A novelist / playwright ponders the impact sports, and comedy, has had on his craft…
by: Jonathan Marcantoni
One of the most amazing spectacles I’ve ever witnessed was Michael Jordan’s final game in the 1998 NBA Finals. Injured, exhausted, finding himself fourteen seconds from having to play a Game 7 to the Utah Jazz who, over the course of the game, were more energetic, youthful, and had they gotten that Game 7, may very well have prevented the Bulls from completing their second three-peat. Pivotal members of the Bulls, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen, were both hurt, and would have been hobbled in that possible Game 7, and so Jordan reached deep into his competitive heart, and with time running out, took what would be his last shot as a Chicago Bull — and made it with five seconds remaining, just enough to pull off the win. The second 3-peat (something that has only been done one time prior, in the 1960s with the Boston Celtics dynasty, and never since) was cemented, and with that Jordan’s legacy, and the shot became forever iconic.
What stays with me about that moment is what touches most people who are familiar with the Jordan legacy — it was by far the most contentious, difficult year of the Bulls’ dynasty. All hoop fans were well aware that NBA commissioner David Stern and Jerry Krause, GM of the Bulls who had become jealous of the fact that Jordan and coach Phil Jackson received more credit for their championships than he did, were plotting to break up the Bulls’ dynasty. Many athletes would have given up with that in mind, or at least allowed that Game 7, but no — Jordan hobbled himself onto the floor and sealed his legacy.
In the arts world we don’t talk enough about sports. For many artists, sports is something to turn their nose up at because of memories of high school bullies or a deep-seated resentment that sports programs always were allocated more money than the arts. I have always disliked this tendency, since I was an athletic child, playing soccer and having five years of Taekwondo and Kempo under my belt. I felt even in high school that sports has a lot to offer to artistic expression: personal drive, facing challenges with a calm mind, persevering regardless of how painful a failure can be, teamwork, collaboration, communication. And, the snobbish attitude towards sports from those in the art world always came to mind whenever I noticed how much the arts can often lack teamwork, collaboration, and communication.
The Jordan moment has stayed with me as I’ve struggled with professional disappointments, especially this year, when I have been unable to secure a full time job and the work I do get has been plagued with difficulties. When will the struggle end? Am I cursed? Am I not good enough? What do I lack that other people who are regularly posting their IG friendly vacations and appear to have endless disposable income (which in Denver, feels like every artist but me has unlimited wealth and goes on twenty vacations a year)?
Yet comparison is the killer of joy for a reason — it is not based in reality but rather our perception of reality in relation to whatever struggle we are going through. But when Jordan willed himself to take that final shot, he didn’t obsess over how Karl Malone, his main rival on the Jazz, had controversially won the NBA Most Valuable Player award the year before over him. He didn’t bemoan the Bulls losing two of its best three players to injuries in the span of one game. He didn’t obsess over the shoulda-woulda-couldas. He just took the damn shot. And won.
I cannot tell you how many talented people I have known who held back when things got tough. I can’t tell you how many writers I know who folded and retreated into academia instead of pursuing their dreams. I can’t tell you how many performers I’ve known who quit the moment things became challenging.
I remember in college in Atlanta, there was a guy who was the golden boy of the theatre department. Everybody talked about how famous he would be one day. The next Matt Damon, they’d say to his face. He’d openly talk about how he’d get an Oscar and a Tony in no time, and the professors backed up his bullshit. I never thought he was all that good. Like most golden boys (and girls), whatever talent he had originally had been watered down with the laziness of believing one’s own hype. He moved to New York City a week after he graduated, and by November of the same year he was back in Atlanta working as a teacher’s assistant, trying to downplay how badly he had bombed in NYC. He was left attempting to convince anyone who would listen (and I’m sure, himself) that he was meant to be a teacher instead of being on Broadway.
