On Meaning It: Or, Is it Better To Be Lucky or Good?

Could you score this goal? Could he do it again?

A quick basketball question: What should we be more impressed with, a 25-foot buzzer-beating three-pointer or a 75-foot buzzer-beating three-pointer?

The latter is certainly rarer. High school 75-footers make SportsCenter’s top plays fairly regularly even though they’re grainy and the camera operator inevitably starts jumping up and down and screaming, turning the game film into footage of someone’s back pockets. Twenty-five-foot game-winners only get shown from the college or professional levels that people pay attention to every day; seventy-five-footers are considered impressive enough or entertaining enough to be shown without context.

Am I the only one who thinks that’s not fair?

My gut instinct is to be more impressed with players who meant it. Meant it, I realize, is a misleading term. Obviously the guy throwing the 75-foot prayer means for it to go in. But he also, to borrow a phrase John Motson abuses on his announcer track for FIFA 2002, doesn’t know much about it. There’s no muscle-memory there for a shot like that — not as there might be for shots from around his own arc or within his own half at least. He’s hurling and praying. If he makes it, it has as much to do with luck as it does his own skill. To make a 25-footer with the game on the line requires skill, stamina, and Sam Cassel-sized balls.

Except in this case:

That I’m pretty sure was just luck. [1]

I ask because of this[2]:

This is no doubt a good goal. But even the first time I saw it my admiration was colored by my doubts. Again, there’s no mistaking that he meant to score there; the ball did exactly what he was hoping it would. But did he really mean it? Or was he lucky? And should it matter?

We’ll start with the first two.

Muscle memory is imperfect. Even professional bowlers, who make their attempts from the same position each time without a defense present, can’t roll strikes every time. There’s a point where Dani Alves’ (considerable) skill ends and luck comes into play; otherwise, he’d be unstoppable.

My slightly sour reaction to the goal is the result of a feeling that it was scored with more of the latter than the former; that between the timing of his run-up, the ball’s flight path, and the kick itself, there are simply too many variables for him to have done that perfectly and meant every step of it. The smaller the margin of error, the more luck is needed to avoid error. If Alves had arrived a split-second earlier, he could have hit that shot into orbit. If his run had been angled differently, he could have killed Bojan with it.

My gut response to the goal seems to indicate that I prefer goals that are duplicable, that I like my great goals to be like science experiements. How often do you think he could pull that off? One out of every ten times? One in a hundred? A thousand? More?

Then why is my response to this goal anything but harsh:

This is the best goal I’ve ever seen, a feeling shared by many. But is it duplicable? Not the shot itself, but the touch on the ball to get it around the man on his back? There are so many ways for that touch to go wrong, and if I were to try it a thousand times I could demonstrate 1,000 ways that he could have screwed that up. So, I imagine, could Bergkamp. It’s like that half-joking (basketball) one-on-one move used by older brothers everywhere, the one where you throw the basketball to the right of your opponent with so much spin that it bounces back to you as you cut left around him, giving you an open lay-up if you can ignore the little brat yelling “Cheater! Cheater!” behind you. Only Bergkamp did it with his foot. And backwards.

Here’s the difference. The genius of Alves’ goal is the execution, the precision with which he lined up the variables in such a way as to lead to a goal. The genius of Bergkamp’s goal is the idea, a totally novel way of beating a defender that happened to be the only way that would have worked in that situation. Watch it. The defender is playing a step off Bergkamp, in perfect position to poke away his first touch if he tries to tap it goalside of his body or to advance and prevent the Dutchman from turning if he traps it and shields it.

The execution is still perfect, but the idea is why that gets placed in the discussion for greatest goal of all-time, while Alves’ was merely goal of the week. It’s why this:

is better known than this:

And why Michael Jordan’s lay-up where he switches hands in mid-air is the second-most impressive play of his career.[3] Jordan was possibly the only person on earth who could have executed that idea, but it’s the idea in the first place that elevates the play into the pantheon.

But the more I watch the goal, the more I think I’m being unfair to Alves. It feels as though I’m criticizing the fact that there’s no idea behind it, rather than the execution that is there. Maybe he did mean it the whole time. Maybe it’s more 25-footer than 75-footer. After all, those are hardly guaranteed.[4] It’s not a pantheon goal, but it is a great goal.

Now this one…

[1] Do you know how many three-pointers Duncan has made in his career? 31. In 13 years, regular season and playoffs. At an 18 percent clip.
[2] As an aside, the worst thing about looking for highlight videos on YouTube is trying to find one without some crappy metal or dance song laid over it. I swear FCBv7m10, you will not get more hits on your Dani Alves goal video because you overlaid Drowning Pool on it.
[3] After the baseline fake, spin and dunk over Patrick Ewing. He’s already scored by the time John Starks realizes he wasn’t dribbling back outside.

[4] The career record for NBA three-point percentage is Steve Kerr’s 45.4 percent.

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One Response to On Meaning It: Or, Is it Better To Be Lucky or Good?

  1. Pingback: On Perfection | The Other 87

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