Tuesday, May 06, 2014

The mid-range jumper is dead (this time it's for real)

Jump shots used to be central to the game of basketball. No more: in the digital age, not only is the jump shot in decline, but the very idea of 'difficult' shooting is being challenged. The future of the serious mid-range jumper, argues Fat Contradiction, is as a specialised interest

If you happen to be a basketball player, one of the great benisons of having children is that your personal culture-mine is equipped with its own canaries. As you tunnel on relentlessly into the future, these little harbingers either choke on the noxious gases released by the extraction of decadence, or they thrive in the clean air of what we might call progress. (Yes, these are the only two options.) A few months ago, one of my canaries, who's in his mid-teens and harbours a laudable ambition to be the world's greatest ever rock musician, was messing about on his electric guitar. Breaking off from a particularly jagged and angry riff, he launched into an equally jagged diatribe, the gist of which was already familiar to me: everything in popular music had been done before, and usually those who'd done it first had done it best. Besides, the instant availability of almost everything that had ever been done stifled his creativity, and made him feel it was all hopeless.

A miner, if he has any sense, treats his canary well, so I began gently remonstrating with him. Yes, I said, it's true that the web and the internet have created a permanent Now, eliminating our sense of musical eras; it's also the case that the queered demographics of our longer-living, lower-birthing population means that the middle-aged squat on top of the pyramid of endeavour, crushing the young with our nostalgic tastes. What's more, the decimation of the revenue streams once generated by analogues of recorded music have put paid to many a musician's income. But my canary had to appreciate this: if you took the long view, the advent of the 78rpm shellac disc had also been a disaster for musicians who in the teens and 20s of the last century made their daily bread by live performance. I repeated one of my favourite anecdotes: when the first wax cylinder recording of Feodor Chaliapin singing "The Song of the Volga Boatmen" was played, its listeners, despite a lowness of fidelity that would seem laughable to us (imagine a man holding forth from a giant bowl of snapping, crackling and popping Rice Krispies), were nonetheless convinced the portly Russian must be in the room, and searched behind drapes and underneath chaise longues for him.

So recorded sound blew away the nimbus of authenticity surrounding live performers – but it did worse things. My canaries have often heard me tell how back in the 1970s heyday of the pop charts, all you needed was a writing credit on some loathsome chirpy-chirpy-cheep-cheeping ditty in order to spend the rest of your born days lying by a guitar-shaped pool in the Hollywood Hills hoovering up cocaine. Surely if there's one thing we have to be grateful for it's that the web has put paid to such an egregious financial multiplier being applied to raw talentlessness. Put paid to it, and also returned musicians to the domain of live performance and, arguably, reinvigorated musicianship in the process. Anyway, I was saying all of this to my canary, who had, I assume, fallen asleep at some point in the previous paragraph, when I was suddenly overtaken by a great wave of noxiousness only I could smell. I faltered, I fell silent, then I said: sod you and your creative anxieties, what about me? How do you think it feels to have dedicated your entire adult life to an art form only to see the bloody thing dying before your eyes?

My canary is a perceptive songbird – he immediately ceased his own cheeping, except to chirrup: I see what you mean. The polished mid-range jumper as an art form and a contribution central to our game is indeed dying before our eyes. Let me refine my terms: I do not mean the jump shot tout court is dying – the kidult pullup and the soft corner three are clearly in rude good health. And nor do I mean that serious mid-range jumpers will either cease to be taken or made. But what is already no longer the case is the situation that obtained when I was a young man. In the early 1980s, and I would argue throughout the second half of the last century, the well-honed mid-range jumper was perceived to be the prince of artistic basketball, the cultural capstone and the apogee of solid balling. The capability jumpers have when deployed from say twelve to nineteen feet from the basket to both spark the free flow of human cheering and put points on the board; the way they may be banked off the backboard and thus create a believable simulacrum of either a commonsensical offensive set, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended wrist-flick itself, which, unlike any other offensive maneuver, allows one to enact self-analysis and, yes, trash talk, by means of leaving the shooting arm extended, frozen, even when the work is done, to dagger other aesthetic modes of ball and even mock them. All this led to a general acknowledgment: the mid-range jumper was the true Wagnerian Gesamtsportwerk.

