HoopsHype.com Columns

Deceptive quickness
by Dennis Hans / March 9, 2004

While channel surfing one evening several weeks ago, I caught a moment of a college basketball game on ESPN. A defender had just covered a lot of ground to block an opponent’s shot, prompting the color commentator (it sounded like Bill Raftery) to observe that the defender is “quicker than he appears.”

How can someone be “quicker than he appears”? I could see how someone might be “stronger than he appears”: You see a skinny guy in the gym, and your initial impression is that he couldn’t be too strong. Then he hoists some heavy weights and you say to yourself, “Man, that guy’s stronger than he looks.” The proof is in the pumping, and you now realize that ol’ Slim is pretty strong after all — “wiry strong.”

It’s tough for a basketball player to disguise his (or her) quickness. The game, after all, is a succession of bursts of quickness at both ends of the floor. Observers are repeatedly exposed to each player’s quickness or lack thereof.

The collegiate defender in question certainly appeared quick to my naked eye. But he did have one quality that may account for the announcer’s confused description: white skin.

Quick white guys often are labeled “deceptively quick.” Quick black guys, on the other hand, are simply “quick” — unless, that is, they’re carrying an extra 50 or 100 pounds. An announcer might be so astonished to see a hefty hoopster on the floor that, for a while, the roundness is the only thing that registers. Before long, however, he’ll notice that Oliver Miller or John “Hot Plate” Williams can really move. The ultimate “deceptively quick” athlete would be a white whale who moves like a black cat — i.e., prime Tony Siragusa.

A few months ago I caught a vintage Cleveland Cavaliers game on ESPN Classic. Mark Price was scampering up and down the court at Roadrunner pace, draining J’s and making plays against Charles Barkley’s Sixers. The announcer (I’m pretty sure it was Marv Albert) described the pale blur as “deceptively quick”!

In defense of Marv, if indeed it was Marv, there’s a reason for the stereotype of the white hoopster who’s a half-step slow. But that applies more to spot-up shooting guards and backup centers, not little-squirt point guards. That’s the position Price played, and it has always had a high quickness requirement. Most people expect an NBA point guard — particularly a short one — to be darn quick. That’s what Price, John Stockton and Bob Cousy were and Jason Williams is. It’s hard to be deceptive when you’re meeting people’s quickness expectations.

Ironically, today Marv broadcasts Knicks games with one of the few players of any hue who truly was deceptively quick. Walt “Clyde the Glide” Frazier was a dribbling optical illusion, seemingly gliding at half-speed whether he was going at half-speed, full-bore or somewhere in between. By the time the hapless defender realized Clyde had shifted gears, it was too late. Clyde had come and gone, and the Knicks had two more points on the board.

As for Price, what I remember about his classic battles with BJ Armstrong in the years when Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls routinely broke the Cavs’ hearts is that Price was quicker with the ball while BJ was quicker moving laterally on defense. That is, they were two quick little guys, but with different types of observable, non-deceptive quickness.

Price’s coach was Lenny Wilkens, who in his playing days was a smart and undeceptively quick point guard who made nine All-Star teams. In the January 16 New York Times, Chris Broussard noted that Wilkens, who now coaches the Knicks, is renowned for developing his point guards, including Price, who as a rookie was “thought to be too slow, too short and too soft to become special. But as he continued to play under Wilkens, Price blossomed into a four-time All-Star.”

Broussard is an excellent reporter, so if he says Price was thought to be “too slow,” it’s safe to say that plenty of basketball people did indeed think that. If so, those folks suffered from the flip side of the malady that often led GMs and journalists to talk up the “natural ability” and physical “gifts” of a given black player while denying him
props for putting in years of effort to hone his skills and master the nuances of the game. They were “blinded by the white,” unable to see Price’s natural attributes hidden by a fair-skinned façade.

