Lebron James and the In­fi­nite Melan­choly

The Iowa Review - - STEPHEN MARKLEY - Stephen markley

For much of my youth, I grew up across the street from a bas­ket­ball court on an ele­men­tary school play­ground where, if no one was around, I’d of­ten play alone un­til the light gave out. I learned to shoot in the dark, when your eyes can’t prop­erly ad­just and make the cal­cu­la­tion be­tween ball, rim, back­board, and murk. I’d end up chas­ing the ball into the weeds that rimmed the play­ground lot, some­times all the way into the yards of the low-rent apart­ments across the street. Not long af­ter Lebron James and the Cleve­land Cava­liers pulled off the all-time stun­ning up­set of the Golden State War­riors in the 2016 NBA Fi­nals, I was back home in Ohio clean­ing out my child­hood room. One night, I grabbed my old bas­ket­ball and took it across the street as dusk fell. Be­gin­ning with re­verse layups, mov­ing out to the el­bow, fi­nally the top of the key, I went through a shoot­ing rou­tine I’ve been do­ing since I was prob­a­bly nine—the move­ments au­to­matic, pure mus­cle mem­ory, even if the shots didn’t fall as fre­quently as they used to. Ear­lier that sum­mer, I’d driven twelve hours from Iowa City to Cleve­land to take part in the 1.3 mil­lion–strong vic­tory pa­rade. Be­fore a sweaty, sun­burned crowd un­du­lat­ing with parox­ysms of ado­ra­tion, Lebron James said, “For some crazy-ass rea­son, I be­lieve I’m gonna wake up, and it’s gonna be like game four, and I’m gonna be like, ‘Shit, we down 2–1 still.’” I stood in the throng think­ing, You and me both, dude, and re­called the way it felt when the buzzer sounded, and Kevin Love leapt into James’s arms, and I was so com­pletely stunned, it was like death re­versed—like some­one you’d loved and lost showed up at your door with a six-pack of beer, say­ing, Let’s do this. There was this idea that had been both­er­ing me, ag­gre­gated over a life­time of ob­sess­ing on this sport, tin­gling in my core the way a tight game, tied late in the fourth quar­ter, man­i­fests in your nerve end­ings like a subepi­der­mal elec­tric­ity. It had some­thing to do with how a silly game premised around a fickle re­la­tion­ship be­tween ball and rim fits into the larger story of the uni­verse and how the love of that game is a joy about as dark and dan­ger­ous as any and all love should be.

How does such love be­gin? My bas­ket­ball ob­ses­sion started not in Ohio but Port­land, Ore­gon. I was eight years old in 1992 when the Trail

Blaz­ers met the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Fi­nals. Port­land gets bas­ket­ball fever ev­ery time the Blaz­ers are over .500, and that year, the city’s tem­per­a­ture rose to the point of im­mo­lat­ing the pop­u­lace, in­clud­ing all sec­ond-grade boys within a fifty-mile ra­dius. My dad and I reg­u­larly jour­neyed to a nearby play­ground where I would at­tempt to im­per­son­ate Clyde Drexler, my first bas­ket­ball hero, by fever­ishly hurl­ing the ball at a rust­ing back­board. I wholly pre­sumed that the Blaz­ers would tri­umph. It all seemed in­evitable, fated. Ex­cept there was this guy you may have heard of: Michael Jor­dan. In the open­ing game, he scored thirty-five points in the first half, a fi­nals record. This was the game of the iconic “I wanna be like Mike” shrug, poor Sixth Man of the Year Cliff Robin­son look­ing be­wil­dered in the back­ground, Jor­dan hump­ing his shoul­ders, hands splayed out as if to say, “Yeah, I don’t get it ei­ther, but hey. . .” The Blaz­ers were cat­tle be­neath the bolt gun. The Bulls won by thirty-three points. “The first one felt so good, I had to take more,” said Jor­dan. “I couldn’t miss. The threes were like free throws.” When the con­fetti fell for the Bulls in game six, I went to my room and cried, suf­fer­ing that first child­hood be­reave­ment when life fails to turn out how you think it should, when you first un­der­stand that the chaos of the uni­verse will al­low un­fa­vor­able re­sults. And how ab­surdly lucky is it for a kid to ease into this rev­e­la­tion when his pre­ferred sports team loses? There­after, Michael Jor­dan be­came the fo­cus of my con­tempt. I never for a sec­ond bought his base­ball re­tire­ment, which felt like noth­ing more than the mon­ster’s first faux death near the cli­max of the hor­ror movie. It didn’t help that my fam­ily had since moved to Ohio, an af­ter­noon’s drive down the high­way from Cleve­land, and over time I be­came the dumb­est car­pet­bag­ger Cava­liers fan. Dumb, be­cause at that point, the Cavs en­tire his­tory as a fran­chise was ba­si­cally about los­ing in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion to Michael Jor­dan. Time af­ter time, he was there with dag­gers and that in­de­fati­ga­ble sin­gle pump of his fist (which I un­con­sciously mim­icked on the court in ele­men­tary school YMCA leagues). When he hit that jumper over Bryon Rus­sell in game six of the 1998 fi­nals, I shrieked that he had pushed off, that it should have been an of­fen­sive foul, but no one cared. It was Jor­dan’s last shot as a Bull, sup­pos­edly of his ca­reer, a grace note that rings out over the bas­ket­ball uni­verse still; his eyes were un­rip­pled wa­ter, the shot was that of a sniper pulling the trig­ger just as he ex­hales and his heart and lungs pause. De­spite how much I prayed for Jor­dan to fail, it never hap­pened. Even af­ter the stranger parts of his ca­reer—his comeback stunt with the Washington Wizards, his strug­gles as that team’s GM and later with

