Transition Archive (T90)/
One late-winter evening in 1987, I had the misfortune of witnessing American mythology in action. My high school was hosting a basketball playoff game against another school from our county. I wouldn't call it a rival school; we had too little in common to be rivals. The county school system was unofficially segregated—not into white and black schools but into all-white schools and integrated ones. The visitors came from the boom suburbs, from the newest, richest, and whitest school in the system. Our school, like our town, was old, poor, and integrated.
Need it be said that we were good at basketball? We were the best at basketball. I use the plural here even though I myself was terrible at basketball. There is a kind of school spirit you get from having a balky heating system and no doors on the bathrooms. Every game I would stand in the bleachers (which collapsed two years later) and bear witness, whooping at our collective excellence, hollering abuse at our hapless foes.
So: we were very good. We had a sure and graceful six-foot-four point guard, Monroe Brown, who could pin a shot to the glass and who went on to play in the NCAA tournament with Penn State. We had a resourceful little shooting guard, Ron Green, who once caused pandemonium in the gym by pilfering the ball from an overmatched farmboy, breaking free, and rising, all five-ten or -eleven of him, for an unexpected dunk. Nobody was NBA material; the one future pro I remember passing through the gym, a guy named Bobby Hurley who was even pastier than I was, lit us up for 28 points. Most nights, though, we were in complete command.
This particular night promised more of the same. It was the first round of the regional playoffs, and we were playing a school we had defeated twice during the regular season. Many of our fans didn't even bother to turn out. The visitors' fans, thrilled they'd even made the playoffs, showed up in school jackets, waving pep-rally signs.
Their team was white and flat-footed. With something like pity, we settled in to watch. Our team jumped out to an early lead and stayed there. I don't remember the details because it was so very ordinary. The other team plodded along, down by 10 points, or a dozen. But then, by stages, something started to happen. Our shots stopped falling. Their center got inside our center for a layup, and then another. The lead got smaller. The refs started calling fouls on our guys—the kind of ticky-tack stuff you laugh off when you're up 20. We were up 6. The visiting fans were howling. More passes, more layups. The lead was 2. Less than a minute left. They tied it. In the home section, we were too stunned to be afraid. Our ball, last possession: time to set this shit straight. Nine seconds, eight. Ron Green up top. Pass . . .
Stolen. No fucking way. Stolen. White boy with the ball, all alone, crossing half-court. Not fast, but fast enough. Down the lane. Three, two, layup, horn. Their first, last, and only lead of the game: 2 points. Their fans poured onto our floor. Just like in the movies.
* * *
Everyone knows that basketball is the black man's game. It is a certified pillar of African American expressive culture—you can read about it in a book called Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin', & Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture (1999). Basketball is a vessel for the kinesthetic genius of Afro-America. You may understand such genius to be a cultural echo of the fictional biological category of race, or you may stubbornly believe that melanin gives people real physical superpowers. Regardless, even if we can't agree what black means, we can agree that hoops is the black man's game, the way jazz is the black man's music. It is improvised, constantly refined and elaborated. Style and substance evolve together: the image of Julius Erving gliding down the lane for a scoop shot would be somehow incomplete without his Afro; the jittery, darting moves of Allen Iverson seem to come from the same place as his cornrows and tattoos. Nike took over basketball marketing by understanding this combination. A decade ago it was a character named Mars Blackmon, played by the filmmaker Spike Lee, paired with Michael Jordan for a series of jive-talking commercials. A more recent Nike basketball campaign used the sounds of bouncing balls and squeaking sneakers to create a hip-hop beat.
And yet there is another thread of the game, equal and opposite. It is every bit as prevalent as the image of the soaring, improvising black soloist, but it is almost never articulated—at least, not explicitly. Shaquille O'Neal, the Los Angeles Lakers' dominating center, hints at it in his autobiography, Shaq Talks Back: The Uncensored Word on My Life and Winning in the NBA (2001). “My junior year [of high school],” he recounts, “we went 35-1. Lost to a bunch of white dudes shooting nothing but jumpers. They played harder and smarter.”
