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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: An ode to the basketball heat check, the most beautiful thing in sports

Coby White Duke
First-year guard Coby White (2) attempts a layup against Duke in the Smith Center on Saturday, March 9, 2019. UNC defeated Duke 70-79 on Senior Night to finish the season as ACC regular season champions.

You can keep your sidearm football throws squeezed between four defenders and lacrosse-style hockey shots. Enjoy those no-hitters, perfect score gymnastics routines and absolute screamers on the soccer pitch. Same with the penalty-kick saves and diving outfield snags and Odell Beckham Jr. catches. 

For my money, none of those beat the most beautiful moment across all of sports: when a basketball player catches fire and the world (including everyone else on the court) has no other choice but to sit back and watch magic happen.

These moments of pure, unadulterated unconsciousness come to mind with ease for any hoops fan. Klay Thompson. Stephen Curry. Tracy McGrady. Kobe Bryant. LeBron James. I could go on. And that’s just at the NBA level.

Basketball romantic that I am, I chase these stretches of perfection like tornadoes.

I take major pride in having watched, among other absurd heat checks, Curry’s near-halfcourt, game-winning 3-pointer against the Thunder complete with Mike Breen’s incredulous call of “Bang! Bang!” on live TV in 2016. I consider myself lucky to have covered Coby White’s 33-point explosion against Miami a year ago and Stephanie Watts’ 10 3-pointer game in 2016 for The Daily Tar Heel.

Sophomore guard Stephanie Watts (5) drives towards the basket.

For the last few years, I’ve even unashamedly kept a YouTube playlist filled with whatever videos I find of players on fire. The classics are in there — Thompson’s 37-point quarter, McGrady’s 13 in 35 seconds, James’ 16 in two minutes, Bryant’s farewell game, a lot of Damian Lillard — along with more random occurrences, such as spurts from Zach Randolph, Kyle Korver and Omri Casspi.

Why the obsession? I’ve thought about it a lot, especially so in these last few years as a sportswriter, and it boils down to two reasons.

First, the hot hand is equitable. It mostly eschews the advanced statistics that dominate today’s game in favor of a simple maxim: if you’re feeling it, you’re feeling it.

Sure, individual scoring runs are skewed toward star players with heavy minutes and heavy usage, but guys like Ty Lawson, Chandler Parsons, Mo Williams, Corey Brewer or Duncan Robinson can go crazy just as easily as the household names. To quote Auguste Gusteau, the chef in "Ratatouille", anyone can cook.

Second, you simply cannot look away when it’s happening. Basketball has long been an aesthetically pleasing game to watch — a sport where crisp passes, fancy dribbles and contorting layups have always been valued equally if not more than strength, brute force and bully ball.

Nothing, I’d argue, better represents that on-court beauty than someone pouring in bucket after bucket, getting increasingly creative and cocky with every shot while somehow knowing damn well it’s going in anyway. And everyone else — fans, teammates, even opponents — gets caught in a trance.

Take that Thompson performance in a January 2015 Warriors-Kings game, for example. The man had 37 points in a quarter. Lots of intramural teams at UNC (including mine) are lucky to sniff that in a full game.

Yet the Kings, in that third quarter, encourage it — the defense is OK, but they’re sloppy and passive on offense, rushing shots and secretly just watching the show for themselves. Oracle Arena is losing its mind, and Sacramento flat-out refuses to call a timeout in arguably the most obvious “call a timeout” situation ever — which is awesome. 

Even for pros like that, it doesn’t get old. I don’t see how it could.

So here’s to that hot hand and all the wonderful bench reactions, unmoved-net swishes, 35-footers and ill-advised midranges that come with it. If there’s a science behind it, I don’t want to know it.

@chapelfowler

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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