The Terrible Weight and Necessity of Conscience

Posted on Fri 04 May 2012 in Uncategorized by Alex Dewey

Hey, Gothers, what's up? Last time we met I had a long anti-HoopIdea piece. Judging from the feedback, I'd say the frustrations I expressed were quite real and quite prevalent in the NBA blogosphere (even if my piece itself wasn't exactly flawless). Now, all that said, I have always appreciated deeply the writing at TrueHoop blog in general. Their coverage of the Sloan conference has been superb, among the many, many other things that they've done quite well. Whether I agree with them or not, they do tend to be one of the more thought-provoking NBA blogs on the web. For example...

In my HoopIdea piece, maturity was the name of the game. A couple days ago at TrueHoop, after the miraculous Clippers' comeback in Memphis, Kevin Arnovitz found Gilbert Arenas to meditate on the elusive conscience, or lack thereof, of the NBA's great tradition of chokers and closers. The piece is quite good. I want to call attention to one of the things Arenas says, because it strikes me as being poignantly half-true. Check it out:

His creativity lets him do that. It's a shot he thinks he can make. Just like Kobe. If you think about the best players in the world, they have no conscience. They try anything. They do anything. Brett Favre -- he threw any pass he thought he could throw. That's his creativity. That's what he's like. He's going to fail and he's also going to win.

But a guy with a conscience won't pull that trigger.

Arnovitz, voicing the natural response, counters "that Kevin Garnett has a conscience, that he exercises an uncommon discipline and has still been one of the best players of his time." But Arenas responds immediately with the hilarious rejoinder: "And that's why he doesn't get the ball in the fourth quarter." The dichotomy Gilbert paints is stark, but not uncommon in NBA culture. Overall, Arenas is giving us an exceedingly-well-expressed take on conventional wisdom, with a dose of Arenas's own creative flair.

• • •

But check out Gil's deliberate conflation of a conscience with stifled creative self-expression. Players without consciences are painted as artists, assassins, quarterbacks, creatives, etc.: athletic geniuses of the moment. Players without such a conscience are not simply those that lack discipline, they are players restless with the possibilities of their gifts, players that can simply see moves that no one else can imagine. They can inventa la partita - they can make the rules of the future of basketball as they go along. Arenas seems to be describing the "players whose minds and bodies in not so rare moments created something unfound in coaching manuals, a new and continuously changing game for others to aspire to.” (Ken Dryden, The Game).

It's interesting stuff, especially coming from Hibachi: There's little that's more creative in basketball - little that brings to mind athletic genius in basketball more readily - than a player creating their own shot. There is a certain brilliance in scorers that often evokes the sheer joy of a body in motion - as in ballet and figure skating and dancing and David Foster Wallace's Federer. It's why for many the GOAT conversation begins and ends (as maybe it should) with Michael Jordan, who was not only the greatest scorer ever, but simultaneously the most brilliant and efficient athletic genius that basketball has ever seen, remaking the game a little bit on a nightly basis. It's why - years after his prime - Kobe still gets a bit disproportionate share of the MVP and All-NBA First Team votes. Not just because his play is still consistently and inexplicably great (of course it is), but also because his moves are ever more laser-focused and deceptive and beautiful. You can tell from just about anything Kobe has said publicly that he revels in the spectacle of a game-winner. That spectacle in essence is the instant narrative running from the do-or-die-problem to the impossibly courageous protagonist to the impossibly brilliant solution all in a neat arc that places Kobe at the top. It's a narrative that places Kobe's game exactly in its right place: in the hallowed pantheon of bottomless creative genius, while deigning to let the mortals afterwards scrutinize (to no consequence) the infinitesimal flaws of his masterpiece. The rings are a longer take on the same story.

At least that's the theory. It's littered with problems here and there: Like all memories, we remember disproportionately Kobe's most extreme, exceptional successes and his most extreme, exceptional failures (we see the latter with perceptions of LeBron). And because of the media's fawning and Kobe's impressive persistence, we tend to allow ourselves to forget the failures over time.

No big deal: After all, selective memory isn't so much a problem for, say, works of art, because art lives in the memory as much as it lives in the moment, but also because not all art is created equal. When I went to the Art Institute of Chicago about four years ago, I saw a whole lot of paintings, but I mainly only remember seeing a gigantic Seurat and being shuttled around by my friend. When I went to the Peggy Guggenheim collection, in Venice? I basically only remember this one (god, what a cool concept, though, right?). Part of it is that I'm not an art aficionado, but I select for the very best (and occasionally very worst) memories I have: melodies, experiences with friends, algorithms, wines (check out Riesling, peeps), proofs, ideas, and mathematical constructs. I remember the best and forget the average cases.

