Culture > Books

Books: Life is like basketball

Books | Michael Jordan and Bill Bradley go for the net

Issue: "Justice to the Chief," Jan. 23, 1999

Though sports can provide enjoyment and life lessons for both participants and fans, many of our sports programs, from Little League to the professional leagues, now reflect the worst aspects of the culture instead of providing an antidote to them. In light of the recent bickering in the NBA, with its greed on both sides, two new books, by basketball stars Bill Bradley and Michael Jordan, refresh us with thoughts from players who love the game above the monetary rewards and who derive from it life principles. Mr. Bradley's also suggests why the NBA is in trouble now, and perhaps at the same time why much of our culture is in trouble. Fans of Michael Jordan will love his career retrospective, For the Love of the Game. The photos and layout fascinate: Varying type sizes, text-wrapped images, and other experiments catch the eye and reflect Mr. Jordan's flashy on-the-court image. Though the text can be hard to read at times, format creatively reflects meaning. The book follows Mr. Jordan's career from his game-winning shot in North Carolina's 1982 NCAA championship win over Georgetown to the sixth Bulls championship just last summer. If you're looking for in-depth biography, however, you won't find it here, although a consistent theme does emerge. "If you do the work," Mr. Jordan writes, "you get rewarded. There are no shortcuts in life." Natural talent is vital in any sport, and Mr. Jordan also had opportunities many young men don't. But the key to his success, he knows well, is the work ethic necessary to develop both talent and opportunity to their fullest. When Mr. Jordan saw the drug and alcohol abuse of his first Bulls teammates, he chose to avoid those temptations. As a rookie, he didn't run out and buy fancy cars and clothes. When he married, he chose to be a faithful husband and father. Michael Jordan is known in the league as a great practice player-he plays just as hard in practice as he does in a game. He was the first NBA player to change the standard contract clause that doesn't allow off-season games without the owner's approval-he calls it "the love of the game clause." About his status, he says, "I never believed all the press clippings and I never found comfort in the spotlight. I don't know how you can and not lose your work ethic.... I listened, I was aware of my success, but I never stopped trying to get better." Bill Bradley's essay on discipline in Values of the Game echoes and expands on Mr. Jordan's recognition of the need for continual hard work. He describes the hours upon hours of grueling practice he assigned himself in high school and college, and how that discipline aided him when he struggled with grades his freshman year at Princeton. "Determination sits at the core of discipline," he writes, "and the will to excel sits at the core of determination." Mr. Bradley's book is a series of essays on such values as discipline, respect, courage, leadership, responsibility, and resilience, which players can take into the rest of life to be better people off the court, not just on. Mr. Bradley, a former Democratic senator from New Jersey and presidential hopeful, entertains and inspires, with beautiful photographs and tales that make his point well. Our society may glorify individualism, Mr. Bradley notes, but "basketball teaches ... that untrammeled individualism destroys the chance for achieving victory." Teamwork is perhaps the primary theme in almost every essay: "One can't beat five," he remarks, even if the one is Michael Jordan. Then Mr. Bradley talks about imagination and creativity in the game, giving examples of innovative shooting, passing, and defensive play. But finally he tells us that "imagination can also stretch the rules, for basketball is a game of subtle felonies." This "game within the game" has to do with fouling behind the referee's back to gain an advantage or fouling in such a way that your opponent gets the call-pulling him toward you with the hand the ref can't see, for example, to make it appear he has plowed into you on purpose. The values Mr. Bradley explains so compellingly add up to integrity, but in the final pages of the book, he tells us integrity isn't all that important. And that's why this book suggests the problem with both the NBA lockout and our current political culture, in which Mr. Bradley-who last week announced his campaign for the presidency-has also become a prominent "player." Rules, contrary to popular opinion, are not made to be broken; they're made to ensure that a group of people can get along. We are seeing the results of creative fouling in the highest office of the land, and it's up to us-fans, parents, and citizens-to insist that everyone play by the rules.

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