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Obama's Jump Shot For The Ages

Now we know why Barack Obama
spent so much time in the gym those last days in Chicago
before taking off for Afghanistan.
He was practicing jump shots, preparing for the sensational 25 footer he sank
in the Kabul
gym in front of cheering US troops.

All practitioners prepare.
Professionals are defined as much by preparation as practice. Great
professionals practice as Obama does, their focus on key moments, striking,
often unexpected occasions and opportunities. ("Photo ops" is the vulgar phrase.)
The great practitioner takes a longer view than the people around him. The
fine, diligent New Yorker piece by Ryan Lizza about Obama making his
slow, challenged way to political office in and through Chicago shows him learning the ropes and
continually abandoning them for other ropes, other learning, other modes of
advancement. The same goes for his negotiating with University of Chicago law
deans and professors who wanted to recruit this brilliant, attentive young man,
one going so far as to tell him after a political defeat that he had no future
in politics but might well have a great career in the academy and then perhaps
as a public intellectual, a la Judge Richard Posner. Obama accepted an office,
a stipend, and some lecturing on constitutional law, but nurtured his political
career, his long view, as he wanted.

Because of the recent Wimbledon tournament, I think of Richard Williams, seeing
the money and glory earned by women tennis players, buying a book on the sport
in order to learn it and then working thousands of hours with two of his
daughters to make them international champions.

These are great triumphs of
practice and professionalism. The knowledge of oneself, the people around,
contemporary conditions, and future possibilities is so great for both these
men--one is tempted to use the word genius for them. The basketball shot that
Obama made in that gym was photographed and sent around the world. I expect
that it will become what is too frequently called "iconic," and will be found
in history books or their digital equivalents for a long time.

This week I reread a
marvelous book, 50 years old this year. It is the Prince of Lampedusa's only
novel, Il Gattopardo--The Leopard. It is about the last days of such Sicilian
aristocrats as the extraordinary 19th century prince, Don Fabrizio de Salina,
as Garibaldi's 800 red shirts invade the island and tumble the feeble Royalist
troops of Fabrizio's helpless acquaintance, King Ferdinand. Fabrizio's
knowledge of his friends and family--particularly his beloved, princely but
impoverished nephew Tancredi--is matched by a remarkable and remarkably
articulated sense of his land, Sicily, and its people, particularly such
shrewd, bourgeois-graspers as Don Calogero Sedara, whose wealth and the
mind-boggling beauty of whose daughter will give Tancredi if not a princely
life like his uncle's, but one as close to it as the new era permits. Shortly
after the triumph of the Victor Emmanuele regime, which will unite Italy into a
single state, a representative of the regime, a wise old Piedmontese
aristocrat, Chevalley, is sent to invite Don Fabrizio to become a senator and
thus help determine the bright future of his part of the new state. Don
Fabrizio courteously declines the offer and then shares what he knows and feels
about Sicily,
knowledge and feeling which help explain his decision:

In Sicily it doesn't matter if things are done
well or badly; the sin, which we Sicilians never forgive, is simply that of
‘doing' at all.... Sleep, my dear Chevalley, sleep, that is what Sicilians
want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even in order to
bring them the most wonderful gifts.... All Sicilian expression, even the most
violent, is really wish-fulfillment: our sensuality is a hankering for
oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death; our laziness, our
spiced and drugged sherbets, a hankering for voluptuous immobility ... novelties attract us only
when they are dead, incapable of arousing vital currents; that is what gives
rise to the ... constant formation of myths ... which are really nothing but sinister
attempts to plunge us back into a past that attracts us only because it's
dead.... Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think
themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery...[what] we
ourselves call pride in reality is blindness.

Richard Williams and the
even more eloquent Barack Obama may never express their knowledge of what
surrounds or nurtures them as richly or poetically as Lampedusa's Gattopardo,
but I think each understands the obstacles before them with some of the same
profundity and originality. This is some of what underlay both this year's
Wimbledon women's final and the wonderful three-point shot which Barack Obama
made before the troops, the American voting public, and history this week in Kabul.

--Richard Stern 

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