Chapter 8: The Myth of the Right Way, June 15, 2004 (Taste)

11“Playing the Right Way is more than a way to win basketball games. It’s a way of life.”—Henry Abbott

[. . .]

In the Argentine movie Nine Queens two grifters’ paths collide when the younger of the two, Juan, botches a con at a convenience store, only to be rescued by the elder, Marcos, who rapidly ushers him out of the scene posing as an arresting undercover officer. From this seemingly random encounter, the two strangers form an uneasy alliance. Marcos will take Juan under his wing, show him some simple cons, and, eventually, reveal that he has a much bigger proposition for which he enlists Juan’s assistance: the sale of some rare (and counterfeit) stamps to a corrupt Spanish businessman. Reluctantly, Juan, who is desperate to raise money to bribe a judge so that his father (also a con artist) can be released from prison, agrees. The film then takes us through an unpredictable, dizzying and often harrowing set of twists and turns during which it is never quite clear what is planned and what occurs by chance, what is an obstacle and what an opportunity, what is real and what is mere appearance, and who has the upper hand. And even at the end, when it is all finally clear, there’s this overwhelming urge to replay the whole thing to see what you missed the first time, how the whole thing got pulled off.

You could call it “That Manu Ginobili Feeling.” For the sense of having been duped, or of having missed something, is not resolved but rather heightened by watching Ginobili play, which may be partly explained by what a friend on twitter referred to as his “lumpenproletariat” style of play. The lumpenproletariat, for those unfamiliar with Marx’s classification of the margins of the industrial working class, include “swindlers, confidence tricksters, brothel keepers, rag-and-bone merchants, and beggars”—in other words, the heroes of Nine Queens. On first impression, Ginobili appears chaotic on the court. Almost constantly moving, he is prone to changing speeds with frequency and without any obvious motivation, with and without the ball. With the ball, he may throw himself headlong, seemingly out of control and against all sense, into a crowd of taller defenders near the basket. He seems to initiate plays without knowing how his wild beginning will resolve itself. Sometimes the ball seems to slip from his control as he shifts from dribble to pass or shot. Indeed, this chaotic unpredictability is what a number of his coaches, teammates, and opponents signal as Manu’s standout characteristic: it’s what makes him next to impossible to defend, but also, sometimes, difficult to play with and to coach.

[ . . . ]

Manu transforms what appears as inevitable constraint in the world around him—an opponent’s dunk on a breakaway or a blocked path on offense—into the viral unstoppability of his own invention. “We have to see creation,” Gilles Deleuze once said, “as tracing a path between impossibilities. Creation takes place in bottlenecks.” But this is in fact not quite enough for Manu, who doesn’t just transform the constraints he confronts, he actually creates the impossibilities in the first place, or at least the appearance of them. This is how he disarms his defenders, how he pulls off heist after heist. He inspires the same baffled awe and confusion in those tasked with stopping him that he does in those of us watching it.

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