This is my nerdiest post yet, combining basketball, Japanese manga meta-analysis, and Bill Simmons. After the jump, I try and pick a winner of a hypothetical match between two fictional basketball teams: Shohoku High School (Slam Dunk) and Seirin High School (Kuroko's Basketball).
Some background before the background: like most fans of sports journalism, I have a love-hate relationship with Bill Simmons. I adore his basketball lexicon and game descriptions and I can't stand his Boston homersexuality; I love his wordplay and reader mailbags and hate his intellectual elitism; I alternately love and hate his obscure pop culture references. I bought his 800+ page basketball book last year and read it cover to cover. It made me a born-again fan of "lost greats" like Bernard King and Bobby Dandridge, made Dave Cowens my favorite Celtic (before it was Bird by default, who's still awesome), and reaffirmed my great admiration for Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, and David Robinson (my favorite non-Jordan stars of the 90s). Good on you, Bill Simmons.
My favorite Simmons pieces are his Dr. Jack Breakdowns. Dr. Jack Ramsay is a legendary basketball coach whose career highlights were the 1977 and 1978 Portland Trail Blazers. Ramsay was well-known among journalists for his detailed pro/con explanations when he was analyzing a team or player. In his own Breakdowns, Simmons pits two similar people, teams, TV shows, or Olympic events against one another and attempts to subjectively and objectively decide which is the superior entity. My favorite Simmons DJB is Carver High vs. Hickory High for its great matchup and interesting analysis; my second favorite is the 1986 Celtics vs. the 2007 Patriots because it's so hilariously easy to mock in hindsight.
So with that out of the way, I'm going to do my very own Dr. Jack Breakdown. Here's the real background: I'm a manga addict that owns dozens of volumes of the stuff and devours sequential art online. My favorite genre of manga is sports manga (!?), because A) I love sports, B) sports is perfect theater for the melodrama, character arcs, and action sequences on which manga thrives, and C) when you combine the over-the-top nature of manga action and superpowered teenagers with sports, awesome shit happens. So which two bodies am I breaking down? Well, I said so earlier: Seirin and Shohoku.
Let's talk about these two stories for a second: Slam Dunk is an enormously popular basketball manga that did wonders for the sport in Japan and is one of the top-selling manga of all time. It has fantastic action and characters and I will defend its greatness to the death - every basketball manga since Slam Dunk is compared to it, and none of them measure up. Slam Dunk's action, characters, phenomenal artwork, and beautiful basketball is an incredibly tough act to follow.
Now Kuroko's Basketball is a different beast entirely. Instead of mimicking the faithful basketball action of Slam Dunk, Kuroko takes basketball to silly extremes. You have characters that shoot 100% on 3-pointers and teams with multiple 6'6" Japanese teenagers dunking dozens of times each game. Kuroko's series' villains all obsess over winning and are evil and/or vindictive to a degree that makes much more sense in a fantasy or thriller story and not a sports series. But hey, I love the basketball craziness and Kuroko is my 2nd-favorite shounen series right now, after One Piece.
These two teams have some interesting similarities: they use a very similar color combination and they're "main character teams" starring two freshman forwards that wear #10 and #11. Let's properly introduce the teams with a few images and then get on to the breakdown!
In red, representing Slam Dunk...
(left to right: Ayako, Miyagi, Rukawa, Akagi, Anzai, Mitsui, Sakuragi, Kogure)
And in white, representing Kuroko's Basketball...