the Char­lotte Hor­nets (née Bob­cats), the rev­e­la­tion of his ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair, the pay­off to his mis­tress and the pay­out to his ex-wife in the di­vorce—none of it’s con­se­quen­tial, none of it forms even the most re­mote as­ter­isk. All any fan won­ders is if the Bulls would have won eight straight ti­tles if he hadn’t run off to play base­ball. Hun­dreds of “the next Jor­dans” have come and gone over the years, from Harold Miner to Vince Carter, and for the most part, they have all van­ished into ob­scu­rity, relics left in the mem­o­ries of those of us who in­haled the petroleum fumes from the gloss of too many bas­ket­ball cards in our youths. When Lebron came along six months af­ter Jor­dan re­tired for good, there was this eerie con­ti­nu­ity, de­mand­ing from the mar­ket­ing gu­rus at Nike its own re­li­gious iconog­ra­phy. I still have my “Wit­ness” shirt, pur­chased be­fore Lebron had won a game, let alone an MVP or a ti­tle. Be­cause Lebron has never re­ally been chas­ing cham­pi­onship rings or MVPS or ALL-NBA teams per se—he’s of course chas­ing Jor­dan’s liv­ing ghost. A prickly, hy­per-com­pet­i­tive, grudge-hold­ing ghost.

It was eight years to the day af­ter the na­tional tragedy of 9/11 when Michael Jor­dan was in­ducted into the Nai­smith Me­mo­rial Bas­ket­ball Hall of Fame, and per­haps the only cruel thing not said about his speech was to point out the date and use the ob­vi­ous “this was the 9/11 of” ref­er­ence. His in­duc­tion might have been one of the most ob­vi­ous ac­co­lades in the his­tory of ath­let­ics. Per­haps there was an an­cient Athe­nian dis­cus hurler or me­dieval French jouster who some­how reached a higher pin­na­cle in his com­pet­i­tive, mass-en­ter­tain­ment pro­fes­sion, but if so, his­tory has for­got­ten it, and no scour­ing of Google has un­earthed it. In­ducted along­side fel­low Dream Team­ers David Robin­son and John Stock­ton, as well as coach Jerry Sloan, it had to be a let­down for th­ese oth­er­wise ac­com­plished fig­ures of the game. Sort of like be­ing sec­ond in your physics class be­hind Richard Feyn­man. Jor­dan took to the podium with a de­served stand­ing ova­tion and hand-bruis­ing ap­plause. The next twenty-three min­utes would more or less melt the sports world’s cor­ner of the in­ter­net. Rick Reilly, sports’ don of dad hu­mor, ex­em­pli­fied the re­ac­tion when he called it the “Exxon Valdez of speeches. It was, by turns, rude, vin­dic­tive, and flammable. And that was just when he was try­ing to be funny. It was tact­less, ego­tis­ti­cal, and un­be­com­ing. When it was done, no­body wanted to be like Mike.” Even David Brooks of the New York Times would cite the speech as an ex­am­ple of Amer­ica’s cul­tural de­cay: “To­day, im­mod­esty is as ubiqui-

tous as ad­ver­tis­ing . . .there is Michael Jor­dan’s ego­ma­ni­a­cal and self­ind­ul­gent Hall of Fame speech.” Hell, I was ready to hate on Jor­dan, to in­dulge all the an­tipa­thy of my child­hood, un­til I ac­tu­ally watched the speech. Then I couldn’t help but find the crit­i­cism weirdly petu­lant and shal­low. Jor­dan did call out ev­ery­one who’d ever stood in his way. He even took pot­shots at his high school coach, who fa­mously gave a guy named Leroy Smith a spot on the var­sity team over him. He looked at Leroy, who was in the au­di­ence that night, and said, “When he made the team and I didn’t, I wanted to prove not just to Leroy Smith, not just to my­self, but to the coach that picked Leroy over me, I wanted to make sure you un­der­stood—you made a mis­take, dude.” Pat Ri­ley, Isa­iah Thomas, Jeff Van Gundy, Magic John­son, John Starks, Larry Bird, Jerry Krause—any­one who’d frozen him out in a rookie-year all-star game or sent “Jor­dan-stoppers” at him in the play­offs or warred with him from man­age­ment’s perch, they all got name-checked, some more un­com­fort­ably than oth­ers. But what the hell did ev­ery­one think Michael Jor­dan was like? It struck me that peo­ple read ar­ro­gance in Jor­dan’s speech, where there was only ex­pla­na­tion. He wasn’t say­ing he was still mad about this or that slight but that th­ese were the mo­ments that fu­eled a preter­nat­u­rally com­pet­i­tive spirit. So I kind of love that speech. Be­cause ul­ti­mately, it was crassly hon­est about the hu­man con­di­tion, Jor­dan be­ing one of the purest ex­pres­sions of that con­di­tion: he found pur­pose in the void, he found pas­sion, and he pur­sued that pas­sion with bound­less en­ergy. We want our ath­letes, as sports­writer Michael Wil­bon put it, “safe and syrupy.” They are to gen­u­flect. They are to be grate­ful that old, white bil­lion­aires pluck them up and put a jer­sey on their backs and a check in their pock­ets. Or, as Rick Reilly opined, “He only thanked six peo­ple.” Most telling of all on the short list of thank-yous that so of­fended Reilly was the ab­sence of the one thank-you to which ath­letes seem uni­ver­sally be­holden, the one that’s so de rigueur that when a su­per­star be­gins ef­fu­sively spout­ing off about it, side­line re­porters just stand dulleyed, wait­ing for their in­ter­vie­wee to get it out of the way, so they can get on to their in­nocu­ous side­line ques­tion­ing. Ob­vi­ously, I have no idea about Michael Jor­dan’s spir­i­tual mind, nor do I think it’s par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant. Yet the most glar­ing over­sight on his short list of thank-yous was the one in­di­vid­ual ath­letes spend the most time thank­ing: God. Michael Jor­dan gave the speech of his ca­reer and never once brought Him up.

