MICHAEL MOYNIHAN: A helping hand to understanding sports stars

It’s funny to consider how much talk there is about hands in Irish sport once you concentrate on it, writes Michael Moynihan

Picked up one of my favourite books the other evening, though I couldn’t say I had full control of it in the early part of our encounter.

I tried to flick it open while holding it by the spine at the same time, but the weakness of my grip and the shortness of my fingers left me down, and meant it slipped to the ground.

It was The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam, and my handling of the book is relevant because it’s about basketball players and the NBA of the late seventies, and one of its core messages seemed to be that hand size was everything.

Halberstam quotes terse coaching reports - ‘good body’ ‘doesn’t tire’ - but always comes back to focus on hand size. The star of the time was Dr J, Julius Erving, whose eminence was such that his opponents were specifically warned not to get distracted by looking at him on the court too much, or his sheer brilliance would allow the game to pass them by.

Halberstam focuses on Erving through an opponent, Bobby Gross, and Gross’s identification of Erving’s great advantage: “It was not just the leaping ability. It was The Doctor’s hands. They were huge and yet surprisingly delicate, with extremely long fingers . . . they allowed him to hold the ball lightly and yet still control it, to do tricks with the ball . . . in ways denied mere mortals with mortal hands.”

It’s funny, then, to consider how much talk there is about hands in Irish sport once you concentrate on it. Good hands. Soft hands.

A great hand on him.

One of the stellar lines from Tony Wall’s great book on hurling is the Tipperary man’s simple, two-word tribute to a good hurler: great hands.

Unlike Dr J, it’s not just about size, though I have a memory of shaking rugby player John Hayes’ hand one time and my own vanished into his mitt, up to the mid-forearm.

The eulogy to Erving’s vast paws also reminded me of the old legend of baseball player Johnny Bench, reputed to be the only man who could hold seven baseballs in one hand. Try it with tennis balls and you’ll get the idea. Though nothing comes close to Niccolò Paganini, the Italian violinist credited in legend with an 18-inch span between thumb-top and the tip of his little finger.

That said, boxer Andy Lee’s hands didn’t seem particularly imposing the evening he was at the same table as me, though that may have more to do with my expectations ahead of the fact.

Which reminds me in turn of an old saw about shaking a boxer’s hands: you never squeeze hard to show how tough you are. Those are his work tools, after all.

See? You get talking about hands and it never stops.

Hands can show the mileage, too. The likes of George O’Connor and DJ Carey, to my memory, have hands that show what happens when you’ve been targeted by opposing hurlers for 20 years. Most hurlers have a dent across a finger or a missing knuckle as evidence of a loose pull, all those years ago.

Does it seem strange to become obsessed with sportspeople’s hands? Halberstam has you covered: “It was odd, Gross suspected, for a player to be as fascinated with another players’ hands, but Julius Erving had beautiful hands.”

Not as odd as you’d think.

Wrestling with legend of Andre and Becks 

It was Samuel Beckett’s birthday last Friday — yes, the 13th — but you needn’t worry. I won’t inflict the nine millionth reference to failing and failing better you’ve read in the last 12 months. Why does nobody ever quote him the time someone said he was British (“Au contraire,” Beckett said, which is perfect in all sorts of ways). Anyway a pal reminded me that the Andre the Giant documentary aired recently on HBO makes no reference to one of the all-time great Beckett stories, that he chauffeured the vast wrestler around when he was young and of a manageable size (Andre, not your man). I’m not holding up HBO as ultimate arbiter of what is or isn’t true, but it strikes me as too good a story for any documentary to omit, which in turn makes me wonder if it was tested and found to be resistant to verification. A pity. You’d like to think the universe once put the two lads into the one Citroen 2CV. If only for the conversation between the pair.

Gooners’ rep goes down the tubes 

I was in London the week before last and popped on the Tube many a time in the couple of days there. Yes, yes, it probably gets fairly dreary if you’re using it five days a week going to work, but it’s a pretty impressive facility if you just need to get around the city.

Mind you, I had the kids on the Tube the evening Arsenal played CSKA Moscow, and a couple of chaps in red and white scarves hopped on and started discussing the match.

To be precise, they were assassinating Arsene Wenger’s character in language that made me cover the kids’ ears.

After five minutes of vitriol I was asking random strangers to cover my ears.

My sensitivities are not so delicate that I needed smelling salts because I heard a few ripe phrases, I raise the matter here because the vehemence was surprising.

I suppose I associate Nick Hornby’s fatalism with Arsenal fans, a kind of Eeyoreish resignation which is obviously a lazy assumption about a vast number of people. And one which didn’t survive a couple of stops on the Piccadilly Line.

Ehrenreich’s vision of the end irresistible 

I don’t own it but I plan on picking it up as soon as I see it, and that’s Barbara Ehrenreich’s newest book.

I first became aware of her work with Nickel and Dimed, in which she took on low-paid jobs in the US to see if she could survive on those wages (not very well, it turned out).

She’s written others, like Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (“I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness... and the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking”). One of the weekend papers called her a great iconoclast, which is the kind of greatness we can all get behind.

Now she’s written about the end. Natural Causes contains passages like this: “We persist in subjecting anyone who dies at a seemingly untimely age to a kind of bio-moral autopsy: Did she smoke? Drink excessively? Eat too much fat and not enough fibre? Can she, in other words, be blamed for her own death?” How can you resist?


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