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:

  • In 2009, the two-point jumper is coming to be seen as the death of efficient offenses, which run much better with 3-pointers and layups. In the mid-1960s, this very same shot was the innovation that had made basketball offenses efficient.

  • The racial undertones of this book are thick. It's a book about a very white time in basketball, which is complicated to read in 2009. (Insert six million-word further explanation here.)

  • It says that Bill Bradley did academic work from six in the morning to midnight for eight straight weeks. What? Really?

  • As an undergraduate, Bill Bradley played in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Before coming home he went on a lecture tour of Asia.

  • One person who guards him really well in college: Cornell's Dave Bliss. Yes, that Dave Bliss. Tenacity isn't the only quality you need to succeed long-term.

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.