Golden State War­riors phe­nom and two-time MVP Steph Curry is sim­ply the lat­est in­car­na­tion of the part-time evan­ge­liz­ing ath­lete. Curry, more fer­vent than most, once wrote a col­umn for the Fel­low­ship of Chris­tian Ath­letes’ website ex­plain­ing how he loves pros­e­ly­tiz­ing for “the Man who died for our sins on the cross. I know I have a place in Heaven wait­ing for me be­cause of Him.” In no way is Curry new or unique. Quar­ter­back Tim Te­bow had peo­ple be­liev­ing he was an ex­pres­sion of Je­sus Christ’s will be­cause he had pass­ing stats that aligned nu­mer­i­cally with Bible verses; the dif­fer­ence be­tween Te­bow and Curry is only a sliver in ball-to-tar­get ac­cu­racy. “I want to thank God,” Curry be­gan his MVP speech. “The Man Above never puts you in sit­u­a­tions you can’t han­dle,” said Lebron, fol­low­ing the Cavs game seven up­set. “I owe my tal­ents to God,” said ev­ery ath­lete ever. We’re so used to th­ese plat­i­tudes that our ears barely pick them up any­more. We ex­cuse or gloss over the petty nar­cis­sism re­quired to be­lieve that the grand cos­mic de­sign is about you scor­ing a touch­down, while this other kid wastes away from mal­nu­tri­tion in So­ma­lia, and our eco­nomic, so­cial, and po­lit­i­cal struc­tures re­main blame­less in the glory of His light. We ac­cept this rea­son­ing, and some of us even de­mand it. Which is why I love it that Michael Jor­dan got in front of the en­tire world and ad­mit­ted—whether he un­der­stood it or not—that his grudge against Leroy Smith, among oth­ers, was more im­por­tant to his life than the Lord Above.

When I was in the sixth grade, gear­ing up to try out for the bas­ket­ball team the next year, prac­tic­ing el­bow jumpers at the play­ground across the street deep into the frigid Ohio win­ter, a de­vout Chris­tian in my class told me she did not “be­lieve” in evo­lu­tion. I’d never heard of such a thing, even though polls fre­quently show a large, vo­cal mi­nor­ity of Amer­i­cans agree with her. I’d read Juras­sic Park roughly eleven times at that point and had a pretty clear un­der­stand­ing of why, ob­vi­ously, hu­mans did not just come from apes but be­fore that fish and be­fore that tiny lit­tle squibs of pro­tein. It fas­ci­nated me that this girl, among the bright­est in our class, could be­lieve some­thing so weird. Likely prod­ded by an uniden­ti­fied boy­hood crush, I grew obsessed with read­ing about evo­lu­tion and de­bat­ing the finer points with her be­tween math and lan­guage arts. Years later I would read Daniel Den­nett’s clas­sic Dar­win’s Dan­ger­ous Idea, which ar­tic­u­lated what hap­pened to my think­ing as a sixth grader. Den­nett calls Dar­win­ism a “uni­ver­sal acid,” in that it eats through ev­ery last su­per­nat­u­ral no­tion. It’s one of the great­est leaps for­ward in hu­man

