A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

The Persuasiveness of the Shot Fake

Matthew Newcomb, SUNY New Paltz

Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/shot-fake (Published: February 12, 2016)

Few things are more immediately persuasive than a good shot fake. When Michael Jordan is driving towards the basket with the ball, when NBA player Andrea Bargnani catches the ball ten-feet from the hoop, or when that short kid at the park snatches a pass at the three-point line, one of the most regular things they will do next is abruptly move the ball up in a shooting motion, perhaps rising onto their toes a bit, then bring the ball back down for the next move. The shot fake, of course, is only one of an array of fakes, feints, and other deceptive tactics. That deceptiveness could lead one to think of the shot fake anti-rhetorical. According to this viewpoint, this movement is a trick since the defender who responds to the fake shot takes an action that he or she ultimately does not want to do. The fake uses mimicry of the real shot, even if a fake, like a description, might be beautiful. If rhetoric is “the art of enchanting the soul,” as Plato suggests, then the shot fake is a parlor trick to create motion and mere cookery in relation to it, and certainly no civic benefit will come of it. In fact, maybe the shot fake is precisely the sort of sophistry Socrates claimed to abhor, where one can persuade someone else to move one way or another at will, with no question of truth involved.

While such perspective on the shot fake is understandable, I argue that the shot fake is fundamentally rhetorical. It is one individual taking action to cause a particular change in movement in another. For the split second that a defender falls for the fake, the person is doing exactly what he or she thought best at that moment based on the message being gestured by the ball-handler. That feeling goes away once the shot is recognized to be a fake, but the movements of the fake shot, which I discuss in detail later, can be read in the context of a basketball game as a persuasive action—which the defender should then impede, however possible, within the rules. Of course, and here we come to the main concern of this reflection on the shot fake, all of this happens through bodily motion. Even as I exhibit how the shot fake is dependent on prior and emergent discourses, the shot fake is a bodily, material rhetoric that has no immediate role as conventional language, written or spoken, when enacted during a game. The persuasiveness of the fake is not simply a matter of quickly reading actions; it is a direct physical response to movement. With the fake shot, there is little time for a conscious thought-process. If the fake is good enough, the defender’s leap to block or alter a shot is immediate, allowing that kid at the park to dribble past, Bargnani to step left and bank the ball in, or Michael Jordan to do whatever his imagination feels like doing next. The fake shot does not just have immediate consequences, however. Despite the seeming privacy of the shot fake, the huge popularity of basketball as a participant game and its significant attention as a massively mediated and widely broadcast spectator sport creates circles of possible broader impact and import for these small moments of persuasive action. When one considers the rioting after the 1992 Chicago Bulls NBA Championship victory, to take just one case, a number of fake shots and other moments of similar bodily and material rhetorics were at least partially catalytic in causing everything from cheering and analytic conversations in the crowd in the arena, to comments toward the television and friends in a viewing audience, to the taking to the streets that sometimes accompanies a societally-valued victory in a major sporting contest. The fake shot, we could say then, is rhetorically effective in both the short and long term.

The shot fake, as I aim to show in this article, should also be understood as a dynamic event. It is an act of material rhetoric constituted by impressions, bodies, and basketballs that takes place in a fluid game in which objects and bodies are continually moving and responding to each other. Debra Hawhee’s work with Kenneth Burke identifies continuous motion and specific action as not that far apart from each other (Moving Bodies). She notes that “a focus on the body as more than just the obverse of the mind can enable a productive theoretical move to the thought-work of rhythm, energy, material, and movement” (2). Hawhee specifically discusses Kenneth Burke’s approach to motion as an issue of agency, where similar motions can have differing motives and differing levels of agency (123). Attitude, in Hawhee’s reading of Burke, is an ambiguous term that refers to mental attitudes and bodily attitudes. The body is expressive and can work on the border between action-that-signifies and motion-that-does not (122-24). This motion/action relationship complicates socially constructed attitudes about the body in that it values motion as a form of change that moves others in the emotional or inspirational sense (166). The shot fake, I argue, should be understood as just this influential kind of motion/action.

