Friday Deep Remix- Chris Jackson

Posted on August 10, 2010

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I can’t remember the first time Sports Illustrated came to our house.

I know it was a big deal. I begged for it for years; mostly, I think, for the free sweatshirt and cheap watch they gave as gifts for subscribing. Granted, the sweatshirts were all sized on the Paul Bunyan scale, and the watch told time with the idiosyncratic rhythm of a funk bassist.  But I didn’t care.  Before the Internet, before ESPN.com, Sports Illustrated WAS the Internet.  When I heard the news of our subscription, I almost certainly stopped reading my Myst strategy guide (more exciting than the actual game) and gave thanks. Sports were coming! To our house! Provided Dad threw away the swimsuit issue first!

I still have almost every issue at my parents’ house. For reasons unknown (what does anyone need with a 13 year old feature story on Dan Majerle?**), I still refuse to throw any of them away.  So now we have hundreds of back issues, and they’re reproducing like Fibonacci’s sequence.  The overflow has turned perfectly useful closets into fire code violations with 1996 NFC Previews inside.

**- Aside from the obvious academic value.

For a kid just coming into a deep love of sports, subscribing to SI was like having pure heroin delivered to the door once a week.  The cover of my first issue showed Emmitt Smith galloping with a football like he was escaping with the Lindbergh baby, 49er defenders falling off him like sailors going overboard.  For years afterward, like marking an anniversary, I would sometimes look up from the current SI I was reading and ask myself, Do you remember the first cover? Emmitt. Yes.

One of my all-time favorite SI articles is a Rick Reilly profile of Chris Jackson. In 1993 Chris Jackson was a 2nd year point guard on the Denver Nuggets. He was one of the most prolific college scorers of his era, playing alongside Shaquille O’Neal at LSU during his amateur career. He was an improving NBA player, the 3rd pick in the NBA draft. Reilly’s article chronicled Jackson’s daily battle with Tourette’s syndrome. Among other rituals, the disease forced Jackson to touch hot stove tops until they felt ‘right’, compulsively tie and re-tie shoelaces, and shoot jumpers in the gym until ten in a row swished the perfect way.

I read this article and my eleven year old, basketball-crazed brain immediately missed the point. I went out to my driveway, or the gym, and mimicked the scenes from the article. Ten in a row. Must swish perfectly. It made Chris Jackson good. In my mind’s eye I could see it happening just the way I read it. Every swish had to *snap* just so, and that led to hours alone outside, practicing my shot just like Chris Jackson. Even today when I play basketball, I sometimes feel a little tug to try the ritual again. Come on Andrew, ten in a row again, perfect swish. Try it.

No other article I’ve ever read in Sports Illustrated has stuck with me as this one has. Perhaps it’s because I lived a little of it, but that image of a perfect swish, over and over, has stayed with me through the years. Chris Jackson has long since left the NBA.  I’ve grown up too- 16 years have passed, and in that time I’ve read enough sports books to fill Jay Leno’s antique car garage. But I have never been able to forget the image of Chris Jackson on the hardwood, like King David, keeping his Goliath compulsions at bay with his slingshot jumper.

After a few seasons in the NBA Chris Jackson converted to Islam, and now isn’t Chris Jackson at all, but Mahmoud Abdul Rauf.  Sometimes, I wonder if he prayed during those endless practice sessions.  As he cocked his elbow, knowing that his malfunctioning brain would force him to shoot again, and again, and then again, I wonder if he cried out for God to heal him.  I imagine he did.  I wonder if each rebound he chased felt like an unanswered prayer.  I imagine it did.

Everyone remembers their first unanswered prayer.  Mine was to fall asleep at night.  I was a child insomniac in the era after the “experts” decided that bedtime whiskey shots were child abuse. Instead, I took doses of melatonin large enough to sedate an anaconda.  I bought enough relaxation tapes to make Spinoza Bear Co. the fourth largest conglomerate in the world and a full voting member of NATO.

