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Monday, August 10, 2009
John McPhee on Flashy Play


To me, the best sports article ever written is John McPhee's essay on Wimbledon, called Centre Court. It was published in Playboy and as far as I can tell it's not online. (UPDATE: Bingo.) But it's amazing.

McPhee is one of my favorite writers anywhere. I have a well-thumbed "John McPhee Reader." That compilation has the essay that became McPhee's first book: The loving profile of Bill Bradley, as an undergraduate, called "A Sense of Where You Are."

This summer it dawned on me that while I had read the second chapter of that McPhee book, I had yet to read the entire thing. So I bought it and am nearly done. It's a must-read.

It is striking in many ways, however. First of all, I'm blown away at how much McPhee -- one of the most evidence-driven writers out there -- allows himself to play cheerleader. Were this a later book, I suspect he would have toned down the praise. "Bradley," he writes in a typical passage, "has become such an excellent basketball player that it is necessary to look beyond college basketball to find a standard that will put him in perspective. The standard's name is Oscar Robertson ..." McPhee then rattles off the relative merits of each, and it's hard to know which player McPhee would prefer to have on his team.

There are countless other good reasons to read this book. I haven't even finished yet, but already am aware of several things I'd like to know more about:

But here's the McPhee line that has been stuck in my head all day:

Many basketball players, outstanding ones included, have a tendency to be rather tastelessly rococo in their style, and Bradley stands out in contrast because he adorns nothing that he does.

It's unmistakable, right? He's essentially saying that there's something a little better about practicing the fancy parts right out of your game.

And I think we can all see the general merit in such a thing. Certainly, there are plenty of players who put a lot of effort into dribbling behind the back, whooping up the crowd, or leaping into crowds of defenders. Those things don't necessarily help teams that much.

But when I think about the very best players I have ever seen, heard of, or played with ... a lot of them feel extremely comfortable on the basketball court, and make it their business to demonstrate a sense of ownership of that space. Sometimes that means being flamboyant -- doing something ostentatious to show your spirit is not likely to be restrained by, well, anything.

Scared players, you see, are never "rococo." 

So, I'll sign up for McPhee's general theory, that it's worthwhile for most players, most of the time, to be as efficient as possible, so as to be more elite.

But a different question is: Among the best of the best in any field, is it valuable to be plain? To avoid being demonstrative and showy in attitude? 

That I doubt.