To further explain the gesture of the shot fake and how it functions as a persuasive action that changes possibilities for further actions, I start by offering an overview of the shot fake. I then oscillate between describing different shot fakes and discussing their work in terms of gesture and material rhetoric. To deepen our understanding how shot fakes work, I also touch on the role of shot fakes in coaching manuals and work through more examples of specific shot fakes. Such rich description is important for understanding the science behind the fake shot as well as exploring this rhetorical action’s relation to the flow of language and movement. Ultimately, in foregrounding the material aspects of the fake shot, I demonstrate how this gesture is a dynamic rhetorical act that changes the possibilities for action around it. Such work with the fake shot, I hope, will open up the opportunity to study other physical actions in sports and games as rhetorical in both their immediate and larger contexts, even suggesting an eventual rhetorical wisdom of the body.

Fakes and the Body

In this article, a rhetorical action is considered any oral, written, or physical movement that changes the future possibilities for actions, including but not limited to bodily movements and conversations. A gesture like the shot fake is a discrete rhetorical movement taking place within the flow of moves that is intended to alter the possibilities of upcoming motion. As evident in the array of consequences that occurs in response to a good fake—from the defender jumping into the air to a distant offensive teammate getting open, the shot fake is a disruption in the flow of movement that causes particular changes not only in the defender’s actions but also for the game as a whole. This gesture is not an addendum to spoken words but is rather a bodily, non-linguistic attempt to alter the always-moving context of the basketball game.

In analyzing how a shot fake might move a defender through bodily persuasion, we can see how the shot fake is tied to questions of direction, attention, momentum, position, and potentialities. I mentioned the Italian-born NBA player Bargnani as an example earlier because despite his relative obscurity as a player, he has a rather convincing fake shot. In fact, according to one instruction video, Andrea Bargnani has the “Best Shot Fake in the World.” One key aspect to the quality of Bargnani’s fake, which nearly fooled me even though I knew it was coming when watching a video of it, is how he raises both heels off the ground during the faking motion (Julius). It is one thing to pump the ball up and down with your arms, but using the knees and feet is a real commitment and lifting the feet is a real risk. If Bargnani, or anyone else, goes too far and gets both feet off the ground, the referee will call a traveling violation and give the ball to the other team; referees can fall for fakes too. But the variety of body parts potentially involved in a fake are extensive. Former UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden covers some of those parts in one of his many coaching texts, saying, "Head and shoulder fakes are better than ball fakes to set your man up for your initial move to get away from the defense. However, we do work on ball fakes with quick movement of the ball by the wrists and fingers while keeping the elbows in contact with the body" (Practical 131). Here the minutiae of bodily parts nearest the ball are of particular importance, but the head and shoulders matter too. Wooden goes on to justify the time spent with fakes, stating it as a persuasive activity central to basketball. He observes, "The ability to make your opponent commit himself by making him think that you are going to do one thing and then doing something differently is one of the most important fundamentals of the game" (141). The goal is convincing the other side to limit themselves to one path in conjunction with keeping your own options open. Once the defender responds, then the shooter can in turn respond and make the necessary move toward the basket.

Consider how Bargnani persuades his defender in his famous fake shot as demonstrated on video. First, Bargnani takes a small, quick step forward with his right foot before the fake proper commences. This small gesture sets the defender up to think that a shot is coming next. When the defender’s expectation is then met by Bargnani gesturing a shooting motion, it is easy to be persuaded to jump not only because Bargnani’s faking motion is quite consistent with his actual shooting motions but also it uses all levels of the body to persuades his defenders that a certain shot is coming. Bargnani’s heels lift up as he goes onto his toes, nearing a jump and showing a meaningful level of commitment to the shot. If his feet move only slightly further, Bargnani would have no more ground to push off of to control his body; yet, he goes just far enough to be able to pause. To fake out his defender, Bargnani also bends his knees, which is typically where the main power for a shot would come from. Bargnani also holds the ball in a shooting position, with the orb resting on the fingerpads of his right hand. His elbows are underneath, and his left hand is positioned somewhat to the side on the ball, to keep it aligned. The entire arm-and-ball arrangement rises above Bargnani’s head, stopping just before momentum would carry the ball out of his hands. His head, as well, moves up, with his eyes focused on the basket, indicating an attentional commitment to shooting the ball rather than passing or taking some other action. Those other options, of course, are necessary for the fake, as it indicates one movement as opposed to other movements that are available, such as passing to any of his four teammates, driving the ball left, driving the ball right, backing away, or shooting in a different manner. While the individual, physical movements are vital to the fake, then, the set of them taken as a whole matters too.

In their work on the neuroscience of movement and vision, Michael Land and Benjamin Tatler explain, “In humans the eyeball is supported and moved by six muscles. The same six muscles are present in lampreys, relatives of the earliest jawless fish from the Ordovician (450 M[illion] years ago), so the design has a history as old as vertebrate vision” (15). They describe the use of a “gaze system to locate object[s], the motor system to operate on them, and the visual system to supply the information that makes this possible” and then reflect on the need for a control system of some sort to “both select the next task to be performed and inform the other three systems of their respective duties: where to look, what to do, and what to look for” (4-5). This is a version of attention-based rhetorical work in which one can attempt to influence that control system with a shot fake or other means, inducing a defender to locate the ball, jump up toward the ball, and continue centering visual work on the ball. Land and Tatler address three main categories of eye movement: “saccades,” where the eye jumps from looking at one point to another; “smooth pursuit,” where the eye evenly follows a moving object; and “stabilized fixation,” where the eye is fixed on a moving object while the person looking is in motion (13). In terms of these categories, the shot fake can be understood as an attempt to move the defender from smooth pursuit of the ball and ball-handler visually into a saccade, or even a false saccade. In extreme fakes, the ball-handler attempts to get the defender’s eyes to make a jump from the ball-in-hands point to a higher point where the ball would be if it were released.

In addition, players like Bargnani try to convince the defender to rise up just enough to give the ball-handler time to move right or left and take a more open shot. The defender is often roughly mirroring the ball-handler in an attempt to prevent the body or the ball from getting closer to and ultimately in the basket, although there are situations where moving further from the basket is advantageous as well. In doing so, the defender is usually a fraction behind the movements of the potential scorer, so anticipatory shortcuts are vital to making up that time. When Bargnani’s pre-fake step sets an expectation of a coming shot, the defender has to be particularly disciplined to not jump (literally) at the full shot fake. Discipline is how refraining from jumping at a fake is regularly referred; the quick decision-making processes of defenders use sensory input and prior experiences of fakes to keep their legs, arms, and torso from taking the action they instinctively want to make.1 The body wants to jump at a good fake before there is time to fully think about it, so the brain/mind has to prepare it beforehand to resist the persuasive actions of the ball-handler. Disciplining, in this context, is based on the belief that defenders can be pre-primed to resist some forms of persuasion, despite the powerful pre-rational bodily response the person’s muscles apparently want to do. In fact, one can learn particular body parts to focus on, like the hips, to avoid being moved by the whim of the ball-faker. As the Shakira song says, “Hips Don’t Lie,” and this is often most true in sport. The foot, head, arm, or even torso can point one direction and the body as a whole move a different direction, but it is particularly difficult to move with any significant acceleration or speed away from what would be forward relative to the hips. Significant practice reading the hips, and other major muscle areas, can build a sort of resistance to the rhetorical wiles of fakes and feints.

Ball-handlers hope, of course, that defenders will not be disciplined enough to resist their fake shots. They count on defenders interpreting their moves as a shot and responding before full reflection and realization is possible. The defender’s response, while quick and intuitive, can involve elements of conscious thought, like, “she’s shooting the ball.” In contrast to putting the body into language, a Chronicle of Higher Education article explores how we understand language in bodily ways. Parts of the brain related to motor control lights up when we think about an action (Chorost). The defender’s quick interpretation of the ball-handler’s actions, then, has a direct effect on how the defender will respond. Interpreting a movement as a shot rather than a drive then matters to how a defender will respond. Yet, even though many defenders will interpret the correct gesture, the ball-handler hopes the defenders will realize a move is a fake a little too late, even if they try to adjust. Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert and his co-authors studied the ways in which someone changes his or her mind after making a decision. They noted that changes can happen even after an initial start to movement. Decisions, they note, can be reversed and adjusted as additional information comes in and as enough time elapses for rapid conscious reflection on data to occur. But they found that the greater effort in motor movement required with a changed plan, the greater the level of “evidence required for changes of mind and a reduced time period of integration after the initial decision” (Burk 1). A shot-faker’s goal then is to make the defender commit as strongly and quickly as possible to the movements associated with blocking or altering a shot. To trigger such commitment, the ball-handler must withhold evidence that would create a change in the defender’s decision for as long as possible, making it harder and harder for a change to happen. By the time the evidence of the fake is overwhelming enough for the defender to make the quick decision to alter the movement, the ball-handler hopes it will be too late.

Gestures, Hands, and Fakes

To better understand how the fake shot functions rhetorically, it’s important to more directly consider theories of gesture. Wooden writes that the point of a shot fake, or fake in general in basketball, is to “make the opponent think you intend to do one thing” (Practical Modern, 169). He goes on, but the point to pause on here is the idea of making someone think. Making someone do something implies a sort of force or necessity that eliminates the possibility of choice for that person, which could ultimately be seen as a sort of coercion, even violence. But Wooden’s explanation of the shot fake implies that the person gets some sort of momentary reflection, and at least hints at the possibility of not responding to a fake, even if the defender was somehow deceived. Using different terminology, infamous coach Bob Knight regularly extols the virtues of the shot fake with the notion that it is there to “create” something—usually a better opportunity to score (The Essentials of Coaching Basketball). If the shot fake is creating new possibilities for action, we can consider it to be a positive rhetorical action, in which the classical and agonistic focus on persuasion, or moving the audience/opponent, is left behind for a more inventive and expansive rhetoric that pushes toward future potential circumstances. Such rhetorical notions of the fake shot are dependent, though, on understanding how bodily gestures function to move people to action.

The gesture is frequently understood in rhetorical circles as a movement for emphasis, either as an addition to a discursive message or as an act of communication all on its own. In either case, however, the gesture is often considered secondary, as the body is secondary to the mind in a good logical argument. First published in 1644, John Bulwer’s Chirologia: or the Natural Language of the Hand, and Chironomia: or the Art of Manual Rhetoric, for instance, notes the value of gestures to go beyond words and “further disclose the present humor and state of the mind and will; for as the tongue speaketh to the ear, so gesture speaketh to the eye” (5). For Bulwer, the gesture is another form of communication, working in the visual and anatomical realms, showing something of the wishes of the gesturer. But according to Bulwer, gesture remains in the realm of speech. The gesture metaphorically speaks. Similarly to Bulwer, Dorota Dutsch looks at Quintilian and, in noting how Quintilian emphasizes the natural and grammatical elements of gesture, emphasizes how gesture is like language that can both add to and work in place of spoken language (259-60). In addition to being language-like, gesture is also commonly treated as a part of delivery, in that, as with the study of elocution, scholars point to how the body can be made “intelligible and manipulable” in communicating particular ideas (Spoel 23). That intelligibility can arrive through distinct speech with clarifying motion. However, as Dana Harrington argues, eighteenth-century elocution should be understood in the light of taste and imagination. The shot fake as a gesture requires imagination of possible futures in order to be used effectively. To fully understand how the shot fake rhetorically functions, we cannot think of gesture as merely an unimaginative part of a delivery or as secondary to voice or oral language. Gestures like the shot fake are inventive, arranged, even stylized; they are creative rhetorical acts in their own rights.

David McNeill’s theories of gesture are useful in understanding how fake shots function as persuasive gestures. McNeill sets up “gestures as active participants in speaking and thinking. They are conceived of as ingredients in an imagery-language dialectic that fuels speech and thought” (Gesture 3). Therefore, at first glance, his work with gesture may not seem perfectly suited to help us understand fake shots. However, McNeill’s work with the stylized nature of gestures can help show the possibilities for the creativity and even, one could say, rhetorical invention in the hands of the shot faker. McNeill writes "Indeed, the important thing about gestures is that they are not fixed. They are free and reveal the idiosyncratic imagery of thought" (1). He acknowledges how gestures are often intertwined with spoken language in one activity or system. However, he notes, when movement is primary to gestures that are not accompanied by spoken language, such as with pantomimes, then gesture can reflect the imagined possibilities of thought. In fact, the shot fake begins a story of sorts, similar to McNeill’s category of the pantomime (see Hand), but the shot fake replaces a different action (a shot) rather than replacing words. During the shot fake, the creative basketball player visualizes how a certain gesture can affect others in the same space, which suggests an ability to imagine the future arrangements and flows of that space. The creative player visualizes a flow of consequences and uses a gesture—as a mental image in action—to intervene and change the scene.

