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The Crossover: Greetings from Earth, Basketball is the Best I Ever Had

A product of thoughtful consideration (and content quotas!), I’ve begun email exchanges with a variety of luminaries across a range of professions and interests (this is hardly true). There is something to be said, however, about the implications of form qua blog and the enacting of discourse, but I won’t say it because it’s mostly doodoo. Academic and grounded in…something, but doodoo nonetheless. With that resounding endorsement, I present to you: The Crossover.

Shea Hurley:

Dujie,

Please respond to this email having something interesting to say about basketball. I’m a little bored. You’re probably not: congrats once again.

Michelle and me went to Leavenworth last weekend and climbed a proper mountain so it’s safe to say my ankle is mostly healed. I talked to your mom at the wedding, she said you felt at fault. I said you weren’t but that it was fine you going on thinking you were. So it goes.

Dujie Tahat:

I do feel at fault. You’d never played basketball really before and I should have warned you sooner that an ankle injury was inevitable if you didn’t get any basketball shoes. Unfortunately, yours was much, much worse than most (almost grotesquely so), and your subsequent employment was dependent on your physical prowess (not all of us can be 6’4”, a sinewy 215 and have a perfectly symmetrical face—so fuck you love you!) . Also, that was just one of the worst-sounding, -looking, gut-bending injuries I’ve ever been on a basketball court to witness. That definitely added to the guilt (for your stupid affinity for Tom Brady):

I’m over it now.

On this topic though, I have been meaning to ask you a question: what it was like to fall in love with basketball?

Yes. Love.

I’ve spent nearly as far back as I can remember playing basketball and can’t remember what it was like in the early years/months. Of course, over that time, I’ve fallen out of favor with the game, and subsequently, recommitted myself. Even then, there’s a rush when I lace up for the first time in a long time. The distinct tightness and traction of basketball shoes, a mishandled dribble, the first swish, when muscle memory takes over, even the pennies and compression shorts— it’s thrilling.

In those moments, during games, I find myself in complete ambivalence–one of those truly unsettling moments where you’re equally culpable to opposing forces. One the one hand, I am reorienting myself to the logistics of the game: positioning, spacing, assessing my side’s needs and focusing on those (i.e. rebounding, shooting, etc. (not et cetera: those are actually the only two things on a basketball court I can actually do)). On the other hand, I fight to get in “the zone”—which is already a losing battle I think because the sensation has always felt more like finding “the zone.” As if I had drunkenly, haphazardly and accidently stumbled into that state of mind that I’d characterize by a sharp dullness, or a sluggish honing.

It is a strange position to be in—rediscovering something you know so well—holding both these necessarily contradicting thoughts in a singular mind, in a singular body, in a singular game.  One requires thought and analysis; while the other demands near-blankness.

xoxo

 SR:

My affinity for Tom Brady—the great protagonist of the American Dream—is childish, sure, but it is not stupid. Lupe Fiasco is stupid, so were running shoes and I should have known that much without needing to be told.

As for love and basketball, I’m a little hesitant to throw love around while talking about a sport so new to me. But there was definitely something pseudo-romantic going on. Playing basketball had the same kinds of insecurities as a new love. I knew I was going to have to stop for a long time very soon and I was reminded always that it was a risky way to get in shape. If basketball was a love interest it was a fem fatal minx. I was infatuated, I had everything to lose, and I knew that at any moment it could expose me as a klutz and a fraud. I just didn’t think it would be so dramatic, or have such severe consequences when it happened.

Generally speaking, it is a bad situation to be in when your employment is dependent on your physical condition. Sometimes the job is worth it—it seemed like it was to me—most of the time it’s probably not.

As it turns out the premier rappel and jump bases in the country are both on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest here in Washington. I asked one of the older hotshot guys why he never jumped and he told me to put a 100lbs pack on and jump off my house. That was why, he said. Needless to say aerially delivered fire-fighters get hurt constantly. A jumper a few years ago, seeing the rocks ahead of him, threw up in his flight helmet before breaking both his legs on impact. The point here is that an injury was likely all along, so no worries; I’d rather beef it in the gym in front of ten people than in the wilderness in front of, like, no one at all.

Anyway, back to basketball. They say if you’re new to something it is best not to be nervous when doing it and visa-versa, when you are skilled at something the nerves can heighten your senses and are generally good for performance. This was the pendulum swing I found myself moving through and I felt much more natural, even in the zone, while I was able to think less. Thinking less, of course, I can’t do consciously. When I was thinking more it was about what a big rube I must look like, with my tall socks, ticking-bomb shoes and general lack of basketball paraphernalia. Or maybe a ruse instead of a rube, like a big, cruel trick in the form of a rangy, althletic-looking body who you could be pretty sure played at least JV in high school but who was really completely inexperienced and (initially) completely unskilled. Brick, sorry. That’s the punch-line and the joke’s on you, teammates.

I only wish I found the game sooner.

stay dreamy

DT:

Lupe Fiasco is not stupid. He’s a God. Toe shoes are stupid. I mean for Christ’s sake, wear regular fucking shoes! Or go barefoot! Mostly just pick one—stop trying to do both!

Also Tom Brady is not, I repeat not, the Nick Carraway of the American Dream—way more like Gatsby, or our 21st century version:

I mean, sure, seventh round pick, career back up, turned his one opportunity into multiple MVPs and Lombardi trophies, but whatever: the dude benefitted from the most effective pro football system since Vince Lombardi’s 1960s patented “Our endzone is that way, idiot!” offense.

Tommy Boi went to private school, went to football camps led by former Atlanta Falcon (and ArenaBowl Champion!) Anthony Graziani and grew up in San Mateo, California, among the top 25 wealthiest counties in the U.S. (just under $83,000 per capita), and the third wealthiest in California. There’s only one paradigm in the American Dream that his ascendency captures: MORE!

(Also, thanks Wikipedia for not failing to prove my point. This time.)

As far as basketball goes, I hadn’t meant love in a romantic sense. An initial pass makes that seem way too limiting, but I think you might be onto something.

Upon further review, I realized that I recently married a woman I’ve been on and off with for six years. Our relationship bears many of the characteristics of the relationship I have with basketball: there’s a definitive muscle memory to our motions, reading and reacting, learned instinct, a general machinery and lines that dictates the parameters but that wouldn’t mean a thing without the sheer joy of improvisation and cooperative freeplay.

There is one undeniable difference though: primarily that all sport ends.

I don’t believe that any human relationship ends—especially one that bears love. It just changes form.

To that end, when does basketball end? Surely, Basketball does not.

I get great joy from watching—marveling, really—at professional basketball players whose whole livelihood, whose whole identity and techne are contingent on what their bodies can do, a physical limit. To them, basketball never ends. They are the closest thing there is to the embodiment of Basketball. And yet, their’s is a precarious agreement with fate. Their very existence is all a gamble, a tightrope walk. Thousands of jumpshots, rebounds and crossovers a season, not to mention practice, conditioning, playing with the kids, each an opportunity to cripple these giants of the game.

I mean, can you imagine, these guys as fragile?

I’ve said it before, you need to watch Hoop Dreams. Not only will it keep warm your fire for the hardwood, but it’s just a great fucking movie. It changed the way documentaries were made thereafter. I bring it up though because what could be harder than your employment relying on your physical ability? Probably that the only opportunity you’ll ever have at any social mobility relying on your body.

To preempt some of your certain criticism: Yes. It’s not fair. Big picture, it’s a social condition that needs to be addressed.

The fire fighter that jumps out of a helicopter with a 100lbs strapped to their back into a blazing wildfire is perhaps the perfect metaphor for those kids. They’re the elite of the elite, playing men, acting like men when they’re probably only still boys, carrying their families and communities on the shoulders into a situation that will almost certainly eat them alive.

One of the kids Hoop Dreams follows, William Gates, suffered from a debilitating knee injury just as he was turning on in high school and college scouts were starting to pay attention. In fact, he had gotten into private school on a basketball scholarship. He never made it. He got swallowed by the fire.

I was never that elite of an athlete at anything to merit that kind of attention or even fancy. We were poor but, my parents insisted on education as my way up the ladder. I guess in many ways I’ve been tremendously lucky. It almost seems like a crime to insist that I, too, had and hold onto my own Hoop Dreams.

xoxo

SH:

Fine Dujie,

Tom Brady went to private school in San Mateo. But any descent parents would send their kid to a school that good if they could, if only to buddy-up with the crowd. And I should hope that when hardworking parents succeed in supplying their children with this quality of upbringing they do not resent the child as you seemingly resent the adult for what he got. So what if he went to private school in San Mateo? Tommy Jr. didn’t have say in the matter. This is to judge the son by the sins of the father (which—tsk-tsk—is anti-enlightenment and un-American) and frankly a sin I think you would readily commit.

But say (as you do) that Brady’s rich and lazy, embezzling, glitterati parents managed to jostle him into the lowest tier of a public university’s football program. Let’s give him the debts and credits starting there. Remember when he got to Michigan he was a timorous figure in the long shadow of Brian Griese, was 7th on the depth chart and seeing a psychiatrist for anxiety. He had to claw for the starting job at Michigan and for his spot in the pros. As a football player, it doesn’t seem like he was given much of anything besides talent, a pure apprehension of failure and a work ethic to channel it. These characteristics, thank you for noticing also, do evoke shades of Jay Gatsby.

“The Child is the father of the Man” as Wordsworth put it, probably holds true for both figures. I imagine the newly invented penniless Jay Gatsby looked out at the copper-kahuna, Dan Cody from the shores of Lake Superior much the same way the young Tom Brady Jr. regarded Joe Montana from the aisles of Candlestick Park.

