“Steph Curry’s great. Steph Curry’s the MVP. He’s a champion. Understand what I’m saying when I say this. To a degree, he’s hurt the game. And what I mean by that is I go into these high school gyms, I watch these kids and the first thing they do is run to the three-point line. You are not Steph Curry. Work on the other aspects of the game. People think that he’s just a knock-down shooter. That’s not why he’s the MVP. He’s a complete basketball player.”
I’m more ghost now than man.
I’ll be turning 50 in a month. Of those 50 years, I’ve played soccer for maybe 42 years. I probably peaked physically at around age 27 or 28, as most human beings do. Which means that half my soccer-playing life, 21 of those 42 years, has been spent in the slow process of fading into a mere shadow of the player I used to be.
There was a time when I never worried about what was behind me. If I had half a step on an opponent, I was gone. No more. Every advantage I earn disappears quickly these days. Each decision I make takes much longer to execute. Younger players just read my eyes and get to where I plan to go before I do. My moves are all telegraphed, like an outdated metaphor trying to go viral on a brand new communications medium.
My ghosting is almost complete. The last lights on my neural relay are flickering.
* * *
I have a friend, Jeff Raz, who once was the lead clown in a Cirque du Soleil show, Corteo. Jeff played a clown imagining his own funeral. A procession of acrobats and jugglers and clowns arrive to play tribute to the dying clown, to give him a few last moments of amazingness before his time is up.
I’ve learned from watching him up close what a huge difference there is between a world-class clown in a world-class circus, and the amateur clown at your kid’s birthday party.
A top-level, world-class circus contains a wealth of jaw-dropping acrobats and jugglers and performers who push the limits of what the human body can do. But your jaw can only drop so many times before jaw-dropping becomes repetitive, and amazing becomes normal.
The job of the clown in a world-class circus is to push the reset button on amazingness. The clown taps into your natural ambition to do amazing things, but mistakingly focuses on an element of the preceding act which is not actually the source of its quality. So, for example, if a dancer does an acrobatic Fred Astaire act with a broom, a clown follows that act by trying to replicate that success by dancing with a vacuum cleaner.
Of course, the cleaning utensil was not the point of the preceding act; it was the skill and strength and artistry and precision of the dancer. The clown replicates the form of the act but not the quality, and in doing so, brings our expectation levels back down to those of the normal human being, so that the next act can wow us again.
* * *
In a way, then, your birthday party clown unintentionally makes the same mistake the the top-level clown makes on purpose: s/he imitates the form of the clown, with the makeup and the outfits, but often not the function or the quality. And it is this form without function which horror films use to turn clowning on its head, from a reset button on amazingness to a trigger for the grotesque side of human nature.
* * *
Every once in a while, an athlete comes along who drops our jaws, and changes the baseline of what we think is humanly possible. Right now, that athlete is Steph Curry.
The shooting, the dribbling, the shooting, the passing, and OMG the shooting — Curry dazzles us like no other basketball player has done before. With his human proportions amidst the giants of the NBA, Curry serves as both acrobat and clown in the same, complete package. It’s the greatest show on earth.
* * *
My youngest daughter is eight years old. I have coached her soccer team for a couple of years now. At first, the kids only understand the simplest element of soccer’s form: trying to kick the ball in the direction of the goal. A soccer game with six-year-olds is a clump of small human beings clustering around a ball as it pinballs around within the cluster. It is not exactly The Beautiful Game.
But now, two years later, I can see the kids’ eyes becoming open to the function of the game instead of just the form. The first time being aware of the game instead of just the ball. The movement into open space with a dribble. A reminder to a teammate not kick the ball into the middle of the field in front of your own goal. The first primitive attempts at passing the ball to an open teammate.
It’s like a closed flower beginning to open its petals to the sunlight.
* * *
Meanwhile, I keep playing, twice a week, getting worse and worse every time I play. I am one injury from hanging up my soccer cleats for good. Any time I step on the field now, it could be my last time.
But every once in a while, I still manage one more good run, one more nice pass, one more good shot, and the sun delays its setting for just one, brief, bittersweet moment.
But not everything can be avoided. Not forever. Times end, because they have to.
* * *
The young kids in the high school gym, chucking three pointers instead of playing beautiful basketball, they’re just inexperienced youngsters who see the form but don’t yet understand the function. With guidance, their time will come.
You may, if you choose, elect to judge children and old men against the standards of the peak human being, to compare amateurs and novices to professionals. You may elect to criticize their mistakes in an isolated snapshot, as unconnected events to be judged without context, each a single flawed image in a grotesque horror show, every one of which harms the potential perfection of the universe.
Or, you can join me and take a seat at the finest table in all the galaxy. Let us watch the beautiful circus of life, from naïve clowns to amazing acrobats to sad ghosts, march by. It’s my amazing funeral procession, and you’re all invited.