The human body as it exists in professional sports is streamlined, refined, and trained to the point where you can hardly recognize it as the same thing that you and I—big ol’ bags of meat and regret—haul around from bus stop to bus stop, getting soaked by rain and stricken by disease.
The body of the pro athlete, touched by the spirits and tempered by iron, by discipline, and by a drive to succeed that so far outstrips anything I’ve ever felt IN MY LIFE, streaks up and down the field, the court, the clay, the ice with meticulous abandon. You watch enough sports and you start to think that, quite simply, the people on TV are not the same species as you.
This is why we love blooper reels. It’s why some of the best shit about sports happens when athletes very briefly stop looking superhuman and are rendered, once again, recognizably human: clumsy, stupid, loafing, improvising.
I think this is why people are so attracted to Joel Embiid: he is so raw in his brilliant athleticism, working so obviously by the seat of his pants, that even with all the size and movement in the world, he can’t help leaking his humanity everywhere, staining the carpet with the essence of his personhood.
But this particular edition of the Dunk of the Week is not about The Process. It’s about a more established player, a dude who’s game is built on the obscene refinement of actions that look like failure: being fouled, taking contact, pumping up a bad or weird shot, and turning it into something surprisingly effective. It is about someone who has managed to refine his own innate awkwardness into art. It is about James Harden.
Who didn’t actually do the dunk.
There is a ball on the ground. J.R. Smith, LeBron James and P.J. Tucker are splayed out on the court, hunting for it.
But, standing over them is Harden, who seems to, for just a second, completely disengage from the act of doing anything that resembles “playing basketball." It’s as if he isn’t being watched by hundred of thousands of people for their entertainment and edification, but is, instead, getting a ball off the ground because someone is trying to steal it from him. In this brief moment, Harden’s body language is almost completely disassociated from sports. There is no refinement in the way he kneels, waving his hands around to keep his balance or in the way he reaches down, snatching the ball off the ground with a wildly raw jerk of his two hands, just barely keeping it out of the reach of Jae Crowder, who follows his teammates onto the ground in his swipe attempt.
In this movement, we see Harden not as a professional athlete, one who has sipped from the cup of greatness and been gifted with its power, literally one of the most coordinated human beings on the planet, the NBA player who most personifies the ideal of the trickster, subtly slamming his body into opponents to create contact to create the tiniest possible bit of tactical leverage for his team.
Instead, in his desperation and heat, his split second two handed panic swipe, we see him as we might see ourselves, our friends, our children, if we were forced to play in an NBA game for a minute: as a flailing wildman operating at the edge of his capability, caught in a scenario that makes very little sense in the wider structure of basketball, improvising to keep ourselves in the game as much as possible.
Harden doesn’t take long to free himself from this momentary confusion, though. He scrunches up defensively, looks towards the hoop, sees human alley-oop Clint Capela drifting towards the rim, calling for the ball with two hands—if anyone here is displaying superhuman athletic skill, it’s Capela, honestly, for managing to see through that chaos and into the possibility of an open dunk—and tosses the ball at him, still a little awkwardly, his two hands not creating the kind of crispy wrist-y pass we idealize at the providence of the alley-oop, but more of a lumpy, dazed, heave. Capella retrieves it and two-hand slams it down over a hapless, disoriented Jeff Green, who could not possibly be in a worse place at a worse time, getting the dunk and the foul. Capela twists on the rim, and lands in a weird little airplane stance, then does a little airplane dance presumably to draw attention to how fucking WEIRD that whole play was.
Harden, on the other hand, seems completely invested in acting like shit was totally normal. He quickly turns around, his posture fixes instantly, back into a smooth pro-athlete strut, like that was the most normal and purposeful shit in the world, not even a little bit on accident, no sir-ee.
But in these times, highlights live forever, and so we see can all see, for one brief second, Harden’s skill and style getting completely debased by his ambition to create two points. It soothes the clumsy soul of the mediocre man.