On Kyrie Irving, Sports Movies, and the Power of Play
Kyrie Irving is the starting point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, a three-time NBA All-Star, a gold medalist, and an NBA champion who’s earning over $17 million this year. I, meanwhile, am a half-nebbish, half-hipster Brooklyn-based writer/editor with an inconsistent jump shot and absolutely no left hand. But there is one thing we have in common.
My little sister graduates from college this May so my parents, on the verge of empty nesthood, are cleaning out my childhood home and readying for a move. My mom recently sent me a photo of my dad on the curb, preparing to trash the little basketball hoop that lived in my basement since before I can remember. Gazing upon that hoop facing death, its entire life flashed before my eyes.
I remembered the hours I’d spent creating imaginary full-roster teams and playing an entire 64-team make-believe March Madness tournament by myself. I remembered how after one too many dunks, I had scavenged for household items — pens, dog toys, cassette tapes — to wedge in the backboard to level the rim. I remembered the times I’d given myself a carpet burn diving for a loose ball or stubbing my toe on our forsaken, ancient treadmill or dislodging a ceiling tile (seven feet tall, max) with my head while soaring for a dunk over an invisible defender. I remembered all of it. And I remembered what I have in common Kyrie Irving.
There he is in 2014, just months after earning NBA All-Star MVP, throwing in a windmill on a Nerf hoop. Watching that Vine, it’s not hard to imagine seven-year-old Kyrie, son of a pro hooper, playing by himself in his basement in West Orange, New Jersey while 10-year-old me, son of a pediatric dentist, did the same in Bexley, Ohio.
There is Kyrie and there is Ben, both palming the ball like Michael Jordan, back to the basket, leaning on his imaginary defender, commentating aloud to himself: “The clock is winding down…3…2,” Irving and Kassoy both take one dribble and shoot a fade-away jumper, “1…ehhhhhh!” the ball leaves his hands just before the buzzer sounds. “It’s good!”
Insert any sport, any team, anywhere in the world. Right now in Minneapolis/Los Angeles/Rio, a kid is by him/herself on a pond/court/field pretending to score the game-winning goal/ace/penalty kick. This tableau is timeless and universal among young fans and aspiring athletes.
As art imitates life, it’s also a common trope in sports movies. In Rookie of the Year, Henry Rowengartner (Michael Ian Nicholas) imagines pitching the Cubs to a World Series victory while slinging soap into his washing machine.
There’s Adam Banks (Vincent Larusso) in D2: The Mighty Ducks: “…between his legs…scores!” he exclaims while five-holing a wooden goalkeeper in his driveway.
Space Jam opens on young Michael Jordan shooting by himself in his backyard, and while he doesn’t explicitly count himself down for a buzzer beater, it’s pretty much implied.
These days, my relationship with sports is more complicated. Scandals at the pro level, exploitation in the NCAA and, frankly, everything happening outside the world of sports often leaves me disinterested, disillusioned, or disgusted. After a month where Ohio propelled Donald Trump to victory and a knife attack left 11 injured on Ohio State’s campus, the outcome of my beloved Buckeyes’ bowl game in a couple weeks feels less significant than ever.
Even those movies, now viewed through my jaded, adult lens are harder to idealize. On the benign end, there are the obvious plot holes in D2. On the other end, there’s the fact that Rookie of the Year’s washed-up-ace-slash-lovable-curmudgeon Chet “The Rocket” Steadman turned out, in real life, to be Donald-Trump-homeboy-slash-accused-sexual-predator Gary Busey. And I’ll always love Space Jam no matter what, but I loved it more before Michael Jordan’s fall from god-on-earth to complicated human being to weepy internet meme.
But while sports — and, to a certain extent, my favorite sports movies — feel tarnished, those experiences playing make-believe basketball on that little hoop are forever sacred, frozen in time, insulated by innocence.
In my basement, I was one of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, and the suburban carpetscape was my Neverland. In his memoir, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid,” Bill Bryson gave these spaces a simple, profound name: Kid World.
My childhood fantasies were never tied to real aspirations, but those solitary hours still proved formative, significant beyond a source of nostalgia and joy. In Kid World, I learned to appreciate solitude and, as a middle child, how to occupy and entertain myself. I cultivated an imaginative spirit, created worlds and events and people that felt as real as the food fight in Hook.
I had a safe space for creativity, for storytelling, for play. All that proved crucial for me as a writer, but look to any of the half-dozen TED Talks specifically on play, and you’ll soon discover how important it is for all of us. In his talk, Peter Gray discusses the correlation between the decline in self-directed play and the rise in mental health disorders among young people. “The opposite of work isn’t play,” says Stuart Brown in a separate speech. “It’s depression.” As science tells us, the more we played — and continue to play — the happier, better, more productive we are, even if our dreams don’t exactly come true.
What are your experiences playing make-believe sports — or anything else — by yourself as a kid?
What were your favorite sports movies growing up? How do you view them now?
Has your relationship to sports (either as a player or a fan) changed as you’ve gotten older? How so?
Make Believe Boys explores beauty, humor, and wonder at the intersection of art, entertainment, sports, and personal history. Ben Kassoy loves to tell basketball stories that have almost nothing to do with basketball.