This is not to say that everyone walked the streets with their head buried in Jamaal Wilkes or the late Doctor J, or that popular culture in all its forms didn't hold sway over the psyches and imaginations of the great majority. (I am speaking, here, of the dunk shot.) Nor do I mean to suggest that in our culture perennial John Bull-headed philistinism wasn't alive and snorting: "I don't know much about efficiency, but I know what I like and what I like is either getting very close to the rim or getting three points for my troubles." However, what didn't obtain is the current dispensation, wherein those who reject the high arts feel not merely entitled to their opinion, but wholly justified in it. It goes further: the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its athletico-aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism. Indeed, it's arguable that tilting at this papery windmill of artistic superiority actively prevents a great many people from confronting the very real economic inequality and political disenfranchisement they're subject to, exactly as being compelled to chant the mantra "choice" drowns out the harsh background Muzak telling them they have none. This can all be solved by a silky J from the free throw line extended.

Just because you're paranoid it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. Simply because you've remarked a number of times on the concealed fox gnawing its way into your vitals, it doesn't mean it hasn't at this moment swallowed your gall bladder. Ours is an age in which omnipresent threats of imminent extinction are also part of the background noise – nuclear annihilation, terrorism, climate change, zone defenses, PER. So we can be blinkered when it comes to tectonic cultural shifts. The omnipresent and deadly threat to the mid-range jumper has been imminent now for a long time – getting on, I would say, for a half-century – and so it's become part of culture. During that half-century, more shots of all kinds have been taken and made and analyzed by far than in the entire preceding half century since the invention of the ol' peach basket. If this was death it had a weird, pullulating way of expressing itself. The saying is that there are no second acts in American lives; the mid-range jumper, I think, has led a very American sort of life: swaggering, confident, brash even – and ever aware of its world-conquering manifest destiny. But unlike Ernest Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald, the mid-range jumper has also had a second life. The form should have been laid to rest at about the time the league average three-point percentage surpassed 33%, but in fact it has continued to stalk the corridors of our minds and the parquets of our floors for a further couple of decades. Many fine mid-range jumpers have been hoisted during this period, but I would contend that these were, taking the long view, zombie mid-range jumpers, instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn't lie down.

Sports writers – themselves a dying breed, a cause for considerable schadenfreude on the part of mid-range jumperists – make all sorts of mistakes, but some of the most egregious ones result from an inability to think outside of the papery prison within which they conduct their lives' work. They consider the codex. They are – in Yago Colas' memorable phrase – the possessors of Naismith minds.

There is now an almost ceaseless murmuring about the future of basketball. #hoopideas. Most of it is at once Panglossian and melioristic: yes, experts assert, there's no disputing the impact of advanced metrics on the whole culture of roundball; fewer scouts are being employed, shot doctors fold up their tents, summer clinics continue to close, leagues as well. But … but, well, there's still no substitute for the experience of the mid-range jump shot as we've come to understand and appreciate it – the capacity to bang home a soft one from eighteen feet out after running the picket fence; the ability to achieve deep and meditative wetness in others' faces. This circling of the wagons comes with a number of public-spirited campaigns: children are bored stiff with effulgence over the way Tim Duncan uses the glass; tshirts are distributed with slogans on them urging wearers to shoot long twos in them; shooters are hymned for their slick skills – their deft touch, their varied appearance, their transcendence of athleticism understood only narrowly – as if they were the bodily correlates of the game itself, which, of course, they are.

The seeming realists among the hoopçognoscenti say such things as: well, clearly, jumpers are going to become a minority technology, but the occasional splash will survive. The populist I-love-this-gamers prate on about how spectacular dunks and layups in traffic linked to social media will allow viewers to take part in a public conversation about HOLY CRAP DID YOU SEE THAT. What none of the TrueHoop network types are able to countenance, because it is quite literally – for once the intensifier is justified – out of their minds, is that the advent of dunks-and-threes only is not simply destructive of the game, but of the Naismith mind itself. There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the well-tuned mid-range jumper will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years. This is the question: if you accept that by then the vast majority of shots will be taken either at the rim or from three-point territory, do you also believe that those shooters will voluntarily choose to give up the prospect of the additional point (either baked-in, as in the three-point shot, or given/earned via free throw and foul, as with the contested close-in work)? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the mid-range jumper is sealed out of your own mouth.

