I like sports journalism.
Among others, it’s a chance for writers to outdo one another in that age-old parlor game of describing transcendent talents in superlatives, knowing full well the high bar set by the fact that the low-hanging descriptive fruit have all been exhausted. Greatness consistently demonstrated inevitably invites boredom: witness Lebron in ’13 and Durant the season after, or Messi in his prime, and the struggle of the writer to convince an increasingly jaded public – conditioned to value either continued improvement or outright novelty over “mere” sustained excellence, however stratospheric – that they were still worth appreciating.
Here’s a couple of prettier-than-average passages on Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant and Michael Jordan that caught my eye during lunch.
Sooner rather than later, even the words will fail, replaced only by silent, slack-jawed stares and barely-believing minds—hardwood worship at its purest.
Sooner rather than later, the whens and hows will bow to the now.
Sooner rather than later, Anthony Davis made his formal, final metamorphosis from next in a nebulous line to something more concrete: At just 21 years old, he’s become one of the top five players in the world.
Under normal circumstances, using 15 percent of the season to project some steel-taut truism would be a foolhardy endeavor.
Only there’s nothing normal about Anthony Davis. Not the skills or the ceiling, the gifts or the game. He is, to steal a line from the great Hunter Thompson, “one of god’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
Sports ceilings are tricky things, of course.
For as ironclad as Davis’ continued ascendance might seem, we risk shortchanging the factors working in concert against him: the ability of opponents to strategize and scheme, the effect of changing personnel and—most sobering of all—the sheer upper limits of what one basketball body can bear.
Then again, why even harbor the thought? It is, from a pure fan perspective, simply not worth it. Not when the wonder of it all still feels so novel. Not when Davis’ singular genius remains suspended beyond the realm of concepts. Not when basketball feels this fun.
Durant is a player of many virtues, the greatest of which also happens to be his sport’s most fundamental: He scores. Kevin Durant scores in every way imaginable and often in ways that aren’t. Putting a sphere through a ring is an inherently pleasure-inducing act. Watching this seven-minute video of Durant making baskets is like staring into a fire or gazing at waves roll in. It’s elemental, naturally beautiful.
Great scorers are frequently described as “unguardable,” but usually this implies movement, a knack for eluding defenders; with Durant it’s more a state of existence. For all of his thrilling drives, cold-hearted step-backs, and impossible fadeaways, the most indelible part of Durant’s repertoire is his ability to make 25-foot jumpers while perfectly defended, by unfolding those arms over some hopeless victim and flicking his right wrist.
It’s a cliché to say that great athletes make their sport look easy, but the best basketball players tend to do the opposite. For all of Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike” exhortations, Michael Jordan made the game look like some inaccessible work of high modernism. Allen Iverson used to score 30 points a night while being shorter than a lot of fans who’ve never scored 30 in a pickup game. Everything LeBron James is and does looks completely impossible. Players like these change the game by bending it to their will; Jordan didn’t play basketball so much as he tried to beat it.
Durant, on the other hand, does make basketball look easy. He doesn’t reinvent his sport because he doesn’t need to: The game as we know it seems to have been made with him in mind. Durant is 6-foot-9, a fairly standard height for an NBA forward, but the real story is his arms. Durant has a wingspan of 7 feet and 4 inches. Kevin Durant’s arms are 7 inches longer than Kevin Durant is. When you combine this insane physical attribute with a freakishly quick release and otherworldly hand-eye coordination, a frightening advantage emerges. Great scorers are frequently described as “unguardable,” but usually this implies movement, a knack for eluding defenders; with Durant it’s more a state of existence. For all of his thrilling drives, cold-hearted step-backs, and impossible fadeaways, the most indelible part of Durant’s repertoire is his ability to make 25-foot jumpers while perfectly defended, by unfolding those arms over some hopeless victim and flicking his right wrist.
The NBA is a wondrous place right now. LeBron James is LeBron James. In Los Angeles Chris Paul continues to forge a career that by its end may place him as the greatest small guard in history. New Orleans’ second-year sensation Anthony Davis is emerging as a once-in-an-epoch big man. Greying legends like Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and the convalescing Kobe Bryant rage against the supposed ends of their careers, while 2014’s incoming draft class is one of the strongest in recent memory. And Kevin Durant? He’ll keep scoring over all of them, trying to be the only one left. As any kid who’s ever seen the sun set on the playground will tell you, shooters never want to leave the court until they’ve made that last basket.
The opposite of this creeping nostalgia is the way Jordan has always collected slights, inventing them — nurturing them. He can be a breathtaking asshole: self-centered, bullying and cruel. That’s the ugly side of greatness. He’s a killer, in the Darwinian sense of the word, immediately sensing and attacking someone’s weakest spot. He’d moo like a cow when the overweight general manager of the Bulls, Jerry Krause, would get onto the team bus. When the Bulls traded for the injury-prone Bill Cartwright, Jordan teased him as Medical Bill, and he once punched Will Perdue during practice. He punched Steve Kerr too, and who knows how many other people.
This started at an early age. Jordan genuinely believed his father liked his older brother, Larry, more than he liked him, and he used that insecurity as motivation. He burned, and thought if he succeeded, he would demand an equal share of affection. His whole life has been about proving things, to the people around him, to strangers, to himself. This has been successful and spectacularly unhealthy. If the boy in those letters from Chapel Hill is gone, it is this appetite to prove — to attack and to dominate and to win — that killed him. In the many biographies written about Jordan, most notably in David Halberstam’s “Playing for Keeps,” a common word used to describe Jordan is “rage.” Jordan might have stopped playing basketball, but the rage is still there. The fire remains, which is why he searches for release, on the golf course or at a blackjack table, why he spends so much time and energy on his basketball team and why he dreams of returning to play.
