“All goes onward and outward”
When a player combines the vertical and the horizontal, height and length, the result is almost unstoppable. Tall players, about 7 footers, 2,10m , entered basketball late, after WWII, because the common perception was that they were slow and athletically unable. Then, George Mikan, with his movements at 2,08m of height, 6-10, changed the opinion, made basketball a sport for tall people.
Real change came later, though, when the African-American players stormed the NBA with a previously unseen combination of height and physicality, which showed that tall players, very tall ones, could be fast and skilled like no one else.
Wilt Chamberlain’s appearance in the NBA made the league come to terms with this kind of athlete. More than 7,0 feet (2,10 m), Wilt ran faster, jumped higher and moved better, more technically, than any other on the court. His 100 points in Hershey on March 2 1962 are still an unmatched feat.
Wilt won only two titles, at first stopped by the Boston Celtics, and afterwards by the Milwaukee Bucks and the Knicks of the early 70s. As though his gift was not enough, Wilt always had to deal with more complete and profound opponents, which made his numbers less important than the team effort.
There were other tall players. Bill Russell, for instance. Then came Nate Thurmond, and Kareem, but none of these possessed Wilt’s incredible speed and outstanding athletic agility.
Everybody else belonged to a “normality”, even the most extraordinary, that eluded Wilt.
However, Wilt played center. As time went by, though, the basketball player became someone less tied to a role based on his height, and coaches classified tall players on the basis of their attitudes rather than the body.
This is how we got Magic Johnson; the Lakers point guard, more than 2 meters (6’6), dribbling and passing the ball. Magic lacked Wilt’s power, and the mentality to show it on the court. A team player, he ignited the trend to find only point guards above 2 meters, in the illusion that basketball was following this route. Young centers were told to dribble, and shoot from far, though they didn’t like it. Funny enough, nobody came out of it… one could nurture Magic’s talent, if it was there, but it could not build it from nothing.
The world changes quickly. Better training, better food, make the muscles of tall boys become more flexible, agile. The average height increases, and in basketball, in which we see only the excess, it is very evident. This poses new questions about how to better use these players, because you need to be a bit revolutionary to exploit the potential in bodies you would not expect.
Enter, LeBron James.
In 2003, at the age of, about, 19, LeBron storms the NBA. Tall like a center, agile like a small forward, with passing skills like a point guard, LeBron owns a personality most players lack. He avoids the NCAA to enter the NBA. On one side, this affects his capacity to read situations, but on the other side, it also gives him a mental freedom, like few players ever possessed.
LeBron draws his role on himself. Yes, he can play small forward, but he can play under the basket and constantly improves his long distance shooting. He becomes a Vitruvian player. Like Leonardo’s man drawn as he defines his limits, LeBron decides which HIS limits are, taking on himself the task to self-coach the game, as he wants it to be. It’s LeBron-ball, a different blend of basketball, that the orthodox deny, still thinking about the old rigid division of roles, but the modernist embrace, finding in LeBron the forerunner of different kind of player, a total player, who leads, coaches, plays and decides, risking on his own.
LeBron’s adventure fascinates everybody. It’s a tale of a boy who looks ahead, totally embracing his being special. He does not listen to what others think, because none is almost 7’0” and runs like him. Therefore, HE has taken on himself the task of self-defining what he is.
LeBron has defined a new path. One that Giannis Antetokounmpo is following, out of any previous definition of players and roles. Jason Kidd is growing the Greek freak well, putting more and more basketball in his hands, gradually, so that he, that received less basketball lessons than LeBron at his age, can learn slowly, but steadily, HIS own style of play.
If possible, Giannis is even more peculiar than LeBron. His arms outstretch at 7’3” (about 2,20 meters), connected to an incredible agility. Like LeBron at his age, none has yet seen where he’ll arrive. His potential is in a building phase, but his skills are unrivalled. What really astonishes about Giannis, is his focus, his ardent desire to BE what he can be. In this he’s similar to LeBron, and probably it depends upon his very poor upbringing, on the perception that he can’t fail, and on the work of coach Takis Zivas in the Filathlitikos juvenile team.
LeBron and Giannis stand halfway between Magic and Wilt. They are total players, not in 3 but in 4 or 5 dimensions. They also express a shift in our time, in the organization of work, from a tayloristic society, built on the idea of the production chain, to a liquid society, in which everything is everywhere at the same time.
They are, they can be, everywhere at the same time.
The modern basketball, spreading the players on the court to get advantage of the 3 point shooting, has dispersed the players inside the arc, creating space and taking even the long players far from the basket.
Therefore, Kristaps Porziņģis can properly use his gifts. The Latvian, standing a lot of centimeters above 2,10, or 7’0”, can shoot from the distance, put the ball on the ground and play, or pass it to anyone. Kristaps is an extreme number 4, stretched, long, technical, and so agile though with his light frame. Nothing is prototypal in his capacity to combine height, agility and technical skills.
These players are proliferating. Next year Luka Doncic is likely to cross the Atlantic to land in the NBA. About 7’ like the others, Luka is a point guard and, potentially, a new total player. Like Kristaps, he enjoyed the European preparation; he’s more of an ideal player, someone who was built “learning” the game, rather than “designing” it around him, like LeBron and Giannis. Luka starts from the strong discipline of the Yugo School, and travels through the Spanish system, to combine two of the best traditions in the creation of players.
Will basketball be only a game for outsized players? It already is. We don’t see “normal” five or six footers that walk in the streets, in the NBA or in the Euroleague, but extraordinary bodies elaborated from a program that picks excellence from around the world. Nevertheless, these players, among the extraordinary, are even more extraordinary: Aliens, UFOs, androids.
They change the reference models, the way we perceive the game, not only in its intellectual, but also in its visual aspect. They are the new, the unusual that is going to be usual, that is going to be typical, and the possible evolution of the basketball player, in a world that keeps challenging our prejudices, our expectation, and widens our perceptions, always surprising with a reality that goes much farther than fantasy.