COURT SENSE:

A Sense of Where You Are: What makes a truly great basketball player? (John McPhee, January 25, 1965, The New Yorker)

Bradley is one of the few basketball players who have ever been appreciatively cheered by a disinterested away-from-home crowd while warming up. This curious event occurred last March, just before Princeton eliminated the Virginia Military Institute, the year’s Southern Conference champion, from the N.C.A.A. championships. The game was played in Philadelphia and was the last of a tripleheader. The people there were worn out, because most of them were emotionally committed to either Villanova or Temple—two local teams that had just been involved in enervating battles with Providence and Connecticut, respectively, scrambling for a chance at the rest of the country. A group of Princeton boys shooting basketballs miscellaneously in preparation for still another game hardly promised to be a high point of the evening, but Bradley, whose routine in the warmup time is a gradual crescendo of activity, is more interesting to watch before a game than most players are in play. In Philadelphia that night, what he did was, for him, anything but unusual. As he does before all games, he began by shooting set shots close to the basket, gradually moving back until he was shooting long sets from twenty feet out, and nearly all of them dropped into the net with an almost mechanical rhythm of accuracy. Then he began a series of expandingly difficult jump shots, and one jumper after another went cleanly through the basket with so few exceptions that the crowd began to murmur. Then he started to perform whirling reverse moves before another cadence of almost steadily accurate jump shots, and the murmur increased. Then he began to sweep hook shots into the air. He moved in a semicircle around the court. First with his right hand, then with his left, he tried seven of these long, graceful shots—the most difficult ones in the orthodoxy of basketball—and ambidextrously made them all. The game had not even begun, but the presumably unimpressible Philadelphians were applauding like an audience at an opera.

Bradley has a few unorthodox shots, too. He dislikes flamboyance, and, unlike some of basketball’s greatest stars, has apparently never made a move merely to attract attention. While some players are eccentric in their shooting, his shots, with only occasional exceptions, are straightforward and unexaggerated. Nonetheless, he does make something of a spectacle of himself when he moves in rapidly parallel to the baseline, glides through the air with his back to the basket, looks for a teammate he can pass to, and, finding none, tosses the ball into the basket over one shoulder, like a pinch of salt. Only when the ball is actually dropping through the net does he look around to see what has happened, on the chance that something might have gone wrong, in which case he would have to go for the rebound. That shot has the essential characteristics of a wild accident, which is what many people stubbornly think they have witnessed until they see him do it for the third time in a row. All shots in basketball are supposed to have names—the set, the hook, the lay-up, the jump shot, and so on—and one weekend last July, while Bradley was in Princeton working on his senior thesis and putting in some time in the Princeton gymnasium to keep himself in form for the Olympics, I asked him what he called his over-the-shoulder shot. He said that he had never heard a name for it, but that he had seen Oscar Robertson, of the Cincinnati Royals, and Jerry West, of the Los Angeles Lakers, do it, and had worked it out for himself. He went on to say that it is a much simpler shot than it appears to be, and, to illustrate, he tossed a ball over his shoulder and into the basket while he was talking and looking me in the eye. I retrieved the ball and handed it back to him. “When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this,” he said, throwing it over his shoulder again and right through the hoop. “You develop a sense of where you are.”

Bradley is not an innovator. Actually, basketball has had only a few innovators in its history—players like Hank Luisetti, of Stanford, whose introduction in 1936 of the running one-hander did as much to open up the game for scoring as the forward pass did for football; and Joe Fulks, of the old Philadelphia Warriors, whose twisting two-handed heaves, made while he was leaping like a salmon, were the beginnings of the jump shot, which seems to be basketball’s ultimate weapon. Most basketball players appropriate fragments of other players’ styles, and thus develop their own. This is what Bradley has done, but one of the things that set him apart from nearly everyone else is that the process has been conscious rather than osmotic. His jump shot, for example, has had two principal influences. One is Jerry West, who has one of the best jumpers in basketball. At a summer basketball camp in Missouri some years ago, West told Bradley that he always gives an extra hard bounce to the last dribble before a jump shot, since this seems to catapult him to added height. Bradley has been doing that ever since. Terry Dischinger, of the Detroit Pistons, has told Bradley that he always slams his foot to the floor on the last step before a jump shot, because this stops his momentum and thus prevents drift. Drifting while aloft is the mark of a sloppy jump shot. Bradley’s graceful hook shot is a masterpiece of eclecticism. It consists of the high-lifted knee of the Los Angeles Lakers’ Darrall Imhoff, the arms of Bill Russell, of the Boston Celtics, who extends his idle hand far under his shooting arm and thus magically stabilizes the shot, and the general corporeal form of Kentucky’s Cotton Nash, a rookie this year with the Lakers. Bradley carries his analyses of shots further than merely identifying them with pieces of other people. “There arc five parts to the hook shot,” he explains to anyone who asks. As he continues, he picks up a ball and stands about eighteen feet from a basket. “Crouch,” he says, crouching, and goes on to demonstrate the other moves. “Turn your head to look for the basket, step, kick, follow through with your arms.” Once, as he was explaining this to me, the ball curled around the rim and failed to go in.

