week 37: brahms and westbrook (mostly westbrook)

johannes brahms, violin concerto in d major, Funk and Wagnals

johannes brahms, violin concerto in d major, Funk and Wagnals

elsewhere. in the nba for example: how very interesting things are getting, namely something other than the warriors vs. lebron is possible. but before we even get to that: yet another regular season has come to an end and the league is in excellent health. you’d be lying right through the gaps in your teeth if you said you can’t remember where you were on opening night when gordon hayward’s ankle demanded a trade from the rest of his leg—at that very moment only the most seasoned veteran spectator among us failed to throw in the towel on there being any serious competition in the east. meanwhile, meanwhile: the raptors are getting used to the idea of winning; the sixers are finally reaping the rewards of sam hinkie’s legacy (he died for your sins); the wizards—not sure…; the pacers have convinced me to forfeit my costco membership—i’m now a proud member of the ola-depot (stay feathery my brodha); miami reportedly sent dwayne wade to a 5-month internship with the cavs; the bucks have pulled off their only goal this season: run as many plays as possible that end with giannis dunking on baines (thats the coolest thing i’ve ever said); it was a long search to find the perfect anecdote for the celtics: the lowest hanging fruit is the parable of job from the bible who god threw every shitmixing calamity at in order to test his piety. brad stevens is the nba’s job twice over. how much more could the man endure and still show up for work? finally, finally, finally—lebron: where will he take his talents to next? the king-and-his-cleveland era is over—what then was that mid-season roster shuffle?—rigor mortis.


having been so recently overexposed to sibelius’ violin concerto in d minor, the most i could be as an audience to any other violin piece was a polite spectator—as if coolly receiving the news of victory of a distant battle just after signing a treaty to end the war. what i really mean: one’s taste can be spoiled by an excess of quality—especially at too early a stage of cultivation. very much like that concerto, brahm’s violin concerto requires an olympic amount of effort in skill and endurance from its principal violinist:

Hence the well-known quip of Hans von Bulow that Max Bruch’s more conventionally idiomatic G-minor Concerto was for the violin, but Brahm’s was against it. “” Botstein, The Compleat Brahms

—and that was just in the east. much that has transpired in the west, too, was unexpected… so much that the subject of every dropping jaw of the previous season repeated the same feat and was met with yawning, if not indifferent, congratulations: yes, russell westbrook completed his second consecutive regular season averaging a triple-double (25.4pts—10.1rbs—10.3ast).

there’s a now-common refrain to ebb the proclamation by even the most common observer that lebron is the greatest of all time: just because he’s happening right now doesn’t make him the greatest of all time. with westbrook, this refrain isn’t as effective—he’s something special, that he’s happening right now is mere providence. albeit what russell is as a basketball player cannot be summarized statistically. his aesthetic of movement is the physical actualization of a metabolic rate exactly equal to athletic output: incessant, incessant, incessant—that is westbrook in three words.

(an aesthetic of movement?—that is, the entire category of a spectrum through which the mimation of a musical idea is expressed—that is, the entire family of movements, a couple degrees removed from their musical origin, contextualized in the simplest format of  physical competition known altogether as a sport—that is, the character of movements which eventually comes to exist in a symbiosis with the legislature of rules that define a sport. basketball, more than any of the four major sports in our hemisphere, has prescribed it’s rules of engagement from a particularly indigenous logic of movement—take for example the rule against travelling. apart from maintaining the dribble as the mode of movement up and down the court, it also establishes a 1-2-3 rhythm that concludes at the rim: the contraposto that begins with picking your dribble finds it third and final movement at the rim...an extra step in between is like starting the motion all over again, a contradiction of the logic of motion—what i’m merely suggesting is that this logic of movement is indigenous to a musical origin; is the response to a musical idea which has generated a curriculum of balletic movements that endow a sport with it’s styles, it’s accents, and consequently; consequently, consequently—it’s physiques…)

what order then should one employ in consideration of russell westbrook as an archetypical aesthetic of movement?—is it that his physique anticipates the accent of his movements, which in turn prescribes what we generally refer to as his style of play? that is actually a very likely and more satisfying a sequence than the one i prefer: style, is a much more dominant force on the characteristic outcome of repetitive movements (accent) than physique. take for example the difference in style between russell westbrook and say deron williams, both of whom share a similar physique (6’3”; 200lbs)—precisely what has contributed the most to russell’s accent of movement is a predisposition towards a certain style of play. the underlying gimmickry in the tactical maneuver from point a to b—the fakes, jukes, and gestures—intimations of what remains in actuality only a potential—that is what i mean by style. (this potential is as available on defence as on offence: “The idea is not to block every shot. The idea is to make your opponent believe that you might block every shot.”—bill russell)

indeed, during the long cultivation of what eventually becomes talent, the nba player has accumulated a catalog of these gimmicks. in fact in most cases, and from experience, this catalog reaches maturity much before the athlete's physique does. in this way, the general idea of style anticipates and instructs the accent through which a player’s physique is expressed.