They played harder and smarter. They did the little things. Worked together, stuck to their game plan, hit their free throws. They maintained their composure, despite facing an undefeated foe with a teenage center who stood seven feet tall. Just like Princeton, picking apart UCLA. Just like Valparaiso or Gonzaga—scrappy white underdogs who toil their way deep into the NCAA basketball tournament.
It comes down to this: playing basketball is a black thing, but winning at basketball is a white thing. You can fly to the hole, cut trajectories that no one has ever seen before, bend space and stop time to make music with that sphere. So what? It's only two points. Same as a layup. If you want to win games, the things that really matter are discipline, teamwork, unselfishness. Forget that stuff that looks good on the playground. Instead, concentrate on setting screens for your teammates, moving without the ball. Play tough, diligent defense. Fight for rebounds. If you do that—C'mon, fellas, listen up!—if you do that, you can beat anybody. Even if they're bigger and quicker and more agile than you.
If you think this is overstating the case, you should read More Than a Game (2001), the basketball manifesto-cum-autobiography by Shaquille O'Neal's coach, Phil Jackson. “I wanted to bring a certain kind of harmony to the team,” Jackson writes. “The example I used was an orchestra playing something by Bach or Mozart, where all the instruments blended together. What I wouldn't accept was the kind of improvisational, individualistic jazz that a John Coltrane was famous for.”
Jackson isn't known to be intolerant. Quite the opposite: he's a famously broadminded fellow, a guy whose first memoir, Maverick (1976), was published by the Playboy Press. He is a former player himself, and he's known around the league as a players' coach, someone who doesn't ride athletes too hard, someone who trusts their autonomy and initiative. And he has worked with the most celebrated player of the modern era: when he was with the Chicago Bulls, Jackson won six championships with Michael Jordan—one of the most “expressive” players ever to play the game.
“As we envision soaring and swooping, extending, refining the combat zone of basketball . . . then it's Michael Jordan we must recognize as the truest prophet of what might be possible.” John Edgar Wideman wrote these words for Esquire magazine in 1990, in an essay that's collected in Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin', & Slam Dunking. Nowadays, Jordan is an international symbol of basketball dominance, but Wideman was writing about a very different figure than the one we know today. In 1990, Jordan was still a soloist, a telegenic scoring champion. He could make a basket where there was none to be made, shaking a defender and pulling up for a jump shot or taking it all the way to the hoop, twisting around through defenders, rising higher and staying up there longer, as if he were taking his own private elevator, riding to a floor no one else could ever reach. Once he got up in the air, he would finish the play however he had to, however he wanted to. Straight-up, reverse, double-clutch, left-handed. All net, high off the glass, or dunked crisply down. He could do all that, circa 1990, and yet what that made him, in effect, was a one-man gang. He had yet to lead his team to a single title. What good does it do to score 63 points against the Boston Celtics if you still lose the game?
* * *
Jordan changed that, of course. He added a sneaky fadeaway to his arsenal, a shot launched while he was in the air, moving away from the basket. It was not exciting to watch, but it was impossible to defend against. He took fewer shots—he scored fewer points—and he started winning. Jordan claimed the championship trophy, gripped it just as confidently as he'd always gripped the basketball.
And yet even Jordan's own coach, it's clear, is nonplussed by this kind of sublime artistry. In Jackson's worldview, talent often seems like a threat to proper execution of his plays. In More Than a Game, Jackson describes many small crises from the Lakers' 2000-2001 season, including the time Kobe Bryant—one of the top players in the league—returned to the lineup after an injury:
Because Kobe is such a dynamic and idiosyncratic player, suddenly everybody's sense of rhythm was broken. . . . The biggest problem was that Kobe liked to penetrate a defense off the dribble. He wanted to dribble, screen/roll, do anything that would let him threaten the defense, take it to the hoop, and dunk on somebody.
In other words, he wanted to get creative.
Jackson does understand the allure of the open game. He recalls playing ball as a seventh grader in North Dakota, going on the road to Indian reservations—the ghetto, hoopswise and otherwise.
