Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Don't Know Much About History

When I was in college – during the previously referenced second semester of junior year – I took a course on Joyce’s novel Ulysses. If you have read this blog at all, you will know by now that I am an avid reader of Joyce and have been heavily influenced him him; at times cripplingly so.  While I was living in Ireland, I was shut out of the Ulysses course at the university, so I rented a DVD course on the book and took to walking the streets of the city and the neighboring areas of the city in order to find those precious footsteps left by Stephen Dedalus, who I steadfastly believed was my alter-ego. I spent hours in Ireland – and many since – drinking, making witty comments and absurd comments and barbing my tongue just as that fictional hero of mine did.  However, it was not until I was back at my college taking a classic 6:30 PM-9:30 PM class on the novel that I realized the true importance of Stephen Dedalus’ lesson.  As the weeks of the semester turned by, and the light of twilight remained that subtle shade between periwinkle and grey more and more towards the late end of seven o’clock,  I gained a certain clarity.  Although I was attracted to Stephen Dedalus’ intellect as a character and his intense brooding nature, the most moving part of his story was his attention to and at times crippling focus on the historical moment.  It is Stephen who calls history “a nightmare from which he cannot awake” (Nestor) yet he is doomed to move and grope through it until he can find that “one word known to all men.” (Circe)   What the word is has been debated by many – the originary Word as thou art who in heaven shall not be named once spouteth along the fine ridge of Plymouth Rock and also that word that all men do wish they could know and have access to: Love – but one cannot deny that Stephen is often overcome by waves of history that get in the way of his desire to “hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges into the past.”  Now, I went on for forty pages about how Stephen, using the keyword omphalos, and Bloom, using the keyword metempsychosis, use these words in order to meet each other at a single moment in history and by doing so, unlock the stasis of history moving forward at a marked and recorded interval and utilize its imaginative possibilities to mold a history and existense that is open, fluid and open to many variations, which allows each to realize the full potential and desire of their soul.

Heady stuff all of it (pat, pat), but what does it all have to do with sports, like say the moment from Sunday when the Canadian National Team defeated the United States in the final of the Olympic Hockey Tournament?  A very good question.  What I have been getting at more and more on this blog is our ability to take a moment and realize it for what it is, to take in its importance with full effect and mold it into our image, the image of our success or our destiny.  As Ulysses shows us, there are moments that can dictate and change our lives and they may be even the very smallest moment during the course of a day, but if you do not leave yourself open to that ability, if you do not have the sense to seize it for yourself, then you will be left like the rest of the 8th graders cracking their heads against the cool laminated cover of a Houghton Mifflin history textbook – timelessness is different than stasis.  And as sports shows us, a single moment can grip us like no other, can open up our imaginations to the what-ifs and what-ares, can show us what is possible with the right timing and the right preparation and most important of all, the ability to take control of a moment as it threatens to flourish, finish and become grey.

These situations can go as far back as time itself, but let me just take you through a few in my lifetime.  Let’s step back to the early 90’s.  Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had already helped to make basketball a game for all of America throughout the 80’s and Michael Jordan had elevated it to a level of cultural relevance as well as to something more divine.  However, there were five college freshman who entered the University of Michigan in the fall of 1991 by the names of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. They were known as the “Fab Five,” possibly the best recruiting class ever in NCAA Basketball history.  Just as Jordan had made his shorts a little baggier, the Fab Five made theirs even baggier – they set the style for the current look of the NBA, with perhaps the help of Allen Iverson – they talked trash and set a mid-90’s basketball style trend with black socks matched up with your sneaks (a tradition carried over and well loved by white kids in the late 90’s through today).

So, you have talent, you are at a big name college program, you are cultural touchstones, how do you cement your legacy?  With a blowout loss to a whitewash Duke team in the 1992 Championship Game, followed by a loss to UNC in 1993 in your best chance for redemption in the “Chris Webber Timeout Game.”  Then, all five of you go pro and have mixed to underachieving careers.  All of that sounds like a missed opportunity to me.  Especially Chris Webber.  If you were a kid and liked basketball in the early 90’s, you liked Chris Webber.  He was cool, those golden Michigan shorts were cool, those navy Michigan shorts were cool, it was the first time you could even vaguely overhear a player being talented all around, that wasn’t Michael Jordan.  He had all the potential in the world: he was well spoken, raised from a middle class family; he was a terrifc passer and a gifted offensive scorer; he seemed to have a knack for the game.  Yet, aside from those few years in Sacramento, he lacked success.  And even those Sacramento years were not successful.  He lacked that ability to seize the moment, to realize all of the gifts he was given and to take that history that was laid out before him and make it his.  Now, I think of Chris Webber and I think of what a great analyst and TV presence he is on TNT – calming, handsome and articulate.  And I do think back to those navy and maize Michigan shorts and how me and my friend Dan both wore our own baggy pairs when we taught ourselves to dribble between our legs.  However, fewer are my memories of his greatness.  All I can say is that I liked to watch him play and I like to see him during halftime now, but he will forever be stuck in 1992.

