Monday, October 22, 2007

The Price of The Game

My dorm room is up on the 8th floor, and there's a great stairwell just outside my room where I go to smoke. From the stairwell, I get a perfect view of the downtown LA skyline and the Galen Center, our big, beautiful new basketball arena. In the shadow of the Galen Center are three concrete courts. Anytime from 10 in the morning to around midnight, there's pickup basketball there.

The games range from one or two guys awkwardly hoisting jumpers or playing a game of 21 laced with ennui to full-court 5-on-5 games with backdoor cuts, jumpers off of screens, jump-stops, and slap layups. Getting swept up in the flow of the latter games, I think about just how much time these men have spend working on this game, and how for every kid who gets to play in the big gym across the street, there are so many more who put in so much just to capture, for a moment, the feeling of what it must be like to play in that gym. I think about them, playing for an audience of one man watching from a stairwell on a Tuesday night, and then I think about all of the people who have paid so dearly for the game I enjoy so much.

First, there were men like Red Auerbach and Press Maravich, playing the game in its infancy for dollars a week, throwing up two-hand set shots and breaking their noses night after night, not knowing if anyone was watching, to try and make the game something real, and then continuing that obsession long after their bodies were no longer able, figuring out the right way to play this new game on a team level, trying to find something transcendent in it.

Red tried to achieve transcendence through the team, working tirelessly and bending more than a few rules to craft a system and the perfect team to execute it, eventually creating a dynasty made up of the perfect role players and solidifying his place in the game's history before succumbing to the pressure and the pure work. Every time I see a perfect defensive rotation or outlet pass, I think about Red.

Press originally started out trying to find a team system, but eventually was consumed by attempting to make his own son into the perfect basketball player, putting a ball in his hands before he could walk and giving him a never-ending stream of drills, making him dribble blindfolded, with gloves on, and outside of his car. His efforts created the original combination of flair and substance, the prototypical modern superstar, but the price was steep; Press ended up estranged from his son, his wife drank herself into insanity, and he was fired from his job coaching his only true love. Pete himself was driven into a form of insanity by the pressure of having to carry a team every night and having a game generations ahead of its time, drinking constantly and wishing that aliens would just take him away. Every time I see Kobe Bryant drilling fadeaway after fadeaway, Steve Nash throwing a pass behind his back, or Allen Iverson boldly flying through a double-team with a crossover, I think about Press and Pete.

Wilt Chamberlain had the kind of game nobody had ever seen before, 7-3 with the speed of a track star, with the talent to win games by himself. He was a superstar at a time when the game still didn't know what to do with superstars, a man bigger than the team before the concept had entered anybody's mind. Nobody knew where to fit Wilt's game or flamboyant personality, and he was forced to spend his career as a pariah before finally finding some semblance of meaning with the Lakers, although he was relegated to being the me-first runner-up to Bill Russell, a more manageable talent who found himself in the perfect situation from the start. Whenever I see Shaquille O' Neal's dominant game and gigantic personality being accepted and even praised wherever he goes, I think about Wilt.

Elgin Baylor was the game's first high-flyer, slashing from the perimeter to making unbelievable plays above the rim when nobody spent any time up there at all. All that jumping in his game led to his knee giving out earlier than it should have, and because there were no doctors prepared to deal with the stress of being a skywalker back then, he was forced to sit on the bench and watch while the Lakers won the championship that he never got. Whenever I see Amare Stoudamire dominate on his reconstructed knees, I think about Elgin.

Michael Ray Richardson was another player with a talent that nobody knew what to do with; he was bigger, faster, and stronger than anybody else, and had an unstoppable jump shot to boot. But since nobody knew what to do with him, he ended up not knowing what to do with himself, never committing to bettering his game and eventually succumbing to cocaine addiction. 20 years later, there was Lenny Cooke, who dominated every game he ever played in on the playgrounds of Brooklyn. He allowed himself to believe the whispers of the agents who told him that he was already a star in high school, that he was set for life, and didn't need to work on his game or even study in school anymore, that everything was going to fall into place for him, and now has no college degree and can't get a job in the D-League. Every time I see a player like LeBron James, whose talent and ego have been nurtured and kept in check since he was in middle school and is hence able to tap into the full power of his abilities, I think about Michael Ray and Lenny Cooke.

