April 28, 2011
I grew up in Montana, a state where high school basketball was a thing as strong as family or work, and Jonathan Takes Enemy, a member of the Crow (Apsáalooke) Nation was the best basketball player in the state. He led Hardin High, a school with years of losing tradition, into the state spotlight, carrying the team and the community on his shoulders all the way to the state tournament where he averaged 41 points per game. He created legends that decades later are still spoken of in state basketball circles, and he did so with a fierceness that made me both fear and respect him. On the court, nothing was outside the realm of his skill: the jumpshot, the drive, the sweeping left-handed finger roll, the deep fade-away jumper. He could deliver what we all dreamed of, and with a venom that said don’t get in my way.
I was a year younger than Jonathan, playing for an all-white school in Livingston when our teams met in the divisional tournament and he and the Hardin Bulldogs delivered us a crushing 17-point defeat. At the close of the third quarter with the clock winding down and his team with a comfortable lead, Takes Enemy pulled up from one step in front of half-court and shot a straight, clean jumpshot. Though the range of it was more than 20 feet beyond the three-point line, his form remained pure. The audacity and power of it, the exquisite beauty, hushed the crowd. A common knowledge came to everyone: few people can even throw a basketball that far with any accuracy, let alone take a real shot with good form. Takes Enemy landed and as the ball was in midair he turned, no longer watching the flight of the ball, and began to walk back toward his team bench. The buzzer sounded, he put his fist in the air, the shot swished into the net. The crowd erupted.
In his will even to take such a shot, let alone make it, I was reminded of the surety and brilliance of so many Native American heroes in Montana who had painted the basketball landscape of my boyhood. Marty Round Face and Tim Falls Down and Max Spotted Bear of Plenty Coups. Elvis Old Bull of Lodge Grass. Joe Pretty Paint and Takes Enemy himself of Hardin. Many of these young men died due to the violence that surrounded the alcohol and drug traffic on the reservations, but their natural flow on the court inspired me toward the kind of boldness that gives artistry and freedom to any endeavor. Such boldness is akin to passion. For these young men, and for myself at that time, our passion was basketball.
But rather than creating in me my own intrepid response, seeing Takes Enemy only emphasized how little I knew of bravery, not just on the basketball court, but in life. Takes Enemy breathed a confidence I lacked, a leadership potential that lived and moved. Former AT&T executive Robert Greenleaf, social critic and friend of Robert Frost and E.B. White, once said, “A mark of leaders, an attribute that puts them in a position to show the way for others, is that they are better than most at pointing the direction.”[i] Takes Enemy embodied this idea. He and his team seemed to work as one as they played with fluidity and joy and abandon. I began to look for this way of life as an athlete and as a person. The search brought me to people who lived life not through dominance but through freedom of movement, and such people led me toward the experience of artistic living. One of the most potent experiences of this came with the mentoring I received from my future wife’s father.
My wife Jennifer and I were in our twenties, not yet married. I was at the dinner table with her and her family when Jennifer’s father said something short, a sharp-edged comment, to her mother. At the time her father was the president of a large multinational sports-oriented corporation based in Washington State. Thinking back, I hardly noticed the comment, probably because of the chaos and uncontrolled nature of the ways I had previously experienced conflict. For me most conflicts revealed a simmering anger or a resentment that went underground, plaguing the relationship, taking a long time to disperse. I did not give her father’s comment a second thought until sometime after dinner when he approached me as I relaxed on the couch. He had just finished speaking with his wife over to one side of the kitchen when he came to me.
“I want to ask your forgiveness for being rude to my wife,” he said.
I could not imagine what he was talking about. I felt uncomfortable, and I tried to get him and me out of this awkward conversation as soon as I could.
“You don’t have to ask me,” I said.
But from there, the tension only increased for me. I had not often been in such situations in which things were handled in an equitable way. My work experience had been that the person in power (typically, but not always, the male) dominated the conflict so that the external power remained in the dominant one’s hands, while internally everyone else (those not in power) suffered bitterness, disappointment, and a despairing nearly hopeless feeling regarding the good of the relationship. Later in my family and work relationships I found that when I lived from my own inordinate sense of power, I too, like those I had overpowered, would have a sick feeling internally for having won my position through coercion or force rather than through the work of a just and mutual way of being. In any case, in the situation with Jennifer’s father, I felt tense and wanted to quickly end the moment by saving face for both of us. “You don’t have to ask me,” I said.
“I don’t ask forgiveness for your benefit,” he answered. “I ask in order to honor the relationship I share with my wife. In our family, if one person hurts another, we not only ask forgiveness of the person who has been hurt, but also of anyone else who was present in order to restore the dignity of the one we’ve hurt.”
From a relatively brief experience, I gained respect for myself and began see the possibilities of an artistic way of life free of perpetual binds and rifts, and free of the entrenched criticalness that usually accompanies such relationships. My own life was like a fortress compared to the open lifestyle Jennifer’s father espoused. I began to understand that much of my protectedness, defensiveness, and lack of will to reveal myself might continue to serve as a fortification when in future conflicts, but would not lead me to more whole ways of experiencing the world.
I also began to see that the work of an artist requires the ability to humble oneself, and a desire to honor relationships with others as sacred. In Greenleaf’s work, this takes the form of listening and understanding, and only the one who seeks to honor the inherent dignity of other human beings is able to approach people first by listening and trying to understand, rather than by needing to be understood. The artist embodies the beauty and depth of the beloved other equally through consolation or desolation, rather than approaching art through coercion, manipulation, or dominance. Just as “true listening builds strength in other people,” it follows that a lack of listening weakens people.
In basketball, to listen is to evoke chemistry and teamwork and unity and victory. In basketball, the beloved other is embodied in a collective engagement involving great cost, great responsibility, and great opportunity. And now that my life has entered a place where the grace of basketball gives way to the power of the written word, I wonder again what it means to truly listen. When reading a great poem, for example, I find the beloved other embodied in the heart or soul of the artist and given life on the page, a sort of covenant with humanity that is both vigorous and vital. For me the sacredness of this encounter occurs generally late at night when my three girls are asleep and the house has fallen quiet. Often my wife and I sit together at the kitchen table. She reads to me. Or I read to her. We read the poem aloud.
What does it mean then, to listen to art, and to the artists of our nation, and our world? What does it mean to listen to Alexander, and Alexie, and Browning, and Brontë, and Tolstoy, and Dickens, and the Kokinshū, and Sappho, and all the artists who commandeer the vessels of our dreams?
In the half dark of the house, a light burning over my shoulder, I find myself asking this question.
In my waking dream I see Jonathan Takes Enemy like a war horse running strong and fierce.
The question gives me pause to remember him and his artistry, and how he listened to something more.
The answer drives me deeper into life.
[i]Greenleaf, R.K. (1977), Servant leadership, p 15.
[ii]Greenleaf, R.K. (1977), Servant leadership, p 17.