El Pepe, Lebron, and Trump:

Sports, Literature, and Interpretation


Ronald A. Sharpe

As a child, I read very rarely. I was a good student in school but I was not a reader. My passion was sports, which is why the only book report I remember writing in elementary school was about The Babe Ruth Story, and even that I copied mostly from the book flap. I read some of those old biographies of famous people like Abe Lincoln and Daniel Boone that lined the shelves of our school library in their dull orange bindings. But I was too busy playing baseball or memorizing the batting statistics of major league baseball players to spend time reading.

In my senior year of high school I had already applied to college and been accepted at Syracuse University’s School of Journalism, where I was planning to get a degree in journalism so I could become a sports writer. But by the time my freshman year rolled around, I had already briefly encountered a whole other world out there: a world of books and films and folk songs — of Salinger, Fellini, and Dylan — and the new world that seemed to be opening with the rise of JFK. I was already questioning whether becoming a sports writer was a worthy aspiration and had started fantasizing about becoming a great poet instead. My freshman year at a large university convinced me that I was in the wrong place for all the wrong reasons. So off I went to Kalamazoo College, a small liberal arts college in Michigan, where, although my new interest in literature and ideas continued to deepen, I still hadn’t ruled out the possibility of having a career as a sports writer. So during my sophomore year I jumped at the opportunity of spending spring quarter working as a sports reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer in my hometown.

My major responsibility as an intern reporter was covering high school baseball. Occasionally I’d write a feature story, on a local hockey star being courted by the NHL or a swimmer who’d just won four events at the state championships in Columbus. But the main work was the high school baseball beat.

During my first week at the Plain Dealer I met with the sports editor, Hal Lebovitz, who in his early forties was already a mythic figure because of his towering 6’6” frame, his fabled athletic past, and the fact that he had recently been assigned a weekly column in what in those days, the 60s, was the undisputed pinnacle of national sports journalism, The Sporting News.

When I entered Hal’s office he stuck up a finger asking me to hold on a moment while he finished typing something, and for that minute I witnessed his fingers punching keys so fast that there was nothing but a blur, like the blades of an airplane propeller that could no longer be distinguished once the engine was up to speed. It was like coming upon some natural wonder of the world.

My sense of amazement was doubled when I realized that he was using only his two index fingers but it was immediately colored by anxiety about my own typing, in which, unlike Hal’s, the hunting and the pecking were easily distinguishable processes.

That night after work – it was a morning paper so my hours were 4 p.m. to midnight – I drove home resolving to work on my typing. I would spend from 1 to 3 in the morning sitting at the kitchen table forcing myself to decrease the interval between my hunting and pecking.

But my progress was slow. The writing came easy but not the typing. A week later, as I sat at my desk at work typing up my article about the Parma-Middleburg Heights conference championship game, I felt a tap on my shoulder. When I looked up to see what it was, I saw a man’s midsection, and then, as though viewing the scene through the slowest of slow motion cameras panning upwards, the face of Hal Lebovitz came into view just as I heard him uttering these simple words: “You can’t type, can you?”

I threw up a volley of verbiage, stuttering and obviously wearing my humiliation on my face. Hal’s response was brief but emphatic: “Learn! Now!”

1 to 3 a.m. turned immediately into 1 to 6 a.m. — every night, or, actually, morning. By the time my three-month internship was over, I still wasn’t even close to Hal’s speed (who was?) but I could actually type pretty well. Fast enough to get the job done.

The next year, my junior year in college, I studied abroad, for six months in Madrid, and before I left I asked Hal Lebovitz whether he would be interested in having me write a few stories for The Plain Dealer about bullfighting while I was in Spain. He liked the idea enough to give me an official press pass, which I used to get into several bullfights, where I could watch from close up in the special section reserved for the press. Afterwards I would interview the bullfighters, with the fantasy of meeting someone right out of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, some romantic Pedro Romero-like figure who would provide endless material for my feature stories for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

I discovered quickly that the bullfighters I was interviewing were as much like Pedro Romero as the running back of my old high school football team was like Jim Brown, the star running back for the Cleveland Browns. The difference was of course huge at the level of talent but far more importantly for me, the bullfighters I was interviewing had virtually nothing of interest to say about the meaning or ritual of their sport. When I would ask them what it felt like at the moment they actually killed the bull, most of them looked at me blankly and muttered something like, “Well, I dunno. You kill the bull….”

But one sunny Saturday my luck changed. That afternoon, in the main bullfight arena in Madrid, Jose Luis Teruel was fighting. Called “El Pepe” on all the colorful bullfight posters, he was, in this autumn of 1965, the leading minor league bullfighter in Spain. Before becoming a fully authorized “matador,” young bullfighters are called “novilleros,” and that year the most promising and heralded novillero in Spain was El Pepe. Watching him perform that afternoon, I could understand why he was so highly touted. He moved beautifully and effortlessly and he was fearless. But he slipped at one point and was gored, not badly and in a location – just behind his knee – that was more embarrassing than life threatening. So when I asked to interview him as he left the arena, he told me he had to go get the wound cleaned up and gave me a phone number where I could call him that evening to set up a time and place to meet and do the interview.