None of those things worked.  I was one of the first people to ever hear Dave Ramsey on the radio- and if you think being a kid awake in the dark all alone is creepy, try it with someone shrieking “I’M DEBT FREE!!!” out of the radio.  I still remember lying in bed, asking God to please let me fall asleep this time.  This happened every night.  It still happens today.  God has never answered that prayer.

Unanswered prayer is the worm in the apple of Christian life.  Just when we thought we had God’s country fully mapped out, prayer reminds us that parts of it remain unknown to us. Despite our countless explorers and cartographers, there are still frontiers left, uncharted places in the spiritual universe where the edges of the world are blurry and the natives are mysterious.

In this way, prayer humbles us. We might perfect our morality. Our obedience can be executed with ease. And we may buff and polish our theology to a showroom-quality gleam. But something as simple as praying makes a mockery of our supposedly expert Christian efforts.

Just when we think we’re making headway, getting better, finally coming up with some prayers that actually work, something gives way under our feet. Our prayers go unanswered- sometimes, it seems, never making past the ceiling in the first place. They bounce away from us, as Chris Jackson’s did, and we’re left as he was: beaten, desperate, feeling foolish. Shouldn’t we be good at this by now? We’re alone in a room, eyes closed, hoping that our words and thoughts and feelings translate across the ether to the God of the universe, who sometimes seems to listen and sometimes doesn’t? What are we doing?

Our earlier Chris Jackson/King David comparison helps us.  Check out what King David said in Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish? My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief…..Do not stay far from me, for trouble is near, and there is no one to help.

Sounds raw, right? One of David’s greatest legacies is the record of honest prayer he left behind for us in the book of Psalms. To read David’s psalms is to be given access to a pool of candid moments, both ecstatic and despondent, between a real person and a real God.

And judging by the number of passages in other psalms similar to the above selection, he had no system for making those prayers work. In that sense, David experienced the same praying frustrations that we do. We are people whose A.C.T.S have not always brought back prodigal children, whose fasting regimens have not always saved broken relationships, and whose rosaries have not always delivered us from our deepest struggles. David lived through those same moments where he felt like he was shouting at nobody and his life experiences seemed to contradict the reality of a personal God. Turns out, we’re not the only ones who don’t know what we’re doing when it comes to prayer.

That begs the question, then: what good are the Psalms? Why study the prayers of a guy with so many unanswered ones?

True, if we’re looking for special combo moves to help us win at prayer- like some kind of spiritual Street Fighter game- the Psalms will not help us. If David knew any secret techniques for getting God to answer his prayers, he surely wasn’t using them, and if he was, those techniques were getting posterized in a big way.

Life with God is what we get from the Psalms instead- not a class on praying, but a portrait of a prayerful life, unanswered prayers and all. There is great value in this distinction. Through the life of David, God employs an old writer’s proverb: “show, don’t tell.” When writers ‘tell’, they rupture the connection between reader and story. The reader is no longer immersed in the story but is alienated from it, hyper-aware that they are outside, not inside the story. When writers ‘show’, they bring us into the story, allowing us the joy of participating in its telling by being fully present

French director Jean-Luc Godard once said of the relationship between a movie and its viewer, “Film is truth at 24 frames a second, and every cut is a lie.” As a portrait of a prayerful life, the Psalms are similar. They are truth at one verse per second, with no cuts. God preserves those scenes of one man doing business with Him by keeping lecturing, didactic elements off camera. There are no lists here, no PowerPoint, no “Five Things You Absolutely Must Do To Pray Effectively” to break the fourth wall. We watch David’s story and learn about prayer by entering into it imaginatively- by being shown, not told.

There may be no answer to the riddle of unanswered prayer. But a prayerful life itself remains essential to the Christian life, and Chris Jackson is our unlikely model for it. Each rebound in his shooting ritual may have felt like an unanswered prayer, but it was really a line from a psalm.

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