un­der­stand­ing, yet most of us still refuse to ac­knowl­edge its im­pli­ca­tions. Dar­win’s dan­ger­ous idea is not “evo­lu­tion” but the na­ture of how evo­lu­tion works: it is an un­think­ing, un­feel­ing al­go­rith­mic process that cul­ti­vates all life, all thought, all emo­tion com­pletely and ab­so­lutely with­out in­ter­ven­tion from any out­side force. Ever since Dar­win, ev­ery man­ner of be­liever has tried to find in na­ture an ex­am­ple where evo­lu­tion can’t ex­plain this or that or the other, and all this ever does is help push for­ward the in­evitable march of evo­lu­tion­ary the­ory in ex­plain­ing more or less ev­ery­thing. Sim­i­larly, we thought the Earth unique, an Eden, un­til we un­der­stood planet and galaxy for­ma­tion, which is akin to Dar­winian evo­lu­tion in its mind­less, un­re­flec­tive form—space de­bris ran­domly co­her­ing into larger bod­ies around stars in an aim­less, pur­pose­less al­go­rithm based off forces of grav­ity. Now one of the last ves­tiges for the faith­ful who pay lip ser­vice to sci­ence is “fine-tun­ing”—the idea that the laws of physics and the prop­er­ties of the uni­verse ap­pear metic­u­lously, im­prob­a­bly fine-tuned for the spe­cific pur­pose of cre­at­ing life. This is, of course, the ex­act same line of fal­la­cious think­ing that had peo­ple ex­plain­ing how God put web­bing in a spi­der’s butt, so it could spin its trap and catch food. How mirac­u­lous! But it turns out, the spi­der’s an­ces­tors, through the in­ex­orable forces of nat­u­ral se­lec­tion, in­ad­ver­tently put silk in their own butts. To this day, we are still in the grow­ing pains of this rev­o­lu­tion. Be­cause the beauty (or the prob­lem, de­pend­ing on how you see it) of the uni­ver­sal acid is that it means this one ex­is­tence is noth­ing more than the end re­sult of an al­go­rithm run when the first macros got wrapped up in some for­mula of pri­mor­dial pro­teins or car­bon-based self-repli­cat­ing crys­tals and started se­lect­ing out the ones that couldn’t col­lect enough re­sources. Our lives, our loves, our cul­ture, our gods: it’s all noth­ing more than the ex­trap­o­la­tion of this pur­pose­less al­go­rithm do­ing its mind­less, ac­ci­den­tal work. All this knowl­edge is out there. You’re sup­posed to learn most of it be­fore you grad­u­ate from high school. One of the great chal­lenges for con­tem­po­rary re­li­gion is that all the ev­i­dence one needs to de­bunk its cen­tral mys­ti­cal tenants is em­bed­ded in the cur­ricu­lum of a ninth-grade sci­ence class. Then there was the fi­nal floor the uni­ver­sal acid sent me crash­ing through: maybe there re­mains the most re­mote pos­si­bil­ity that af­ter death we’re all trans­ported to some other plane of ex­is­tence, maybe the Bud­dhists are right, and we all await rein­car­na­tion in our next life, but the great­est likelihood, based on the ev­i­dence, is that there is noth­ing af­ter this. Our atoms re­turn to the palm of the cos­mos, and our con-

scious­ness evap­o­rates like so much dust in a hard wind. Yet this most likely of pos­si­bil­i­ties is the one peo­ple are least will­ing to en­ter­tain. And the rea­son peo­ple hate the uni­ver­sal acid is pretty ob­vi­ous. There’s no cre­ator, no ar­chi­tect, no mag­i­cal nether­world we all beam to when we die. No re­union with the ones we’ve loved and lost. No rea­son why bad things hap­pen to good peo­ple. No mean­ing other than what­ever ran­dom mean­ing any given per­son as­cribes to any­thing. We all, on some level, un­der­stand this: that the in­sect crushed un­der­foot has no in­sect soul es­cap­ing to in­sect heaven to meet the in­sect Je­sus and that the same fate of the in­sect awaits us all. Be­cause this con­clu­sion is so to­tally ob­vi­ous, is it any won­der we have such a com­plex, dif­fi­cult time pro­cess­ing it? Is it any won­der we will in­vent just about any om­nipo­tent sky tyrant, dream up ev­ery in­cred­i­ble post-cor­po­real fairy-tale play­ground in or­der to stave off the very ba­sic con­clu­sion that lies at the heart of hu­man un­der­stand­ing? We have a de­ranged re­la­tion­ship with our mor­tal­ity be­cause of what we sense: the in­fi­nite melan­choly alive in our hearts, ever present and ev­er­last­ing, from the mo­ment we let out our first scream to be re­turned to the warmth of the womb, to the day our vi­sion ex­plodes into the DMT­dream that takes us out. And there is no com­fort, be­cause it sucks. It sucks, and that’s it. At this point, one is tempted to ar­gue, “Yeah, and that’s why peo­ple be­lieve—be­cause of what you just said? That’s aw­ful. That’s de­press­ing.” The con­clu­sion so many draw is that non­be­lief must lead to ni­hilism, be­cause non­be­lief is also non­pre­scrip­tive. It doesn’t tell you how to live a fuller, hap­pier life. It doesn’t of­fer you com­fort in times of your most ex­treme sor­row. It doesn’t even give you a way to con­nect with other like-minded peo­ple. It’s just re­al­ity, which is why most peo­ple pre­fer some ver­sion of an ab­surd story. It can lead to con­clu­sions like those of de­pres­sive buz­zkill Alexan­der Rosen­berg, who in The Athe­ist’s Guide to Re­al­ity writes that peo­ple need not bother to look for “a good rea­son to go on liv­ing, be­cause there isn’t any.” (Bet that guy is the un­re­con­structed life of the party!) Yet for me, this rea­son­ing has al­ways missed the point and grants way too much joy­ful ground to peo­ple who be­lieve in magic wine wa­ter and can­dle oil that lasts a few days longer than it should. Be­cause god­damn are there some good rea­sons that—like the Boss said—“it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” In other words, re­gard­less of whether it’s in the void of a cold, un­car­ing, point­lessly fi­nite uni­verse, I still watch the NBA play­offs, be­cause the NBA play­offs are fuck­ing awe­some.