the question returns to us slightly improved: what is russell westbrook’s style as an archetypal aesthetic of movement? to answer that, first let us consider what is available to us in the nba as an archetype. i’ll restrict my consideration to what has become archetypical through the combination of player-culture and the league’s hegemonic repertoire rather than what we as spectators casually refer to as archetypical. where better to mine for evidence of the archetypal than in iconography? in our case: the nba’s logo.

it’s a tri-chromic silhouette of jerry west (though the nba is reluctant to verify that it is in fact jerry west—but we know)—it’s a snapshot of him mid-dribble, balancing on one leg in what almost resembles a pirouette; all his weight is shifted on that leg and the other leg is in the direction of his advance. the whole image is what i call contraposto-in-motion—or, michaelangelo’s David in motion (instead of all that standing around)—or—gianlorenzo bernini’s David. how much more that david resembles our pirouetting jerry! though differences abound: for example, the logo’s shoulder is facing us while the knees are pointing towards the left of the frame. it’s this dexterity of movement that is relevant here; the image describes the prototype of the basketball player: not slow and dull but quick and piercing of wit. the slenderness of the physique is also relevant: there is nothing imposing about this prototype’s trim, tall and svelte physicality. it's athletic features are merely suggested. really it’s a sport primarily for the dancing type.

the second most iconic silhouette in the league is of michael jordan. with his jumpman, the gestures and intimations of jerry west’s logo are made irrelevant: suddenly we’re farther from the action, we’re perhaps seated as we look up to an entirely airborne figure, the height of which draws our imagination skyward. there is still a contra-positioning of the the shoulders to the legs but the pivoting of weight on one leg is transformed to an entirely symmetrical weightlessness. the jumpman describes a more muscular version of the nba logo—only slightly moreso—just enough musculature to justify his flight. it describes a player and a league to whom ‘playing above the rim’ is the first and second instinct.

aside from iconography, we should also let the game’s founder contribute to our catalog of archetypes. what was characteristic of james naismith’s vision of the basketball athlete? what did he demand of this athlete in style and physique? in his own words—“Be strong in body, clean in mind, lofty in ideals.”  do we not see this strength in the torque of jerry west’s turning?—do we not see this loftiness in the jumpman? perhaps naismith wanted for his athletes the virtue of dancers.

we return to the question improved: what could be westbrook’s contribution to this catalog?—and what kind of an athlete would his icon describe?

for most players, the moments right after scoring—in between scoring and setting up on defence—is an opportunity for respite, reconstitution, recovery from the rigorous postures of even the most efficient offensive possessions. there are exceptions of course, westbrook for example. immediately after scoring, especially after he has scored, his demeanor remains erect, he remains off of his heels. his chin and chest are postured for yet another incredible exertion of energy: incessant, incessant incessant. that is the silhouette of russell i’d add to our catalog: a taut and medium-build musculature, standing upright on the balls of his feet, knees bent ever slightly, nostrils flaring, shoulders relaxed, elbows loose and ready.

To the influence of Socrates and Euripedes was attributed the fact that the old Marathonian stalwart fitness of body and soul was being sacrificed more and more to a dubious enlightenment that involved the progressive degeneration of the powers of the body and soul “” Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, pg86

perhaps i moved all to quickly past what might have been the most significant concept in all our considerations: that westbrook’s athletic output is equal to his metabolism. this relationship between exertion and metabolism is beyond sport but finds its best expression in sport. it describes that marathonian athlete whose musculature (output) is equal in proportion to aerobic capacity (what i mean loosely as metabolism).  it is elsewhere immeasurably valuable what can be deduced from the self-regulating homeostasis between metabolism and exertion---one might deduce the possibility of tranquility from exertion, for example. 

it has not been sufficiently celebrated precisely what kind of athlete was invented with basketball. what i really mean: where today can one better find the realization of that athletic figure known to and since antiquity, namely that marathonian athlete, whose every instinct is vertical, who only proceeds forward where the path upwards is obstructed; of which there is an airborne quality to their offensive instincts. do we not see it even it the bench warmers and role-players?—this most balletic inclination of movement? if there is one sin in basketball, it is flatfootedness...

[I am vertical] But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam into leaf,
“” Sylvia Plath, I am Vertical

a triple-double—or in a less numerical sense: putting up significant numbers in three categories of performance—is exemplary of that marathonian metabolism. on offence as well as as the defence, the instinct is always a kind of verticalism mixed with an overanticipation of every opportunity.

last season, westbrook became the first player since oscar robertson to average a triple-double through the season; this season he became the first to do so two seasons in a row. perhaps with him we are reminded again of what type of an athlete the sport is still on it’s way to: strong in body, clean in mind and lofty in ideals.