Sticking with basketball, and of course this will always be an unfair comparison, but we have Michael Jordan.

(Cue the laughter.)

There are endless Michael Jordan moments to pick – which is part of the reason why he is Michael Jordan, because the fact that he rose to a moment, made even referring to him as great or clutch or the fact that he has moments redundant or cliché.  However, let’s stick to a moment that was executed with a perfection that M.J. could pull off, yet was eventually ruined.  1998 Finals.  Game 6 in Salt Lake City. There is under a minute to go, Stockton has just nailed a three to put the Jazz up 86-83. 41.9 seconds remaining. Jordan is fatigued after carrying the team the entire game when Scottie went out with a back injury in the first quarter and wasn’t the same after that.  However, he catched the ball at midcourt, crosses up Byron Russell and sauters in for a vintage Jordan tongue-wagging layup (he looks especially late-90’s Jordan, slightly less air, a little less domineering once airborne, but still as graceful).  The Jazz come down at the other end to counter.  Stockton in bounds to Malone who is met by Rodman.  But here comes Jordan from the backside.  He knocks the ball out of Malone’s hands and picks it up. Rodman looks at him for a second and Jordan is looking down court.  He carries the ball down court and you can feel the moment rising to a head.  There is an opening here for Michael to make history.  So he drives right at Byron Russell and crosses left. He uses a push-off which he had at his disposal to use because he was Michael Jordan.  And when you become legendary, you use the tricks that have made your art.  Then steps back and makes the jumper.  Holding his follow through for good measure.  Game Bulls.  Series Bulls. Ring number 6.

(Looks like a Renaissance painting doesn't it? Raphael?)

Bob Costas: That may have been the last shot Michael Jordan ever made in the NBA...If that's the last image of Michael Jordan...how magnificent is it!?

You almost get goosebumps just reading that.  And if you watch, Michael just looks like the best basketball player ever in this game, he looks like the archetype.  And in that moment, Michael had made the perfect storybook ending to his career.  He had taken every opportunity given to him and seized it by hard work, competitive spirit (insanity?) and working knowledge of a craft.  However, he was not some character in fiction and, like the focused eye Joyce had on the everyday in Ulysses, Michael proved that he was no super-hero.  He had to come back because the game would not die (maybe just his competitive nature) and he spoiled the perfect ending that he had etched into a created out of the static wave of history.  Proving in the end, that history can give us so much, and we can take every advantage from it, but it is up to us in the end to dictate how it will turn out and how we will let things fall into place.

You’ve already heard me talk about one of the more recent examples of this situation.  In this year’s Super Bowl, Peyton Manning had a chance to write the ultimate chapter of football history as being the best quarterback of all time.  Many perhaps would still debate his amount of championships. However, the most championships won by a quarterback is four.  If Peyton won, he would have won two.  Bill Russell won eight championships in the NBA. Michael won six and he is considered the best player of all time because of his execution of the game, his competitive nature, his image as the prototype.  Peyton meets all of those criteria, and with two championships why would he not be better remembered than Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Tom Brady, Troy Aikman and Johnny Unitas?  He damn well would have been.  If he had lost the game in a different manner he would have been remembered differently too.  What if Brees leads a last minute drive and doesn’t allow Peyton on the field? Brees would have earned that moment with his child under the confetti (of course he did earn it, but you know what I mean) and in the hearts of Americans rather than having Peyton give him the moment.  Then, Peyton is a victim to a career year for a quarterback who was a nice guy that was “due.”  Now, Peyton, is a great student of the game who won one Super Bowl and threw away another, just as he used to throw away games to the Pats.  All this happened overnight, because a moment opened up with an opportunity.  A story to be written.

