For the past few weeks in Chapel Hill we have gathered in front of our television sets to watch the Carolina basketball team move steadily through the NCAA tournament, game by game, winning them all, never with any great ease but always looking like the team everyone of us wanted: disciplined but unpredictable, talented beyond legitimate expectation but not overly-talented like a “bought” team, as good at defense as offense, and most important of all (at least for the fan), a team which in its combined personality embodied all the complex and contradictory elements of our own personalities. I mean, whoever we are sometimes, they were too. Isn’t this, after all, what most of the great teams have in common, not only that they win but that their winning comes to serve as a metaphor for our winning? This is where a fan’s heart is truly involved. Who cares about a team which wins too easily? But a team that struggles to final victory, that is as capable of losing as we are and for all the same reasons — laziness, lack of concentration, failure to do the right thing at the right time — but which nevertheless, unlike all the other teams of similar talent, manages to win a national championship, why, that is a great team, even a wondrous team. And the victory of such a team always represents more than itself, which is why those of us who love competitive sports will laugh and cry at the game’s end and will remember a well-played, high-stakes game in the same way that we remember a great poem or a novel.
Part of what we learn is what Coach Dean Smith’s teams always have to teach: finesse basketball. No gun and run, no egos out of control, no street ball. If you want that, you have to go somewhere else. The explosions when they come arrive against a nice background of ensemble work. Smith’s players pass the ball; they pass the ball every chance they get. On fast breaks they pass the ball to each other so many times that occasionally the last man to touch it will have hopelessly overrun the basket. Better to lose the basket, however, than to have an athlete drop, even for a moment, that constant peripheral awareness of his teammates. We, the fans, may jump out of our seat in despair when a fourth pass blows the lay-up but we sit down quickly. Like the players we have our own worst instincts for naked glory coached out of us: a Plan exists which is larger than our need to score every point, and somewhere down the line, probably after the other team has started to miss from twenty feet out, we shall see its shape.
Team ball. After watching Carolina season after season, who can respect anything else? The sheer beauty of all that power held under graceful restraint. If that sounds like a definition of art, it is. The quality of any event is what you put into it. The pros lug up and down the court in dull perfection, firing up jumpers according to the dictates of a twenty-four second time clock. Who cares, they seem to say, the name of the game is money. They are all rich men on their way to knee injuries. Always above and around them that clock, the money-clock. Within twenty-four seconds any real defensive strategy must give way to fast offensive balances, the sort of thing television viewers like: grace giving way to power. Occasionally of course a player of great body genius makes an appearance, a Julius Erving or a Magic Johnson, and then for moments at a time, even minutes, we look upon the unexpected, the unexampled, and we feel the same thing we always feel when we are in the presence of people who have evolved skills a thousand miles beyond our own. Respect and awe. But mostly pro basketball is a power game which emphasizes speed; coaches are hired not because they are good strategists but because they can get along with those players who are known as “the franchise.”
In college basketball, however, one’s pleasure doesn’t depend only on the exhilarated play of superstars: the game itself, unhindered by the dictates of a shot-clock, is more artful. Year after year well-coached teams win. The talent must be there too, but where is there a shortage of talent? Oddly enough, as I get older I see “talent” everywhere in all disciplines, in sports, in the arts, even in the world of ideas. What I don’t see often is that great submission of talent to an idea larger than itself, an idea which takes all that dizzying talent and connects it to something grander than its own display. One summer, for example, attending the American Dance Festival at Duke University, I remember being amazed at the prodigious talents of the dancers, one company after the other full of dancers who could soar and spin and maintain a perfect control over their body in ways completely unimaginable to me. And yet it wasn’t until the end of the season when the Merce Cunningham dancers performed that I felt I had actually seen the art of dance — all the rest had been blinding and wonderful and there were certainly moments of truth, but next to Cunningham’s controlling vision or a vision like his, that is, a disciplined philosophic sense of things, it had all seemed retrospectively a kind of entertainment, no matter how brilliant or talented the dancers.
Talent is something but it is not everything. This year Carolina had talent, but did it have that much more than everybody else? Perhaps: but this talent existed only in its relation to Coach Smith, who shaped it, filled in its blank spaces (defensive), combined it into a team, and ultimately inspired it. The same players under a different coach might have made the semi-finals and under a bad coach won the NIT; under Smith’s tutelage they were national champions, and by any standards, memorable ones.
