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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Basketball and Ballet

Basketball is often compared with ballet and for good reason: the best practitioners of both arts display a combination of grace and power that most mere mortals watch with admiration and envy. Here is a short story I wrote on March 17, 1988 exploring this theme:

Basketball and Ballet

The curtain rises and Julius Erving begins his dance. He's just warming up now, stretching his mind and body and preparing himself (and the audience) for the spectacle to come. Suddenly, he emerges from the restraints of the planned choreography and launches himself into an extraordinary improvisational routine. He soars and floats, spins and pirouettes, always moving quickly and yet always in control. He is expressionless but the audience has been on its feet for several moments, applauding every move.

Jump ball and yet another Philadelphia 76ers-Boston Celtics contest has begun. The Sixers control the ball and clear out the right side for Mikhail Baryshnikov to go one-on-one with Larry Bird. Baryshnikov gives Bird a quick head fake and explodes to the basket. Robert Parish slides over to contest the shot but Baryshnikov is airborne by now and nothing is going to stop him. Slam dunk, two points and pandemonium has erupted off the court as 18,000 fans at the Spectrum (standing room only) lift their voices into one tremendous cheer.

Erving's first performance was incredible but now, after a brief intermission, he has changed costumes and is unveiling moves never before seen on stage. For several minutes he does not rest, always moving at top speed. There is no slow segment in the program. The music is very upbeat, fast tempo, but Julius seems to move to his own music, blending with whatever is played to accompany his spellbinding performance and yet extending it as well. Now it is over, too soon for the Carnegie Hall patrons. As they show Erving their appreciation with a standing ovation, a New York dance critic is composing in his head his review of Erving's masterful show: "For years people have said that Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Philadelphia 76ers' stellar forward, could have been a first rate dancer, that his basketball performances are really dances choreographed to his own inner music. And they are probably right. But after seeing Julius Erving's sold out performance at Carnegie Hall last night, I feel compelled to add something to that statement: Julius Erving could have been a first rate basketball player."

Meanwhile, despite Baryshnikov's Ervingesque flights of fancy (28 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, five blocked shots, three steals and a few pirouettes of his own), Philly is losing to Boston 112-111 with 10 seconds to go in the game. The Sixers have the ball and everyone in the building knows what is coming up. Larry Bird (21 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, two steals and a half dozen open jawed gapes at Baryshnikov's moves) tries to stay with Mikhail but Baryshnikov dances around a Moses Malone screen and receives the pass from Andrew Toney. Kevin McHale has swung over to block Baryshnikov's shot, but with breathtaking quickness Mikhail skies into the air and finger rolls the ball over the rim as the buzzer sounds. After the game, Sixers Coach Billy Cunningham is interviewed for the six o'clock news. Asked if he thinks Baryshnikov could have been a great dancer, a thoughtful look comes over his face and he replies: "With his great desire and, of course, that superb body control, I'm sure he could have been another Julius Erving." Cunningham pauses a minute, then says with a smile, "But who can imagine basketball history without Mikhail Baryshnikov?"

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:32 AM

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