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 ubiquitous as advertising...there is Michael Jordan’s egomaniacal and self-indulgent 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 dull-eyed, 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 consciousness 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 DMT-dream 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-year-old 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, but I think he had his chance, and believe me, I relished on that point, and from this day forward, if I ever see him in shorts I’m coming at him.
Purpose is ferocity. It is anguish. It is a love so deep it’s nearly primeval. Because in the final moment of his speech, Jordan explained the ways in which it can haunt you:
The game of basketball has been everything to me. My refuge. My place I’ve always gone when I needed to find comfort and peace. It’s been a source of intense pain and a source of the most intense feelings of joy and satisfaction. And one that no one can even imagine.
When your purpose becomes this little piece of grief that aches in you more or less every moment of your life, it somehow intertwines itself with the larger idea that there is nothing more after this, and whatever we manage to do in this moment carries a deeper gravity than if we were all just top hats and thimbles in some Creator’s master Monopoly game. You can imagine Michael Jordan draining that final shot over Bryon Russell—the man he once told any time he saw him in basketball shorts he was coming at him—and feeling for a blink the invincible summer fade to black.
There’s a lot one could get into here: utilitarianism, consequentialism, humanism, but this is not that kind of essay. This is an essay about basketball (well, kinda).
The thing is, we blink, and it’s gone. The only question, really, is what you do with your blink. You’re free to piss it away, but you’ll probably feel better if you love it with a fucking rage. Even if we know “love” is nothing more an evolutionary mechanism, designed over the eons to spur us to reproduce, it just means we understand it—not that love is suddenly bereft of value. Our actions and passions and friendships ripple outward and consume more of this world than we will ever understand. When everything means nothing, certain moments—errant, randomized, unchronological, unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim’s mind—stand for everything else. I’m aware how silly it sounds, but a not-insignificant portion of the memories that comprise my invincible summer will forever involve basketball, a game more holy to me than the Cross, the Kippah, and the Koran combined.
I remember after the Blazers’ devastating defeat to the Bulls, my dad took me to see the first game the Dream Team ever played—the 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.