I watched the re-run of game 1 of the NBA finals yesterday. There were no other sporting events on television and anything that requires you actually to hear what is being said was out of the question: our ancient and thunderously loud treadmill, which we inherited from the previous owners of the house, makes it impossible. Still, I was mildly pleased to discover that the NBA finals have begun, and even that our home-town team is involved. (I’ve been a bit under a rock lately.)
From what I could hear of the commentary, the announcers seemed enormously impressed with Kobe Bryant’s focus. This article in today’s Boston Herald fills in some of the background. Apparently Chris Rock was sitting very close to Bryant on the sidelines, heckling him. I don’t know Chris Rock that well, but my sense is that he is very funny, with a distinctive voice, and that if he was intent on getting your attention by heckling you, while sitting only a couple of feet away, it wouldn’t be too hard. Bryant reports not even having known he was there. And from the way he played once he got back on the court – extraordinarily well – that’s not too difficult to believe.
By the time the game was over my several minutes on the treadmill were complete as well, so I did get a chance to listen to the brief interview with Kobe after the game. The reporter asked him how he was able to maintain such focus, and his answer was striking to me. “Only one thing matters now,” he said. (Or something to that effect.)
I suppose it is true that it is better to have one thing that matters than no things. Bryant has meaningful differences in his life, and so he is not like Walter or Prufrock or Vladimir and Estragon. And the fact that only one thing matters probably makes him a valuable asset to the team and to its goal of winning a championship. This is the kind of focus and commitment that a coach dreams of from his players.
But I have known people for whom only one thing matters, and it’s not obvious that this is what one should be aiming for.
In the book we talk about the kind of medieval nihilism one finds in Dante when, by the end of the Paradiso the only thing that matters is the bliss of contemplating god. We call this a kind of nihilism because it makes it impossible to find meaningful differences on earth: they all pale to triviality by comparison with the hyper importance of the supra-mundane. This is not like Kobe’s case, since Dante’s bliss takes him out of the world while Kobe’s puts him into it. But still, part of the point of the book is to contrast Homeric polytheism – which allows for a plurality of irreconcilable goods – with the kind of monotheism that requires a rank ordering of them all. Isn’t Kobe’s kind of excellence a challenge to that kind of pluralism? Or is Kobe living in his world of meaningful differences the way Homer’s Helen was in hers? Remember that Helen was grabbed by the overwhelming importance of Aphrodite’s erotic world, with Paris at its center, and she lived in that world for while. Nevertheless, the way she lived in that world left her open to the possibility that later some irreconcilable world – like the domestic world in which she finds happiness with Menelaus – will order her existence. Is Kobe’s focus compatible with that kind of transition?
Maybe the point is that even he can’t tell from inside the world he now inhabits.