The Artist Plays Basketball

I am an artist who plays basketball.  

I am an artist who plays basketball and isn’t it funny how I call both things practice?

I am an artist who plays basketball and sometimes those practices are radically different but sometimes they are quite similar.

I am an artist who plays basketball and my practices require repetition and ritual.

I am an artist who plays basketball and my best work happens in the moment.

Doing without Thinking

I was always the tallest kid in my class. Until I wasn’t. Growing up tall meant that I played basketball, but it wasn’t until I played up a level that I became a basketball player.

In my junior year of high school, I was thrown into the mix on a very good team in a competitive conference. The players were bigger, stronger and faster and I wasn’t able to use any of the physical advantages I had with players my own age. So I dedicated myself to improving my skills. A hundred free throws before breakfast, hundreds of jump shots before bed. But it wasn’t working.

At higher levels the game is mental. This dawned on me as opposing players consistently found spots on the floor to take advantage of a fraction of a second or a late defensive rotation. The separation point from good to great is in your head. It required developing an athletic intelligence.

Athletic intelligence is easy to recognize, when it unfolds it is a beautiful and creative act. It is the perfect pass that catches a player in full stride on a backdoor cut. It is knowing where that player will be before he even gets there. It is the undercurrent of our body given form, so it is naturally an elusive and mystical thing. It is intelligence without thinking. But what does that mean?

Free throw shooting is where form is perfected. Minus all the variables of in-game action, the athlete can train the body in perfect form. 

Athletic Intelligence

An athletic intelligence is not memory. I memorized all the plays. I listened intently as our coach screamed at us about where to be on the floor in certain moments. But the moments in the game where practice, thought and action unified to create perfect sequences were fleeting. More often than not, I would miss an opportunity because I was running through the playbook in my head, as the play was unfolding. I would get pulled from the game, and from my seat on the bench, try to burn the visuals of the playbook into my head, thinking that my problem was a lapse in memory. I knew the plays, but in the moment, fear gripped me that I didn’t.  All of the fluidity of pickup games and practices was gone. I was tight. I was thinking.

An athletic intelligence is not a force of will. I had will power. I woke up at 5am and ran through all the variations on the plays. I got more shots up after practice from the spots on the floor that the plays were designed to open up. I pushed harder. Repetition frees the mind of slower moving thoughts and opens the body’s fast twitch muscles up to react to situations. For a while, this seemed to work, because I stopped trying to remember, and I just played through the actions. But still there was no fluidity to what I was doing. In a game, after a play worked once or twice, it stopped working as the other team adjusted to what we were doing. This is when great players emerged, who made adjustments, read the defense and were able to be effective. Again, I watched from my seat on the bench.

Athletic intelligence is not metaphor. You can’t think abstractly about what you are about to do. This is the province of artists; to make meaning. And this was my problem. The second I  began to think about what it might mean, for instance, whether I was having a good game or a bad game, my mind was working outside of what my body could possibly do. Basketball is a series of movements, small actions taken incrementally. It is never one big decision, it is a series of little ones that are taken in the moment.

Humphrey Bogart used to place a pebble in his shoe before he acted in a scene. As he was called on to act, he would grind his foot down on the pebble, so that his active mind would be focused on the pain, not on the delivery of his lines. Similarly, athletes need to empty the active mind and let the body take over.

Being “clutch” requires this emptiness. If a player made meaning out of the free throws he was about to take that could win the game and deliver the championship, a 90% free throw average would plummet. The key is focusing on a series of short actions and to quiet the mind. This is ritual not about superstition but a sequenced behavior to recall the body to its familiarity with the action. Shoulders back, two dribbles, elbows in...swish. In that moment for the athlete, the mind is empty, the body relaxed and ready, and the moment, rehearsed through repetition, has already occurred. In practice.

Art and Basketball

Why do i call what I do as an artist a practice? I call it practice because like taking 500 jump-shots a day, it is a process where I come to meet myself daily. For me, a studio practice is a lonely ritual. It is a ritual that I keep to sustain this definition of myself as an artist. Studio time is taken alone, it is a space and time for me to reflect, to doubt, and to critique. What sustains my studio practice is the possibility that I could make something meaningful that can be shared. Most of my studio time is spent in a self conscious state, trying to make something, and most of the time, I end up showing none of this to anyone else. But occasionally, I will follow an idea or an action without any clue as to how it will resolve itself. This is when my work surprises me, and in reflection, this is when my work teaches me something about myself. This is the stuff that I like showing the most.

 A performance still from A View From Above (2011)

A performance still from A View From Above (2011)

A View From Above

While I was in graduate school, I started doing a performance lecture called A  View From Above, named after the autobiography of basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain. In the book, Chamberlain claimed to have had sex with 20,000 women. Chamberlain is also famous for scoring 100 points in a single NBA game; a record that still stands. He was a goliath, 7 foot 1 and 300 pounds, agile, quick and able to leap high enough to pick quarters off the top of the backboard. (That is 14 feet). In the performance, I granulate the statistics, twisting the soft round numbers presented in the book into points per quarter, minutes per game, and semen by gallons. I had read the book for the first time when I was twelve, and in the performance I look back at that young person, on the cusp of manhood. I get to skewer myself as an awkward teenager, and I get to skewer a sports hero for sexual hubris. It is probably an exaggeration, but what if it isn’t? It is a performance about measuring up, as an average man to a mythology, and about confronting the mortality of heroes. In the end, Chamberlain died with his impressive physique bloated and congested from heart failure; a body once capable of superhuman movements now inert and decidedly un-mythological.

Up until then, the art that I produced was tight, endlessly revised, and self consciously trying to be art. I once spent two years doing nothing but re-editing a fourteen minute video.  But with the Wilt Chamberlain performance, I was speaking with my own voice about something I genuinely loved. It was my first time doing “performance art”. And it felt right as a performance. I was doing without thinking. I was preparing like an athlete.  It was exhilarating and terrifying every time I did it. Once I began, it swelled with its own energy; equally dependent on my mood and on the energy I got from the crowd. Of course I wanted it to be perfect, but it never was. But I kept chasing perfection. And just as in basketball, I had to live with imperfection. A good shooter takes five hundred shots a day. The form is the same every time. Elbows in, feet set, following through. A still, on a good night, a great shooter will miss half of his shots. I  prepare and practice perfectly, but I have to let go in the moment. In retrospect, I can wish things had gone differently. But I can’t change a thing. Performance unfurls in time. I am me. And I have a body. What a perfect form for an artist who plays basketball.