The story is told, again and again, that UCLA star Kevin Love's middle name, Wesley, is an homage to Wes Unseld, that old rock quarry of an NBA center who, until recently, was known mainly to unreconstructed Bullets fans and the odd throwback-jersey enthusiast. Unseld spent the 1970s inhaling rebounds and uncorking 60-foot outlet passes, occasionally into the hands of a teammate named Stan Love. Some 35 years later, Stan's son Kevin would become very famous for inhaling rebounds and uncorking 60-foot outlet passes, only this time, these things—not to mention Kevin himself—would be held up as totems of Everything Good About Basketball.
"He is what the game misses," went one typical story, in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "what it once routinely offered, what got lost along the way among all those posed dunks and no-look passes to the third row of seats. His should be a permanent throwback jersey."
There isn't a better player in this weekend's Final Four than Kevin Wesley Love. No one—not even Memphis' Derrick Rose, who I believe is still hanging in the air somewhere over Reliant Stadium—is more fun to watch. And yet liking Love has become extraordinarily problematic, if only because it means throwing in your lot with the courtside declensionists who seem to think he was sent from above to save basketball from its worst instincts.
In just the past few weeks, Love has gone in for a lot of suspicious overpraise from the basketball establishment: Plenty of players know how to hedge on screens; few earn TV replays for doing so. That's to say nothing of the countless dorm room sociology debates about race and basketball he has unfortunately inspired among the Cold Pizza set, with Skip Bayless seemingly taking his talking points from The Bell Curve. (And, egad, was that Bayless copping to having "man love" for the poor kid?) "In a highlight mad world," began an Associated Press story, "the UCLA star plays an old-school game."
This is, of course, a lot of colorable nonsense, not least because it gets Love exactly wrong. His game is no more old-school (whatever that means) than is, say, Kevin Garnett's. He is entirely sui generis, an edgeless player keenly and precociously attuned to the game's rhythms. Bill Bradley, a similarly intuitive player with a fraction of Love's ability, once called this "a sense of where you are." Love is decidedly earthbound, but to criticize him for his lack of athleticism—the main knock on Love, the other being the center's relatively small stature, optimistically put at 6-foot-10—is to have an absurdly narrow conception of athleticism. Watch how he creates room for himself in the low post and under the boards (he is an excellent rebounder); where others find room in the air, Love makes his on the floor.
One of the joys of this tournament has been watching the members of the current generation (Love, Rose, Stephen Curry) competing with the shadows thrown by their forebears (Unseld, Jason Kidd, Dell Curry). In Love's case, he may not even have an ancestor. I asked a numbers-minded NBA scout for statistical comps. He was at a loss. "He is really unique," he said. "You don't find that combination of brute force, passing, shooting, and nondefense." The scout keeps a record of players to whom Love has been compared by other hoops observers. None, he found, was particularly satisfying: Unseld, David West, Sean May, Shelden Williams, Bill Walton, Jason Collins.
"He is a freak," the scout said, adding that Love's uniqueness makes him extraordinarily difficult to project as a pro. (His performance against Texas A&M in the tourney's second round—19 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocks, and two soft fadeaways in the game's fading minutes to push UCLA into the lead—certainly speaks well to his chances.) Love is, in every sense, a novelty.
Nevertheless, he has found himself caught up in basketball's deathless culture war, in which the game is always facing down some phony existential crisis and which is related, as often as not, to the fell plague of playground basketball. This became an inevitability the moment Love committed to UCLA, John Wooden's UCLA, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Fundamentals.
ESPN.com's Bill Simmons stumbled into this briar patch a year ago with a particularly thickheaded blog entry comparing Love to his fellow incoming freshman O.J. Mayo, bound for USC. Mayo, alone on a breakaway at the end of his last game as a high schooler, had tossed himself an alley-oop, windmilled the ball through the hoop, then grabbed it and flung it toward the upper concourses—not the most graceful of swan songs but the sort of thing we might expect from an overstimulated teenager. The basketball punditocracy, however, saw a chance to dispense a lesson about good and evil. "[Kevin] Love," Simmons wrote, under the headline "Down with the O.J. Mayo Era," "represents everything good about basketball (unselfishness, teamwork, professionalism) and Mayo represents everything we've come to despise (showboating, selfishness, over-hype)." The post was a call to arms for those fans who "give a crap about basketball and care about where it's headed as a sport." (Leave aside the fact that Mayo and Love see themselves as friends and kindred spirits.)
This is nothing new. As far back as 1965, writers were seeking out antidotes to the flashy players of the day, those punks who ruined a generation of children by dribbling through their legs. That year, John McPhee wrote of Bradley: "He dislikes flamboyance, and, unlike some of basketball's greatest stars, has apparently never made a move merely to attract to attention. While some players are eccentric in their shooting, his shots, with only occasional exceptions, are straight-forward and unexaggerated."
Ultimately, Love defies the efforts of the reactionaries to turn him into some neutered mascot for the Fundamentals. He has plenty of the playground in him, too—the flair, the instinct to toy with an opponent, to humiliate him. Charles P. Pierce has written brilliantly about the game's two psychic strands, the Fundamentals and the schoolyard notion of Face, both of which share a home in Love's suddenly famous outlet pass (which he perfected, according to one account, by practicing an old Unseld trick—grabbing a carom off one backboard, spinning in midair, and throwing the ball off the opposite backboard). "You'll see me laughing on the court sometimes this year," Love told Sports Illustrated last November. "It's funny to me. I'm almost playing a game with them."
With that in mind, then, here is my shining moment, at least for the nonce: During a shootaround before UCLA's Tournament opener, cameras caught Love throwing long chest passes toward the rim, first from halfcourt, then from three-quarters court, then from the opposite base line. He was showboating, sure, but with impeccable form, just as Clair Bee might've instructed—ball at the sternum, a push off the back foot, a flick of the wrist. All three times, the ball rattled, improbably, through the hoop. And what he did next was distinctly flamboyant and exaggerated and anything but old-school (whatever that means). He faced the stadium's empty seats and took two showman's bows.