Ed. Note: The talented Jonah of TangledUpInWires.com fame is our newest contributor, and we couldn’t be happier. He’s also my brother, so whatever.
In high school, you find a niche. It may be soccer, or painting, or math, but suddenly, there’s this tangible skill that you have. Excelling at something as a teenager is different than excelling when you’re younger; there’s now actual stakes. Life paths open and close to you based on what you can accomplish and suddenly, when you succeed, you’re doing it in a somewhat grown-up context under somewhat grown-up pressures (unlike, say, a U-10 soccer team).
So you go to college and the pond gets bigger and maybe that’s it for your budding talent, but maybe not. Maybe instead of being the best painter at your school, you’re now one of the five or ten best. You meet other like-minded and like-obsessed people and grow and learn together. By the time you graduate, you’ve found this thing that sits between your talent and your passion and you’ve excelled among a town-sized collection of your peers at it in what feels, at the time, like adulthood. And you’re just getting started. That’s the important thing. On graduation day, poised on the edge of the future, your life seems unlimited. There are no current successes that are as rich and satisfying as the ones we imagine for our future selves.
Then you’re in the real world and suddenly, now, there’s thousands of people from little schools like yours, who are all good at the same thing and all have the same qualifications and potential. And now your priorities are shifting and suddenly, luck and context become so much more important. Maybe that VP who you were buddy-buddy with gets fired and suddenly you no longer have an in at the company that was perfect for you. Maybe you were so focused on the thing, and getting good at it, that you forgot that there’s a whole host of other abilities you need just to get to work and back each morning. Each day that passes, your potential becomes less and less relevant. People are no longer interested in what you can do, and they also don’t really care about all those things you did. All those achievements that, at the time, felt so big are now too small to be seen without a microscope. And those future successes, vivid and tangible to you, foretold by what you did in high school and college, are invisible and meaningless to the world at large. Out of nowhere, your unlimited life starts looking very limited.
This is the story of Anthony Randolph, who played for 6 minutes in Wednesday night’s Nuggets-Hawks game, who produced a Jan Vesely-esque statline packed with 0s and 2s, and whose career in the NBA, despite being only 23 years old and having just signed a 3 year, $6 million contract, is almost certainly winding down. Randolph excelled in high school, averaging 25 and 12 per night, and put up equally dominant numbers in college. He was drafted in the first round by Golden State and became an Internet darling thanks to flashes of unstoppable, barely-describable brilliance. In Randolph’s highlights, he chews up defenders off the dribble with a shockingly good handle, dunks on Yao and Yao’s entire ancestry, and displays a Lebron-esque propensity for blocking in transition (nothing has put my 2009-era taste in perspective for me quite like that last video, with Anthony Randolph dunking to the dulcet tones of The Cool Kids).
Randolph was so perfectly matched to where I was as a basketball fan and a person in the dawn of the FreeDarko/Twitter/blogosphere-era of fandom and the brave new world of instant YouTube highlights and think-pieces, that if he didn’t exist I’d have probably had to build him (or wait for Perry Jones to come along). He succeeded in limited minutes, at least according to advanced stats like PER which had him as an above-average player for each year he was in the league, but he bounced from team to team as highly respected coaches like Mike D’Antoni, Rick Adelman, and now George Karl grew frustrated with him. Other players got the big minutes, Randolph got tossed into trades to make the salary work or released into free agency. What started as a boom became a fizzle and, on Wednesday, was finally reduced to “Oh wow, there’s Anthony Randolph.”
There is a trite, Rick Reilly version of this story about how being a good member of the team, working hard, and doing the little things are immeasurably more important than talent, but come on. For me, it comes back to what I was talking about at the beginning. Nothing feels realer than our potential and, paradoxically, it makes our actual achievements pale in comparison. Anthony Randolph is a millionaire who had the opportunity to play basketball at the highest level, just like Tommy Hanson is one of the 200 best people at throwing a baseball in the entire world right now and Cam Newton is a Heisman Trophy winner and national champion.
None of that matters though, when you’ve been lapped by younger and hungrier players, when your body has failed you, when your priorities have realigned, when you left college and entered the worst economy since the Great Depression, when the company cut 5,000 jobs to increase the profit margin and yours was one of them, or when you woke up one day and simply realized the life you thought you wanted wasn’t for you. I may not know what its like to try to make it in the NBA (and I’m lucky enough not to work in a field that demands 25-year-olds to reach the peak of their abilities and considers 30-year-olds to be declining veterans), but I know what its like to imagine things for myself that didn’t come into being, I know what its like to feel potential and ability burning inside of me without having the outlet for it, and I know what its like to miss out on That Thing again and again. Time clarifies and distorts our lives; it gives us hope but it takes away satisfaction. We are all Anthony Randolph, and we will all be swallowed whole by the weight of our hypothetical achievement.