Let’s go to Sunday.  My dad is driving me to the train station so that I can return to my apartment.  He and I are focused on the radio, listening to the play by play intently and asking each other about players on each team, even though we both know that the other has no idea who they are or where they’re from.  But the game is that important, it is that tense and it has that historicality that you just have to ask somone about that U.S. goaltender.  I’ve never been a hockey fan.  My grandfather used to have season tickets to the Islanders during the 90’s, so I had my chance to go to plenty of games in the relic of a once great dynasty.  I grew up a Flyers fan and the Legion of Doom caught my imagination.  However, it was never a sport that I could really get into and I could only shrug when there was a lockout and the league fell into obscurity because most of the friends I had grown up with only shrugged when I asked if we could watch basketball.  However, it was much to my surprise that these Olympics opened my eyes to hockey again.  The Winter Classic tradition that the NHL has started definitely caught my eye because I thought it was a fantastic idea.  Appeal to Americans with a yearly ceremony, something outdoorsy in the cold where you can drink beer – like a late season football game.  Yet, as the Olympics began and the first showdown between the U.S. and Canada loomed, I realized the potential that was lurking. 

Back in June, when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, I remember thinking that it was perfect for the league.  You have your “best player” (I know, I know, Ovechkin) and also your most marketable player in Sidney Crosby – Sid the Kid (great nickname) – winning the championship on a team that was once a great hockey dynasty (maybe?) that once housed one of the games greatest players.  Obviously, when your best player wins the championship it is terrific for the league.  He becomes the champ, his team gains even more notoriety and he becomes even more hunted than before.  Games take on added levels of physicality and importance because the best player now carries the championship.  Holding no ill will toward hockey, this was all pleasing to me.  After the U.S. shocked Canada in the first game, in what many called a bigger upset than the Miracle Game in 1980, I knew that there was no way these two teams were not meeting again in the Finals.  It was just the way it had to work out.

Sure enough, the tournament continued on, and the U.S. and Canada were destined to meet in the last event of the Olympics, on a Sunday, in Canada. The Canadians had all the talent, while the Americans had the best goaltender and the harder working players.  The U.S. was undefeated while the Canadians were overconfident and had let an inferior team steal a game.  Classic Goliath looking for revenge storyline butting up against the David “the first time wasn’t a fluke” storyline.  Obviously, something had to give.  Although, this set up is murkier territory than simply one party seizing a historical moment.  Each of these sides could claim that the moment was deservedly theirs.  The U.S. wins and shows that hard work trumps talent, which is the American way, although the American way is also that talent can overshadow any fault (hmmm…).  With a U.S. win, hockey picks up popularity in the country that dictates its marketability and the Canadians are humbled and sent home to simmer in revenge for four years and four full hard hitting NHL seasons.  Or, the Canadians win and bring glory to Canada to top off an extremely entertaining Winter Olympics.

Now, you all saw the game.  There couldn’t have been more drama.  Canada jumps to the 2-0 lead despite the U.S. sticking to their winning gameplan.  Then the U.S. crawls back with a scrappy goal.  But that 2-1 score holds until only seconds left when Parise ties it and sends the game into an overtime that had “U.S. win” written all over it.  However, in overtime it is the stealthy play of Crosby that gets him the game winning goal and the accolade of hero added to his Stanley Cup resume at the age of 22.  Sidney Crosby is 22 years old and is a Stanley Cup Champion and a National Hero.

At 22 James Joyce watched his wife take out laundry from the hotel she worked in until he finally had the nerve to ask her out on June 16, 1904.  On June 16, 1904 in , Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus cross paths and teach each other about the timelessness of mankind and his daily existence in the universe.  Stephen Dedalus was 22 as well.  Sports are an unkind venue to discuss these moments of history. Sports brings crowds, they bring the artifice of the “championship game,” they bring the “last minute shot” and the “sudden death goal.”  However, they do grasp our imagination for the great, for coming through when it matters and for sending others into a frenzy of delight.  Bringing pleasure to others is something we should all strive for in our lives.  And our lives are made of small moments like falling in love with a woman from afar who you gain the nerve to ask out on one strange day in June.  Our lives are made of little moments and overlooked occurances, but each moment, every occurance, “any object, when intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods.”  That is to say, at any moment we can rewrite our own history, and, having long given up my dreams of athletic achievement, that is something that I can not only find solace in, but find contentment in.  Because even if my own ability to change my life at any instant gives me contentment, a feeling of stasis, that means I will forver be hungry, because I’m never in the door – I’m always at the step, watching, but not that closely, for that way in.

And then I’ll take it down like M.J. in 1998 and let Costas give you goosebumps.  But this time, I’ll walk away.  Because I’ve seen it before – its history.

No comments:

Post a Comment