When I took an assignment to write a piece on the ‘Best Incubation Environments For NBA Talent’ (from a legitimate sports network, no less), I kinda rolled my eyes like they’d just asked me to write a supplemental chapter for a Malcolm Gladwell paperback. (Is it just me or does Gladwell not remind you of some BBC nature doc where the monkey’s examining the hard shelled fruit before trying to crack it open. He’s perpetually holding the bewildering coconut of talent up to the sunlight in the hopes that he’ll find a way at that sweet pulpy nectar of innate ability at the center. Just me? Alright.)
Are we mostly clinging to the aberrant few – the Jeremy Lin ‘outliers’ – to keep us believing in a miraculous narrative? (I’m aware that’s the opposite of the ‘Outliers’ thesis. I did read/skim it. What..? Fine. I bought it to sit on the shelf and impress the ladies. Happy?)
I just thought it was a perfectly pretentious way of looking at the idea of talent and ability, y’know. That it already seemed most obvious that star athletes come from the places you’d think they do; driven by the most desperate, competitive environments you can conjure. It’s all right there ‘in the ghetto‘, right? You got your grasping, clawing mass of humanity clinging to the promise of transcending their station in life through athletics and, in the end, we squeeze the elite in through the narrow coliseum doorway, like a sports-themed playdough fun factory with super realistic muscle molds.
Case closed. Redundant sports article averted. Who thinks we’ve earned an early lunch Schwarma?
Then, as I was driving later that afternoon (not for Schwarma), I slowed my car to a roll enrapt by the intensity of a driveway pick-up game in one of the most affluent Toronto neighborhoods. Two teenage Jewish kids were D-ing each other up in off-setting home and away Jeremy Lin Knicks jerseys. They were jab stepping and dipping their yamulke covered heads down to deflect hand checks and forearm shivers. They bounced each other off the BMW and Audi 4X4s that made up a makeshift sideline; their arena of upmarket SUVs and interlocking pavement was – no exaggeration – speckled in semetic blood and fluids. I could make out a nostril packed with dark red wadded kleenex. (They gave no quarter to one another but I found myself wondering if those Jewish beenie hats come in a Nike Dry-Fit material and if there were special sports yamulkes that fastened more securely to your skull? Like the mystery of Indiana Jones’ fedora, how were they not falling off constantly? Nike, get on that! Adhesive sports yamulkes.)
All I’d been thinking about was how hackneyed the Jeremy Lin spin had become in such a short spin cycle. I loved the story as much as anyone but the narrative had been milked. His privileged Ivy league beginnings weren’t a sign of some paradigm shift; Jeremy Lin was made more identifiable, more endearing, more an everyman hero for his unorthodox creation myth but anyone searching for more blood from that stone was myth-ing the point.
After white youth awkwardly appropriated urban basketball culture and hip hop in one ‘big gulp’, they might be eager to grab onto a guy that comes from their world but it don’t make it so. Grab that comet by the tail if you will but, by the time that star has passed through the atmosphere it’ll have been burned down to the size of a softball. And then, on the court out my car window Abraham begat Isaac.. with a barrage of hard-earned contested jumpshots… hand in his face and everything. And, like it says in the bible, Isaac took Abraham to the basket, finishing through the contact.
I had turned down my music to eat up this epic battle, listening to the wet thud of one teen absorbing a blow and going to the left hand with surprising deftness. I came to the conclusion that there was nothing so abnormal about what I was witnessing; that there was a long and legitimate legacy of good jewish basketball players.
And, that I’d therefore spent way too much time lost in a trance watching two otherwise unremarkable, sweaty teenage boys in creepy silence from my car window as they wrestled and jostled with one another in what should have been an intimately intense scrimmage before dinner. So, I caught myself before anyone called neighbourhood watch and I sped away to spy again another day, and maybe go get that Schwarma after all…. perving apparently works up quite an appetite.
(I’ll post the less entertaining basketball piece I wrote here in the near future.)