Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Happy Thoughts: Ricky Rubio In Neverland

"All children, except one, grow up."

Peter Pan - J.M. Barrie

There is nothing quite like watching a supremely gifted passer playing NBA basketball. Of all the breathtaking feats of artistry and athleticism we witness in sports, the perfect pass is, to me at least, the most beautiful to behold while simultaneously being the most difficult to comprehend. At its most exquisite and subtle, it requires not only "court vision" but a kind of second sight, and that prescience must in turn be wedded to deft execution. "How did he possibly see that angle?!?!?", we ask. And the fact that we can't answer that question, the inexplicable-ness, is what makes a truly great pass such a joy to see.

Personally, I've always believed that your Pistol/Bird/Magic/CP3/Nash types see every possession in a phase space. For them, the court has somewhere between 3 and 78 extra dimensions. A terrain of limitless possibility is registered and analyzed not in but ahead of real time. Every crease and angle can be exploited, and physics and geometry can go fly a kite. To watch them when they really have it cooking is to see the transcendence of sport into something else entirely. It is the visual equivalent of listening to Coltrane's Live At The Village Vanguard rendition of "Greensleeves" and wondering how in the hell he rains those increasingly dizzying cascades of notes down over that chord progression and still makes it all so perfectly balanced and beautiful. It is, in a word, magic.

Ricky Rubio obviously has the acumen for these plays; the "passing gene" as Bill Simmons is fond of calling it. But what sets him apart from all other great passers past, present, and quite possibly future, is that Rubio filters that genome through a mentality that I can only equate with the fictional character of Peter Pan.*

See, the most important thing that Peter Pan ever taught Wendy and the lost boys wasn't how to fly or how to fight pirates. The trick, the real magic of the Neverland ethos, is all about imagination. And I don't mean that in some bedraggled, cliche'd sense. The most singular thing about Peter Pan is that to him, imagining is a game, but it's also a gauntlet. It's a challenge to constantly imagine something so completely that the idea comes true. Especially when you're imagining the patently impossible, which Peter does pretty much all the time. He's so good at imagining that he gets bored easily and quickly, so there's a constant propulsion to conceive of the newest and most inventive scenario, the next game, the next adventure. He revels in this; he loves it. He thrives on meeting that challenge. His entire existence, and all of Neverland, really, is predicated on the fearless and absolute triumph of imagination over mundane reality. And a big part of what makes Ricky Rubio so fun to watch is that this is exactly what he's like when he's making a pass.

From a professional basketball standpoint this is a shortcoming that I know many people are hoping he will overcome. More than once, I've heard the (totally legitimate) criticism that Rubio will eschew a perfectly good, safe pass in favor of attempting some ludicrous, 20-foot-bouncer-through-traffic dime. He tries these plays because for him, the complicated and artistic pass is a pure delight. Where Chirs Paul is a cold-blooded surgeon and Steve Nash is a dynamo with a MENSA-level hoops IQ, Rubio is, and pardon the Farve-ism, "like a kid out there." He's all goofy grins and floppy-haired whimsy, flying up and down the court and thinking happy thoughts. He's having so much fun imagining the impossible that the safe, sensible, "grown-up" play just doesn't seem worthwhile. He'd much rather send that pass second to the right and straight on 'til morning.

(In this analogy, Kevin Love is John, Michael Beasely is, well, Michael, and everyone who loves basketball is collectively Wendy Moira Angela Darling.)

Ricky Rubio may ultimately mature in a passing-the-rock sense. He may stop using his imagination with the same gleeful fearlessness he displays now, or at least temper it to fit within the frame of "responsible" play. If he does, it will undoubtedly be to the benefit of his team. It will make him a better basketball player. But I'll be sad. It's wonderfully enjoyable to watch someone who attempts impossible passes partly to cut up a defense but mostly because they're fun. Ricky Rubio looks for the next great adventure on every possession. He'd rather be dueling Captain Hook on the deck of the Jolly Roger than playing some boring-ass game like tag, and that's what makes him special. Don't ever change, Ricky. Don't ever grow up.

*If you've never read J.M. Barrie's classic, I suggest you take some time and do so. Yeah, yeah, it's a "children's book", but it's also bloody brilliant. The novel is significantly darker and more nuanced than the Disney-ized iterations most of the world is familiar with, and it deals with the conceptions of childhood and adulthood through a blend of true wonderment and incisive satire that ultimately ... look, just read the damn book sometime, OK? You'll thank me later.

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