What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
UCLA's Kevin Love isn't who the basketball pundits want him to be.
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.