The Fascination of Iverson Crossing Jordan: An Exercise in Praising Athletic Beauty

In my last post, I referred to Hans Umbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty in relation to my University of Michigan Comparative Literature course on Writing the Sporting Body.  I mentioned that Gumbrecht, in what I consider the heart of the book, offers a brief but rich and profound typology of the elements of sporting performance for which he is grateful and that move him to praise.  He calls these “fascinations” to capture the fact that every sporting performance entails “body movements always already shaped by the expectations and the appreciation that spectators bring with them to the game.”  The term fascination, Gumbrecht writes, “refers to the eye as attracted to, indeed paralyzed by, the appeal of something perceived. . . . But it also captures the added dimension that the spectator contributes.” My students and I worked with these seven fascinations a great deal this semester, finding them at the very least useful starting points for articulating the arresting beauty of the performances we each, or together, chose to write. I want to share these fascinations with you.  But I think the most enjoyable way to do so will be to put them to work in relation to a performance, an iconic, but brief play that continues to fascinate me.

The play will be well known to most fans of professional basketball.  It is, as I say, iconic, primarily because of the richness of its cultural significance.  It occurred late in the 1996-97 season, Allen Iverson’s rookie year, in what was, from the standpoint of NBA competition, a fairly insignificant game.  Iverson’s Philadelphia team was struggling at 16-46, while Jordan’s Bulls, fresh off their fourth championship and a record-setting 72-10 record the previous season, were cruising at 54-8.  The Bulls won this game as well, despite a spectacular game by Iverson, and would go on to win two more championships before Jordan’s second retirement at the end of the 1998 season.  However, while competitively insignificant, matchups between Jordan and Iverson came to symbolize a struggle over the direction of the league and the face of the sport—perhaps none more so than this particular play.  While Jordan, with his enormous talent, team success and broadly appealing public persona, seemed to have resolved, on and off the court, the NBA’s perennial challenge of marketing a predominantly black sport to predominantly white fans, his first retirement reminded league executives that Jordan wouldn’t be around forever and that they would need a new Jordan to keep the game growing and the dollars flowing.  To their chagrin, the next generation of ballers seemed disinterested in appealing to mainstream white audience, or at least, unwilling to do so if it meant checking at the door the cultural markers of their experience of race and class.  So Iverson and others brought what Todd Boyd has called the “hip hop invasion” to the NBA:  not only rap music, but baggy shorts, cornrows, tattoos, and a rhetoric of fidelity to their neighborhoods and communities of origin.  David Leonard has ably documented in his book After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness, the measures the league took to avert the marketing catastrophe it believed in the offing if these players were left unchecked.

This significance, though important, all derives from what I described in my last post, following Gumbrecht, as the “meaning dimension.”  And I talk a lot about it in the chapters on Jordan and Iverson in my forthcoming book, Ball Don’t Lie! But, in a sense, this interpretation, however valid, looks right through the play itself.  Part of my interest in the course, and in my own research into the culture of basketball, however, is to add to this meaning dimension an account of what Gumbrecht calls the “presence dimension”: a close reading of the beauty of athletic performance; a stake I hold in part because I believe that close attention to such performance tend to show how they exceed and disrupt all the narratives and meanings we might derive from them or worse, seek to impose upon them.  In the book, I try to keep both of these dimensions—cultural meaning and aesthetic form—of basketball experience in play together.  But here I just want to illustrate how one might use one lens—Gumbrecht’s “fascinations”—through which to look at the aesthetic dimension of a few seconds of NBA action.  Though I suspect another order might suit the play better and, I feel certain, in fact, that some of the fascinations work better here than others, for the sake of the exercise, I’ll just take them in the order in which Gumbrecht presents them.

Screenshot 2015-05-08 14.18.231. Bodies.  Gumbrecht’s meditation on bodies focuses mainly on body sculpting, which may not seem to have an immediate bearing here—though we shouldn’t overlook the attractive force of the two beautifully sculpted athletic bodies at work in this play.  But the point Gumbrecht derives from this I think does illuminate one source of the fascination of Iverson crossing Jordan.  “Instead of thinking of the goal of body transformation as conforming to shapes that already exist, body sculpting . . . has the potential of producing an infinity of new and beautifully hybrid forms.”  Gumbrecht, who is here following the philosopher Judith Butler, is thinking of forms that move beyond traditional gender types.  But what strikes me as useful here is the suggestion that Iverson’s body departs from the ideal basketball body, as incarnated in Jordan’s own frame.  Indeed, at a moment when the basketball universe idolizes Jordan’s body, desperately desiring another body like it to take its place, Iverson offers instead a body that might not be so different—at least in size—from any of ours.  Of course, Iverson’s was lightning fast, cat quick, a terrific leaper, and tremendously skilled.  But where, just at the level of bodies, the basketball standard involves great size and above average strength, Iverson breaks the mold; such that even as Jordan continues to be viewed by most as the greatest player of all time, one often sees Iverson characterized as pound for pound the greatest ever.  More on the confrontation of these two bodies in the play itself below.

