THE CREATIVE FIRE BEHIND MARAVICH, MAGIC AND ZION

“They don’t pay you a million dollars for two-hand chest passes.”- Pete Maravich, basketball icon

Basketball is the most creative sport in the world. I’ll allow you to argue that it could be football (soccer), and there are quite a few similarities between the two sports that make it a pretty good race: heavy influence on sport and world culture, fashion-forward expression, mammoth superstars, shocking feats of innovation and athleticism, coveted products, and unbelievable haircuts. The list goes on. However, for the purposes of this blog post and given the fact that the NCAA Tournament is happening right now, we’re focusing on hoops.

The quote from Pistol Pete at the top is my favorite (non-movie) quote of all time. It appreciates the fundamentals by simply mentioning them, while placing huge literal value on creativity. Most of the players who are best known for being creative got that way through a pretty non-sexy tactic: hard work.

The stories of Maravich dribbling a ball out the window while riding in a car or getting the aisle seat in movie theaters so he could, yup, dribble the ball are endless. Magic Johnson is said to have dribbled to the store with his right hand and back with his left. He also slept with a basketball next to him. For both Magic and Pistol Pete, this was all in addition to simply playing as much as they could.  

Both of them are recognized for changing the game in different ways, particularly Magic. He was a 6’9” point guard, unheard of before that time. He was an incredible ballhandler and floor general, but passing may have been his most amazing skill. He’s the reason the Laker teams he led were called “Showtime.” 

bball.jpg

That new combination of skills opened the minds of young, tall players who had previously thought they’d play close to the basket and wouldn’t need to handle the ball. Adding those weapons to their arsenal would ultimately turn them into unstoppable forces. It gave way to players like Anfernee Hardaway, Kevin Durant, and Ben Simmons…maybe you’ve heard of them. It’s also why you’re just as likely to see Duke’s Zion Williamson throw down a rim-shaking dunk as you are to see him throw a 3/4-court, laser-precise bounce pass to a guard streaking down the floor. These guys are among many reasons why today’s game doesn’t really resemble the game of 20 years ago.

It’s almost counterintuitive that the longer the game is played, the MORE creative people can get. I mean, how many ways are there to get open? How many defenses can be devised? The key truly is the creative skill sets that each player brings to the table. That has given way to the idea of “the positionless game,” where your height and weight no longer determine your abilities.

Speaking of Durant, he’s at least 6’10”…and he’s currently 25th on the NBA’s all-time three-pointers made list. He’s the height of a center, but he has a skill set that makes him arguably the most potent offensive threat in the league from anywhere on the court. Which is in large part because he worked hard to become a great shooter. That superpower unlocks even more scoring creativity. In addition, it’s part of the reason that many of the teams you’ll see playing in the NCAA Tournament this week have centers who also shoot threes. It’s almost become expected, whereas in the past it would have been an anomaly or, simply, a joke.

Hard work leads you to new levels of mastery. Mastery of new levels opens your mind and imagination. Opening your mind and imagination leads to creativity. Creativity leads to experimentation. Experimentation leads to innovation. I don’t know if this “leads to” chain ever ends, which I guess is the point. You might want to believe the lightning bolt of inspiration is the same thing as creativity, or a big idea can come from nowhere. I guess both of those can be true. But that tried-and-true formula of hard work meeting talent, which has also been expressed by virtually every single guest on our podcast, seems to be the surest path to creativity. Do you think you’re working hard enough?

Jed Jecelin