I don't watch much sports on tv, and rarely, if ever, watch an entire game of anything from start to finish, but I love reading about sports, especially books by coaches, and especially books by smart coaches who have figured out a particular philosophy for their game that somehow is able to correspond to another kind of game, life.
Phil Jackson, current coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, former coach of the Chicago Bulls, is one of those spiritual cats I can dig. His 2002 memoir More Than A Game, written with friend and basketball writer Charley Rosen, is a memoir of the game filled with detailed technical minutiae that soared right over my head, and intriguing spiritual concepts that rang achingly true.
I don't the know many of the rules of basketball. The specifics of the game elude me. Even playing the sport in high school gym class, I had no idea what to do, who to throw the ball to, how to move. But I've gradually realized over the years that my ignorance of basketball's (and cricket's, and American football's) rules is actually a good thing. A potentially enlightening thing.
When Phil Jackson watches a basketball game, he is seeing a level of life, a component of life, that I am not capable of appreciating. I liken it, as a former (current?) film snob, to people who watch a movie but aren't really into movies. They're fans. They like a good flick. They don't live and die for cinema, though. They're not watching the same movie I am, even if they are. (If you catch my drift.) And when I watch a hockey game, even though I played the sport as a kid, I am not watching the same game that Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux is watching. They see things that I don't. They understand plays that I can't even conceive of, let alone catch on a single viewing. They are observing the game, the sport, from an altitude I can't, and won't, ever reach.
I think we're all somewhat dismissive of that which remains foreign and incomprehensible to us. I look at cricket and wonder what the fuck's going on and why anyone is watching it. I read certain authors and wonder what everyone else sees in them. And yet this is the impulse that I've slowly, over the years, tried to eradicate from my human vocabulary.
Because the longer you look at something, the harder you look at something, the more life you bring into your observations the more that the observed sport/game/book/movie/country/person will look into you. You bring life into the game, and the game brings life, or a reasonable facsimile of it, into you. For Phil Jackson, basketball coach, basketball is not merely a metaphor for life; as his co-writer Rosen wittily puts it, 'life is a metaphor for basketball'. A group of people working in synch; a synergy passing from one player to the other; until the end result, at its most pristine, ultimate level, has little, if anything to with competition or winning. It's about the dance and sway of life, lived at its highest possible plateau. For Jackson, he incorporates Native Indian mythology and Buddhist precepts into the sport; me, I always just saw, well, a game.
That's the point, though. What you see and what I see and what matters to us and what matters to them are rarely, if ever, identical, or even similar. Fraternal twins, not identical ones. My wanderings through Japan and Cambodia and the Philippines have been experiments writ large; in the end, what I have been trying to comprehend is little more than an extension of what I try to do while watching a sport I only dimly understand -- I look for common points of interest, I investigate the unfathomable, I try to put two and two together.
Those pieces in chess, that baseball diamond, the empty net on the ice -- these are merely the respositories of our human instinct to apply order to a chaotic world. If you delve deep enough into any game, try hard enough, you can energize your own philosophy of life, however slipshod or rudimentary it may be. Or you can see it all as a game, period. One way is not better than the other; games are meant to be fun, after all. Life is simple or complex, depending on how good your seats are.
But I'm reminded of what some Israeli politican (whose name escapes me) recently said when asked whether he was optimist or a pessimist.
"An optimist and a pessimist both die the same way," he said. "So I choose optimism."