Smile Politely

Point Guards and UPS

Last week, the UPS guy delivered a package for Anthony again. Anthony lives on the next street over. This is the fourth time this year.

After I spent an hour searching for a phone number (UPS doesn’t list in the phone book, they want you to go to their office), dialed it and waited on hold for 15 minutes, I had a conversation along these lines:

UPS: What’s the tracking number?

ROB: 1K E10 0R8 03 4150 942 1.

UPS: Hmm, let’s see…ah yes, that package was delivered on Tuesday, September 9, at 1:53 PM.

ROB: I know. I was there…quite a distance away from the intended recipient.

UPS: The system won’t accept that. It’s been delivered.

Anthony’s house is at the same address, one street over. There’s no cross street on this block, so it’s actually a six block walk from here. When I got there, a disheveled woman answered the door. She didn’t didn’t thank me for my effort. In fact, she didn’t say anything.

Maybe I’ll keep the fifth package.

Let’s say your package goes to someone else’s house, and that neighbor doesn’t feel feel an urge to do a good turn for a stranger. If you spend an hour of searching, dialing, and waiting, you might find a living UPS Customer Service Dipshit. Your conversation may go something like this:

ROB: I think my package got delivered to somebody else’s house.

UPS: What’s the tracking number?

ROB: I don’t know.

UPS: I can’t tell you anything about a package without a tracking number.

ROB: Where do I find the tracking number?

UPS: It’s just under the address.

ROB: Which address?

UPS: Your address. On the package.

After some amount of time, if you are able to register any information in the brain of the Dipshit — your name, your address, your zip code — Dipshit might be able to determine your tracking number for you. In that case, the conversation will quickly wrap up, thus:

UPS: I found it. Are you ready?

ROB: I don’t need the number, I just want the package.

UPS: Here it is. Ready? 1K E10 0R8 03 4150 942 1.

ROB: What is that supposed to tell me?

UPS: It tells you that your package was delivered on Tuesday, September 9, at 1:53 PM.

ROB: Yeah . . . but where?

What can Brown fuck up for you?

In the modern age, UPS is one of those necessities of life. You can’t avoid it. I enjoy Cafe Caribé. Heather likes peppermint tea and Duran Duran box sets. We could get these things from providers other than Amazon, and pay twice as much. So we’re reliant on UPS.

Tom Friedman posited, in The World is Flat, that UPS cannot deliver a package to the wrong address, because their global positioning satellite will not allow it. Douglas Adams, in Mostly Harmless, pointed out that “when a thing which cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong, it tends to be impossible to get at, or repair.”

Perhaps writing for Smile Politely instills a man with an acute awareness of Delivery Drivers. But I prefer to think its simply modern culture. The person who brings me my coffee is, for my purposes, just as important as the person who grew my coffee. Without both of them, I do not get my coffee.

In basketball, the point guard is the delivery person. Everything good that happens, happens through him.

The preposterous grouping of Illini jerseys, hung from the Assembly Hall rafters this weekend, reminds us that on-court contributions are only a part of the story. It also tells us that, even in preposterous groupings, point guards are considered disproportionately important to a team’s success.

Complete List of Illinois Men’s Basketball Honored Jerseys:

Ray Woods 1915-17 G Evanston, Ill.
Chuck Carney 1920-22 F Evanston, Ill.
Bill Hapac 1938-40 F Chicago, Ill.
Andy Phillip 1942-43, 47 F Granite City, Ill.
Gene Vance 1942-43, 47 G Clinton, Ill.
Walt Kirk 1944-45, 47 G Mt. Vernon, Ill.
Dike Eddleman 1947-49 F Centralia, Ill.
Bill Erickson 1947-50 G Rockford, Ill.
Don Sunderlage 1949-51 G Elgin, Ill.
Rod Fletcher 1950-52 G Champaign, Ill.
John “Red” Kerr 1952-54 C Chicago, Ill.
Jerry Colangelo 1960-62 G Chicago Heights, Ill.
Dave Downey 1961-63 F Canton, Ill.
Skip Thoren 1963-65 C Rockford, Ill.
Don Freeman 1964-66 F Madison, Ill.
Jim Dawson 1965-67 G Elmhurst, Ill.
Nick Weatherspoon 1971-73 F Canton, Ohio
Eddie Johnson 1978-81 F Chicago, Ill.
Derek Harper 1981-83 G West Palm Beach, Fla.
Bruce Douglas 1983-86 G Quincy, Ill.
Ken Norman 1985-87 F Chicago, Ill.
Nick Anderson 1988-89 F Chicago, Ill.
Kenny Battle 1988-89 F Aurora, Ill.
Kendall Gill 1987-90 G Matteson, Ill.
Deon Thomas 1991-94 F/C Chicago, Ill.
Frank Williams 2000-02 G Peoria, Ill.
Brian Cook 2000-03 F Lincoln, Ill.
Luther Head 2002-05 G Chicago, Ill.
Deron Williams 2003-05 G The Colony, Texas
Dee Brown 2003-06 G Maywood, Ill.

