desire to single Smith out, but his approach is emblematic of a certain style of sports journalism that does not know what it sees and so seeks to invent an image to replace it — either in the form of heroism, or — more recently — in the form of a certain reliance upon numbers that only serves to reveal the fact that the individual highlighting the numbers doesn’t know what those numbers mean. It is a pedestrian point, but it is a point that has consequences when 18 out of 21 ESPN analysts predicted that the Philadelphia 76ers would beat the Boston Celtics in the playoffs. (They did not.) It is a point that has consequences when Knight-Ridder was one of the few outlets to warn against the impending Iraq War, a handful of people warned about the housing crisis that eventually led to The Great Recession, and a handful of people made the point that it sure did look like Vladimir Putin was seeking to elect Donald Trump.
That may look or sound like a leap — a sudden acceleration where a link becomes a leap becomes something taking flight — but it really isn’t much of a leap at all: it’s what I can only hope comes across as an act of teaching. If you can spot the things that someone misses during a game of basketball — if you find yourself not really trusting the sight of television commentators drawing a circle around a player to highlight the fact that a player is about to … walk in a straight line — then maybe you can start to think about about other things someone misses outside of that.
And you don’t even have to look on this through the lens of basketball either. Look at what Betty Gilpin as Debbie says during the finale of the first season of Glow and think again about ‘inventing an image for something that is absent coupled with a lack of appreciation for knowing what the body wants in landscapes … small and exactingly defined’ — “I actually … like wrestling. It’s like I’m back … in my body. It doesn’t belong to [my husband] or [my child]. I’m, like, using it — for me. And I feel like a goddamn superhero.”
The emotion of the reality of the body and the nature of the place it occupies is worth more than what we sometimes give it. But we first have to come to terms with the fact that we are with our bodies. And I’m not trying to head down the path of the invincibility of youth or the inevitability of age. I’m not trying to re-visit the mind-body problem. I’m not trying to gently guide you into a Daoist Tent set up along Venice Beach with someone who may or may not be a poorly disguised con artist on the run from Johnny Law holding ethereal court on the inside. I’m trying to tell you that we do a disservice to ourselves and our sense of perception if we look at something that is fundamentally non-verbal and don’t even have a go at trying to verbalize it. It’s the kind of situation that leads Clarice Lispector to write, “I’m trying to write to you with my whole body, loosing an arrow that will sink into the tender and neuralgic centre of the world.” And yet the body — still knowing that it spins “On swivels of bone & faith, / Through a lyric slipknot / of joy” — still looks to the space it occupies and seeks to occupy, knowing that there is a game (or something) out there one “loves like a country.”
And maybe that takes the form of simply sticking your hand out the passenger side window during the gentle evening blue of a summer ride, the hand somehow simultaneously riding both the waves of passing air and the waves of crickets and others of symbolic import playing in the dark. Maybe it’s in feeling basketball shoes seal themselves around your ankles like a piece of subtle alien technology. Maybe it’s in stepping outside a bar after a band has finished summoning sweat out of an evening’s dance — the echo of the dance still reverberating through your body as you take a breath of crisp air as the headlights around you slowly make their way home. Maybe it’s in trying to figure out what it feels like to be Marcus Smart scrambling for the ball or Brittney Griner leaping high in the air. Maybe it’s sawing a plank of wood in the garage.
The point is that that moment of recognition is yours, something you can slowly build upon, and I’m pretty sure that there is something in that recognition you can use to build up your perception elsewhere.
A fair counterargument to all this could be to say that this is a process much easier said than done. And there’s a degree to which that is true. And part of the problem compounding connecting the body to one’s perception to one’s environment is that the eye treats what it sees and what it thinks it sees — an optical illusion, for instance — in pretty much the same way. As Claus-Christian Carbon notes in a 2014 paper on “Understanding human perception by human-made illusions,” “The strong reliance of perception on top-down processing is the essential key for assuring reliable perceptual abilities in a world full of ambiguity and incompleteness.”
So what if that is one way we can start to rebuild the perception of those who miss things? What is more ‘down’ in a top-down world than the non-verbal? What is more ‘down’ in a ‘top-down’ world of clearly delineated exegetical organization than that strange thing called ‘art?’ Does that mean, then, that someone should enlist the Harlem Globetrotters to play a game entirely in slow motion? Does that mean that someone should try and schedule a game at Rucker Park in the middle of a pitch black night with thousands of tiny glow lights put onto all the players, leaving passersby to think they’ve just witnessed a bit of motion capture in the wild?
What might we not be seeing with Magic Johnson hiring Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Javal McGee, and Michael Beasley? (And here you can tell exactly when this piece was written. You can see old baseball cards stuffed into the time capsule of the text shooting up like sidewalk flowers.) Rondo’s, McGee’s, and Stephenson’s defensive ratings are high, but none of them had a positive plus-minus last season. Are we missing the fact that this might be part of an initial test phase laid down by Magic Johnson and that we should expect things to come around the All-Star Game? Or — and I say this while watching highlights of Kevin Durant scoring 66 at Rucker Park and people saying to each other I told you and ‘Yes, sir’ as he began to catch fire in the fourth — am I missing the fact that when Kevin Durant once walked onto a court in a gym in Maryland when he was young, he said, “You really know what love is — you know what I’m saying?”