Getting to the heart of the cult of the ‘personality’

AHAB and Nemesis.

Gods and their letters.

When ‘personality’ in tennis means a term of abuse. Looking at the court.

Those terms, which mean very little strewn loosely around like that, come from a book I picked up last week, the New Yorker book of sportswriting, The Only Game In Town.

Those of you who know the New Yorker magazine will be familiar with the nervous poetry, the 5,000-word articles on Upper East Side playwrights, the arch cartoons, but there’s also sportswriting. And what sportswriting. Martin Amis is the man who wrote about tennis personalities like Jimmy Connors, asking readers to replace ‘personality’ with a seven-letter term of abuse involving an ‘a’, an ‘ss’... you get the message.

AJ Leibling is the man who wrote about Archie Moore (“Ahab”) and Rocky Marciano (“Nemesis”), a 50s boxing match story which reads like Damon Runyon describing the Trojan War.

The late John Updike, of course, wrote about Ted Williams’ last at-bat for the Boston Red Sox, when Williams refused to tip his cap after his final home run (“Gods do not answer letters.”), a piece so good that it makes sportswriters everywhere rub their foreheads and mutter under their breath.

What we didn’t know is that Updike wrote the piece ‘in a flash’, according to the book’s editor, David Remnick, so fast that it has earned a place in the ‘deadline hall of fame’.

To which one can only grit one’s teeth and think, a la Amis, that John Updike, what a... personality.

The phrase ‘looking at the court’ comes from another of the pieces in the collection, one by John McPhee, an essayist we lately heard about; when we saw a volume of his in a second-hand bookshop in Galway, we took a punt and were amply rewarded, though the book in question doesn’t deal with sport.

The piece in the anthology does: it’s called A Sense Of Where You Are, a profile McPhee wrote of a promising basketball player, Bill Bradley, in 1965.

Bradley’s excellence as a player wasn’t entirely founded on natural gifts. McPhee went to the core of the player’s training habits: these included wearing glasses with half the lenses covered in cardboard, to teach himself not to look at the ball as he dribbled, for instance.

Hence Remnick’s description of the ‘granular detail’ the writer discovers.

However, the eagle-eyed among you will have noticed our qualification of the term ‘natural gifts’ above. McPhee describes one of Bradley’s most outrageous ploys in a game – if he was closely guarded by an opponent then he would merely stop and look at the floor of the basketball court, baffling the guarding defender. A pass thrown to Bradley would be caught by him at the very last second, whereupon he would burst towards the basket.

Good sportswriting isn’t always about the striking metaphor or the pregnant simile. McPhee was as confounded by Bradley’s eyes-down approach as any opponent. He brought the player to an eye specialist, who carried out tests which proved that even when looking straight down, Bradley’s peripheral vision was so good that he could track the ball coming towards him.

He could pick up 70% of the movement occurring at the extreme edge of his field of vision, while most people are doing well to make out 40% of what’s happening there.

McPhee complimented Bradley on his natural advantages, only for the player to remark that he had spent years honing his peripheral vision – he’d walk down his town’s main street and try to make out what goods were in the shop windows out of the corner of his eye as he passed.

You’ll like The Only Game In Town if that kind of story appeals to you. If not... you’re missing out.

It’s dedicated, incidentally, to Roger Angell, the great New Yorker fiction editor, baseball writer, and my nominee for the title of best job in sportswriting. Since 1962 Angell has been sent to Major League Baseball spring training camps, tasked with writing a lengthy account of his opinions and impressions of same with no regard to grubby deadlines, an approach some people not a million miles away could learn from (If you’re referring to me, don’t forget you’re going to the Kilkenny press night again this year. It just feels like you’ve been doing it since 1962 – Ed).

Snort. Ahab and Nemesis is right.

* Contact:; Twitter: MikeMoynihanEx

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