Hoop Musing

Editorial by Tom Dooley

Tonight Michael Jordan scored thirty-one points, the last two of which came on the last play of game one between his Chicago Bulls and the visiting Utah Jazz in this year's NBA championship series. There were 7.5 seconds left on the clock, Karl Malone had just missed two free throws, the score was tied at 82 apiece. Jordan got the rebound off Karl's miss and called time-out. When the Bull's inbounded, they gave it to Michael. He took Bryon Russell off a hesitation dribble and drained a fade-away jumper from about seventeen feet. At the buzzer. Net.

When asked what he told Malone, right before the two misses at the end of the game, Scotty Pippen confessed that he told Karl "The mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays."

This is what basketball is. Drama. Humor. Larger than life heroes doing or failing to do the improbable, if not the impossible.

At the commercial break, lanky women coated with sweat proclaim "We got next." The WNBA is coming in twenty days. This means more basketball. It means women will have heroes (heroines!) too.

Then another commercial. This time it's Michael Jordan entering the stadium on his way to dress out for a game. He tells us in the voiceover that in his life he's missed like nine thousand shots, lost three hundred games, been trusted to make the game winning shot and tanked it twenty-six times, and that over and over in his life he's failed, and that this is why he succeeds. It was a good commercial before, but right after this last game winning shot, it's downright eerie.

John Stockton is two inches shorter than me. He went to Gonzaga University. He's a two-time Olympic gold medalist, the all-time NBA leader in assists and steals. Perennial all-star. Through thirteen seasons in the NBA, he has missed a total of four games—all of those coming in one season over a decade ago. He scored nine points in the last two minutes of game six against Houston last week. Two clutch free-throws. Two tough, off-balance, in the face of the defender drives to the hoop. One game-winning three pointer off an inbounds pass with 2.8 seconds to go in the game. Karl Malone set a huge pick that freed him up for the pass and the shot. Charles Barkley, himself a future hall-of-famer that'll probably never win an NBA title, could only try to get there in time, and then watch Stockton's shot go through at the buzzer. Later, when his teammates had gone to the locker room, Charles stood at the entrance to the tunnel and watched as a jubilant Malone was interviewed by Jim Gray. It could've been him out there. It was a loss that stacked up to a second here, half an inch there, one iota more of effort, just one tiny bit of luck… If Clyde had waited another second and a half before starting his move—the one that resulted in a miss, a Malone rebound, a quick time-out, and then Stockton's unbelievable trey—they'd still be in overtime at that moment instead of having to accept that their season was over.

People will question the judgement of Rudy Tomjanovich, the Houston coach. Why, with two of the greatest post players in the history of the game—namely Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwan—with the game tied, your team in possession of the basketball, and with less than twenty-four seconds left on the clock—why would you have Drexler go one-on-one from the perimeter and pull up for a jumpshot? Maybe he wanted Clyde to glide all the way in for a layup, and it was Clyde's mistake to pull up. Maybe he was thinking it was Clyde who had the hot hand. If it was me, I would've tossed it into Hakeem with three seconds left and had him go strong to the hoop. He's either going to make it, get fouled, or time will run out and it's overtime. During the timeout before Drexler took the shot and missed, I explained the situation to my mom. We were watching the game together. I said they'd run the clock down, get it into Hakeem, and one way or the other, something good was going to come of it for the Rockets. Shows what I know.

Drexler played a hell of a game that day, and he'll be in the hall of fame too, deservedly so, but he also lost his team a chance to play in the championship. You can say that there were many other moments that might've made the difference in that game, but when it comes right down to it, when the game was there to be won or lost, Clyde made a bad decision and blew it. It isn't that he missed the shot. Even if he'd made the shot, Stockton's three-pointer would've still claimed the victory. It was that he took the shot, off balance, with no rebounders, with time left on the clock.

Last fall, I had the chance to stand courtside while the Las Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns warmed up before a preseason game. Robert Horry and Sam Cassell were matching three-pointers five feet away from me. I was struck by how mortal they seemed. Cassell was smaller than me. Horry, though larger, didn't seem like a giant. Cassell was making about one of every four shots. I thought to myself, "I can do at least that well myself!" And yet, those guys, compared to me, aren't mortal at all. They're better than I'll ever be. They're better than I could ever be.

The funny thing is, the comparison is probably the same when you match up the likes of Horry and Cassell with the likes of Drexler and Stockton. Drexler and Horry aren't even on the same plane of existence. All of which makes it that much more humbling when you realize that Drexler tanked that game by making what amounted to an incredibly stupid mistake. You don't take the last shot so that enough time remains on the clock for the other team to score! Even I know that.

The sphere of human existence is narrow indeed. We set up markers and measurements, levels of accomplishment, and it seems quite meaningful to us. The four-time world champion Chicago Bulls might be at the pinnacle of basketball. At the other end, for comparison, perhaps the group I play with on Sunday nights. Not to put these guys down. They're really quite good. We meet on Sundays, and sometimes Wednesdays, and play three-on-three in this one guy's backyard. I should be there right now, but I procrastinated on this editorial, as usual. He has a half-court set up, complete with lights. The court isn't wide enough to shoot three-pointers from the side. Diving out of bounds for loose balls is strictly prohibited (worth a technical foul), because doing so means hitting a brick wall or landing in prickly shrubbery. Every so often, the dog next door starts howling and everybody yells "Andre." Apparently, this dog has some kind of seizure, and the only way to bring him out of it is to yell his name.

This is our world of basketball. We don't dunk, but there are some pretty shots and some pretty plays. Considering how different our world is from that of the NBA, it's almost eerie sometimes because it feels like we're really playing the same game. And that's the paradox. We are.

A few years back, Barkley raised a stir by proclaiming he wasn't a role model. Maybe now that Dennis Rodman has come all the way out of whatever kind of closet he inhabits, we can be thankful to Charles for setting that precedent. We probably don't need Rodman being seen as a role model either. But in our more sophisticated social consciousness, I think we're now aware of the paradox here as well. Barkley is a role model whether he likes it or not. But he's right on some level, in that maybe he shouldn't have to be.

In the documentary film When We Were Kings, it seems clear that Muhammad Ali accepted his "role" as a role model. "We've got to whup Mr. Tooth Decay," he says to the children of America. You get a sense that this was a man who transcended the sport that made him famous. The same is true for Jordan. He may be no profound philosopher, but Michael Jordan, at least to my mind, has become someone who has transcended his sport, and not only transcended it, but done so consciously. Jordan is an inspiration, in a way that Charles Barkley, for all his lovable orneriness and savvy play and one-time dominance, will never approach. Mike Tyson, even if he comes back and whups Mr. Holyfield this summer, and even if he goes on to be undefeated for decades to come, will never inspire the way Ali did. It's the difference between a hero, and someone who falls short.

A hero, in the tradition explicated by Joseph Campbell, is someone with remarkable qualities who sets out on upon a journey of discovery. Ultimately, what the hero discovers is himself. Ultimately, by discovering himself, the hero shows us something about ourselves.

Before tonight's game in Chicago, the announcer asked for everyone's attention. There was a special guest to be introduced. Wearing a Bull's jacket, Muhammad Ali walked out onto the court, shook hands with the players and referees, and returned to the stands. I had to wonder, is Michael Ali's hero? Or vice-versa?

One could argue the ridiculousness of basketball, a game involving a steel rim ten feet above the ground and an inflated ball of cowhide, rising to a place of cultural significance in the world. I would argue that excellence and heroism in any form, and especially in a form that doesn't involve war and death, elevates the human experience. Say it with me. I love this game!

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