Wednesday, May 11, 2011

In Praise of Flow

Last night, Derrick Rose got me thinking.

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.


  1. You'll no doubt catch some grief for this post, Shane, but it is spot-on, timely, and I'm glad it's you who wrote it, because it's well written as always. My buds and I at NCSU played hoops non-stop (an occasional class was even skipped) and at our peak, referred to ourselves as "fundamentally sound white boys." We knew we had no "flow" and neither resented the athletes who did, nor envied them. We just shook our heads.

    PS - before UNC fans take umbrage and accuse you of calling them racist, they need to remember that their fan base is predominantly white (fact) and they should also be wondering who puts their montages together. If Ty was left out, that's just wrong, and someone besides you should have noticed!

  2. Allen Iverson, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Notorious BIG, Reggie Bush (USC Days), Gary Payton

  3. Great example of flow:

  4. Hakeem is definitely the big man that defines flow. I'd add in Ronaldinho in his prime. As far as Duke players go, I C-Well definitely had flow, and its been reported that new recruit Mike Gbinije may have substantial flow reserves.

    -Nick E

  5. I agree with something you touched on about trying to define flow. It's that subtle difference between making it look easy and actually taking it easy. I think the apparent ease with which some people make ridiculous, near-impossible feats is flow to me. I love that you put Federer in your list for that reason. For football, Devin Hester has mad flow.

  6. Dr. J most definitely had flow.

    As far as a big man, maybe Amare Stoudemire? That guy somehow turns anything within 8 feet of the basket into a dunk.

    Also, regarding the UNC comments:
    1) The fan-base of every ACC school is predominately white. That's why there is such a thing as a "minority". So I wouldn't take offense at what Shane said. It's just the facts.
    2) Lawson is on some videos. They don't always show every person that has sat down for the "I'm a Tarheel" clips. They've filmed so many of them now that it isn't the same montage of people every time. There are a few that they love to show, (Jordan, Dean Smith, James Worthy, Hansbrough, etc) but it changes quite a bit from game to game.

  7. Vlade Divac have a big time slamma jamma flow to the max!

    Dr. K

  8. I stopped in the middle of this post when you said big men didn't have any flow to scroll down to the comments and complain about Hakeem & the Dream Shake not getting any love, but Nick E beat me to it.


  9. Great call on Hakeem, guys, I'm embarrassed I forgot him. I think I was trying to erase the memory of the '94 finals and threw the baby out with the bathwater.

    William, thanks for the clarification on the videos. I don't remember seeing Lawson in the handful of games I saw this year, but you're right, they do change. I'd say in terms of cheers, Dean gets the most, MJ second, and Hansbrough third.

    Good call on Hester, too, Taylor. I was going to add kick returners to the receivers for NFL flow, but pulled back in the end.

    Can't argue with any of those Kyle, but the one that resonated the most with me is Bush at USC. Great call. Guy was magic in red and gold.

    I was the same as you, Dan, got good at several sports but didn't have flow in any. Sometimes I feel like I get flow playing pool, and ditto for ping pong. But that's about it.

    Also, Dr. J should be named the Godfather of Flow.


  10. I'm glad someone said Hakeem! This is flow:

    Barry Sanders for sure. I think Pete Maravich had it in the sense of looking effortlessly in control. I definitely think when plays get bigger they lose it. Younger Shaq and Younger LeBron were both more graceful. Check out footage from their McDonald's All-America games.

  11. I'm going to go deep into some serious flow shit. With surfing (and I know this blog has a big following in Wilmington so some of you will get me), once you get to a certain level you see some surfers who attempt to bend the wave to their will, and those who flow with the wave. If you watch videos you see some surfers trying to shove as many tricks as possible into waves and then there are surfers that move and blend with the wave. Both styles are impressive in their own right, but the latter undeniably captures the essence of "flow."

  12. Thanks Marco, I was going to mention surfing next. The ultimate sport to see flow vs. technique.

    As to shooting pool... hmmm, how to keep this short? Some of my spending money in college came from pool. As you said, there were times of great flow. I spent a chunk of the 90's in the UK and became pretty serious about snooker. The guy with the most flow ever (and reinvented the game because of it, MJ style) was Stephen Hendry. Dude had palpable flow.

