‘Money!’ A Story of a Passage Toward Greater Perfection
“Humility is a sadness born of the fact that a man considers his own lack of power, or weakness.”
“Humility is not a virtue.”
~ Baruch Spinoza, The Ethics (Book III, Def. XXXVI and Book IV, Prop. 53)
Among the many joyful moments brought me by my recent collaboration and friendship with former Michigan Fab Five stand-out Jimmy King is a recent one in which, as we shared memories of our respective on-court moments, so vastly different and yet somehow strangely similar, he said, “We should ball, Yago.” Nope, that wasn’t the great moment, though that was pretty good. The great joy came a few moments later when I found myself trash talking him and — here it comes — he trash talked me back. I told him he wouldn’t be able to stop me and he told me back that I wouldn’t be able to stop him. The joy and beauty of that exchange lies in its perfect mixture of sheer absurdity and absolute truth. Of course, I can’t stop Jimmy King. He’s 6-5 (I’m 5-9, maybe), he’s 39 and I’m 47, he’s a former McDonald’s All-American and I was second-team All-City in Madison, Wisconsin, he’s been to two NCAA finals and I’ve been to one Wisconsin state quarter final, he’s played in the NBA and I’ve been to an NBA game. And, well, he’s Jimmy Fucking King. So of course what he said was true and what I said was absurd. But what I said was true too. He can’t stop me. And the best thing is, he knows that’s true, he understands exactly in what way it is true, and he will acknowledge that it is true, even as he will resolutely affirm the opposite. Respect.
Talking trash to Jimmy King (and having him talk it back to me) is a new experience for me. I wouldn’t say it quite comes naturally to me yet. But it’s getting easier and it is certainly one I have been preparing for — even practicing — for some time now. A couple of years ago, on one of my commuting trips from St. Louis, where I then lived, to Ann Arbor, where my job is, I went to the North Campus Recreation Building to try to run some pick-up ball and a got on a great roll. My team of strangers — Charles, Leon, Andy, and myself — won our first game and then we won five more after that before I had to get going and so we retired, undefeated. I had a great work out, played pretty well, and enjoyed the wins, some of which involved exciting rallies in which we banded together to lock down on defense and worked patiently to get higher percentage shots on offense.
Nonetheless, I felt a little empty, a little disconnected from the action. Though we were all – my teammates and our opponents — clearly working hard to win games, something was missing. The only sounds were the pounding of the ball, the squeaks of their sneakers on the polished wood floor, and the occasionally correctly called out “pick right!”, “Switch!” or “Shot!” and then the obediently mumbled “good game” after the run ended. They were competent, business-like and joyless. I thought about my recent experiences playing on the outdoor courts at Heman Park in St. Louis, and how joyful and expansive I feel after every run, even when my team loses so that we don’t get to hold court like my team did in Ann Arbor.
At Heman Park everyone talked trash, everyone but me. From the prepubescent 8th grader, Mook, who is talented but still shoots a push shot from his chest to the 6-6 “old school” guy, whose name I don’t know, but who dominated play the couple of times he showed up to play, trash gets talked. Even Bob, a 64 year-old white dude with knee braces, a backward baseball cap, and wrap around sunglasses. Bob can’t even walk without visible effort, but he talks trash. Just like Mook, just like Old School. One player, about 6-3 and in his late 20s, I would guess, and who looks like Dwyane Wade, pulls the ball out to the three point line, executes a series of complex stationary cross-over and between-the-legs dribbles, all the while repeating “Class is in session. Hoopin’ 101.” Then, he laughs, and just before either flying past his defender or draining the three ball, asks “You ready for school?” and then, after the play, “Go home! You ain’t ready for school!”
But my favorite is probably Vic, the nearly toothless drunk who plays in street clothes and boots and one time not only won our game of “buckets” (the St. Louis version of “21” – actually played to 32); but then went on to lead our team of four to two victories before leaving us with this vintage piece of smack for our opponents – “Y’all can’t guard me and I’m drunk. I’m’a come back sober and y’all really see something.” Everyone broke out laughing and a bystander came back with “If you were sober you couldn’t even find your way here.”I loved this exchange as I loved all the trash talk on the courts at Heman. It’s an integral part of my enjoyment of the game. So, given the choice, I will always take the game with the good trash talkers.
But the trash talk didn’t come out of me and I wondered why.
By the time I was in high school I was regularly playing on playgrounds in Madison where trash talk was the rule of the day, so it’s not as though this is some unfamiliar cultural form or a court protocol that’s foreign to me. On the contrary, I immediately relax when I hear it, as though I were returning to my native land after a long stay abroad. What’s more, I feel like I have the requisite qualities for talking trash. I’m competitive. I love dominating as much as the next guy. And I’m at ease taking a leadership role. I have no problem telling guys where to go on offense or defense, even guys I don’t know, or that are individually more talented than I am. I do tend to be a little shy socially at the park or gym, but that just seems to beg the question of why that is so and why my shyness doesn’t prevent me from asserting myself in other ways on the court
So I did what anybody who has trouble talking trash might do: I explored it in therapy. With growing animation, I told him stories of legendary hoops trash talkers. He asked me what drew me to the stories. I told him it was the over-the-top confidence. A confidence so powerful it cannot be contained. But there was more to it than just the confidence that would not be silent.