Screenshot 2015-05-08 14.29.452. Suffering.  In discussing our fascination with suffering, Gumbrecht, understandably enough, dwells a great deal on boxing and other sports, like wrestling or fencing, that enact or simulate combat.  But he also talks about chess and tennis and notes that “all sports that feature a direct confrontation between two opponents—a duel in the most literal sense—stage a scene where composure in the face of destruction is the highpoint of the production.”  Evidently enough, though a team game, basketball is also a game of individual matchups—of “direct confrontation between two opponents.”  Here a simple screen and a flip pass from Iverson’s teammate Clearance Witherspoon (whom Jordan had been guarding) entails a switch that puts Jordan on Iverson.  Normally, the advantage in such a switch would go to Iverson, on account of his quickness and skill.  But in the case, he is confronted by an unusually quick bigger defender in Jordan and one, moreover, considered one of the best defensive players of his generation.  Though the game was close at this point (the Bulls were up two), it was not a particularly significant game.  Yet the Philly crowd rose to its feet when Jordan switched onto Iverson.  The contest that mattered in this moment was the duel between an undersized, but dazzlingly effective one-on-one offensive player (Iverson) and a savvy, seasoned defender still near the height of his athletic abilities. Though the play almost certainly could not (and in fact would not) offer us the agony of a boxing knockout, or the resilience of a fighter emerging from a frightening hail of punches, it does offer us the tantalizing prospect of one hero outdueling and possibly humiliating another.  Would Jordan pick Iverson? Would he block his shot or force him into a bad one? Would Iverson dash past Jordan to the basket?  In the end, the crossover Iverson successfully executed to get Jordan off balance and himself just free for an open jump shot, delivers on the promise.  The greatest player ever, we see, is caught off balance (not once, but twice) and forced into a scrambled, vain recovery. As Dave Hickey once wrote about Dr. J’s famous under the board scoop shot against the Lakers in the NBA Finals, that play was as much made by the greatness of the defense as by the improvisational ability of Erving.  In this case, the greatness and fascination of Iverson’s play derives in part from his having defeated in hand to hand combat (and humiliated) the greatest  (and perhaps most famously competitive) player ever.

Screenshot 2015-05-08 14.36.563. Grace.  For Gumbrecht, grace “reminds us how we are sometimes unable—happily unable, I should add—to associate body movements we see with the intentions or thoughts of those who carry them out.”  In the clip above, Iverson describes what he claims to have been thinking in the course of the play.  I can’t say for sure since I’m not an elite athlete, but I take Iverson’s words as an after-the-fact description not of what his brain was thinking, but of what his brain must have been thinking and commanding his body to do in order for it to what it did and presuming that in athletic performance the usual division between mind as command center and body as plebiean army passively carrying out orders is in full effect.  But I suspect, and my conversations with elite athletes has confirmed, that exactly that division is not present in athletic performance.  In sports, the excellence we see arises from the melding of mind and body so that it might better to speak of the thinking body.  Instead of asking an athlete what was going through her mind on a given great play, it might make more sense to ask what her body was thinking (and the best answer would probably be:  “exactly what you saw”- for there is no division between mind and body).  This, for Gumbrecht, is grace. It is not to say that athletes are instinctual brutes, but rather that they are operating in a way that defies the dichotomy between calculation and instinct, reason and reflex, consciousness and action, mind and body.  Of course, when the switch first occurs, and Iverson finds himself confronted with Jordan at the top of the key, there are a few split moments of stillness when, certainly, he may have been self-conscious and conscious of the  situation: “this is MJ, my hero, I’m gonna go at him, Phil is calling out for him get up on me, etc.”  But from the moment of the first cross to the ball settling into the bottom of the net, Iverson’s body-mind is doing the thinking-acting at lightning speeds and on the strength of countless hours of repetition.

Screenshot 2015-05-08 14.23.554. Tools.  A bouncing ball and a horizontal iron ring elevated ten feet above the floor: these are the tools of the basketball player.  Sure, here we see also a wooden floor and rubber-soled shoes, but those are incidentals.   In discussing tools, Gumbrecht dwells upon animals and cars more than on standard sports equipment.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But of course in the case of basketball they are absent.  Nonetheless, some of what Gumbrecht describes as the fascination occasioned by tools in sporting performance is at work here.  “We can see ‘tools’, he writes, “as extensions or as complexifications of the human body.”  A basketball and the elevated goal very much “emphasize,” as Gumbrecht writes of tools, “the ability of the human to adapt his body to the form, movements or function of the tool.  It is about the mechanics of the interface through which bodies and their tools become connected.”  Let’s just take the ball.  What do we say of a player with the ball-handling of Iverson?  That he has the ball “on a string.”  Dribbling, remember, is a repeated voluntary loss of possession that permits a player, in effect, to circumvent the basketball rule prohibiting running with the ball.  But Iverson has so mastered skill that when he dribbles it is, in effect, as though he were maintaining possession continuously as he moves and so is defying the rules.  The crossover dribble, which was one of his signatures, might be the most elevated exhibition of this mastery.  And his successful execution of the maneuver against one of the greatest defenders ever strikes me as a perfect exhibition of what Gumbrecht means by the fascination derived by seeing humans adapt their bodies to the form, movements or function of the tools.

