Friday, April 24, 2009

The Most Beautiful Game

Brilliant legal theorist, deconstructionist and social critic; that's Stanley Fish. No one ever guests him on talk shows, and I think I've seen him but once on a panel many moons ago, where I was struck by the incisiveness and range of his mind. Add to that he's a really good writer, and you have someone who means business.

When I stumbled upon this essay while perusing his archive at the NYT, I was floored; Fish, the intellectual, the brilliant critic and essayist, shared with me a love for basketball far beyond fan worship of one's home team. Not the nebbish, say, Woody Allen (who happens to be a huge Knicks fan) is, Fish, nonetheless and by his own admission, is anything but athletic, whether in ability or looks.

But that doesn't stop him.

This boy plays. His love for the game - "addiction" by his telling - shines through, and because he's such a good writer, that "hidden dimension" that only players can ever know is revealed, at least hinted at, in mental pictures and feelings. That feeling is, on a "basic" level (for lack of a better term) something at once mysterious and glorious.

[But] for me, playing basketball is above everything - even those times creating art. There's something about synergy, creating with teammates that, when it clicks, is unique. It's the most beautiful game. There's a feeling of connecting to your teammates that, at its best, is like you're plugged in to the universe in a very direct way; it's a transcendent experience far beyond words.

I know it sounds corny and new age-y, but it's a pure experience - thought doesn't enter in. There's only seeing and doing.

Two things stand out from those brief encounters with "the zone": 1) The euphoria it produces is more sublime than anything - you literally desire nothing, and 2) "you" seem to disappear and yet be more present than ever. If that sounds too Tao-ish then tough. This is the limitation of words here aside from meager writing skill.

One time I was talking to a surfer and he was relating how there are certain times when he catches a wave just right, and the feeling that it produces is indescribable. I told him that for athletes, it's called "being in the zone." It doesn't come often and in fact is the rarest bird, but when it does, all you can do is watch and marvel.

Then it flies away.

Branford Marsalis - another big hoop head - likes to make the analogy of how playing in a band is like playing on a basketball team, with everyone with their roles and contributing to the common good. I disagree, and I, like everyone, love music. Sports in general and basketball in particular have that physical release; so does sex, but those feelings are animal-biological. Tantric sex with Raquel Welch when she was 24 may help me there, but until then.... I will give his analogy some props though, because improvisatory jazz and rock have that element in common with basketball, particularly pick up games where there's no strategy much less people who know how to play from the book aspect.

For me it's about "running" (what hoop heads call it) with the boys on a late afternoon when the heat's not as bad and the shadows are long, the promise of cold drinks and devouring food waiting; knowing, somehow, that Mitch will make the cut, seeing him in the periphery, fooling my defender and then getting the pass to him as he lays it up. That feeling is something that has become as branded in me as anything.

In the following essay, Fish waxes poetic about the game we both love in far more eloquent terms than I ever could. He may get his March Madness pick wrong, but then again so did I (Louisville) and aside from that, on the court of the essay, I'm a pick up player - he's Magic Johnson.

March 22, 2009, 10:00 pm

My Life on the Court
I have been playing basketball since I was seven years old. That’s more than 60 years, and as March Madness moves into full swing, I find myself thinking about the game and my addiction to it.

It isn’t skill. I can do two things — shoot from the outside and run. (I don’t get tired.) I dribble as little as possible. I drive to the basket once a decade; I’ve blocked two shots in my entire life, and if white men can’t jump, this white Jewish man really can’t jump. Maybe twice a year my shot is on and I feel I can’t miss. On days like that I think that I’ve finally arrived and can’t wait for the next game. But when game day rolls around again and I get out on the court, I find that I have regressed to my usual level, which is several degrees south of mediocre.

In all these years I have had two triumphs. Once when I was playing on the beach-side courts in Laguna Beach, every shot went in. The other players, black and Latino, started to yell, “Larry Bird, Larry Bird.” I knew it was a joke, but I savored the moment anyway.

Another time, when I was living in Baltimore, I hired a tall young man to remove the leaves from my lawn. When I came back a couple of hours later I found the leaves merely rearranged. I complained and refused to pay. We got into a shouting match, and then I asked, “Do you play basketball?”

“Yes,” he answered, and I said, “There’s a gym up the street; let’s play for it. You win, I pay you; you don’t, I don’t.” He replied, “Are you crazy old man?” (At the time I was in my mid-forties; I hate to imagine what he’d say today.)

We trekked to the gym and I beat him three times by big scores. In the first game he didn’t guard me because he didn’t believe I could do anything, and I hit one long shot after another. In the second game he guarded me too closely, and I went around him. In the third game he didn’t know what to do, and it was all over. The whole thing took less than half an hour, which was good because in another 20 minutes he would have figured out that I had only two moves and that both of them could easily be neutralized by someone taller, stronger and more athletic, all of which he was.

And then there are the thousand other times when I walked off the court either feeling happy not to have embarrassed myself (although I hadn’t done much) or trying to come to terms with the fact that I had indeed embarrassed myself. Whichever it was, I always knew that I would be back.

Why? Why continue to do something I wasn’t any good at nine times out of ten? Well for one thing basketball players are by and large generous. (There are exceptions.) If you’re not very skilled, if you’re old and slow, they will make a place for you in the game. In his recent book “Give and Go: Basketball as a Cultural Practice,” Thomas McLaughlin speaks of the ethical practices that emerge in the course of a game even though no rules have imposed them: “Every time one of the players in our game says to a weak player as he is taking an open shot that he will likely miss ‘Good shot,’ he is weaving the ethical fabric of the game.”

I have often been the beneficiary of that ethical fabric, even when those weaving me into it are perfect strangers. For one of the great things about being a basketball player (or pretending to be one) is that no court is closed to you which is why I always have a basketball in the trunk of my car. You can just show up wherever there is a hoop and a game and you will be included. (This holds also in foreign countries where there may be a language barrier, but never a basketball barrier.)

At Live Oak Park in Berkeley I played with college standouts and with American Basketball Association all-star Lavern Tart. On a famous court in the West Village I played on a team that won every game. It was glorious even though I never touched the ball. In a strict sense I didn’t belong on those courts, but pick-up basketball doesn’t enforce any strict sense and is willing to relax the demands of competition and winning for the sake of extending its pleasures to those whose skills are minimal.

What are those pleasures? They are not, I think, pleasures that point outward to some external good. Rather they are the pleasures of performing (however badly) within the strict parameters of a practice whose goals and rewards are entirely internal. Hans Gumbrecht, in his book “In Praise of Athletic Beauty,” links sports to Kant’s account of the beautiful as the experience of “pure disinterested satisfaction.” It is a satisfaction, Gumbrecht explains, that “has no goal in everyday life” (like virtue, it is its own reward), and he quotes with admiration Olympic swimmer Pablo Morales’s description of the pleasure he feels in competition as “that special feeling of getting lost in focused intensity.”

The marvel is that focused intensity can be achieved even in the act of failure, even by someone who knows what to do but most of the time can’t quite do it. And it is for that intensity — not its object or its goal — that one plays, for in those moments of surrender to the game all one’s troubles, all one’s strivings, all one’s petty irritations fall away. And if, occasionally, you actually do set the hard pick or deliver the perfect pass or make the improbable shot, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

And by the way, my money is on Duke to take it all. A pick from the heart.