“Think you're escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.”
James Joyce was born on February 2nd, 1882. His father was a tax collector, his mother was a homemaker, and his siblings were dead. Growing up, this boy found himself in a unique situation relative to many of his time -- although his family was not of extraordinarily high means, his father was extraordinarily supportive of his son's literary side. To a level above and beyond most people outside the absolute pinnacle of the Irish social ladder. In fact, at the age of 9, the boy already had his first "published" work -- a poem on the death of Charles Parnell, printed among friends and officially submitted (although not accepted, much to the chagrin of many historians who'd like to read it) into the Vatican Library before the boy had even reached double digits. Promising, no?
As Joyce grew older, his situation changed. The world grew. His father turned to alcoholism, his family's situation crumbled around him, and Joyce became a man of the world. Or, more aptly, a man of the city of Dublin. He came to acquire knowledge much like children acquire candy or a collegian acquires alcohol. He learned and learned and learned, and all the while absorbed as much worldly experience a man could consume. And once he'd filled himself to the brim with knowledge, experience, and a sharp development of his natural wit? He gave a whooping breath, inhaled his surroundings, and spewed in a broad stroke the contents of his city. The result was a manuscript published under the title Ulysses, considered by many to be the greatest book of the 20th century. He was a modernist, an avant garde trend-setter, and one of the most influential writers of all time. Today, there's a semi-national holiday in Dublin based after his work. There are museums erected in Ireland in honor of Joyce's work. A cottage tourism industry. A pub in his name and honor. Essentially a national hero, at this point.
• • •
Derrick Rose was born on October 4th, 1988. It was a calm day, with temperatures in the high 40s and a slightly nippy wind. This calm was antithetical to the situation the boy was thrust in. Unlike Joyce, Rose all but skipped the younger "prosperous" stage of life -- his father walked out on the family before Rose was born, and as a child, Rose was left to be raised by his mother and three older brothers in the neighborhood of Englewood, Chicago. A bit of needed context: Englewood is arguably the most dangerous neighborhood in America. It features a poverty rate that consistently brushes 50%, massive gang infusions in just about every square of possible territory, and crime beyond comprehension to many. It's very hard to live in Englewood, and harder still to do so cleanly. Consider -- in a 5 month period surrounding Derrick's draft, 28 people were shot within the block surrounding the court Derrick learned the game on. Rough situation? Ridiculous understatement.
But Rose's mother and brothers persevered, trying desperately to give the young prodigy a life better than the one he'd been born into. They drove him everywhere -- Rose never had a practice in school without one of his brothers in the stands -- and actively picked schools so that Derrick wouldn't have to walk through multiple territories. Not to mention the media -- until Rose picked his college, the family refused to let him do interviews or sign with vicious street agents. This was far more necessary than the disconnected may initially think -- Englewood's violence isn't simply reserved for gang members, it also weighs heavy against those who inspire jealousy. At Rose's own alma mater, there was the teachable and tragic story of Ben "Benji" Wilson. Wilson was Chicago's first #1 ranked prospect in the sport of basketball. "Magic Johnson with a jumper." He too hailed out of Englewood, and he too went to Rose's high school. He began to get focused on in newspapers, media events, and national hype. It looked as though Wilson had a promising, wonderful career in his future.
Rose's family saw the tragedy. They saw the spectres looming around every dangerous Englewood corner. And they knew Rose's talent was special. So they did every single thing they could. They kept their tight-knit family afloat, propped him up, and gave him a shot. That was their lot, and they succeeded beyond all reasonable expectation. Rose's family deserves an astonishing amount of credit for giving Rose the opportunity to become the person he is. They offered the crucial support and love that greases the skids of a dream. And above all, they supported Rose. Held him up. Kept him afloat. Let him become his own man, with faith that the man would be true to their values. And, it must be said, Rose put up his end of the bargain, and then some. I don't want to bury you with anecdotes about how humble and wonderful Rose is -- you can find most of them anywhere.
But I will share one, because I've only ever read it in one place and it deserves special note. For Rose's first media appearance, he held a press conference to announce which college he'd attend. It was the first conference of his career -- Rose's family had learned from the lessons in Wilson's untimely death, and they curtailed his media appearances to an extreme extent. But for this press conference, Rose had a single request. He would not do the press conference unless two minor members of his high school team -- two of his best friends -- were able to use it as their own conference to announce their own college decisions as well. Neither made the NBA, nor were either a nationally-recognized player. Later asked by a related reporter as to why he was so stringent on demanding their presence at a conference that was supposed to be "his" day, Rose had an exceedingly short answer for him.
"They deserve a press conference too."
• • •
"I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book."
Once, over coffee, I asked an Irishman a misleadingly simple question.
