The Heat won the championship last night, moving LeBron James from the front of the sports page to the front page proper, with slightly larger font. I don’t watch the NBA but the championship is always exciting; more interesting to me, however, is this conversation it all reminds me of: Grantland ran a piece a couple weeks ago, an exchange between Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Simmons. The two wax long on what Simmons dubs “jockosophers,” persons who could easily thrive in careers outside of sports for their effortless way with words, and on the effects of fame. He (Simmons) begins the conversation with an off-the-cuff quotation from Shane Battier on LeBron James:
He sneezes and it’s a trending topic on Twitter. He is a fascinating study because he’s really the first and most seminal sports figure in the information age, where everything he does is reported and dissected and second-guessed many times over and he handles everything with an amazing grace and patience that I don’t know if other superstars from other areas would have been able to handle.
(Battier is a fine player, but I’m a University of Kentucky fan; I only remember him for tremendous flops and general annoyance.) Even where Gladwell and Simmons drift into regions outside my interest, it’s a great read. I watched an episode of Jimmy Fallon once in which he played charades with, I think, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Seth Meyers. Charades isn’t exactly a spectator-friendly game, but it was hugely enjoyable because of the people playing. Likewise Gladwell and Simmons are enjoyable to read just because they’re so good at what they do.
They dabble in the silly and the somewhat more serious. Gladwell writes,
I can’t believe we’re discussing jockosophers without mention of Darryl Dawkins, he of the “Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am Jam.” This is a man who said he was from planet Lovetron, where he engaged in “interplanetary funkmanship” with his girlfriend. There isn’t any interplanetary funkmanship in today’s NBA. I think the owners banned it during last year’s lockout negotiations. The best we can do is Metta World Peace. If you are going to go to all of the trouble of changing your name to World Peace, can’t you come up with a better first name than Metta?
My turn for a quick tangent: I was in the Orlando airport not long ago, waiting in one of those endless security queues, when I looked up and saw that the ticket agent was escorting someone to the head of the line. She takes him past at least a hundred people and inserts him right in front of the conveyer belt. He wasn’t in a hurry. In fact, the guy turned out to be on the same flight I was, which didn’t leave for another hour. Who was it? Ray Lewis. Two things. One — there is no way she does that for anyone but a sports star. She would have stopped Albert Einstein if his driver’s license looked a little fishy. Second — no one said anything. We all just kind of nodded and looked at each other and said, “Cool! Ray Lewis.” Here’s a man who makes millions of dollars for hitting people really hard and it somehow makes complete sense to the rest of us that he should be able to cut in ahead of teachers, salesmen, nurses, working moms, and hack writers. If you are someone like Ray Lewis and that kind of thing happens to you every single day of the year, how do you stay normal? Standing in line in airports and other everyday rituals of modern life are the kinds of things that civilize us: As annoying as they are, they remind us that we are all equal and they teach us patience, and they grant us a kind of ultimately useful anonymity. Ray Lewis and celebrities of his ilk never have the privilege of those moments. By the way, Lewis was wearing a daring ochre, Caribbean-style pantsuit that, at some future point, deserves its own Grantland exposé. So yes. It’s not easy being LeBron.
Toward the end of the conversation the two discuss the ethics of football, especially regarding whether children ought to be allowed to play. Coincidentally, Gladwell recently participated in a debate on the question of whether we ought to ban college football. He argued the positive, along with Buzz Bissinger. You could find worse ways to spend a couple of hours.