Style points matter in NBA
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

There's the basic melody to "My Funny Valentine," and then there's the way Miles Davis gives it that unmistakable broken-hearted whisper and wounded belt. That unh.

It's the same kind of thing in hoops: There's the layup off the glass, which is always nice. And then there's Ice Gervin's world-on-a-string finger roll, which is nice 'n' tasty, 'n' thank you, ma'am, may I please have another.

Style. Signature. Imprint.

Points count. Wins and losses matter. Driving a rusty railroad spike through the heart of your opponent and watching him gurgle and sputter out his last postseason breath -- that's good, too. And, of course, ultimately the title's the thing.

But style is what resonates with the soul. It's style that shoots from the rods and cones straight through to the heart, that lassoes, ties and leaves its mark on you.

So, here's a Style Guide to the 2003 NBA Playoffs, Round Two. (One freaky-styley superstar per squad):

Allen Iverson, Sixers
I could talk about the off-angled, back-leaning way he finds shooter's space. I could talk about the sneaky, syncopated release on his layups, or about his pinball cuts. I could talk about the asymmetric swagger in his arm sleeve and the no-holds-barred confession and revelation in his tattoos. But I'm not going to talk about any of that.

I'm just going to say this: He flares his upper lip a bit, like the King (only less come-hither sexy, and more get-out-the-way hungry). On the floor getting up, pleading a case to the ref, sloughing off a screen, bending under an outstretched defender's hand -- the lip is flared. Lots of guys grimace. This is different. It's a snarl is what it is, full of drama and disdain, both put-upon and relentless. It's about the most inspiringly ugly thing in all the western world right now. Only Nick Nolte's voice and Lyle Lovett's hair even come close.

Ben Wallace, Pistons
Speaking of hair, if you don't love the 'do, we've got nothing to talk about.

If you can dig it (and I knew that you could), what more needs to be said?

Still, let's add this: There's a little something Herman Munster about Big Ben, especially on offense, and especially away from the bucket. It's true. But in close and on D, his arms grow long and fluid, like they're shedding skin or coming up out of the soil eager for the sun, like they've found their perfect form and function. It's a supernaturally lovely thing to watch.

And one other thing: Ben's working more than a style, he's working a full-blown aura. It's a righteous laborer's aura, the steam and glow that comes off a man doing heavy lifting in quiet, unnoticed rhythms.

Chris Webber, Kings
"I love Chris," she said.

"Why don't you marry him, then?" he said.

"Aren't you clever, Mr. Lippy? Don't tempt me."

"OK, seriously, tell the people what you love about Chris."

"You mean besides that he's hot?"

"Yeah, besides that."

"But you're putting that down, right? I mean, I'm serious -- he's fry-an-egg-on-the-hood-of-the-Camaro hot. He's spell it out to make it last longer, h-o-t, you know what I'm saying?"

"I hear you. You find him attractive. I'm putting it down. What else?"

"All right, I'd say my favorite thing about Chris is the slight edge of awkwardness that surrounds everything he does. He can handle the ball, he can jump, he can shoot inside and out, and his interior passes are Arvydasian in their feel for gaps and alleys -- there's nothing he can't do. He's great. Still, there's a kind of roughness about all his moves. They're not clumsy exactly, but they're pronounced, somehow both in and out of the flow."

"And you like this?"

"Love it," she said. "It makes his game seem not just impressive but special, kind of miraculous."

"That's nice," he said. "I'm putting that down."

Steve Nash, Mavs
Fidgety but composed. 3-card-monte quick. Edward Scissorhands quick. Flyweight quick. Jab and move, jab and move -- next thing you know, you're not only down on points, you're bleeding all over the joint.

The whole Dallas thing is like a hypodermic -- in and out, and you never know what hit you -- and it shoots straight through Nash.

Paul Pierce, Celtics
My friend Scott says there are shooters and there are scorers.

Shooters come around picks, rise up in open space and knock down jumpers.

Scorers move in traffic, push into and off of defenders in search of breathing room, come at you from strange angles, and find new and unlikely ways to put ball A in bucket B, over and over again.

(Most scorers are shooters. Most shooters ... not so much.)

Pierce is a scorer. He's not a jumper or a flyer. Not a runner or a gunner. Just a scary-good scorer who gets more open in more gangly-anglin' ways than a body has a right to.

Fact is, I don't know how to describe what he does and I can't say for sure how he manages to do it.

I have some theories, though: the dark arts. Shapeshifting, invisibility potion, or maybe one of those watches that freezes everyone around you while you go blithely on your way to the bucket, or maybe, just maybe, he's Gumby.

They're just theories, but I swear, if you look at the tape, you'll see moments when he literally disappears, like he's slipped into a fold in the space-time continuum, and then reappears, elbow and neck cocked at slightly unnatural angles, with an impossibly open shot.

I'm not saying we have to fear him. I don't think he'd hurt anybody. I think we should relax and enjoy his game ... yeah, that's it, relax and enjoy his game, and just don't ever, ever make him angry.

Jason Kidd, Nets
You want to see Jason's style? Watch Richard Jefferson, K-Mart, Jason Collins and Kerry Kittles all night; watch everything but Jason.

Kobe Bryant, Lakers
Confidence sometimes manifests itself as a kind of physical precision, an economy of motion. Kobe's is the unruffled body of a man who has never had a second thought.

The story of his successes is in the compact lift and tight, low trajectory of his jump shots. No doubts. There are three rings in his first step, in the short, sharp breath and shoulder shrug he takes at the line, and in the two-hand dunks he drops.

The story of his failings, and of Phil's frustrations, is in there too. He moves, in such balance and with such control, like a man for whom passing just don't come easy.

Tim Duncan, Spurs
I know what you're thinking, but there is a style to him. It's a long way from the Iceman or Artis' 'fro and goat, sure, but it has its own quiet appeal.

Remember Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird"? Remember that suit, the way it hung soft and easy on his shoulders, no matter how anxious the situation?

Tim's game is that suit, all casual shoulder fakes and easy-breeze shimmies, all calm, cool and trump-card devastating.

It's easy to discount him because of his size. Feeling for the little guys comes easier, maybe. But there is a kind of steady poetry in Duncan's game. It won't thrill you, but you can lean on it when Boo (or Kobe, or C-Webb) puts a fright in you.

***** ***** *****

Eight teams and eight unique looks in the drivers' seats. Thinking matchups, tendencies and outcomes, most folks ask this time of year, "Who do you like?"

Thinking about the way guys do what they do, about the styles that linger in the mind's eye, I'm saying the question, now and for years down the line, is: "Who do you love?"

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.



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