How Abstract Expressionism makes for great basketball
Published: January 25, 2012
The modern athlete is the physical artist who’s expected to produce a nightly masterpiece. His or her greatness hinges upon their ability to creatively navigate within the game’s fluid constraints. Like the artist, the athlete inevitably experiences moments of block — a fork at which their creative process is challenged. Unique to basketball, the ball handler is afforded the freedom to pivot when their dribbling ceases. Pivoting becomes the seemingly routine moment, but one of countless opportunities, during which the athlete’s ability to creatively problem solve is fully displayed. Will they pass, shoot, or make the mistake of traveling?
In 1962, pivoting on a tip from his father, the narrative journalist John McPhee returned to his alma-mater Princeton to witness a dynamic freshman basketball player named Bill Bradley. Typically, freshman games were sparsely attended, but Bradley’s ballyhooed arrival on the Princeton hardwood resulted in a sell out. McPhee was immediately smitten with Bradley’s seemingly perfect repertoire, the way his offensive precision wedded his unending defense. Bradley’s unmistakable range as a basketball player was only topped by his smarts, which eventually earned him a Rhodes Scholarship.
“It seemed to me that I had been watching all the possibilities of the game that I had ever imagined, and then some,” McPhee wrote. By 1964, the 21-year-old soon-to-be U.S. Olympian agreed to cooperate for McPhee’s New Yorker profile, “A Sense of Where You Are.” At one point in the profile-turned-book McPhee describes Princeton coach Butch van Breda Kolff as an “Abstract Expressionist of basketball” because he refused to implement a set offense, electing free-flowing spontaneity instead with Bradley at the helm. The cover of the current edition of the book offers a centered red circle reminiscent of a painting by noteworthy Abstract Expressionist Adolph Gottlieb.
Bradley’s art wasn’t built on flash as he refused to embellish his game. Nor was it predicated on ego demonstrated in his tireless commitment to finding the open man nearest the basket. (Tim Duncan, anyone?) The artistry of Bill Bradley was encapsulated in his loyalty to process. He understood the athlete, like the artist, needed muscle memory — a byproduct of hours upon months upon years of practice, sweat, and sleepless nights. Bradley said it best: “When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this,” he said, throwing a ball over his shoulder and right through the hoop. “You develop a sense of where you are.”
Coach Butch van Breda Kolff noted at the time that Bradley’s teammates experienced bouts of inferiority that manifested in attempts to “prove their independence.” It brings to mind our very own San Antonio Spurs and the accolade-heavy partnership forged between Coach Pop and Tim Duncan. By putting system before self and reason before emotion, Duncan has never shied away from stepping out of the spotlight. It's that spirit that made it possible for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to step in at different times to seize control of the situation.
Maybe Coach Pop himself is a loyalist to Abstract Expressionism, rejecting the values of mass production and individualism that the succeeding Pop Art movement projected. The label of “boring” has stalked the Spurs, most likely a resentment of our early- to mid-2000 successes. Regardless, no one, particularly Kobe Bryant, has ever questioned the team's intensity.
Ryan Sachetta covers the Spurs for the Current along with Manuel Solis. Follow their Spuriosity blog at blogs.sacurrent.com and catch the column every other week in print and online.
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