There goes a dude, I thought, at the height of his powers. Watching him lead the fast break is now one of the most exciting moments in earthly athletics, and his singular shifting method of driving to the hoop is a visual definition of why we watch sports. From the moment it begins, with an indefensible crossover or a sudden lurch to the side, to the very end, when an unlikely twist of english sends the ball careening off the glass and through the net, we're witness to an act of physical beauty.
It's a little bit like a dance. Rose leads, the defender reacts, and they create a dynamic, interactive waltz with a clean spatial appeal. It's just that in this dance, one partner can win. But that doesn't keep the other from maintaining the proper steps. The defender, after all, is being led.
Rose has flow. For the purposes of today, I'll loosely define 'flow' as a natural bodily rhythm, a physical looseness that translates into smooth, fluid motion. A sort of grace, if you will, not visibly beholden to the point-A-point-B-point-C progression a normal human uses to complete an athletic task.
Robinson Cano has flow. When he swings the bat, or turns a double play, there's a sweet purity, as though his bones are made of something less rigid, something less cobbled and more unified than the skeleton the rest of us carry around. He never looks like he's trying very hard to achieve great results, and the effortlessness stems from the flow. He can just let the natural processes work.
Let's look at Duke basketball. Nolan Smith has flow. Kyrie Irving has flow. Jon Scheyer did not have flow. Kyle singler does not have flow. The Plumlees have the opposite of flow; a word like 'blocky-ness' or 'chunkitude.' I don't know, but with these last four players, to varying extents, their bodies don't seem to respond quite as quickly to the brain's commands. You can trace their movements in sequence- part one, thought, transition, part two, thought, transition, execution. There are breaks in the action, however momentary, and with these pauses they become relatable.
As you may have begun to notice, there's an awkward racial component to flow. So let's state the obvious: black athletes are more likely to have flow than their white counterparts. Who knows why? Who cares? The why isn't important. And it's definitely not absolute. Steve Nash most definitely has flow. I think, but can't quite remember, that Larry Bird had a weird kind of flow. Roger Federer has obscene amounts of flow. Karl Malone had no flow, and it was infuriating. LeBron James, weirdly, has only limited flow.
But the larger pattern is unmistakable. Fans tend to react to this truth in one of two ways, and it should go without saying that the reaction is largely based on the fan's own race. You can either love the flow, and praise players whose games are at a transcendent level because of it, or you can admire those players who succeed despite missing the flow, whose intelligence and craftiness and hard work bring them to the highest levels of the game.
Of course, it's not all black and white (which is not meant as a racial pun, but I'll take it). For one, fans, can admire both kinds of player. For two, it's not like there's a clear-cut dichotomy between free-flowing, graceful, naturally-blessed players and hard-working, bright, scrappy grinders. The truth is that when a player combines both sets of qualities, they become pretty unstoppable. Derrick Rose is the embodiment of that duality; his native brilliance has now officially meshed with an incredible work ethic and a redoubtable intelligence to vault him to superstardom. It's an easy comparison, but you can't help remembering Jordan. Like I said: height of his powers.
But you do see a split in the world of the fan. One of the clearest examples I can remember was the 2009 UNC national championship team. They were almost a perfect test case, containing as it did two great players with two very different styles. And the question is, who did you like more? Was it Ty Lawson, with his perfect body control, with his endless capacity to penetrate the lane, set up teammates, and single-handedly destroy watertight defenses like Michigan State? Or was it Hansborough, with his utter lack of inner music, making shot after shot against reason and logic and probably physics, always stepping the wrong way, always falling in the wrong direction, always off-kilter, and yet never missing his mark?
Today, at UNC games, when they air the 'I Am a Tar Heel' montage on the big screen, Lawson does not appear. Hansbrough does, and he gets the loudest ovation from the overwhelmingly white crowd. He didn't have the flow, but he has the love.
Size is a factor, too. It's harder for a big man to have the flow, white or black. They don't move the same way; they're naturally slower. Shaq never had the flow. Yao Ming, though...he had the flow (just kidding). I tried for a long time to think of a big man who had the flow, and I came up with maybe Kareem, maybe a young Arvydas Sabonis with his subtle artistry, or maybe...I don't know. Maybe the commenters can enlighten me on that front. But it gets at the LeBron problem; he's too gigantic, too solid, too much the linebacker to become liquid and silky. Too large to disappear. (For the ultimate big man flow king, see this video, courtesy of commenter _bam.)
And you notice flow the most in basketball. You can see it in certain aspects of baseball. Robinson Cano has the flow, as does Vladimir Guerrero. Both men play a similar style of game; they swing at everything. In some ways, their natural talents become a slight liability. They can almost do anything they want, and it shows in their approach; no walks, very little patience. The flow's attendant qualities make them vulnerable.
Most top level tennis players have the flow. Federer is probably the best example, and, hard as this is for me to admit, Nadal may be the worst. His pounding, relentless game has its own kind of rhythm and aggressive grace, but it's not nearly as obvious as the ethereal Federer style.
In golf, the flow is obvious, as you see:
Football flow is a little harder to define. You can see it mostly, I think, in receivers. Randy Moss at Marshall, with his high green socks, will always be the quintessential example of football flow for me. He just sort of glided by everyone, exerting less energy and moving at a higher speed. Larry Fitzgerald shows flow for the Cardinals. But the truth is that football is such a regimented, strategic sport that it's not conducive to displays of continued elegance.
Soccer is great for flow, as Pele and Maradona and Messi prove. Contrast them with someone great like Cristiano Ronaldo, and you can see what it means; Ronaldo's movements are more constructed and efficient, more rigidly brilliant, while Messi moves with more natural inspiration.
Flow can extend to other walks of life. In writing, the two English-language writers with the most effortless elegance, for me, are Vladimir Nabokov and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I love Nabokov and only really like Fitzgerald, but the way they handle the language goes past any lessons you can teach and reaches the realm of the instinctive. You get the feeling they wrote in some kind of trance, some semi-aware state in which they channeled ghosts. In contrast, you can look at a writer like Hemingway, legendary in his own right, who used a stoic style to forcefully stuff the language down a reader's throat. Or someone on the other end of the spectrum like David Foster Wallace, endlessly intelligent and clever, but full of hesitations and clarifications and ultimately, in my mind, lacking the internal rhythm necessary to make his writing anything but an interesting plod.
Or movie directing; I'll defend Wes Anderson to the day I die, and I think he flows better than anyone alive (except maybe Terence Malick). He's got it in his bones. Jim Jarmusch, on the other hand, wouldn't know flow if it hit him in the face with a slate.
Flow, at its core, is difficult to define and defend. My conception will be different from yours, and yours different from the next man. So my question is this: who embodies flow for you? Talk to me about sports, art, life, whatever. Help me make sense of this intangible quality, to put a label on a gust of wind.