On the court, Paul George has a basketball style all his own, playing with a musicality that’s funky enough to make James Brown proud.
Paul George has a banging rhythm section.
You can’t see it in his wiry frame — there would be no room to hide drums and bass in that willowy torso. But drums and bass like that live in the soul, anyway.
You can feel it during warm-ups. George, floating through the layup lines and hoisting jumpers at half-speed. Loping, listing strides. A slowly expanding bass line, deep and funky. Choppy, percussive guitar chords. Repetitive, rhythmic cymbal taps, steady kick drum holding the universe together. It’s all world-building, atmosphere thickly applied — a dark room, whiskey, smoke and sweat, thick curtains and a small stage, bodies pressed forward, bopping in anticipation, the backs of heads silhouetted against the diffuse glow of purple lighting.
You’re not sure exactly what’s about to happen, but you can already hear and feel that it’s going to be funky.
I believe, deeply, that we all have a spirit instrument or instruments. Like a spirit animal, but instead of finding spiritual meaning in reverse anthropomorphizing, it’s the tonal resonance that represents you. You know Johnny Depp in Blow, wrapped in the lingering guitar riffs of Black Betty, strutting through the Miami airport in time with those cymbal hits? Like that, but for you.
I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this idea. A few years ago I even started making YouTube videos, trying to match NBA players with specific songs, things that might seem incongruous but aurally captured something about their basketball identity. In retrospect, Dirk Nowitzki and Dixie Chicks was a bit on the nose but I still think there’s something there. I can’t watch Kevin Durant play any more without hearing the opening bass line to Jukebox Hero, or watch Ricky Rubio dribble upcourt without the melodic harmonies of ABBA.
The one that I always come back to, though, is Paul George, made by my friend Rich Kraetsch.
George can not be separated from the drums and the bass and the rhythm guitar, they’re in him. In his hips. His unconscious strut, the pacing of his drives and of his crossover, his long strides and soft follow-through. You can tell he feels it, getting buckets to his internal, syncopated metronome. Dunking on the one.
But he’s more melodic than that. The essence of Paul George is everything that’s layered onto that rhythm, he’s the keys and, on certain nights, a whole damn horn section.
It kicks in as soon as the opening tip goes up. That foundational beat laid down in warmups gets depth. It’s top going down, bottom going up. The organ resonating, reverberating. George is slithering around screens, curling through the defense, seeing the spaces between the spaces, the notes between the notes. His eyes are wide open on the court but somewhere else, in that smokey room with the small stage and the purple light, his eyes are squeezed shut, face to the ceiling, feeling the keys and letting the vibe run through him.
The rhythm stays the same, but he’s picking up his personal pace. More notes, staccato chords bouncing, heads bouncing, the crowd in that small room moving in time. George drops in a pull-up 3, using an enormous step-back to create the space. Then he’s throwing a head-fake, gliding into the paint, a euro-step around the 7-foot square and a layup on the far side of the rim. A curl to the elbow, crab dribble to the side and pull-up from the free-throw line, rolling in. Grab-and-go rebound into a transition give-and-go and another layup, using his length to compensate for the awkward timing of the pass back.
The first quarter is almost over and he’s already got 9 points. He’s smiling. Not big, never big. But you can see it in a subtle tug at the corner, where his mustache touches the thick chinstrap beard. Suddenly there’s some levity in the drums and bass, the horns are blasting straight joy. For a minute it feels like there’s a little zydeco tease and then back to the bop. In far off rooms in far off places, Maceo Parker smiles. Cory Henry gets a little chill down his spine. Savion Glover thinks about Gregory Hines, shimmies and doesn’t know why.
At some point in the second half, the energy shifts again. A 3 from the corner. A steal and two-handed jam. A pull-up jumper just inside the arc. The television announcer hollers that George is “just unconscious right now”, a crude and inexact way of saying he’s so deep in the groove the rest of the world has started to recede. He’s lost the original melody but he’s found a new one, off the organ and onto the keyboard. Scales and slides, connecting disparate notes. A metaphysical pathway, soul to brain to fingers to sound. When he finds this kind of zone, all you can do is back away and marvel.
Eventually, he finds his way back to earth. The lead is so large now he can that he can pull back. Welcome the drums and the bass and guitars back to the front, let the sound retreat into the rhythm. Watch Landry Shamet run a pick-and-roll. Let his man actually clear that screen and catch the ball, instead of smothering his personal space. Go back to the subtle strut, until Doc Rivers lets him know the show is over.
As he exits, dripping with sweat, that dark room slowly emptying as the purple lights fade and the house lights come up.
The Aesthetic is an irregular column series, treating basketball as a purely artistic medium. Check out the entire project at A Unified Theory of Basketball.