For decades, too many commentators bought into the blarney that great black players were endowed with everything that stardom requires, while great white players became great by overcoming alleged physical limitations through hard work, “heady play” and “sound fundamentals.” Wilkens’ new boss, Isiah Thomas (himself a former undeceptively superquick point guard), deserves much of the credit for subverting, if not quite killing off, that ugly cliché.

After a heartbreaking loss to the Celtics in Game Seven of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals — the key play of which was Bird’s Game Five theft of a Thomas pass that turned certain defeat into victory — Thomas’s Piston teammate Dennis Rodman said that Bird, if he were black, would be regarded as nothing special, just another good player. Thomas initially supported Rodman’s absurd contention, though he soon came to his senses. Perhaps Thomas felt obliged, at first, to stand behind his teammate. But his ill-considered endorsement was in part a reaction to hearing, over many years, countless media tributes to Bird’s smarts and savvy. (Bird had both in spades. But he also had exceptional agility and coordination and a softer touch than any 6-10 dude in history.)
Thomas himself was no slouch in the smarts-and-savvy department, but like so many other great black athletes, he rarely heard such words applied to him. He was sick and tired of a sports media that too often denied blacks their smarts-and-savvy due, and he said so.

Years later, as an NBC color commentator, Thomas got carried away in his efforts to undermine the cliché, overpraising every simple little thing Rodman did (e.g., using two hands to snare a rebound) as evidence of Rodman’s brilliant mind and mastery of fundamentals. Yep, Thomas pushed the pendulum too far, but it needed pushing.

Getting back to the flip side of Thomas’s lament, it’s not only white commentators who can’t see the “natural ability” that certain white hoopsters possess. Consider what Ray Allen — an enlightened, sophisticated fellow and one of the classiest guys in the NBA — said recently about his fair-skinned Seattle teammate, Nick Collison, who’s sitting out his inaugural pro season as he recuperates from surgery on both shoulders. Collison was the lone collegian on the U.S. national team that included Allen and won the Olympic Qualifying tournament last summer, so Allen got to see Collison compete against NBA greats in scrimmages and international stars in games.

“Even against players of that ability, he was a guy who could do a lot of things in a game,” said Allen. “Athletically, he is better than his appearance suggests."

What does Collison’s “appearance” suggest? Allen didn’t elaborate (or if he did, those comments didn’t make it into the story). But the few times I saw the 6-9, 250-pounder play in college, he bore a striking resemblance to an impressive, well-rounded athlete — good coordination, agility, mobility, reflexes, hands and, for a man his size, quickness. He’s not the second coming of Bill Russell or Bill Walton, but then no one expects the 12th pick in the draft to have Hall-of-Fame talent. Collison, a well-schooled son of a coach, clearly has nurtured what nature provided. But make no mistake, nature provided plenty.

Collison wasn’t the only University of Kansas caucasian to be taken in the first round of the 2003 NBA draft. The Chicago Bulls nabbed playmaker Kirk Hinrich, described in an MSNBC scouting report as a “very athletic player with deceptive speed on both the drive and on defense.”

It’s good to see Hinrich’s obvious athleticism acknowledged, but what could possibly be “deceptive” about the speed at which he or any other player laterally slides his feet on defense? You bend your knees and move side to side. It’s obvious to anyone who’s not self-blinded which players are laterally quick and which are laterally slow. Hinrich displayed that exceptional lateral quickness for four years at Kansas, and he’s displaying it in the NBA.

There’s no denying that white point guards— like white base stealers, punt returners and Olympic sprinters — have been in short supply for some time now. It’s understandable that an announcer, scout or competitor might, at first blush, be taken by surprise at the quickness of a Price or Hinrich, and describe him in his first few games as “deceptively quick.” But once the quickness has been demonstrated for all to see, the element of deception is gone. That’s why I propose that once a player has completed half of his freshman or rookie season, he be
exempt from the ludicrous label “deceptively quick.” Unless, that is, he’s a Clyde-like illusionist or really, really fat.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball — including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting — have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

Tell us what you think about this column. E-mail us at HoopsHype@HoopsHype.com