“What happened then?” I asked him.

“I didn’t kick high enough,” he said.

“Do you always know exactly why you’ve missed a shot?”

“Yes,” he said, missing another one.

“What happened that time?”

“I was talking to you. I didn’t concentrate. The secret of shooting is concentration.”

His set shot is borrowed from Ed Macauley, who was a St. Louis University All-American in the late forties and was later a star member of the Boston Celtics and the St. Louis Hawks. Macauley runs the basketball camp Bradley first went to when he was fifteen. In describing the set shot, Bradley is probably quoting a Macauley lecture. “Crouch like Groucho Marx,” he says. “Go off your feet a few inches. You shoot with your legs. Your arms merely guide the ball.” Bradley says that he has more confidence in his set shot than in any other. However, he seldom uses it, because he seldom has to. A set shot is a long shot, usually a twenty-footer, and Bradley, with his speed and footwork, can almost always take some other kind of shot, closer to the basket. He will take set shots when they are given to him, though. Two seasons ago, Davidson lost to Princeton, using a compact zone defense that ignored the remoter areas of the court. In one brief sequence, Bradley sent up seven set shots, missing only one. The missed one happened to rebound in Bradley’s direction, and he leaped up, caught it with one hand, and scored. Even his lay-up shot has an ancestral form; he is full of admiration for “the way Cliff Hagan pops up anywhere within six feet of the basket,” and he tries to do the same. Hagan is a former Kentucky star who now plays for the St. Louis Hawks. Because opposing teams always do everything they can to stop Bradley, he gets an unusual number of foul shots. When he was in high school, he used to imitate Bob Pettit, of the St. Louis Hawks, and Bill Sharman of the Boston Celtics, but now his free throw is more or less his own. With his left foot back about eighteen inches—“wherever it feels comfortable,” he says—he shoots with a deep-bending rhythm of knees and arms, one-handed, his left hand acting as a kind of gantry for the ball until the moment of release. What is most interesting, though, is that he concentrates his attention on one of the tiny steel eyelets that are welded under the rim of the basket to hold the net to the hoop—on the center eyelet, of course—before he lets fly. One night, he scored over twenty points on free throws alone; Cornell hacked at him so heavily that he was given twenty-one free throws, and he made all twenty-one, finishing the game with a total of thirty-seven points. When Bradley, working out alone, practices his set shots, hook shots, and jump shots, he moves systematically from one place to another around the basket, his distance from it being appropriate to the shot, and he does not permit himself to move on until he has made at least ten shots out of thirteen from each location. He applies this standard to every kind of shot, with either hand, from any distance. Many basketball players, including reasonably good ones, could spend five years in a gym and not make ten out of thirteen left-handed hook shots, but that is part of Bradley’s daily routine. He talks to himself while he is shooting, usually reminding himself to concentrate but sometimes talking to himself the way every high-school j.v. basketball player has done since the dim twenties—more or less imitating a radio announcer, and saying, as he gathers himself up for a shot, “It’s pandemonium in Dillon Gymnasium. The clock is running out. He’s up with a jumper. Swish!” Last summer, the floor of the Princeton gym was being resurfaced, so Bradley had to put in several practice sessions at the Lawrenceville School. His first afternoon at Lawrenceville, he began by shooting fourteen-foot jump shots from the right side. He got off to a bad start, and he kept missing them. Six in a row hit the back rim of the basket and bounced out. He stopped, looking discomfited, and seemed to be making an adjustment in his mind. Then he went up for another jump shot from the same spot and hit it cleanly. Four more shots went in without a miss, and then he paused and said, “You want to know something? That basket is about an inch and a half low.” Some weeks later, I went back to Lawrenceville with a steel tape, borrowed a stepladder, and measured the height of the basket. It was nine feet ten and seven-eighths inches above the floor, or one and one-eighth inches too low.