"Is James Joyce the greatest writer who ever lived?"
Personally? I'd say emphatically not. There are three main prongs to a great piece of writing -- craftwork, creativity, and communication. While some (including a younger me) may take issue with how he does it, I don't think you can really argue that Joyce misses the mark on craftwork -- he's created some of the most intriguing and carefully-crafted metaphors that any writer ever has. Creativity? Come now. There's no one greater, at least from that regard. He essentially invented the western form of our now-common conception that stream-of-consciousness thought can actually improve our reasoning. It was rare in his time, and now it's a staple of reasonable thinkers -- that one's on Joyce. Not really sure how you can be more creative than that. But then there's the last one, and that's the bugaboo -- communication. And that's where my argument lies.
It's easy to talk about how brilliant Ulysses is in the abstract. It's easy to use your experience reading its highs to spread across the whole novel, and assert a constant stream of incredible brilliance. It's easy to be drawn in by his creativity, his intriguing concepts, his general ideas. But you know what? Honestly? None of that really changes the fact that Ulysses is effectively impossible to read on a single go-around. The book is about 300,000 words of disconnected, indirect speech. By one professional count, it contains more than 30,000 unique words, without counting the new words Joyce made up on the fly. The book's inherent in-jokes and generally over-explicit verbiage come back to haunt it, for new readers -- you regularly feel like a starving artist wandering a statistical conference, aimlessly frittering from room to room in search of something you can possibly relate to. Anything.
Because of this communication barrier, there's an element of overwhelming heft to Ulysses. To many readers young and old, it's a heft that makes it less a literary work and more a literary challenge. It's a giant, mysterious tome whose heavy pages and ornate structures are virtually inscrutable without layers and layers of complex analysis. It borders on the nonsensical, at times, and can drift into word salad on a moment's notice. It's not the most important quality, and it's not required to be great. But it IS required to be globally transcendent as more than a "great writer." You need to be able to communicate ideas on a level that people can understand. You can hardly hope to have a productive conversation if your audience thinks you're speaking in utter gibberish. So, no. I don't quite agree with experts who think Joyce is the greatest writer who ever lived. I'm not quite there, although I've come to appreciate Ulysses quite a lot more as I've aged as a reader.
But there's a point to this tangent. Back to the Irish.
The man I posed the question to thought for a moment. He looked into his coffee, sipped it, and smiled mischievously. He shook his head. And then he said something akin to this: "Nah. I don't think he's the greatest of all time. But I don't think it matters, either. He's one of the greats, and he's one of the legends. He's not quite there, but he's as close as any other. And who really cares if he's the greatest or not? After all, he's ours. He's MY writer. Better grasp on my soul than any writer his better, I'd say. So no, he may not be the 'greatest.' At least in any conventional sense. But he's mine. And sometimes that's all that matters."
• • •
It cannot be effectively argued that Rose -- despite his singular game, his startling feats, his humble grace -- is the greatest player in the sport. And even if he comes back fully rejuvenated in a season or two, he probably still won't be quite there. Too many gaps in his game for that, as of yet. Not a good enough shooter. Not a good enough passer. Et cetera, et cetera. Not to mention the other problem -- Rose exists within and for a city that has experienced exactly that. Nothing Rose does will ever stand up to six titles in eight years. Derrick Rose is not Michael Jordan, either, and in his stardom in Chicago, Rose often finds himself unfairly compared with Jordan.
But there's something Rose can do. Something that Jordan never could.
It's rather simple. He's a player who -- at his peak -- has the potential to give a picture of Chicago's best attributes so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth, it could be reconstructed out of the person and life of Rose. He's a player of hardship, hard luck, and hard paths. He's a player who worked for what he got and triumphed in the face of massive uncertainty and significant strife. He's a player who represents not simply his personal game, but also the city he came from -- he represents the American dream in a modern world and adds a hometown flair to his on-court dominance. His Chicago-style crossover, his apposite humility, his sea-changing athleticism -- Rose isn't simply a player. He's a concept. He's a man who triumphed over fate. He's a hometown hero.
And Joyce? Hobbyists like myself can doubt his work, and come up with reasons he isn't the greatest. But that's entirely besides the point to a whole score of people. To them, Joyce isn't just a writer -- he's their writer. In his roots, in his thoughts, and in his soul. Rose is similar. The wealthy, the vagabonds, and the transplants of Chicago alike can look up to Derrick Rose and see a man of impeccable principle and unimagined accomplishment. They can see his talent, his struggle, his gift. But most of all, they can see a reflection of their person and their journies. And perhaps, if they squint hard enough? A sliver of their soul as well.
Come back soon, Derrick. The game befits you.
• • •
"They lived and laughed and loved and left."