Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Geniuses

I would have been the smartest kid in my first grade class if not for Daniel. Which is a little like saying I could have been the best player on a mediocre high school basketball team if it wasn't for Michael Jordan. It wasn't close, because Daniel was a genius.

The word "genius" gets tossed around a lot, in aggravating and incorrect ways, but Daniel was the real deal. He was a skinny, pale kid who wore glasses and spoke very deliberately. He didn't have an athletic bone in his body, and he shied away from any sign of aggression or physical horseplay from other kids. He was the gentlest person you can imagine, but he wasn't the kind of kid you'd ever call Danny or Dan. Always Daniel.

I liked being around him, even though he prevented me from being the sharpest kid on the block. I always knew I was smarter than the average bear, but Daniel had something different. Everywhere I went, I could already sense I'd meet people who were smarter than me. If I didn't work hard, I'd fall behind. Not so for Daniel. He digested facts in a way that didn't seem human. One skim of a textbook, one encounter with any subject, and the content was embedded permanently in a powerful brain. If I didn't understand something about the planets or mathematics or how plants grew, I went to Daniel first and the teacher second. It amazed me that a mind like his could exist.

I invited Daniel over to my house to hang out one Saturday. We stayed inside on a beautiful fall afternoon, because Daniel wasn't the kind to go out exploring. After an hour or so, a group of my friends came over wanting to play football. They stood by my deck, holding the ball, watching Daniel with suspicion. They purposefully asked me and not him. To my credit, I tried to convince Daniel to play. But I might as well have asked a fish to take a bicycle ride.

It was such a perfect day for football. Sunny, a little chilly. It was easy, from where I stood with Daniel inside the house, to imagine catching and throwing passes, making tackles, diving around. The urge was almost overwhelming. "You have a choice to make," my mom told me. "You invited Daniel over." By her expression, the right choice was clear; no room for ambiguity, even in a first grade mind. The peer pressure and the allure of football were too much, though. I left Daniel in the house. Mom was silently furious.

Out on the field, my friends talked about how strange and different Daniel was. They explained his genius away as a kind of unfortunate disability. I found myself agreeing; it was a good way to rid myself of the guilt. I had invited him to play, after all. Why couldn't he be like the rest of us? Daniel pretended not to mind. My stepfather was building something on the deck and having trouble with the instructions. Daniel, all of 6 years old, helped him understand.

Karma: One of the kids I played football with was named Tommy. He was a mean son of a bitch, even when he was very young. He was two years older than me, and would become a high school football and basketball star. In middle school, we were playing football and I caught a long pass. He raced from behind and tackled me viciously, breaking my shoulder. "Quit being a pussy," he told me while I writhed on the ground. His voice was thick with disgust.

Daniel and I didn't hang out very much after that day, and he moved away before school ended for the summer. I didn't hear from him again. But in 8th grade, seven years later, I turned on the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee and there he was: Daniel in the flesh. Chubbier now, and smiling more, but the same kid. He finished in the top ten. Fifth, I think, though I can't find the results online. It was the year the crazy girl won by spelling 'euonym.'

I'm telling this story because I remembered him last night while Duke was looking listless in their beat-down of Miami (Oh). In class, Daniel needed special material. It wasn't enough to go along with the rest of us; he became easily bored and distracted. The teacher and the school had to find extra material to keep him engaged. He was brighter than the rest of us, but the true capacity of his intelligence wasn't yet known.

That's where the Devils stand as a team. Unlike past incarnations of the Durham 5, these guys aren't meant to be playing scrubs. They're already too good, and it's no longer productive. They were constantly trying to do too much last night, as though the promise of their talent needed to be fulfilled in a grand and breathtaking manner at every juncture. By trying to play the inspired game, they more often looked sloppy and out of control. Genius exists, but it's never forced.

I'm not going to bother grading the players. Kyrie Irving was a bit out of whack, Nolan and Seth Curry looked great, Dawkins was fine, Singler was off his game, and Ryan Kelly was so-so. Then there's the tale of two Plumlees. Mason was awkward and inconsistent, but rebounded well. He's big enough and good enough that we're stuck with him. Miles, on the other hand, has plainly lost Coach K's confidence. He went from starting to playing just 14 minutes in only the second game of the season. His star is fading, his trajectory is headed down. His role, I think, might end up even smaller than last season.

Over in Manhattan, Kansas, meanwhile, Frank Martin has amassed his usual collection of tough, punishing players. K-State wore down Virginia Tech, beating them handily despite early foul trouble on Pullen and spotty shooting. Martin paced the sideline like the unforgiving dictator he must be, his square head and square jaw set off by angry, brooding eyes. During games, he looks like someone who's a bit drunk and perpetually on the verge of beating his wife and kids for some perceived fault. When things are going well, he has that tyrannical half-smile, the expression of a man delighted with his own power and ready to mock and annihilate anyone who won't cower before him. When things are going poorly, his entire face is contorted in an inhuman bark, a show of force designed for fear and intimidation.

Tuesday night, if things go as planned, we'll play Kansas State in the finals of the CBE Classic mini-tournament. It'll be a clash of styles; free-flowing, energetic, dynamic basketball against a brutal, unsparing game conceived by a thug. It'll show whether this ethereal Duke team can handle the harsh realities of big-time basketball without pieces like Zoubek and Thomas who were specifically engineered to punish the other guy pre-emptively. Our physicality will not win us many games. We win by pure skill and endurance, and this is inevitably more difficult against muscle. Kansas State is a perfect test.

In the meantime, we face Colgate at home on Friday. Hopefully we can muster the concentration and motivation to play a complete game. Preparation and execution are key, even if the opposition leaves something to be desired. Ennui can become abiding; there's no such thing as an on/off switch for excellence, and even a genius has to eat.


  1. A really good take on this bunch. Nice metaphoric delivery too. Started reading this site with the "fuck you" post after the tourney win, and this is my fav since then.

  2. Thanks man! I'm good for like one strong post a year, after that I get really tired and cranky. Good luck to half of the teams in your name.


  3. Wouldn't be a rivalry w/o the MFY's. Life w/o NCCH would be less interesting as well. As to Gigantes? - just a contact high for me (cue reference to Lincecum), but a great story this year.

  4. what the hell do you have against Mason. He was studly last game and decent the game before. Apparently a double-double isn't an accomplishment to you.