The time has come for America to heal. Kobe Bryant, the last cultural vestige of the Bush Administration, is retiring forever and no one will have to watch him play basketball ever again.
Since Kobe was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 1996, America has experienced the most horrifying terror attack in history, engaged in two insane, immoral wars, been ransacked by various hurricanes, and assaulted by a Republican presidential field that suggests that a sizeable chunk of the country's constituency is at least fascism-curious. The NBA went from the clarity of the Jordan's fiefdom to the bizarre, cramped, muddle-puddle of the 2000's. The only universally celebrated events were a handful of playoff failures—Kings, Suns, LeBron, the Warriors in that weird Baron Davis Renaissance season—chumping fools with hyperspeed, comprehensive games that eventually ushered in a new ball-movement era, beloved by all.
I will not mourn Kobe, for he was the harbinger of bad times for all people. You guys know people wrote passionate Conor Oberst thinkpieces during his zenith, right? You can't find them anymore, they were all in magazines that got burned for heat during the mortgage crisis.
It is best that all that Oberst content, like Kobe's career and this whole era of American history, be left to the past. They are the mulch from which we will grow a better tomorrow. Congratulations, TO US! On to reviews!
JIMMY SCORES FIFTY
But can you blame him? Playing in the west, the Golden State Warriors are marching down the streets of the NBA every night, throwing rocks and dirty looks at their humiliated opponents, gaining strength and power from victory, like some horrible monster child who eats his vegetables, plays outside for at least hour a day, and ends the day in the company of a good book. What choice would a rational person have except to flake? Harden knows he's not in a contract year and his team is destined to become, best-case scenario, supporting players in a Steph Curry poster, so why tax yourself in pursuit of a lost cause? St. Jude was a sucker. Accepting your fate with this kind of exuberantly over-it gusto—it's admirable.
But that doesn't mean ANYONE wants to lose to the sadass Philadelphia 76ers. So when the Rockets found themselves in this hurricane of dull swords, Harden rose up and dropped 50. But how was it? Can a major player, plying from a nap-ditch and rarely celebrated for his aesthetic qualities, make something beautiful out of nowhere?
A strong start, I'll give him that. A bevy of pull-up threes, swift assists to Dwight Howard, who, even in his diminished state, cuts through the sad men assigned to check him like a Hot Katana. At about 1:00, Harden cuts down the baseline for a RARE alley-oop reception from Ty Lawson, who is also having a bad season, but for different reasons. He gets fouled on a three pointer, if that's your kink. The only midrange jumper he makes in the entire half happens at the halftime buzzer. Even in a drowsy gap year, James is devoted to high-value shots.
In the beginning of the third, about 2:20, Harden runs a side-screen-and-roll with Howard, drives into the lane, feels light contact from Robert Covington, bends his entire upper body into an arc, and tosses the ball into the hoop. People—snobs, frankly, because children LOVE him—might not like watching Harden's charge-first-get-fouled-inevitably-make-the-points-later of play, but is there another single player in the NBA who is so canny and improvisational and in control of his own body? Subtle pleasures abound.
The rest of the second half is not quite as invigorating. Lots of fouls, lots of charging. Another three-point foul at about 3:29, poor Robert Covington again. He ends the game with two foul-game free throws, which, as I've enumerated before, means that this was ACTUALLY a 48-Point effort that was rigged to make two extra points. Still an achievement, but not the genuine round number we crave. You're goddamn right we dock points for that on the final grade.
I know I said I would not write about Porzingis anymore, in defiance of the Great Porzingis Content Rush of 2015. But something happened this week and it cannot remain unremarked. If you're squeamish, please close your eyes and scroll for a little while, perhaps to the passage about Bill Russell that follows this.
I refuse to post the video, because children read this blog, and I refuse to be another in a choir of Children's Sports Media voice telling them that Dwight Howard is cool.
In this picture, we see that life, and reality, is not dictated by a moral order. We often forget this as we consider the Wave of History on which the world is borne forward. The winner of every war was just and their victory inevitable, every Super Bowl champion was obviously deserving, all failed students are dummies and deserve the terrible lives society gave them in response. Just looking at Dwight Howard, a man who generates so many unpleasant feelings—a man who has farted on an acquaintance of mine in a professional context—dunking THAT hard on Our Kristaps, America's own Young Lurch and a fringe Peace Prize contender in his rookie season...it makes us sick to our stomachs to see the ugliness of history happening in the moment.
Were it not for me considering it in this column, which will reverberate throughout history as ALL great sportswriting has and will, we would forget this picture in about a month. It is too disassociating for our minds to store forever. It is a miscarriage of justice too unreal to process. Thankfully, we will forget.
RATING: DOES NOT EXIST, CANNOT READ OR SEE
BIG BILL BUSTS BLOBS
If I could have memories of a player's entire career inserted into my mind, science fiction style, it would be Bill Russell. I read a book and understand that it happened in the abstract, but how could a player dominate the NBA up and down for more than a decade with nothing but boarding and defense? So much of the 1960's NBA footage has been lost to time; no one thought to preserve sportstape they must have thought ephemeral. The whole era refuses to give up a firm picture of its own existence.
Blessedly, the wonderful Wilt Chamberlain Archive YouTube channel collects the little scraps of history we have remaining, and this video of highlights from Russell's 12 Point, 9 Assist, 24 (Or 28, depending on whose account you ascribe) Rebound, 8 Block Performance in the 1963 NBA Finals holds SOME answers to minds who thirst for a more intimate understanding of Bill Russell:
Russell, generally believed to be 6-9, looks ENORMOUS among the other tiny men on the court. He skies right over anyone trying to keep him off the boards, a fucking righteous ultra-human among the sad little cigarette-smoking troll men. His opponents practically hunch when they are embarrassed in this matter, Igors in the presence of a MIGHTY Dr. Dunkenstein.