Their style was to fast break and press from the opening tip to the final buzzer, and it was great fun. Both teams would end up with seventy to eighty points, which was quite a feat for a thirty-two-minute ball game. But as much as I enjoyed the helter-skelter pace, by the time I was a freshman in high school, I was ready to be reined in and taught the fundamentals of basketball.
Of course, the genuinely fundamental thing in basketball is putting the ball in the basket, which those Indian kids were able to do thirty-five or forty times per game—more than once a minute. But when Jackson talks about fundamentals, he's talking about everything except putting the ball in the basket. He's talking about the skills you have to be taught, by drillwork, against your instincts: foot placement, proper defensive technique, how to set a screen. The skills you need to execute a game plan and prevent scoring.
In Jackson's world, nothing is more important than the game plan. More Than a Game tells the story not of a coach and his favorite players, but of a coach and his favorite strategy. The tale is told in alternating chapters by Jackson and Charley Rosen, the coach's former assistant and longtime Boswell. “What we sought,” Rosen writes in chapter one, “what we needed, was a means of systematizing the 'right' way to play . . . the truly righteous system that would enable both players and coach to access the secret heart of the game.”
That righteous system, the two conclude, is the triangle offense—or, as Jackson and Rosen always put it, the Triangle. For Jackson, the son of Pentecostal ministers and now a sort of Zen-inflected spiritualist, the suggestion of the Trinity is not likely an accident. He does not regard his Triangle as a system for scoring baskets, but as “a vehicle for integrating mind and body . . . awareness in action . . . five man t'ai chi.”
The actual workings of the Triangle are less poetic, although mystifying in their own right. “This is how it works,” Jackson writes:
As Scottie Pippen, for example, dribbles the ball across the midcourt line, he has a companion guard (John Paxson) stationed fifteen to twenty feet away on the same lateral plane. Pippen then makes a wing entry pass to forward Michael Jordan, who's above the free-throw line extended.
Already, the coach is making a point. Most people think of players' positions as being defined by their size and abilities—the guards, playing farthest from the basket, are the smallest and the most deft, while the center is the biggest and most lumbering. Between the extremes are the forwards: the small forward, concerned with scoring, some passing, and a bit of rebounding; and the power forward, charged with scoring and rebounding. In his prime, Michael Jordan, six-foot-six with good ball-handling skills and a genius for scoring, was the ideal NBA shooting guard. He was introduced before games as a guard and listed in the box score as a guard. But the Triangle doesn't care what he is; it's concerned with what he does. If he's setting up closer to the basket than Pippen or Paxson, then the Triangle says he's a forward.
On the pass, either Pippen or Paxson fills the corner on the ball side, and either the center (Bill Cartwright) or the weak-side forward (Horace Grant) moves to occupy the strong-side low post. The Triangle is now formed. . . . With only one pass having been made (to MJ), the four players without the ball can potentially fill any of the other four spots (the exception being the center, who can only occupy the low post, the weak-side forward spot, or execute a corner fill), and any two of them, plus the ball carrier, can complete the triangle.
I must confess I didn't quite understand all this. So I turned to the appendix, where Jackson and Rosen provide a series of diagrams. And the diagrams confirmed that I didn't understand it.
Nor was I alone. Former New Jersey Nets center-forward Jayson Williams tells of his own encounter with the Triangle in Loose Balls: Easy Money, Hard Fouls, Cheap Laughs, and True Love in the NBA (2000). While he was a free agent, Williams had a tryout with the Bulls.
They tried to teach me that offense for five days. I had sprained my ankle, and I was still limping around . . . I could not get that triangle down. So the last day, I told Phil Jackson, “Phil, thanks for having me. You're a great guy, you've got a great team, you win a lot of championships, but with me you've got the wrong guy for that frigging triangle. Bye.”
