Chapter 7: The Myth of Blackness, March 12, 1997 (Taste)
“People don’t want to pay $200 a night to see jail culture.”—Michael Wilbon
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Leonard Koppett, again, seems to have presaged the central point of Gumbrecht’s comments on timing when he described the central task of the basketball player as “getting free,” though Koppett centered on deception and fakery (rather than timing) as the means by which, in basketball, players do this. Good timing, however, may also simply be a component of effective deception. At least, it is with Iverson’s crossover, in which it is not simply a matter of leaning explosively in one direction to throw the defender off balance (the fake), but of intuitively grasping exactly the perfect moment to yank the ball quickly back in the other direction (the cross) so as to get free. That precise moment might be thought of as the kairos, which, you may recall from the preceding chapter, was what the Greeks called the opportune moment for invention and, indeed, as the instant in which an opportunity presents itself to crack open the still tomb of the end of history.
Beautifully ephemeral and deceptively magical, Iverson’s cross evokes the image of a jagged flash of lightning splitting the night sky. An epiphany of form to be sure, the play reminds me of the position described by T.S. Eliot in the poem “The Dry Salvages”: “The moments of happiness / . . . the sudden illumination— / We had the experience but missed the meaning, / And approach to the meaning restores the experience / in a different form, beyond any meaning / we can assign to happiness.” Eliot might have had in mind something like a beautiful play, the illuminating arc that emerges and vanishes before you know it. Something’s happened, it was beautiful and elevating and thrilling, and somehow left itself in you, but what was it? Eliot suggests that approaching the meaning (trying to read the play, to understand what it meant) can restore the experience. That restored experience may be in a different form, but it may still, like the original, deliver an illuminating affective shine that eludes confining meanings.
As an individual tactic, a crossover dribble means the attempt, via precisely timed deception, by a player to get free from a defender. As we saw at the end of Chapter 1, however, the dribble itself stands within the history of basketball as a kind of outlaw or rogue maneuver that simultaneously violates and embodies perfectly the fluid, anti-essentialist essence of the game. The dribble, as Koppett puts it, is at once the sport’s “most identifying characteristic” and “one of the worst ailments of otherwise healthy basketball offenses.” Perhaps no particular form of the dribble exemplifies this better than the crossover. When Iverson executed the crossover early in his career, he was sometimes whistled for a violation as it appeared to officials that he was actually carrying the ball so as to gain an advantage. But additionally, the crossover dribble was a product of urban playground experimentation and its culture of joyful individual one-upsmanship. Alexander Wolff approvingly describes it as “of a piece with hip-hop culture” with its “rat-tat-tat rhythm, the badinage and braggadocio, and the distinctly big-city yearning to break-free of the crowd by making one’s mark.” In this way, like the dunk before it—but perhaps even more dangerously because, as Wolff puts it, the crossover is more “democratic” (since you don’t have to be tall or an exceptional leaper to execute it, you just have to practice)—the crossover dribble may bring the white basketball unconscious a little closer than it would like to the urban raw materials off which it secretly feeds but whose contextual realities it prefers in fantasy form.
Wolff’s comparison between the dunk and the crossover as different forms of individual self-expression, moreover, frames what might be the most evident and important symbolism of this particular crossover: Iverson (playground practitioner of the crossover par excellence) tries to get free of Jordan (the game’s most legendary dunker). In addition, this crossover echoes—through a kind of word play reminiscent of free-style rap—Iverson’s insistence on eluding Jordan’s ability to execute a crossover of a different sort—racially, I mean, as a commercial pitchman. Upon turning pro, Iverson famously rejected a shoe deal with Nike because he felt they would require him to follow in Jordan’s crossover footsteps. Instead, Iverson signed with Reebok making the sole demand that “the company not try to change him.” In this sense, in using the crossover to get free of Jordan, Iverson affirmed his independence and autonomy from the (other) crossover model Jordan had established and, moreover, demonstrated the viability of his own path. Finally, this particular crossover, as an instance of perfect timing, evokes the kairos that reveals that—despite the myth of the greatest of all time—time has not stopped and that basketball (and other) history continues to march forward, as always, driven by the creativity of those with the nothing to lose, for whom necessity is truly the mother of invention.
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