On Monday, Blake Griffin shook our reality when he posterized Kendrick Perkins with a dehumanizing dunk. For the rest of the night, Twitter centered on Blake’s dunk instead of the mundane “Player X’s pick-and-roll defense” or “Player Y’s shot selection.” LeBron, who recently had a career-defining dunk of his own, tweeted that the January play was the “Dunk of the Year.”
In the madness that was the surreality of Blake’s feat combined with the camaraderie among the NBA fandom, a new chapter was written in the legend of Blake Griffin. And, as is typical in the construction of human memory and narrative, our collective unconscious highlighted the good and repressed the bad in effort to crystallize that which every NBA fan wants most: the experience of witnessing a play for the ages and pages of the NBA history books. Watch Blake’s dunk and maybe you’ll see what I mean.
To be clear, I’m referring to the fact that everyone ignores that, in the process of what was a truly incredible dunk, Blake propelled himself even higher with a swift forearm/hand to Perkins’ face. I’ve read the reactions and watched the dunk cement itself among Blake’s top 5 dunks, and that throughout it all Blake’s use of an extra limb in his defiance of gravity–a certain left arm–has gone unnoticed. Why?
For starters, Perkins fouled Griffin, and hence many probably gave Griffin a “free pass” in his arm-usage. That said, the issue goes deeper than that. As a society, we don’t summon the courage to seriously question the legends that we’ve built up, even if the legends are riddled with questions, and at times, fatal flaws. This pattern of repression can also be seen in 4 out of 5 of “Blake’s Best,” in Vince Carter’s “Dunk of Death,” Derek Fisher’s “.4,” and in Jordan’s “Last Shot.”
Before we analyze each play, I will offer one of my favorite parables, courtesy of Sir Francis Bacon, that reminds us of how human minds and societies operate with respects to truth-seeking versus myth-preserving:
“It was a good answer that was made by one who when they showed him hanging in a temple a picture of those who had paid their vows as having escaped shipwreck, and would have him say whether he did not now acknowledge the power of the gods,—‘Aye,’ asked he again, ‘but where are they painted that were drowned after their vows?’ And such is the way of all superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happens much oftener, neglect and pass them by. (Bacon 1620)”
In case the message got lost, I will paraphrase: often times, we as humans overlook facts in order to maintain a legend. In the case above, the goal is for a nondescript religion to maintain the perceived power of the gods, and in the case of the NBA, the goal is to maintain the mythical status of certain moments and reputations. For the aforementioned moments in hoops history, I’ll go ahead and do as the man with the “good answer” does above and question the truths behind the legends.
First let’s look at the Blake’s top 5 dunks, the top highlights from a man who is the current face of the NBA dunk. Here we go: the fifth-best dunk is a travel. The fourth, for all its popularity and fame, was easy and gimmicky, as purists have pointed out. And for both the second-best and best, Blake uses his left-arm as a crutch as he hangs in the hair to throw the ball through the hoop. Like Blake, Vince Carter is guilty of pushing with his left arm in his international assault of Fred Weis, Vinsanity’s most iconic dunk. By no means am I saying that these are the only instances of traveling or illegal off-hand usage, but nonetheless we ignore these flaws in our most celebrated highlights in our quest to create basketball mythology.
The stains marking Fisher’s “.4” and Jordan’s “Last Shot” are better recognized because high-stakes winning was on the line in both cases. For Blake and Vince’s dunks, the awe they inspire overshadows any miniscule worries we have about an off-arm or shuffle-step in an otherwise low-profile moment. Fisher’s “.4” is controversial enough that at least one person went through arduous efforts to analyze its legitimacy (he determined that Fisher took longer than .4 seconds). Likewise, the debatable push-off in Jordan’s “Last Shot” gets decent internet traffic.
Still, these questions are generally eschewed in favor of maintaining their renowned status. Both “.4” and “Last Shot” have inspired commercials that capitalize on their legendary status. Jordan’s shot over Bryon Russell earned him the #1 spot in NBA.com’s ranking of the 60 greatest playoff moments (Fisher’s shot earned him the #18 rank). What’s equally as interesting as the rank of Jordan’s shot is how the NBA reconstructs the history, leaving out any notion of a controversy and simultaneously building up the play’s credibility and Jordan’s legacy. To hear it from the article, which has many more quotes and a fuller account of the moment (sans mention of a push-off):
“With the clock ticking below 10 seconds, Jazz swingman Bryon Russell occupied Jordan’s path to the basket with tight one-on-one defense. But in an instant, Russell fell for a fake, slipped to the floor, and allowed an essentially wide-open Jordan to bury the shot and play the role of hero once again.”
The above language is illustrative of how we humans retell history to paint a picture that we want to remember. In the case of NBA.com, this could possibly be a conscious maneuver for image-maintenance, but that misses the point–as individuals, and as a society, we repress that which calls into question the legitimacy of our most cherished moments. It’s not too different from our inability move beyond the idea of Kobe as the “King of Clutch.”
To underscore our visceral attachment to and unconscious repression of these moments, I want to bring us back to Blake’s dunk over Perkins. Today, I was talking music with my friend David, when he interrupted the chat with a series of key-mashing jibberish and an interesting moment of ignorance. The exact transcript follows:
David was temporarily transported outside of his normal zone of reality and rationality as he witnessed the dunk. He took in hundreds of replays and even noticed how when Griffin meets Perkins, he “hits the top of his jump and just goes another foot higher,” perhaps with the helping hand of the dunking gods. I’m here to say that unfortunately for theists, and the legend of Blake Griffin, that “helping hand” was Blake’s left arm rather than divine intervention.
In the end, I’m not hear to hate–I just wanted to explain how the concepts put forth in Francis Bacon’s parable remind us of we maintain superstitions, and how this applies to Blake’s dunk and the NBA at large. I also wanted to explain why we partake in this repression. For most of us (and for the NBA!), we’d rather cling to shared moments of transcendent basketball than a petty technicality. It’s kind of like how we’d be incredulous if the police arrested a driver for rolling a stop sign while trying to save a baby from a fire. Those extra hands, steps, and seconds, no matter how many times we rewatch them, don’t make their way into our memories or histories. Instead, we relive the emotional power attached to these moments in our mind’s eye and with each other. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?
What do you think about Blake’s dunk or any of the other moments? Are these claims valid or a sad case of over-analysis? Comment on the article or e-mail us at AGRbasketball (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRbasketball on Twitter and to like us on Facebook.