In my last year at university, I got the name of a European basketball agent who could help me land a job after graduation. He gave me a list of Americans already playing overseas. I called one of them and asked him what it was like playing in Europe. His answer reminded me of John Travolta’s line from Pulp Fiction, about ‘the little differences’. ‘They’ve got the skills and everything,’ he said. ‘But they don’t have that attitude, do you know what I mean? That edge …’
On the LRB podcast a few weeks ago, David Runciman and I got into a discussion about the ‘hot hand’ phenomenon. He wrote about it in the London Review in 2006, in a piece on José Mourinho:
The quintessential instance … occurs in basketball, where certain players suddenly and inexplicably acquire the ability to nail three-point baskets one after another (in basketball you get three points for any basket scored from a distance of over 23'9", a formidably difficult feat which means even the best players miss more often than they score).
With the start of the NBA season last week, I’ve been thinking about it again (actually, I think about this stuff pretty much year round, but the season is a good excuse to talk about it). As David wrote in his piece, statisticians will tell you there’s no such thing as a hot streak.
The first mistake I made when I joined the basketball team in Germany was admitting I spoke the language. It would have been weird not to – it would have been very weird. But sometimes over the course of the year, I imagined what it would be like for people around me (coaches, players) to talk naturally with each other in the expectation that I couldn’t understand them. It would have given me an edge.
When I was a teenager, my friends and I used to waste time at school by talking about the basketball box scores from the night before. (A box score is rows and columns of statistical information: minutes played, rebounds, assists, points scored etc. I think it started as a baseball term. Scores in a box.) We wanted to come up with a formula that measured how good a player was: the Dominance Quotient, we called it, only slightly self-mockingly.
Leonard Cohen has died. I was sorry to think that the last big world event this guru of chilled-out but vaguely sad-flavoured spiritual love had stuck around to witness was Trump’s victory. (More recent reports say he died on Monday, so at least he got to miss the election.) There was always an element of kitsch to his profundities, and that probably applies to the music, too, which sometimes sounds like the shy campfire strummings of the guy at school who carries an untranslated Rimbaud in his jeans, the kid at camp in a weird hat who sits around playing guitar not because he has lots of friends but because he doesn’t.
The debate about the point of creative writing programmes took a new turn last week. People seem to like this debate – maybe because so many people like taking creative writing classes. Writing in the Atlantic, Richard Jean So and Andrew Piper start by pointing out how much the literary-industrial complex has grown in the last fifty years, and then try to ask a slightly different question about it. Not the usual, 'is the creative writing industry having a pernicious effect on fiction?' but: is it having any effect at all? They used computational analysis to try answer the question, plugging a couple of hundred books into a computer program to see if it could detect a difference between the novels produced by MFA writers and those written by people who never did an MFA. (‘To make these two groups as comparable as possible’, they ‘only gathered novels by non-MFA writers that were reviewed in the New York Times, which we took as a mark of literary excellence’ – if only.)
My uncle Bob died a few days before Christmas. I got my height from the same place he did. He was 6'7" and for most of his life well north of twenty stone. He reminded me of the joke about Friar Tuck. ‘Don’t worry, he’s one of us,’ somebody tells Robin Hood, and Robin says: ‘One of us? He looks like three of us.’ In most of Bellow's novels there is a Bellow stand-in, sensitive, successful in his way, but a little dreamy also, unwilling to acknowledge worldly realities, and his big brother, who is bigger physically, too, big-hearted, unpredictable, but greatly loving – he tries to make the Bellow figure face the world.
The basketball World Cup ended on Sunday. The world won – they beat the Americans four games to one. The world’s team is represented by Argentina, Australia (twice), Brazil, Canada, France (also twice), Italy, the US Virgin Islands, and a handful of other Americans. They are based in San Antonio, Texas. The club they play for is owned by the great-grandson of the inventor of the caterpillar-tread tractor. Their coach comes from Indiana, the son of a Serb father and Croat mother; he graduated from the Air Force with a degree in Soviet Studies. I mention all this because people get funny ideas about Texas. They think it's parochial.
I didn’t even see the game. I landed after a 12-hour flight in Kuala Lumpur, or versts away from it down the coast where the airport is, took a taxi first along empty roads past miles of billboards and equatorial foliage, and then through chock-a-block city traffic, stuck in tunnels, surrounded by high-rises, for another hour, before I got to my hotel at around 9 a.m. But the room wasn’t ready, so I sat in a lounge with my computer trying to stream the NBA finals, which were happening not only on another continent but on another earth day, 12 hours behind me, on a Thursday summer night after work in Miami.
In the Champions League tie between Manchester United and Real Madrid which finished last night, for roughly 145 minutes the two sides played at even strength, and United outscored Real 2-1. For roughly 35 minutes, Real were a man up, and outscored United 2-0. Real went through. The shape and flow of the game changed instantly after Nani’s controversial sending off. Whether or not his particular red card was justified, it seems to me that the whole idea of the red card itself is not, and it would make more sense if teams were able to replace a sent-off player, using one of their substitutions.