(front row: Kiyoshi, Riko, Kagami [with basketball], Kuroko, Hyuga, Izuki)
(back row: Koga [hand raised], Mitobe)
Handling the point for Shohoku is Ryota Miyagi, a diminutive, nimble waterbug whose incredible agility, sneaky passes, and chip on his shoulder make him one of the best PGs in the series. Seirin's standby at the point is Shun Izuki, a mild-mannered guard with excellent vision and passing. Both are team players that love watching their taller, more scoring-inclined teammates succeed, but Miyagi's weakness (he's a hothead who is easily baited and contained by bigger PGs) is probably a little less grievous than Izuki's (he's can't create his own shot). Ah, who am I kidding, Miyagi would run circles around Izuki. EDGE: SHOHOKU
Shohoku's 2-guard is Hisaishi Mitsui, one of the top-rated middle school players three years prior to the events of Slam Dunk, who was derailed by a knee injury and eventually descended into juvenile delinquency. Mitsui attempts a basketball comeback at the behest of Shohoku's coach and other seniors. A skilled all-around player with stellar shooting form, Mitsui's nearly goddamn automatic from beyond the three-point line. Representing Seirin is Junpei Hyuga, the team's captain, who, like Mitsui, has a knack for threes. Hyuga's calling cards are a quick, reliable step-back jumper and his fierce leadership, and Mitsui's chief calling card is... that he lacks the stamina to last a full forty minutes. They're both clutch, but Mitsui's weakness (that he usually fights through, but still...) is crippling. EDGE: SEIRIN
In our weirdest mismatch in this entire piece, we have Shohoku's ace freshman Kaede Rukawa against Seirin's phantom sixth man Tetsuya Kuroko, formerly of Teikou Middle. Rukawa's and Kuroko's character arcs are strangely opposite. Rukawa is an outrageously talented scorer (he's like an Asian Bernard King circa 1984) who routinely puts the team on his back to win big games, but occasionally acts selfishly and plays 1v5. Kuroko's only real talent is a lack of presence; he never scores and rather plays to make his teammates stronger with trick passes and surprise steals. Or at least for their respective mangas' first halves.
During the final match in Slam Dunk, Rukawa has met his match for the first time ever in Sannoh Tech's Eiji Sawakita (who I'm 90% sure is Slam Dunk's answer to Michael Jordan). Sawakita owns Shohoku for most of the fourth quarter. Rukawa can't beat him defending alone, and eventually (for the first time ever) places faith into his teammates for victory, willingly passing the ball on drives and teaming up with Sakuragi on defense. Kuroko's arc is... stranger. When Seirin loses badly in their first match against Touou High and Daiki Aomine (Kuroko's former teammate and ex-best friend), Kuroko develops unusual driving and shooting techniques in order to contribute to Seirin more directly. Kuroko also creates a Misdirection Overflow technique that temporarily lends all of his teammates Kuroko's misdirection skill, but can only be used once. Yes, it's every bit as retarded as it sounds.
So this is Rukawa's talent against Kuroko's lack of talent, which is a weird comparison. Kuroko's bullshit has contributed directly to every single Seirin win that takes more than two chapters to wrap and Overflow is shenanigans so ridiculous and dirty that I'm surprised The Little Giants never tried it. Kuroko's efforts did lead Seirin to victory against Aomine, whose game resembles that of Rukawa, but does that make Kuroko better than Rukawa? ...of course it fucking doesn't. Rukawa is one of the best players in either series, and Kuroko is the defining gimmick in a story that thrives on really dumb gimmicks. MAJOR EDGE: SHOHOKU
Battle of the big redheads! Shohoku's athletic big is Hanamichi Sakuragi, Slam Dunk's main character. Sakuragi doesn't know what basketball is (seriously) until he asserts to the cute Haruko that he's a basketball genius to try and impress her. The tall Sakuragi then nearly dunks a ball on his first attempt and quickly discovers an aptitude for the sport, improving with every game and alternately frustrating opponents and his own teammates alike. Kagami is also redheaded and talented, but he's a Japanese student that's lived in America prior to the events of Kuroko's Basketball and his development is less learning the basics of basketball and more about taking himself to the limit. Seriously, Kagami has power, hops, and air mastery comparable to Dominique Wilkins.
This isn't as bad a mismatch as you think. With every new game (starting with the Ryonan High rematch in particular) Sakuragi's skills grow dramatically. At times Sakuragi's insane athleticism and instincts have him outplay his teammates in virtually every aspect of the game other than long-range shooting - Sakuragi has key blocks, steals, dunks, short- and medium-range shots, and defensive stops at the end of nearly every game, and he's only been playing for a few months!