A GOOD DIRECTOR COULD HAVE MADE A GREAT MOVIE:

The Boys in the Boat: the real history behind George Clooney’s underdog sports movie (Jonny Wilkes, January 12, 2024, History Today)


A former rower himself, Ulbrickson pushed the University of Washington rowing crews extremely hard in training sessions, which took places as frequently as six days a week. He would chop and change the boat lineups, in search of the perfect team of eight, which caused a lot of consternation and uncertainty among the young students.

Yet he had an enviable pool of talent to pick from, and sage advice from expert boat builder George Pocock. The junior varsity crew, Husky, was soon outstripping the seniors.

They improved so much, in fact, that Ulbrickson made the controversial decision to enter his juniors into Olympic qualifying, to the chagrin of the traditionalists in the rowing world.

Rowing enjoyed immense popularity in the US at the time. Thousands attended each regatta, with many spectators standing on special observation trains that ran along the riverbank to ensure not a stroke would be missed. Newspapers hailed the Husky team who became known as the ‘boys in the boat’ – working-class kids taking on teams from elite East Coast schools – and covered their successes with relish, describing their motion as a “symphony of swinging blades”.

In 1936, they dominated the national collegiate rowing championships in Poughkeepsie, New York, and raced to victory at the Olympic trials in Princeton, New Jersey, becoming the first crew from Washington to represent the US at the games.

TAXES DICTATE BEHAVIORS:

Baseball Star Shohei Ohtani’s New Contract Is a Massive Tax Avoidance Scheme. Nice! (ERIC BOEHM, 12.15.202, reason)

But unlike most sports contracts, that $700 million won’t be doled out over the 10-year term of the deal—and, as a result, both Ohtani and the Dodgers are poised to dodge (sorry) some of the taxes they might be otherwise obligated to pay on the record-breaking deal.

The 29-year-old Ohtani will collect $2 million in each of the next 10 years. The rest of Ohtani’s $68 million salary will be deferred for a decade, and the Dodgers will owe it to him in annual installments starting in 2034. By the time Ohtani collects the last of those payments in 2043, he’ll be 49 years old (and almost certainly well into retirement).

Because he’ll be playing most of his games in high-tax California, taking most of his pay via what’s effectively a fixed annuity gives Ohtani the possibility of avoiding some massive tax payments. “By the time he starts receiving the $68 million payments, he may be able to avoid state income taxes by living someplace like Florida without an income tax, or by moving back to Japan,” The Wall Street Journal reported this week.

Disincentives work.

MIRACLE ON INDUS:

India’s Jingoism Lost at the Cricket World Cup: Nationalism is replacing sportsmanship in Modi’s India (TUNKU VARADARAJAN, DEC 1, 2023, The UnPopulist)

Neutrals cheered Australia on Sunday—a team that has historically been unloved outside its own shores—because most cricket fans worldwide are thoroughly sick—fed up, pissed off—about India’s bully-boy dominance of world cricket. I don’t mean sporting dominance, which neutral fans can live with (as was the case with the West Indians of the Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards era, or Brazilian football in the time of Pelé). It’s the wholesale takeover by the BCCI of [international] cricket’s financing, values and calendar, giving them a grip over the game that is stronger, more ruthless and vice-like, more absolute and remorseless, more self-serving and mercantilist, than that once exercised by the game’s original overlords in England (who might, at some level, have been forgiven their assertion of ownership over cricket because they did, in fact, give us the game).

The BCCI has warped cricket, distorted it, making it so India-centric that other proud nations—some with better pedigrees than India’s—have been reduced to bit-part players, mendicants, petitioners for match-time. Everything is now about India: the crowds, the songs, the scheduling, the pitches, the money. The one element the BCCI cannot control, mercifully, is the outcome of a match. Try as India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party might—for the BCCI is now the BJP in cricketing form—the result of a match cannot be influenced to suit its needs the way an election can. International umpires are not the Indian judiciary. The International Cricket Council is not (yet) the Indian Election Commission.

