Sunday, February 5, 2012

That Golden Company

Dear Paul George,

It recently came to my attention that you grew two inches in between this season and last. In the city of Super Bowl XLVI, the city of the Indiana Pacers, this has apparently been common knowledge for some time, but I only heard about it in the last two weeks or so. I was fascinated: Who gets taller as a pro? That's crazy. Before I heard about the growth spurt, your half-the-Beatles name had only vaguely registered on my fan radar, but after that I started paying more attention. And just in time: In last week's games, I saw two spectacular highlights from you. I really wish I would've seen these plays live, but ESPN and TNT aren't interested in broadcasting the Pacers. (Paul, I've already spoken to other people about the difference between seeing a play happen in real time and seeing the highlight, but let me harp on it some more: it's like the difference between stumbling across one of your favorite obscure songs on the radio and playing it yourself on iTunes.) Still, I was super-impressed with the highlights: Your double pump reverse against the Nets would've been the dunk of the week if Lebron hadn't jumped over John Lucas III to finish a one-handed alley and if Blake Griffin wouldn't have done whatever crazy thing he did above Kendrick Perkins. But your dunk wasn't even last week's most impressive Paul George highlight. Against the Mavs, you ran the length of the court, caught up to Jason Terry on a fast break, and made one of the best rejections I've seen this year, sending Terry falling into the base of the hoop just by the force of the (clean) block, and then--THEN--while Terry was still lying there, you ran the length of the court the other way, caught a skip pass in the corner and nailed a three, your sixth of the game. That has to be the first time in NBA history that a dude has blocked someone on a fast break and then hit their sixth three pointer in a game. Incredible. But not as incredible as the fact that the play might not have happened if you hadn't grown two inches over the off-season.

Last year, as a 6'8" rookie, you averaged almost eight points. Not bad. This year, you're averaging a little over twelve, but you had 30 last week in the Mavs game and 24 against the Nets, so your scoring average is on the rise. I'm excited because at the end of the season we'll be able to empirically compute how many points per game two inches of height is worth. And then we'll know how Shaq would've done if he'd been Ivo's size, and vice versa. I'm also excited about your team, as of right now the third best in the East, close behind the two juggernauts. Things can change--you and your body know that better than anyone--but the Pacers have been really good so far. You guys are like Denver, who I really enjoyed watching this week: two exciting young teams winning games without a superstar. And because of that, and your growth spurt, and your teammate Roy Hibbert's guest appearances on my current favorite TV show (Parks and Recreation), I now have a new team to root for out of the East. The other day I heard Jeff Van Gundy say that it's "inevitable" that the Bulls and Heat will meet in the Eastern Conference Finals. I've heard other NBA experts say the same thing, using the same word. But you and I both know that when people start calling something inevitable in sports, this means it almost certainly won't happen. Ask the 2007 Patriots. (But don't ask MJ, because he did make things inevitable.) Point is, I'm excited about cheering for you guys in the East, cheering for the Pacers to make the sports pundits do what they always do: pretend they saw something coming that they never saw coming. Van Gundy's honest enough, though, that he'd probably admit it.

But the main reason I'm writing you is this: Your growth spurt put me in mind of my youth, Paul. In the late 80's and early 90's, the American suburbs experienced an epidemic of doctors making reckless predictions about the height of their young male patients, in front of said patients. "My doctor told me I still had a lot of room to grow." "My doctor said my bone structure shows I'll grow like five more inches." "My doctor told me I'm gonna be six six." These were common statements when I was a young man, statements I both made and heard from others. And I don't remember anyone who made such a statement--not one person--growing any major amount. Sure, there were a few random kids who shot up, but they weren't the ones making the bone structure claims. In 7th grade I was a 5'10" center; in 8th I was a 5'11" power forward; in 9th I was a 6'0" shooting guard, in 10th I was still a 6'0" shooting guard; in 11th I was a 6'0" reporter for the school newspaper. I never grew again. As teenagers we dreamed of late and unexpected growth spurts like yours, and we'd play pickup games on low goals to see what it'd be like. We'd wonder what kind of players we'd be if we were 6'6" or 6'10" or as tall as Manute Bol, and then we'd adjust the goal accordingly, sometimes with a stick. Every once in a while the question still comes up between me and my brother: Hey, if I suddenly had a huge growth spurt, right now, you think I could make the League? I'm ten years older than you and I'd have to grow ten inches, not two, to reach your new height, but I do think about it. While your story isn't as inspiring as Scottie Pippen's story used to be for us--team manager at a small college grows eight inches, stars at the college, and becomes a first round draft pick--it still brings back my obsession with growth spurts.