But most of all, I think about the four kids from Darcy Frey's The Last Shot. They all went to Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island, where basketball is everything. Tchaka Shipp was a smart kid from a moderate-income family, a 6-7 bruiser who had no offensive game to speak of but could rebound, dunk, block shots, and do all the little things on the court. He went to play for P.J. Carlisemo, who gave him a scholarship and promised him a life, but instead only used him as an insignificant cog in his machine, barely putting him on the court and eventually leading him to transfer. Tchaka now makes 9 dollars an hour, giving new meaning to a player who "does the garbage work to help his team." For some, that means getting $4 million to dive for loose balls; for Tchaka, it means throwing away his life so that a millionaire coach can get an inch closer to another banner on the ceiling.

Corey Johnson was a guard blessed with brilliant talent, speed and court vision and everything else, but refused to let basketball take over his life, continuing to date and write in his spare time, and seizing every day as the best of his life. His refusal to commit led to him going to junior college and eventually working a meaningless job.

However, two characters stand out above all the others. The first is Russel Thomas, a scrappy guard with lock-down defensive ability and a killer outside shot, crafted by hours every night alone on the court shooting 3-pointers and one-handed 15-footers while sitting in a chair. He was everything a coach could ever want, a perfect role player if there ever was one, a player whose game was defined by jaw-dropping amounts of work on the court and off of it. To get the necessary 800 for his SATs, he studied incessantly, even during his lunch hour, and sat at the front of every class. But the system ultimately failed Russel, and because he had never so much as been taught Algebra, he never made the 800, was relegated to junior college, and eventually killed himself at 27. Russel ended up paying for the sins of the educational system he was brought up in and the system that made basketball his only way out with his life.

The fourth character is a cocky young freshman guard, head and shoulders above all the competition he faces, already being heralded as the next great New York City point guard. While the other three players are polite and have given themselves to their dream of playing basketball, he is entitled and arrogant, seeing basketball as a way to make the world do its bidding. He is shameless in taking the gifts his talent allows him to have, and his father comes up to the author and demands to be paid for allowing the author to follow his boy around. His name is Stephon Marbury, and there's a reason he is so cold towards the game. Stephon had two older brothers who were supposed to make it out, but ultimately fell short and found themselves trapped on Coney Island. Stephon's family had paid his price, and now he was going to get it back. Other players speak of just wanting to win, how lucky they are to get to play basketball for a living, and how much they enjoy the system they are a part of, and how they are ultimately in its debt, which is exactly what those of us who don't get to play for a living think they should feel. Stephon knows better. He feels no debt to the game. He knows too well just how cruel the game can be, and has responded with a desire to exploit it like it exploited his older brothers, seizing every opportunity to use the game to advance himself and get what he is owed. We often say that players like Stephon are "immature," when in reality they're far more mature than we'd like them to be.

So the next time you see a broadcaster wonder why every player doesn't work as hard as Dwayne Wade, remember Russel Thomas, who gave his life for putting in the type of obsession we feel is necessary for basketball players. And the next time you wonder why more players aren't robots devoted to nothing but basketball, remember Corey Johnson, whose decision that there was more to life than basketball stopped him from achieving glory. And the next time you see Stephon Marbury take a shot he probably shouldn't have or demand a bigger contract, remember that there's a reason that he is the way he is, and it's a reason we can't pretend to understand. Think about those who have paid dearly to make the game you love what it is, and think of those who continue to pay. For every no-look back-door alley-oop you see, think about Red drawing it up when he should have gotten a real job, Press teaching his kid to throw it before the world was ready to see it, Elgin for throwing it down before his body was ready too, Michael Ray for letting it go to his head, and most of all Tsaka, Corey, Russel, and the million other kids on playgrounds like the one outside my balcony who continue to play the game every day in the fleeting hope that they can become a part of the game we love.


howard U said...

Nice post.
Regarding Marbury's (arguably) underachieving ways, sure that's a reason. But it's still the easy way out.
I remember an old Sports Guy article featuring Malcolm Gladwell that made a really good point about underachieving athletes.
(It's the second Gladwell response that starts with, "This is actually a question I'm obsessed with.")

Anonymous said...

Very nice post,
really gives you some scope on marburys sometime erratic behavior, i hadn't heard about his brothers before.

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