The Year is 2223. Reverend Scott E. Pippen the 29th stands in front of his congregation of 24,000 with his arms raised high in the air. He is a tall man, about 6 feet 8. He is wearing a gown with the number 23 embroidered on the front in gold. He is up on a stage with a golden basketball hoop mounted behind him. A hush falls over the capacity crowd.
“Today, I’d like to talk to you about greatness. Many religions have valued different things over the years. Some of the religions praised self-restraint, while others loved commitment and dedication. These qualities can be very good things, but their followers seemed to miss the bigger point. Trying really hard is not enough. In order to truly be worthy of God’s love you must win!”
“AMEN!!!!” screams a parishioner.
“The people of olden times used to worship martyrs! Do you believe it? They would cast their lot with people who tried really hard….but lost! Those martyrs were great men, but they couldn’t figure out how to triumph over evil. Sure, they would say that some of their martyrs rose from the dead, but many people had trouble believing that part. There wasn’t enough proof. Maybe they were successful, but they weren’t able to pull it off on the big stage! I mean, most messiahs wouldn’t make it in the NBA as a 12th man for the New Jersey Nets. For years, we could only choose between this losing messiah, that losing messiah or sometimes a messiah that hadn’t even shown up yet! Can you believe it people?”
“NO!!!!!” shouted the crowd wildly.
“Thankfully, on February 17th, 1963, that holiest of days, Michael Jordan was born in a barn in Brooklyn, New York. As a child, Jordan was a good player, but certainly not the messiah we know him as today. Everyone by now has heard the story of how he was cut from his High School basketball team. This was the first in a series of setbacks for His Airness, but each time he was given an obstacle, he learned how to climb over it and most importantly HOW…..TO…….WIN!!!!!!”
The crowd bursts into thunderous applause.
“When Georgetown tried to slow him down in the 1982 NCAA Final…HE WON! When the Pistons and Celtics stopped him early in his career he came back and….HE WON!!!! When the Knicks attacked and beat him game after game he rose up and….HE WON!!!!!! When Jordan retired for the third time, after his sixth NBA title everyone thought that was finished. Then, as a 60 year old man, Jordan returned to the NBA and led the Chicago Bulls to four more titles. Age tried to beat him down but…..HE WON!!!!!”
“JUST DO IT!!!!” screams the crowd.
“Those old-fashioned religions used to talk about an afterlife. They were preaching the gospel of weakness. Today, we know that the dead are just quitters! When Jordan turned 100 he proclaimed that he would never die. He went up to his basketball court built on the side of the greatest mountaintop and that is where he is still today. No one has talked to him in years, but he has promised that one day he will not only return to us, but return to the NBA. One day, when you go to your weekend sports temple to show your commitment to God and your home team he will emerge from the tunnel and HE…..WILL……PLAY………….AGAIN!!!!!!!!”
“YES!!!!!” “JUST DO IT!!!!!!” “AMEN!!!!!!”
“Those old fashioned religions told you that God loved everyone. Jordan taught us that they were wrong! The truth is that GOD LOVES A WINNER! You prove your devotion to him not by being beaten down by the opponent but though VICTORY! God has no time for losers. He will not give you a trophy just for competing. He has no time for lesser men. He is not going to hold your hand and tell you it is okay to fail. God values results! The simple truth is that God Hates Losers!!!!”
“PREACH IT!!!!” JUST DO IT!!!!”
“Jordan came to save us all from the pain and humiliation of losing. Whenever there is someone buying a pair of His Sneakers….HE’LL BE THERE! Whenever there is a team the overcomes the evil of losing….HE’LL BE THERE! And when we buy His shoes and praise His name and WHEN WE WIN……….HE’LL………BE……….THERE…..……TOOOOOO!”
The crowd erupts into a screaming, howling frenzy.
“And now I present to you the top ranked choir in the entire world….The beautiful and talented Jordan-Airs!!!!!!”
The choir begins to sing and basketball players in different throwback Jordan uniforms dunk golden basketballs into the hoop above the stage…
“To The Temple of Jordan Our Savior Went One Day,
And We Read That Phil The Baptist Met Him There,
And When Jordan Scored 60 in the Finals Versus Philly
The Mighty Power of God Filled The Air.
