Jonathan Farmer takes on his childhood heroes
I KNOW, ALMOST to the day, when I turned on Kobe Bryant: July 14, 2004. My investment in Kobe had been mostly circumstantial, and on that day, and to great fanfare, he successfully did away with the last remaining circumstance.
I fell for the Lakers of the late 90s and early 00s in part because I lived in Southern California when they emerged as the NBA’s dominant team and could see most of their games on TV, and in part because I adored Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq was, in essence, a brilliant 12-year-old, full of imagination and innocence and greatness that was unusually compatible with joy. The innocence sometimes meant a remarkable unawareness of others’ feelings, but more often it played out in open-hearted delight. Even the interviews he mumbled his way through felt like a kind of adolescent irresponsibility; there was always an element of mischievousness to them. But in 2001, I finished grad school and moved to New York, and then in the summer of 2004, Kobe pushed the team to trade Shaq for spare parts so that he could prove his greatness unobscured by Shaq’s massive, childlike shadow.
It’s amazing, it’s shameful, that I turned then, rather than the year before. In 2003, a 19-year-old hotel employee in Eagle, Colorado, accused Bryant of raping her, and even though the charges were eventually dropped, their plausibility never diminished—not, at least, for me. That the failed prosecution of Bryant eventually made him a kind of folk-hero to some—that it earned him credibility with many who had doubted his authenticity before—only (eventually) made it worse. (And this worsening even as I reminded myself why many African Americans saw an accusation by a white woman and charges from a white prosecutor more skeptically than I did.)
When I turned, though, I turned completely, almost viciously—conveniently, given my lack of feeling months before, outraged at what he had (according to accusations I believed) done. And the change was so abrupt and so total that it started to change the way I looked at my first hero as a basketball fan, Michael Jordan—an athlete by then retired for half a decade and never accused of anything a fraction as awful as rape. That first thread, pulled, threatened to unravel a braid reaching back to the beginning of my love for sports.
Comparisons between Bryant and Jordan had always seemed misguided to me, a failure to understand the difference between inspiration and imitation. But when Kobe fell from my esteem, he took Jordan with him. (Neither, I should note, suffered any apparent discomfort from the decline.) As I grew disgusted with Bryant, I started to realize just how similar they were, and how much those similarities revealed about me.
Jordan was ruthless. Jordan was insatiable, so given over to his hunger for greatness, for redemption, that the hunger never distracted him. Nothing distracted him. And if he got more out of his teammates than Kobe ever would, it wasn’t, by all accounts, because he cared about them. It was just that his fierce, encompassing intelligence took in more than Kobe’s, with its concentration on the mechanics of the game—and that Kobe’s fear of his own unbelonging, his early awkwardness in the American limelight as a child raised partly in Europe, as a bit of a nerd, seemed to cost him more authority than Jordan’s insecurities. Those more often manifested as a kind of authority, a willingness to go farther than anyone else, whether in work, play or, when he felt it necessary, cruelty.
If those same traits drove anyone else to greatness, I would have been appalled. If Jordan were a CEO or a politician or a chef or a poet or actor (which, I guess, he was—sort of), I would have reviled him. But he was a basketball player, and somehow that seemed different. Sports are supposed to be competition: cutthroat, objective measures of men and women, high stakes with no real consequence. They are there for greatness, for athletes to push against and even beyond their limitations, to make the most of a finite space and the proscribed ways in which a body is allowed to move through it, set aside from all else.
Back when I was still in grad school, one of my professors, Michael Ryan, told me he thought sports were soap operas for men. That didn’t sound right. Sports, I said, are the one place where people get to experience moral certainty—us against them. Michael’s laughter was both self-aware and gently teasing: “That’s your problem,” he reminded me. I laughed, too. And yet looking back on it now, I do think there was some truth to my claim. For many years, I believed that cheering for my alma mater, UNC, against Duke was, in fact, a strong moral position. I would always introduce the idea as a joke—look at how obsessed I am!—but then I’d always explain all the reasons: class, race… I could go on. I usually did. And I wasn’t alone.
I’ve come to believe that there are two situations in which we’re especially likely to put values and reason aside—though the language of values and reason tends to become even more pronounced—situations in which our involvement is primarily emotional in nature, and, disturbingly, those where we invest the most. In watching sports, I think, we are often more aroused, more ourselves—for better and for worse—than we are in the rest of our lives. And the same goes for those moments when we fall for a work of art—for a poem. It’s no surprise that we want to grant the way we feel about poems the imprimatur of truth, of morality. Nor that we want to keep those nearly ecstatic feelings of purpose and flow clear of blunter measures and less agile, more pedestrian concerns.
And yet it does surprise me how often people I respect, people who take gender discrimination and racial justice very seriously in other contexts, will explain that gauges like the annual VIDA count are irrelevant to poetry, which must be (which can be) measured purely in terms of quality. Such arguments ignore the depths at which something as fundamental as our care is bound up with unwitting biases and blindness we can only see and subsequently counter by learning, deliberately, to care about those to whom we are presently blind.
To care is often both to value and to push past many of the things we consciously deem valuable, and much of the rhetoric we have developed to explain art to ourselves seems designed to obscure such contradictions. More often, lately, I wonder what it would mean for us to talk about art in terms of the values we otherwise profess: things as prosaic as kindness, fairness, and generosity, as well weightier concepts like justice, but in more practical ways.
I wonder what it would mean to celebrate the player who lacks what commentators call “the killer instinct” or the poem whose pleasures might be more available to me if I could read them as someone else—someone whom the institutions of publishing and reviewing have been far less likely to serve. What would it mean to ask art and sports to play out within a more permeable version of the borders that make them possible?
In my ongoing life as a sports fan, I’ve come to embrace and adore LeBron James as a kind of anti-Kobe: the player who wants to surround himself with other talented players, who seems to genuinely enjoy (and be enjoyed by) his teammates, who loves to pass at least as much as he loves to score. The one whose worst transgression, despite beginning a life of astonishing celebrity and a radical and abrupt change of circumstances while he was still presumably going through puberty, was an isolated act of stunning vanity. Recently, I’ve started, once again belatedly, to notice the ways in which LeBron might be more complicated than my image of him, the ways in which he might be more like Kobe or Jordan or Bird than I’d wanted to admit. But that noticing fades fast, and I go back to cheering fervently for his latest team (and looking for flaws in the players I cheer against, too.)
Humility—that servant to awe and justice alike—is, like the deliberate thinking that can help us to see and stand outside our biases, hard to sustain. It can be cultivated, though, and the labor of such cultivation (a word that echoes profoundly with our ideas of culture) can be its own reward. I don’t believe that American poetry will do much to make the world a better or worse place—not beyond the individual strivings toward kindness, imagination, generosity, or fairness it and its publication entail or refuse. I do not believe that putting off care, joy, or sympathy in favor of some larger artistic achievement will ever balance the scales.
But neither do I believe that these virtues are incompatible with artistic ambition. Humility is, I think, a kind of ambition. These values can work on art like form. The imagination, asked to reimagine itself in joy and doubt, grows larger. Aware of its failures, the kind heart still struggles in complexity and manages to sing.
JONATHAN FARMER writes for Slate, and is the editor-in-chief and poetry editor of At Length.