In addition to theories of gesture, theories of the hand in rhetorical studies can also be informative when it comes to the shot fake. Donald Bushman, for instance, gives particular attention to Ann Berthoff’s The Making of Meaning and notes how in that text composing is analogous to forming and how the hand-in-action can be understood as knowing (254). Bushman also considers George Herbert Mead’s understanding of all social activity as a series of gestures, whether in language or physical movement. Bushman is particularly interested in the high level of intellectual and attention investment implied by Mead’s use of hand terminology. While he is particularly interested in classrooms, his scholarship helps us understand how the actual work of the hand (as opposed to the “idea of the hand”) is a form of shaping others and knowing—at least knowing what to do in a particular moment. For Mead, Bushman notes, the hand knows through physical contact; it can convey rhetorical power even in a variety of gestures (254). Such theory is especially useful in pushing the bodily, material gesture to the fore as its own, self-sufficient rhetorical act. The shot fake, with its uniquely positioned hands on the ball in conjunction with other bodily movements, directly indicates that one action will be taken out of a spectrum of possible actions (like passing to a teammate, dribbling the ball, taking a shot, or tripping over one’s own feet). And in doing so, it becomes a gesture to move another to take specific actions as well (such as jumping, shuffling to one side, or reaching for the ball). Meaning here is often confusing to the defender, but it is this confusion that the ball-handler takes advantage of as the shot fake pretends to be an intended action (the shot) when it actually functions more as a persuasive gesture (the fake) to be followed by the “real” action when the defender moves out of position.

Even hand anatomy matters in setting options for movements. Michael Jordan is noted, among other more known basketball feats, for the size of his hands. His long-time coach Phil Jackson, in fact, has observed that a meaningful portion of Jordan’s success comes from his hand size. In Jackson’s memoir Eleven Rings he explains, when comparing Jordan to Kobe Bryant, another star player, that Jordan “ had large hands that allowed him to control the ball better and make subtle fakes” (284). At a spread of 11.375 inches, Jordan’s hands can work further around the ball than many players, allowing a sense of connectedness with the ball beyond the norm. Jordan’s “subtle fakes” are possible when the hand and ball work more as a unit. With the ball as the ultimate center of attention in a basketball game, the ball-handler who can act as a single unit with the ball has an advantage. In fact, the term ball-handler itself should not be overlooked. There are typically guards, forwards, and centers, who play particular positions and roles on the court; there are players, coaches, referees, and fans, who are part of the event in various ways; but participants can also be defined by particular abilities, including ball-handlers, a term which can be defined in two ways. Some are considered ball-handlers because of their skill in dribbling, passing, and moving with the ball. They can seemingly move even better with the ball than without it, and use the ball regularly to shape the directions others go in. Typically, these ball-handlers regularly dribble the ball up the court and start the offense; they are the ones the rest of the team gives the ball to for safety and control. However, for a second, simpler definition, the term ball-handler applies simply to a player who has changed in state of being from not-having-the-ball to having-the-ball. The rules for movement change around this individual, and the person’s relative importance at the moment increases as well—at least in terms of the game. The ball-handler is, in many senses, a single thing that emphasizes the conjunction of ball and hand.

To be more specific, the conjunction is between ball and finger pads in most cases. Gray’s Anatomy for Students notes that the pad of the thumb is at a ninety degree angle to the rest of the fingers (and their pads), preparing them to work together spatially and making the opposable thumb vital, of course, to connecting with the ball. Those fingerprints on the pads are not just for catching thieves and featuring on crime dramas, the whorls and ridges provide friction and traction for the finger pads against other surfaces. The papillary ridges on the fingers meet with the rough bumps from the leather, rubber, or other substance making the surface of the basketball.

This hand and ball connection is vital in a game full of improvisation. In David Sudnow’s fascinating exploration of his hands, eyes, and mind as he learned to play improvised jazz piano, he explores the way his relationship to his own hands changed as his skills grew. They could be both familiar and foreign at once; they could be part of the “terrain of the keyboard,” which he initially had to watch closely. Later the looks at his own hands could be more inventive, or he would visualize “pathways” for them to take (x-xi). He calls his text a description of “the knowing ways of the jazz body [. . .] on the way toward the closer study of the human body and its works” (xii). The body’s ways of learning and preparing to improvise and adjust on its own are not foreign to basketball with its tendency toward rapidly flowing and changing play. Neil Isaacs describes basketball as “basically a continuous-action sport,” similar to soccer, unlike discrete event games like baseball and football (17). There is a clock and stoppages in official games, but mostly players have to adjust on the go. In the terrain of the basketball court, just the single move of the shot fake implies a body-ball combination acting to persuade other actors in the game in the continual rearranging of bodies on the court. In fact, the shot fake reminds the viewer that the terrain here is not just a flat surface, but that verticality for bodies and movement is central, not just for reaching the basket with the ball, but for moving others up into a position of height without body control. The shot fake becomes a bodily gesture, not to accompany words or emphasize a point, but to act on its own to move others without physical contact. In an idealized form, this fake gesture is like a powerful and imaginative speaker who can create new sets of real possibilities in the world by what is said.

