This past week the neighbor kids up the block were dribbling and shooting a basketball in their driveway. I was headed out for a run when the ball escaped them and rolled to my feet. I scooped it up and started spinning on my finger.
That stunt always gets attention from kids and adults alike. Spinning a ball on the fingers isn’t all that uncommon among people that have played the game. But among those that have not played the sport, it seems like magic.
Spinning a basketball is a pretty useless skill except for brief moments of entertainment. I can also spin the ball around my cupped arms again and again. But that’s…another pretty useless skill.
Such are the vagaries of youthful obsessions. It took quite a bit of time to develop the ability to spin a basketball. As a ten-year-old kid who admired the style of the late Pete Maravich, I wanted to do everything just like him. I learned to dribble between my legs and behind my back and taught myself other moves made famous by Pistol Pete. All told, I became a flashy player to the consternation of several coaches along the way.
Those coaches considered the flashy elements of my game to be fairly useless skills. To some degree, they were right. It is true that playing basketball involves plenty of individual skills, if you want to win it remains a team game. Fundamentals help you do that. Flashiness can just get in the way and interrupt the flow.
Unless you use it right. Which was always my goal. To make the flashy look easy and make it fit into the flow of the game, or improve it when possible. And to my own credit on many occasions, that’s how it turned out.
Because by the time I hit my 20s I spent plenty of time on basketball courts playing at open gyms and in leagues. My game actually improved as a result, and the truly useless parts were eventually weaned away. But I did not abandon the flashy elements completely. It was too fun and often practical to put those useless skills to work in a world where they were also often appreciated. Then players such as Steve Nash and Jason Kidd were lighting up the NBA. It felt like life had come full circle. Perhaps I was just ahead of my time?
Those flashy skills such as spinning a basketball on your finger actually do reflect the fundamentals. It shows that you’ve spent considerable time getting to know the central tool of that sport. Doing flashy things with a basketball or a soccer ball demonstrates confidence and control.
Control and confidence
Interestingly, there is no real parallel to spinning a basketball in endurance sports. The visual that supplants useless skills in triathlon is equipment and gear.
When someone wheels a glimmering $8,000 bike through transition, that’s the equivalent of saying “I’m invested in this sport and I’m going to kick your ass on the course.”
One still has to back that flashiness up, of course. Otherwise it’s the equivalent of spinning a basketball on your finger in the pre-game and not scoring a point the entire contest.
Getting a leg up
The same goes for cycling roadies, but it kind of works in reverse. The tradition of shaving one’s legs is so strong in the road cycling world that showing up with hairy legs means one of two things. You either don’t know the tradition or else you better be so good that you can ride the legs off anyone, hairy legs or not.
I’ve never been so good at cycling that I can flaunt tradition or expect to ride the legs off anyone else. But once in a while, when I’m feeling really good and the legs are good, I’ll sit up front and spin the cranks because I can. It’s a mostly useless skill, but damn it feels good to use it.