Russell deployed it without the ball. Time and again, Jerry West rode it to the very cusp. It made Larry a Legend. It’s what Magic means by “winnin’ time.” Isiah oozed it. And Michael? Well…
These days, the San Antonio Spurs appear to heroically disavow it. It courses through Carmelo Anthony’s veins, though it’s apparent that at least partial transfusion may be in order. As with everything, Chris Paul has achieved an awe-inspiring mastery. It will, as it has before, for better or for worse, determine the Lakers’ fate. Six years ago it permanently coated Dwyane Wade in Teflon, and LeBron James’ willingness – or lack thereof – to deploy it en route to the ultimate triumph will draw more scrutiny than any decision he’s ever made.
Already a hot button, as the playoff field is whittled down and a new champion crowned, the idea will take up residence under our collective microscope. Vilified by the evolved, new school observer, hero ball has come to represent an antiquated, selfish and inefficient path in the pursuit of victory. An analog flip-phone in a 4G world.
Make no mistake, one player has not, will not, cannot singlehandedly win a game, a playoff series or a championship. However, in this, a team sport in which the individual performance has the greatest impact on final outcome, it is the foundation upon which virtually all greatness has been built.
When I was in high school, on two occasions our school’s basketball team (lest I pull an accidental Bayless, let me point out that I was not on said team) squared off against a future NBAer: one was Jacques Vaughn of John Muir HS in Pasadena; the other future NCAA champ Miles Simon and his stacked (featuring the most “holy shit!” talent I’d seen to that point) Mater Dei squad. I don’t recall the score of either game, or the stats line of the blue chippers that squared off against our Falcons. I remember we lost each game handily, but the resounding takeaway in each case was the transcendence of talent.
Everyone on the floor was playing basketball, but these dudes were playing an altogether different game. Faster, quicker, more decisive and fluid in their movements and devastatingly skilled. Never before had I seen so stark a divide between guys that could play and guys that could play. And that’s just a middling journeyman to-be and a guy whose career stat line consists of two points in 19 minutes over a span of five games.
“Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives...You don't want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.
We use words like honor, code, loyalty...we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use 'em as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it!”
- Col. Nathan R. Jessup (“A Few Good Men,” 1992)
The worst NBA player you’ve ever seen possesses talent, focus, discipline and an implicit, bordering-on-delusional self-confidence exceeding that of even the most self-assured average Joe by a comical margin. “Merely” ascending to the lowest ranks of the top tier – scaling the high school ranks, navigating the shark-infested AAU, and then turning in performance at the NCAA level that’s deemed worthy of a seven-figure commitment and recognition as one of the planet’s 350 best at your job – that is hero ball at its very core.
Now kick it up a notch. Take the guy who’s succeeded not only in overcoming the innumerable obstacles lining the road to that top tier, but then ascending farther, to the ranks of the elite upon arrival. Bear in mind that this road often runs through an impoverished upbringing, in many cases is surrounded by violence and is rife with the pull of drugs and criminal enterprise. For that guy, the one that’s figuratively killed what he’s eaten since childhood, “efficiency” is about as big a concern as the prevailing tax rate in Belgium.
Unselfishness within the context of a team and “making the right basketball play” in the interest of victory are – not unlike financial modeling and PowerPoint skills for an aspiring investment banker –tools required to thrive in the workplace, though rare is the resident of the pinnacle of any such vicious and hypercompetitive arena for whom the primary concern is sincerely:
Lest I become the public face of the downfall of sport as we know it, allow me to put forth my (imperfect, subjective, but though-out) definition. Hero ball is not wanton selfishness. It does not – contrary to the popular definition – consist of simply rolling a ball to Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Durant and allowing every goalward heave from that point forward to originate from his hands. That’s just ballhogging. And yes, when hero ball goes wrong, as it has for many of history’s best practitioners, this tends to be the unsavory result. In its standalone form, even when deployed by greatest ever at the peak of their powers – Young Money, 2005-07 Kobe – hero ball does not a contender make.
True hero ball is selective selfishness. More appropriately it is the selective suspension of self-awareness. It is, throughout the game (not just in its final minutes), the insatiable appetite for involvement in the ultimate outcome. It is crashing the boards when your shot’s deserted with a season in the balance. Hero ball is the unwavering quest to monopolize.
