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“Why’s this so good?” No. 84: Woody Allen, Earl Monroe and the ballet of basketball

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Woody Allen has written and directed an original film nearly every year since 1969. He has written several Broadway plays, published dozens of pieces in The New Yorker and given innumerable interviews. As far as I know, though, he has written only a single piece of journalism: a profile, of sorts, on the flamboyant New York Knicks superstar Earl Monroe, for the November 1977 issue of SPORT. “A Fan’s Notes on Earl Monroe” is possibly the best piece of sportswriting I’ve ever read, because Allen chooses to focus on athletic artistry over outcome.

Micah Wimmer (and Oliver)

Micah Wimmer (and Oliver)

Allen’s apparent affection for basketball — he had referred to the sport multiple times in his film Annie Hall — had led the magazine to contact him about writing a piece about that year’s playoffs. Instead, Allen offered to write about Monroe. He had met Monroe while filming Annie Hall but had admired him long before, and even confessed to once having sent Monroe a fan letter. By admitting this in his story, and putting his fandom right out front, Allen set himself apart from professional sportswriters. He combines a sense of wonder with his typical persona of intellectual self-deprecation, creating a distinct authorial voice — so much so that anyone familiar with Allen might readily identify “A Fan’s Notes” as his work, even without his byline. With humorous self-awareness, Allen makes the reader aware of his uneasiness about writing the piece in general and the inadequacy he feels writing about Monroe in particular. Monroe is an artist capable of feats Allen could never replicate. Allen’s well-known claim that his “one regret in life is that he is not someone else” is on display here:

The truth was, I immediately saw myself cast in the role of the bespectacled, white, pseudo-intellectual trying to form a “heavy” thesis about a gift of grace and magical flair the black athlete possesses that can never be reduced to anything but poetry. I have always envied this gift and have often said that if I could live life over as someone else it would be wonderful to be Sugar Ray Robinson or Willie Mays. With my luck, however, I would undoubtedly wind up John Maynard Keynes.

We also learn that Allen does not see sports as merely a competition between two teams; in fact, he seems to care very little about who wins or loses. Neither does he attempt to add social significance to the sporting events, as much “serious” sportswriting attempts to do. Instead, he uses his platform to describe basketball as a singular art form:

Even a game against a last-place team holds the possibility of thrills, whereas in the theater all seems relatively predictable. Baseball remains a joy for me, but basketball emerged as the most beautiful of sports. In basketball, more than in virtually any other sport, personal style shines brightest. It allows for eccentric, individual play. Give the basketball to such diverse talents as Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Walt Frazier, Rick Barry, George McGinnis, Dave Bing, or Bob McAdoo to name a tiny fraction, and you get dramatically different styles of dribbling, passing, shooting, and defensive play. There is great room in basketball for demonstrable physical artistry that often can be compared to serious dance.

Allen first got interested in Monroe through the high numbers that caught his attention in the newspaper box scores. Monroe played for the Baltimore Bullets then, and Allen finally got to see him play in 1968. “I immediately ranked him with Willie Mays and Sugar Ray Robinson as athletes who went beyond the level of sports as sport to the realm of sports as art,” he writes. But what sets Monroe apart from other players such as Julius Erving and Connie Hawkins — who ostensibly have similar skill sets and moves — is the “indescribable heat of genius that burns deep inside him.” What does he mean? He means that Monroe “creates a sense of danger in the arena” so that when he plays there is always the possibility of a sudden spark of creativity that could be neither created nor replicated by another. Unlike other high-caliber players, this potential thrill becomes more important for the audience than the result itself.

When Allen observes that Monroe’s misses are more exciting than most players’ made baskets, he is implicitly saying that those who focus on the score and care only if a shot is made or missed fail to see the point of the game. It is this sense of the perpetual possibility for greatness that brings Allen to compare Monroe to Marlon Brando:

The audience never knows what will happen next and the potential for a sudden great thrill is always present. If we think of an actor like George C. Scott, for instance, we feel he is consistently first rate, but he cannot move a crowd the way Brando does. There is something indescribable that pins an audience on the edge of its seat at all times. Perhaps because we sense a possible peak experience at any given moment, and when it occurs, the performance transcends mere acting and soars into the sublime. On a basketball court, Monroe does this to spectators.

Another reason the piece works: Allen reveals himself as an idiosyncratic Knicks fan. He cannot relate to fans who want to see their team win no matter what. When Monroe was traded from the Bullets to the Knicks, in 1971, this might have been happy news since Allen would get to see him play more often. But Allen worried Monroe would be expected to be a team player:

Others felt Monroe could learn to give off the ball, to play defense, to sublimate his brilliant one-on-one skills and contribute to this championship club. But I asked, why would anyone want that of him? After all, here is the single most exciting player in basketball, a solo performer. Do we really want him to abandon his individuality and become a cog in a machine? Would we ask Heifetz to become a sublimated member of the string section? Great Knick fan that I was, I would rather have seen the team set up Monroe for his dazzling solo feats than the other way around. Is winning so important that we can afford to sacrifice Monroe’s essential gift to the game of basketball?

Allen wanted the Knicks to win, of course; he just didn’t want it to come at the price of Monroe playing in a patterned offense. “Sacrifices must be made for art,” he wrote.

While Allen wrote about a specific person, his piece could hardly be called a profile. He doesn’t concern himself with biographical details or interesting anecdotes, and instead focuses on the visceral impact of Monroe’s playing style. Angling the story on Monroe’s artistry allows Allen to focus on a timeless aspect of basketball, which in turn makes “A Fan’s Notes” timeless. Games and great plays occur nightly, but most are soon forgotten. Great art, on the other hand, endures.

How is it that a film director who had never written about sports was able to compose such a great piece? Ironically, it may have been Allen’s outsider status that helped him. Most sportswriters are consistently working on a deadline; watching the same teams over and over again; growing jaundiced, bored. Writing from the perspective of a fan gave Allen license to focus on beauty. (Also, when was the last time you read a sports piece that referred to Jascha Heifetz, John Maynard Keynes and Groucho Marx?)

At the end, Allen writes that if he were to miss a last-minute shot to lose a game he would commit suicide. Monroe, on the other hand, is nonchalant. He has none of Allen’s neuroses and anxiety. His shots go in. A sense of professional jealousy pervades the piece:

I recall a newspaper interview with Monroe after he had scored clusters of points against the Knicks in a playoff game, and he confessed to the desire to be a comedian. I thought, a comedian? But why? Why would anyone want to be a comedian when he can do what he does?

While Allen wishes he could box like Robinson or run down fly balls like Mays, I wish I could write like him.

Traces of this story can be seen in David Foster Wallace’s piece on Roger Federer and in all the work of the FreeDarko collective, but, sadly, “A Fan’s Notes” has not been very widely read or influential. Most sportswriting is reportage on individual games, trade rumors, and the injury mill. Longform pieces on sports tend to skew toward inspiration and triumph against odds. While seeing your favorite team win and witnessing an underdog defeat a powerhouse are good reasons to follow sports, it neglects the underlying fact that the teams are fun, thrilling and frequently beautiful to watch. Allen reminds us that it’s possible to write about sports without resorting to cliché, and to offer real insight into why we love sports in the first place. Nearly four decades later, “A Fan’s Notes” reads just as brilliantly as it must have upon its initial publication, and there are very few sports stories that you can say that about.

Micah Wimmer is a graduate student at Claremont School of Theology, pursuing his master’s in theology. He is originally from Akron, Ohio, and loves the NBA, the music of Bob Dylan, and his cat, Oliver.

The last installment of “Why’s this so good?” featured Brent McDonald on David Foster Wallace and “A Ticket to the Fair,” from Harper’s. For that and for more installments of “Why’s this so good?” go here.




One trackback

  1. by Writings on Theology, Basketball, and Culture on December 18, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    [...] – about Woody Allen’s fantastic 1977 piece on Earl Monroe, which you can read here. Well, this evening they named that post as part of their “Best of Storyboard 2013.” [...]

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