A Meditation on Basketball and Politics
Manute, Spud, and Muggsy as metaphors: bouncing some ideas around.
August 22, 2010 - 12:23 am
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.
The principle applies to all aspects of life, from basketball to politics to everything in between. Big and little are aspects of the same labile continuum. The vast separation that has opened, for example, between Democrats and Republicans, the former mentally abbreviated and the latter growing in intellectual stature, is only to be expected in the ever-changing political dynamic. After all, how can Barack Obama, Barney Frank, and Nancy Pelosi compare to Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, and Michele Bachmann? Of course, the analogy I’m constructing is not strictly symmetrical since the Democrats exercise the power, whatever they have surrendered in moral and intellectual elevation.
It was the other way round once and will no doubt be so again. Moreover, altitude, as we have seen, may be accompanied by critical handicaps, a fact which demands a certain humility, and even the stunted may sometimes excel, however improbably. Though friendship is clearly unlikely between two such politically competitive and cognitively mismatched antitheses on the American political scene as Democrats and Republicans, they are, in the last analysis, presumably playing for the same team, the United States of America. With a modicum of wisdom and a familiarity with basketball and its lore, they might actually consider working together in a spirit of reconciliation. In sports, this is called teamwork; in politics, bipartisanship.
There is, let us remember, such a thing as life after basketball. Manute Bol was a “community activist” of the best sort, devoting most of his earnings to the Sudanese poor and risking his life on their behalf. Muggsy Bogues gained a later reputation as the author of a fascinating memoir, In the Land of Giants. In the same way, there is a life after politics, when one game is left behind and another beckons. Current belligerents in the House might keep this in mind as defeat or retirement looms. Whatever the distinctions between party members in conviction, prestige, or accomplishment — assuming, of course, that they have not committed flagrant fouls and so put themselves in the paint — at least the prospect of affinity is provisionally there, even if it isn’t a slam dunk.
There is much truth in Henry Adams’ observation in Democracy, an American Novel that politics is “the systematic organization of hatreds.” But no less than basketball, it is also a structure that aims for fluidity, coordination, and implausible alliances among the “differently abled” in the achievement of a common end. Sometimes it even works. Speaking realistically, however, the enmities probably run too deep at the present time for a credible rapprochement to occur between policy adversaries. And it must be honestly admitted that the agenda of the current Democratic administration, domestic or foreign, makes it hard to determine whether they are actually playing for Team U.S.A. or for the “other side,” be it the Mexican cartels, or the New Black Panthers, or the unions, or the ACLU, or the Lockerbie bomber, or Latin American dictators, or the various Islamic regimes. Additionally, they seem intent on boxing out their fellow representatives rather than frustrating the designs of dedicated antagonists.
Nevertheless, the complementarity of opposites, the Bol-Bogues principle, is a fundamental law of nature and should ideally govern our conscious behavior. Better a kind of basketball unanimity than the culture wars, as the Washington Bullets morph into the Washington Wizards and take the opportunity to work their legerdemain as best they can. Naturally, there will be disagreements and even quarrels among teammates, but savage hostility is ultimately a losing proposition. Meanwhile, the Republicans may be impressively tall, but they are still relatively weak. The Democrats, for their part, are a horde of diminutive thugs who control the court. The polarization of the political sport introduced by this band of aggressive midgets cannot be easily undone, but an electoral reckoning is in the offing.
One can always dream. If the two could somehow get their act together, like Bol and Bogues, and consent to preserve a unity of endeavor in the interests of the larger game despite their mensural discrepancies, then some reasonably good things are bound to happen. And if not, then discord will prevail into the future and the game cannot be won. For that is the long and the short of it.