It is, in oversimplified terms, “Guys, I got this.” At its best, it is the very ethos of the greatest to ever play the game. Like Mike, it’s what has allowed Kobe to score 81 points in a regulation NBA game, 60+ five times, and 56+ in just three quarters twice. To unapologetically gun for 30 in a quarter. It is, along with sublime talent, a central component of the transcendent performance. One man’s categorical rejection of the notion that there is any more suitable location for the ball at the moment than his grasp.
Sure, gone awry it’s the genesis of some of the most laughably ill-advised shots ever to find their way into an NBA game. Y’know, J.R. Smith. At its best, however, it is…
True hero ball is not, as many suggest and the assertion above seems to affirm, necessarily the quest to monopolize points or field goal attempts. Though a common (and the most conspicuous) manifestation, hero ball’s stock-in-trade is not mere shots and points, but control. Control over every controllable aspect of a game’s outcome. And, no less importantly, the implicit trust of those alongside in one’s ability to seize it.
Ironically, as defined here, many of the NBA’s greatest hero ballers are players are thought to represent its diametric opposite. The Spurs, for a decade and a half now the NBA’s paragon of “we over me,” deploy their own flavor of hero ball, not surprisingly, with greater effect than any other team deploys its own.
Unlike most squads, on which the title of hero lies with one, perhaps two individuals, the Spurs boast a trio that – fittingly, given the squad’s multinational makeup – resembles the spine of an elite soccer team. They are anchored by a Beckenbauer-esque talisman and an “midfielder” for whom statistics are an ill-suited measure of value (pick your playmaker – Iniesta? Giani Rivera? Cruyff??) – each an indispensible embodiment of a philosophy, each possessing the eternal trust of teammates, coaches and fans. These days, however, the Spurs are led by French playmaker equally adept in attack – I’ll let you make your own comp. The epitome of true hero ball, Tony Parker directly influences a staggering of the team’s possessions – be it shooting, drawing a foul or coughing up the ball (27.7% Usage Rate) or lending a helping hand (40.3% Assist Rate) in his time on the floor.
Therein lies the truth of hero ball. To reduce the quest for heroism in the NBA to turnovers and heaves at the hoop is to undermine the awe-inspiring influence exerted upon the game by a breed of hero for whom absolute control is a preternatural need. Among players that averaged 20+ minutes per game in 40+ regular season games in 2011-12, four – Deron Williams (at a mindblowing 30.1% USG and 46.6% Assist Rate), Rajon Rondo (20.7% and 52.5%), Steve Nash (19.6% and 53.1%) and Chris Paul (24.3% and 43.8%) – affected the final outcome of a greater proportion of possession while on the floor. Certainly this measure skews toward the elite lead guard (though LeBron is sixth, and Kobe, D-Wade and Monta Ellis round out the top 15), but then, now as ever, doesn’t control of the game itself do the same?
Magic Johnson. Isiah Thomas. John Stockton. Steve Nash. Chris Paul. Hoops geniuses all, each with that need to dictate the game’s flow until the moment it’s no longer a necessity. Over the course of their careers, every one of these men – universally considered among the most selfless ever to play – had a hand in the outcome of a disproportionate share of possessions for which they were on the floor. It’s fun to chuckle at Kobe’s yearning to “eat first,” but make no mistake, these guys are at the table. And they’re getting theirs.
Lest this become a debate in which I straw man one of my made up stats (really hope that’s not what’s happening), place the above numbers aside and indulge me if you will. In what way is the following – a pass by NBA’s all-time leader in assists and quintessential non-hero baller – is any less cavalier than a 30-foot heat check in transition?
Talk about efficiency all you’d like. Celebrate the willingness to share the ball with teammates. Point out, validly, the relative outperformance of Chris Paul in comparison to Kobe Bryant in vital moments. But don’t tell me Paul – or Magic, Isiah, Larry, Michael, West, Russell, Stockton or Steve Nash – eschews “hero ball.”
To lionize Chris Paul’s willingness to distribute the ball to his teammates as magnanimous is to overlook the very core of his game. Until the very moment it is necessary, and for a disproportionate share of the moments before and after, Paul is concerned with nothing more than imposing his will on his team. Total control. Sure he’s passing when many look to shoot (although… 4-of-5, 8 points, zero dimes in OT of Game 4 v. the Grizz; just sayin’…), but that’s only because he, and he alone, has decided that this is what needs to be happening. Right. Now.
Don’t tell me Chris Paul is not selfish. But don’t wait for me to tell you that that’s a bad thing.
It's how a Vinny Del Negro-led squad gets even a (featherweight) puncher’s chance at winning a championship.