On Sports Time


On Sports

Photo: © 3asy60lf / Adobe Stock.

Michael Jordan is facing the camera. It’s May 7, 1989, and Jordan has just made the winning shot in Game 5 of the first round of the NBA playoffs. He is rising, effortless, his legs swinging open like scissors. Craig Ehlo, behind and to the left of Jordan, is sinking, crumpling into profile, making himself thin. Jordan swings his arm in sync with Ehlo; they are nearly perfect mirror images of each other. They hit the ground, magically, at almost exactly the same time, drifting in the same temporal current.

Time in a sporting event is, like accordion bellows, structural and flexible. On some throws the ball seems to stay suspended in the air for a long time, slowing time along with it, and accelerates as it reaches the players, like the moment the last of a liquid gurgles down a drain. On the TV of a bar in the Vienna airport I once saw a goalkeeper let a ball, leisurely struck, slip through his hands and go dribbling into the net; the scoring player swung wildly around, mouth tensed into a perfect circle, eyes blaring at nobody, kicking at the place he had just been standing as if he were abusing himself in the immediate past. A giftedly swift athlete makes others slow more than they themselves seem fast. Often, near the end of close games, time itself becomes a commodity, and infinitely valuable—where before the clock ticked on, ambient, it is now neurotically watched, brooded over, and stopped at strategic points. The moment of this transfiguration is variable, unique to each individual game, and sudden. All at once, it is late, and seconds are to be collected and held like a squirrel hoards nuts.

The annual cycle of sports is an orientating scaffold of my days. It marks and ticks time more viscerally than the calendar. Baseball inaugurates the thaw of winter and ends with the first chill breeze of autumn. When it is too cold for baseball, football surfaces seamlessly, and as the football season progresses, the weather gets colder and colder, descending into a sort of existential starkness. Great clouds of visible breath come streaming from helmets and mingle. Within the football season, Sundays are a center of gravity; in baseball and basketball seasons, the hours of 7 to 10 P.M. are bracketed, with holiday-flavored day games on the weekend. The sports year is a persistent forward motion, in repetition—reified time. Each event opens into and points toward the next, and as games happen they harden and are left dangling like chrysalis husks, becoming mere prelude to the present. Soon enough, the present culminates, selects a champion, and loops round again—another opening day, another Super Bowl—to smudge out the prior event, blur it into the undifferentiated past. As long as the center keeps moving, as long as there is another game and season imminent, the past holds almost no interest except as argument, context, or benchmark for the evaluation of the current moment.

So from March of last year, when the NBA suspended play, to the end of July, when the NBA resumed in a sprawling Orlando compound fortified against the world, there were no major American sports, and I was cut adrift. With little new to talk about except for equivocal, shifting estimates of when play might resume, sports media dug into their archives and filled the programming calendar with old games, which I began to watch obsessively, starved. (I tried, for a few days, to catch live games of the Korean Baseball Organization, airing at 2 and 5:30 A.M.) Sports television became unmoored from time. Switching from channel to channel was a hopscotch through decades—a kaleidoscope of uniforms, hairdos, pad sizes, and video quality. There were airings of games on their anniversaries, single days spanning the arc of one player’s career, faithful presentations of old series in chronological order. The television became, like Borges’s Aleph, a keyhole into the dizzying totality of postwar American culture. In a few hours, you could go from Whitney Houston in a billowing white tracksuit singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991 as the Gulf War kicked off, to an unseasoned Tom Brady, leggy and awkward as a foal, winning his first Super Bowl in the shadow of 9/11, everything star-spangled, to jumpy black-and-white footage of a batter trotting pigeon-toed around the basepath, fans in suits with rolled-up newspapers, to blurry pillar-boxed video of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird galloping in painted-on shorts, the hardwood color dimmed to a honeyed gold.

A live game is not only the event itself playing out across time but the feeling of that time, the expectations, the anxieties—inaccessible after the fact—and the ineffable charge and transformation that thousands of people expectant and invested and watching together impress upon an event, as a song is heard differently when found on the radio rather than selected personally. A game rewatched, alone and isolated from its chronology, is a different thing altogether, remote and indigestible. An old game is simultaneously complete, the outcome known or knowable, and undetermined, its meaning in part contingent on what is happening, and will happen, in the present tense of live play.

Yet with sports time stopped, the remoteness of these old games fell away, and I soon became heavily invested in them. In lockdown I would structure my day around them, as I had with live sports, and watch them from start to finish like movies, alert for foreshadowing, patterns, callbacks—the theme of the game, its moral. I began treating them as self-contained human dramas, rather than a procession of events that shed their interest as they happened. Knowing the final score of a game, I would watch for moments and decisions—seemingly inconsequential at the time, or the consequences unknowable—in which the outcome was truly determined. A player would miss a shot early in the game that I knew he would make at the end to win it—in the first failure I read the final success. A team would betray fear, a lack of nerve, in a game I knew they would lose, and everything after that faltering seemed to confirm it, the end result a flower sprouting from the soil of that decision. A player whom I knew went on to an undistinguished career would have one game, or even one stretch of time within a game, in which they played perfectly, transcendently. With the subsequent disappointment amputated, the inevitable return to normalcy and mediocrity irrelevant, the momentary greatness existed self-sufficiently. Players who now despise each other were laughing together. Players with no subsequent connection would, for one game, despise each other, throwing elbows and staring with visceral, time-collapsing hatred. A man, now old, would hang in the air for an extraordinarily long time, glide through other players like they were ghosts. There were some games whose details, even their outcome, I had totally forgotten, and I experienced them like they were new. Each game was interesting in itself, known in time but abstracted from its place in a process. No winner to be crowned, no tournament to move through, just an assortment of fragments shored against temporary ruins, each one of which could be picked up and admired. From outside time, with no present tense to flow into, all time seemed to be equally present.

Eventually the seasons picked up where they had left off, time began to whir again, and I gradually lost interest in the old games, a vestigial limb withering away. Once again, they pale in comparison to the present, and I am incapable of recapturing the immersion, like the sense and sensation of a dream slipping away. Yet when I watch a live game now there is the residue of the other way of viewing, a double consciousness—both following the game and thinking of how it will be seen when finished, filed away, and seen alone. Time is in part a human application.

Michael Jordan and Craig Ehlo are tethered to each other in the video for only a moment. After they both land, the camera moves in on Jordan, cutting Ehlo from the bottom corner of the frame, and Jordan stands alone, filling the picture, pummeling the air until his teammates mob him, and he moves. His team would lose two rounds later.


Matt Levin is a writer living in New York.