August 29, 2006

A Thinking Man’s Game: Great Moments in Sports Philosophy

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One thing I’d like to get from Cornell is a meaningful education in the humanities. Or something like that. So this year I’m taking a couple of philosophy classes. I already know a little about philosophy — for example, I’ve learned how to put theory into practice (I believe this is called praxis) — and so what better way to do that than by looking at the most intellectual of all topics, sports.

Some athletes are already ahead of me. Barry Zito, the Cy Young winner for the Oakland A’s, is a big fan of Zen philosophy. After a bad pitching performance, Zito once told the press that his mediocre game followed from him being “too result-oriented, instead of sticking with [his] process.” He also does other Eastern-inspired work, including a lot of yoga and flexibility training in the off-season. And as we all know, courtesy of Entourage Season 1 — “bulk is so nineties, Johnny, it’s all about flexibility now, don’t you think?”

Anyway, the six-year veteran just earned his 14th win of the season and the 100th of his career, in a game where he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning. Zito has been one of my favorite pitchers in recent years, not only because he throws one of the best curveballs in the game, but also because he’s got a unique personality that makes him about as different from Curt Schilling as you can be.

He is also a free-agent after this year. Indeed, I wonder what Zen philosophy has to say about money-hungry sports agents like Zito’s new one, Scott Boras. If you don’t already know, Boras is the super-agent who can make Ari Gold look like a nice version of Mother Theresa. No doubt Boras will get Zito a good contract, and maybe Zito will donate some of his new money to a building a baseball field in Calcutta.

Speaking of Zen, last year I discovered (at a Japanese garden in Boca Raton, Fla., of all places) that many centuries ago the Japanese invented a fascinating type of Zen rock garden called Karesansui. You won’t find water in this kind of garden, and plants are not an important part of the display. Instead, in this type of garden, rocks are laid out in a way to serve as a metaphor for something else entirely, such as ripples in a sea. You are supposed to meditate in front of the garden and then really use your imagination to appreciate why the garden is supposed to be so great and important. I couldn’t really figure out what was so great about it. In that sense, the whole garden is bit like Alex Rodriguez, a man who is known for some unique “philosophical” quotes himself.

But A-Rod is hardly much of a philosopher when compared to Shaquille O’Neal. As I continue to delve deeper into the philosophical ramblings of mildly-educated sports stars, I have come to view Shaq as one of the greatest philosophers in all of sports. I also think that the Diesel is the only NBA player to have appropriated an ancient Greek philosopher for his nickname. (“I’d like to be known as the Big Aristotle,” Shaq once said. “It was Aristotle who said excellence is not a singular act, but a habit.” I believe Shaq translated that himself.)

Over the years, Shaq has added other pearls of wisdom to our American treasure-book of sagacity, such as the classic, “All you single guys out there, it’s not how you start the date, it’s how you finish the date,” which he said in reference to a come-back performance he had on the court.

Shaq also seems to understand a priori knowledge in a way not even Immanuel Kant could have, such as when he responded to a question about why injuries happen by noting that, “Some things you just can’t question. Like you can’t question why two plus two is four… So certain things happen. Why does it rain? Why am I so sexy? I don’t know.”

I speak of Kant because he was a brilliant 18th century philosopher, not because he was much of an athlete.

He may have been able to decipher Leibniz, but I doubt he could read a Ravens’ pass rush for the life of him. I would like to tell you that I’ve read him in the original German, but that is simply not true.

One thing Kant did say, however, (and I believe he used 1,409 pages of 8-point font to say it) was that knowledge begins with experience. Which is why Matt Leinart should have a great first season for the
Arizona Cardinals once Kurt Warner is benched.

How do I know Warner will be benched? I don’t know. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. said “prophecy as much as you like, but always hedge.” But I’m so damn brave I’ll just “prophecy” here.

Warner is getting old, his arm is also getting old; and I’ll bet Reggie Bush’s mother’s house that Dennis Green will get frustrated with Warner and bring in Leinart within a few weeks (that is, unless Warner gets hurt first, which is just as possible).

After a mediocre performance in his first preseason game last week (remember, he had finally just signed his contract), Leinart looked great in Friday’s preseason match-up against the Chicago Bears. Beginning his work in the second quarter, he went 15-of-21 for 144 yards, recording a touchdown and no interceptions. His wealth of experience at USC was evident — he really did look like an NFL quarterback, but then again, he looked like an NFL quarterback two years ago when he was picking apart defenses of college teams.

It was just as the Zen philosopher Ying-an once noted, although perhaps not in reference to football, that “When you pass through, no one can pin you down, no one can call you back.”

That was a good start for Leinart, and as Plato said, “the beginning is the most important part of the work.” And the original Aristotle once said that things well begun are already half done. But then again, didn’t the Big Aristotle say the exact opposite?

Ted Nyman is a Sun Senior Editor. Fast Times will appear every other Monday this semester.