Now we know why Barack Obama spent so much time in the gym those last days in Chicago before taking off for Afghanistan. He was practicing jump shots, preparing for the sensational 25 footer he sank in the Kabul gym in front of cheering US troops.
All practitioners prepare. Professionals are defined as much by preparation as practice. Great professionals practice as Obama does, their focus on key moments, striking, often unexpected occasions and opportunities. ("Photo ops" is the vulgar phrase.) The great practitioner takes a longer view than the people around him. The fine, diligent New Yorker piece by Ryan Lizza about Obama making his slow, challenged way to political office in and through Chicago shows him learning the ropes and continually abandoning them for other ropes, other learning, other modes of advancement. The same goes for his negotiating with University of Chicago law deans and professors who wanted to recruit this brilliant, attentive young man, one going so far as to tell him after a political defeat that he had no future in politics but might well have a great career in the academy and then perhaps as a public intellectual, a la Judge Richard Posner. Obama accepted an office, a stipend, and some lecturing on constitutional law, but nurtured his political career, his long view, as he wanted.
Because of the recent Wimbledon tournament, I think of Richard Williams, seeing the money and glory earned by women tennis players, buying a book on the sport in order to learn it and then working thousands of hours with two of his daughters to make them international champions.
These are great triumphs of practice and professionalism. The knowledge of oneself, the people around, contemporary conditions, and future possibilities is so great for both these men--one is tempted to use the word genius for them. The basketball shot that Obama made in that gym was photographed and sent around the world. I expect that it will become what is too frequently called "iconic," and will be found in history books or their digital equivalents for a long time.
This week I reread a marvelous book, 50 years old this year. It is the Prince of Lampedusa's only novel, Il Gattopardo--The Leopard. It is about the last days of such Sicilian aristocrats as the extraordinary 19th century prince, Don Fabrizio de Salina, as Garibaldi's 800 red shirts invade the island and tumble the feeble Royalist troops of Fabrizio's helpless acquaintance, King Ferdinand. Fabrizio's knowledge of his friends and family--particularly his beloved, princely but impoverished nephew Tancredi--is matched by a remarkable and remarkably articulated sense of his land, Sicily, and its people, particularly such shrewd, bourgeois-graspers as Don Calogero Sedara, whose wealth and the mind-boggling beauty of whose daughter will give Tancredi if not a princely life like his uncle's, but one as close to it as the new era permits. Shortly after the triumph of the Victor Emmanuele regime, which will unite Italy into a single state, a representative of the regime, a wise old Piedmontese aristocrat, Chevalley, is sent to invite Don Fabrizio to become a senator and thus help determine the bright future of his part of the new state. Don Fabrizio courteously declines the offer and then shares what he knows and feels about Sicily, knowledge and feeling which help explain his decision:
In Sicily it doesn't matter if things are done well or badly; the sin, which we Sicilians never forgive, is simply that of ‘doing' at all.... Sleep, my dear Chevalley, sleep, that is what Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even in order to bring them the most wonderful gifts.... All Sicilian expression, even the most violent, is really wish-fulfillment: our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death; our laziness, our spiced and drugged sherbets, a hankering for voluptuous immobility ... novelties attract us only when they are dead, incapable of arousing vital currents; that is what gives rise to the ... constant formation of myths ... which are really nothing but sinister attempts to plunge us back into a past that attracts us only because it's dead.... Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery...[what] we ourselves call pride in reality is blindness.
Richard Williams and the even more eloquent Barack Obama may never express their knowledge of what surrounds or nurtures them as richly or poetically as Lampedusa's Gattopardo, but I think each understands the obstacles before them with some of the same profundity and originality. This is some of what underlay both this year's Wimbledon women's final and the wonderful three-point shot which Barack Obama made before the troops, the American voting public, and history this week in Kabul.