I suggest the list is semi-historical, semi-political. Very few people understand the game that Bill Hapac played. But anyone can analyze the cold numbers, and it’s cold numbers that most buttress — and degrade — the contention that point guard is the most important position on the floor. Naysayers highlight Chester Frazier’s numbers in questioning his playing time. Chester’s proponents have no statistical categories tracking tenacity, pace, and disruption — apart from actual steals.

But apart from Bruce Douglas, the guards listed above were known equally for baskets, as for their distribution, floor coaching, and point defense. In Jerry Colangelo’s case, the impact one makes on a program decades after the actual, sweaty jersey sees its last laundering, is considered as important as the on-court performance. Colangelo was good at basketball, to be sure. But that’s not why his jersey hangs.

Given that perspective, the absence of Steve Bardo from the list is bizarre. He’s done a ton for the program, apart from playing a stellar point. That dereliction, the exclusion of Mark Smith and Efrem Winters, and the inclusion of some recent, decent players — triggered the “preposterous” label. Kiwane Garris flew in from Italy for the Legends game this weekend. How embarrassing that must have been for the people who overlooked his four years of leadership at the point and his second best all-time scoring.

Basketball statisticians, moreso than basketball marketing employees, recognize that the delivery is as important as the conversion. The latter cannot happen without the former. This is why “assists” receive their own statistical credit. It’s a craft — or perhaps an art — which requires tremendous skill and focus, but otherwise results in accolades for others.

Assists can be flashy, as thrilling as field goals. Some point guards make a career of flashy passes. But a lot of the time, being an exceptional point guard might seem, to the average viewer, as thrilling as driving a big brown van.

Getting a package to the right house is easy. Most of us can carry a three pound box along a sidewalk, into a building, and even up a stairway — without crushing the box between our ham-like fists, without falling on our faces, and without messily losing control of our bowels. Even getting that box into a particular building isn’t all that hard. The incapability of the incompetent to execute this simple trick is notable because of the simplicity.

Being an exceptional point guard is, on the other hand, so complicated that it cannot effectively be taught. There’s a skill aspect that can be trained, but there’s a lot of innate talent for perception involved.

To highlight the difference, here’s a musical analogy: A lot of us, if listening to an orchestra, can pick out a bad note — say one of the musicians was flat. But a lot of people don’t notice. And very, very few can tell you which instrument it was.

A greater number of people can understand the problem when it’s isolated, slowed down. In sports, it’s done with the slow motion replay plus telestrator.

Here’s how the same demonstrative technique works for music. You can see each track (instrument) on this computer display:

The sine wave labeled “strings” is late. The vibes and the piano come in just past the :43 second mark. The strings don’t arrive until almost :45. You can see it for yourself, and a brilliant conductor can hear it with his eyes closed — even if there are 44 instruments instead of four.

Here’s the same sequence of music, with the strings fixed to come in on the correct beat.

A point guard is like a conductor of a symphony orchestra. There are lots of variables, and it’s important to be aware of them at all times.

But a point guard is more comparable to a composer. It’s not just a matter or wrangling the variables that exist, it’s also about creating brilliant new variables. In the picture above, you can’t see (or hear) the amazing guitar part, because it doesn’t exist. The conductor wouldn’t worry about that — because it doesn’t exist. The composer would hear it in his head, and add it to all the other parts, already playing.

A brilliant point guard sees all the existing movements, the patterns they make, and the likelihood that they will develop into other shapes — e.g. the shape of a power-forward being open, under the basket, for just a fraction of a second. The brilliant point guard can envision that open forward, based on the movements of the defense, and the way the forward is leaning slightly to his right. He will get the ball there, precisely at that fraction of a second, for a thunderous dunk.

When execution fails entirely, even a child will notice. No package = delivery failure.

When execution occurs somewhere on a spectrum between precision and complete failure, even an expert may be confused. This is frequently the case in basketball.

A non-exceptional point guard does not heave the ball into the crowd. He dribbles around the top of the key for about 34 seconds, and then heaves the ball toward the goal as the shot clock expires. Fighting Illini fans have seen this play many times since April of 2005.

It doesn’t mean the team won’t score baskets; well it doesn’t have to mean the team won’t score baskets. But it does mean there will be a few different people schlepping the ball around, searching for an opening, for someone who might have a decent shot at getting the ball where it’s supposed to go.

That’s kind of how UPS packages get delivered in my neighborhood.

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