It was the verbal aggressiveness that excited me as well: to explicitly assert your superiority by telling your opponent what you are going to before or while you are doing it, and then doing it anyway, showing up that they are powerless to stop you so superior are you.
But that’s also alarming to me in that it incurs not only the risk of failing to back it up, but also the risk of conflict. And, deeper than all of these and fueling them all, the fear that too much feeling, too much self-expression, too much me will cause problems for them. So I’m a pleaser. This concern with other people’s perceptions becomes a kind of abyss for me when it comes to trash talking. A corollary would be my almost compulsive need to say “My bad” on the court. My guy scores, no matter how tough the shot, no matter how good my defense, I will say “My bad” to my teammates (and “Tough shot” to the opponent). Pathetic.
After hashing this all out with my therapist, and feeling like I was done, I added, as a kind of lazy afterthought, “Larry Bird must have been filled with rage.” Awkward moment. I realize I have never read or heard that about Larry Bird. I feel as though my psyche just farted. Loud. I realize I’m not talking about Bird anymore. I’m talking about myself. It’s not just asserting myself, not just worrying about doing something awkwardly, not even just about expressing too much feeling in general.
It’s about expressing something particular that I feel: my rage. And it’s made all the more tempting because trash talk on a city playground is an absolutely acceptable form of expression and all the more alarming because I certainly have no reason to be angry with my opponent at Heman Park. That’s just what scares me about rage — about all rage, that it will be out of off target, out of proportion, and out of control.
I think about the only basketball situation in which I was ever really comfortable talking trash. It was when I used to play one on one with my older brother, Juan. Juan is 8 years older than me, the second in our family. Our oldest brother was probably the best athlete in the family and Juan never played competitively. But he was no slouch. He was about four inches taller and about 25 or 30 pounds heavier than me. He had a pretty good jump shot from the wings, released from behind his head which made it hard to block, and he was (having also played against my dad) physical and aggressive on defense and on the boards. As I got older, and spent more and more time playing ball and as Juan got older and spent less and less time playing ball, I began to beat him more regularly. And I started talking trash to him.
Did I not care what Juan thought of me? Was I so sure of his affection for me that I could risk giving free rein to these scandalously excessive self-expressions? Maybe. But Juan, in addition to his accurate over the head jump shot, has a wickedly incisive, dry sense of humor. In other words, he started it (or at least that’s how I remember it). He might call me too weak, or too small, or tell me I didn’t have the heart to really d him up. And that would make me angry and in my anger I would play harder and better and then, especially by the time I was around 18 or 19, I would want to humiliate him, not just by beating him, but by telling him I was beating him and how I was beating him and making it evident that there was nothing he could do to stop it.
I think of how many of my formative basketball experiences in that driveway in Madison were filled with rage. I don’t know why (it’s typical of me to think that there had to be some reason, to try to domesticate and justify and rationalize rage). I just know that as I contended with my father’s physical play, or my brother Juan’s teasing, or my oldest brother Tony’s effortless, unreachable superiority over me – as I contended with the feeling of being too damn small, smaller than everyone else, the rage would grow in me. I see my small body going harder, faster, digging in on defense, seeking rather than trying to avoid contact, unafraid of pain.
I see the bemused expression on my brothers’ faces as I hurl my angry body around the court, and I get angrier and I’m determined that when I grow, when I finally, grow, I will leave them standing still, a blur on my way to the hoop. “You can’t guard me.” I will swat the ball back in their faces, then give it to them to try again, and then swat it again. “Get that weak shit outta here.” And then, when it’s game point, I will spot up from way in the corner, 25 feet away from the hoop and when they dare me to shoot it, I will look them in the eye, and then as I effortlessly shoot my jumper I will say “Money.” Of course, the ball will go in, and they will finally collapse like the deactivated droids in The Phantom Menace, left powerless and humiliated by the recognition that they can’t stop me.
Now, I am no longer small, no longer a boy. I may still feel anger, but I am not filled with rage. I have what Spinoza would call an adequate understanding of my powers. “Self-esteem,” Spinoza wrote, “is a joy born of the fact that a man considers himself and his own power of acting.” “Joy,” he’d already written, is an affect indicating “a man’s passage from lesser to greater perfection.” And that passage toward perfection, he explained, comes about from cultivating one’s power to act according to one’s nature.
Trash-talk, Spinoza concluded (look it up, it’s there in my edition of his Ethics), is the natural expression of the joy of freely exercising one’s power to act according to one’s nature.
I have quietly begun my preparations for my game with Jimmy, as I know he has. I’ve been eating better, working out, strengthening my ankle, getting to the courts. I am taking this seriously, as is he – as we both should. And so part of this involves adding a new component to my jump shot, which is already reliable and sweet.
Now, with every practice shot I take, I say “Money.” I resolutely do not care whether it goes in or not. I just want that to be as natural a part of my jumper as every thing else that I repeated, practiced, thousands and thousands of times for years. Because when the moment comes when Jimmy King really can’t stop me, and I break free for a jump shot, I want already to have said “MONEY!” well before the ball is on its graceful arc to its predetermined cradle in the bottom of the net.
And Jimmy will fall down.