Saturday, January 21

The Basketball/Motorcycle Diaries

I've loved watching Adam Morrison play this year for Gonzaga. I even like his wispy mustache, of which Bill Simmons rightly noted:

it's not a porn mustache. Please stop calling it that. Jake Plummer had a porn mustache. Wade Boggs had a porn mustache. Morrison has one of those late-'70s ABC Afterschool Special mustaches -- the guys with those 'staches always took Charlene Tilton or Valerie Bertinelli into their brown van, tried to make out with them, gave them some shrooms and panicked when they started OD'ing, ultimately driving them down to an abandoned parking lot and dumping their convulsing bodies behind a picnic bench. That's the Adam Morrison mustache.

What I don't like is the press's wonder at how brilliant he is because he--gasp!--reads! You'd hardly know that he was at college (and a real college, not UNLV or Cornell), where reading and thinking aren't supposed to be rare habits. This gushing over athletes that also manifest some of the habits of educated adults isn't exclusive to Adam Morrison, but the "Morrison shoots and reads!" storyline seems to have been fed to every lazy media outlet this year. I don't doubt that Morrison is a very intelligent and well-read student, but the fact that a student displays these traits shouldn't rate a mention unless he is in contention for a Nobel Prize (and not just the frivolous Peace Prize, a real Nobel Prize).

Of the many articles parroting this easy line, on Morrison the introduction to this interview by USA Basketball stands out:

Describing Kevin Costner's character Crash Davis in the movie Bull Durham, Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball (of course playing himself) notes to Susan Sarandon's character Annie, "He's a different type of player, he reads books without pictures." That's exactly how I'd describe Adam Morrison if somebody asked me to sum up the 20 minutes I spent with him after a USA National Team Trials session on Saturday.

It's not a knock on other college sophomores to say Morrison is "different." It's to be expected to find most guys on a college campus playing XBOX, Play Station 2 or watching television when you walk into his dorm room. That's all I did. I certainly never read Jack Kerouac . . .

So, after twenty minutes of conversation, your impression is that "he reads books without pictures?" I take it, then, that your dialogue wasn't exactly Socrates and Simmias, the sequel. A thousand more snide comments present themselves, but I will refrain; I am more interested in something Morrison has to say than in the risible Pete Sousa. The passage that caught my eye was this:

USA Basketball: I've heard that you're a well-read guy, who is you favorite author?

Morrison: Probably, hmm, there's too many. But probably Che Guevara.

. . .

USA Basketball: What turns you on about Che?

Morrison: Just the adversity he dealt with in life, what he did for small countries of the world as a whole. Standing up for lower people, instead of the top tier. That takes a lot of guts on the world level to do that. So that's what's drawn me to him.

Oh dear. The myth of Che, doomed romantic revolutionary (no sarcasm intended--he was all those things). Those defiant eyes emblazoned on countless banners, posters, and coffee mugs--empty vessels that can accomodate any disaffection. A symbol of rebellion simpliciter, a passionate rejection of . . . well, as The Wild One sneered, "whatta you got?" A little duende goes a long way. If global revolution has a brand, it is Albert Korda's photograph of Che, frozen for ever on a Havana balcony in 1960, uncompromising, almost inhuman in his utopian zeal. Shelley by way of Pol Pot; Byron by way of Stalin. What's the appeal? I don't know, though I've certainly felt it. Ondaatje wrote, "Why do I love most among my heroes those who sail to that perfect edge where there is no social fuel?" I know the feeling. There is a vertigo induced by contemplating fanaticism; standing on the righteous heights it is easy to imagine stepping off the edge, defying the gravity of history, tradition, stability--those petty human concerns--and trusting fate and a supreme will to carry you still higher, to a new, transformed reality.

