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Basketball

The Hustle Is Real

January 22, 2016 | by

How the Knicks learned to trust.

Derrick Williams, via Twitter.

Hustle and trust—the meaning of abstractions like these comes from the actions and decisions that form around them, and its these I’ve always preferred to focus on. The context gives meaning to the concept. You hustle by hurrying, running, rushing, conning, seducing, overextending. You trust by impeaching your intuition, surrendering control. When someone says “I trusted you,” the phrase is loaded with all the actions that came from that trust: the person comes almost to embody trust, just as anyone who’s always hustling can only be called a hustler. I think of Malbecco, the perennially jealous husband in Book III of The Faerie Queene, so consumed by his suspicions that he becomes jealousy itself: 

Yet can he never dye, but dying lives,
And doth himselfe with sorrow new sustaine,
That death and life attonce unto him gives,
And painefull pleasure turnes to pleasing paine.
There dwels he ever, miserable swaine,
Hatefull both to him selfe and every wight;
Where he, through privy griefe and horrour vaine,
Is woxen so deform’d, that he has quight
Forgot he was a man, and Gelosy is hight. 

Notice how Malbecco, as Gelosy, lives outside of time, a death-in-life: he can “never dye, but dying lives.” In other words, embrace a quality entirely—even, I would argue, a less pejorative quality, like hustle—and it overmasters you. You’re doomed.

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Basketball—you knew this was about basketball, right?—bears this out in fascinating ways. To begin with, look at Matthew Dellavedova, the Cleveland Cavs’s point guard. In last year’s NBA Finals, the Cavs, undermanned and outgunned, took a 2–1 lead on the favorite Golden State Warriors. The Cavs formula? Grind the game to a halt, give LeBron James as many shots as possible, and work on defense until you drop. With their star point guard Kyrie Irving out with a serious knee injury, it was up to Dellavedova to stop the league’s MVP, the Warriors’s sharp-shooting Steph Curry.

Dellavedova has a number of limitations—slow feet, a negligible vertical leap, an unsightly jump shot, pedestrian dribbling, and barely adequate passing—but in those games he had hustle. He was, in fact, all hustle. He chased Curry across the court in a full sprint every possession, hardly ever an inch away from him, trying to deny him the ball. He pulled, he yanked, he bodied him with his chest and thighs. If the ball was on the ground, Dellavedova, a former rugby player, would dive for it as if falling on a grenade to save his fellow players. By the time Cleveland won game three, the fans were chanting his name. To the Warriors, he must have seemed the bogeyman. Make no mistake, LeBron James was carrying the Cavs, but Dellavedova was the cinematic element: hustle personified.

But the Cavs didn’t win. In the end, they weren’t even close. What happened?

In part, the Warriors figured out the Cavs’s X’s and O’s; in part, Curry simply regressed to his mean; and in part, yes, James’s production came back down to Earth. But another thing happened: Dellavedova, the hustler, broke down. After the Cavs won game three, he needed to spend the night in the hospital; he was so depleted that the IV he got in the locker room didn’t stop his body from cramping.

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I found myself thinking of Dellavedova’s plight when I watched the Knicks play the Utah Jazz in Madison Square Garden. (If you don’t follow the NBA and have always wondered what jazz has to do with Utah, they used to be the New Orleans Jazz; the Los Angeles Lakers were once the Minneapolis Lakers.) The Knicks these days are entertaining and, better still, resurgent, with a perfect balance of twenty-two wins and twenty-two losses. They’ve hosed off the stench of their last season; they have an elite player, an emergent rookie, and other such suitable pieces on their roster; they’re learning to compete on every possession while not depending too much on any one player. But they’re most certainly not one big signing away from championship contentions—maybe they’ll make the playoffs this season, maybe they won’t. They have become a normal team, developing. Imagine. There’s a trust in the process.

It’s worth considering what a sea change this is. The Knicks have been no one’s darling. They were thought to have been spurned by every big free agent; they’re run by Phil Jackson, who knows, the people have suddenly decreed, very little about basketball; they’re led by Carmelo Anthony, who allegedly only cares about scoring and only resigned with the team for the money; they drafted a seven-foot-three player who checks off every possible box you’d want in an elite prospect, but who was deemed a disastrous selection because—let’s be honest here—he’s white, European and picked by the Knicks. The Internet hated them; the bankable position for clickbait writers and national pundits alike has been to dump on New York, thereby earning the respect of the flyover states and Boston.

But now the Knicks have put all of that to rest. Most of the cognoscenti, so accustomed to taking swipes, have gone silent about the team. The league is changing their national programming to include more Knicks games in the second half of the season, having originally given them hardly a one. Porzingis is an insanely popular player: his jersey is the fourth most sold in all of the league, behind Curry, James, and Kobe Bryant. And Anthony’s slightly less robust numbers belie the real story of his impact this year. He’s been a willing, incisive passer and a clear, demonstrative leader. As Joe Flynn of the excellent Knicks blog Posting and Toasting put it, he’s become a best-case-scenario vintage of himself. “Dad Melo” is now on the scene. The trust among the players is deep and deepening, and the hustle feels natural.

The Knicks’s hustle and trust have taken a tangible form, the triangle or triple-post offense. The team is currently ninth in the entire league in offensive rating, and the read-and-react nature of the offense, in which the positioning and movement of the wing and post players change on a string depending on the defense, has given order to what can be a chaotic desire to do well. In other words, if everyone is moving as one, you learn to trust with each movement; if everyone is hustling, you learn to hustle within a grander scheme. Forced into overtime by the Jazz recently, and undermanned after Porzingis fouled out, the Knicks were up by three with barely a minute remaining in the extra session. When Aaron Afflalo missed a three-pointer, reserve wingman Derrick Williams tapped the ball loose five times from the hands of Jazz players before he could corral the rebound, go up with it, and absorb the contact to convert the and-one.

It was the grand closing act to a spirited Knicks comeback, and their sixth win in a row in MSG. It was also the type of moment that Knicks fans, who appreciate controlled hustle and team play, have always loved. They showed that love by chanting his name when he stepped to the foul line to complete the old-fashioned three-point play. Derrick Williams. It’s not a name that a single Knicks fan would have thought to be chanting in joy. Williams had become known as a limited player who liked to take shots he couldn’t make. He had a choice: he could sit on his hands this season, opt into a five-million-dollar payout next season, and say goodbye to his career after that. Or, he could take the five-million-dollar trust that’s been placed in him and hustle to put himself in a position from which opting into those five million dollars next season would be the last thing he’d want to do. Williams accepted the latter challenge, and, more important, he found a system to channel his hustle. The triangle has put him in a position to get a running start to the basket against unprepared defenses.

Williams has been (mostly) good this season because he’s been put in positions to succeed. He’s learned how to hustle in a controlled environment, like a bee in its hive. Anthony is in the process of recreating himself, becoming a kind of hub for the small things in search of greater glory. If you saw footage of Anthony celebrating Williams’s play, you saw an Anthony we’re still getting used to seeing. Ebullient in a moment of empathy. True joy for others, of course, being a supreme example of the benefit of trust.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the Daily’s basketball columnist. His second book of poems, Heaven, was published earlier this year. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award, and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship.