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Ever imagine Red Auerbach as a general? Pat Riley as a commander? Absolutely, says Secretary of Defense William Cohen. In Court Vision, bestselling New York Times writer Ira Berkow interviews movers, shakers, celebrities, dancers, poets, and even a renowned chef on basketball. These uncommon observers share a common connection to hoops, often beginning when young. Distinguished and accomplished now as adults, they all glory in hardwood athleticism, personalities, and rivalries, their various perspectives revealing a true love of the game.
Abstract painter Frank Stella, even more than most, sees artistry in basketball: "There is a famous Caravaggio painting in which the head of Holofernes is held right out in your face. It's the same way that Michael Jordan used to hold the ball out in front of him, palming the ball, and tantalizing his defender."
Woody Allen, longtime Knicks aficionado and Madison Square Garden courtside resident, speaks of his own motivations as a fan. "Drama," says Allen, is what he values most. "Drama and aesthetics. I'm more interested in those aspects than in who wins or loses."
Meanwhile, the late Walter Matthau cared very much for who won and lost, particularly when he had money on the game: "I find working -- acting in a film -- easier than when I'm in the middle of a bet. When making a movie, you can have a number of takes to get the scene right. Whereas in a bet, it's that day, and you either win or lose. There's no fooling around. Yeah, it's a rough number."
Novelist Erica Jong, ever the sensualist, sees basketball a bit differently: "It's sexy to see these gorgeous young hunks jumping around for your benefit. I don't think Woody Allen would say that. But I think most women would. And I think there's something really visceral about getting that ball in the basket."
If not attending the games, many of the interview subjects prefer to watch basketball at home while listening to classical music. The players' movements and the music synchronize. Basketball, in turn, informs musicians' work. An orchestra conductor, glancing at a soloist, sees himself as a point guard.
Comparing the conditioning of basketball stars with ballet stars, celebrated dancer Edward Villella singles out the grace and agility of Kobe Bryant. "This guy is so economical in his moves, so smooth. He's got timing. He can change direction. He can go in two directions at the same time, which is another thing that ballet dancers work really hard at." His further analysis of Bryant's athleticism is downright mesmerizing.
Berkow's subjects, all from beyond the realm of professional sports, offer fresh metaphors and comparisons, far livelier than the hackneyed prose filling column inches in the sports section. Sharon Stone likens the chemistry between Magic Johnson and Pat Riley to that between Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. A famous psychiatrist contemplates Freud's reaction to Dennis Rodman. Meanwhile, Chris Rock boldly contrasts Allen Iverson and Shaquille O'Neal: "I think Allen Iverson is the best player in the game. You can say Shaq, but he's a center. Playing center is like hitting home runs from second base."
Though split on their opinions of Iverson and Rodman, the interviewees unanimously (save for chef Julia Child) deify Michael Jordan. "A person should act as an inert projectile once he's left the floor," explains Nobel Prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis. "Michael Jordan just might be floating."
The late film critic Gene Siskel, a season-ticket holder with front-row seats to Bulls games, recalled, "One time Jordan made a fantastic clutch shot against the Miami Heat, and their coach, Pat Riley, called to Jordan as he ran past him, 'You rat!' It was like something out of an old James Cagney movie."
As for Child, she lost interest in the game after her playing days ended and has never been to the Boston Garden or the Fleet Center to sample their cuisine. However, she does have a culinary critique of Fenway Park franks: "They were very good, but the bun had no character. The bun was kind of mushy, not very good at all. Oh, I had everything on it, but it still didn't improve the bun."
Brenn Jones is a freelance writer in New York City and a frequent contributor to Barnes & Noble.com.