I’m On My Way
To The Temple of Jordan
Were Going To Win
At The Temple of Jordan
And Victory Will Cleanse My Soul”
The presumption that we can understand the universe seems to be the single most absurd belief that human beings have formulated. Part of the problem with the question seems to hinge on how the word “understand” is interpreted. For the purposes of this article I will be using the word in a similar way that Robert Heinlein uses the word “grok” in his book Stranger in a Strange Land. To grok something is to comprehend something with all of one’s being. I can understand that human beings have 10 fingers, but I grok what it means to have and be able to use those fingers myself. They are a part of me and I know them to be incontrovertibly true. I understand my fingers in a pre-verbal, visceral way that can’t and doesn’t need to be explained. When someone watches a game of basketball they may understand that the goal is to put the ball in the hoop or that they have to dribble when moving or the fact that there are two sets of five different players on the court, etc. If you asked a person who knew this whether they understand the game, they would probably say “yes”. However, they certainly do not grok the game in its fullness. They do not know what its like to make an impossible shot or look up at an official for a brief second with the anticipation of a charge or blocking foul or to dive on the floor for a loose ball or any of the millions of possible experiences that could exist in a basketball game. They may hear the words but they don’t feel the music.
This problem of “understanding” relates to how our culture and many others tend to interpret the EVERYTHING. Often, humans are given two choices as if they reflected the only possible paths to groking the EVERYTHING in its fullness. We get a choice of science/reason/rational thinking or faith/spirituality/belief. I find neither of these answers to be helpful. Science has brought us many creations and understandings over the years. Scientists have given language to experiences like gravity. This language has allowed us to change how we perceive life. Without these understandings, many of the wonderful things that exist in our world (everything from flight to the internet) would not exist. Reason has brought us to heights never dreamed of by our forefathers. It has also brought us terrors never before imagined (germ warfare, nuclear annihilation). For my purposes, neither of these points is relevant to the question. Science has brought us to a place where we never believed we could be and the power of its creation has made us think that its potential for discovery is as infinite. I believe that science has limits. Heinlein gets the limits of science perfectly when Valentine Michael Smith (the protagonist in Stranger in a Strange Land) asks “How can you grok a desert by counting its grains of sand?” Science can create marvelous tools to manage parts of the physical world, but to grok it in its fullness there seems to be a need for something more. The explanation that love or joy or sorrow are nothing more than a few synapses firing in different directions seems woefully inadequate to explain us, let alone the interplay of billions of sentient creatures. There must be more.
But is that “something more” a belief in something beyond our understanding (a higher power?). Many people believe that God is an all-powerful; omniscient being that controls the universe. But if God is all-powerful and omniscient how could flawed, miniscule beings ever expect to understand anything about this God? How can we possibly grok something that is admittedly beyond our understanding? The idea itself seems bizarre. People often chalk up experiences to being “part of God’s great plan”. But, if we don’t completely understand what God’s plan for us is how can we possibly understand that an action is part of the plan? Why do those of faith assume that there is a greater reason for the things they do not understand? Maybe there is and maybe they are right but how would they know? We are given a scant few highly conflicting religious texts. Can it really be assumed that everything a person needs to know about the universe can be summed up in the Bible or another religious text? Many people believe this. I think the mistake in this is to assume that this thing can be understood using a book. One book, millions of books, cannot sum the EVERYTHING up. It is still greater than the whole of human knowledge, let alone the contents of one book. Belief often seems to function as a great off switch in the mind. We see something so beautiful or horrible or absurd that the mind says “Uncle!” and we give ourselves over to a belief that there must be some meaning to it that we are missing. But, how do we know that anything actually has a meaning? We can hope, we can wish, we can pray, but we can never know. We just chalk it up to an act of God or the workings of spirits that we can never conclusively prove to anyone including ourselves.
What troubles me about faith is not its deferment to a higher power but its willingness to concede truths to those who have come before or us or to books written before our time. Sometimes I wonder if the worship of God is merely the worship of the past. Maybe we are just harkening back to an illusory time where a more pious people than ourselves who knew more than us were able to connect with some great force in the sky and reveal its truths. Some religious folks look back to Moses or Jesus or Mohammad or a cast of many other characters and assume that they knew enough not only to understand their world but also to understand ours. I have a hard time believing that any person can possibly understand the world they are thrust into. The thought that a person who walked the earth 2000 years ago can not only understand his world but also understand mine seems highly unlikely. What if they are right? It doesn’t really matter because I can NEVER know for certain.
