Did James Harden travel?

The play is now of little consequence, but it seemed important at the time. OKC was making a run, and this could have been the difference between three points and a turnover. James Harden got the ball at the top of the arc and blurred a zig-zag around Tiago Splitter–like a Road Runner animation. Harden ended his journey on Matt Bonner’s shoulder, laying the ball in while looking to be a shuttle attachment to the red rocket below. And one.

Steve Kerr was initially impressed by James Harden’s slaloming foray to the rim, but he noted that, upon replay, a travel call probably should have taken away that which took his breath.

Was Kerr right? I’ll admit that I do not have the answer to this question, though the question may well have an objective answer. My uncertainty stems from this: At what point does a man pick up his dribble?

The easy answer to this question is, “When he stops dribbling.” But the quick transition from “dribbling” to “holding” cannot always be perceived as it happens. And that transition comprises a grey area between “dribbling” and “holding,” where it’s not quite one and not quite the other. James Harden certainly does not make it easy on referees, as he dribbles deep into his armpit, a cradle from which the ball probably emerges gasping for air, desperate for an action-interrupting travel call.

In the meantime, foot falls are occurring a few feet below this action. A lot can happen during a fraction of a “drold” (invented term). LeBron James manages three steps between bounces on this zooming breakaway dunk. Below, I snapped some freeze fames of the Harden transition that took a fraction of a second.

In the first frame, Harden appears to be in mid-dribble. If you consider his left foot to be the one he “gathers” with, then this is travel, because three steps will occur from that gathering spot.

Right here, it appears that Harden is in mid-drold, or possibly in a hold. He’s almost completely in mid air, like Eadweard Muybridge’s famous horse gait photographs. If you consider his right foot the gather-spot, then no travel will ensue.

Here is the point at which he’s planting and gathering off the right foot. He’s clearly out of the drold phase, and in a full-on hold mode.

It all happens so incredibly fast. The referee must make a decision that’s paradoxically instantaneous and retrospective. The instantaneous is, “He just traveled!” The retrospective is, “His gathering foot happened at this juncture, a split second ago.” Like the notoriously difficult to call football catch, a conversation between hands and feet must be reconciled. Complicating matters, a dribble is merely a momentary hold, so long as the hand isn’t under the ball. The referee must decide that exact point at which the momentary becomes lasting. It’s no longer a dribble, it’s no longer a drold. It’s a hold, a gather, and a travel. Not such an easy call, unless it’s Kendrick Perkins, shuffling away like a rollerblader in a sand dune.

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