Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. That quote from Red Sanders has animated sports long before Sanders put words to the ethos of competition; the spirit existed before he named it. Winning is the standard by which competition is judged -- Rings Culture as rubric -- and the purpose informing every shot, every pass, every step taken on the basketball court. The best players create avantages simply by existing; that’s what makes them the best.
Nikola Jokic has already summited the individual mountaintop of the NBA in winning the MVP for the 20-21 season, and then got better this year. By a statistical account, he’s in the midst of the greatest season of all time. As a competitor, he’s inarguably one of the greats, and his contributions in service of Winning are lovely, dark, and deep. But on a very rare occasion, he seems to peek behind the veil of the sport and intentionally subvert competition itself.
Usually, when players do not contribute to the vacuous and vast cause of Winning, it’s their own failure. A missed rotation, a sloppy turnover. They hurt the cause because they don’t know or can’t do any better. But on Feb. 27, Jokic undermined the entire philosophy for a brief flash. He subverted Winning not as accident but as intention, not as failure but as success.
I have absolutely no idea how Nikola Jokic A. knows this pass is there. B. executes this pass. C. puts a no-look pass with spin almost right in Morris’ shooter’s pocket. D. even thinks to throw it from that angle. pic.twitter.com/xMGwgZaN7V— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) February 28, 2022
Upon first viewing it looks as though Jokic might have gone the Michael Jordan route and chosen a new sport, thrown a Frisbee pass that curved mid flight like the Wanted bullet. But no, he was playing basketball, simply with a different philosophy underpinning his choices. He didn’t throw that pass to help win the game or to find an advantage. He did it for the same reason we drive convertibles on the highway in the sun or dance in the kitchen without music: because we can. As a Thus Spoke Zorathustran celebration of existence.
If you watch the entire possession that led to the pass, you’ll see that the last time Jokic actually looked at the corner before getting rid of the ball was almost 10 seconds earlier when the corner was empty. The pass was uncut bravado, but his own version -- not a dunk or a crossover, but a manifestation of his quantum computer brain. He knew a teammate was in the corner because he counted where his teammates and their defenders were and he saw the pattern and structure, knowing a target had to exist for his pass through divine basketball calculus instead of sight.
Crucially, Jokic didn’t throw that pass to help win the game. The Portland Trail Blazers’ CJ Elleby lurked directly on the flightpath, a more likely recipient of the ball than Monte Morris in the corner. Jokic threw it anyway to look cool. He’s far from the first player to do something on the court to look cool, but that spirit generally manifests in dunks and crossovers -- which also forward the goal of Winning. Not so here. Jokic threw a pass that teleported through a defender. It should have been a turnover. And what was the prize after it happened to survive unscathed? It didn’t create an open shot or accomplish much of anything. No advantage beyond aesthetic -- Morris even missed the shot. The pass prayed to a more ancient god, not of Winning but of being, not of destination but of journey. In that sense, Jokic’s pass reduced to form represents the inverse of Tim Duncan -- the spectacle as end rather than the mundane as means.
Like Jordan switching hands in midair, Jokic chose to make competition more difficult for himself. Jordan claimed to think he was avoiding a rim protector whom he only later realized wasn’t coming. Perhaps Jokic would claim not to have seen Elleby. But his superpower on the court is awareness of every other body at all times. Either way, Jokic’s awareness of Elleby was insubstantial, just like Elleby’s existence on the flightpath. Jokic reduced Elleby to plot device, only in the region of the pass so as to be fooled by it. Jokic turned the Blazers into the Washington Generals, not just losers but humiliated, grasping at air and so made into air themselves. Jokic showed both a casual disregard for the nature of competition and a spiteful disregard for the nature of his competitors.
One of the secrets of life is that you can choose your own purpose. Don Quixote discovered that secret over 400 years ago. Most NBA players don’t have to reckon with the choosing and are passively carried forward by the mighty river of wins as the building blocks of value, like atoms the building blocks of life. But there’s no objective hierarchy of purposes, no logos spoken from on high that places Winning above aesthetic. Jokic seemed to surface his head above the crushing waters of competition, choosing for an instant another purpose. His rebellion against the kingdom of competition was only made substantial because of intent, because he’s such an established defender of that kingdom; an abstract painting can only be a subversive masterpiece if the artist can also draw The Perfect Sparrow with a matchstick.
What do you do when you’ve already pushed the limits of your own field? Facing that question, Arcade Fire stopped innovating in indie rock and became a synth-pop band. Jordan became a baseball player. Jokic hasn’t changed genres or sports since winning MVP, but he did throw a pass for the sake of fun, for his own entertainment, in service of the god of aesthetic rather than competition. A prayer to Dionysus instead of Ares. Jokic’s prayer hardly impacted the game itself. It was fleeting and lasted only an instant, forgotten afterwards except on Twitter, and forgotten soon there, too. But in that shining instant, Jokic became more than the sport, represented something other than the believed-mandatory maxim that floods through every moment of competition.
Jokic’s pass transcended the game yet was worth nothing other than to the viewer. Like Deadpool transcending the bounds of the comic book in his awareness of existing within one, Jokic eroded the structure within which he exists and made it stronger in the process. Basketball felt the shiver and the delight of Jokic passing over its grave.