Following up this weekend’s post on that strange feeling of inevitability, I thought it would be fun to tell a few stories before I get back to politics and the end of the age.
I vividly remember in the mid-eighties watching a young boxer named Mike Tyson emerge from the streets of New York. His rough background and terrifying anger seemed at the time to make him more than a fighter, but a force of nature that would storm into the ring and tear apart his unfortunate victims. He wasn’t a boxer - but the masses never really watched the heavyweight division of boxing for technique and skill.
Side note: I took a missions trip to Mexico early on after starting full-time in ministry and our translator also happened to be an amateur boxer. So I spent long nights with some of the other guys on the trip learning boxing technique and trying hard to actually hit the guy. He would ask us to hit him as fast and as hard as we could - and we couldn’t lay a finger on him. It was fantastic - and I was hooked on the science of boxing.
No one, however, would ever imagine that Mike Tyson was a technical marvel. He was trained early on by one of the best trainers in the business, a man named Cus D’Amato, had had in earlier days trained heavyweight champions like Floyd Patterson. Patterson, to this day, is considered one of the greatest champions in boxing history and was the youngest heavyweight boxer in history - until Tyson became world champion at the age of 20. Though trained by the best, Tyson’s “skill” was intimidation and terrifying ferocity. He was a head-to-toe slab of muscle and impossibly fast. Of his first 22 professional fights, 19 ended in a knockout. 13 of those came in the first round!
As a young man in high school at the time, I had mostly heard about the fights. I remember, vaguely, watching him destroy Trevor Berbick and a guy named “Bonecrusher” Smith to unify the heavyweight title (if you’re still with me at this point, you really don’t want me to explain what that means, because it would mean explaining why no one watches boxing anymore). The fight I remember vividly is the one where I first felt that feeling of inevitability: when Mike Tyson got into the ring with a boxer named Michael Spinks, I turned to my friends and said simply, “Spinks is going to get destroyed in a minute”. I think I was actually scared for the guy.
I’ve described the feeling of inevitability related to sports in terms of it being about something more than a dominating team (or individual) on a roll where it seems like they can’t be beaten. It’s watching a team playing a different game, to the point where you know that they won’t lose, regardless of how well the other team plays. Here, watching the two men get into the ring, it was like Tyson was a different kind of human being. If this were Roman times, Spinks was, of course, the Christian. The announcers at the time were hyping the fight, telling us about Spinks’ superior “reach” and how his arm length could possibly keep this terrifying granite fighting machine away to get some punches in. I didn’t buy it. Those Spinks arms were twigs, relative bowling pins; Tyson was the human bowling ball.
Some of you who were paying attention to these kinds of things back then may remember how it turned out. 91 seconds after the opening bell sounded to begin the fight, it was over. It was a mauling. Pay per view audiences around the nation were horrified. Everyone knew that Spinks would lose - but not like that. Things for Tyson fell apart not long after this fight, for reasons that no one cares about any more. But I remember. That feeling tends to stay with you over the years.
On my honeymoon, my incredible new bride suggested that we relax on the couch, open the doors to let the warm Caribbean air blow in, and watch Game 5 of the NBA Finals. I love that woman. For those that remember, Game 5 that year was the famous “flu game”. A dehydrated and exhausted Michael Jordan scored an amazing 38 points to shift the momentum of the series, which the Chicago Bulls would win the very next game. For a sports fan, it felt historic. It’s why you would watch sports: to maybe, hopefully, see a game like that. You felt like you were watching something impossible, and you were sure that anyone who watched the game would talk about it for years.
The next time I felt the feeling of inevitability was during a game far more routine and mundane than that one. The very next year a few of us grabbed some cheap tickets and hotel rooms in Toronto to watch the Chicago Bulls, and Michael Jordan in his final year, roll into town and destroy the floundering Toronto Raptors. Though it was unofficial, everyone knew it was Jordan’s last year. That game in particular made headlines because of the crushing demand for tickets. The arena at the time was the Skydome, where the Toronto Blue Jays played baseball during the summer. They would block of half the dome and set up a makeshift basketball arena with the other half; the full stadium could seat 60,000 for baseball games while the basketball arena had a seating capacity of about 18,000. For this game, they opened up the “really bad seats” (obstructed views from the seats near the partition that divided the arena in half) and squeezed about ten thousand more for the main event.
I, of course, snatched up as many of the “really bad seats” as I could get my hands on. From where we were sitting, a few in our group could see fairly well on one end of the row; those on the other side of me couldn’t see at all. We put the girls down at that end. I blocked out all conversations and just watched one of the best basketball teams in history play one of the 82 games they would play that year. There, in Toronto, it was remarkable how many of the fans early on were there to actually root for the Bulls.
I noticed a few things that surprised me. Jordan was clearly coasting, it seemed as if he was hardly trying. He would score if the game came to him, but he wasn’t trying to make anything happen. It was strange to watch one of the greatest reducing himself to role player status. But that’s what he was - the spotlight was clearly on Scottie Pippin that night, who was destroying any Raptors defender foolish enough to try to stop him from scoring. Most of the night, it was a young man named John Wallace, who had led the Syracuse Orangemen to the NCAA Finals a few years earlier (only to lose to a far superior Kentucky Wildcats team with six future pros).
The other thing I was impressed by was how good their troubled forward, Dennis Rodman, looked in person. Rodman, on the court, had a reputation as a stunning rebounder and defender; but in person he was more than that. I have never seen a player give 100% effort for entire game without dialing down - Rodman went full speed with maximum energy for the entire game; nearly impossible for even the most well-conditioned athletes. But it was clear that Rodman possessed a stamina that was abnormal. I found myself watching him more than the established offensive stars of either team - he was giving an almost inhuman effort against the last-place team in the league.
While their defense was terrible, Wallace and another young veteran named Doug Christie were playing the game of their lives on the other end of the court. A young Marcus Camby blocked a few surprising shots and provided energy by the basket - he would finish with 23 points. Two rookies showed flashes of potential that occasionally wowed the crowd - a point guard named Chauncey Billups and a forward named Tracy McGrady. It seemed as if the Bulls were going to put this last-place team away often throughout the night; yet the Raptors had a scrappy resolve that helped them close the gap early in the game - at halftime the Bulls were only winning by two. About midway through the third quarter most of the tourists who came for the event began to file out. Chicago had widened the gap in the score and the Raptors were seemingly well on their way to another of what would become 66 losses that year. The third quarter ended with the Bulls winning 78-69.
Yet, the most surprising thing happened: the Raptors began to make things happen. Turnovers by the Bulls, unbelievable off-balance jump shots by Christie, baskets from surprising no-name guys who would soon be out of the league, and a burst of energy on defense propelled the improbable comeback. The Bulls (save Jordan) turned up their energy level a bit, wanting to put the Raptors away before they really began to believe they had a shot at winning. But it was too late - now the Raptors and the crowd believed that this last-place team could really beat one of the most powerful basketball teams to ever play the game. Every seemingly fatal “dagger” inserted by Pippen at his finest was answered with authority on the other end of the floor by Christie and Wallace.
I had moved seats by then, occupying a row long abandoned by tourists who had left after getting what they had come for - the ability to say, “I saw Michael Jordan”. As for me, I joined the rest of the crowd in cheering and hollering wildly as the Raptors went on to outscore the Bulls 31-22 in the fourth quarter. Improbably, the final seconds were ticking away and the Raptors had tied the score at 100. With twenty seconds left and the ball, after a Raptors mistake, the Bulls called a timeout. The scattered crowd that remained was breathless and alive.
After the timeout, the Bulls inbounded the ball directly to Jordan, who calmly dribbled the ball down the full length of the court. Suddenly, that feeling gripped me again. I think it grabbed the entire crowd, simultaneously - a hush fell over the newly converted Toronto Raptors fans. As the clock counted down to ten seconds, I knew - everyone in the building knew - that this game was over. The Raptors had, collectively, played the game of their lives - but they couldn’t win. Not tonight, and not against these Chicago Bulls. The basketball gods could add five, ten, fifteen more minutes to the clock and it wouldn’t help them. They were still young novices at this game and the master was about to show them what championship basketball involved.
As calmly as you or I drink a glass of tap water, or brush our teeth, or read the newspaper, Jordan dribbled to a spot on the floor and casually launched a twenty-foot jump shot. Time expired as it spun perfectly in the air. It swished beautifully through the net to give Jordan his 33rd point of the night. The crowd gaped in unison, cheered for a moment, and then it was over. Without so much as a fist-pump or a smile, Jordan calmly trotted off the court as if it were the end of the half. He simply turned, ran off the court to scattered, stunned applause, and disappeared.
That feeling came over me again as I watched the Patriots put away the Jaguars coolly on Saturday night. It was much more akin to the coolness of Jordan rather than the earlier ferocity of Tyson. Brady completed all but two of his passes (two “shoulda had it”-type drops by his receivers) with the same calm that comes over you or I when we relax on a couch or eat a burger. It didn’t matter what the Jaguars did, the Patriots simply went about their business with an other-worldly efficiency. I saw about four or five mistakes by the offense all night - one sack allowed, two dropped passes, and two missed blocks. It was easy perfection.
That’s why, for all of the speculation that followed my last post, I am sure (as sure as I have been of anything) that the next few weeks are all but done. It doesn’t matter what the other teams do, or how well they play. Their highest level would have been championship-caliber football on any other occasion. But not this year - this year, we are seeing something that you see maybe once or twice in a lifetime.
Three times if you’re lucky.
2 comments January 14th, 2008