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Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP
Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP

The lessons are not always about sport

Three random encounters with sportsmen, pro or otherwise, yield surprising insights about the athletes' minds

The writer Rich Cohen has a new book out about the Rolling Stones. The rock band, of course. He has been a huge fan of the Stones for years, and The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones grew out of that passion.

Or so I assume. I haven’t read the book, though I would like to. But National Public Radio in the US recently interviewed Cohen about the book, and my music-loving sister in that country told me about it. It’s an hour-long interview; she asked me to listen to just about a minute of it somewhere in the middle. Because that’s when Cohen tells a lovely little story and it isn’t about the Stones.

Instead, it’s about Muhammad Ali. And it got me thinking about my own occasional encounters with people who played their sports seriously, and what I learned about them. Three such anecdotes follow.

Like a thinking cricketer who came visiting a few years ago. We talked about almost everything but cricket; a relaxed, enjoyable evening. When I was driving him home late that night, we got chatting about favourite books—in particular, Harper Lee’s magnificent To Kill a Mockingbird and Shashi Tharoor’s clever The Great Indian Novel. Then he looked pensive for a few moments. “Sometimes I feel disconnected from my teammates," he said. “Because there will be a book I have enjoyed, and I will give it to one of them to read, and he will flip through it and give it back, saying ‘hey, there aren’t even any pictures in this thing!’"

He smiled, and I laughed, and I don’t believe he wanted to come across as feeling somehow superior to his teammates. But I could tell it bothered him just a bit that in this one possibly irrelevant respect, he and they had so little in common.

Like the spinner who once played for India. A friend brought him to our home for dinner when I couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12, and thus too young to be familiar with his name. I was one pre-teen cricket nut in those years, playing outside the house every evening. This evening, no exception. The spinner saw me getting ready to go out and play and asked: “But where are you going?" When I told him, he asked if he could join the game. Flabbergasted, I must have muttered “Yes", because the next thing I knew, he was bowling to me.

And I couldn’t lay bat on a single ball.

Now, I was just a kid, no doubt. But even so, this was impressive. Years after playing for India, this man was flighting the ball and landing it precisely where he wanted, and then getting it to bounce and spin away from wherever I offered my bat. In my memory, the ball even spins both ways to beat my bat. Sure, it probably did not happen like that. But the exaggerated image is a fair reflection of how befuddled I felt that day. And through it all, he was dead serious. Even if he was bowling to a mere kid on a shortened apology of a pitch in a totally informal session, he was doing so with the purpose and focus he must have brought to far weightier games of cricket.

Strangely, I actually appreciated it, that he was not just goofing around with me.

Like the balding man who joined us on the basketball court one day. In those years, several of us, strictly amateur at the sport, would gather to play among ourselves once or twice a week. It was fun, always physically demanding too, but we held no illusions that we were playing with any great skill. That was only underlined when we took part in a small tournament and lost our first game 73-27. (OK, our opponents were all several inches taller than all of us.)

A young woman I knew well had her brother visiting. She told him about our sessions and he called to ask if he could play with us. He had an expanding belly, but even so, he immediately raised the average level of our game several notches. He made slick passes. He took and made shots that made us gasp. On either end of the court, he would position himself expertly for rebounds. And he was a tiger on defence. I had a few inches on him, which is the only reason I managed to score a few baskets over him. Otherwise, he made it nearly impossible for me, even leaping to swat away a few of my shots. Now a successful banker, he had not played for some years—which explained the belly. But it hardly surprised us when we learned that he had played the game for his college.

That evening, I met him at his sister’s home. “Thanks, pal," he exclaimed as I walked in, “great game today!" I practically snorted: “Come on, you are so much better than us, I hope we at least gave you a workout!" He shook his head. “I mean it," he said, “and who do you think was the best player today?" To me, he was—but I knew he wasn’t asking merely for me to massage his ego. So, I named the two guys our group generally acknowledged as our best.

“No," he said. “You were."

From a seriously good player, this simple no-nonsense measure of respect. I was thrilled, and even long after I gave up the game, it has stayed.

What about Rich Cohen’s story about Ali, you are asking? As even his interviewer says, it’s best heard from Cohen himself. The podcast is here—start at about 24.55.

Like I learned things about the three men above, you will learn something about Ali.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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