Why do we love teams? Why do we, as Jerry Se­in­feld put it, “root for laun­dry”? I sup­pose I love the teams my old­est friends love. Ac­tu­ally, if you re­ally want to psy­cho­an­a­lyze it, sports of­ten serve as a fool­proof bond­ing mech­a­nism be­tween chil­dren and their par­ents. Cer­tainly if you read Bill Sim­mons’s col­umn or lis­ten to his podcast reg­u­larly, you un­der­stand that his en­tire ca­reer as the era’s most suc­cess­ful sports­writer is more or less one over­long, ram­bling love let­ter to his fa­ther. I re­mem­ber very clearly hid­ing from my dad the fact that at some point af­ter mov­ing to Ohio, I re­ally be­came more of a Cava­liers fan than a Trail Blaz­ers fan. All my best friends were Cavs fans, and then they ac­quired Shawn Kemp, the Reign Man, from the Seat­tle Son­ics, so I was sure they were about to be amaz­ing (to say the least, they were not). But a few years later, the Cavs drafted the kid from Akron. When I was play­ing high school bas­ket­ball as a sopho­more in Ohio, ev­ery­one was gos­sip­ing about this freak-show fresh­man who looked like he could walk onto an NBA court to­mor­row and put up twenty. Keep in mind, Lebron James was just an­other high school ballplayer to me when I first heard of him. A ri­val. I have friends who went to school with him and who played in AAU against him, in­clud­ing my buddy Joe, who ac­ci­den­tally Dray­mond Green’d him in the groin and got him­self benched for the re­main­der of the game (Joe re­ported that six­teen-yearold Lebron told the refs, “Got guys out here try­ing to ruin ca­reers!”). It’s that feel­ing of hav­ing grown up with some­one, cel­e­brat­ing his finest mo­ments, and shak­ing your head at his low­est mis­takes. I have this group of friends from Mount Ver­non, Ohio, guys who I’ve known for twenty years and who I re­main as close to as my own fam­ily. We are sports fans, bas­ket­ball fans, Cavs fans, Lebron fans. As the years have worn on, and I have watched th­ese friends marry; have chil­dren (all boys so far; ready to shoul­der our Ohio sports ob­ses­sions); find suc­cess; di­vorce; suf­fer through heart­break, ad­dic­tion, debt, and darker mo­ments I dare not write about here, watch­ing Lebron James has been one mi­nor yet durable thread that has bound us to­gether over time and dis­tance and tragedy. Of all the ele­giac mem­o­ries Lebron has pro­vided, I re­turn to the first time we saw him play as a high school se­nior at the Colum­bus Me­mo­rial Coli­seum. Colum­bus bas­ket­ball power Brookhaven and Akron St. Vin­cent–st. Mary’s traded leads un­til the last two min­utes when a Lebron al­ley-oop put his Akron squad up fifty-eight to fifty-seven. Then Brookhaven’s point guard Drew Laven­der got fouled and stepped to the free throw line with a chance to win the game. I’d played against Laven­der at the Ohio State sum­mer camp a year ear­lier. He was the most phys­i­cally ex­haust­ing guy I’d ever de­fended.

Game like a fly go­ing berserk against a win­dow­pane. But I dogged him, I ha­rassed him, I fouled him when I had to, and we went into the half tied with Brookhaven, one of the best teams in the state, be­fore we ran out of gas in the sec­ond half. Af­ter the game, Laven­der pat­ted my back, bugged his sleepy eyes ex­haust­edly, and said some­thing like, “Nice job, man. Made me work for it.” When Laven­der stepped to the line, I was think­ing of the tran­sub­stan­ti­a­tion of de­fend­ing a guy on a bas­ket­ball court, how when it came to those split-sec­ond de­ci­sions—the head fakes, the jab steps, the foot­work—it weirdly feels like th­ese are rep­re­sen­ta­tive not of a per­son’s game but of his or her soul. I wanted badly for Laven­der to win the game for Brookhaven. I wanted him to sink those two free throws and top­ple the mighty Lebron James, The Cho­sen One, from his perch. Laven­der bricked both. Af­ter the game, my friends and I raved like lit­tle boys about what we’d seen. There was no deny­ing the stag­ger­ing im­pli­ca­tions of Lebron. He would pro­vide us with so many more mem­o­ries af­ter reach­ing the NBA, but that first time see­ing him in per­son—it re­ally had this sense of bear­ing wit­ness to the sec­ond com­ing. When Lebron left Cleve­land for the Mi­ami Heat in 2010, I was be­reaved be­yond what is prob­a­bly rea­son­able for any­one who is no longer a seven-year-old boy. I burned noth­ing and de­spised the racist over­tones of those ab­surd protests. I folded up my Wit­ness shirt and jer­sey and stuck them both in a drawer in my child­hood room back in Ohio. My grief wasn’t about los­ing the poet lau­re­ate of the NBA but about los­ing this awe­some ex­cuse to feel joy with the peo­ple I’m most equipped to un­der­stand joy with. When he re­turned to Cleve­land in 2014, I woke up the morn­ing of the Counter-de­ci­sion with my phone blow­ing up: text af­ter text from the best friends of my child­hood, still there with me, rid­ing herd, defin­ing my life and times in their own pe­cu­liar ways, and some­where in that mess of psy­chol­ogy, evo­lu­tion­ary drive, cul­tural ex­pla­na­tion, and un­bri­dled, ran­dom­ized chance we call a “soul,” you’ll find the rea­son why we per­sist in our de­vo­tion to the game—to all games. Be­cause dat­ing back to that night at Me­mo­rial Coli­seum, Drew Laven­der, Lebron James, th­ese high school friends of mine, and my­self—we were all wrapped into this same quirky cos­mic thread, this silly game for which we feel bot­tom­less love, dust in the black­ness, stum­bling upon light.