Among his many moves, Michael Jordan has a particularly distinctive shot fake, finishing with only the fingers of one hand on the ball as it seems to launch toward the basket, only to be abruptly arrested by his grip. In one case, late in his career when he was playing for the Washington Wizards, Jordan made a three-point-shot from the left side, with a defender jumping out toward him with a hand up. A couple of possessions later, against a different defender from the Boston Celtics, he caught the ball in the same position and started the same shot, with a defender jumping at him with a hand extended. This time, however, Jordan held the ball just before it left his fingers, which caused the leaping defender, one Eric Williams, to become momentarily confused as to the location of the ball. Jordan had swung the ball back, extended with his right hand behind his own back, so Jordan’s body was in the way for Williams to see the ball at first. Yet, Jordan made no particular move next; instead, he made a short dribble and a simple pass to his right to start the offense’s motion over.

Interestingly, the shot fake had no immediate effect for creating a scoring opportunity, yet it had a number of potentially significant consequences and certainly caused numerous bodily actions. Beyond the jumping and confusion for poor Eric Williams, the crowd reacted with rising volume and excitement, even though the game was being played in Boston. There was laughter, chatter, and clapping for the skill and effectiveness of the move itself, even though it led to nothing particular in the game. This could be just appreciation, but the laughter stands out. The announcers both laughed heartily and immediately too, with one, a former player, eventually noting that Jordan had done the same thing to him too (youutoobe). These audiences are secondary to the defender, but serve as reminders that these body-to-body moments of persuasion can have additional effects on the material environment. That laughter has the potential to encourage further similar fakes, or to create a slight tentativeness in the defender, trying to not be moved again.

The laughter shows a playful aspect of the game, with a harmless fooling of another player. At the same time, the trick and the laughter shows an element of power here. Jordan makes a player jump, look foolish, and then does nothing about it, implying the arrogance of one who has enough power that he does not need to do anything. This shot fake was not utilized to create some new possibility right away, it was used to create questions, doubt, and a little less confidence in decision making on the part of the defense. Creating laughter and movement gave Jordan more control of the game as a whole—including the opposing crowd—even if his move did not lead to immediate points. His rhetorical move had wider ramifications and persuaded many more bodies to respond first and then reflect than just the one defender.

The shot fake is one physical movement linked to the whole setting and the complex arrangement of other movements in a basketball game, and as the Jordan case points out, it is linked to factors outside the court. Thomas Rickert theorizes rhetoric as something always present in the environments in which we live. He attempts to summarize his claims, stating, “I am claiming that rhetoricity is the always ongoing disclosure of the world shifting our manner of being in that world so as to call for some response or action” (xii). While this reflection on the shot fake insists on the fake itself as a gestural rhetorical action and does not invest a great deal of attention on other factors, the shot fake itself is a collection of small moves and impressions by individual muscles. The motion of a shot fake travels through the eyes, influences players’ ever-adjusting interpretations of the game, and is a specific intervention in the regular shifting of manners of being in the world. The shot fake depends on the ball-hander’s gestures, even the comical in Jordan’s case, but as the next section will make even clearer, the shot fake is also dependent on a ball-handler’s material environment.

Materiality, Bodies, and Game Flow

While theories of gesture help us understand how shot fakes are dependent on a ball-handler’s imagination, hands-on ways of knowing, and sometimes actual hand size, theories of material rhetoric are instructive of how shot fakes are related to the materiality of discourse, other bodies, historical knowledges, and game flow. Debra Hawhee explores rhetoric and athletics together in ancient Greece to move toward a "convergence of athletics and rhetoric" as "bodily arts" (Bodily, 4). Hawhee delves into the connections between honor earned by athletic performance and honor garnered through rhetorical representations of the performance. Here, the bodily and the rhetorical remain intermingled and often co-productive of the self (Bodily, 172-73). Such exploration of shot fakes emphasizes the visible body as rhetorical on its own, yet it also draws attention to the fact that the elements of language and thought can never be fully separated from the fake, as the bodily actions of both ball-handler and defender are interpreted within discursive contexts, whether that language is the rules of the game, a scouting report on the tendencies of a player, or simply similar past experiences. Each new athletic movement (shots taken, shots faked, passes made, etc.) made by a ball-handler becomes part of the data or material to be used for a future move or game. As evident in coaching manuals (Ruby, VanDerveer, Wooden and Nater), discourse shapes a defender’s expectations for what the player with the ball will do next, then the new action and response can adjust those expectations over and over.

