David Foster Wallace, LeBron James and clutch

One of the bedrock questions about the “clutchness” of an athlete is whether being clutch — i.e., playing well in the most intense and stressful moments — is an inherent trait, or one learned and honed over time. Gene versus Experience; Nature versus Nurture. On all other issues besides psychological analysis of supreme athletes, most reasonable people can agree that people are born with certain abilities like the physical ability to dunk all over your face then develop and hone learned traits like reading the weakside zone and making the right read or to feel comfortable in situations that make another person crumble. In other words: it’s mental and physical … it’s a mix.

In 1994, novelist, critic, professor, essayist and all-around master of letters David Foster Wallace wrote an essay titled “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” In his essay, which is about why athletes tend to be so vapid and shallow during sideline interviews (his theory is that cliche is reality for them — there’s nothing complex or poetic about those moments which is why they are poetic to lay people like us), Wallace theorizes the following about the elements of the clutch mentality:

It is not an accident that great athletes are often called “naturals,” because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and muscle-memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one. Great athletes can do this even — and, for the truly great ones like Borg and Bird and Nicklaus and Jordan and Austin, especially — under wilding pressure and scrutiny. They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to a self-conscious fear in two.

The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the centre of hostile crowed-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game well be: nothing at all.

[... and later ...]

Those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it — and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.

I bring this up not only because I want to make sure everyone knows I RE-READ DAVID FOSTER WALLACE ESSAYS IN MY SPARE TIME, but because it offers some interesting insight vis-a-vis LeBron’s public comments before Game 3 (emphasis mine):

I know the ins and outs about that whole system when I was in Cleveland, so I was very comfortable with that situation. A lot of things had to change in my one year here, and I never got fully adjusted throughout the whole year. This year I’ve just been more comfortable with the team, more comfortable with the system, more comfortable with the city and everything around it. Once I get on the floor, I just let my game kind of react for me and everything I’ve built throughout the years, just go out and do it, and I don’t have to worry about anything else.

Here’s where my English major and flirtation with a Psychology minor come into play. Doesn’t Wallace’s theory seem to jibe awfully well with James’ self-analysis? The irony here is that by revealing how self-aware and reflective he is, James simultaneously confirms and refutes Wallace’s thesis. How can he be truly blank in the moment if he explicitly considers the possibility that he could be otherwise?

Perhaps this dynamic is relatable to Phil Jackson’s Zen-influenced teachings regarding consciously letting go of cluttering consciousness in the moment, especially those moments that may one day come to define your entire professional legacy.

It’s easy to see that James has changed from last year to this. He’s more assured and direct on offense, and as his quotation would suggest, he’s not over-thinking things to the point of paralysis as he appeared to in 2011.

It’s also easy to argue that James had changed between his first Finals and his disastrous 2011 defeat.

Neither suggestion is outlandish, and both point to something that is blindingly obvious in our own lives: people change. Sometimes consciously, sometimes incrementally and sometimes as a result of forces beyond our controls. But change they do, especially in the years (now, for James) when most people are get really getting serious about the direction of their lives.

A worthwhile protagonist is tested by conflict with external forces. In James’ current story, that’s Kevin Durant and the Thunder. But the more interesting conflict always happens within a character. The capacity to destroy is less enthralling than the struggle to endure. (Long example: The Joker beats Batman up, but the reason the Joker’s an awesome villain is that he puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Batman’s self-defined ethos. “Order and justice” is the backbone of Batman’s philosophy but his bleak outlook always suggests he thinks these are ideas that must be imposed on an inherently chaotic and cruel city. Whether the Joker’s nihilism can force Batman to “lose faith” is always more compelling that whether Batman will ultimately win.)

Former coaches praise James for being “the smartest player I’ve ever been around.” He’s infamous for his commitment to brand management when near-constant, high volume feedback from complete strangers is the norm. He’s become one of the most important athletes ever by exercising that noodle to control his surroundings. Now, in his moment of global scrutiny, he looks more and more comfortable letting go, at least to some degree (maybe it’s just a different, more useful kind of control).

As the Finals continue, each game intensifies the pressure and pumps up the noise in James’ head, trying to push out “everything I’ve built through the years.” We’re getting to find out how much James has changed, how much he can take.

Related posts:

  1. LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant, Part Two: Thunderdome of caged deathmatch via flaming spike thrower
  2. LeBron James: Not good enough?
  3. What LeBron James can learn from Carmelo Anthony
  4. LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant, Part One: The other guys
  5. Strange thing: LeBron James being guarded less


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