Screenshot 2015-05-08 14.25.225. Forms.  Gumbrecht is talking here primarily about judged sports like figure skating, gymnastics, or diving in which an athlete’s excellence is determined in part on the basis of his or her ability to perfectly fulfill a prescribed form.  But true greatness in form, even in these sports, he notes, involves the invention of new forms.  In basketball, of course, there are not prescribed forms in the same sense as in figure skating or diving.  Sure, we speak of technically perfect form on a jump shot, and this may have some correlation to a player’s ability to make jump shots, but what matters, finally, is whether or not the shot goes in.  On the other hand, the pragmatic standard of baskets made (or missed) notwithstanding, many basketball fans indeed appreciate the style and beauty of the physical forms created by players, regardless of outcome.  A Ray Allen or Stephen Curry jump shot is no less beautiful when it misses.  In this case, returning to Iverson, while he was certainly not the first to utilize the crossover dribble he was arguably the player who put it on the map as a new form (the carrying violations he was whistled for earlier in his career may partly testify to the novelty of the form he created since officials were unaccustomed to seeing it).  Gumbrecht writes that Nadia Comaneci “invented and embodied a new, dazzlingly complex ideal of gymnastic beauty that delighted spectators around the world.” I would argue that Iverson did the same by offering the new, dazzlingly complex possibility of the crossover dribble as a new form of individual movement in a sport, one whose technical, tactical, stylistic, and cultural ramifications were transformative.

Screenshot 2015-05-08 14.33.186. Plays. Gumbrecht rightly observes that “what we enjoy in the great moments of a ballgame is not just the goal, the touchdown, the home run, or the slam dunk,” but rather “the beautiful individual play that takes form prior to the score.” “A beautiful play,” Gumbrecht writes, “is produced by the sudden, surprising convergence of several athletes’ bodies in time and space.” Indeed, Leonard Koppett, decades earlier, had already noted the way in which basketball, because baskets themselves are relatively routine, draws attention to the play unfolding prior to the score, and in particular to its style. Perhaps obviously, this applies to the Iverson crossover. The pick and the flip pass prompt a switch in defensive assignments that suddenly put Jordan (the league’s top player) on Iverson (the league’s top rookie). Even set plays, Gumbrecht continues, become surprising because they are achieved “against the unpredictable resistance of the other team’s defense.” Ideally, a ball screen for the point guard that results in a defensive switch creates an advantage for the offensive team in that a larger and presumably slower player is now left alone to defend the smaller quicker point guard (and, at the same time, the smaller defensive guard is left alone to defend the larger offensive player who set the original screen)—here, incidentally, bodies come into play again. But in this case, though the expected size differentials do occur—the 6-6 Jordan left alone to defend Iverson, perhaps 6-0, in the center of the floor—they don’t lead to any obvious advantage for Philadelphia because Jordan was also quick and widely considered the best defensive player in the game at the time. So, as Gumbrecht describes it, “the team in possession of the ball tries to create a play and avoid chaos, its opposing team in the defensive position tries to destroy the emerging form and precipitate chaos.”  This leads to what Gumbrecht calls “an epiphany of form.”  Complex, embodied, and surprising, a beautiful play—like Iverson’s crossover on Jordan—is also, “a temporalized form” that “begins to vanish from the very moment it begins to emerge.” Speaking for myself, the fascination of his play stems from its lightning flash life span.  Among the many reasons I watch it again and again, mesmerized, fascinated, is that it is over so quickly.  Not only do I need, cognitively, to see it again to understand what has happened, but I emotionally I need to settle the complex of sweet pain that arises from its rapid passing.

Screenshot 2015-05-08 14.35.247. Timing.  Gumbrecht defines timing as “perfect fusion between a perception of space and the initiation of movement . . . the intuitive capacity to bring one’s body to a specific place at the very moment when it matters to be there” and he closely relates it to violence, defined as “the act of occupying spaces or blocking their occupation by others through the resistance of one’s body.” Timing, then, relates to violence because “the player will be in the right place” at the right time “either because the spot in question will not be occupied (not covered) by the body of another player at that moment, or precisely because the body of another player will occupy it.” The latter describes good defensive timing whereas the former describes good timing from the perspective of the offensive player trying to get free. Jordan tries to anticipate where Iverson will be in the next instant so that he can be there instead, while Iverson, of course, tries to—and does—get to the spot where Jordan will not be. Leonard Koppett, again, seems to have presaged the central point of Gumbrecht’s comments on timing when he described the central task of the basketball player as “getting free,” though Koppett centered on deception and fakery (rather than timing) as the means by which, in basketball, players do this.  Good timing, however, may also simply be a component of effective deception. At least, it is with Iverson’s crossover, in which it is not simply a matter of leaning explosively in one direction to throw the defender off balance (the fake), but of intuitively grasping exactly the perfect moment to yank the ball quickly back in the other direction (the cross) so as to get free. That precise moment might be thought of as the kairos, which was what the Greeks called the opportune moment for invention and, indeed, as the instant in which an opportunity presents itself to set a frozen moment in history forward into an unfolding, unpredictable movement once again.

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