This sporting life: The transition game   

Updated: April 21, 2009, 3:29 PM ET

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With the playoffs upon us, I've been thinking hard about the transition game.

A question of adaptation, the transition game begins in that instant when direction and circumstance change, when offense becomes defense and defense becomes offense. When motion shifts, momentum and time hang suspended and the game inside the game turns confusion and disorder into purpose and opportunity. Success in hockey, soccer or basketball -- any game in which the flow of play is nearly continuous -- depends in large part on the ability of players to adjust their thinking and adapt quickly to new parameters.

A rebound off the pipe becomes a 3-on-2 rush the other way; a bad pass becomes a steal becomes an outlet feed becomes a fast break becomes a tomahawk jam.

Bodies in motion remain in motion. Bodies at rest remain at rest. That's why they coach busy feet in most sports. No one wants to get caught flat-footed when the transition changes everything, when the game doubles back on itself. Teams and individuals learn to remain alert to circumstance. To sense opportunity. To be ready for anything. They learn further to gather themselves in those moments, to regroup and reform for a new purpose. The best teams, the winning teams, are almost always the most fluid teams in transition.

We see transition everywhere, of course, in sports and out. John Madden's retirement, for example, means change not only for him, and not just for an entire generation of television viewers for whom he was the voice and face of football, but for the next voice and face to come, whoever he or she may be. We'll all have to adapt.

The move from the old Yankee Stadium to the new is another challenge to adaptation, another kind of transition in which raised expectations and sour disappointments, heading in different directions, collide at midcourt.

Hardest of all to handle are the late and irrevocable transitions of Adenhart and Blanchard and Kalas and Fidrych.

Our games have always represented a suspension of the inevitable. Players fade, grow old, and die. But the game itself is endlessly refreshed. Remade with new players, the game itself is eternally young, the game itself is played in a state of perpetual spring.

The world is a lot like that. Endlessly refreshed by new life, the world itself is as it always was. The players change. But the game's the same. And the flow of play is continuous.

In that way, transition for the rest of us is the instant in which circumstance turns, momentum is lost, time hangs suspended and things could go either way.

I've spent the last week sitting at the foot of a bed in an intensive care unit. A friend had emergency surgery two Saturdays ago to remove a brain tumor. I flew across the country to sit at the foot of the bed and wait.

There are lots of other folks here too, waiting. They wait in the waiting room, they wait in the halls, they wait in the cafeteria, they wait on the hospital sidewalk. They wait at the foot of the bed. They wait for their husbands and for their wives and for brothers and sisters and for their sons and daughters and mothers and fathers. They wait for friends.

Things are in transition. Things will change. To see these faces as they pass you in the hall; to see on these faces hope or despair; to see in these tired faces people frozen in the moment of their new story, which is now the only story; to see these people gathering themselves tight in one another's arms; to see the face of a man bent to his phone, talking low to someone he cannot see, smiling while the tears course down his cheeks; this is transition, this is change.

Bodies are in motion and bodies are at rest.

When the waiting is over, the sun will shine or it will not shine, the wind will blow or it will not blow, the clouds will gather or they will not. Someone will walk out that door or someone will not walk out that door. The sky will be blue above them or black and deep with stars. Everything turning in its perfection, everything moving, everything changing. For an instant, coming or going, as those hospital doors swing closed behind us, everything will stand very still.

I've been thinking hard about the transition game.

It's a question of adaptation.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at



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