He’s in his suite at the Bobcats’ arena, just before tip-off of another loss, annoyed that one of his players is talking to the opponents. Tonight he’s going to sit on the bench, to send a message that the boss is watching. He used to sit there a lot, but he got a few phone calls from NBA commissioner David Stern telling him to chill with the screaming at officials. Mostly he watches in private, for good reason. Once, when he was an executive with the Washington Wizards, mad at how the team was playing, he hurled a beer can at his office television, then launched whatever he could find after it, a fusillade of workplace missiles. Now, 10 years later, he mostly just yells.
In the three and a half years since Jordan built his induction remarks around all the slights that pushed him toward greatness, the speech has become Exhibit A for those who believe Jordan is, as one basketball writer put it, “strangely bitter” and “lost, wandering.” They’re not wrong, not exactly, but something was obscured when the speech became a metaphor for swollen ego and lack of self-awareness.
The unspoken thread that runs through the criticism is that Jordan didn’t understand what was required of a retired athlete, a mixture of nostalgia and reflection. The five-year wait is supposed to give those emotions time to sprout and grow. People wanted the Jordan on the floor of his closet, not the one who did whatever it took to win. That’s the allure of a Hall of Fame speech. It reveals that these icons were sort of like us all along. Jordan didn’t give that speech, and the reason is both simple and obvious. He didn’t see himself as part of the past, or as someone who’d found perspective. He wasn’t nostalgic that night. The anger that drove his career hadn’t gone away, and he didn’t know what to do with it. So at the end of the speech, he said perhaps the most telling and important thing in it, which has been mostly forgotten.
He described what the game meant to him. He called it his “refuge” and the “place where I’ve gone when I needed to find comfort and peace.” Basketball made him feel complete, and it was gone.
“One day,” he said, “you might look up and see me playing the game at 50.”
“Drinking and eating and drinking and eating and drinking and eating” is how he described the vacation to a friend, going through cases of his favorite tequila, fully unplugged, which lasted until he flew home. Then he was around the game again, and the old urges began to eat at him.
In Charlotte, he starts thinking about 218.
Every morning since returning from the islands, he’s been in the gym. At mealtime he texts his nutritionist to find out what he can and can’t eat. Ostensibly, the reason is that he stepped on a scale after leaving the excess palace of Mister Terrible and saw this number staring back: 261. Nine days later, sitting in his office and surrounded by basketball, he’s down to 248. He’ll claim it’s about health, or looking good for his 50th birthday party. But in his mind, there’s a target: 218, a familiar and dangerous number in Jordan’s world.
That’s his playing weight.
When he mentions that Yvette never saw him play basketball, he says, “She never saw me at 218.” On the wall of his office there’s a framed photograph of him as a young man, rising toward the rim, legs pulled up near his chest, seeming to fly. He smiles at it wistfully.
“I was 218,” he says.
The chasm between what his mind wants and what his body can give grows every year. If Jordan watches old video of Bulls games and then hits the gym, he says he’ll go “berserk” on the exercise machines. It’s frightening.
The announcers gush about LeBron, mentioning him in the same sentence with Jordan, who hears every word. Those words have an effect on him. He stares at the TV and points out a flaw in LeBron’s game.
“I study him,” he says.
When LeBron goes right, he usually drives; when he goes left, he usually shoots a jumper. It has to do with his mechanics and how he loads the ball for release. “So if I have to guard him,” Jordan says, “I’m gonna push him left so nine times out of 10, he’s gonna shoot a jump shot. If he goes right, he’s going to the hole and I can’t stop him. So I ain’t letting him go right.”
For the rest of the game, when LeBron gets the ball and starts his move, Jordan will call out some variation of “drive” or “shoot.” It’s not just LeBron. He sees fouls the officials miss, and the replays prove him right. When someone shoots, he knows immediately whether it’s going in. He calls out what guys are going to do before they do it, more plugged into the flow of the game than some of the players on the court. He’s answering texts, buried in his phone, when the play-by-play guy announces a LeBron jump shot. Without looking up, Jordan says, “Left?”
Aging means losing things, and not just eyesight and flexibility. It means watching the accomplishments of your youth be diminished, maybe in your own eyes through perspective, maybe in the eyes of others through cultural amnesia. Most people live anonymous lives, and when they grow old and die, any record of their existence is blown away. They’re forgotten, some more slowly than others, but eventually it happens to virtually everyone. Yet for the few people in each generation who reach the very pinnacle of fame and achievement, a mirage flickers: immortality. They come to believe in it. Even after Jordan is gone, he knows people will remember him. Here lies the greatest basketball player of all time. That’s his epitaph. When he walked off the court for the last time, he must have believed that nothing could ever diminish what he’d done. That knowledge would be his shield against aging.
There’s a fable about returning Roman generals who rode in victory parades through the streets of the capital; a slave stood behind them, whispering in their ears, “All glory is fleeting.” Nobody does that for professional athletes. Jordan couldn’t have known that the closest he’d get to immortality was during that final walk off the court, the one symbolically preserved in the print in his office. All that can happen in the days and years that follow is for the shining monument he built to be chipped away, eroded. Maybe he realizes that now. Maybe he doesn’t. But when he sees Joe Montana joined on the mountaintop by the next generation, he has to realize that someday his picture will be on a screen next to LeBron James as people argue about who was better.