2012 November

Why We Watch: JaVale McGee, The Unexplainable

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If it seems like JaVale McGee is playing a different type of basketball than everyone else in the NBA, it’s because he is. He’s playing it the way he sees it.



In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a groundbreaking essay, “What Is It Like To Be Bat.” He argued that the very difficulty of answering the question suggests that there must be something irreducibly extra-physical that generates the mental experience of being like something, which we call consciousness for short. Nagel’s argument, in brief, was that theories of the mind that tried to explain conscious experience as something reducible to different physical states of the brain (more or less), could not account for the feeling of being a conscious being. Nagel challenges the reader to think about bats, or more specifically, to think about being a bat. You could—and you might as well, there are worse hobbies—learn all there is to know about the physical laws governing a bat’s cognition, the circuitry of the bat-brain, the function of the bat’s sensory systems. But for all that knowledge, you will still be none the wiser when it comes to understanding the qualitative experience of batness.

This all relates to JaVale McGee not simply because both he and bats are comfortable off the ground and broadly uncanny, although there’s that. It’s more that JaVale McGee presents a similar philosophical challenge: what might it be like to be JaVale McGee, to move around in that body, with that mind?

Granted, figuring out what it’s like to be seven feet tall — with arms that stretch another half a foot beyond that and a 32-inch vertical leap and an avant-garde brain—might be as difficult as imagining navigating through a dark cave with echolocation. It doesn’t necessarily help that the results of JaVale’s cognition can appear just as confounding and foreign. Running back on defense when your point guard is dribbling at the top of the key? Apparent innocent ignorance of the rules governing goaltending? You don’t need Andre Miller’s basketball IQ or Shane Battier’s extra-numerate savvy to figure that stuff out, right? And the details of McGee’s biography, while interesting, are not particularly useful in explaining the mystery of JaValeness; if anything, his family’s basketball-heavy bloodlines should have selected against just this airy cluelessness.

But none of that, really, explains how JaVale McGee is JaVale Mcgee. He is his own creation, and lives in his own space in his own way. At times, it’s not clear that he quite knows what it’s like to be JaVale McGee, himself.

Read the rest of the article on The Classical.