I wonder what Fish is doing now. Fish was a minor playground legend on the outdoor basketball courts of Lowell High School in San Francisco during the mid 90s. On Saturdays, after a day working at my parent’s dry cleaners, I would race north on interstate 280 to catch the last hour of daylight, looking for a little run on those courts. A few friends might already be there, and sometimes, Fish was around. But the real action at Lowell was on Sundays, when at least 3 courts would be running 5 on 5 games with a minimum one game wait. Fish usually arrived when the day was peaking with competition, sauntering in sleepy-eyed, looking like he didn’t want to play, much less be there. He would always be distractedly eating something – a bag of chips, a candy bar, a banana. He didn’t seem to want to do that either.
Fish was Chinese and likely got the nickname from the way he looked. He had big, bulging eyes, a small mouth that was always open, and a pronounced profile. Fish’s head would look good on a coin. Eventually he would loaf onto the court, shoes lazily scraping the ground. Ballers sitting on the sidelines waited in anticipation for his lefty jumpshot, launched usually from well beyond the 3-point line. He would always try to bank it in and was usually on the money. The real beauty in his game though, was the way he would dictate play with his ball-handling, getting even the most limited players the ball in exactly the right position at exactly the right time for them to score easily. He championed his makeshift teammates as if they were his little brothers, urging them on and instructing them with genuine enthusiasm. Fish would light up as the day went on, his gloomy disposition brightening as the weather eventually and predictably deteriorated. Basketball never stopped even though a summer fog always rolled in annoyingly in the mid-afternoon to that southern part of San Francisco known as the Sunset, bringing with it a cold, misty wind. Nevertheless, we ran until it got dark.
Sometimes after a full day of basketball my friends and I would drive to the Vietnamese spot in Daly City and each get a bowl of pho before heading home for a proper dinner with our families. Pick-up basketball at Lowell was mostly an Asian thing. Chinese, Philippinos, and Koreans owned those courts. Back then, we chased basketball.
Lowell was just one of a handful of possibilities during the week. On Fridays, I’d often meet up with childhood friend Ben Lei at the RSF (Recreational Sports Facility) on the campus of UC Berkeley for a night of intense runs. And I’d play at least three afternoons in San Jose State University’s gym, racing there after sleeping through an art history or graphic design class. At night there was either an intramural game or a less serious run with the after-dinner crowd looking for light exercise. Basketball junkies chase fleeting moments when they feel unconscious and unstoppable, when they reel off 5 or 6 games in a row, when they beat a clearly more talented team, when they shut up a trash talker. For me those moments were a sign from higher powers at how right the universe could and should be. It was a little piece of nirvana. Basketball will never quite be like that for me again. When life revolved around hoops, Fish was the man. Now, I struggle to remember what kind of sneakers he wore.
During Usain Bolt’s post-race interview after dominating the 200 meter final of the 2011 Track and Field World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, he talked about the former American champion Michael Johnson, who was similarly pre-eminent as a 200 and 400 meter runner in the 90s. In his hurried Jamaican English, Bolt reminded viewers that Johnson retired while he was at the top of the sport; a legend, he said, and that was how Bolt wanted to be remembered as well. Each one defined men’s running in their eras. Johnson was the game back then as Bolt is today.
Even during the pre-race introductions, as I watched Bolt prance and mug elaborately as if getting ready for a night out, then step and crouch seriously to his mark, I thought about how his and Johnson’s running styles differed and how the shape of their forms delivered them to the limits of our understanding of what the body is capable of.
Their names say it all.
Usain Bolt, an audacious, electric amalgam of syllables conjured through a violent spark of imagination. The first name is liquid, the U played like the Ooh of surprise, sain like insane, Bolt of lighting bolt. He runs like his name, smooth as molasses stretching from a spoon with an easy speed that can only be described as genius. Genius like the level of intellect. From the gun, each step rockets him forward ever faster until he reaches full speed. From there he swallows distances in lengthy strides. His feet seem to barely make contact with the track’s surface, floating above and discrediting laws of nature.