  13. This is the reason I've always preferred Federer to Nadal. To quote the Wallace essay on him he moves like a "liquid whip." He's just more aesthetically appealing to watch.

    It's funny though, while I can see what you mean about Wallace (who is probably my favorite writer), I find Nabokov to be even more stiff and mechanical. No doubt he has a vast command of the language, and maybe the mechanicalness I am talking about is more on the level of manner/personality/tone. I don't know, but I've always found his writing to be very rigid and "un-open." Writers who I think of as having flow are those whose writing never calls any attention to itself.

  14. Tough to put a finger exactly on what "flow" is, but, like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, "I know it when I see it." (though he was talking about pornography, or obscenity, or something like that).

    Flow definitely transcends whatever medium it manifests itself in. It raises a sport into an art form; it turns literature, music, or movie into an experience. Nas had flow. Jay Williams (Jay "White Chocolate" Williams, not Jay "Motorcycling was a bad idea" Williams or Jay "Oops I killed my chauffeur with a shotgun" Williams) had flow. Pedro Martinez had flow.

    I agree that "flow" in soccer is pretty obvious. Taking it a step further, entire teams can have flow. Brazil and the Netherlands have flow. Germany and Italy do not.

  15. Raul, this is a debate we could have all night, and it's a good one. My counter-argument would be that writing that seems not to draw attention to itself is, in itself, a style. Jonathan Franzen is a great example. I think he's great, and I think his books are great, and he's the kind of guy who writes with a lot of clarity and a purposeful lack of dash. Nabokov, on the other hand (along with Fitzgerald), were trying consciously to create something beautiful. And while you're right that Nabokov approached it rigidly, I would disagree that the product is rigid. In fact, I think his rigidity created some of the most evocative prose ever written in English. But you're not the first to think it's tightly-wound or show-offy.

    (I would point out, just for the sake of it, that DFW's writing would never be innocent of calling attention to itself.)

    I think with Nabokov, you have to love his brain to love the writing. I think he was probably stand-offish, prideful, and even a little arrogant in real life, but when it comes to novels I loved what he was dishing out.

    As far as playing style, Federer definitely has more flow. As I've talked about before, my love for Nadal stems less from his style, which is relentless and grueling, and more from his spirit, which is worthy of words like 'indomitable.'

    And that gets to an interesting duality in this flow discussion. A lot of times, it seems like toughness and flow don't go together. As though if you lack flow but want to become great, you have to be very, very tough. And that creates clashes of toughness vs. flow that can be wonderful, like Nadal-Federer or Germany-Holland in soccer, or whatever. And the really interesting part for me is that there's a point where pure flow without toughness can turn me off. When I see Federer being petulant or whiny at the end of tough matches, I can't help but think, 'man, what a pussy.' Which I realize is super unfair, since there's literally one human on earth who brings that out in him anymore. But it makes me want Nadal to win, and it makes me love that ridiculous fighting spirit that persists in the face of extreme tension and anxiety. Or in the case of the Dutch, having read about their disappointments, it just seems like their extreme arrogance got in the way of an ultimate victory time after time. And then I think, hey, good for Germany. They live in the real world, and there's something to be said for being results-oriented.

    I'm trying to think of other great tough vs. flow match-ups in sports history. There has to be a precedent in boxing, though Ali, I think, had both, so it doesn't really apply there.

    I guess football is a place where you see it kinda often. Maybe Rams-Patriots in the Super Bowl, or any time an unforgiving SEC school plays a high-flying Pac-10 team.

    Oh, here we go: Spurs-Suns, NBA.

    If anyone thinks of more, comment below. I think the hard lesson to learn is that when pure flow meets pure tough, pure tough usually wins out.

    Great comments today by everyone. Craig, I remember that Stewart story from law earlier this year. Legend has it he had the largest pornography collection of any Supreme Court judge in history.


  16. Freddy Couples had flow. Bill Buckner didn Tom 't.

  17. At first I read Craig's comment as proposing that Justice Potter Stewart was in possession of this mythical "flow".

    Which begs the question... which Supreme Court Justice DOES boast the largest amount of flow?