The “central” question faced by human beings is not spiritual or scientific but epistemological. How can we ever really know what we know or that we even know it? We are given limited and barbaric tools, our senses, in which to meet the world. These senses are easily fooled and can be manipulated by inside or outside forces. Yet I can’t even say for certain that anything is an illusion. If I spent a hundred lifetimes, I don’t know if I could grok in fullness the experiences that take place in one moment in one American town. And yet, somehow, humans feel it possible to understand the wholeness of everything. Science and religion fail to give the correct answer because they are asking the wrong question. The question is often posed as “How can we understand the universe?” (….and we get to choose between spirit and reason or some hybrid of both). The question should be “Can we understand the universe?” I simply don’t know that we are capable of this understanding. If we are capable of this feat of comprehension I don’t know that we can ever, for certain, know that we are capable of it. How would we know? What is our point of reference? How would we ever no for sure that our beliefs are not based on illusions or misinterpretations? We don’t know for certain and, yet, so many of our institutions, be they religious or secular, function on the belief that we know for certain how things are going to work out if we take certain actions or do things a special way. This belief pervades our churches, our hospitals, our schools and our homes. Our value judgments, our morality and our understandings are constantly shaded with the haughty taint of false understanding. Really, we know next to nothing. Maybe the only thing it is possible for us to completely understand about the universe is that we don’t understand the universe.
Sometimes simple written juxtapositions can simply shutdown the inner workings of one’s mind. Zen Buddhism uses koans for this exact purpose. Mediating on the sound of one hand clapping or why Joshu would bother cutting a cat in half with a pair of shoes on his head are the psychological equivalent of throwing the emergency brake on a Ford Escort while doing 110 miles per hour on the Santa Monica Freeway. If a person pays attention and is tuned into the general weirdness of the universe it becomes apparent that these bizarre feats of language are everywhere.
This evening I found one such “accidental” koan on Yahoo Sports. It managed to make all of the synapses in my brain stop dead in their tracks. The current sports media obsession revolves around the potential trade of basketball star Carmelo Anthony to the New Jersey Nets. About an hour ago, I read a headline that said “Anthony To Meet With Nets”. Below it was a headline that said, with equal certainty, “Nets Not Meeting With Anthony”.
If these two headlines are read together they can cause severe damage to one’s cerebellum. How can Carmelo Anthony meet with the Nets while the Nets are not meeting with him? Does this mean that Anthony is in the room with members of Nets management who are spontaneously ignoring him? The Nets are trying to trade for him….why would they be so outwardly hostile towards him? Imagine Carmelo busting into a hotel room filled with Nets brass watching the All-Star 3-point shooting contest. At first, Carmelo talks softly, then he shouts and screams, but the Nets front office simply sits silently avoiding whatever Carmelo does. They shun him. Carmelo jumps in front of the television, he begins to sing the theme song from “Green Acres”, he pulls his liver out of his body and begins chewing on it….no response. What am I to make of these conflicting headlines?!?!?!
I need to know how this is possible. Maybe the two things ARE happening at the same time. Carmelo is in an alternate universe discussing his plans to go to New Jersey while in another dimension the Nets refuse to meet with him. Maybe there are two Carmelo Anthonys in this world and two sets of different Nets. Carmelo A is meeting with Nets A while Carmelo B and Nets B avoid each other. What if these two dimensions simultaneously converged upon on another and Anthony was traded to the Nets while he remained untraded? The Nets of the Nether Dimension would have added a 20 point per game scorer while the Nets of our current universe would still be stuck with Devin Harris and a bunch of guys in the witness protection program. What if the Nether Dimension Nets played the Carmeloless real world Nets? Who would win? If Carmelo scores 22 points in the Nether Dimension and 20 in the real universe, does it mean he’s scored 42 points? How would the NBA possibly track these statistics? Wouldn’t he have an advantage over, say, Kobe Bryant who is currently only allowed to play in one dimension?
What if the Nets got crafty and traded for BOTH Carmelo Anthonys? This would probably kill their salary cap number but they would have added two All-Star caliber players. I wonder if the two could co-exist? Is there room in New Jersey for one Carmelo Anthony? How about two? If the Nets learn to master the art of dimensional travel it is entirely possible that they could assemble a team of all Carmelo Anthonys. Twelve 20 point per game scorers on one team!?!?! They’d average 240 points per game!!!! They’d win the NBA title four or five times possibly in the same year. What if other teams caught on to their multi-dimensional strategy? LeBron James’ PR image issue would be gone. He could simply sign with EVERY team in the NBA. They’d love him again…EVERYWHERE! In other sports this could be huge. The Yankees would certainly go out and sign Albert Pujols 47 times. They’d have Albert Pujols selling tickets, serving hotdogs, playing first base, exterminating bugs, and on and on and on.