We don't know when the form of balling that supported the rise of the mid-range jumper form began, but there were certain obvious and important way-stations. We think of Bob Pettit, born in 1932, just one year after John Miller Cooper first freed foot from floor, quipping that with the other facets of his game, "All I had to do was make a few jump shots and I was on my way to a good night." We can cite the career of Jerry West, deadly shooter and literal icon of the NBA – then comes that vast wave of the late '70s and early '80s, when every team seemed to have a 3 who could put up 20 nightly, from seventeen. (Eddie Johnson, Mike Mitchell, Purvis Short, Walter Davis, Jamaal Wilkes, Alex English.) Standardised coaching came with the arrival of decent amounts of money, and finally certain education reforms meant that every player was expected to be a skilled enough shooter to be at least passable from the free throw line. Just one of the ironies that dance macabre attendance on this most awful of impending losses is that the conditions necessary for the toppling of solitary and reliable shooting as the most powerful and important tool in the player's box were already waiting in the wings while these important advances took place. In short, by requiring even centers to face up now and again, the specialization of skill and codification of position started to bleed and fade: bigs wanted to shoot, littles wanted to post and dunk, and everybody decided that three was better than two.

The game, then, has already changed. The emphasis on drawing fouls, as a strictly and definitionally limited resource of the other team; the brute fact that shooting 33% from three is the same as 50% from two (if you are foolish enough to ignore the number of rebounds generated); the abandonment of the screen in favor of the pick and roll; the ease of jacking one up from so deep that nobody's bothering to guard you versus the it-takes-the-whole-team artistry of generating a clean look from twenty feet out – these were always latent in the problematic of the mid-range jumper form, and in the offensive set more generally, but in the late 20th century, under pressure from other, juvenescent, scoring forms, the mid-range jumper began to founder. The polymorphous multishotal perversities of the later World B. Free, and the extreme existential asperities of his fellow journeyman, Otis Birdsong, are both registered as authentic responses to the taedium vitae of the form, and so accorded tremendous, guarded respect – if not affection.

After Free, we continued to shoot; we shot a great deal – after all, that's what you do when you're wheeled out into the sun after school: you shoot. You may find it difficult to concentrate, given the vagaries of your own adolescent Naismith mind, while your handle, shot, your game itself may also have a senescent feel, what with its ground-bound nature and aching knees – the equivalent, in hoops form, of amateur poets sitting aggrieved and aggressively forlorn with their Cure records and all-black ensembles. Yet shoot you do, closing your ears obstinately to the heckling of other dudes in the park, squinting so as to shut out the bluey light from the screens that surround you, resolutely ignoring the time you ended up on YouTube for falling down trying to ape AI's crossover to free yourself for a sweet J, turning your head in order to block out the agitation of your neighbours' fingers as they tweezer info panels into being. I've often thought that western European socialism survived as a credible ideological alternative up until 1989 purely because of the Soviet counterexample: those on the left were able to point east and say, I may not altogether know how socialism can be achieved, but I do know it's not like this. So it was with the mid-range jumper: we may not have known altogether how to make a mid-range jumper again, but we knew we sure couldn't dunk. Now dunks, too, are losing their narrative hegemony, after increasingly spectacular (and alienating) contests, and so the mid-range jumper – the cultural Greece to its world-girdling Rome – is also in ineluctable decline.

I repeat: just because you're paranoid it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. It would be amusing to read the meliorism of the Panglosses if it weren't also so irritating; the "story" "broke" a few months ago: NBA executives have discussed adding a four-point line. Surveying all of the changes wrought by offenses built around the rim and the line – offenses we could call offenses of the excluded middle – changes that funnel together into the tumultuous stream of Erik Spoelstra's Heat – all any of us can think to think is a return to where our understandings all began, with the best of all possible quips implying we were in the best of all possible worlds: "Why do you shoot so many threes, Antoine Walker?" "Because there are no fours."

But what if there were?

Groucho Marx once said to a man with six children taking part in his TV show: "I like my cigar, but I know when to take it out." By the same token: I also like splashing threes, but I'm under no illusion that this means either the mid-range game, or the mid-range jumper – a form of hooping specifically adapted to it – will survive as a result of my preferences. Because I'm also very partial to pump-faking a man into the air, then either slipping to the side for a wide-open look or just taking it hard to the rack.