Your dunk against the Nets was exactly like the dunks my more athletic friends would do when we played on low goals. At one of my social low points, a few of my friends and I spent a series of Friday nights at an evangelical church that rented space behind an indoor amusement park called Fame City. This church, which neither me nor any of my friends actually attended, held an open "gym" in a carpeted meeting room where they'd set up two portable goals, lowered to about eight and a half feet to accommodate the ceiling. We were in high school. We'd go there to dunk on evangelical middle schoolers. Also to forget for a few hours that we didn't know any girls. I'm not proud of this, Paul, but that was our life for a while.

Your boss, Larry Bird, played on low goals too. I no longer own a copy of Drive, his autobiography, but I distinctly remember reading in there that when he first got into basketball, he'd play with his friends on a low goal so they could dunk. It's true. Go check it out. I still recall this because I remember my exact thought process when I read about it in 8th grade or whatever: "Larry Bird played on low goals just like me. I could be Larry Bird..." But eventually I learned that while Larry Bird might've played on low goals and Scottie Pippen might've grown eight inches in college and Jordan might've been "cut" from varsity, these guys are in no way like me, and not just because of height. In truth, I didn't even dunk that much on low goals. I understand now that I couldn't even make the D-League if I grew ten inches, though I think I could do pretty well in the rec league White Chocolate plays in. I've matured enough to know that the two inches you grew might've made you slightly better, Paul, but what makes you a fantastic young basketball player--a guy who can score thirty points in a game among the world's best--isn't your height. What makes any basketball player succeed in the NBA isn't really their height. I understand now that NBA success is determined far more by certain learned, natural, and mental abilities. These days, the whole I-could-be-in-the-NBA-if-I-was-that-tall argument puts me in mind of Ackley from in The Catcher in the Rye, in the one hoops reference Holden makes in the novel:

“I once sat next to Ackley at this basketball game. We had a terrific guy on the team, Howie Coyle, that could sink them from the middle of the floor, without even touching the backboard or anything. Ackley kept saying, the whole goddam game, that Coyle had a perfect build for basketball. God, how I hate that stuff.”

I'm not gonna be like Ackley, Paul. That'd be intolerable. Ultimately, your growth spurt is just a delightful curiosity for me. If the ESPN ticker would scroll constant news like that, instead of telling me a hundred times that Josh Hamilton had "three or four drinks" at a bar, information that should never scroll across the bottom of a television screen, then maybe I wouldn't despise that ticker so much. (God, how I hate that stuff.) Your growth spurt story gave me renewed interest in a team I hadn't followed in a long time, and for that I'm grateful. I really look forward to cheering you guys on, especially come playoff time. These days I can enjoy the spectacular as simply the spectacular. But it is a little bittersweet, hearing about your growth spurt and watching your amazing highlights. Because here's the thing: I have dreams about dunking a basketball, Paul. I don't mean "hopes and." I mean literal dreams, while I sleep. At least once a year I dream about dunking. No lie. Lame, maybe, but involuntary. The dream is basically the same every time: I realize that I can dunk easily, a straightforward two-handed dunk. Nothing fancy. Usually I'm in a high school gym and it's not even during a game. It's during lay-up lines or we're just shooting around. And before I wake up disappointed, I always feel not elation, but peace, as if this is exactly how it should be.

In conclusion, Paul, here's Roger Angell, the greatest baseball writer of all time, in his first New Yorker baseball article, from 1962, talking about spring training:

“There were perhaps two dozen of us in the stands, and what kept us there, what nailed us to our seats for a sweet, boring hour or more, was not just the whop! of bats, the climbing white arcs of outfield flies, and the swift flight of the ball whipped around the infield, but something more painful and just as obvious—the knowledge that we had never made it. We would never know the rich joke that doubled over three young pitchers in front of the dugout; we would never be part of that golden company on the field, which each of us, certainly for one moment of his life, had wanted more than anything else in the world to join.”

That's how part of me feels when I see your highlights.



P.S. Did I try Strength Shoes, the ones with the platforms at the front that improve your "fast-twitch" muscles? Yes. Did I jump around in these shoes in my parents' backyard? Yes, yes I did. But not enough to say conclusively that they don't work.