Eventually, it is possible to create a worldwide army of Carmelo’s marching towards endless victory. Millions upon millions of Carmelos pulled from millions of different dimensions. Imagine an enemy army trying to hold a city when thousands of 6’9 small forwards come racing over a wall. Who could stop them? They could forever change the world balance of power. What if a foreign government got their hands on a Carmelo dimensional prototype? They could create a nation of anti-American Carmelo Anthonys. The thought is terrifying.
Maybe I’ve taken this too far. I’m no longer sure of anything. I was having a perfectly normal night trying to find You Tube clips of professional boxers fighting kangaroos when this madness seeped into my brain. Yahoo owes me a basic explanation as to how a man can be doing something and not doing it at the same time. I will not rest until I’ve gotten one.
Last night, Paul Pierce put together a game that will certainly go down in the annals of the Boston Celtics as one of the most warrior-esque performances in that franchise’s history. After receiving numerous injuries, Pierce returned to the game against the Miami Heat and scored 37 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to lead the Celtics to a 121-119 overtime victory. What made the game special was not just Pierce’s fabulous numbers, but the amazing series of setbacks that Pierce overcame to lead his team to victory. In the postgame press conference Ray Allen called Pierce’s performance “amazing” and said that he was “a true warrior”
About 3 minutes into the game, Ray Allen stole the ball from LeBron James and threw the ball the length of the court to Pierce. Pierce went up for a layup and was hammered to the floor by Udonis Haslem. The team doctor brought Pierce back to the dressing room and after a series of x-rays determined that he had a fractured orbital bone in his face. Grasping the importance of the game, Pierce put on a plastic, Rip Hamilton mask and returned to action with 3 minutes left to go in the quarter.
Upon his return to the floor, Pierce scored 6 quick points. He threw in a great slashing layup to tie the game up at 27. Unfortunately for Pierce, he landed off balance on his right ankle causing a severe sprain. Pierce was carried off the floor to the locker room by several teammates and it looked like he would be lost for the game. Three minutes after Pierce went to the locker room he miraculously ran out of the tunnel and on to the court just in time for the beginning of the second quarter.
Pierce faced more suffering in the second quarter. While taking a jump shot, Pierce was shot in the back by a deranged Heat fan in the 8th row. The shooter, Karl Lee Wiley, was arrested immediately by security. Pierce, who was lying on the court in a pool of blood, was carried on a stretcher to an ambulance. As the ambulance was driving away, Pierce burst out of the back and ran towards the court. With 2 minutes left in the second quarter, Pierce checked back into the game. Coach Doc Rivers was truly impressed. “I’ve had players play through injuries before, but I’ve never seen a player overcome a gunshot wound and go back in the game. Paul is a true warrior.”
The second half was also quite difficult for Pierce. While drinking contaminated Gatorade before the half begun he contracted a severe case of dysentery. Pierce spent much of the next 10 minutes shaking and running to the bathroom. He became delirious when he was in the locker room and claimed that he saw Larry Bird, Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale walking through the door. Yet somehow, Pierce was able to get his symptoms under control and return with 6 minutes left in the third quarter.
Pierce continued to play an inspired game. He went up for a monstrous dunk to cut the Heat’s lead to 9 with 7:22 left in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, his fingers got hooked on the webbing of the net and he was stuck, hanging by one arm in the air. Doctors, worried that Pierce could die from being suspended in mid-air for too long, immediately amputated the arm allowing Pierce to be freed. Pierce was again rushed to the locker room by the medical staff. But, it a moment reminiscent of Willis Reed’s injured return to the court during the Knicks championship game in the 70s, Pierce came out of the tunnel with only one arm and checked back into the game with 2 minutes remaining. Showing no effects from the terrible, arm amputation surgery he had only moments earlier, Pierce quickly fired in two three pointers to tie the game at 107 and send it to overtime. “He’s simply a warrior,” said Celtics Forward Kevin Garnett, “and this was the most warrior-like performance I’ve ever seen.”