But Nietzsche's Superman can't fly: Che's single-minded passion and rhetoric alone could not transform Cuban society. Like all revolutionaries he needed muscle, and Che carried his in his holster. Alvaro Vargas Llosa's article in the New Republic describes but a few pathetic victims:

On the eve of victory, according to Costa, Che ordered the execution of a couple dozen people in Santa Clara, in central Cuba, where his column had gone as part of a final assault on the island. Some of them were shot in a hotel, as Marcelo Fernándes-Zayas, another former revolutionary who later became a journalist, has written—adding that among those executed, known as casquitos, were peasants who had joined the army simply to escape unemployment.

Truly, Guevara lived his instruction to would-be followers: "Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine."

In addition to the executions he ordered or carried out, Che was also the architect of the modern Cuban labor and prison camps, where "disloyal" journalists, democratic reformers, and homosexuals are caged. Thankfully, beyond the ongoing brutality of those camps, Che's destructive seeds bear little fruit today. His attempt to foment "two, three, many Vietnams" in Africa and South America was a failure, though the current rebel leader in the Congo was personally trained by him, and death came early, though not too soon. Dennis Boyd describes Che's sad end game in Bolivia, where he was finally run to ground, as more comedy than tragedy:

By the time of his execution by CIA-backed Bolivian forces, Guevara's attempt to incite revolution in Bolivia had been reduced to little more than pathetic raids on village pharmacies in search of asthma medication [Guevara was asthmatic]. Not one Bolivian peasant had flocked to his banner.

A fitting requiem for a bloody dream.

Returning to Mr. Morrison, I wonder what, exactly, was it that he thinks Che "did for small countries of the world as a whole"? Chee certainly talked enough about what he would do for them, but his ambition far exceeded his ability, or at least his means. And as for "standing up for the lower people," it is true that many peasants rallied to support Castro's small rebel army, but often because they quickly learned that it's not smart to cross a revolutionary who has tasted blood. According to Che's admirably honest and spine-chilling admission: "Denouncing us put [the Cuban people] in danger, since revolutionary justice was speedy." This reminds me of an old Simpsons line: "there's no justice like angry mob justice," to which Che might add "unless it's revolutionary justice."

Maybe I'm reading too much into the Morrison interview. He seems to enjoy playing the showman on the court, so perhaps his off-court radicalism contains a healthy dose of intellectual brummagem. His coach and at least one teammate seem to think so:

"He's open to all thoughts,'' [Coach] Few said on the phone. "He's well read. He's a great debater. He enjoys a healthy debate. When you cut to the core, some of the things he says, he doesn't believe. I find it entertaining most of the time.''

Teammate Sean Mallon put a slightly different twist on Morrison's locker-room rhetoric, telling the Oregonian, "Sometimes he doesn't know what he's talking about, but that doesn't stop him from having a strong opinion.''

He's also young. I remember pooh-poohing the campus Marxist-Leninists as insufficiently radical sell-outs in my day. Perhaps, if he stays as well-read as the press describe him, Mr. Morrison will eventually come across John Lee Anderson's dispassionate and definitive biography of Ernesto Guevara; or, if he has read it, maybe he will see past Che's bravado and impassioned rhetoric to see what happens when one loves humanity more than individual people and ideas more than life itself. It is a lesson often observed but never fully learned. Every time we think it can't happen again, a Lenin, a Trotsky, a Mao, a Pol Pot, or a Che Guevara appears with a seductive dream of universal equality and prosperity, and a tongue as quick as his trigger finger, and the only thing we can know for sure is that thousands, if not millions, of lives will fall before the dream fails.

I know that Morrison will never read this post, but anyone else who is curious should read Anderson's book, if only for its entertainment value--Che's story is remarkable. Or, for a tour of the lowlights of Che's life from respectable (i.e., not obviously ideological) sources, please consider Sean O'Hagan in The Guardian's Observer (one of the few times I've ever described the Observer as respectable, but there you go), Boyd in the Kennedy School of Government's newspaper, and Llosa in the New Republic.