That India lost in the final was karmic payback for the BCCI’s sins against the game, and also for the Ahmedabad crowd’s unwillingness to be sporting and civilized, to appreciate cricket as something other than a jingoistic exercise in which India must win every game to the chanting of “Jai Shri Ram” [“Glory to Lord Rama”] and “Bharat Mata ki Jai” [“Hail Mother India”]. Let us never again hold the final of a World Cup in such a city, a place in which cricket is but the means to petty nationalist ends, where few stand up to applaud an opposing batsman who scores a magnificent, match-winning hundred. Stay with Chennai, with Mumbai, with Kolkata, where the crowds love cricket (and not just winning).

In the end, justice was done. Australia won.

EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN:

Terry Venables: the gambler of Euro 96: The England manager embodied an era of optimism (JONATHAN WILSON, 11/27/23, UnHerd)

It would be an exaggeration to say that modern football was born amid the battle between QPR and Watford for promotion from Division Two in the early Eighties, but in their rivalry was encapsulated a key fault line that continues to shape football today. Watford were managed by Taylor, Venables’s predecessor as England manager. When he took over Watford in 1977, they were in the Fourth Division. Within six years, he had taken them to second in Division One. His football then was, as he cheerily admitted, rudimentary: he had his players knock the ball in behind the opposing full-back, then had his side press to try to regain possession in dangerous areas, relying on an aggressive offside trap to offer defensive solidity.

Taylor said that each time his side got promoted he expected to be found out, but that it wasn’t until playing Sparta Prague in the Uefa Cup in 1983 that anybody did, largely because the Czechoslovak defenders had the technical ability not to panic when put under pressure. With better players, he amended his approach to an extent, but he remained always of a school that saw football as a game of chaos, and pressing as a way of guiding that. Venables, in seeking to impose order, was the cerebral Pep Guardiola to Taylor’s Klopp.

INFINITUDE:

A PERFECT GAME: THE METAPHYSICAL MEANING OF BASEBALL (David Bentley Hart, August 2010, First Things)

My hope, when all is said and done, is that we will be remembered chiefly as the people who invented—who devised and thereby also, for the first time, discovered—the perfect game, the very Platonic ideal of organized sport, the “moving image of eternity” in athleticis. I think that would be a grand posterity.

I know there are those who will accuse me of exaggeration when I say this, but, until baseball appeared, humans were a sad and benighted lot, lost in the labyrinth of matter, dimly and achingly aware of something incandescently beautiful and unattainable, something infinitely desirable shining up above in the empyrean of the ideas; but, throughout most of the history of the race, no culture was able to produce more than a shadowy sketch of whatever glorious mystery prompted those nameless longings.

The coarsest and most common of these sketches—which has gone through numerous variations down the centuries without conspicuous improvement—is what I think of as “the oblong game,” a contest played out on a rectangle between two sides, each attempting to penetrate the other’s territory to deposit some small object in the other’s goal or end zone. All the sports built on this paradigm require considerable athletic prowess, admittedly, and each has its special tactics, of a limited and martial kind; but all of them are no more than crude, faltering lurches toward the archetype; entertaining, perhaps, but appealing more to the beast within us than to the angel.

In a few, peculiarly favored lands, more refined and inspired adumbrations of the ideal appeared. The Berbers of Libya produced Ta Kurt om el mahag, and the British blessed the world with cricket, but, because the running game in both is played between just two poles, neither can properly mirror the eternal game’s exquisite geometries, flowing grace, and sidereal beauties. And then there is that extended British family of children’s games from which baseball drew its basic morphology (stoolball, tut-ball, and, of course, rounders); but these are only charming finger-paint renderings of the ideal, vague, and glittering dreams that the infant soul brings with it in its descent from the world above before the oblivion of adulthood purges them from memory; they are as inchoately remote from the real thing as a child’s first steps are from ballet. In the end, only America succeeded in plucking the flower from the fields of eternity and making a garden for it here on earth. What greater glory could we possibly crave?

Beauty is objective.