A ride on Electric Avenue
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Think lightning. The sky is a vast, black slate, and then suddenly splinters of bright, white heat rip and run to every corner. It's there and then it's gone, and you're left breathless, staring into the dark, waiting and hoping for the next burst.

Julius Erving
Watching Julius Erving twist his body around the basket was enough to electrify any NBA fan.
Think Dr. J in Game 4 of the NBA Finals in 1980. Think the baseline move. Picture the pop in his legs, the reach in his arms, the way he seemed to spread out and on forever and then disappear in an instant. Mark Landsberger, Kareem and the backboard were the night sky. Julius was lightning.

I hated those Sixers and loved those Lakers. It didn't matter. The Doctor singed my nose hairs with that move, had me swooning. I've never been more of a fan -- not of my team or his, but of the whole great, glorious game, and of the crazy new laws of physics he revealed -- than I was at that moment.

Forget what Lombardi said, winning isn't the only thing. There's the juice, too, the electricity. And, scoreboard be damned, we are what we are -- not just sports fans, but addicts -- because we know there are guys capable of throwing bolts like Zeus out there on the court and on the field, and we want, we need, to catch a glimpse of them when they light up the night sky.

What are we talking about? What was the Doctor peddling? What is the magic? What is the thing? Who has the thing? (What, am I David Mamet all of a sudden?) The thing is elusive, of course. It doesn't cozy up to labels or terms, doesn't sit still long enough to be done up in diagrams and definitions. Guys have it or they don't (plenty of great ones didn't or don't), and you know it when you see it, or, to be more precise, you feel it when you see it and you know it when you feel it.

Still, there are certain elements; there are notes we can take toward an understanding and appreciation, aspects of the electrifying that can be laid down:

Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders' jelly shake made many an NFL defender look foolish.
Electrifying is in the art of misdirection. It's in the fact that every aspect of Magic's body, from his eyes to his toes, is leaning left, and the ball is flashing right, and right into James Worthy's outstretched paw. It's Barry Sanders moving sideways and hopping back to get ahead, doing a jelly shake to make the other guy freeze, or standing still to make the other guy lunge and fall. We're a linear culture, by and large; we believe in the shortest-distance-between-two-points thing, and we tend to think progress comes by way of lowered shoulders and hungry eyes fixed on the horizon. Magic, Barry, Michael Vick -- these guys tie our straight lines in knots.

Think of somebody straight-ahead, somebody relentless -- maybe Jim Brown. He's great, he's impressive, we respect the hell out of him, he's a bad mother, but there's something recognizable about him, too, something in-the-box, if you know what I mean. Barry's burst is different; it's the light that shows there's something else, an outside-the-box.

Electrifying is about swagger, too. Muhammad Ali is the source spring on this. It wasn't just the speed (though it was the speed). It wasn't just the power (though, yes, it was the power). It wasn't just the bounce and the sweet song in his moves (though, of course, it was these things). It was the words, the sure, mad flow of his mouth. You wanted to talk the way he did or you wanted to shut him up, but either way his language coursed through your veins. He hadn't really shook up the world, but he thought he did, and there was something terrifically out-of-scale about that, something that made everything he did seem crucial.

Muhammad Ali
The swagger and rhythm of Muhammad Ali were extremely electric.
Electrifying is Doug Flutie scrambling for room and raring back like a catapult before launching one into Gerard Phelan's hands.

It's not (brilliant as this was), Joe Montana hitting John Taylor in stride in the closing seconds of Super Bowl XXIII.

It's AI but not Ray Allen.

It's Jason Williams but not John Stockton.

It's Jordan circa '87 more than Jordan circa '92.

It's separation -- open space between one guy and the field. You remember Secretariat, right?

Playing hurt is electrifying. Cue Willis Reed.

The Reed case is important: Electrification is in us as much as it's in the athletes we watch. It's in the collective soul (forgive the phrase, I know it's the name of a band we'd all rather forget, but it seemed to fit the moment; what can I say? -- it came to me in a flash) of the crowd. Our frenzy charges the particles, turns the little plays and small gestures into sharp, bright flashes. What Reed did wasn't electrifying in and of itself; it wasn't anywhere near as stylish and brilliant as what Clyde Frazier did that same night, for example, but what it meant to those fans in the Garden was every super-charged thing in the world.