In Chicago, many years later, I dated a girl whose fa­ther was dy­ing. He had an in­op­er­a­ble brain tu­mor, and over the course of three years, she watched as he lost his speech, his mo­tor skills, and fi­nally his abil­ity

to get out of bed. He couldn’t ex­press him­self or take care of him­self; he be­came more or less a pris­oner in his own body. I got to know her right at the end of this aw­ful or­deal, and it took her a long time to re­veal why she was so fre­quently mak­ing the drive to her home­town out­side of St. Louis. “It’s not re­ally a nat­u­ral thing to slide into the con­ver­sa­tion,” she ex­plained. This girl was quirky and easy­go­ing and ef­fort­lessly fun. I never for a mo­ment sus­pected she stood by this mas­sive cliff of sad­ness all the time, peer­ing over the edge. She and her dad shared a deep love for the St. Louis Car­di­nals, and that fall, the Car­di­nals looked like they might win an­other World Se­ries. Al­though they fell short, they did have one of the most in­cred­i­ble comeback games in Ma­jor League his­tory. Down 6–0 to the Washington Na­tion­als in the de­cid­ing game for a berth in the 2012 NLCS, the Car­di­nals ral­lied to win 9–7. She was driv­ing home to see him that night, lis­ten­ing to the game on the ra­dio, try­ing not to slam the pedal to the floor as the Car­di­nals built their im­prob­a­ble vic­tory, hit by hit. She ar­rived just in time to catch the fi­nal in­ning. Her dad had gone to sleep, think­ing the Car­di­nals were get­ting killed, so she and her mom woke him up, and the three of them sat on the bed watch­ing their base­ball team fin­ish this epic play­off comeback. Though her dad could barely smile, when the fi­nal strike crossed the plate, he of­fered her his palm in a high five. One night, she and I were in a bar and some­how got on the topic of God and the af­ter­life or lack thereof. Ba­si­cally, take the pre­vi­ous sec­tion of this es­say, add about eleven beers, and you get an idea of what I prob­a­bly sounded like. I kept try­ing to ex­plain why this is not the bleak, de­press­ing as­sess­ment peo­ple as­sume, but she was in tears by the end of it. It re­minded me of the nu­ances in­volved in faith, the seed of hope and strength nev­er­the­less em­bed­ded in an ab­sur­dity, that the lux­ury of non­be­lief has an aw­ful lot to do with priv­i­lege, whether so­ci­etal or sit­u­a­tional. It was ugly to hear my own ar­ro­gance: this no­tion that I could rea­son a per­son’s grief away. The uni­ver­sal acid works its way to the bot­tom with the fi­nal re­al­iza­tion that, out­ward and in­ward, we still un­der­stand ba­si­cally noth­ing. Our con­ver­sa­tion hung heav­ily when she fi­nally called to tell me they were mov­ing her dad to a hos­pice, and she was tak­ing time off work to go stay with him un­til the end. I went to see her be­fore she left, sick with guilt be­cause I’d outed my­self to her as a per­son who thought her fa­ther was about to blink into noth­ing. Now that she would fi­nally step over that cliff of fear and sor­row, her ro­man­tic life was oc­cu­pied by a per­son who sim­ply could not en­gage in the ex­pected plat­i­tudes about the sup­posed “bet­ter place” that awaits. We stood in her kitchen star­ing

at the floor, talk­ing about the lo­gis­tics of her trip: rent­ing a car, tak­ing the time off work, pack­ing. Then I put my arms around her. “I’m so scared,” she said. I hes­i­tated. You ar­rive at mo­ments like this, and it doesn’t mat­ter the life­time you’ve spent try­ing to write, to ar­tic­u­late our con­di­tion, to un­der­stand. It’s all ren­dered worth­less by the depth of this cipher. “I know it’s not go­ing to be okay,” I told her. “Noth­ing will make it okay. But you have a great op­por­tu­nity now. To be with him, take time alone with him, and just say ev­ery­thing you want to say, and you’ll have no re­grets. And even if it’s not go­ing to be okay, it’ll be okay. If that makes any sense.” She whis­pered, “Of course it does.”

Ev­ery now and then, a con­trar­ian comes along, like, say, Louis Me­nand in The New Yorker, and makes a point he thinks orig­i­nal:

The irony. . .is that sports is es­sen­tially aes­theti­cized la­bor. It is the spec­ta­cle of men and women ex­ert­ing all their men­tal and phys­i­cal pow­ers to pro­duce. . .noth­ing. Kant de­fined art as “pur­po­sive­ness with­out pur­pose.” I think (gulp) Kant was wrong about art—artists have pur­poses, and peo­ple who watch, lis­ten to, or read works of art try to grasp what those pur­poses are. But he would have been right about sports.