Being memorable isn’t such a small thing — which brings me to James Worthy, Carolina’s six-nine power forward. In Worthy Carolina was blessed with one of those rare talents which goes beyond itself. If that sounds odd, consider for a moment how few athletes are actually memorable, that is, are capable of being remembered not so much for the records they set as for the manner in which they set the records, their actual vivid physical presence as they played the game. Here is where the truly fabled athletes come into their own, in our memories where we see them move exactly as we did years before when they were in their prime. The rest of the team may have names we can recall in games of trivia, but they and they alone move about in our minds with the same vividness as ever. Is it a question of personal style? I am thinking mostly of baseball here because that was the game of my childhood. But why is it that I cannot remember anything about Roger Maris except the record he broke whereas I can still remember everything about Mickey Mantle — from the way he dusted off his legs with his hat after sliding into second to the way his gigantic forearms looked as he held the bat twenty-five years ago? Perhaps it is a question of style and perhaps it is not a small question. During the actual season winning seems to be everything — certainly more than how you play the game — but years later when the games are replayed in the mind, all we end up caring about was how the games were played, not who won or lost. Say the word “Willy” and what is conjured up but the best of our youth, that first glimpse we ever had of unmitigable style and talent embodied in one glorious man. Was it art, was it sports — time turns these questions into quibbles. Those of us who loved “Willie” or “Mickey” when we were young and who knew the beauty of those young lions pacing the sun-drenched outfield will never be the same kind of cynics who discovered beauty in museums where one was supposed to whisper or in darkened theatres sitting beside women in mink coats.
And Worthy? He is one of those athletes with style, that is, a man possessed of great physical grace and an absolute self-assurance. Nor can we say enough about this element of assurance in an athlete. It was said over and over again throughout the NCAA tournament that Worthy looked like a man among boys, and what was meant, I think, was just his aura of self-confidence which he possesses. Let’s face it, no matter who we are, if we don’t strike our chord when it’s time to strike it, we spin in place like good neighbors. To leap out into the amazed faces of anybody we have to have the courage of our convictions: that means we have to believe in our own gifts. The world is filled with gifted men and women who think modestly all the time — the disciples, the drones, the bench-warmers, the regulars. I mean, let them have their tranquility but let’s not build a philosophy of modesty around them. Worthy, probably stunned by his abilities in high-pressure play, never held back, never doubted. Whether it was spin and shoot from ten feet out or heavy muscle under the basket, he was playing at full fury. Nothing in sports is finer than when the right moment finds the athlete, when the contest is so even, the tension so great, that self-confidence becomes a kind of courage and the most courageous win. Think back over the past few years: Reggie Jackson’s three homeruns against Los Angeles in the sixth game of the ’78 World Series, Bill Walton’s last and only full season with Portland in ’77, going up against Jabbar in the play-offs, and in the finals against the ’76’ers with Erving, Collins, McGinnis, Free, and Dawkins. Ali in Manila. And now the Carolina/Georgetown confrontation in this year’s NCAA final in which Worthy, double and triple-teamed, scored a season and career high of twenty-eight points and led Carolina to a final victory. Courage is the only word.
But there is something else to be said of Worthy. He is, I believe, the first graduate of a school of body-and-ball control whose founder is Julius Erving. Erving has been a pro for eleven years and it is a startling fact that the beauty of his playing has been the most sustained topic in basketball for at least ten of those years. Imagine that! What basketball fan will ever forget the first few times they saw Erving break down the court and, somewhere near the foul line, the ball inconceivably adhesive in his hand and not at all held like a basketball but more like a totem, a prize, begin his leap toward the basket? And then how the miracle would occur: where other bodies would start to come down, Erving’s wouldn’t. He would keep going, soaring. There was even a moment when he seemed to pause in mid-air, no more than a blink. And then the dunk, always classy, definitive, terminal.
Worthy was a boy learning fundamentals when Erving, the most balletic ballplayer who ever lived, made his appearance as a pro. As far as I can see, Worthy is going to be the great successor. Of course the dunks are different: Worthy is larger, stronger, and seems monolithic as he flies through the air; and there is a bruising quality in Worthy that Erving lacks, the difference between a power forward and a small forward. But when it is a question of scooping and dipping, of holding the ball aloft like a tool for sculpting the air, of rolling the ball off the fingers, palm up, into the basket with all the nonchalance of an after-thought, when it is decision-time four feet off the ground and the body chooses unimaginably to change directions and the hand with the ball has suddenly stuffed the basket on the right side instead of the unexpected left, then Worthy is most conclusively Erving’s descendant and we are all happy because none of us wanted to believe that it couldn’t be done again.
I heard people complaining of students painting the streets blue after Carolina’s victory. What they weren’t taking into account, however, was the profound nature of the ritual. An athlete is not just an athlete any more than a poet is just a poet. If an athlete wins well and nicely or the poet writes a good poem, something has been gained over the general mediocrity of things. This seems to be the point of all excellent activity. Excellence is itself a statement, profound and philosophical, about the way things are supposed to be, as opposed to what they are. By painting the names of basketball players all over town, the young men and women in alligator shirts, that is, the college mob, were acknowledging, shamefacedly and drunk as always, that real heroism does exist and that heroism means something. And, frankly, who else deserves so clearly to be called heroes? These young athletes have perfected complicated physical skills which are barely imaginable to the average fan, and they have done it in the same way it is always done: hard work, perseverance, discipline, and devotion. Beside their breathtaking body skills what the rest of us know how to do sometimes seems vague, imperfect, unearned, dependent on influence, and surprisingly imprecise. Yes, heroes, since they were simply excellent, they set out to do something difficult, they did it, and they did it well. If we could all do our jobs as well, and with as much dignity, we wouldn’t need to paint anybody’s name on our modest walls. The point over and over again is excellence — nothing else matters or ever has — and they were, in these most compromised times, exactly that.