Liftoff Is Like a Fingerprint



Aaron Gordon’s best slam dunk in the whole world, ever.

Aaron Gordon’s best slam dunk in the whole world, ever. Via Twitter.

This past weekend, Toronto became the center of the NBA universe as the NBA All-Star Weekend, with its various constellate events—the celebrity game, the skills competition, the three-point contest, slam-dunk contest, and other haute nouveauté—once again went down with its familiar mix of gauche, sizzle, and panache. I was asked more times than I can remember if I’d be in Toronto for the festivities but I maintained my proud record of never having attended an All-Star game. That won’t change anytime soon.

I get All-Star Weekend, really I do. I understand where it’s coming from and how it can be considered exciting. The best basketball talent in the world all gathered in one place for one weekend and something with something that seems somewhat like a game of basketball eventually happening in the end. I get it. Give me Westbrook, Curry, Thompson, Leonard and Green on the court at the same time. Give me Wall, Wade, George, Anthony, and James on the court at the same time. I get it. I want to anoint my soul with it. But it’s simply not my thing. I watch out of habit far more than out of awe. And at some point I realized that to be the objective of it anyway: to be accounted for more than having a profound feeling. It is what it is. And I can live with that. 

So in watching the celebrity game on Friday night, set up as American celebrities against the home-court Canadian celebrities, I sat back in my sofa, watched and actually learned a few things. I learned that the actor Tom Cavanagh, who’s currently killing it as (now his second version of) Harrison Wells in The Flash, is pretty damn good at basketball, as is Jason Sudeikis; that North Philly’s Kevin Hart’s reserves for physical comedy are bottomless and that the love affair between the NBA and Hart has become all-consuming and epic so look for an octogenarian Hart to still be on call for All-Star Weekend forty years from now. I learned that Elena Della Donne, miles and away the best basketball player dressed to play that night, is as savvy as she seems as she took the high road by trying simply to stay out of the way of all of the eager dreamers on the court; that a man as smooth in a suit and behind the commentators’ desk as Rick Fox trigger in you deep feelings of the ruthless advance of your age when you see him again after all of these years suited up to play and you hardly recognize in him the player you once knew from as far back as college, or the man you’ve come to know in the suit. And I learned that at some point in his adult life, Arcade Fire front-man Win Butler fully embraced the two central tenets of what players commonly refer to as “old man game”—a sweat-bellied, bully-ball style in the paint and a makeshift accessory, in Butler’s case some string serving as a headband to pin his long hair back. Team Canada won and Butler, with his 15 point 14 rebound performance, was named MVP for the game. During his abridged postgame interview with ESPN, he had the mic pulled away from him midsentence because, horror of horrors, he began to compliment the Canadian health care system (for the record, Butler has lived in Montreal for fifteen years and is married to a Québécoise). “So we’re talking celebrity stuff, not politics. Congratulations on your MVP,” his on-court interviewer said as she yanked the mic away from his face desperately turning to rapper-cum-coach of team Canada Drake for a final word on the festivities and a lifeline before the network went to its commercial break. It was awkward and ugly and I say this as hardly a fan of Arcade Fire. It was a sad scene that reminded me of something I need little reminding of: everything about All-Star Weekend is a simulacrum of spontaneity. The idea is that you never know what might happen with so much star power assembled, but the truth is that with so much star power assembled you know exactly what will happen. Those relied on to mug for the camera and shill for their sponsors will do so. The celebrity game had just ended, but the celebrity game never really ends. These games never really end.

Saturday was a little different. This year’s Skills Competition, an event designed to showcase the subtle talents of guards, invited the taller position players for the first time in its brief history. It was a tip of the hat to the evolution of the game: power forwards and centers who can dribble quickly around traffic, make precise passes and shoot from distance aren’t a dime a dozen these days but there are a number of them; especially among the latest generation of emerging talent. Minnesota’s rookie, the first overall pick of the draft, Karl-Anthony Towns won the competition and was mobbed in celebration by the other big men who had participated. It was the most unrehearsed display of emotion that the weekend would provide. The gate-crashers, the presumed lumberers, had won. In 1986, Spud Webb won the Slam Dunk Contest at all of five-foot-seven, scoring one for the literal little guy. This was the reverse. The underdog big guy had won. If you free yourself of thinking in terms of David and Goliath or whatever other Manichean may come to mind, suddenly amid all of the glitz of these events there were these players doing what they once did freely on playground and gyms before the obligations of their height took over. If you’ve ever had the pleasure to see a solitary someone dribbling up and down the length of a modestly lit court, pulling up for three with time ticking down then you’ve seen the basketball equivalent of the Rosebud sled. The guards never stop doing this, but for the big men, at least in this first go around in the event, brought back something that’s long been missing from All-Star Weekend: a joy that turns down instead of turns up the lights.

The Three-Point Contest and Slam Dunk contest were exciting. It’s painfully clear that the former has surpassed the latter in star power, and it’s not even close. Klay Thompson beat out his teammate Steph Curry and the nineteen-year old rookie Devin Booker in the final. President Obama recently claimed that Thompson’s shot, if as devastating, is prettier than Curry’s. He’s not wrong. Curry’s shot is like water close to a boil, it has a little more loosey-goosey action to it than Thompson’s textbook straight-up-and-down form, which makes sense for someone who has the quickest shot off the dribble in the game and infinite range. Personally, when shooters are putting up a large number of shots in a row, I prefer to watch their feet more than following their release. Some have a deep knee-bend, some jump forward, some shoot pigeon-toed, some barely jump at all. A shooter’s liftoff is like a fingerprint. It’s a little like life: how we start off marks us, but we end up better known for how we lift off and the outcome.

Speaking of liftoffs, the Slam Dunk Contest was brought back to life by Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine, two rough-around-the-edges talents who gave the audience every type of dunk imaginable; dunks that exploded before the naked eye and unwrapped like gifts of physics under the gaze of the slow motion camera. Many have been quick to call this the best Slam Dunk contest ever. But there’s an absence of soul to it these days. You end up shocked and enthralled when the dunks go down on the first attempt, as happened with Gordon and LaVine. The excitement builds off an expectation of failure and surprise at being surprised. I saw great dunks, but I also saw a viewership that didn’t know what to do with what they saw and so they gilded the edges. Everything that—and everyone who—is the greatest ever has happened in the past twenty years. What a coincidence. We are the children and grandchildren of the greatest generation ever, and we’re condemned to sell the generations that follow on the fact that we now are the greatest generation ever. We are less witnesses now than we are consumers. This doesn’t mean that the 2016 vintage wasn’t good. Rather, that the general exuberance that followed in its wake of the Dunk Contest doesn’t mean that the Dunk Contest isn’t dead.

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.