The Eric Hayes Hypothetical

Let’s suppose there were a star combo guard on a major college basketball program. He leads his power conference in scoring with 19 points per game while grabbing four rebounds and handing out three assists per contest. He shoots 48 percent from the field, including 42 percent from three-point range and 85 percent from the foul line. Announcers refer to him as a “scorer who can beat you in several ways,” as he is able to drive to the basket and finish in traffic along with his expertise from the perimeter.

This hypothetical individual has one unique quirk: He banks in nearly all of his shots. It does not matter where he shoots from. He banks from the wing, from the top of the key, from the foul line, all layups, his floaters—they all go off the glass. Announcers talk about his uncanny understanding of angles while opposing coaches employ a strategy of forcing him to the corner, where the bank shot is impossible.

How do you feel about this player?

I knew the minute I first posed this hypothetical* that I personally would dislike this player very much. And yet the reasons for why aren’t so clear to me. Why does a bank shot offend me so much? Why does it have such a poor reputation in basketball circles?

*I came up with this idea while watching a 2009 Duke-Maryland game in which the Terrapins’ Eric Hayes made consecutive bank shots. I’ve referred to it as the “Eric Hayes Hypothetical” ever since, and we’ll call my hypothetical player Eric from here on out, even though Eric Hayes, to my knowledge and observation, does not average 19 points per game and does not regularly bank his shots.

I imagine a large part of this has to do with the idea that most bank shots are unplanned and therefore require luck to actually go in. If someone today banks in a free throw, it’s likely because he shot the ball a foot farther than he meant to. There’s also the fact that an especially forgiving backboard can be exploited to mask a lack of touch. Firing the ball off a playground backboard can be an effective offensive weapon, and one I maintain was the main reason I lost to my brother in childhood one-on-one games.

But Eric clearly plans his bank shots, and with the high percentages at which he shoots, he hits his target consistently. He’s not missing shots so badly that they happen to go in or masking a lack of touch. If anything, he has more touch than most shooters: Adding an intermediate obstacle between ball and basket requires almost perfect touch.

Furthermore, Eric’s unique strategy calls for a deep understanding of both angles and spin. It is, as the announcers say in the hypothetical, uncanny. It’s almost as if he brings a tennis sensibility to the hardwood, knowing where exactly he must place the ball on the backboard and how it must leave his hand with the proper amount of spin.* I can imagine David Foster Wallace writing calling Eric “a basketball maestro” and the greatest genius the sport has ever seen.**

*A mastery of spin is particularly important for the finishing skills of an undersized player.

**In my hypothetical, DFW is both alive and writing frequently about sports.

And yet, I’m still fairly certain that I would dislike Eric, and I’d like to attribute this to the importance of aesthetics to basketball. More than sports like baseball or football, basketball appeals to a larger athletic aesthetic. The sport separates itself by a certain graceful flow; it’s a type of modernized soccer, with non-stop back-and-forth action requiring an extreme level of athleticism from nearly all of its practitioners. Furthermore, its history is one of transcendent individuals who have forced us to reimagine the athletic capacity of human beings. It’s why Jordan was more than just a basketball player, and it’s why LeBron’s aspiration isn’t to be a champion, but a global icon.

There’s just something about bank shots that strike me as aesthetically unpleasant—even if they’re planned and perfectly executed. Is this just a rationalization to hate?

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