* * *
Jayson Williams was an All-Star and a league-leading rebounder, a guy who prided himself on his technique. He wasn't some showboating playground ace. But the Triangle was too much for him. More Than a Game is laced with tales of star players failing to defer to the Triangle: there's Kobe Bryant, with his insistent creativity, wanting to keep the ball in his hands and show what he can do with it; there's Glen Rice, with his desire to use guile and strength to beat his defender, instead of popping up to take the medium-range shots the Triangle presented to him. And then there's Michael Jordan, the Triangle's biggest star and its most notable critic. When Jackson instituted the system with the Bulls, he writes,
Michael continued to be dubious. He joked that the Triangle was “an equal-opportunity offense.” In addition, because Cartwright needed so much time and space for his post-up moves, our version of the Triangle generally emphasized outside shooting and not one-on-one penetration-leading Michael to call it a “white man's offense.”
Jordan's complaint, however glib it may seem, is factually correct. The Triangle's creator is a very white man: a five-foot-six, seventy-eight-year-old coach named Tex Winter, Jackson's longtime assistant and the author of The Triple-Post Offense (1962).
In 1990, Jordan told Wideman of Winter's frustration when Jordan would dunk instead of laying the ball up or invent a new shot in midair to avoid a defender rather than let himself get fouled. When he talked about Winter, Jordan described his own play, by contrast, as “;the Afro-American game.” That Afro-American game does have its place in Winter's Triangle—rather an important place, once you notice it. “The rhythm of the offense,” Jackson writes, “requires MJ (with the ball) to take his time (a two-count is long enough), be a threat to shoot or penetrate, and thereby allow time for his teammates to move appropriately.” The key phrase is “be a threat to shoot or penetrate”: the play begins with the defense at Jordan's mercy, unable to predict or preempt what he's going to do with the ball. The rest of the system flows from that moment of uncertainty. Even so, though, Tex Winter seems to be ideologically opposed to talent.
One chapter of More Than a Game offers Winter's life story, as related to Rosen in an interview. In Winter's first NBA job, with the Houston Rockets, he tells Rosen his “biggest problem” was Elvin Hayes. Winter says,
Whenever I asked Elvin to do something else [besides his turnaround jumper] like pass the ball, he'd just say, “I'm an All-Star. Why should I change my game? Asking me to pass the ball is like asking Babe Ruth to bunt.” But the truth was that Hayes had the worst fundamentals of any player I've ever coached. His footwork was terrible, and except for his one dribble-and-spin he just couldn't handle the ball. We had a lot of basic drills that he simply couldn't execute. He tried to avoid these drills by making believe he was hurt or by getting his ankles retaped.
After reading this, I had to go and check to reassure myself that Elvin Hayes was still on the NBA's list of its fifty all-time greatest players.
To the true-believing coach, the system is bigger than any player. It is bigger, even, than the game. Jackson all but admits this when he looks back at his years with the Bulls:
Judging by Tex's very demanding standards, the Bulls' most flawless execution of the Triangle took place during the 1993-94 season while Michael was off playing baseball. Without Michael's creative genius, we had to rely solely on the system to create our shots. That meant we had to be more precise than ever before, and our timing had to be impeccable.
What goes unsaid is that those impeccably timed, flawlessly executing Bulls were the first Chicago squad in four years not to win the NBA championship.
* * *
Phil Jackson is well aware of the importance of talent, as a matter of practice. Jackson has never won a championship without having at least two superstars on his team. Asked to choose between coaching the Bulls and the New York Knicks in 1989, Jackson recalls, he figured the Knicks might win one championship, but the Bulls could win a lot. “I'd rather be with the team that has the brightest future in the league,” he recalls. After leaving the Bulls, he made much the same calculation about joining the Lakers. “You can say what you want about him always having the talent, with Michael and Scottie and now me and Kobe,” O'Neal writes, in Jackson's defense. “But you know what? Not everyone can coach talent.”
