Hoops and the Abstract Truth
March 1, 2016 | by Rowan Ricardo Phillips
“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious,” Einstein wrote in The World As I See It. “It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”
Thus far, the NBA has been far from that cradle this season. There’s not a lot of mystery when you have two superior teams—when the best players in the game are playing like the best players in the game. The results have, for the most part, certified reasonable assumptions as truths.
Case in point: what I wrote about in December still holds true as we turn into March. Stephen Curry continues his long and fruitless search for a heat check. On Saturday, playing on an ankle still sore from injuries he’d sustained during that same game, he tied the NBA record for three-pointers made in a single game. He hit the game winner on a pull-up three from nearly thirty-three feet away. I say “nearly” because his shot is so effortless at these extreme distances, and his lift so instinctive, that my precision seems beyond the point: the markings on the court don’t matter, our silly rulers don’t matter. Muscle memory, genetics, extensive training, great emotional intelligence—all the stuff of true science has surfaced in Curry as true art.
So let’s look at that game-winning three-pointer as a work of art. Suffering—as Auden wrote in his study of Brueghel, “Musée des Beaux Arts”—is a “human position” to understand. You might find it at the center of the scene or at the periphery, but even if it’s not front and center, it’s there: “the dreadful martyrdom must run its course / Anyhow in a corner … ” Look to one corner of Curry’s canvas and you’ll spot Andre Roberson, a role player who earns his roster spot playing defense, doing exactly what the textbook tells you to do: he tried to hustle back to the three-point line in order to position himself to defend from there. But Curry’s frame of reference is neither the arc painted on the court, nor Roberson’s, nor the textbook’s. As Roberson backtracked, his body betrayed its doubt about what it should be doing. His are the motions of someone in a high-leverage situation who’s unsure whether to step back or step up, unsure if he’s defending the past or the future.
Even better than the shot itself is the reaction of the Thunder players on the bench. In another corner of this new Curry masterpiece is Anthony Morrow—a great shooter but defensively challenged—who didn’t play a minute in the game. He’s imploring Roberson to step up on Curry as he’s approaching half court. As the shot reaches the apex of its arc, the reserve center, Enes Kanter, who’d played well but in perhaps a moment of over-coaching was taken out of the game at this critical juncture, lets out one of those why-me-why-us shrugs of the beleaguered, the type of half-hearted gesture where the hands don’t even make it all the way up because the body has given up hope before the mind has registered it. From the sidelines, the Thunder had all the answers for poor Roberson. There was no mystery to what was happening. But still, even in the abject horror of it all, I’m sure they saw the beauty in it—to say nothing of the art and the science.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the Daily’s basketball columnist. His second book of poems, Heaven, was published last year. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a 2013 Whiting Award, and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship.