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piiskoor

Another fine mess

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The Breaks of the Game - David Halberstam I'd always found basketball tedious -- heck, during adolescence I stumbled along at about 5'6" with a sluggish, overburdened physique, looking more like a basketball than a basketball player, until right before I got into college (when I jumped to almost 5'11" and looked still schlumpy but a bit less lumpy). I wasn't fast, or tall, or particularly graceful. When I played sports, I preferred those ones where I could think and practice my way into some relatively competitive state of readiness--baseball, tennis, golf.

(I wasn't allowed to play football on a team, for fear of injury, 'though given my body type that sport might have been the most apt selection, but Mom was adamant, so I instead played exceedingly dangerous backyard games well into my teens. My brother snapped a collarbone in one of those games, and since he cried almost every game I didn't pay him any mind until about an hour later, when the persistence of his tears made me take stock of my response and assist him home, and then to hospital.)

But when I lived overseas, on a very small island in the Pacific, most afternoons the guys on the island fell into hours-long games of either baseball or basketball. Eventually, in the latter sport, I got seduced. They were so enthusiastic, so pumped to be playing, it always energized me, sitting on the sidelines, talking trash and (most days) grading papers. I started playing. And I wasn't particularly adept--didn't have the long years of chops habituated into my muscle memory--but I was suddenly, for the first time in my life, really friggin' tall. I had two inches on the next tallest guy. And, holy shit, I understood within just a couple games what all the fuss was about: with the relative freedom opened up by this startling shift to a "natural talent," I could hold the ball and see the patterns unfold around me, and this allowed me to start picking shots, figuring passes--even developing something of a strategy that amplified my size/talents, and I became like Michael Jordan. I was big enough to intimidate every bastard on the court, which allowed me to get better, and better, and better. I was the first draft choice every afternoon. It was pretty much guaranteed that my team would end up winning. I LOVED basketball.

And then one of my pals from the Peace Corps visited for a week. Doug was 6'4", and he'd actually played ball back in the States, and... suddenly I was barely Pippen. We were for that one dreadful week always pitted against each other, and the team play suddenly became more complicated, but individually Doug just took me down again, and again, and again. I kept playing after he left, but we slowly shifted more to baseball, and back in the States I returned to my previous, longstanding apathy.

Reading Halberstam's fascinating, gloriously written book about a season with the Portland Trailblazers just after their glory years with Bill Walton I've again fallen into a swooning appreciation for the game. Halberstam gives you that kind of height, allows you to take stock of the bigger picture so that you can breathe and really see and engage with and relish the many, many facets of the game previously invisible to you. Even as I recognized only a scant few of the celebs in the narrative, knew next to nothing about the history of the game, could barely parse the strategy in any given game let alone over the course of the season or in a contrast of playing systems between two coaches, hadn't any predetermined interest in the economic transformations of this sport (or all sports) under the big market eye of television . . . I *still* fell in love with the game. Like the best sports books (Richard Ben Cramer on Ted Williams, David Remnick on Ali, Michael Lewis on the statistical reexamination of baseball), the fan will be delighted but so will the curmudgeon -- Halberstam has written not just a study of a given team or team sport but a fantastic, far-ranging study of a complex social system (which echoed and was informed by and helped alter the broader American context, particularly around issues of class and race), of people working, of a colorful cabinet of wondrous personalities.

I will probably still be unmaddened by March college ball, and remain almost vigilantly bored by my brother prattling at me about this or that NBA game. But the book rocks, regardless.