February 2017


“Physically loose, and mentally tight.”

This was Arthur Ashe’s motto and mantra, which I came across while reading Ryan Holiday’s The Ego is the Enemya book I’ve read three times in the last year. It’s currently my second favorite book—it’s also my second favorite Ryan Holiday book—The Obstacle is the Way being my favorite

I love many things about Ryan Holiday’s books (I’ll write more onHoliday in a column down the road), but the one thing I’d like to point out here is that I am never at a loss for things to read after reading one of his books. I always end up with several books I feel I have to read next.

Levels of the GameSo I went questing to find books on Arthur Ashe. His Days of Grace is in my queue. But I spotted Levels of the Game on Amazon. I had enjoyed John McPhee’s book on Bill Bradley’s basketball days at Princeton so much I decided to read that next.

Arthur Ashe was in many ways the Jackie Robinson of Tennis. Except, as McPhee points out, there were many many good players in the Negro leagues that would have performed well in Major League Baseball, all things being equal. Which, of course, they weren’t. Jackie Robinson was chosen by Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers because he thought Robinson was mentally tough enough to endure everything that would be thrown at him—the angry crowds, the racism, the calls that would go against him, the physical cheap shots that players would take at him. But Arthur Ashe, as a black tennis player, was peerless.

So like the boxer, Joe Louis, who was a master at keeping his emotions in check in the ring, Ashe kept his opinions about the umpire’s calls to himself.  He channeled his energy into hustle and focus. Besides making him more fun to watch—not only are tirades not entertaining, they are are embarrassment to tennis, to sports, to all mankind—it kept his focus on what he could control, making him harder to rattle. He’s the opposite of bitchy players like Jimmy Conners or John McEnroe.

McPhee: “A person’s tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play.”

Levels of the Game is structured around the 1968 U.S. Open semi-finals match between Ashe and Clark Greabner. The book follows the points of the match, adding in reflections by the players on a moment by moment basis, as well as biographical information about their upbringing, their families and the paths that brought them to this match. Graebner is the all-American boy type. Strong and hard-hitting, handsome, and well respected by people in tennis including Ashe, who was a friend and Davis Cup teammate. Graebner is given equal time by McPhee and seems likable and someone you might rout for—except maybe against Ashe.

McPhee: “A tight, close match unmarred by error and representative of each player’s game at its highest level will be primarily a psychological struggle, particularly when the players are so familiar with each other that there can be no technical surprises.”

It’s hard not to like Ashe. He’s an underdog, has obstacles to overcome, his play is described as fluid. His confidence fluctuates, and when things start going right for him, he begins taking chances with his shots. McPhee, writing about a turning point in the match: “Ashe is now obviously loose. Loose equals dangerous. When a player is loose, he serves and volleys at his best level. His general shotmaking ability is optimum. He will try anything.”

McPhee successfully interjects their memories next to his description of the game. He shows how a point here and a point there, how just a few inches, could have really tipped this match. But the main thing you get out of this book is how Ashe’s stoic attitude gives him his best shot to win the match, win the crowd, the respect of the judges, and even win the admiration of his opponents. He deals with details but he doesn’t sweat the small stuff. He controls what he can control, lets go what he cannot. As the match unfolds and Ashe loosens up and his confidence grows—its an amazing thing to read. “Physically loose, and mentally tight” is totally how I’d love to live my life.


Sense of Where You AreAfter finishing Levels of the Game, I immediately reread A Sense of Where You Are, McPhee’s book about Bill Bradley’s senior basketball season at Princeton. First off, this is a really great basketball book. His descriptions of Bradley’s moves, the offense and defense of the game are precisely and eloquently done. He really zeros in on Bradley’s main strengths—discipline and concentration. McPhee describes how Bradley, not the most physically gifted athlete, deconstructs a move, his reverse pivot for example, breaks it into it’s component parts, then focuses on his footwork, then on the shooting motion, and finally putting it all together into a devastating, hard-to-defend package.

“His creed,” McPhee writes, “which he picked up from Ed Macauley, is ‘When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win.’”