O'Neal is right about that. There is, for instance, Quinn Buckner. Buckner appears in More Than a Game as an example of the difficulties NBA teams have faced in converting to the Triangle. In 1993, Buckner tried to make the Dallas Mavericks a Triangle team. Dallas had a group of young players who would go on to become stars: Jason Kidd, Jamal Mashburn, and Jimmy Jackson. Under Buckner, however, they were terrible. “If you break down the Triangle, what you have is simply the correct way to play basketball,” Buckner says. “My fundamental mistake was to assume that professional players know how to play basketball. In reality, most of them only know how to play either one-on-one or two-man basketball.”
Buckner was trained in one of the most team-oriented basketball programs in the country, the Indiana University squad coached by Bobby Knight. Knight is notorious for his crude and violent behavior, which finally got him fired in 2000. What was less noted, during his time at Indiana, was the fact that though the Hoosiers were a perennial power and won multiple national championships, they never produced great professional players. (The one notable exception, Isaiah Thomas, quit the team after two years.)
The Indiana system was the envy of other coaches—“a seamless unfolding of timber-shivering picks, slashing cuts, and cleverly angled passes that created unopposed jumpers, backdoor layups, and plenty of space for the big men to roam in the lane,” Rosen writes. But in drilling that system into his players, Knight somehow destroyed their ability to play basketball. Ex-Hoosiers in the NBA are listless, fretful, and effete; without the system, they don't quite know what to do with themselves.
And if Buckner is any indication, they blame this on the NBA. “The pro game is all style and no substance,” he tells Rosen. “I mean, look how hard the league is promoting the Sacramento Kings, one of the wildest, most undisciplined teams I've ever seen. . . . I don't think there's any hope for the NBA until the game gets back to basics.”
* * *
There are two things people like Buckner generally say about a basketball player who doesn't play the right way. The first is that the guy is playing “playground ball.” To coaches chasing the orchestral ideal of discipline and fundamentals, the playground is the uptown jazz joint after midnight: players jamming without sheet music, conducted only by their whims and desires. The playground acknowledges no coaches; it is the seat of the individual game, the creative game—the black game.
John Edgar Wideman explains this during his interview with Michael Jordan, when the writer recalls his own encounter with anti-“playground” coaches:
When I was coming up, if a coach yelled “playground move” at you it meant there was something wrong with it, which also meant in a funny way that there was something wrong with the playground, and since the playground was a black world, there was something wrong with you, a black player out there doing something your way rather than their way.
So the playground carries its stigma. It is where players go to be selfish and reckless, to show off. To call someone “playground” is to imply that that's all he is, that his game won't hold up in the crucible of organized competition. He'll end up a has-been, back in the ghetto, forgotten outside his own small world. “Everybody blows everything out of proportion in parks,” Jayson Williams writes. “The park legend is somebody who didn't go to college, played in the park his whole life, and made it to the NBA. It's like Bigfoot. . . . It doesn't exist.”
But the power of the park is real. There is discipline to the individual game, too, and without it there is no collective game. “I figured out early that hard, solo work was the only way to get certain things about hoops right,” Wideman writes in Hoop Roots: A Memoir (2001). “Every chance I got I practiced alone the shooting, dribbling skills other kids had somehow mastered.” Larry Bird used to go back to French Lick, Indiana, and spend the summer playing left-handed, until he could do everything in mirror image. “And Magic [Johnson],” Jayson Williams writes, “was known for taking the weakest part of his game each summer and trying to improve it. Like that goofy little hook shot he hit over McHale to beat the Celtics in the playoffs. He didn't just think of that at the moment.”
What's true for the player is true for the whole sport. New moves have to come from somewhere. And it's a safe bet that it wasn't an old man with a clipboard who drew up the first between-the-legs dribble, the first alley-oop, the first no-look pass. It was not a coach who first realized that instead of throwing the ball up toward the basket, you could throw it down.
All of which leads to the second charge leveled at a flashy player: that he's playing for the “highlights.” Buckner, telling Rosen about his sad stint with the Mavericks, offers a parable:
We were on the bus heading for the airport after being waxed by the Denver Nuggets. We'd been down by twenty points with just seconds left in the game when one of my players got loose for a big-time dunk. On the bus I overheard the dunker talking with another young player. “Man,” the young player said, “that dunk might make ESPN.” But the dunker disagreed. “ wasn't one of my all-time bests,” he said, “but I think it'll be good enough for CNN.”