Me­nand ob­vi­ously did not grow up los­ing him­self for hours at a gym play­ing two-on-two with his friends. Nor does it seem likely that he could ac­knowl­edge what the pro­duc­tion of “noth­ing” ac­tu­ally means. “Noth­ing” to whom? If a medi­ocre writer pro­duces twenty nov­els that fall out of print, if his name and work van­ish into ob­scu­rity, is that less mean­ing­less than Michael Jor­dan pro­duc­ing six cham­pi­onships or Steph Curry four hun­dred plus three point­ers? What about a per­for­mance put on by the New York City Bal­let? Is that not aes­theti­cized la­bor? Does Me­nand have a scale or met­ric he can clue us in on as to how pur­pose­ful or pur­pose­less a hu­man en­deavor might be? Or per­haps we could Money­ball the la­bor of the re­li­giously de­vout, who’ve spent mil­len­nia build­ing, ex­pand­ing, war­ring, mur­der­ing, fan­ta­siz­ing, and who still to this day en­joy an iron­clad grip on even a sup­pos­edly sec­u­lar Western civ­i­liza­tion even as they bleed de­vo­tion to Noth­ing, as they whis­per prayers to No One.

There are only two things in this life that pro­duce in me a state of what psy­chol­o­gist Mi­haly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi calls “flow,” the abil­ity to van­ish into con­cen­tra­tion, ba­si­cally the hap­pi­est state in which a hu­man be­ing can ex­ist: one is writ­ing, cre­at­ing art; the other is the game of bas­ket­ball. A month be­fore the Cavs’ 2016 vic­tory, I saw the Richard Lin­klater movie Every­body Wants Some!!, in which Jake, a star base­ball pitcher newly ar­rived to the glo­ries of col­lege, tells a woman he’s crush­ing on that his love of base­ball is the strug­gle of Sisy­phus. Cribbed from an Al­bert Ca­mus es­say, his ba­sic point is that the gods screwed up when they gave Sisy­phus this boul­der to point­lessly roll up a hill the rest of his days. By do­ing so, they gave him pur­pose, some­thing to drive his pas­sion, his heart, his guts, day af­ter day, year af­ter year. We do what we do not to win Pulitzers or NBA ti­tles or Oscars or MVPS or any other kind of glory. Though the mo­ments of joy such vic­to­ries cre­ate feel like pur­pose or legacy, they mat­ter vir­tu­ally not at all. We do it just to do it. We are the mean­ing we’ve been look­ing for. Or, as Ca­mus put it, “In the midst of win­ter, I found there was, within me, an in­vin­ci­ble sum­mer.” Michael Jor­dan gets it. For the clos­ing of that Hall of Fame speech, he couldn’t help but fire one last mis­sile straight at the man who’d been on the other end of his leg­endary shot:

When I first met Rus­sell—john [Stock­ton] will re­mem­ber this—i was in Chicago in 1994 . . .And at this time I had no thoughts of com­ing back and play­ing the game of bas­ket­ball, and Bryon Rus­sell came over to me and said, “You know what man, why’d you quit? Why’d you quit? You know I could guard you. If I ever see you in a pair of shorts. If I ever see you in a pair of shorts . . . Re­mem­ber this John?

And Jor­dan laughed, lost on­stage in this mem­ory. He looked old and happy and de­fi­ant.

So when I did de­cide to come back in 1995, and then we played Utah in ’96, I’m at the cen­ter cir­cle, and Bryon Rus­sell is next to me, and I look over at Bryon, and I said, “Do you re­mem­ber this con­ver­sa­tion you made in 1994? ‘I think I can guard you, I can shut you down, and I would love to play against you.’ Well, you about to get your chance.” And be­lieve me, ever since that day, he got his chance. I don’t know how suc­ceed­ing he was,

qual­i­fy­ing tour­na­ment for the 1992 Olympics at Port­land’s Rose Gar­den. I watched eleven of the best bas­ket­ball play­ers in the world (and Chris­tian Laet­tner) beat Cuba by some as­tro­nom­i­cal fig­ure, streak­ing up and down the court, al­ley-oop­ing, nail­ing threes, look­ing sim­ply su­per­hu­man. A few weeks later, my dad called me into the liv­ing room where he was read­ing an is­sue of Sports Il­lus­trated. He pointed to a pic­ture of the Dream Team taken be­fore the Cuba game. “Look,” he said, point­ing to two gnat-like specks in the up­per rafters of the Rose Gar­den. “We were at the end of the row, and you can just count down from the top. That’s us.” Noth­ing but two in­scrutable white flecks. Still, with that pho­to­graph, I felt like I was prac­ti­cally on the Dream Team. I kept the is­sue, of­ten study­ing that pic­ture for hours, imag­in­ing what I would say to Coach Drexler when I was fi­nally part of the team, say, in the 2008 Olympics. Or I re­mem­ber the clos­ing min­utes of game seven of the 2016 fi­nals, one of the most gut-melt­ing, ugly, glo­ri­ous one hun­dred twenty sec­onds of bas­ket­ball ever played: Kyrie Irv­ing’s heroic, step-back three with Curry’s fin­gers in his eyes, Kevin Love’s gutsy de­fen­sive stand against Steph on the very next play. But most of all, I re­mem­ber The Block. Lebron com­ing from be­hind on the fast break, like he’s done so many times be­fore. The en­tire global bas­ket­ball di­as­pora pos­i­tive that An­dre Igoudala would lay it in to put the War­riors up by two; Igoudala would score this bas­ket, be­cause we all in­tu­itively un­der­stood the laws of ge­om­e­try and physics. Then Lebron James some­how broke the Pauli ex­clu­sion prin­ci­ple. With 1:54 re­main­ing, Lebron had not yet crossed half-court, and at 1:52, he was swat­ting Igoudala’s shot off the back­board. Af­ter the Cavs pulled off a 3–1 never-be­fore-done fi­nals comeback against the best-ever reg­u­lar sea­son team, Kyrie Irv­ing said of Lebron— and I swear to God, be­cause he’d read the same Louis Me­nand ar­ti­cle as me—“i watched Beethoven tonight.” Or I re­mem­ber try­ing to make that girl laugh in the weeks af­ter her fa­ther died. We spent so many nights at her apart­ment, drink­ing wine or Bulleit Bour­bon and watch­ing ei­ther Fri­day Night Lights or bas­ket­ball. Dur­ing a play­off game, the first time a player ripped a three through the net, I in­stinc­tively called out, “Splash.” “Splash?” she said, crin­kling her small, lovely nose. “Yeah. ’Cause that’s the sound it makes. You can also say, ‘ Whap.’” “I’ve never heard that be­fore, and I went to a lot of bas­ket­ball games in col­lege.” She tried to meet me with skep­ti­cism but was grin­ning too broadly to make it work. “What hap­pened to swish?”