In slow motion during the 200, NBC showed his eyes glancing to his right as he came out of the turn, checking for Walter Dix, the American runner who came in 2nd. With Dix well behind, Bolt poured on the mechanics of his stride and his face broke out in expressions of innocent wonderment, joy and swagger. A 6’5 runner with a long gate, he down-shifted and accelerated into a smooth gallop that propelled him past the finish into the Jamaican flag. A swarm of cameras descended on him as he jigged and broke into his lightning bolt pose, left arm stretched diagonally, index pointing to the heavens. His right arm folded, index aligned with his left arm as if he’s drawing back a bow and arrow, aiming it at the moon.
Michael Johnson, a common, practical name, unfussy and unadorned. It’s always Michael Johnson, not Mike. You would never forget it, though you would also never remember it. Uncelebratory and utterly American. He had short legs that worked like pistons, up and down in rapid choppy succession, pounding his shoes into the track so hard the track bounced them back up with greater velocity. His speed was built on pure work. It was blue-collar speed. Johnson’s arms pumped with the same rhythm as his legs, fast and furious. His mouth was the exhaust pipe, eyes straight-ahead unemotional like headlights; his head turned into a pure instrument for breathing. His body was a machine for the production of blinding pace though nothing in its movements suggested forward rush. He won gold in both the 200 and 400 meters in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, setting the 200 meter record that stood until Bolt broke it in the 2009 Berlin World Championships in 19.19 seconds.
Bolt’s running looks like the sound of a whizzing bullet, chasing the wind and never stirring the air, laughing all the way. Johnson shoved air aside like a freight train going downhill, the business of running pressed on his face. Running is pure sport; how fast can you get from here to there with your feet? When Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson run, their churning strides convert their sport into art.
The Dallas Mavericks won the NBA Championship tonight, beating a collection of massive names with nearly flawless games. Any more words on the subject would devolve into cliche, but sometimes, cliches are the only possible descriptions. I’m happy that they won – maybe too happy. Would I be as happy if Obama won a second term, if the Communists in China gave way to democracy, if cancer was cured, if violence ended? Sports are meaningless, but can you really prove this? So is art, so is fashion, design, politics, war, famine, the environment, literature, music. Warhol proved it. And he was wrong. We all are, about everything.
Standards are unnecessary. Any judgment of quality is decadent. We can’t just acknowledge that everything is information; we need to digest it and live it.
We lost again tonight – our basketball team. And now the Mavericks/Heat NBA finals game taunts me from the living room TV, the championship trophy seemingly predestined to be taken to South Beach, like a certain King’s talents. The losing side will include Jason Kidd, a flawed but historic player who me and my friends Derrick Nam and Ben Lei used to watch play summer league basketball in a musty gym on the outskirts of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco when we were in high school. (Can’t remember the name of that gym.) In one indelible play Kidd, wearing a high top fade, caught a pass at the three point line and without looking, and in one motion, fired a rocket pass to a cutter at eye level underneath the basket, inches away from a defender’s fingertips. Kidd’s anonymous teammate, a local baller who probably played a little division II hoops, dumbfounded by the dime, finished with a servicable, if pedestrian reverse layup. I remember looking around and making eye contact with some old school basketball junkies. We shook our heads in unison with a satisfied half smile as if to say, “in 20 years, we’re gonna remember we saw him here and recognized his genius first.”
And now 20 years later, if he wasn’t as flawed as he is, if he could hit a mid-range jumpshot, if he were more athletic, if he had a reliable post move, then maybe I would be a different kind of person. Someone who isn’t agitated by the easy excellence and near perfection by bulletproof types like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade. Instead I’m loyal to players like Marcus Liberty, Harold Miner, Lamond Murray, Anfernee Hardaway, Kenny Anderson, Chris Jackson (Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf), Lawrence Moten, Bob Sura, Jimmy Jackson, Gerald “Sky” Walker, Steve Smith, Billy Owens, Jalen Rose and others whose games were glorious and poetic, but in many cases, lacking efficiency and cut-throat professionalism.
Efficiency and professionalism are fine, admirable traits in business and you want to impart those in the workplace, but in basketball I’m down with those who just barely missed out and didn’t quite live up. They exist on the margins of basketball’s history book, but their games survive in the memories of those that appreciated their fleeting success. And the margin’s where it’s at anyway in creative fields like basketball and art. Those that are outside the lines of history, who aren’t included in the story, can make their own. They can play ball with a loser’s edge and make some fine art, but only if they stop caring about winning all the time.