During overtime, Pierce suffered a severe concussion, a brain aneurysm, a broken leg, was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes and a contracted a severe staph infection. With 3 minutes remaining, Pierce’s heart stopped and he collapsed on the court. Medics pronounced him dead on the scene and began to cart him off the floor, but somehow his heart began beating again and he returned to action. On a night where nothing could stop him, Pierce threw in a jumper from the corner with 2 seconds remaining giving the Celtics the victory. Shaquille O’Neal added 19 points and 12 rebounds as the Celtics pulled ahead of the Heat for the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Division. Pierce expects to play tomorrow night when the Celtics travel to Sacramento to face the Kings.
I ain’t feelin’ no sweet mystery of life nonsense this evening. I have a miserable cold. My throat hurts, I’m tired and I feel like I fought a 50-foot killer sea urchin all day. I have nothing to add to your life but complaints; I am going to blog anyway. Being sick is awful.
The other night I tried to get rid of this thing by sucking down some Robitussin. How on earth the FDA approved this substance is beyond me. The stuff never makes me feel better, but it does always fill me with angst and white-hot rage. I took the recommended dosage and went to bed. Immediately I fell into hours of hellish dreaming. I had one dream where everything was normal except everyone I saw had tremendous goiters protruding from their necks. Just an average Saturday, I went to the supermarket….goiters everywhere…..I went to the bank….GOITERS….I got home….GOITERS on everyone. Nobody noticed except me. It was basically what would have happened if Ken Kesey wrote a Twilight Zone episode. You have been transported to a strange land where everything is the same, except everyone has goiters.
I woke up from that one sweating. It was 2:58 in the morning and I was staring at the ceiling. Being a basketball coach, I am familiar with this drill. Usually I lay there muttering to myself about how I should have gone to a 1-3-1 zone in the second half of a game from 5 years ago. This evening was different. I kept thinking about orange juice. For some reason, the idea of oranges being squeezed and put in bottles was making me insanely angry. Why do they do it? Who came up with the idea? Usually, I can distance myself from this sort of thing and laugh a bit, but I was full on committed to the grave injustice that was orange juice. Then, I started thinking about raisins. Ridiculous little things! Absurd!
I bolted upright in bed. My wife is familiar with these sorts of moments and has learned to not engage me at 3 AM. Nothing I say makes any sense at that time, but with a head full of Robitussin I was bound to start yelling at her because she didn’t know the two Senators from the state of Nebraska. I started pacing around the room looking for something to read. I found the most boring thing I could lay my hands; a nightmarish volume I found in the quarter bin years back on how the commodities market works. The plan was to bore the demons out of my body. The next thing I know I am sitting out in my car waiting for the thing to heat up with the first Suffocation album, a wonderful piece of music known as “Effigy of the Forgotten”, blaring as loud as my blown out Saturn speakers could blast it. (A side note…I am convinced that there cannot be a more bizarre vision then watching a 35 year old father of two sitting alone in a beat up car at 3 AM on a Monday morning blaring death metal and singing along at the top of his lungs)
Suddenly, I’m in a Dunkin’ Donuts. The guy behind the counter has that “please don’t hassle me” look that any rational person would have working a nightshift would have when a wild-eyed lunatic walked in with malice in his eyes.
“Boston Creme donut,” I mumbled.
Wrong answer. ”What do you mean!!!!? How are you out!!!! What are you talking about? This is a donut shop, man!”
“We don’t put those out until 4 AM.”
“Really?!?!!? really?!??!!? REALLY!!!!!!”
The poor guy was clearly feeling under the counter for the shotgun at that point.
“We have old fashions.”
“NO! NO! NO!!!!”
“Ehhhhhh. Give me two.”
I slunked away a defeated man. I sat there for an hour reading the same three pages on soybean futures over and over not understanding a word. The book might as well have been upside down. Every five minutes or so I got up and looked at the section of the rack where Boston Cream donuts were usually kept and there was nothing. I didn’t even want one anymore, I just felt like there should be some sense of completion, some end to this absurd journey.
I went home. I lay there for a while longer staring at the ceiling fan. It got light. It goes on.
