September 21, 2018, 1:20

The Unexpected Beauty of Basketball Synchronicity |

The Unexpected Beauty of Basketball Synchronicity |

Back in October, in the opening days of the current N.B.A. season,
something wonderful happened during a game between the Portland
Trail Blazers and the Phoenix Suns. After a bad pass from one Blazer to
another, the Suns’ guard Eric Bledsoe—who has since complained his way
out of Phoenix and onto the much more promising Milwaukee Bucks—ended up
with the ball, then torqued his body toward the other end of the floor,
ready to catalyze a fast break. So far, so normal: that sequence,
turnover into all-out sprint, is one of the most basic in basketball.
The remarkable thing, though, was that Bledsoe’s teammates—Devin Booker,
Tyson Chandler, T. J. Warren, and Josh Jackson—mirrored his movements
down to the subtlest twitch, as if urged by some outside force. Each
player planted his right foot, swerved his torso just enough to make the
next step, now with the left foot, then flew off, chopping his arms
through the air—right, left, right, left—like swift, mechanized scythes.
They all ran with their heads slightly forward, their backs ever so
hunched, and their feet kicking gently and freely behind them as they
went. It was eerie. Suddenly, the team was a swarm of doppelgängers,
hoping, it seemed, not only to score the bucket (as, incidentally, they
did, on a smooth dunk by Jackson) but also to win, via coördination,
some other, more celestial recompense.

Synchronicity is no stranger to sports. Back in 2016, a clip of two
strutting toward the pool like cool, imperturbable twins, went briefly
viral. Sometimes in football you’ll witness perfect symmetry on the
offensive line: the center trucks forward while the guards block
outward—one’s path looks like a leaping, curving dolphin; the others’
looks like its reflection in the water. But in basketball, aesthetic
pleasure usually comes by way of difference. Somebody sets a pick and
helps his teammate slash toward the rim. The other guys stand still,
ready to catch a pass, or dart to new places around the three-point
line, while the pick-setter jogs somewhere across the paint from the guy
with the ball. The resulting decision—pass, shoot, or dribble under the
basket and back outward, like Steve Nash used to do and James Harden
does today, in order to start the sequence again—comes out of the
ball-handler’s understanding of diversity: where this one likes to
catch it, whether that one can jump high enough to snag an alley-oop,
the fact that the other one’s probably sulking because he didn’t touch
the ball on the last play. If displays of strict physical unison like
the one among the Suns were always part of the game—and they had to have
been!—we must have just missed them, lacking the means to distribute
them and gawk. These days, armed with DVR, endlessly rewind-able N.B.A.
League Pass, and social-media feeds, we can capture these moments and
consume them as self-enclosed entertainments, wholly independent of the
score at the end of the game.

The clip of the Suns attracted a hypnotized audience of hoops fans, who
then—led by the writer and podcaster Rob Perez—kept collecting
specimens of the
genre, which
turned out to be unnervingly plentiful. Just the other day, both members
of the New Orleans Pelicans’ superstar duo, Boogie Cousins and Anthony
Davis, decided to quit their walking and jog down the court for an
offensive possession at precisely the same moment. They both dip their
like divers breaking the surface, then straighten up and stick their
chests out as they gather momentum. In other examples, players fall in
synch, whine or celebrate as if choreographed, or eye the scoreboard
identically. Some viewers chalked it up as yet another article of proof
that we are living in a vast, deterministic video game—or, even more
conspiratorially, that action in the N.B.A. is just as minutely planned
as professional wresting, or the Ice Capades.

The likely truth is more mundane, but also, in its way, more beautiful.
Bodies and minds as amazing as these are made similar by training. The
smallest stimulus—an obviously fishy pass, an off-kilter jump shot, an
unexpected whistle—fires thousands of responses, all honed by hours of
practice and study. You get hit lots of times and you learn how to fall.
Every so often, instinct kicks in and only one option seems possible:
plant a foot, turn around, and run. Style is great, but sometimes it’s
nice to watch it fall away.


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