Here’s McPhee description of Bradley’s warm-up routine: “In Philadelphia that night, what he did was, for him, anything but unusual. As he does before all games, he began by shooting set shots close to the basket, gradually moving back until he was shooting long sets from 20 feet out, and nearly all of them dropped into the net with an almost mechanical rhythm of accuracy. Then he began a series of expandingly difficult jump shots, and one jumper after another went cleanly through the basket with so few exceptions that the crowd began to murmur. Then he started to perform whirling reverse moves before another cadence of almost steadily accurate jump shots, and the murmur increased. Then he began to sweep hook shots into the air. He moved in a semicircle around the court. First with his right hand, then with his left, he tried seven of these long, graceful shots-the most difficult ones in the orthodoxy of basketball-and ambidextrously made them all. The game had not even begun, but the presumably unimpressible Philadelphians were applauding like an audience at an opera.”

Both books transcend a sports book categorization. The sport parts are precisely written and are informed by the biographical, psychological, philosophical aspects of the stories. These are books that a sports curmudgeon could enjoy. Finally, Arthur Ashe and of Bill Bradley are humans you can learn from. If you could work toward what they were really amazing at—discipline, focus, being fluid in the moment—you’d totally be a more effective, more completely realized human being. And your backhand or hook shot would be vastly improved.

The Liar’s Dictionary first appeared in Emergency Horse magazine 100 years ago!
With a tip of the hat to Ambrose Bierce.


Procrastination’s imaginary friend.

Acknowledged plagiarism.

Contradictory, contrary, opposite.
Archaic: a choice or possibility, as in reality or not.

One who pretends that excrement does not exist and then spends an entire evening watching it on television.

American Dream
Trivial pursuit.

One who talks about doing art.

The belief that although weather patterns cannot be predicted a week ahead, emotional states of humans as influenced by the stars, can.

A ceremonial washing of the brain.

Bible  A book that documents, in detail, our virtue and our enemy’s vice.

An American horror film about a petulant toddler who is mysteriously granted a wish by an arcade fortune telling machine called Putin Speaks and wakes up in the body of a 70 year-old orange businessman.

The name of a large religious cult composed mostly of the enemies of Christ, named so as to discredit him and cast his deeds into oblivion.

The day on which the capitalists celebrate the birth of their savior, Santa Claus.

A flag-hugger when he is at home watching television. A patriot with his mouth shut.

Gaudy and inarticulate but rich.

Acknowledgement of another’s likeness to oneself.

Government by the wealthy.

One who cannot speak.  Also one who shouldn’t.

A nut who has money.

Getting more than your sibling got.

Feel good
A type of book or film that causes one to feel nauseated.

Folk Music
A type of music, often acoustic, which extolls the sensitivity of the singer.

That which accompanies a purchased item.

God-fearing man
He who is afraid of what his neighbors will think.

God-given Talent
An ability which the creator of the universe has favored an athlete with so that he might buy swimming pool, drugs, and hookers.

Immaculate Conception
A conception without mess or pleasure, thus considered by Christians to be optimum.

A character in the Old Testament whom Jehovah made miserable simply because he could.
The word now means source of employment with the employer taking on the role of Jehovah.

The truth told by democrats as reported by republicans (and vice verse).

That which one affects in absence of having a life.

A term used on products to attract those who like to indulge and yet still be self-righteous.

A “recorded” event in which the laws of the physical universe are repealed temporarily.


Opera for Americans.

A collection of sounds used by business owners to express politely their contempt for mankind.

Any opinion differing from your own, reasonable or otherwise.


Time spent working over that which was allotted, for which the government is paid.

The maintenance of the status quo.

Performance Art
Any performance in which the art has been removed indelicately.

An activity similar to branding, differing only in that a brand is used to mark a valuable possession.

What idealists who call themselves optimists call realists.

Being overly susceptible to your cat’s atrocious needs.

Mythology with good propaganda.

To atheist heathens, one of the exemplar ways humans show love and affection for one another.
To the religious, how human reproduction is accomplished.

He who is acting as you would act had you the gumption.

Small Talk
An activity that allows those who have nothing worth saying to say it.

The sound of one hand clapping. See Zen.

An activity that allows Americans to watch television in different parts of the world.

Tourism’s embarrassed father.

Valentine’s Day
The designated day for romance invented by florists and gift card manufacturers to relieve people of their money one day of the year and their responsibility of romance the other 364.

Vanity Plate
A metal automobile identification handcrafted by criminals for idiots.

White Supremacist
A caucasian who, having discovered in himself no redeemable qualities, makes one of his skin color.