My basketball team got beat by 31 points last night and I am still alive. It was a long, cold night, we got the bus back at nearly 10 o’clock and we committed 15 fouls in the first quarter, which must be a record in the state of Georgia. I have a vague fear that people watching might think that the team is losing because I am a bad coach and I have no clue what I am doing. I worry that there is something I am missing, some vital piece of information that could allow me to dramatically change our fortunes. Losing games has the painful side effect of bringing to the surface dormant feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. These are hard things to avoid. Yet, in spite of this, I really don’t feel that bad about the whole thing. Losing is not something I am proud of, but it is something that I have become less afraid of over the years. What I am about to say is heretical in the world of coaching and probably will elicit eye rolls from folks who worship at the altar of the “Church of the Winner”, but losing is really not all that bad. I’ll even go one step further into the nether reaches of coaching apostasy…I had a great time at the game last night and my players did as well! How is this possible?
A good deal of the culture of sport is built on the mistaken belief that winning actually means something beyond the basic fact that Team A scored more points that Team B. I have often been told that character wins basketball games. This is absurd. If a team has character and scores less points than the other team, they still lose. You could put together a team of sociopathic axe murderers and put them against a team of people who have run into burning buildings to save the lives of children and if the axe murderers put the ball in the basket more often they are going to win.
I have been told that winning is a product of hard work and determination. Another patently ridiculous statement. I have coached players who were extraordinarily committed to every aspect of the game but cannot keep up with disinterested natural athletes. Working hard may make you a better player but it can only close the gap so much. Hard work and determination are great character traits to have and will serve one well in life, but once the players step on the court it can only carry you so far. In order to get at the heart of how insane this idea is imagine for a second two basketball teams. One is a highly talented team who wins many of their games, some by embarrassingly high totals, and another is a minimally talented team who gets beat soundly on a regular basis. Which team really shows the most determination? The team that often loses has to deal with the hopelessness and sadness that losing can create. Sometimes people are angry with them because they have not performed well. Sometimes they feel embarrassed or ashamed because they lost. Yet they keep coming back game after game. During the 2007-08 season, the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders men’s basketball team went 0-29. Can you imagine how much determination they must have shown to keep playing and working hard day after day?
The all time weakest sports cliché is the one where people think winning is a product of discipline. Bobby Bowden perfectly summed up the problem with this statement when he was asked if discipline was the key to winning. He responded by saying “if it was, Army and Navy would be playing for the National Championship every year.”
Maybe all of these positive attributes can be put together to create a culture of winning. They may help you, but when your team walks out of the tunnel and the other team has a significant advantage “height, speed, natural strength, etc.” there is only so much you can do. We don’t remember the story of David and Goliath because it is a regular occurrence; we remember it because it is the exception to the rule.
I once heard a football coach asked what he liked most about his star running back. He replied, “The kid makes me look like I know what I am doing.” I have stolen that quote and used it repeatedly over the years because I believe that it is instructive in understanding what I actually do for four months of the year. I try to teach skills and technique, but some players are able to get it and some are not. The great players often pick things up after a few repetitions and the ones with less ability may spend their entire time in high school working on one skill that another player could pick up in a half hour. Those with a set of attributes that gear them for success in the game will make them me seem as if I am a brilliant coach, those without the winning attributes will make me appear like I don’t have a clue about how to teach the game. If winning is the goal and my self worth as a coach is derived from it how on earth can I feel anything but anger towards those who don’t perform well and favor those who are successful?
Last night, while we were driving down to the game the girls on my team had a blast. They sang along to pop songs on the radio, they told hysterical jokes, wore funny hats and laughed uncontrollably. We showed up at the gym and were baffled by the bizarre conditions. The locker room looked vaguely like something out of the Saw films. The gym had no heat in it and it was a balmy 40 degrees at game time. We got on the court and the other team scored the first 17 points. None of the players put their head down and no one was angry. Our center hit a jump shot to get us on the board and the bench went crazy. My point guard picked up her third foul in the first quarter because of a bit of ill-advised gambling on my part. She came over to ask me to keep her in the game and I informed her that she had three fouls. She looked over at me and said “But I get five!” We laughed about that one the whole bus ride home. Another girl on the team asked me if she could coach the next game. I told her she couldn’t and she looked at me without a hint of irony and said, “Coach…let me shine!” Great line! We laughed about that for a while, too. We stopped for gas and snacks and two of the girls bought matching day-glow hats that made them look like a pack of tropical Skittles. Sitting on the bench with me was a young man who is the assistant coach of the boy’s team. He played for me when he was in high school and he loves the game so much he has decided to try coaching. He is a great person and is going to be a tremendous coach one day. I have been lucky enough to get a chance to coach with several athletes that played for me in high school and it is an unbelievably wonderful feeling.