Still, this theoretical match only takes place as each team peaks over the course of their story, and while Sakuragi takes a few months to learn how to shoot properly, Kagami takes a few months to learn how to play above the rim and perform monstrous METEOR JAMS over 6'10" centers. We have a talented basketball novice against a talented basketball force of nature that can make lightning come out of his eyes by entering The Zone for massive damage (I wish I was kidding). Sorry, Sakuragi. EDGE: SEIRIN
The two centers are also the two elder statesmen. Shohoku's center is Takenori Akagi, a massive, determined pillar of a man who has teammates that match him in body and mind for the first time in his basketball career. Seirin's center is team founder Teppei Kiyoshi, a skilled big that can play any position (including PG) and whose quick footwork and massive hands allow him to change angle and technique in midair with ease. Akagi (who I think resembles a young David Robinson) is a terror on boards and blocks and is extremely skilled in the low post - he is nearly peerless among Slam Dunk's centers until the final match, where the faster, broader Masashi Kawata of Sannoh Tech gives him fits. Kiyoshi is like a 1986 Kevin McHale - a skilled big that can score with either hand, has dozens of post moves to be an efficient scorer, and possesses the size and strength to power through opponents when he wants or needs to.
This is a classic matchup of power vs. finesse. Akagi would try to muscle through the paint every time, and Kiyoshi's rebounds and defense would thwart him on occasion. Kiyoshi would try to fool Akagi with low-post tricks in the paint, but he won't be able to run over Akagi without fouling and Gorilla's experience, size, and toughness would give him stops. Akagi struggles at range, Kiyoshi struggles with an old knee injury. These are two different players with similar levels of effectiveness - both are universally acknowledged as top-tier bigs, but struggle against their top rivals at center - and I can't pick between them. EDGE: EVEN
Shohoku has a veteran duo of swingman Kogure and forward Kakuta (who are soon replaced by Rukawa and Sakuragi) in addition to the smart, solid combo guard Yasuda on their roster, plus three zero-impact freshmen. Seirin has silent center Mitobe, loudmouthed swingman Koga, and rebounding forward Tsuchida in addition to three zero-impact freshmen. Both teams get ENORMOUS mileage out of their starters, and resorting to the bench is often a major downgrade (Kakuta got worked over to the point of exhaustion by Sannoh's Nobe after just a few minutes and I don't think I've ever seen Koga make a jump shot ever).
The best players here are probably Kogure and Mitobe. Mitobe is a capable stand-in for Kagami or Kiyoshi and rocks a silky-smooth hook shot, while Kogure is a reliable shooter and veteran presence who has one of the most memorable baskets in Slam Dunk when he makes an open three in the Ryonan rematch. Really, though, the best bench is the bench that actually gets playing time. Has Izuki or Hyuga ever been subbed out? Not sure. EDGE: SHOHOKU
COACH AND MANAGER
Big mismatch here. I love Riko dearly, but she's out of her league as a game-time coach when she's up against professionals that were her father's contemporaries during his time on the Japanese national team. She's a capable scout and trainer, but again needs to rely on her father to bring out the best in her boys. Shohoku has a knowledgeable, reliable trainer in Ayako and one of the absolute best coaches in sports fiction history in Anzai. The White Buddha keeps cooler than Santa Claus while impeccably managing player minutes and putting up with Sakuragi's bullshit. His training and advice brings Sakuragi's game to a new level and other coaches can't help but admire and fear him every game. No contest. MAJOR EDGE: SHOHOKU
QUALITY OF COMPETITION
If we were to assemble all-star teams of Shohoku and Seirin opponents, how would they fare against the heroes from the other series? For Slam Dunk, I'm thinking a team of Maki, Sawakita, Sendoh, Kawata the elder, and Horishige with Fukatsu as the sixth man. For Kuroko's Basketball, I'd just as well take the whole Generation of Miracles: Akashi, Midorima, Kise, Aomine, and Murasakibara, then adding one of Akashi's Rakuzan teammates to come off the bench. How would the stars of one manga fare against the villains of the other?
