As the team I am rooting for remains a ship in the storm still far from the safe harbor of a playoff spot, and from its bow the image of a playoff spot still blurry, appearing and disappearing from a distant horizon while the ship is tossed by the waves of misfortune, I find comfort in art.
That is why I appreciate basketball players who make watching basketball a source of comfort. It is art, a thing of beauty, removed from your partisan obligations as a fan. It becomes easy when you’ve embraced the preeminence of the beauty of basketball over a championship of a favored team; your team will not be the champion all the time; heck, it may never even ascend that peak in your lifetime – but the beauty of basketball is constant. It is always there.
I have always been an admirer of the systematic aesthetic of the game and the minds that made it possible. I guess that is why they call it designing a play. It is not just putting things together and hoping it will work; rather, there is deliberate intention — every choice of space and angle, every choice of size and formation, these are all purposeful. Designing means making what works elegant. It means you can give Reggie Miller the ball and there is a good chance he can make the shot even under pressure, but if you set staggered screens to free up the shooter, it is not just functional serving its purpose, it is also majestic. The art of the offensive set is a sight to behold.
And consistent in the nature of art to supersede older and current movements – like how Renaissance Art superseded Medieval Art and how the distortions of Expressionism superseded the eye for accurate detail of Realism – evolution renders things obsolete. Basketball is no exception.
But I think everyone is their own curator; find comfort in the art that appeals to you, even if your choices are old or unpopular. I, for one, like the art of three-point shooting, but only from those who make it look good. I find the work of others labored, derivative, uninspired, and counterintuitive to the goal of team play and winning. I don’t like that everyone is doing it because it has reduced basketball to a three-point shooting contest and on most days, it is an ugly montage of throwing bricks, like a slapstick comedy that is funny in the first 30 seconds and then gets old fast.
When I am disturbed by the misfortune that has befallen my favorite team, I find comfort in watching players from other teams play with grace, form, and beauty. That is what’s great if you are a fan of the sport and you know it is bigger than being a fan of a particular team. If I was two decades younger I would’ve entertained the idea of trying to learn and mimic the work of masters past and present; after all, imitation is the greatest form of flattery and that is so true especially in art. Many works of art are already enshrined in the Hall of Fame and those who copy any of these patented and signature moves are judged too harshly in failure and praised generously for a successful imitation – with bonus points for improving on a classic. The Dream Shake. The Iverson Crossover. The One-Legged Fadeaway (Dirk Nowitzki). The Triangle Offense. The San Antonio Ball Movement. Golden State Small Ball.
I’m not high-brow and I am easy to please. I see art in a good pick-and-roll set, a good swarming half-court trap defense – or better, an effortless press break. Every time, I go “wow”.
I’ve always had a soft spot for players reviving lost art, like DeMar DeRozan and the beauty of the mid-range game. How he finds the angle of attack, the pace of incursion, the fundamental use of timing and pump fake and footwork – each part is rudimentary and easy to learn (and yet so few have displayed masterful use of the craft). All DeRozan needs is 10 seconds in offense and he can show us the kind of masterpiece he can make using these basic tools.
If basketball players are artists, their game is their artwork, then I’d like to call Zion Williamson’s brand of basketball Brutalist art. Brutalism emphasizes the essential — the bare building materials and structural elements — over decorative design, and the resulting geometry, the image of strength and sturdiness, earns aesthetic value, the same way Zion emphasizes playing beautiful basketball without decor, stripped of fanciful albeit unnecessary motion. And like Brutalism which is enjoying a semblance of revival after a decline in recent years, Zion is bringing physical play back.
In a time when basketball and basketball players are defined by speed, agility, three-point shooting, and calls of flagrant fouls that have poisoned hard-nosed defense, Zion plays old school, when playing back to the basket in the low post means letting the defender feel your forward motion, your deliberate intent to push, your full mass and weight, and your power. Physical, but not dirty. In local streetball lingo, we call it banggàan. It is nice to see Zion unaffected by the trend of the big man shooting threes, to see his genuine confidence in his game — a combination of finesse and brute force; a young man bringing back the larong mamà – grown man basketball. That he oftentimes obliterates defenders with a brutal finish is perhaps him giving Brutalism another dimension as it applies to the art of playing basketball.
I find comfort in art I see in basketball. It makes following the games worthwhile, exciting, and rewarding, to balm the wound and to soothe the sting of loss to which my favorite team seem to succumb to over and over again. It is not a consolation for a ring-less, disappointing year, for art and championship are two separate pursuits: art is about beauty, while a championship is about glory, and we can be a fan of both. There is comfort behind each door.
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