Change is Scary, Sarunas

One temperate Oakland night, probably in 1989, Golden State Warriors rookie Sarunas Marciulionis picked up his dribble and stepped sideways either to his left or his right. Suddenly, the Lithuanian guard jaunted back the opposite direction–either to his right or his left–as though on an invisible switchback trail. Maybe the move fooled that defender, or maybe Sarunas was called for traveling. We’ll never really know the exact moment at which the NBA was introduced to the “Eurostep.”

Marciulionis moved laterally, back-and-forth, in a way NBA players had never thought to. For at least a half century, Americans had always taken two steps forward after picking up their dribbles. It made sense, as the momentum carried them in that general direction. Nobody had ever thought to do it any differently. Or, if they had thought to, nobody had the confidence to make a public habit out of bipedal slithering.

Sarunas Marciulionis introduced this revolutionary move at a time when he personally must have felt quite warped. The season had started weeks after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when the foreign rookie was getting his training camp bearings. Perhaps there is a natural tendency towards reversing course within Sarunas because on October 17th, 1989, he planned on going to a car dealership via the 880 freeway. At the last second, he decided on a different direction, visiting a back doctor instead. While in the office, one tectonic plate scraped against another, causing the earth to shudder buildings off her shoulders. The doctor’s building held steady, but the 880 freeway did not.

If you ask people about the fatalities in the 1989 quake, most would guess that the majority of carnage occurred on the Bay Bridge. I know this because I’m the kind of person who asks this question of people. And I ask this kind of question because that also used to be my assumption.

That assumption changed one day, when I was driving down the eerily wide Mandela Parkway in West Oakland. It’s a blighted area of town, but not without its hipster chic breakfast joints. I was looking for one in particular, but the restaurant was closed. I motored off in my rusting Ford Escort station wagon, down the spacious street that was split into two by a seemingly needless, gigantic lawn median. You can see cars moving down the other side of this two-way path, but they’re at quite a remove from the standard double yellow line. The distance casts an almost lonely pall over the drive, in the way pro tennis players might feel a sense of alienation from sharing an experience with an opponent so far away. Eroding houses and corroded factories don’t much sunny up this sensation.

I caught an odd sight out of my window. Next to the median, behind some trees, I made out the word, “Seconds” in large silver letters, stuck to a white brick fence. I stopped my car, hopped out to check on the incongruity. It was Sunday afternoon, so I had time. Behind some shrubbery, I could see that the fence read, “15 Seconds” in lettering that is preceded by a viciously oscillating richter scale line. A vague sense of lugubrious recognition arrived. Did something awful happen here?

This is actually the area Sarunas Marciulionis rushed off to after the quake hit. This is where the 880 freeway collapsed on itself, killing 42 people in a brutal clap of concrete on concrete. Marciulionis felt he needed to help the victims of his briefly considered route. He arrived, wearing a Golden State Warriors warmup jacket. He was told to leave by authorities, after 45 minutes of pacing around an unfathomable mess of gnarled pavement and blood. Mandela Parkway isn’t really a street–that was all an illusion. The street is just a placeholder for the absence of space. It’s the steady echo of those 15 seconds when a vast swath of the 880 freeway was disappeared by the earth.

When explaining the often suicidal madness that top physicists suffer and thrive with, David Foster Wallace wrote of the unconsidered confidence with which normal people live their lives. You know your feet will hit the floor when you roll out of bed, you know the sun will come up, you know that your wife will remember your name.

“The principle involved is really the only way we can predict any of the phenomena we just automatically count on without having to think about them. And the vast bulk of daily life is composed of these sorts of phenomena; and without this confidence based on past experience we’d all go insane, or at least, we’d be unable to function because we’d have to stop and deliberate and every last little thing.”

Basketball players and coaches are always looking for an edge, but they also must go about their chosen profession with a degree of unconsidered confidence. Athletes have enough to worry about without analyzing every tiny detail of their games per efficacy. The kind of NBA player who questions his two steps pre-1989 might also question a thousand other erstwhile instincts. Is the standard shooting motion best, or just the arbitrary winner of oral sports tradition? Would a three point hook shot work better? Maybe it’s smart to set screens with your back?

Play with that degree of doubt and you might crumble. This is how an improvement as simple as “two steps sideways” goes unnoticed for a century. The Eurostep was hiding in plain sight, but to see it would have meant seeing your instincts as incredibly fallible. How could you trust anything on the court if you couldn’t trust stepping towards the hoop?

I believe that there are thousands of Eurosteps out there–I’m just not sure what they are. Football is currently getting redefined thanks to “packaged plays,” calls that rely on reading the defense after the snap. Again, it’s a simple enough concept that went unseen for decades. Basketball is an abstract dance between time and space, replete with possibilities. When I see Rajon Rondo stir defenses with his pass fakes I wonder whether an offense based on timed pass fakes might be the new “seven seconds or less.”

Maybe it could be, maybe it couldn’t be. The new basketball leap might contain a far more discomfiting rebuttal on how we assume the game gets played. I just know that some staggering basketball advancement is within our intellectual grasp, but that looking for it might make the planet feel unmoored in our minds.

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