Material rhetorics, perhaps even more importantly, also tune us into the role of other bodies in the encounter of the shot fake, particularly how the defender’s body is ready to be influenced in a variety of ways. Diane Davis argues that a prior openness to others is required for entities to have real effects on each other (3). She shifts the focus of rhetoric, stating, "the goal is to expose an originary (or preoriginary) rhetoricity—an affectability or persuadability—that is the condition for symbolic action" (2). This symbolic action can be entirely bodily, albeit within a wider context that includes language (like the rules of the game). Here the symbolism of bodily movements and physical actions are primary for influencing the game in the immediacy of the game. The players may speak to each other, and certainly coaches give instructions, but in the course of play, these language elements tend to move to the background. The shot fake is one example of this inversion of traditional rhetoric, away from the material as backdrop or context for the linguistic and towards language as a backdrop for bodily influences. Rickert asserts, “Rhetoric accomplishes its work by inducing us to shift, at least potentially, how we dwell or see ourselves dwelling in the world. Rhetoric does not just change [our] subjective state of mind; it transforms our fundamental disposition concerning how we are in the world, how we dwell” (xiii). A move like the shot fake takes a general version of Rickert’s work about a disposition or how one dwells and makes it evident how bodies experience physical states or ways of being in which language is not at the forefront of action.

A defender’s historical knowledge of a ball-handler makes it clear, in one sense, why language can move to the background in a basketball game. Katie Smith serves as a standout case in this regard. Smith is the all-time leader in three-pointers made in the WNBA, meaning that she is an impressive outside shooter. Given this information, anyone defending her is likely to be guarding her quite closely, even relatively far from the basket compared to other players. Also, it means that she is a threat to shoot the ball pretty much any time she touches it, making the defender more ready to respond to any motion that looks like a shot. One can also add her tendency to catch the ball and shoot it right away, rather than dribbling or driving toward the basket as much as some other players. Such prior knowledge about Smith (a scouting report in sports terminology) encourages close defense and influences how an opposing team will engage with her on the court. Such engagement directly influences how a shot fake will unfold during a particular game. For as much as the knowledge of the ball-handler influences how a shot fake will be enacted, we cannot neglect how other bodies all work together to shape the possibilities for its enactment.

To explore how the material bodies came into play in one particular fake, consider one of Smith’s final games as a WNBA player. Playing for the New York Liberty against the Phoenix Mercury, Smith caught the ball on the right side of the court, facing the basket, about twenty-five feet away from it (WNBA, see 0:51 to 0:59).

Phoenix defender Briana Gilbreat guarded her from several feet back—given Smith’s distance from the basket—and a bit to Smith’s left in order to force her toward the corner of the court rather than toward a typically more dangerous middle position. Already the locations of bodies serve as actions to influence each other’s movements and flows. Smith’s teammates are well spread out with significant space, making room for cuts and passes. The teammate to Smith’s immediate left, starting straight out from the basket, next makes a diagonal run towards Gilbreath, setting a screen (a physical barrier) on the defender’s side, in order to improve Smith’s ability to dribble freely to her left toward the middle of the court.

The above movements happen in under two seconds, and they serve to change the flow of game and to influence next steps by other participants. To turn back to Smith, she takes advantage of the screen set on her defender and moves to the left, dribbling the ball toward the center of the court and closer to the basket. In doing so, she has to go around another defender, the one who was guarding Smith’s teammate who set the screen. This is a larger, slower player than Smith, so Smith has the advantage when quick movements further from the basket are required. In fact, much of the point of the screen was to create a mismatch or a disparity in bodies and their movement abilities, which would increase the options for moves for the offense to make, including a fake shot.