While I may have registered the effect of the lure of drawing fouls or draining threes on my sense perception, I by no means feel immune from them; on the contrary, I've come to realise that the kind of psyche implicit in the production and consumption of serious mid-range jumpers (which are what, after all, serious basketball players produce), depends on a medium that has inbuilt teamwork: we must all be the distributors and facilitators we wish to play with. In a recent and rather less optimistic article in the Classical on the basketball phenomenon, Bethlehem Shoals acknowledges the impact on the watching industry of endless dunks-and-threes: the scattershot "too busy flashing by to bother...both exhilarating and deadening"; and the removal of what might be termed the breathing room required to allow the "cycle of discovery, resolution, and sensible forward motion." He foresees a more polarised world emerging: with big things-happening commanding still more attention, while down below the narratives seethe and fail to become trends. Shoals observes that this development in watching parallels the way the game itself is played. Both are parallel to the neoliberal economy, which sees market choice as the only human desideratum. But, really, this is only the latest skirmish in a long war; the battles of the 1990s, when new defensive technologies made the (slow, patient, five-person) mid-range game almost impossible to execute.

I've no doubt that a specialized apparatus facilitating and rewarding shooting skills will be established: points from this form are simply too useful for the skill not to be assigned monetary value. It is mid-range jumpers that will be the victims of the loss of effective non-penetrating point guards (a position of quarterbacking and angle recognition that depended both on the ability to gain separation in the middle of the court and on having somebody who could do something with the ball when they got it out there); mid-range jumpers and the people who shoot them. Fortunately, institutions are already in existence to look after us. The men's leagues burgeoning throughout our cities and towns are exactly this; another way of looking at them is that they're a self-perpetuating and self-financing basketball set-aside scheme purpose-built to accommodate ballers who can no longer sustain the belief that running hard or jumping high are desirable ways to spend an afternoon, if they're even possible ways to spend an afternoon. In these care homes, erstwhile mid-range jumperists induct still more and younger ballers into their own reflexive hobby trajectories, so that in time they too can become mid-range jumperists who cannot really run or jump anymore.

In case you think I'm exaggerating, I have just shot baskets in the park for a full hour, concluded by shooting my traditional 25 free throws. With the exception of a half-dozen lead-footed layups and a handful of half-hearted hook shots, I shot nothing but mid-range jumpers. My mid-range jumper isn't bad – although nor is it Ray Allen's. It is, I'm told, what it is.

Whenever tyro mid-range jumperists ask me for career advice I always say the same thing to them: think hard about whether you wish to spend anything up to 20 or 30 years of your adolescence-into-adult life in solitary confinement, flinging the Spalding at the mocking orange of that 18-inch Grail; if you don't like the sound of that silence, abandon the idea right away. But nowadays many people who go out for the basketball team have only the dimmest understanding of what's actually involved in the balling life; the team offers them comity and, sometimes, semi-sympathetic support for their fledgling efforts – it acts, it essence, as a therapy group for the creatively misunderstood. What these people are aware of – although again, usually only hazily – is that some ballers have indeed had it all; if by this is meant that they are able to shoot as they see fit, and make a living from the points they produce. In a society where almost everyone is subject to the appropriation of their time, and a vast majority of that time is spent undertaking work that has little human or spiritual value, the ideal form of the sporting life appears gilded with a sort of wonderment. The savage irony is that even as these aspirants sign up for the promise of such a golden career, so the possibility of their actually pursuing it steadily diminishes; a still more savage irony is that the very form their instruction (coaching) takes militates against the possibility of the shots they desire to take. Hank Luisetti was accused of being "a lucky so-and-so", and set himself to shut up his critics by making sure the next one went in; the ball, he might well have said, don't lie.

As I said at the outset: I believe the serious mid-range jumper will continue to be taken and made, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse. The current resistance of a lot of the basketball fan to difficulty in the form is only a subconscious response to having a moribund message pushed at them. As a practising mid-range jumperist, do I feel depressed about this? No, not particularly, except on those occasions when I breathe in too deeply and choke on my own decadence. I've no intention of making my home out back behind the three-point line – nor do I see my future banging elbows with the tall trees in the paint. My apprenticeship as a mid-range jumperist has lasted a long time now, and I still cherish hopes of eventually qualifying. Besides, as the possessor of a Naismith mind, it is quite impossible for me to foretell what the new dominant art form of hoops will be – if, that is, there is to be one at all.

What I can do is observe my canary: he doesn't take much in the way of what I'd call serious mid-range jumpers, but there's no doubting that he's alive, breathing deep of a rich and varied culture, and shows every sign of being a very intelligent and thoughtful songbird. On that basis, I think it's safe for us both to go on mining.

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1 Comments + Unabashed Criticism:

Blogger Fat Contradiction said...

This piece was helpful to read on the topic of the four-point shot:
#hoopideas and Harm. I couldn't find the link again when I was writing this piece, though.

2:28 PM  

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