The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Hillel the Elder, wandering the streets of ancient Jerusalem, accosted by a smart aleck stranger. “Rabbi Hillel,” the intruder shouted, “I challenge you to teach me the entire Bible while standing on one foot.”
Hillel didn’t hesitate. He stood on one foot and exclaimed: “Love your neighbor as yourself. That’s the whole Bible. All the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it!”
Hillel’s words reveal a universal morality. Every single one of the world’s religious traditions holds at its very core the same notion: That when we act on behalf of others, when we abandon our own selfish instincts and serve the greater community, that’s when we are most holy. That’s when we are doing God’s work.
It’s also the Tao of “The Brow.”
And remarkably, Anthony Davis’ deep and sturdy spirit of unselfishness is propelling him into the pantheon of American sport.
I’m often asked by my coastal friends how a Jewish pischer like me could win statewide election in an inner notch of the Bible Belt. It’s simple, I tell them: There’s only one state-established religion in the Commonwealth, and that’s Wildcat basketball. (Besides, Kentucky features some of the most rabid anti-Christian hatred in the country. Christian Laettner, that is.)
I exaggerate only slightly. As I discussed in my inaugural KSR column, it’s tough to over-estimate the spiritual connection between the people of Kentucky and our beloved hoops squad. On game day, much of our diverse and often deeply divided Commonwealth joins in one voice; we become a coherent and inter-dependent congregation.
Rupp Arena is the cathedral of our devotion, with its own set of religious rites. Consider the “Y”: After a group of cheerleaders contort their bodies to spell out the first seven letters of the state’s name, a special luminary remains alone at center court as the letter “Y”: the equivalent of a high priest standing in the middle of the Great Temple, reaching toward the heavens, bringing the blue-attired parishioners to their feet and lifting the faithful into frenzied revival.
When play resumes, this same community spirit is modeled on the hardwood. Coach John Calipari regularly recruits the nation’s top talent; but the Cats win only when Cal convinces his players to check their egos at the locker room door, forget about their personal scoring stats and work in the team’s best interest. This is another universal truth: The sport’s greatest icons — Michael, LeBron, Wilt — all earned their place in hoops lore only after they learned to surrender their own ball-hogging self-interest for the common good.
As Anthony Davis prepares to join this elite list, he already gets it. Maybe he was born that way. Or perhaps his bounty was born out of necessity.
What’s certain is that The Brow wasn’t born a superstar. Unlike many of his NBA contemporaries, Davis didn’t spend his childhood or even most of his adolescence lifted up on a hard court pedestal, coddled by ego-stroking, money-grubbing sycophants, grasping to exploit his inevitable celebrity. He didn’t have the chance to pick up all of the narcissistic habits that too often result from excessive teenage entitlement. His path to primacy materialized, almost suddenly, from the ether.
To put Davis’s supersonic career trajectory into perspective, consider where he was in 2009. This was just five years ago: Barack Obama was already President; Justin Bieber was already infamous; our cineplexes were already filled with X-Men, Transformers, and Twilight vampires. Unless you are reading this from your college dorm, you probably looked the same.
Not Anthony Davis. In 2009, he was 6 foot 3, a skinny high school sophomore point guard who had been recently known as “the little guy who would shoot threes from the corner.” Only one Division 1 school was recruiting him: Cleveland State. (Yes, the C-State Vikings are D1; they play in that powerhouse conference known as the Horizon League.)
In 2009, Davis wasn’t touring the country on the AAU circuit; instead, he was working out with his cousins on guard drills that his uncle had developed. He was receiving a solid high school education — the Perspectives Charter School that he had attended since sixth grade is a reputable science and math academy — but they weren’t known for balling: His junior year team finished 8-15.
And then…Anthony Davis grew. By senior year, Davis reached 6 foot 10, lit up the Chicago Public High School League (on a still-lousy team), and drew the notice of coaches, shoe sellers, agents, fans, boosters…well, everybody. You know the rest: McDonald’s All-American, first team Parade All-American, year-early projection as an NBA lottery pick, and of course, signed by the program with THE GREATEST TRADITION IN THE HISTORY OF COLLEGE BASKETBALL.
To recite Davis’ accomplishments in his magical 2011-12 season in Blue and White would insult even the most casual KSR reader. But here are some of the most instructive highlights:
That one of the most talented young men ever to lace up UK Nikes was principally hailed for his defense, only scoring an average of 14 points a game…
That his signature regular season moment was not some acrobatic slam dunk, but rather an iconic blocked shot, swatting away a John Henson eight footer with four seconds left to preserve a one-point victory over arch-rival North Carolina…
That in the NCAA championship game, on his way to being named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, Davis hadn’t scored a single point by halftime…
And that, as more often than not, the consensus national player of the year fundamentally controlled the choreography of the Big Dance through his unselfish passing, gritty defense, and imposing court presence.
The quiet, dignified, most-skilled athlete on an über–talented squad, Anthony Davis modeled Calipari’s symbiotic system from the moment he slipped on the number 23.
In short, the tall teenager was the ultimate team player.
The transition from teen idol to NBA stardom wasn’t easy. His first two seasons were plagued by crippling injuries and subpar teammates. But sometime last year, Davis had a counterintuitive revelation: That sometimes the most unselfish behavior requires more self-focused responsibility.
Cue again Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Last spring, Davis determined that the time was now. Force-feeding himself a heavy dose of self-confidence (and apparently, protein), he agonizingly built up muscle, furiously refined his offensive skills, and maybe even grew another inch or two. Last March featured a 10 game stretch in which he averaged 29.8 points, 13.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks a game. And this fall, after a dozen games, Davis is averaging more than 26 points and 11 rebounds an outing (including a monstrous personal best 43/14 Saturday), as well as nearly 4 blocked shots a contest. While Kevin Durant wears street clothes, Anthony Davis is now, almost out of nowhere, widely considered the best hoopster on the planet not named LeBron.
Anthony Davis’ basketball immortality will be determined over the next few years by his ability to translate his selfless spirit into true leadership — that is, the proverbial lifting up of his fellow teammates (or perhaps like King James, assembling a complimentary group of stars around him.) But ultimately, Davis’ success will rest on remembering how far he’s come — and grown — without the suffocating entitlement that too often consumes our young sports stars.
So every day, this bright young man grateful for his unique, late-blooming gifts, and dedicated to empowering the community around him toward mutual progress, will likely continue to leap forward, toward common higher ground.
And in doing so, Anthony Davis will provide a model for the rest of us.
That is the Tao of “The Brow.” All the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.