The difference of course is that Brady does not come from piss-pot North Dakota. He did get his Daisy: the far-flung, sylphlike wonder of femininity Gisele Bündchen, and hasn’t yet suffered tragic decline and demise by the careless lies of careless people. Not to get too far ahead of myself though, he does play for the NFL, and with Junior Sau in mind, he might shoot himself in the chest before it is all over.

As for Lupe, I wouldn’t want it thought that I set myself up (and what a set-up it would be) so I will be short: He has paranoid delusions about the government of the United States, which is pitiable in its way, but also annoying because of his swollen following of credulous discontents who will take a junk-theory over the facts in plain view, if only to distinguish themselves from the presumed naiveté of cow-eyed parents and classmates and I guess whoever else.

~ ~ ~

Long break here. Work sleep work sleep work.

~ ~ ~

At age ten, I was deposed of my spot—middle back row—on class-picture day because I wasn’t any longer the tallest kid in class. It hurt then like no bad grade ever had or could. I feel a pathetic now remembering it, but I was young, and regarding at least my height, I grew up. Priorities, anxieties and pressures all changed. Problems might have arose if they didn’t, and games are a good example because maintaining skill at them becomes increasingly less practical as time goes by.

I’m not like William Gates (is the irony of that name addressed in Hoop Dreams?), who might have turned fragile athleticism into a career (i.e. a person for whom the game is practical). That was made clear to me early on. Time to go? Okay then, won’t have to tell me twice. The problem is with people hanging around after they should have left like drink-spilling old men at college bars: It’s just not going to happen these people and they’re the only ones who can’t see it.

Gates is exactly the kind of cautionary, all-eggs-in-one-imploded-basket-tale that 17 year-olds are hard wired to ignore in lieu of stories of guys who made it. If you can dream and not make dreams your master… If only. Outliers is bunk by the way.

Speaking of practicality and dreams and the boy being the father of the man, the image of the adult offered by the NBA—by pro sports in general—is not in the least bit practical. It provides a select few, a pre-selected few even—because DNA transcription is really more important here than anything that might follow—a chance to be rich and eccentric and idolized while it strings everybody else along.  Right now there is a guy just down the way on a barstool lamenting his wretched heap of a life to some poor stranger all because, he says, coach wouldn’t put him in, or his knee went out, or Ms. Bitch English teacher failed him out of eligibility. You’ll notice that when you chance upon this tedious foe (you have, and you will again and again and again) he is reliably incapable of prompting your sympathy.

The owners of the NBA—here I invite you to pause and muse with me on the oatmeal colored folds and gathers of Donald Sterling’s collapsing face—are nothing if not shrewd capitalists. Having an underclass of snowflake-or-bust kids who are made to think their endeavors on the court, or the field are more likely to repay their efforts than what they do in the classroom is agreeable; friendly; face-sucking, hand-under-shirt, over-bra simpatico to the status quo. The status quo being, of course, that the kids are without skills or footing and people like Sterling (who has excess money in almost exact proportion to excess skin) go on selling them hoop dreams. Dreams which are, to borrow a phrase nothing but net.

As I realize there is a Macklemore song about this I fill with self-loathing.

Talk to me

Shea

DT:

You did a whole thing there where you grew up and became a cynical old curmudgeon in the span of your last five ‘graphs. Good for you!

I’m going to try and keep this under 3000 words because I turn into a pumpkin after that.

Very quickly on Tom Brady: I would send my kids to private school. I hope to. But let’s not amplify the narrative. His ascendancy is limited to football—which, frankly, isn’t a mountain he could climb without coming from an upper-class, white, privileged family. I take no offense to his unlikely (sports) myth. As a fan of sport, I cannot help but to admire it. I do take offense to calling it the American Dream, and him the main character of it. America is no longer just a sea of pretty white boys (bad news for you). The American Dream connotes there is no alternative. His life wasn’t on the line and neither was the socio-economic outcome of his children. With or without football, Tommy Jr. probably would have still been rich, and his kids would still have their trust funds.

191 words to go.

The Brady discussion seems the perfect digression for the irony of William Gates’ name.

You are unassailably right about how the NBA is structured and capitalism in general. It sucks to be a Plebian. It’d be way cooler to wear a toga and admire little boys. But it sucks much less to be a Pleb that has mastered—or at least gets the daily opportunity to master—a craft as endlessly surprising and infinite as basketball.

Gates is a cautionary tale. There are a dozen of him for every Jimmy Butler. But you can’t blame people for doing what they’re good at, and hoping to achieve the highest form of success doing it. Anyone who can commit to that, seems to me, is the true “protagonist of the American Dream.” Failure is part of the equation. Much less talked about (makes a less inspiring poster), but completely necessary.

I know you’ve probably got some cheeky rebuttal, but this email exchange is my thing, so you’re going to have to hold onto it until next time.

xoxo

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