I guess I should have been acting dejected after the game. Smiling while your team is losing seems like an act of betrayal, but it isn’t. It is an act of love for the game and your players and an act appreciation and reverence for how much fun a game can be. I have never been one for oft repeated bromides about how winning isn’t what’s important, but I have to wonder what type of person I would be to be surrounded by all that joy and life while sadly brooding about not winning a basketball game. Think of what I could have missed.
Vince Lombardi once said, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” Well Vince, I don’t want to teach my players to be good losers, I want them to be the best losers that ever stepped on the court. I want them to experience elation every time they play basketball. I want them to look back with an incurable fondness and veneration for every moment of the season. If I could choose one thing to teach every player who puts on a uniform it’s to love the game completely without reserve and to play like that everyday.
Back in May I got the opportunity to attend a basketball coaching clinic at the Harrah’s Casino in Tunica. The clinic featured some of the top college coaches in America including George Mason’s Jim Larranaga, LSU’s Trent Johnson, Virginia Tech’s Seth Greenberg and the one and only Robert Montgomery Knight (his friends call him Bobby). Myself and about 1,000 other coaches were herded into an auditorium converted into a gym for three days in order to find out the secrets of how to lead young men and women towards becoming championship caliber athletes. Anyone who has ever been to one of these clinics before knows the drill…coachspeak followed by coachspeak followed by the occasional substantial and interesting point followed by more coachspeak and more coachspeak. By coachspeak, I mean the repeated uses of expressions like “the short corner” or “attacking the elbow” which are meaningful to most coaches but come across like some mysterious hybrid of Swahili and Mandarin Chinese to the uninitiated. The one astute point in the midst of the coachspeak is often fantastic, which is why I highly recommend these clinics to other coaches, but the hours upon hours of coachspeak can take it’s toll on even the most fervent hoops junkie.
I am not a very good note taker, but I decided I was going to try to get down as much of what was meaningful as possible. This worked for the first 5 or so hours. I have lovely, detailed sketches of out of bounds plays and wonderful points about how to properly position my post players when they are down on the block. After a certain point, I began to drift away from the land of normal coaching thought. Too many things that were not basketball began to assert themselves into the clinic. The words character and discipline began to rear their ugly heads. Coaching has developed an odd fixation with these ideas over the years. They are somehow indicative of the deeper meaning of sports. If you are a good coach, your team wins. If you are a great coach, your teams win and develop discipline and character. You cannot win without discipline or character. You will be tested; under these circumstances discipline and character will show. The pantheon of great athletes all had discipline and character. Blah, blah, blah. My problem with this formulation is that there is very little discussion over what these terms actually mean. We are just supposed to know.
My mind was spiraling out of control. I had been reading a ton of Descartes and had recently listened to an incredible online course on Death by Yale Professor Shelly Kagan. These thoughts were ping ponging around my mind. They had begun to merge with my notes. Here is the mental chaos that ensued:
(For the sake of time and not boring the noncoaches out there, I have removed all of the traditional basketball and have all left the weirdo philosophical stuff basically untouched)
1. What is character and discipline but the denial of the self? Why must the self be removed or fought for someone to play the game well? Is the self such an albatross that it must be obliterated in order to achieve “greatness”?
2. Does the self even exist? How is it possible for the self to exist as something different from the body? Are there two of us in here? Am I the Ghost in the Machine and if so, who is that in here who keeps telling me to not do the things I want to do? Why am I so committed to not letting the Ghost play?
3. So…does the self exist? It must because we are asked to deny it. Discipline asks us to deny the self, so something must be asking us to deny the self. It must be the self. It is a similar formulation to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”. There must be a self otherwise what is there to deny the self. The question then becomes, why on earth would the self ask to deny itself? That is a bizarre idea that must lead to a good amount of confusion when someone first enters the “Church of the Winner”.
4. What is discipline? The self wants, the self says no. Why would it deny what it wants? Denial of short-term gratification for deeper long-term fulfillment. Losing the self in the team. But why would we want to lose the self?
