ON PASSING THE TORCH TO NO ONE (Occasional Sports Moments #24)

I’ll pay tribute to the swashbuckling spirit, which is also vanishing, some other day. For today, another ode to a stoic.

Or:

“When Tim Duncan retired from the NBA”

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I’ve been following the NBA since 1970. That means I missed Elgin Baylor and Bill Russell and saw Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson only in the twilight of their respective careers.

I caught most or all of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the still-going Lebron James.

If you asked me which player I would start a team with if my life depended on them winning a championship in the next five or ten or fifteen years, I’d pick Tim Duncan, who just announced his retirement after nineteen years, all spent with the San Antonio Spurs.

During that nineteen years, Duncan’s teams had the highest winning percentage of any franchise in the four major sports. This was despite being in one of the smallest pro sports’ markets (bottom ten percent); despite playing in a league which is built to reward large market teams like no other (outside San Antonio’s five championships, small markets have won a combined total of three titles in the last sixty years); and despite never playing with an in-prime teammate who was an elite all-timer. (Duncan did play the first few years of his career with an aging, past his prime, David Robinson).

I detailed some of Duncan’s unique greatness here (he did not win the championship that year but went on to win another the following year–it’s one measure of his greatness that he was 2-1 against LeBron in finals, and it was only an epic meltdown from Duncan’s Hall of Fame coach that kept it from being 3-0).

I put up most of what Duncan did in the linked post–the most impressive stats being leading those five small market teams to championships and leading four title winners in both scoring and rebounding, an achievement he shares with Jabbar.

But, impressive as they sometimes were, he was never about stats. All he ever cared about was winning–low post, pick-and-roll, run and gun, big stats, not-so-big stats, my best teammate is a center with creaking knees, a crazy swing-man who gives you twenty-five points with eight assists one night and five points with eight turnovers the next, a flashy point guard who can’t shoot or play defense.

Just win. Any which means. Any which way.

Let me enumerate just a few of those ways and means:

For nineteen years, defeat was his fault. Victory belonged to the team.

There was no fanfare. In the league that defines bling, he showed up to receive an MVP trophy wearing jeans and a tee-shirt.

When Kobe Bryant retired from the Lakers this year, he did it with a pre-season announcement accompanied by a rock star-style farewell tour, complete with gifts from all the teams he was visiting for the last time.

When Duncan retired today, in the middle of the off-season, he sent a text.

When Michael Jordan got tired of carrying the weight, he went to a bad team and settled for being an exhibition. Tim Duncan, playing longer, never got tired of carrying the weight. The Spurs won at least fifty games every year of his career except a strike-shortened season in which they won the championship.

Unlike Jordan and Bryant (and Magic and Bird and LeBron) he never ran off a coach, even though his coach made blunders that probably cost him two championships. Not only did he not run off his coach, he never said a bad word about him. He never said a bad word about that crazy swing-man Manu Ginobli either, even though Ginobli’s mental blunder in one playoff probably cost him yet another championship. None of the other players i mentioned, ruling in dynastic NBA cities like Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago would have let any of that go.

Like I said. Defeats were his, no matter who caused them.

The result?

He got called boring. He didn’t care. He got jibed for failing to market himself. (As Garry Trudeau once said: “America is the only country where failure to promote yourself is seen as a sign of arrogance.”) He didn’t care.

Excepting Robinson, his Hall of Fame teammates will be there because they played with Tim Duncan. His Hall of Fame coach will be there because he coached Tim Duncan. That’s one of those “subjective” achievements that really isn’t subjective at all.

I can’t speak to hockey, but, in the three team sports I watch, only Duncan and Russell consistently raised the level of their teammates’ play to such an extent.

If mental toughness is the hardest to achieve (and it is), and mad consistency is the truest measure of that toughness (and it is), then, along with Russell and Chris Evert, Tim Duncan was, from first day to last, the toughest athlete to play a major American sport.

Like them, he will never quite get the credit for it. This is not coincidence, because, like them, he was a supreme stoic. Maybe the two qualities–stoicism and mad consistency born of attention to detail–stem from a basic personality type. I don’t know. But I suspect Timmy is the last of his type we’ll see rise to such heights. There’s too much pressure to conform to the preferred self-promotional style in this better world we made for his like, once common in type if not degree, to come round again.

He played beautiful basketball, much of it beyond the comprehension of the experts who spent two decades failing to make that beauty evident to the average fan.

He didn’t care about that either. Great as the basketball was–fun as the basketball was–I’ll miss that more.

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THEY PROBABLY DIDN’T REALLY MEAN IT THAT WAY, BUT… (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #14, Claire Danes In Homeland Really Is All That)

I’ve said here before that “modern” television doesn’t appeal to me much, mostly because the reach tends to exceed the grasp by an almost infinite measure (the suggestion that these shows now do what movies used to do seems to me little more than an admission that nothing has officially replaced something).

However….

I haven’t exactly been in a High Art mood lately. It helps if you can stay awake–which I find pretty much impossible during those weeks when the French Open and the NBA Finals are double-teaming me morning and night.

So, when last Thursday evening found me morbidly depressed (after Tim Duncan’s 37-year-old knees couldn’t get enough lift to drop in a point-blank shot in the final minute of game seven of the NBA finals–probably because his 37-year-old back was exhausted from carrying the lifeless corpses formerly known as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli around for most of the series and literally all of games 6 and 7, not that I’m bitter or anything), I decided to take my mind off things by driving to the local all-night Wal-Mart that is furthest from my house and picking up the cheap Season One package of Burn Notice (which is old-fashioned television for those keeping score and fun on a lot of levels, but essential because, sooner or later in every episode, Sharon Gless shows up with her definitive Chain-Smoking-South-Florida-Late-Middle-Age-Wife-and/or-Mother-Who-Can’t-Wait-For-Bingo-Night, the only portrayal on modern television that reminds me of anyone I grew up with or, for that matter, of any recognizable human being at all).

