Dont Look Back - Bob Dylan %281967 film poster%29.
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Passing Behind Our Backs
I never met the great basketball player, Bob Cousy, the man known as "the Houdini of the Hardwood," yet he somehow influenced my life in ways I never knew, or to be more accurate, in ways I didn't reflect upon except in superficial ways. He was the guy who brought professional basketball into the modern era with his bag of fancy tricks that included no-look and behind-the-back passes, uncanny dribbling, and a magical court sense that made the fast break into an exquisite art form. The captain and point-guard of the Boston Celtics from 1950-1963, Cousy led the Celtics to six NBA titles, made thirteen all-star teams, and changed professional basketball from a stodgy, boring, and slow game into a fast-paced spectacle, entertainment as much as sport. He was a wizard with a basketball and set the stage for Guy Rodgers, "Pistol Pete" Maravich, Bob Dylan, Magic Johnson, and Steve Nash, among other tricksters, modern Hermes.
Over the years I have written a great deal on a very wide-range of topics, but it wasn't until a friend from high school recently sent me Gary Pomeranz's fascinating book, The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End, that something clicked for me. A few weeks previously, as the weather had turned spring-like, I had started to shoot hoops at our basket in the driveway. The warm air, the feel of a loose flowing freedom as I dribbled and shot, brought me back to the days when I spent so many hours playing in the Bronx schoolyards of my youth, perfecting my skills in what I can only call a fanatical way. Rushing to the schoolyard after school and on Saturday mornings to be the first there, to command the court, to compete with the older guys and beat their asses. Traveling around the city's best basketball neighborhoods to play and make my mark. The endless hours in gyms. The search for perfection. The adrenaline rush, the thrill, the joy of the perfect pass, the sweet swish of the net from a shot you had practiced a thousand times. From the age of eleven until twenty-three, basketball was central to my life and identity. It was my passion.
It was during these recent days shooting around that I started to have almost nightly dreams of my younger years, playing basketball in high school and then in college on a Division I scholarship. They were very vivid dreams, and at the time, I didn't understand why I was having them. And they were starting to annoy me, as persistent and weird dreams can do. Begone, dread spirits! Yet I knew they were telling me to heed their tales told when no one was looking, only this dreamer in the night.
While this was happening, I wrote an article about Bob Dylan and his recent release of "Murder Most Foul," his powerful song about the assassination of President Kennedy, wherein he brilliantly accuses elements within the U.S. government and intelligence forces of killing the president in cold blood, while framing Lee Harvey Oswald for the deed. I had written about Dylan before, loved his music, and found him an intriguing if enigmatic character, a Houdini of song. "Murder Most Foul" seemed to burst out of Dylan after decades of avoiding straight-forward political themes. It struck me that with this song he had ripped off the masks he had been wearing for decades, as if he were Odysseus at the end of The Odyssey, shrugging off his beggar's rags and announcing to the suitors of his wife Penelope that the gig was up and they were going down. It seemed to me that Dylan was coming full-circle, as if he were coming home to take revenge on the killers who had scarred his youth, as they did mine and so many others'. "Like a musician, like a harper, when/ with quiet hand upon his instrument," Odysseus lets the arrow sing, Dylan reaches back to sing:
The day they blew out the brains of the king
Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing
It happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise
Right there in front of everyone's eyes
Greatest magic trick ever under the sun
Perfectly executed, skillfully done
Slowly it dawned on me that everyone's life has a shape, as if it were a drawing or story or song. And that if we pay close attention and see through all the snares and temptations meant to divert us from our true paths, we will find our beginnings in our ends and without directions we will find our way home.
It is very hard to explain to someone who didn't know you once upon a time long before you met, how important certain activities were to you, what they meant and still mean in the deepest recesses of your psyche. How they shaped you, or better still, how you used them to bend your life when you strung your bow so effortlessly to hit the target that you aimed for. Or thought you were aiming for. My life in basketball shaped the man that I became, but my wife only knows the aftermath since she met me when I had taken a long twenty-five-year vacation from basketball. Like Cousy, sitting and talking with Pomeranz, or Dylan sharpening his arrows and letting them fly in his new song False Prophet, I could say:
You don't know me darlin' - you never would guess
I'm nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest
I ain't no False Prophet - I just said what I said
I'm here to bring vengeance on somebody's head
While I am half-way through reading the Cousy book, I get its drift, where it's heading. In conversations with Pomeranz, he is hoping to be inspired to understand the journey that has left him, an old man, frightened, alone, and approaching death in a large house in Worcester, Massachusetts, trying to understand, not only his fraught relationship with his black Celtic teammate, Bill Russell, but what his life has been all about, the court wizardry and cheers, the years on the road, the applause and awards, the championships and the price they exacted. He went to the basketball wars and won, came home, but now wonders what home really means. Unlike Odysseus, he only has ghosts to slay. His wife is dead, and no suitors occupy the great house of shades. There is no one to kill except his regrets.
My friend, Wayne, who sent me the book, spent three years in high school with me studying Greek, and over the course of those years, we translated Homer's The Odyssey line by line. We were also basketball teammates. Odysseus, of course, was the ultimate trickster, the man of many wiles and disguises, what the nymph Calypso, who held Odysseus captive for seven years on her island Ogygia, called "a rascal." Like Houdini, Odysseus was able to escape this phantom island with the help of the messenger and trickster Hermes. Like Cousy, Odysseus was the Houdini of the ancient world, the hero who could escape any trap and thread an arrow through the smallest space to defeat the enemy. Cousy's fierceness on the court is legendary; his poker face hid the killer instinct, like Odysseus with his wily habit of standing with downcast eyes to disguise his intent. Cousy could thread a pass between an opponent's eyes without them blinking. They often never knew what hit them.
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