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A Sense of Where You Are



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About The Author

John McPheeJohn McPhee

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he... More

photo: Peter Cook

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EXCERPT

Sense of Where You Are
1. Incentive
My father, for fourteen years or so, has served as physician to United States Olympic teams. And for more than forty years, before his retirement in June of 1964, he was a physician to college athletes, almost all of that time at Princeton. I know that he greatly admires excellence in athletes, and that he would regularly become quite caught up in the evolution of a Princeton team's season, its hopes for a championship, and the kind of performance an individual might be sustaining; but these things were discernible only in highly indirect ways. He has a taciturnity celebrated in his circle, and he can watch, say, a Princeton halfback go ninety-eight yards for a touchdown without even faintly showing on the surface the excitementhe feels within him. In fact, from the late thirties, which is as far back as I can remember, until the winter of 1962, I had never heard him actually make a direct statement of praise about any athlete, let alone make high claims, proud or otherwise, for an athlete's abilities. Then the phone rang one day in my apartment in New York, where I had been living for some years, and my father was on the other end, saying, "There's a freshman basketball player down here who is the best basketball player who has ever been near here and may be one of the best ever. You ought to come down and see him."
I remember being so surprised that I felt more worried about my father than interested in the basketball player. Finally, I said, "What's his name?"
"What difference does that make? They're playing Penn tomorrow night at six-thirty."
Freshman basketball, in my own time, a dozen years earlier, had not been a spectator sport at Princeton. A player's roommates might turn up, or his parents, if they lived nearby, but the grandstands were empty and the sound of the dribbling used to echo while the freshmen played. On the night of the gamewith Pennsylvania, I showed up at about six-twenty-five. There was a large crowd outside the gym and, inside, the stands were already filled. My father was holding a seat for me, and by the time I got to it the game had already begun. I sat down and purposely didn't ask which player I was supposed to watch, because that would have diminished the pleasure of discovery, and it was, in fact, something like this that my father had in mind when he had cut me off so abruptly on the phone. I watched the general flow on the court for a while, and it was soon clear enough who had drawn the crowd, and that he was the most graceful and classical basketball player who had ever been near Princeton, to say the very least. Every motion developed in its simplest form. Every motion repeated itself precisely when he used it again. He was remarkably fast, but he ran easily. His passes were so good that they were difficult to follow. Every so often, and not often enough, I thought, he stopped and went high into the air with the ball, his arms rising until his hands were at right angles to one another and high above him, and a long jump shot would go into the net. My father, once a collegebasketball player himself, was so moved by this that he nudged me with his elbow. It was not the two points, obviously enough--it was the form and the manner with which they had been scored. I looked from the boy's number down to the mimeographed sheet in my hand. His name was Bill Bradley. He was six feet, five inches tall. And he came from Crystal City, Missouri.
I learned later that the general manager of the St. Louis Hawks had declared Bradley to be of professional calibre when he was still in high school, and that is how Bradley always seemed at Princeton, at home on the court and under control even when his own game was cold, which it sometimes was. To me, Bradley's appeal was grounded in the fact that he was a pleasure to watch no matter what was happening on the scoreboard. My own feeling for basketball had faded almost to nothing over the years because the game seemed to me to have lost its balance, as players became taller and more powerful, and scores increased until it was rare when a professional team hit less than a hundred points, win or lose; it impressed me as a glut of scoring, with few patterns ofattack and almost no defense any more. The players, in a sense, had gotten better than the game, and the game had become uninteresting. Moreover, it attracted exhibitionists who seemed to be more intent on amazing a crowd with aimless prestidigitation than with advancing their team by giving a sound performance. Basketball had once consumed about ninetytwo percent of my time, and I had played on high school and prep school teams, only as a freshman in college, and later, curiously enough, on the team of Cambridge University, in England; but, despite all this obvious affection for the game, what had happened to me in later years as a spectator was not really a disillusionment so much as a death of interest. That, at any rate, is how I felt until 1962. After watching Bradley play several times, even when he was eighteen, it seemed to me that I had been watching all the possibilities of the game that I had ever imagined, and then some. His play was integral. There was nothing missing. He not only worked hard on defense, for example, he worked hard on defense when the other team was hopelessly beaten. He did all kinds of things he didn't have to do simplybecause those were the dimensions of the game.
I decided to write about him after the Princeton-St. Joseph's game in the national tournament in 1963, in which, at the end of his first college season, he showed how few players there had ever been like him. But that was not incentive enough. In the course of the year since I had first heard of him, I had learned that--as one of his classmates later put it--basketball was more a part of him than he a part of basketball. The most interesting thing about Bill Bradley was not just that he was a great basketball player, but that he succeeded so amply in other things that he was doing at the same time, reached a more promising level of attainment, and, in the end, put basketball aside because he had something better to do.
A year went by before I actually got started. In the early summer of 1964, he was working in Washington and he appeared in Princeton almost every weekend, beginning the research for his senior thesis. As frequently as he could, he came out to my home, which by then was no longer in New York but in the countryside near Princeton, and talked for hours on end. I told him that the eventual story would dependheavily on what he could contribute, and that I wanted to try to build a sense of the game itself around him rather than merely say how good he was at playing it, and that he would have to be an articulate teacher if the project were to succeed at all, since the difference between basketball as he understood it and basketball as I understood it was obviously large.
It took him a while to become enthusiastic, but when he did, he spent hours inventing game situations, then pacing his way through them, taking perhaps fifteen minutes to describe what would occur in a single two-second sequence, then stringing the sequences together. He was putting in two hours a day at the time in preparation for the Olympic games in the autumn, so he went on talking in the afternoons in the gyms at Princeton and at the Lawrenceville School five miles away. When I visited him in August in Crystal City, he would stay up until three and four in the morning doing reverse pivots, making back door plays with chairs as opponents, and shooting imaginary basketballs at imaginary baskets on wallpapered walls--the one situation in which all basketball players never miss a shot. His contribution,then, was everything that any writer could have hoped for. He added to it when he came home from Tokyo. Breaching an ordinarily sensible custom, I showed him the manuscript before I turned it in, because I was anxious for the technical detail to be checked over by an outstanding basketball player and he was the nearest one. He did the job quickly. He ran one finger down the middle of each page, reading, I would guess, ten or eleven pages a minute, completely ignoring all the passages about his personality and all the other things that ordinarily make it a poor idea to show an unpublished story to its subject. Picking out eight or ten technical flaws along the way, he caught all that there apparently were. Handing back the manuscript, he said he looked forward to reading it.
Copyright © 1965, 1978, 1999 by John McPhee

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