Here’s a look at how four great writers describe an amazing athlete. Note how all three spotlight a single play to explain a larger idea. By zeroing in on a specific moment, they are able to explain to readers what general, big picture platitudes can’t.
Bill Simmons on Allen Iverson
Don’t Question The Answer by EPSN’s Bill Simmons describes a quintessential Allen Iverson encounter.
Once I was sitting midcourt at the Fleet Center when Iverson was whistled for a technical, yelped in disbelief, then followed the referee toward the scorer’s table and screamed, “[Bleep] you!” at the top of his lungs. The official whirled around and pulled his whistle toward his mouth for a second technical.
And I swear on my daughter’s life, the following moment happened: As the official started to blow the whistle, Iverson’s eyes widened and he moved angrily toward the official, almost like someone getting written up for a parking ticket who decides it would just be easier to punch out the meter maid. For a split-second, there was real violence in the air. Of course, the rattled official lowered his whistle and never called the second T. By sheer force of personality, Iverson kept himself in the game.
Look, I’m not condoning what happened. It was a frightening moment. At the same time, I haven’t seen a player bully a referee like that before or since. And that goes back to the “seeing him in person” thing. Iverson plays with a compelling, hostile, bloodthirsty energy that the other players just don’t have. He’s relentless in every sense of the word. He’s a warrior. He’s an alpha dog. He’s a tornado. He’s so fast and coordinated that it genuinely defies description. He’s just crazy enough that officials actually cower in his presence. And none of this makes total sense unless you’ve seen him.
David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer
Federer as Religious Experience by David Foster Wallace, author and tennis player, describes a Roger Federer moment.
It’s the finals of the 2005 U.S. Open, Federer serving to Andre Agassi early in the fourth set. There’s a medium-long exchange of groundstrokes, one with the distinctive butterfly shape of today’s power-baseline game, Federer and Agassi yanking each other from side to side, each trying to set up the baseline winner … until suddenly Agassi hits a hard heavy cross-court backhand that pulls Federer way out wide to his ad (=left) side, and Federer gets to it but slices the stretch backhand short, a couple feet past the service line, which of course is the sort of thing Agassi dines out on, and as Federer’s scrambling to reverse and get back to center, Agassi’s moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does — Federer’s still near the corner but running toward the centerline, and the ball’s heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there’s no time to turn his body around, and Agassi’s following the shot in to the net at an angle from the backhand side … and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him, and it flies straight down the sideline and lands exactly in the deuce corner of Agassi’s side, a winner — Federer’s still dancing backward as it lands. And there’s that familiar little second of shocked silence from the New York crowd before it erupts, and John McEnroe with his color man’s headset on TV says (mostly to himself, it sounds like), ’’How do you hit a winner from that position?’’ And he’s right: given Agassi’s position and world-class quickness, Federer had to send that ball down a two-inch pipe of space in order to pass him, which he did, moving backwards, with no setup time and none of his weight behind the shot. It was impossible. It was like something out of The Matrix. I don’t know what-all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs.
According to YouTube commenters, the exchange described above begins at 8:10 into this video. [via JK]
George Plimpton on Sidd Finch
The Curious Case of Sidd Finch by George Plimpton was a Sports Illustrated April Fool’s joke describing a mystery phenom pitcher.
The phenomenon the three young batters faced, and about whom only Reynolds, Stottlemyre, and a few members of the Mets’ front office know, is a 28-year-old, somewhat eccentric mystic named Hayden (Sidd) Finch. He may well change the course of baseball history, On St. Patrick’s Day, to make sure they were not all victims of crazy hallucinations, the Mets brought in a radar gun to measure the speed of Finch’s fastball. The model used was a JUGS Supergun II. It looks like a black space gun with a big snout, weighs about five pounds, and is usually pointed at the pitcher from behind the catcher. A glass plate in the back of the gun shows the pitch’s velocity–accurate, so the manufacturer claims, to within plus or minus 1 mph. The figure at the top of the gauge is 200 mph. The fastest projectile ever measured by the JUGS (which is named after the old-timer’s descriptive–the “jug-handled” curveball was a Roscoe Tanner serve that registered 153 mph. The highest number that the JUGS had ever turned for a baseball was 103 mph, which it did curiously, twice on one day, July 11, at the 1978 All-Star game when both Goose Gossage and Nolan Ryan threw the ball at that speed. On March 17th, the gun was handled by Stottelmyer. He heard the pop of the ball in Reynolds mitt and the little squeak of pain from the catcher. The astonishing figure 168 appeared on the glass plate. Stottelmyer remembers whistling in amazement, and then he heard Reynolds say, “Don’t tell me, Mel. I don’t want to know….”
Michael Lewis on Michael Oher
The Ballad of Big Mike by Michael Lewis looks at high school football prodigy Michael Oher.
She turned around in time to see 19 football players running down one side of the field after the Briarcrest running back with the ball. On the other side of the field Briarcrest’s No. 74, Big Mike, was racing at full speed in the opposite direction, with a defensive end in his arms.
From his place on the sideline, Sean watched in amazement. Freeze had called a running play, around the right end, away from Michael’s side. Michael’s job was simply to take the defender who had been jabbering at him and wall him off. Just keep him away from the ball carrier. Instead, he had fired off the line of scrimmage and gotten fit — which is to say, gotten his hands inside the defender’s shoulder pads — and then lifted the Munford player off the ground. It was a perfectly legal block, with unusual consequences. He drove the Munford player straight down the middle of the field for 15 yards, then took a hard left, toward the Munford sidelines. “The Munford kid’s feet were hitting the ground every four steps, like a cartoon character,” Sean says. As the kid strained to get his feet back on the ground, Michael ran him the next 25 or so yards to the Munford bench. When he got there, he didn’t stop but piled right through it, knocking over the bench, several more Munford players and scattering the team. He didn’t skip a beat. Encircling the football field was a cinder track. He blocked the kid across the track and then across the grass on the other side of the cinder track. And kept going — right to the chain link fence on the far side of the grass.
Flags flew, grown men cursed and Sean called Michael over to the sidelines.
“Michael,” said Sean, “where were you taking him anyway?”
“I was gonna put him on the bus,” Michael said.
Parked on the other side of the chain-link fence was, in fact, the Munford team bus.
“The bus?” Sean asked.
“I got tired of him talking,” Michael said. “It was time for him to go home.”
Sean thought he must be joking. He wasn’t. Michael had thought it all through in advance; he had been waiting nearly half a football game to do just exactly what he had very nearly done. To pick up this trash-talking defensive end and take him not to the chain-link fence but through the chain-link fence. To the bus. And then put him on the bus. And Sean began to laugh.