That same year, I went to Tower Records to see a special appearance by the comedian and actor Eddie Izzard. He was doing a signing of his DVDs and CDs but opened the night with a twenty minute set followed by a brief Q&A. Like all successful people, he received a question about advice he would give to those aspiring for a career like his, and I’m sure he had been asked this a million times before, yet he didn’t respond like it bothered him at all. My memory is that he seemed to take the question seriously and said plainly that perseverance is the key. That you’ll be rejected a billion times, but those that push forward are the ones who succeed.
Perseverance through failure is perhaps the most relevant intersection between sports and the arts. The difference is that in the arts, failure is rarely talked about. At least, it is not addressed nearly enough. Failure is discussed in sports all of the time, especially how necessary it is to eventually be successful. Success tells you what you are capable of. Failure tells you how to appreciate and grow from your success, instead of being a victim of it like my former classmate. Most of our lives are spent failing at what we strive for, the ones who fortify their will and focus their mission as a result can have success, and those who fear failure will stay in a comfortable prison of their choosing.
When Jordan took that shot, it was with the knowledge that he could fail, and that he had failed in the past (Jordan critics always bring up the 1988-90 Detroit Pistons whooping his ass in the playoffs as some sort of evidence that he wasn’t the greatest, instead of recognizing that greatness comes from the fact that he lost those playoff runs yet persisted to the tune of six titles in eight years), and yet he persevered. Never giving up is what makes him a legend, not the titles.
When I was teaching the developmental classes for my Emerging BIPOC Playwright’s Project this year, I told the writers that one must always prepare for success and for failure. That to deny the possibility of failure sets you up to never learn and grow. At no point did I say to expect or dwell on failure, just to acknowledge it and embrace the possibility. For me it was always a lesson in humility. Theatre artists in particular are subject to so many factors outside of our control — the weather, other people’s plans, competition from around the city for other events — that we need to appreciate those who do choose to see our show and also understand the need for direct and consistent marketing in order to compete in a crowded marketplace.
Yet one of the writers, who ended up not finishing the program, expressed his distaste for my perspective. He told me he “refuses to consider failure” and that he’d rather focus on success, believing that positivity attracts positive outcomes. This idea may have some truth to it, but is also hubristic and entitled. We do not deserve for people to show up, we have to earn it. Sadly, his perspective is one I see running rampant in the literary and theatre arts. The pressure to present a successful online brand means that many artists go above and beyond to portray themselves as successful at all times (hence my assumption that everyone in the Denver arts world is wealthy; they aren’t talking about struggling to pay the rent or cancelled commissions or small audience turn out — that may hurt their brand).
One area of the arts that does regularly discusses failure and how to push through it is stand up comedy. Comedians will often talk about their defeats — whether bombing onstage or a movie crashing and burning opening weekend. We see this plainly in John Mulaney opening up about his drug addiction in his most recent special, Baby J. One of my favorite podcasts is Neal Brennan’s Blocks, which focuses on comedian’s personal struggles and how to overcome them. I wish that the discussion of failure and how to learn and benefit from it was talked about more in the writing world. Conferences and workshops always focus on success and moving up, but not on the vulnerability of a fragile ego in an indifferent world. I know I can come across as pessimistic when discussing the literary world, and much of my writing does focus on failure, but not in a morbid way where no good can come of anything — failure is an important part of life, and if we don’t have a good relationship with it, then we will give in to despair and failure ceases to be a temporary state of being and becomes a definitive identity.
Sports and comedy have taught me about the importance of persistence and believing in yourself, not because you’re unassailably awesome, but because you strive to be no matter what comes your way. You dust yourself off from your challenges and setbacks and get back on the court, even if you’re on one leg, and will yourself, running on fumes, exhausted, with a history of mistakes and shortcomings bearing down on you, and take the fucking shot. Because the only reason you have this opportunity is that whenever the chips are down, you bet on yourself, and win.
Jon Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican novelist, playwright, and now producer of Flamboyan Theatre, which develops BIPOC plays for a 21st century audience.