...poorly, if you're Shohoku. Sannoh is a hell of a final boss, but what the fuck could Miyagi do against Akashi? And how could Shohoku stop Aomine and Murasakibara without double-teaming both of them? It helps that nearly all of the best players in Kuroko's Basketball suit up for different teams, but the over-the-top shounen soul of the series means the villains are fucking incredible. MAJOR EDGE: SEIRIN
RIDICULOUS FEATS OF BASKETBALL
So here's one problem - Slam Dunk strives for realism, while Kuroko thrives on basketball ridiculousness. Just like how a character from Rurouni Kenshin would never be able to touch a character from Dragon Ball Z, Kuroko's characters and basketball gambits are way more over-the-top and balls-out-crazy than Slam Dunk's. It's hard to top a character that can steal the techniques of his opponents or a point guard that sees the future. But in the interest of fairness (and accepting that most of the silliness is in Kuroko's villains and not its heroes), Slam Dunk can get pretty wack as well. I mean, Sakuragi (a 6'2" Japanese 16-year-old) dunks from the foul line when he's only been playing basketball for a few months. That isn't silly? Yes it is, but not silly enough. EDGE: SEIRIN
The ultimate SWAG moment in Kuroko is probably in the first Shutoku game, where Kagami and Kuroko foil Midorima's buzzer-beating shot with teamwork and mind games. I have to hand the SWAG trophy to Shohoku, however, for the classic "it feels good to be the villain" line when they enter the gym full of screaming Sannoh fans, and immediately follow that up with a Miyagi-to-Sakuragi alley-oop dunk in the first twenty seconds of the game. EDGE: SHOHOKU
MAIN CHARACTER X-FACTOR
If this was a five- or seven-game series, then the whole boat capsizes because Mitsui's lungs and Kiyoshi's knees aren't lasting for that long, and Kuroko could only have Overload work once. Instead, it'll be two run-and-gun teams in a single-elimination game. We can assume that Rukawa and Kagami will both find The Zone and score at will at times, the veteran centers will get touches, both shooting guards will launch threes, and the two point guards will set the table. Both teams will execute on offense most of the time, because that's how these teams are built: fast breaks and high-scoring games.
So now we have the two big mysteries on each team, who both play at forward but weren't matched up against each other earlier: Sakuragi's defense and rebounding against Kuroko's passing and misdirection. Just like in their respective series, it's up to the main character to make the final difference. Kuroko will give his team several assists and steals in opportune moments, plus a few points off his weirdo unblockable push jumper. Then, probably in the last ten minutes of the game, he'll make his teammates invincible with Misdirection Overload. Sakuragi will probably outrebound everyone else on the floor (yes, even Kiyoshi) and provide a defensive presence that confounds opposing players and coaches alike. Sakuragi can defend shooters like Scottie Pippen, crash the boards with the ferocity of Moses Malone in his prime, and create havoc like Dennis Rodman at his Wormiest.
In every Seirin game, opposing teams discover the limits of Kuroko's misdirection only for Kagami to come through in the end with some gravity-defying craziness. In every Shohoku game, no-one can solve the bizarre rookie Sakuragi, whose confidence exceeds his experience, and only occasionally manage to contain the talented, solitary Rukawa. Kagami and Kuroko know they need tricks and teamwork to win, and don't always win. When Rukawa and Sakuragi, antagonistic to one another for 274 out of 276 chapters, teamed up for one play, they were unstoppable. (Evidence). If Seirin and Shohoku played a game, I'm pretty sure Anzai could come up with a stratagem for dealing with Kuroko. When he reached his peak against Sannoh, I'm not sure anyone had an answer for Sakuragi. FINAL VERDICT: SHOHOKU
So that's that. I should do that more often. Now I gotta go sleep, then go and earn a paycheck for more food and videogames. Until next time, stay classy.