Trying to get yourself on television is universally acknowledged to be a bad thing. As far as I can tell, every coach and every player over the age of twenty-three has publicly expressed the sentiment. Young players, Jayson Williams complains, “want to dunk. . . . When they turn on ESPN . . . they know they aren't going to be looking at no jumper from the corner. They're going to be looking at someone spinning around, doing a hook dunk backward on somebody.”
This is very righteous sounding, and very persuasive, until you consider where the NBA would be without the highlight reel. The much-reviled ESPN, with its nightly parade of spectacular moves, is the most effective promotional device the league has ever known. For the casual fan, who watches a game on Sunday evening and maybe another one during the week, the film clips are the NBA, distilled to its essence. And there's no denying that the NBA sorely needs distillation: after three rounds of expansion in seven years, the league has twenty-nine teams. Twenty-nine! Suppose that winning and losing were what truly mattered in basketball. If all twenty-nine teams were evenly matched in talent, and each one played in the most self-effacing, victory-first style possible, then each team's fans could expect to be rewarded with a championship once every 2,378 games-roughly three times per century. But the teams are not evenly matched; many NBA fans will go to their graves without ever having rooted their hometown team to the top.
In this light, Buckner's story takes on a different meaning. It's not the player who's arrogant and deluded, it's the coach, for thinking that anyone should care who won a midseason Nuggets-Mavericks game. That nameless player gave the people who were watching a pointless blowout something to remember. If the young Maverick's dunk did make the cable news, it would have been one of the few moments that year that the nation had paid any attention to Buckner's miserable team, who lost five times as many games as they won.
* * *
Maybe the old sports platitude is true: maybe it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game. In the mid-1990s, everyone outside New York City (and more than a few people inside it) loathed the Knicks because they were an ugly basketball team, a plodding collection of bricklayers who won by muscling up on other teams, grappling their way to the winning side of a 73-68 score. That was how they were coached, and that was how they played.
On the other hand, for the last two seasons, there have been those Sacramento Kings that so distress Quinn Buckner. As it happens, Buckner has the Kings' story exactly backward: the league began promoting Sacramento because fans liked watching them play, not the other way around. The Kings earned their way onto national television by being able to put 100 points on the board, in a league where—thanks to those Knicks—many top teams played grinding, clampdown ball, like outmatched college kids trying to squeeze out an upset. The Kings were more like Phil Jackson's Indian foes back in junior high: they played to expand their options, to find new and exciting ways to put the ball in the basket.
And the Kings have been neither wild nor undisciplined. In the 2000-2001 season, especially, they were diligent about defense, attuned to the nuances of the game. In fact, their style belies the dichotomy between creativity and organization, between the individual and the collective—between black ball and white ball. The Kings played as an ensemble, in harmony, making up the tune together in their heads. What separated the Kings from the caricature of a ball-hogging playground team was their belief in the art of the pass. Their inventiveness came not on the one-man drive to the basket, but on the drop-off, the lob, the no-look. They were the finest collection of passers to take the court, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, since Magic Johnson played alone.
If you believe the stereotypes about the game, that black basketball is about seeing what you can do yourself and white basketball is about looking out for your teammates, then the Kings present a baffling paradox: each one was seeing what he could do, himself, to set up his teammates. That was how the Kings carved up the floor. They took the ball into the teeth of the defense, kicked it out again, looked for a way to flip it back in. They found scoring possibilities that had never been game-planned, possibilities that existed, like a midair Jordan move, only in the moment they happened. Yet their freewheeling style was guided, in part, by the teachings of assistant coach Pete Carrill—recently retired from the head coaching job at Princeton. Behind the Kings' razzle-dazzle stood the architect of the most flat-footed, precision-passing white-boy attack of all time.