Smith dribbles to the free throw line, fifteen feet straight out from the basket, which is a location where she is quite likely to take and make a shot. She stops dribbling there, which limits her ability to legally take any more steps; however, this stop also signals that she is about to shoot or pass the ball. As Smith is getting to the free throw line, her teammate that set a screen for her spins off of Gilbreath and moves toward the basket awaiting a pass. This is a standard basketball move called a “pick and roll.” The roll by the screener toward the basket causes (persuades) the taller defender to move away from Smith to cut off a pass there. Gilbreath hustles back to try to stop Smith’s shot at the free throw line. However, now the defender is behind Smith, out of position, and running in a way that will limit her body control. Smith likely recognizes Gilbreath’s location, which could interfere with an immediate shot, but also makes her susceptible to a shot fake.

After all these small exchanges between bodies and response to movements, Smith indeed makes her fake. Hers is less about head movement, since her eyes are already up and looking at the basket. She lifts her arms and shoulders with the ball, her back straightens slightly, and her right foot comes off the ground as if she is going to jump up. Her left heel even rises slightly to add to the sense of jumping. Gilbreath jumps and reaches for the shot that doesn’t happen, and her momentum carries her in front of Smith and out of the way with no chance for immediate recovery. Smith pulls the ball away from the reach of the passing Gilbreath, then actually takes a more open shot, which she makes. Along with the knowledge players have about each other, every move preceding the shot fake is part of the flow leading to that move and out of that move. Of course, one could focus on many of the other movements as well, but the players involved are all already in a position of persuadability when Smith goes for the shot fake; in fact, the physical movements and unfolding spatial arrangements of the other players make possible the condition for her fake shot. As much as the shot fake is dependent on the ball-handlers’ gestures, then, they are dependent on the materiality of other bodies in motion, including their prior knowledges of a ball-handler and game play experiences.


A good shot fake can indicate a wise body. In fact, Wooden indicates how the wise gesture of the shot fake is a key “fundamental” of basketball, one of the chief forms of bodily persuasion in the game (Practical Modern, 142).The coupling of wisdom with the shot fake reinforces a sense of its rhetoricity. One must not only execute the fake well but also have good judgment about when and how to use it. These judgments may have to be so fast as to seem more bodily or intuitive than intentional conscious thought, but theories of the hand help point to how ways of ball-handling are always a matter of knowing and meaning making. In the more singular focus on the shot fake, I have tried to show how the shot fake functions as gestural persuasion, as an action intended to create action in others—taking bodies out of the seemingly usual flow of motion. In such cases of game play, the shot fake is informed by discourses that both precede and emerge from game play, as Hawhee’s work with bodily arts has helped us understand. But, as I have also tried to make clear by drawing on material rhetoric, when in play, language becomes a backdrop for the specific movements between bodies. In fact, language often works as the context for the physical action, reversing the notion of a material setting for rhetorical action in language. In this way, a sports move like the shot fake functions as a persuasive action that responds to a flow of movement and spatial arrangements and creates moments where wisdom and judgment in bodily ways are called for to determine the next actions. The shot fake is an intervention that ends up getting attention when it causes changes in others and is usually disregarded when it does not. In either case, it works to catalyze future possibilities.

My hope with this study is to encourage rhetorical studies to pay more attention to rhetorical moves made in sports in order to deepen our understanding of bodily rhetorics. Moves like the shot fake are important rhetorical acts that impact not only a player and a game but also spill out to impact an audience and the sport as a whole. Basketball is a game of flow and continuous motion, and the shot fake is one of many particular actions that cannot be identified and analyzed outside of such motion. The motion is constituted of many actions, some of which are consciously determined, many that are not, and others that are somewhere in between, each affecting the overall pattern of movement and the decisions about where to move next for each of the other participants. Those decisions stretch out further, as changes in the players’ motions alter where spectators look, how they interact with the players, where cameras might be directed, and what coaches and commentators might later say both in coaching manuals and in mass media. If we tune into the material complexity of such moves, we will begin to see how bodily rhetorics functions in all kinds of ways that we have previously neglected to notice.

[Image Credit: "Basketball" by Jan Zimmerli]


  • 1. As Thomas Bayes’ decision theory helps us understand, when making a decision, “a belief is measured between 0, no confidence in the belief at all, and 1, complete trust in the belief. Two sources of information are compared to find the probability of one result given another. In the science of movement, these two sources are data, in the form of sensory input, and knowledge, in the form of prior memories learned from your experiences.” (Peterson).
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