Sammy Sosa
If Sammy Sosa is at the plate, you're definitely not changing the channel.
And electrifying is visceral. If you're not tingling, if you're not shouting out loud without even thinking about it, if you're not swallowing hard and running your hands through your hair like Pacino in "Dog Day Afternoon," you're just seeing something cool, not electrifying.

Electrifying can be a prodigious thing. There is a range, a standard deviation, let's say, within which most guys' best shots land. It's a wide range, from lucky-to-connect to routine-power. Then, somewhere way out beyond the far end of that range, out where men sit alone by campfires and sip black coffee in the wee hours, out past the Sea of Tranquility, where daredevils in air-tight suits plant flags, there are balls hit by Mantle, Jackson, Ruth, McGwire, Sosa and Bonds. Tiger, too.

But if you do want the essence of the thing, you'd do well to pay attention to intervals, moments just before and just after. Electrifying is anticipation and reflection. The silence while the ball's in flight. The gasp after the crack of the bat. These things are the thing.

And it's always, always an upset thing. Case No. 1, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" Case No. 2, Derek Wittenburg to Lorenzo Charles.

The Great One was grace. Grace is nice ... it ain't electrifying, though.

But you know what else the Great One was? Inventive. Pucks flipped up and over from behind the goal and such? That's a yes.

Speed. Speed is the thing. The thing is speed. Under all circumstances, speed sends a charge. Most of us are slow. That's why we watch; that's why we write. We are slow. We relate to slow. Slow makes a certain kind of sense to us. Bo Jackson turning the corner around left-end against the Seahawks on Monday Night and ending up in the tunnel 90-odd yards and the blink of an eye later? That's ridiculous, nonsensical, alien and electrifying.

Big men can be electrifying, but only if they're unusually fast. Por ejemplo: The Round Mound of Rebound, yes. The Fridge, no.

Charles Barkley
When a big man moves like a little man (i.e. Charles Barkley), it's a sight to behold.
You can be electrifying on a small stage, but nobody cares. Off the beaten path, brilliance is a curiosity, maybe a legend.

Electrifying is what happens on the big stage. Anyone and everything you can think of is a knockoff of Jesse Owens' thunderbolts and lightning in Berlin, by the way.

If everybody saw something happen and nobody can describe it, if it prompts nothing but head waggles and giggles, it's the heart of the charged-up thing. Vince Carter over Frederic Weis -- what are you gonna say?

If almost no one saw something but everyone's heard of it -- Babe Ruth calling his shot, Connie Hawkins swooping in Bed Stuy -- there is a great, nostalgic buzz about it, but it's more mythic than electric now.

Electrifying is a TV thing. You can't turn away, you can't turn the channel. You're in the middle of something -- it doesn't matter. You'll sacrifice food. You'll suffer the scorn of your beloved. You'll resist all manner of temptation. If you have to pee, you'll hold it, for however long it takes.

Here's what you won't do: Miss Vick dropping back on third-and-seven from his own 27 with four down linemen, two backers and a safety chasing him.

Electrifying is reverse-field runs. It's 28-point-deficit, comeback-capping, spin-move jumpers.

Lynn Swann
Lynn Swann saved his most electric performances for football's biggest stage.
Bicycle kicks.

Jerry West, U.S. Reed, Theresa Weatherspoon and everybody who ever hit a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to win a big game.

Squeeze plays.

Lynn Swann in Super Bowl X.

Lawrence Taylor in pursuit.

The Iceman.

In the end, it's the feeling, the stupid-happy rush you get when you're lucky enough to see something not just great, but totally unreasonable. It comes out of nowhere, it comes when you least expect it, it cuts against the grain of what you were sure would happen or delivers on a potential you could sense but couldn't identify.

You would (and you do) pay for the privilege of being close to the possibility that accompanies the chance that surrounds the hope that some wild shot of weird brilliance will flash before your eyes. It's why you watch, for the chance -- in the moments, days, weeks, months and years afterward -- to say, "Did you see that?"

Eric Neel reviews is a regular columnist for Page 2. You can e-mail him at eneel@cox.net.



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