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Reflections on the Genesis and Significance of Furkan Aldemir

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Love is an evolutionary tool in service of human survival. Furkan Aldemir is not.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone. Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone...
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone. Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone...
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Why do we love?

There are evolutionary reasons for feelings we commonly associate with love. Love is what drives us to continue the survival of the species--rather than living briefly in the brutality of the State of Nature, we live in comfort through mutual sacrifice. We're compelled to form social associations for our collective benefit, and to produce and care for our offspring, and there are clear evolutionary advantages to doing so.

But at some point in the history of humanity, mere survival wasn't enough, and the impulses that governed our survival were turned to less vulgar targets and became ethics and aesthetics. Societies are constructed on a shared understanding of how that base, transactional evolutionary advantage became warped into something more grandiose. We live with people who share our values, not only because we seek them out but because by living together, our values become self-reinforcing through contact with those who share them.

This is how we ended up with a more or less unanimous conception of right and wrong. (And for as much as people in Western capitalist democracies are willing to burn each other at the stake over the minutiae, what unites us is far greater than what divides us.) That's how we came up with a generally accepted canon of art and literature. We evolved to find certain things to be beautiful, and to value them, and when we disagree, we talk ourselves into falling in line with everyone else.

Certain deviations from the universal norm are accepted, and we all proudly declare some of those deviations as proof that we're unique, thoughtful people. For instance: I'd pick George Michael over Michael Jackson. I love Shakespeare, but can't stand Dickens. I don't get America's fascination with Emilia Clarke. Like, I understand that she's pretty and got nekkid on a popular TV show, but she's certainly no more pretty or nekkid than any number of other actresses who weren't named the Sexiest Woman Alive by Esquire.

But most of all, I don't understand what warped evolutionary process led to my favorite regular-season NBA stat line coming in this game, from one of its least skilled and least known players.

In that unimportant January game, Furkan Aldemir played 19 minutes off the bench and pulled down 10 rebounds, and did so not only without scoring a point, but did so without even attempting a shot.

Since the 1985-86 season, only 20 times has a reserve reached double-digit rebounds without attempting a field goal. Half of those games were either Reggie Evans or Dennis Rodman. Four of the non-Evans, non-Rodman players scored a point from the foul line. Of the remaining six, only Chuck Hayes did so in fewer minutes, and even he added two steals and three assists, to Aldemir's zero steals and one assist.

In basketball, the sole worthwhile objects are to score points and prevent your opponents from doing the same. That is the telos, the species-being, of a basketball player. Every evolution of the past 100 years in basketball strategy has been in service of those two goals, and we justly reward the great scorers, the great playmakers, the great defenders. People who do those things well have the physical gifts, the intelligence, the skill that we so reward.

Those things--athleticism, strength, intelligence, skill--are prima facie evolutionary advantages. We value them in basketball not only because they're important for winning, but because they're the same things that, 20,000 years ago, would have been useful in a tribal chief or a mate, and the same people who are good at basketball now would've been good at finding shelter and hunting mammoths.

Rebounding occupies a strange interstitial space in basketball. While it does require intelligence and athleticism, so much of it involves being big and near the basket above all else. And while rebounding--which is, at its basest level, gaining possession while denying it to the opponent--is a critical part of playing basketball successfully, it is not itself a strictly offensive or defensive act, and is therefore not glorious.

What I love about that game is that Aldemir rejected the impulse to score, or even to play a significant role in the offense. He saw what we value, what we view as an aesthetic and evolutionary good, and went completely in the other direction. Some people--notably Evans and Rodman--can carve out a career doing this, and so rebounding at the expense of all else is sometimes glorified. But Evans didn't have the necessary skills to do much else, and Rodman is perhaps the most notorious noncomformist in the history of the sport. They had their reasons, and history validated them.

Not so Aldemir. He wasn't some battle-hardened veteran, but rather a 23-year-old rookie in only his seventh NBA game. Aldemir showed up in the NBA and immediately denied his evolutionary programming. He looked at the thing that gets you money and headlines and women, and told it, without a second thought, to go fuck itself. What a statement to make, and yet appropriate for a gangly Turk with a bad haircut and armpit hair for miles, cast in competition among such godlike men as usually play in the NBA.

And so, on that frigid Monday in Philadelphia, this completely inconsequential man stood as an island, a nearly invisible and yet completely iconoclastic force, pushing back, however feebly, against the forces of evolution. That night was perfection, and for it, Furkan Aldemir, whose Sixers career lasted all of 41 games, will always occupy a special place in my heart.

But The Process is unsentimental, and there is, we learned today, no place in it for a walking, talking, rebounding rebuke to the form of humanity we're all conditioned to aspire to possess. For reasons I can't completely understand or express, my enjoyment of the Sixers will be poorer for it.

There is an evolutionary advantage to love. There is no evolutionary advantage to the soul.