The Artist and the Athlete

I've always been in awe of artists. I'm not one myself, but am sufficiently right-brained to appreciate art and the creative process.

My True Colors test suggests that this is because I am predominantly green and thus appreciate competency in any form, which is true. But it goes deeper. I've always held a special place for creative people — their ability to turn nothing into something is a trait I greatly admire.

The dominant belief in society today is that sport and art are about as completely opposite as possible. This is no doubt due to the social structures of one versus the other (ie. competitive versus cooperative) and the resultant political tendencies of the two groups.

I've always felt, however, that there was a great deal more common ground between the two than either camp let on. And the first place to uncover these shared experiences is improv.

As my university basketball coach was fond of saying, "if you want to become a player, you gotta play." This meant countless hours of pickup basketball in the summer with anybody that would show up to the gym. Games to 7, defence calls the fouls, winners stay. Obviously there were mixed results, varying between successes and failures on both a personal and team level.

Many times I wondered with envy why I couldn't jam like jazz musicians are so often wont. Then I finally realized that jazz musicians probably thought the same thing about pickup basketball players. It's the same thing! Both create with a loose set of rules and peers that bring myriad skills to the mix. Where the jazz ensemble offers a pulsing bass to complement a burning sax, the cagers counter with sweet guard penetration for a no-look bounce pass to the backdoor cutter. Sometimes there's successes, sometimes there's failures. It's the same thing…

(Is this a possible reason — besides race — for the link between basketball and hip-hop culture?)

Athletes and artists are cautiously approaching the middle ground., the now-defunct web site devoted to all things basketball, broke serious sport media ground by covering pickup games from influential playgrounds across the U.S. It marked the first time that the general public could bear witness to some of the great basketball improv sessions (don't give me that shit about the NBA All-Star Game, probably the most scripted event of them all).

(More on later)

On the other side of things, improv art is becoming more athletic. Case in point: the Just for Laughs Improv Championships. In each game, two teams go head-to-head in a series of improvised skits, chosen by the "referee." The studio audience judges the winners of each skit and the overall match, with teams from Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, New York and Chicago.

We have seen digital technology alter the experience for the consumer for years, and we are now starting to see it creep in at the level of the performer. But no matter how sophisticated the AI becomes, it will be impossible to perfectly capture the star experience; no code or formulae will ever be able to duplicate creativity.

And that's what elevates the truly timeless athlete above the others: the ability to improvise, reinvent or otherwise create.


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