5. Why does the self imagine? What set of circumstances would make it want to wish for more or different?
6. Here is a list of the things that have been labeled acceptable by coaches at today’s clinic:
Victory over other selves
Destruction of other selves in other uniforms on the path to victory
Adulation of other selves if the correct function has been performed correctly
Greed as long as it stays unadmitted
Here are the things that have been labeled unacceptable by coaches at today’s clinic:
Gluttony (in terms of food or comfort, but not in terms of success)
Destruction of other selves wearing the same uniform as you
Adulation of other selves when the correct task has been performed incorrectly
Adulation of other selves when the wrong task has been performed correctly
Obvious greed for the wrong things (cars, status among the wrong people, “bling”)
7. Here are the rules when attempting to gain victory over other selves:
A. Winning at athletic contests can show the superiority of the self that denies the self (but doesn’t admit it)
B. Cheating is wrong because it skews the game, thus defeating the illusion of the level playing field. How can we determine which self is better if we haven’t deluded ourselves into thinking that we have triumphed over another self in a fair set of circumstances?
C. Hard work represents a self more able to deny the wants of the self. Pope Jordan the Ascetic.
D. In work matters, the self that can deny some of the wants of the self (rest, gluttony for the wrong things, comfort) and can nurture other wants of the self (the unspoken enjoyment of adulation, greed for money or status, appearance of a lack of the self) will get almost none of what the self wants, but more than the self that doesn’t.
E. Terminology is the coin of the realm. Terminology is a tiki mask of legitimacy. It is the short cut to proof that one is the self that can deny the self. If I understand these absurd terms, I must have spent hour upon hour of self-denial in learning these hollow metaphors that make very little sense. My commitment to irrational details shows how willing I am to obliterate the self for “greatness”. The more the metaphor rings hollow, the greater the proof of the self that has given up more immediate opportunities for gratification in order to learn them. The sheer absurdity of the basketball cliché has a normative function.
F. Emotional and physical discomfort are goals to be aspired towards. The more we pretend we are experiencing them, the more we will be ready when they show up. A champion is one who has vowed to spend his or her entire life mired in this sort of discomfort so that when the moment of real discomfort arises, they will have a lifetime of awful experience to draw on…and then they can put the round ball in the round hole one or two more times than the self in another uniform who hasn’t put him or herself through as much pain.
G. Creativity is something that is both an expectation and a curse. One is expected to think thoughts that fit into a neat box, but in a slightly different way than the other selves. When a self creates something that doesn’t fit in that box and loves it enough to share it with others, the self will be ridiculed or snickered at for the heinous crime of self-indulgence.
8. The self that denies the self (and claims not to) feigns praise for the creator but really respects and admires the editor, the salesman and the promoter. Creativity requires a complete exposure of the unfettered self. The self that denies the self (and claims not to) is appalled by pure creativity because it is a reminder of the dull rituals it is shackled to in the hopes of further denying the self.
9. ”Deny! Deny! Deny!” -a coach stressing the importance of defense.
10. If the self that denies the self (and claims not to) conquers other selves, it feels a momentary sense of relief and the joy of not being conquered and being exposed as a self that doesn’t deny itself. This is followed by a horrific realization of the more than 6 billion predatory selves that may be lying in wait; hunting for the same moment of relief and joy.
11. How does the conquering self know the difference between itself and the conquered self? The self needs an Arbiter in order to know it’s worth. Without the Arbiter, the self cannot tell the difference between Pyrrhic victory and a miserable defeat. So, an Arbiter is created. The Arbiter (a scoreboard, an official) is declared real in our minds (except for most of the time). We often declare the Arbiter wrong (the refs hosed us, the final score doesn’t reflect how the game went, etc.). Who even knows who conquered whom?
12. Many of us long for a time (long ago) when “the rules meant something” and could give us a longer period of relief when we conquered the other selves. We think that this time existed and that somewhere along the line the losers rose up through the sleight of hand of a group of morally relative sycophants who took our comfort in winning away. We no longer even feel like we can enjoy the illusion we have created.
13. The odd thing about this belief is that I’m not sure that this magical time of the primacy of rules ever really existed. Maybe all there ever was were a group of selves pointing backwards trying to find new a clever ways to conquer other selves.
14. Consume in the name of the past, in the name of progress, in the name of protection, in the name of peace, in the name of whatever allows us to remember to forget or forget to remember what we are.
15. ”Why do we think of offense and defense as different things?” Great point, coach! Better than you even know.