Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Stepping to the Line

On Halloween of 2013, Phish debuted a new album's worth of material called Wingsuit.  During the set, one song that debuted was called "The Line".  As  Trey explained “Dedicated with much love to the incredible Darius Washington Jr, that song is about his experience when he missed those two free throws at the end of the Final Four Michigan State game. We love him, and we can relate." Now of course, in proper Trey fashion, he got the story details a bit muddled.  Washington played on Memphis for two years before turning pro in 2006.  In the 2005 Conference USA title game, his Tigers were 19-14 and needed a win to progress on to the NCAA tournament.  He was fouled while attempting a three point shot, his team down 2 with no time left remaining in the second half.  Washington proceeded to make the first shot and miss the next two.  Season over.  At the time, he was a 73.3 percent shooter from the line.
This is relevant:





Although perhaps not on such a large stage, every athlete has a similar story.  Every football player has the memory of a missed block that lost a game or a dropped ball that would have changed a game's outcome.  Every baseball player has struck out at least once at an inopportune time.  And every basketball player has missed the one shot that would have made all the difference.  When I was a senior in high school, I was in a similar situation to Washington: no time on the clock left, down two, against my team's rival and with two free throws that could possibly send the game to overtime.  Now, clearly the stakes were different and the stage was much smaller but we were a very good, state ranked team.  I went through my usual free throw routine: spin the ball out as I stepped to the line.  Bounce the ball three times. Set myself. Exhale. And I missed the first shot. I wasn't a great free throw shooter by any stretch of the imagination, but I thought I should have made those two shots.  I knew I should have.

Also, when I was in high school, a good friend of mine gave me a burned copy of Slip, Stitch, and Pass and recommended me to listen to it as much as possible.  This was in 2001, so the band had just recently gone on hiatus.  As an unabashed Pink Floyd fan, I immediately fell in love with the Mike's Song on the album with all of the "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" quotes. But something else was apparent in the music that I hadn't been used to in my usual listening habits. The guys in this band seemed like they were having fun. They didn't seem to take themselves too seriously. At the time I was listening to a lot of progressive rock (Yes, Rush, etc.). Those bands took themselves very seriously. But Phish was different. It was fun. My first concert was at IT in 2003. The joy I had when me and my three best friends drove up to Limestone from Syracuse was palpable. For two of us it would be our first concert but it would be all of our first festivals. Phish was back together and we were young and nothing could take that away from us.

When Washington missed that last free throw, he first fell to his knees and then fully to the ground.  His coach, John Calipari, was the first to reach him.  He helped him up to his feet and then eventually his teammates helped him off the court. During all of this, his father, Big D as noted in the song, was able to make his way to the floor to help his son as well. He had instilled in his son that if you have to cry, that's ok, just cover your face. That way other people don't have to see you at that moment. When failure occurs at such a pivotal moment, it's easy to hide. To give up. To give in. Instead, the elder Washington took his son to Beale St that night. He wouldn't allow his son to lose himself in the moment. When people saw him in Memphis that night, they didn't heckle. They didn't get negative. They all seemed to remember that Washington had a game high 23 points. That he was a nineteen year old kid. That there would be other opportunities for success in the future. And that's what he needed to see and understand so that his failure could be overcome.

When those failures come and you feel like you've let down your team, your family, your school it's hard to keep perspective. But I knew, that when I missed, it hurt like hell but it was going to be OK. I wasn't worried about my future basketball prospects (because they barely existed, two years of JV D3 basketball awaited me) or getting negative attention. I was already worried about the next game. Because other teams could use that knowledge (the missing of that free throw) as a way to try to get under my skin. So I practiced harder and made sure that my team would be successful. I'd like to say we won the state title that year but it didn't happen.  There's a cliche that states "It is not our successes but our failures that define us" but I don't really buy that.  It's neither our successes nor our failures that define us. It's our ability to learn from failures and make changes to overcome the deficiencies that led to our failures. 

IT, the festival, was in August of 2003. By Spring of 2004, Phish had announced that it was breaking up again, this time on a more permanent basis with no weasel-words like "hiatus".  I had seen more concerts in 2003 and in the summer of 2004 but Coventry would be the first time that the four of us original festival goers would be back together to see another show. When you're thirty, a year between friends is nothing but when you're 20 a lot can change.  We all grew slightly apart. All at different colleges with new circles of friends.  All at different stages in our lives. Thinking Coventry would be one last hurrah was optimistic at best but that was the way that we all felt. And straight from the start it was apparent that this would not be the case. The weather was terrible, the traffic was worse, and we were some of the few lucky ones that actually were able to get in.  Musically, the band was operating on four distinct planes at times it seems. The Glide still stands as simply grating to listen to and as Trey stopped the Curtain to note the band was in the wrong key and restart the jam I remember thinking "So this is how it ends".  Not with something new or breathtaking but with a broken feeling that things weren't correct.  Things didn't end up the way that they were supposed to.

After the Halloween show, Trey corresponded with the Memphis Flyer newspaper noting that the story of Washington was important to him because “It really spoke to me on a personal level, because I've gone through some difficult moments in public, too".  Clearly, this would seem to indicate his issues with substance abuse and subsequent arrest in 2006. But I think that with the bands new communal method of writing music for Wingsuit, it definitely has its roots in Coventry as well.  When I play basketball now and line up to take a free throw, I'm still a 17 year old kid with a chance to win an unimportant basketball game in high school and when I release the ball I'm a married 29 year old man.  I can think back of how I've overcome my inadequacies in various fields and pushed through obstacles to make myself a better person. How I was determined to not repeat past mistakes. How my ability to overcome my failings was essential in molding who I am today.  I feel Trey and the band as a whole must feel the same way when, in 2013, they are playing the most inspired Phish that I have heard as a contemporary fan.  I used to hold my breath when listening to a tape and would hear Glide or OKP start up not knowing how it would go, but now I can just smile.  I know the band and Trey has got it under control.  They remember where they've been and where they want to go.

It's important to remember that when a person or a group of people step to the line, they'll be exposed to the entire world with nothing to hide behind.  And although sometimes they will fail, other times they'll succeed wildly beyond their expectations.