Basketball was never my forte, though I played point guard on my high school team and registered one good game in three years of aimless dribbling, poor passing and indifferent shot blocking. I never managed to repeat that unique performance when I made nine straight shots from the floor, approximately the same number as my entire output during the rest of a less than stellar career. Still, that unprecedented moment when I somehow rose above my usual level of athletic mediocrity has stayed with me as a sign of hope and a lesson in the virtues of obstinacy. As the resonant cliché instructs us, you never can tell.
That was a long time ago, but I have always maintained a residual interest in the game as a metaphor for the ups and downs of life, an allegory of the disparities and disadvantages against which individuals may triumph, the effective indirection of bank shots (as Polonius informs us in Hamlet), the haunting imminence of miracle (as in Chandler Parsons’ winning buzzer-beater from 70 feet away), the quick back and forth of play without innumerable whistle stoppages as in most other sports, and the camaraderie of short men and tall men on the court of battle.
Back in the day, as some grizzled basketball fans might recall, the Washington Bullets (among other teams) enjoyed the services of a certain Manute Bol, a Sudanese expatriate to the U.S. whose only skill as a player was shot blocking. At 7 ft. 7 in. he was at the time the tallest player in the NBA and over the years logged various records in the fine art of thwarting opposition shooters. Indeed, according to his biography, he is the only NBA player to have blocked more shots than scored points.
Bol’s problem was that he possessed few offensive skills, being too fragile and emaciated to muscle his way past opposing forwards. He resembled a praying mantis on a starvation diet among a host of sturdier insects who could bat him aside without much trouble. His presence on the court was something of an anomaly, a formidable creature hampered by severe limitations. But when it came to blocking the flight of the ball, he had no peer.
Curiously, two of Bol’s friends and occasional teammates were among the shortest players in NBA history: Spud Webb, who stood 5 ft.6 in., and Muggsy Bogues, who at 5 ft. 3 in. holds the all-time record for the height-challenged. Being sort of weird myself, I used to imagine that Bol’s relationship with these two basketball dwarves was a practical instance of the Cusan philosophy of the coincidentia oppositorum, the idea of unity as the harmonious synthesis of opposites. I think, too, of the famous aphorism of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “the road up and the road down are the same.” The relationship between Bol and Bogues in particular strikes me as a prime illustration of the principle that differences need not divide, that the way up and the way down are part of the same game, which the great mythologist Carl Jung, following Heraclitus, called the enantiodromia, the complementarity of opposites.