The more you try to sort out the black game from the white game, the less sense the distinction makes. The techniques and their meanings go back and forth across the line, mutating as they go. Even the jump shot, the foundation of college-taught teamwork, was in its day a reckless playground maneuver: responsible, well-coached players addressed the basket with their feet planted on the floor, rather than throwing their bodies in the air willy-nilly. And then there's the bounce pass, that staple of middle school gym class ball-handling. In the NBA, where the space just above the floor is filled with giant arms and legs, the bounce pass is discouraged. To thread a bounce pass through a pro defense is an act of supreme self-assurance, if not defiance. It is so assertively unhip—like wearing high, dark socks—that only a playground baller can pull it off.
The Kings' players themselves defied the conventional American understanding of race and athletic style. They boasted one classic African American hoop genius, the six-foot-ten forward Chris Webber, who could post up, jump-shoot, or pass the ball with pretty much equal facility; who took such pride in his versatile talents that he forced a trade, early in his career, to avoid having to play center. Jackson describes Webber as “one of the top three players in the league.” (The reader is free to assume that Bryant and O'Neal are Jackson's other two.)
The rest of the team was a mix of African Americans, white Americans, and European nationals, all freely using each other's games. There was Doug Christie, a selfless African American defensive specialist, at guard; there was Peja Stojakovic, a lanky Serb with an old-fashioned, European jump shot and an ankle-breaking dribble that looked as if it came straight from the Serbian ghetto. There was Turkish guard Hidayet Turkoglu, of whom Webber said, after the end of the 2001 season, “This summer I'm taking Hedo to the 'hood with me to play. By the end he'll be the god of my 'hood.”
But the Kings' most notorious player—their “blackest” player, in the expressive, kinesthetic sense—was a white man from West Virginia. Jason Williams (not to be confused with Jayson Williams, the memoirist), nicknamed White Chocolate, is obsessively, furiously creative; he does things with the ball that defy perception or understanding. He would be the purest playground talent in the NBA, if the playground were as dedicated to assists as it is to shots. He makes a move, a hiccup, and a pass goes flying in the most unexpected direction. Here's one of the describable ones: he will look to his right, then whip the ball behind his back with his right hand. It's a classic no-look pass to the left—except that, with his left elbow, he'll knock the ball back the way it came, reversing the misdirection, delivering the ball to the teammate he'd been looking at all along, as the defense freezes, baffled.
More impressive than the mechanics is the timing. Williams moves in a fractured time frame, slipping in and out of sync with every other person on the floor. He is guided by internal logic—which can be too internal, often, and not logical enough. His passes can be too startling for his own teammates to handle, and when he hoists a bad shot, he might not even hit the backboard. Down the stretch in 2001, and into the playoffs, the Kings had to pull him off the floor, sometimes, for everyone's sake.
And so, even though the Kings won fifty-eight games last season, they eventually decided they wanted a more predictable point guard. On draft night in 2001, they traded their erratic star to the Grizzlies for Mike Bibby, a sharp point guard but a steadier one, the son of a college coach. The Grizzlies, at their end, were glad to make the deal: they were moving their perennially inferior team from Vancouver to Memphis, and they wanted to give their new fans something to get excited about, something to remember.
* * *
Victory can be overrated. Even winners sometimes think so. “White Chocolate is my favorite point guard,” O'Neal writes:
I'd rather watch him than even Gary Payton and Jason Kidd, although those two are the best in the game. Why? Because the game is about winning, but it's also about excitement. Ultimately people want to win. But I think during the regular season, they want to see excitement, too.
O'Neal wrote this after winning the first championship of his life, after being trained by Phil Jackson, after working the Triangle with the steady, unspectacular jump-shooters Derek Fisher and Ron Harper. With his teammates dutifully feeding him the ball, Shaquille won the league's Most Valuable Player award. Hard work, structure, and discipline paid off. His Lakers beat the Kings in the first round of the playoffs.
Even so, the champion's interest wanders. “Imagine if I had White Chocolate on my team,” O'Neal effuses. “We'd have people spitting up nachos.” The big man's fancy is sparked. “I would be throwing down the nastiest dunks of all time. We would have the greatest highlights in NBA history.”