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Published: 1999/01/15
by Chris Bertolet

"Ode To Joy"

So I was just thinking about Michael Jordan, the ancient Greeks, and hoses, and…

OK, maybe it didn’t happen like that. Not exactly.

I watched Jordan retire this morning. And as I listened to his teammates, his fans, and even his opposition recount his career in awe, I realized that he had not only ennobled the game and everyone who shared hardwood with him, but inspired excellence and endeavor around the world.

What is it about Michael Jordan that has inspired us? Statistically speaking, other players throughout basketball’s relatively short history have achieved more in nearly every category. In terms of career scoring, he ranks only third. So why the adulation? Points — isn’t that how we’re supposed to measure a man? How can he be the “best ever?” Why does anyone care what he’s going to do with his life off the court?

Here’s a theory: maybe we get joy from watching someone achieve what we thought to be impossible.

Think about it. Ten years from now, few will remember Michael Jordan for holding the average points-per-game playoff record, or averaging the most minutes per game across his career. We will remember moments. We’ll remember him leaping from the foul line to hammer home a crushing, wind-mill dunk. Impossible. We’ll remember him switching hands under Karl Malone, on the way down, to finger-roll the ball into the net. Again, impossible. We’ll remember the buzzer-beater he dropped to win the NBA Championship in his last moments as a Bull.

Impossible. The stuff of art.

Sure, you could argue that sport is sport, and art is art. I think that’s a narrow view. The ancient Greeks, who knew a thing or two for their time, considered human endeavor to be art. They built arenas and staged contests. Their sculptors captured the perfection of the human form at work. And something tells me that if Michael Jordan had lived then, a piece of marble that looked a whole lot like him might be standing in the Louvre today.

__________

MJ’s teammates talked this morning about “the real Michael Jordan;” the one they played with in practice. Perhaps no one in the game has taken more pride in his skills, in his craft, than Jordan. His body was an instrument, and he mastered it from stem to stern. He understood its nuances, and he pushed its limits. He honed his instrument to perfection, so he didn’t have to worry about it when he got onto the court. Once Jordan was between the lines, it wasn’t about craft it was about art. Improvisation.

Jordan himself said a few years ago that the only place he felt at peace was on the basketball court. He imagined that the lines were clear glass walls separating him from the rest of the world; the world that was always pressing in, shouting, demanding. He said that once the whistle blew, all he could hear was the thump of the ball on the floor; the whoosh and pop of the net. By his own account, he played almost every game in a place that athletes dream of, a place some of them call “the Zone.”

__________

Musicians dream of the Zone, too. They aspire to it. Charlie Parker likened it to having your life come out of your horn. In the jamband colloquial, it’s come to be known as “the Hose,” an analogy coined by Carlos Santana when he saw Phish play for the first time. As Santana saw it, Trey Anastasio and Co. were playing their instruments like hoses, conduits, through which music flowed like water. The music soaked the audience like flowers in bloom.

Forget for a minute how graceful that metaphor is, and consider what a perfect state of existence it suggests. It’s no wonder that, like Michael Jordan, Trey says he feels happiest and the most “like himself” on stage. At play.

Personally, I have no idea what it feels like to be the guy holding the Hose. But I do know that it’s as hard for a musician to become a conduit as it is for a man Jordan’s size to finger roll a deuce under Malone’s armpit. You have to be practiced enough to catch that flow, and confident in your own abilities to take the leap. You have to master your instrument.

As a technically mediocre guitarist, I’ll have to be content with my experiences on the receiving end of the Hose. As a mediocre basketball player, I’ve learned to be content in my living room with a mug of good beer, watching Jordan make art with a leather ball.

And now that I think about it, it’s no wonder to me that Phil Jackson has been known to take in a Dead show or a Phish show now and then when he’s not on the floor with MJ. I think maybe, like me, he appreciates a player with a fire for the game. A devotion to practice and process that elevates the play to a new level. A passion that inspires other players and fans to wake up and live hard.

A love that can make the impossible happen.

Chris Bertolet is well aware that Bach did not compose “Ode to Joy” at all, let alone while “spinning around a wheel of light”. His favorite cheese is Muenster, and his favorite color is plaid.

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