We might consider sports to be gestural languages, each with rules of grammar, forms of poetry, and the like. But if that is the case then certainly the sporting technology or implement unique to each sport constitutes an important component of said language. With that in mind we continue our consideration of Massumi's logic of relation with an investigation of the ball proper.
If the goalposts, ground, and presence of human bodies on the field induce the play, the ball catalyzes it. The ball is the focus of every player and the object of every gesture. Superficially, when a player kicks the ball, the player is the subject of the movement, and the ball is the object. But if by subject we mean the point of unfolding of a tendential movement, then it is clear that the player is not the subject of the play. The ball is. The tendential movements in play are collective, they are team movements, and their point of application is the ball. The ball arrays the teams around itself. Where and how it bounces differentially potentializes and depotentializes the entire field, intensifying and deintensifying the exertions of the players and the movements of the team. The ball is the subject of the play. To be more precise, the subject of the play is the displacements of the ball and the continual modifications of the field of potential those displacements effect. The ball, as a thing, is the object-marker of the subject: its sign. Like the goal and the ground, the ball as a substantial term doubles the subject of the play, which itself is invisible and nonsubstantial, the catalysis-point of a force-field, a charge-point of potential (p.73, emphasis in original).
Put differently, the subject of the play is relation itself. This understanding of the nonsubstantial displacements of the object-marker and their continual modifications of the field of potential they effect is quite important, in my opinion, if we are to consider sport in this sense as a generative force. But is it consistent from one gestural language to the next? Though they are both open-ended, flowing sports contested on a rectangular field of play, the ball moves quite differently in a soccer match than it does in a basketball game. The primary difference may be located at the interface between player and technology, precisely in those ways gesture meets the object-marker that is the ball.
If we are to understand the subject of the play as relation itself, and we are further to grant the ball status as an autonomous actor in the field of potential, then it follows that we might inquire after the tactile quality of the relation between player and ball (and the possible subjectivities it may contribute to producing later in time). "From one singular to another, there is contiguity but not continuity," Jean-Luc Nancy suggests. "There is proximity, but only to the extent that extreme closeness emphasizes the distancing it opens up. All of being is in touch with all of being, but the law of touching is separation; moreover, it is the heterogeneity of surfaces that touch each other" (Being Singular Plural, p.5). Touching, heterogeneity: the erotics of otherness unfolding on the sporting field of potential.
It is not surprising, then, that great importance is given to the sense of touch between player and ball. When soccer players complain about the ball-as-object, they are usually upset about its weight or degree of firmness insofar as these variables concern flight — that is, they are concerned about the ball as a problem of ballistics. When basketball players complain, on the other hand, they are usually concerned with texture — the tactile quality one perceives as finger tips and pads contour the surface of the ball. In rare cases this surface texture may be too rough (as with a brand new ball), but is far more often too worn-in and smooth: ideally, a basketball should be broken-in just so, for the player with the ball wants to optimize grip, or the balance between a melding of surfaces and their friction.
Since the ball is nothing without the continuum of potential it doubles, since its effect is dependent on the physical presence of a multiplicity of other bodies and objects of various kinds; since the parameters of its actions are regulated by the application of rules, for all these reasons the catalytic object-sign may be called a part-subject. The part-subject catalyzes the play as a whole but is not itself a whole. It attracts and arrays the players, defining their effective role in the game and defining the overall state of the game, at any given moment, by the potential movement of the players with respect to it. The ball moves the players. The player is the object of the ball. True, the player kicks the ball. But the ball must be considered in some way an autonomous actor because the global game-effects its displacements produce can be produced by no other game element. When the ball moves, the whole game moves with it. Its displacement is more than a local movement: it is a global event (p.73, emphasis in original).
In soccer one finds that the ball spends most of its time in between the various players and goals on the field of competition — that is, in the process of becoming the various displacements which give Massumi's analysis its brilliant quality. With basketball, however, the story is different in a subtle but important way. Precisely because one is allowed to hold the ball or dribble with one's hands — in other words, to increase grip such that one has greater control over the displacements of the ball — we find with greater frequency a merging of the part-subject and part-object positions, or perhaps even their reversal.
One defending the player dribbling the basketball is indeed advised to completely ignore the ball and instead focus on the movement of the offensive player's trunk anatomy (ie. belly button). No matter what tricks and feints the dribbler may effect with the ball at the extremities of expressive potential (ie. head, shoulders, hands), it remains in orbit around the nucleus that is the core of the body. For a brief moment during the course of unfolding play, at least for this particular defender, the subject of play is no longer the ball but rather the individual who "possesses" the ball in a molecular (or micropolitical) relation. This is not to reject Massumi's thesis, but to qualify how the particular status of the ball as an autonomous actor varies slightly in the translation to basketball.
Turning to offense, it is also accepted basketball orthodoxy that it is far easier to score when the ball keeps moving between offensive players, particularly from side to side, as it forces the defense to continually shift in reaction. Breakdowns potentially open in the relational patterns the defensive team uses to guard its goal, resulting in opportunities to get an open shot, layup or dunk. Ultimately, however, it is the individual player who must put the ball in the basket. The subject position must be assumed. And when one scores often, the tactile relation between player and ball is overcoded to produce the subjectivity of the star, which infolds back into the field of potential to recondition further displacements.
At what moment does grip become grasp? When does the meshwork of relation flip to individuation and subjectivity? It appears to be when the movement-energy of the basketball-subject slows down to create a particular and temporary stasis in the play of emergence.