Scrounging around–Wal-Mart never keeps the thing you are actually looking for in the place where you would reasonably expect to find it (I’m convinced this is the key to their success as they are the only corporation that recognizes how deeply Americans still love a mindless, pointless challenge!)–I also came across Season One of Homeland and, recalling encomiums from various people I respect, talked myself into making it my $29.95 “splurge of the month.”

And, of course, the most insistent of those plaudits have come in praise of Claire Danes’ performance as Carrie Mathison, the-bossy-but-tormented-white-woman-charged-with-the-security-of-the-free-world-whose-love-life-is-definitely-in-the-toilet-as-a-result (yes, it’s an actual type now, Hollywood will never run out of ways to kick women in the face, though it’s at least possible that Danes has found a way to kick back).

The praise is well-deserved. But I’m not convinced it’s for the right reasons.

It seems that what has impressed most reviewers is an evidently accurate portrayal of someone coping with bipolar disorder. I’ll buy that Danes is authentic in that respect. I’ll even buy that that’s plenty of reason for her to have swept up a lot of well-earned awards for this particular season. Conveying that kind of edge and intensity for an entire season can’t be easy.

But I’m more impressed by her capacity for getting under the skin of the great modern American dilemma, which is the question of whether the creation and maintenance of a massive security state is a valid response to…well…anything?

Because the thing that’s most striking about Danes’ character isn’t that she’s coping with a damaging mental disorder while operating under the kind of stress that would likely drive even a stable personality to suicide.

No, the thing that’s really striking–disturbing actually–is that you can’t trust her. I mean, this girl will lie to your face.

Whoever you are!

And while most of the lying might be about doing her job–she is a spy after all–Danes managed to make me believe her character was attracted to the job in the first place for this precise reason.

This is well outside the normal approaches that Hollywood, or pretty much any mainstream security state narrative (particularly including the narrative pushed by “journalists”), which are basically all designed to accept the necessity of the security state itself. Not as a repository for the career arcs of the emotionally damaged, but, you know, to keep us free!

Whatever you want to say about the varying approaches to telling spy stories it has pretty much always come down to the same thing: In the end, you can trust the hero/heroine to do the right thing for the right reasons. This is as true of John Le Carre as it is of, say, Burn Notice.

Inside or outside, rogue or paragon, field agent or desk-bound, complicated or simple, deep character study or mind candy, atheist or true believer. Doesn’t matter. Spy stories in the West come down to this: You spend the story hoping the hero/heroine who is standing in for us had a good Sunday School teacher (the atheists, incidentally, tend to have the very best Sunday School teachers even if, as in the case of this show’s Saul Berenson, played by Mandy Patinkin, they are almost always called something else) and in the end you go “whew, that sure was close.”

And, of course, a lot of that sort of thing does happen here.

But Danes’ character in the first season of Homeland is way past all that.

She’ll lie to get what she wants. If what she wants happens to coincide with what everybody else wants–with what we want and what her Sunday School teacher wants–then so much the better. (And, since this is hardly avant garde narrative or anything, she really does want what we want and, doubly “of course,” she’s the only one who is right–all standard stuff.) Danes, though, is the first actor I’ve seen to play this traditional role in such a way that her lies really are more about saving herself than saving the world.

In that sense, the bipolarity, however truthfully and convincingly portrayed, is a ruse, a macguffin even. Much easier for someone with a “condition” to tell both herself and everybody else (including us) that it’s okay for her to be more interested in saving herself than in saving anyone else (including us) if what she’s saving herself from–on our behalf!–is the bats in her belfry.

But, intentionally or not, this core of selfishness lies on a restless, seething bed of existential unease.

Because if Carrie Mathison is what we need to protect ourselves in the War on Terror–and, in Homeland, she is, finally, the one who protects us–then we aren’t protected at all. Or at least we aren’t protected by anything more tangible than what a real Sunday School teacher would call blind faith.

And that’s where Danes’ conviction and commitment to realism doubles down. There’s no line her character won’t cross to protect us…but only because there’s no line she won’t cross to protect herself. So God help us if this messed up woman is ever really wrong.

I mean, it’s okay if the last line of defense goes a little screwy when (for plot reasons only) she’s off her meds.

It’s another thing entirely to discover that she’s a bottomless well of need. Because if that really is the last line of defense, then we really are all screwed.

I’m guessing this kind of thing won’t be permitted to last, but, for now, I can’t wait for the fall DVD release of Season Two to see where the gatekeepers allowed her to take this.

[NOTE: I was less impressed than most people with Damian Lewis’ performance as the POW who might have been turned. His Manchurian Candidate is a long way second to Laurence Harvey’s, who I could actually imagine someone asking to run for Congress. As Lewis plays even his public side, Nicholas Brody is the kind of man political handlers hurl past Olympic sprinters to get away from. But Mandy Patinkin, as Danes’ wise old, seen-it-all handler, has made the role of a lifetime out of very standard stuff indeed. He’s so good at playing this stock character that he’s actually reinvented its boundaries. And Jamey Sheridan, as the Vice President, is completely convincing as a big league politician who makes it disturbingly easy to root for the terrorists.]