The Iditarod of the mind

April, 24, 2013
4/24/13
4:04
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Iditarod
Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News/MCT/Getty Images
Trust me, this is kind of about the NBA.

Holy smokes I am wicked lucky to have this job, a major part of which is to read. That's a crazy treat any day -- but doubly so when Brian Phillips is publishing stuff. (Where did he come from? Does he have like ten books I can buy everyone I know for Christmas? Does he run some kind of writers' camp I can attend?)

If I could write sentences with the word "lozenge" so aptly deployed, I'd print them up on t-shirts. Phillips? He rips 'em off by the thousand:
Airplanes aren’t supposed to be so small. How can I tell you what it was like, standing there under the trillion-mile blue of the Alaska sky, ringed in by white mountains, resolving to take to the air in one of these winged lozenges? Each cockpit was exactly the size of a coffin. A desk fan could have blown the things off course.

One writing skill where I take a backseat to no one, however, is tying things to the NBA that have no business being tied to the NBA. It's almost embarrassing the bric-a-brac -- running form articles, sex education, John Prine lyrics -- I have manhandled onto this blog through the years. (Yesterday somebody sent me a profile of Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon from Elle magazine. First time I can ever remember thinking, in close to a decade in this job, "I'd like to get this on TrueHoop but I really can't think of a way." A mere 24 hours later, though ... linked. I got this.)

So Phillips just dropped a gazillion fancy Grantland words on the Iditarod, of all things. It's wonderful. The real point of this post is to read that one.

The real game, though, for me, is to make my pitch somehow about basketball.

One opening: Phillips risks his life in the name of ... stat geekery. The race is risky to watch standing still at a checkpoint. Insanely, Phillips followed every mile by tiny lozenge of an airplane. The risk of death was real. And, amazingly, he did so not out of any lifelong romance with flying or snowy white expanses of wilderness. Instead he had a lifelong romance with things written on white pages in the stacks of some library. This is why he's on this odyssey:
I mean, the density stats are a joke. The U.S. average is 87.4 inhabitants per square mile. The 45th-most-dense state, New Mexico, thins that down to 17. Alaska has 1.28. And more than 40 percent of Alaskans live in one city! Factor out metropolitan Anchorage and you’re looking at about three quarters of one person per square mile, in a land area 10 times the size of Wisconsin.

I don’t know how you roll, emotionally, with respect to population-density tables. Personally I find this haunting.

I’ve always been fascinated by the cold places at the end of the world. Back when I used to spend a lot of time in libraries, I wasted stacks of hours going through polar-exploration narratives, tracking the adventurers who froze to death, the expeditions that vanished.

So there's an opening to discuss this on TrueHoop. Numbers at the edge of sanity. I can build that argument.

But I needn't. Right there in the middle of discussing a pre-Iditarod banquet, Phillips throws basketball bloggers everywhere a bone, by bringing up, of all things, his mukluk of a HoopIdea:
After the honorary musher, the starting order is determined by an elaborate NBA-draft-lottery-style number draw at a pre-race banquet. The numbers are drawn from a sealskin Eskimo mukluk, which is something the NBA should maybe look into. I was at this banquet; it ran for five hours. Every single musher made a speech (that’s more than 60 speeches). It was brutal. The only speech I liked was the one by Scott Janssen, a funeral-home director by trade who’s known as the “Mushin’ Mortician.” He introduced himself by saying, “Hi! I’m Scott Janssen, the Mushin’ Mortician.”

That would have been more than enough. But there was far more tying this sled-dog tale to hoops.

The killer connection comes late, after 1,000 soul-sucking miles of death risk, frostbite and hallucination, when the race has been won in the little town of Nome. It's one of the closest finishes ever, with Mitch Seavey beating Aliy Zirkle by minutes.
There’s such goodwill at the press conference. Mitch and Aliy eat cheeseburgers and crack jokes. There’s no sense that one of them just suffered an agonizing defeat; instead, there’s an air of conspiratorial wonder, like, Oh wow, can you believe we made it? As the sporting event that most closely mimics the experience of sustained brutal catastrophe, the Iditarod is maybe uniquely designed to amplify sport’s natural euphoria-making power with basic human relief. Which is one of the most thrilling things there is, if you think about it. Imagine if Game 7 were played on inflatable rafts in a shark tank; afterward LeBron would be all, That happened! I survived!

Everyone in the room gets this: fans, volunteers, media. It’s a close-knit world; people know each other. So when Mitch says —

“The brain kind of stops working somewhere along the Yukon. I offered Aliy a cough drop this morning and she decided it was too complicated to unwrap it.”

— the laugh that rolls through the room is not the brittle pre-deadline laugh of reporters being fed good copy but a delighted and leisurely laugh of people who’ve been there, or know someone who’s been there, and who just want to share in the moment.

Here's the thing: I love what Phillips is talking about, where "wow we survived" trumps "dang I wish I had crushed that dude."

And you know what? I'm not so sure it doesn't exist in the NBA. There's more of it around than you'd think.

Hell yes, LeBron James and Kevin Durant dream of killing each other in the Finals, maybe year after year. But hell yes they're also training together in the summer. How do we know they're not metaphorically offering each other lozenges (there's that word again!) the other may be too tired to unwrap?

People ranging from Larry Bird and Jeff Van Gundy rail against competitors treating each other warmly like this, but I love it. Playing your absolute hardest, being incredibly professional, leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of a championship ... nothing about that requires the pre-war propaganda-style demonization. We can fight hard without believing they're devils.

And, if you'll allow me my own detour of a thousand miles: Role modeling civil behavior, even toward would-be enemies -- on a fractious and crowded planet, is there anything more important sports can do?

Phillips imagines LeBron James feeling some kind of profound kinship -- the communitas of survival -- with his opponents. The other day I talked about hard fouls with James' teammate James Jones. Jones sounds like he lives in a world a lot like that:
Our players are extremely competitive, but they're not malicious.

No guy in here wants to see another player injured. In the heat of the moment you may over react. In the heat of the battle you may put a little extra force to it.

But when that adrenaline rush is gone guys are extremely sincere in their regard for our health. Because we're a select few. Less than 500 of the world's best basketball players.

We're a brotherhood and we care for each other. And we care for the game. And we know injured players, it doesn't help our game, it only hurts it.

Henry Abbott | email

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