He blocks all kinds of shit, left and right. Jerry West gets straight embarrassed by a jump shot at about 2:15, a proper synecdoche for his entire playing career. At about 2:50, Jim Krebs, with no defender in front of him, opts not to drive into Mt. Russell. You think him a coward for it until 3:15, when Russell chews up a Dick Barnett drive and shits it out daintily into a kitty litter box, because he regards the content of the shot with so much contempt. Why did you drive, dude? It isn't going to work. You can't beat him. Bill is ShotDeath. He smells, he sees, he devours. Just give up.
It's mentioned less often, but Russell is also a deft passer, both outletting and passing out of the post. A Big Man being utilized like this: rebounder, defender, distributor, finisher, not creating his own offense—it all probably seemed very strange in the 90's, when the post-up big man roamed the Earth, collecting his bounty on the block. Today, though, it seems like the right way to play, the reason Tyson Chandler is such a magnificent force. In this we see the NBA's tactical evolution is not unlike the work of Bela Bartok: the composer returns to the country to explore folk music of rural antiquity, takes something from it, expands it into a new symphony that is celebrated in the city.
I also have to address Cousy, who is absolutely absurd. His lock and loaded-ass jump shot is some of the saddest shit I have ever seen and he dribbles with one hand while his other arm floats in the air, as if he he is posing for a portrait at SEARS and has no idea what to do with it. What's going on, Bob? Did you double dribble so much as a kid that you just decided to take your off-arm completely out of the equation? Is this what fundamentals once looked like? I went to the gym and tried it on for size, to see if he was onto something:
After trying the raised-arm dribble in a controlled environment, I can tell you two things:
ONE: Dribbling and passing with one engaged hand is not as hard as I thought, though I can't properly say it afforded me an extra advantage. Perhaps if my right arm, my normal dribbling arm—though I use my left arm for most things and CAN dribble with my left arm—was significantly heavier than my left arm, my raised arm could act as a counter balance and keep me from falling on my side. Cousy's nightmarish jumper does suggest fundamental internal imbalance.
TWO: Needing to constantly remind yourself to keep your arm raised does keep your entire brain engaged, and could work as a sort of crude mind training if you don't have a color-flashing app on hand. Maybe this was NOT an attempt to keep from falling over while dribbling, but an early form of Basketball Transcendental Meditation that kept Bob sharp enough to play at a Hall of Fame level. More research is needed, probably.
RATING: *****/BILL RUSSELL RULES
JIMMER IN EXILE
Is there a player in or around the NBA walking a stranger path than Jimmer Fredette? He is probably not an NBA caliber player in some basic ways—too small to play defense, too shot-enthralled to play backup point guard, too streaky to come off the bench and score consistently. Normally, the path of the mediocre player will eventually take them out of the United States, to Spain or the Adriatic or, if you wanna get really freaky with it (or at least get more shots), China.
But Jimmer has an intangible asset that most of the basketball middle class doesn't: he is a famous American who is beloved by Mormons and college basketball fans. An NBA team that is bottomed out or low on healthy guards can sign Jimmer and sell him to the community, even if he's only really equipped to do a little bit for a little while at the NBA level. Our man has managed to work it into an NBA job for the last four years: two and a half seasons in Sacramento, a stint in Chicago, some jobbing with New Orleans. Four years of NBA checks out of a career that is nearly defined fringey-ness? There are worse things.
But, for now, our man has hit a wall. And walls in the NBA lead to one place: That Good D-League, playing with the Westchester County Knicks. The checks aren't flush like they are in Europe, certainly, but an enterprising player with considerable fame can do a lot to keep in the consciousness of fans and GMs who are looking to throw a minimum contract at a reasonable, well-loved backup option. And, ladies and gentlemen, in his D-League debut, Jimmer proved that he is probably too good for the D-League:
A barrage of pull up three pointers, half-speed drives, a handful of clever passes—next thing you know, you're the Percocet Iverson of the 5th or 6th best basketball league in the world! His most notable shot, aesthetically, is definitely his transition pull up: it has a kind of squishy quality, as if a gelatin mold of a human being was given life and dedicated itself, through either arcane magic or futuristic technology unimaginable to our modern minds. It's harder to take the drives too seriously: Bill Russell could probably still crush those layups into the front row if you swapped out his knees.
The mix itself has some problems. It was edited and published by a lone highlighter, perhaps Jimmer himself, or a friend or lover who goes by the name "The Jimmer Watch." TJW has been active for about a month, compiling Jimmer highlights as a service to all the Jimmer enthusiasts out there, watching and praying for his NBA success. I admire this highlighter's single minded devotion, but they REALLY need to cool it with the extra context, stuff like Jimmer-related announcer prattling, replays, dribbling around before taking a foul shot. We're talking 4:30 in highlights in a 6:00 package, not efficient at all. Also, they opted to include foul shots, which are boring, but not the actual plays where Jimmer was fouled, which are also boring, but perceptibly less boring. An utterly befuddling decision.
The arena is practically empty. Too much to do in Westchester, perhaps, a suburban version of the Miami Heat problem. At about 4:26, the arena PA plays "Clap Your Hands" and no one claps along, which is the way it ought to be, because that is the most wretched of all jock jams, a filthy stain on a glorious musical tradition that should be bleached out of Arena culture at the closest hour.
RATING: .75 JIMMERS
Until next week: love your fellow person with powerful sincerity.