A Sense of Where You Are

14336My  sweet spot, what I'm most interested in and what is the closest to my heart, is the intersection between writing and sports (the name for this blog comes from one of the great American novels in which sports plays a role) but specifically basketball. Sadly, there isn't much in the way of writing about or related to basketball. David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game comes to mind as the best book of sportswriting and the best work on basketball out there and there are some great oral histories by Terry Pluto, specifically Loose Balls, his book on the ABA. But when compared to the proliferation of amazing writing about baseball, basketball is definitely lacking. But one example of the best writing on basketball, ranking amongst the best writing about sports overall, is John McPhee's A Sense of Where You Are, his excellent profile of Bill Bradley during his time playing at Princeton. McPhee, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction and teach nonfiction writing at Princeton, provides background on both Bradley's life as well as his game as it developed and led him to Princeton before focusing on the star player's senior season at Princeton when he led the Tigers to the NCAA Final Four while winning the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award as well as setting numerous records along the way.

After this narrative (which was initially published in The New Yorker), McPhee writes a coda that talks about Bradley's life after that time, of his time playing on two New York Knicks championship teams as well as his career in politics as a Senator from New Jersey. But the piece itself focuses on Bradley and his time at Princeton, which saw him (in part because of this piece and its publication in The New Yorker) become a nationally celebrated basketball player and would contribute to his place amongst the pantheon of great basketball players of all time.

But beyond just writing about a great player, what one can see in A Sense of Where You Are is something that goes beyond as McPhee brings our attention to the finer aspects of the game of basketball, things that Bradley himself embodies and displays through his style of play. McPhee, writing about Princeton's coach at that time Butch Van Breda Kolff, says that he is:

a cheerful and uncomplicated man, has a sportsman’s appreciation of the nuances of the game, and appears to feel that mere winning is far less important than winning with style. He is an Abstract Expressionist of basketball. Other coaches have difficulty scouting his teams, because he does not believe in a set offense. He likes his offense free-form.

Why I quote this section about the coach is to show what McPhee is able to see in the game as well as the particular genius of Bradley and how Van Breda Kolff was able to tap into that. The spontaneity and movement that one sees in an Abstract Expressionist work, like that of Jackson Pollack, is how Van Breda Kolff wants to play basketball and, in one of the best minds and thus great basketball improvisors in the form of Bradley, he is able to create a team that can play this style of basketball. McPhee writes about Bradley's game and his moves in a way that makes it seem like it's a craft or an artistic skill, though also using geometric and scientific terminology to describe the game play (which will be discussed later).

What McPhee does is show how, particularly at the high level at which Bradley plays, basketball is not a game of random chaos and unstructured movement. It is a game that is directed and determined by thought and where there seems to be disorder or chaos it is a conscious decision to move forward in that way. In that regard, it makes me think of free verse and more unstructured forms of poetry and prose that do not happen randomly but rather through an attention to aesthetics and craft. As a writer and lover of art and literature it's hard for me not to feel a kinship with a sport that could allow for that kind of creativity.

Continuing to write about Bradley, McPhee then says:

If Bradley were more interested in his own statistics, he could score sixty or seventy-five points, or maybe even a hundred, in some of his games. But this would merely be personal aggrandizement, done at the expense of the relative balance of his own team and causing unnecessary embarrassment to the opposition, for it would only happen against an opponent that was heavily outmatched anyway. Bradley’s highest point totals are almost always made when the other team is strong and the situation demands his scoring ability. He has, in fact, all the mechanical faculties a great one-on-one player needs.

What Bradley is able to do is to not be just one thing, being not just an accumulator of points but rather someone concerned with making the best and right and most productive play and that yields a positive outcome for his team. "Every time a basketball player takes a step, an entire new geometry of action is created around him," McPhee goes on to write, as "[i]n ten seconds, with or without the ball, a good player may see perhaps a hundred alternatives and, from them, make half a dozen choices as he goes along. A great player will see even more alternatives and will make more choices, and this multiradial way of looking at things can carry over into his life," which is exactly what Bradley does through his game. What McPhee, writing in a detached manner and yet also bringing a profound reverence to the subject matter as well, calls attention to is how Bradley's game is both unselfish and dominant, thus enabling him to take over a game in many ways and have a greater effect on the game than another kind of player.

What McPhee calls attention to is the particular basketball genius of someone like Bradley (genius perhaps being an appropriate term as Bradley was also a Rhodes Scholar, a graduate of an Ivy League school, and served in the U.S. Senate). The moment in the piece that gives it its title comes when Bradley says “When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this [...] You develop a sense of where you are.” What Bradley is describing is how for the great players and those who have played for a long time, the moves and actions of basketball become like second nature or something that does not need to be considered while one is playing. But beyond muscle memory, this notion of the "sense" takes this to another level and is that which McPhee identifies as a particular element of Bradley's basketball genius. McPhee focuses particularly on Bradley's eyes, their notable wide-ness as well as his mammoth field of vision, as being endemic of his basketball prowess, writing of how "Bradley’s eyes are always a glaze of panoptic attention, for a basketball player needs to look at everything, focusing on nothing, until the last moment of commitment." But what this quote by Bradley that provides the piece with its title speaks less to an actual sense (as in one of the 5 senses) and rather something that goes beyond it. That sense, that perception that goes beyond specifically looking at a given thing while also remaining profoundly present, is something that only the best and most gifted basketball players possess and it's that which made Bradley such an amazing player.

A Sense of Where You Are was also fascinating to read in the context of the current NBA and, for my own personal reasons, with the ascendance of the Golden State Warriors and the style of basketball they helped to promulgate. Soccer is often called "the beautiful game" but it's definitely a phrase that could be assigned to the kind of basketball that the Warriors play, one predicated on ball movement and passing that adds up to a game that's both successful on the court as well as aesthetically pleasing. Though predating the Warriors by many decades, the style of basketball that Bradley plays calls to mind this kind of basketball and, in essence, where the modern NBA has gone. The way in which Bradley could dominate a game through his scoring but also through his passing and facilitating calls to mind the things that Stephen Curry or Draymond Green do on the court that make the Warriors such a uniquely difficult team to play against. Bradley and, to shift to his pro career, those early 70s Knicks teams are some of the most beloved basketball teams of all time (think of the book and ESPN documentary When the Garden Was Eden) and Bradley was a big part of it. I've often thought about the players I wish I could have watched in person for myself and those teams are definitely up there and Bradley in particular.

But beyond all this, the book does not work if the writing is not good. And McPhee, a masterful writer of nonfiction, is more than up to the task and writes about basketball and how it's played in a most engrossing and amazing way. Again, while maintaining that same removal or detachment that Bradley possessed on the court, McPhee writes about the game in a precise way that makes every movement clear and easy to envision. I was struck with how easily, because of the way the prose was crafted, that I could envision the game being played and Bradley's performance within it. It is a wonderful example of sports writing at the highest level and is something that makes me want to write about basketball as I try to emulate McPhee and A Sense of Where You Are in my own limited way. McPhee sees the art and artistry of the game of basketball and, in writing about one of the game's greatest artists in Bill Bradley, allows us to see how beautiful  a game it could be and what a master craftsman of that art that Bradley was.

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