Ever wonder why Julius “Dr. J” Erving’s career as an NBA analyst was so short-lived? It was a conscious decision, and Dr. J’s reasoning gave way to perhaps the most beautiful description of basketball we’ve ever seen.
This excerpt comes from Erving’s autobiography, released last year. Erving starts by saying he has no interest in developing the skills the modern analyst needs — talking while a producer whispers in your ear, memorizing first-half statistics that will soon be forgotten, coming up with “vacuous” theories — and that most of what is said about the game behind the desk does little to actually explain what is happening.
Then he drops this monster (via delancyplace.com):
I worry that I am not up to the task of explaining the essence of basketball as it is played at the highest levels. I feel that it is like trying to explain music through words or to describe a painting through text. You can give a feeling of the work, or compare it to something else, but you can’t re-create the actual feeling of being on the court, or making that move, of imposing your will, of the precise moment that you realize you can reach the front of the rim.
“Because it is not a moment, it is a sense, an instinct, a flicker of insight and nerve so sudden that you have to act on it before it is a thought. What do you see? A subtle shift of weight, a lowering of the hands, a leaning forward, a glance, and that is enough to set off a chain of events. They are actions that stem from a thousand tiny instincts. But from where we are sitting above the court, we are unable to explain the game through these small moments, and instead talk about the Bulls’ second chance scoring and the Rockets’ bench production. I understand the need to do that, I have done some of that in this book, but I also know that we are simply describing a simulation of the game, rendering a three-dimensional activity in two dimensions. The truth, I think, is two men facing each other on a playground somewhere, and one of them senses the other is leaning to his left, only the defender isn’t actually leaning, he is trying to force the ball handler to his own left, and so on, the game spiraling upward in complexity and reaction and twitch and rise, from asphalt to high school, college gymnasiums to NBA parquet, and finally to here, where I sit behind this desk, talking about all of this as if it is nothing more than just those two kids in that school yard.
Wow. If there’s a better description of what goes through a basketball player’s mind during a game, we haven’t seen it.
For the record, we gave Erving an awful lot of shit for the last excerpt we read from his book, in which he said he wouldn’t have a daughter today if it wasn’t for braces. But it’s no surprise that Dr. J is masterful when it comes to putting athletics into words — nobody made basketball look like art more than this guy.
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