Just like art, moments in sports are not created equal, and it doesn't do to remember them equally. When either the apparent leverage of the game/moment in question was high (buzzer-beaters, Finals performances, rivalry games) or the seeming improbability of the moment in question is high (that time Tim Duncan hit that three against the Suns), we ought to have selective memory. Those are career-defining moments, even if at the end of the game or series Pau or Bynum shot much better than Kobe, etc.. Quite seriously, basketball is a rational game, but a) who can remember the aggregate intuitively? and b) who would want to, given the choice? Putting aside the valid statistical arguments: Basketball features expression prominently, just a notch below efficiency, and it's a valid, defensible choice to choose the former for some people.

Granted, I dislike Hero Ball and the way in which Kobe consciously fashions his legacy for the media (remember, when he manipulates the media, he's reaching out and manipulating you and me). I think, as I always have, that Kobe's pecking order quotes are a mockery of the game of basketball and the team concept. If Kobe is to be defined by heroic wins, then he should also be defined by his tragic losses, however loudly he himself may lead the train of confident rationalizations for his fanatics to give senseless, endless voice to later. All that said, Kobe is an athletic genius like MJ or Bird or Magic, and in Arenas's parlance, you could rightfully say that Kobe has no conscience, and his mind and creativity are that of a great assassin. And it's a lot of fun, therefore I can't fault Kobe for his molten passion nor his relentless drive to express this individual passion through the game of basketball.

I want to be clear that I am absolutely exalting Kobe up to this point in this piece, despite criticisms. I think that Kobe is the greatest of all time with respect to some perfectly reasonable perspective that I happen not to share. He's certainly not the greatest winner or the greatest scorer, but his refinement and competitiveness and creativity and constant becoming and selfishness in some strange sense make Kobe - flaws and all - the most ideal version of Kobe.

• • •

But reflecting on Kobe in the wake of Gilbert's comments about conscience, I'm drawn again to that parallel bastion of their mutual era Tim Duncan. Tim Duncan is just as much an athletic genius as Kobe. If you doubt this, I'd just note that when he really takes over a game, he usually doesn't do it by hitting a bank shot or a 20-footer over and over: he usually does it by immensely creative, persistent and-ones and off-balance jumpers, crisp interior passing, impressionistic defense (as Aaron puts it), and - like a composer - taking the established themes of success and varying those themes endlessly and complexly over the course of the game as defenses try to contain him (and analogously, as our minds try to frame him in a finite view). Tim Duncan is an athletic genius that revels in his and-ones and tricks and buzzer-beaters like any other player.

And yet Duncan is known as a quiet, efficient player. For good reason: Duncan makes the game as simple as possible for himself and his team and only intuits the situation within a simple framework. By the time Tim Duncan's swift and incisive mind has gotten to a configuration of players, his space of choices has become as limited and as simple as a gunner trying to "get buckets" or a defensive savant to "get stops."

I think we elevate Kobe over Duncan partially because Kobe's in a big market and Duncan's not, but beyond that? The main difference comes from the way they present their genius. Kobe flaunts his gifts to anyone that will listen, but Duncan is the true assassin, hiding his secret weapons and infiltration methods until they're declassified, leaving bullets in his clip until the final scene. Or maybe Duncan simply never has to deploy his full genius, because he has cultivated the full collective powers of his team in advance. Or maybe there's something a bit more sinister and amazing in Duncan's approach that cuts to the heart of competition.

Maybe Duncan has had to actively stifle his athletic expression, time and time again. Maybe - like Kobe - Tim Duncan has the constant itch to express his individual greatness, to prove how he is streets ahead of his opponents' minds. Maybe Duncan feels like sacrificing efficiency to prove his own creativity is a sign of poor discipline unbefitting to a man whose teammates call him captain. There are some sentiments that a man can never express to his family without putting all his other expressions to them into doubt. There are some roads not taken that we cannot romanticize without losing our grip on the present. There are some things that an artist feels are deeply true but must never voice to protect and comfort the integrity of art and of the human condition.

With Kobe we get the vicarious pleasure of facing our doubters and haters with an impossible problem and watching ourselves find the impossible solution. You don't wonder what you'd have missed if Kobe had plodded away unselfishly for his team. Probably Kobe could've been a player with 90% instead of 85% of Jordan's offensive efficiency and maybe won a few more playoff series. But he also wouldn't have been Kobe.

With Duncan we don't get vicarious pleasure, we don't get to vicariously prove ourselves individually again and again, we get only the vicarious weight of responsibility: We have the ability to find impossible solutions, but with it we also have the unspeakably sad and earnest discipline never to express or even to explore most of these solutions fully. With Duncan we get conscience, sacrifice, and responsibility. I'm sure Tim's happy with the way things have turned out and have continued to work out. I just wonder sometimes what we've missed.