“Swish?” I cried. “What is this, 1989? Is Glenn Rice hook­ing up with Sarah Palin again? No one says swish any­more.” “I say swish.” “No one says swish. That sounds ridicu­lous. You can also say ‘ splash city!’ Or ‘ splish-splash.’” “Re­ally? I’ve never heard any of this.” “Also, when a player is good at shoot­ing, you don’t say he’s ‘hot’ or ‘on fire’ any­more. You just say ‘he’s wet as fuck.’” She cracked up. “Steve, that’s dis­gust­ing.” “Not my rules, babe. Steph Curry? Wet as fuck. Just sop­ping.” “Wet as fuck,” she said, try­ing it on. “That’s re­volt­ing.” I shrugged. “Yeah, but you can go into your of­fice to­mor­row, talk about tonight’s game and say, ‘So-and-so? Oh yeah, he was wet as fuck last night.’ And ev­ery­one will think you’re a hoops ge­nius.” “I think I’m go­ing to call a good shot a splishy,” she said. “What? No. No splishy.” “I’ll say, ‘That guy from last night, So-and-so? Did you see that great splishy he had?” We were both hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing with laugh­ter, abruptly re­minded that life’s finest mo­ments mostly hap­pen when you’re just screw­ing around with some­one you care about, that you’re both here, and you will both live this life bro­ken­hearted, never mend­ing, but al­ways with the pos­si­bil­ity that in the very next sec­ond, this per­son you care about might say some­thing that will make you cough up your lungs laugh­ing. Be­cause what ful­fills us is know­ing that our joys echo be­yond this blink of time, that there is noth­ing left but to send your one, in­fin­itely small, in­fin­itely mean­ing­less rip­ple out­ward in all those im­per­cep­ti­ble ways. That phrase of Daniel Den­nett’s that I scrib­bled the enor­mous star be­side: “A hu­man life worth liv­ing is not some­thing that can be un­con­tro­ver­sially mea­sured, and that is its glory.” And fi­nally, I re­mem­ber the high school bas­ket­ball game when I went six for seven from three. Eas­ily the best I ever shot in my aborted ca­reer, it came dur­ing a home game against a divi­sion ri­val from Colum­bus named White­hall (for bas­ket­ball nerds, Sa­maki Walker played there three years be­fore my time). On the first play, my de­fender was giv­ing me room, so I pulled up and felt, in that finger-psy­chic way, the ball rip through the bot­tom of the net. The next play we ran, I came off a screen and found my­self open again. I pulled up and drained it. That night, the stands at Mount Ver­non High School were packed, the crowd decked out in the or­ange-and-black school col­ors, home­made T-shirts, and Carhartt jack­ets that were our pe­cu­liar taunt to Colum­bus city schools (“Oh, so you think you’re play­ing a bunch of hicks?”). Later in

the quar­ter, feel­ing bold, I pulled up a few feet be­hind the top of the key and the net barely moved when the shot fell. Sud­denly, our team was pulling away, and what­ever that feel­ing that statis­ti­cians claim doesn’t ex­ist, the so-called “zone”—i felt it. I some­how put my wor­ried, sen­si­tive, un­sure ado­les­cent brain some­where else for the night. The one shot I missed was off-bal­ance, to­tally ill-ad­vised, and still al­most went down. It rat­tled out in that fickle way a long three some­times does. Oth­er­wise, I didn’t miss. White­hall even­tu­ally started throw­ing double-teams at me, but even then, I drained a few shots I’d never at­tempt on any other night. Even if the next year I would quit the team, even if the chal­lenges and sor­rows of adult life waited for me be­yond the age of seven­teen, that night the ball felt sim­ply sym­bi­otic, a tal­is­man that has de­liv­ered hope and pur­pose to mil­lions of kids be­fore me and will carry it on to mil­lions more af­ter I’m gone. The crowd thun­dered, yet the world and its trou­bles melted into the gloom. There was only this bas­ket­ball court un­der the stark gym­na­sium lights. And those shots, they felt like free throws.

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