When I called the number that evening, the person who answered the phone said simply, “Dominguin.” I knew enough about bullfighting to know that Luis Miguel Dominguin was one of the two or three greatest bullfighters ever, but it never occurred to me that this person answering the phone by saying “Dominguin” was in fact, as I learned later, the man himself, the great Luis Miguel Dominguin, who turned out to be El Pepe’s agent at that time. Although my subsequent conversation with El Pepe would turn out to be a major event in my life – and probably the central factor in my decision to become an English professor rather than a sports-writer—the irony was not lost on me that by not seizing the opportunity to interview Dominguin himself, I was like a cub reporter choosing to interview some ultimately unknown minor league outfielder instead of Babe Ruth.

When El Pepe, Jose Luis Teruel, came on the phone, we arranged to meet the next night at a bar where bullfight aficionados hung out. I had become fluent enough in Spanish by the time that I walked into the bar that my notes and questions for the interview were all written on my little reporter’s pad in Spanish rather than English. When Jose Luis entered the bar and saw me standing there with a glass of wine, his fans, who had watched his bullfight a couple days before, screamed with adulation and immediately a huge guy put Jose Luis on his shoulders and marched him around the bar while everyone cheered.

I knew within minutes that I had finally struck gold. Not only was Jose Luis disarmingly articulate; he was also dramatically more thoughtful than the other bullfighters I’d interviewed about the history and ritualistic significance of the art of bullfighting. I couldn’t write fast enough, even as I was impressed with my own ability to not only speak fluently with him in Spanish but to record his thoughts in Spanish on my pad. It could not have been going better, and I allowed myself a brief fantasy about Hal Lebovitz beaming as he read my story at his editor’s desk at The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

We talked about every aspect of bullfighting and Jose Luis’s answers were so thoughtful, so subtle and elegantly phrased, that it felt like we were being filmed for a documentary about Hemingway and bullfighting. Going through my list of questions, I next asked whether Jose Luis had ever been gored before or whether the goring I witnessed was his first.

“No,” he said. “I’ve been gored three times before. The first in my abdomen and the second in my thigh.” As he spoke, I wrote on my pad “1—abdomen; 2—thigh.” And then there was silence. I was so absorbed in getting my notes down that I did not look up at him when I asked, “And the third?” Silence, this time a much longer silence, and when I finally looked away from my pad and up at his face, he was staring down at the floor. Clueless, I persisted: “And the third?” A few seconds later, still looking down at the floor, he said, “Me han partido en la mitad los huevos,” which literally means, “They have parted for me in half the eggs.”

Inconceivably naïve as it sounds in the retelling, despite having become pretty fluent in Spanish, I stood there utterly perplexed about why he was suddenly talking about what I often ate in Spain for breakfast: eggs. And then suddenly I realized that he had just told me that he’d been gored in the balls. I was speechless for a whole host of reasons, most prominently because not only had my Spanish failed me but because it did so at precisely the moment that this man was telling me the most personal thing imaginable, to say nothing of the most unimaginable.

I literally could not speak. I could not find the words. But even at that moment it hit me that the way he had told me was even more staggering. The “they” who did this, of course, is nothing less than the gods or the fates. This was not simply something that passively happened to him but something that the world actively thrust upon him. In the half century since that night, I eventually came to see that the fact that I never did write that story for Hal Lebovitz’s Plain Dealer was deeply tied up with my later decision to dedicate myself to literature rather than sports writing. Maybe there was a way to deal with this in a sports article for a newspaper but my inability to do so was deeply linked to my dawning realization of the immensity of the difference between sports reporting and literature. Fifty years later I now understand that the reason I never did write a story for The Cleveland Plain Dealer about El Pepe is closely related to my decision to become a professor and literary critic rather than a sports reporter. The sports journalist’s task is to accurately report and explain what happens at a sporting event, or to make sense and some kind of evaluation about either a particular performance or the shape of a career. In a similar fashion the literary critic both interprets and evaluates the novel or play or poem at hand, or the meaning, shape, and value of a whole artistic career. What I sensed when I was in my early twenties, and what I believe led me to choose literature rather than journalism is that poets and novelists were much more likely to be working in a territory where the sum is always larger than the addition of the parts, where meaning is not something that can, as the journalists like to say, be “boiled down” but rather is irreducible.

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But my love of sports has never waned, a fact partly explained by acknowledging that in addition to sharing many qualities with literature — drama, suspense, fascinating characters, narrative arcs, and lyric moments of sheer beauty, to name only a few — occasionally there are moments in sports, like the story of El Pepe, that play out the same complexities that animate and characterize the best works of art.

My hometown Cleveland is probably best known for its Cuyahoga River literally catching fire in the early 70s and, more recently, for the story of LeBron James’s career, before he moved to the Los Angeles Lakers, as the star of Cleveland’s NBA team, the Cavaliers. Growing up in nearby Akron, LeBron played his first season on the Cavs just after graduating from high school. Within a few years, although he was widely considered the best player in the league, it became clear that his team had no shot at winning the NBA championship, and LeBron decided to leave Cleveland and play for the Miami Heat instead, where his team did indeed win the championship for two of the four years that he played in Miami, and at that point, in 2014, he triumphantly returned to the Cleveland Cavs. For the next four years LeBron led his team to the Eastern Conference Championship and four finals against the Golden State Warriors, one of which Cleveland won, in 2016. That win was the first championship for any professional sports team in Cleveland since 1964 — a drought of 52 years – and as a result, LeBron’s heroic status moved from stratospheric to epic.

In the 2018 playoffs LeBron’s Cavs were defeated by the Warriors in four straight games. But by far the biggest story of this championship series was that, after putting on one of the best individual performances ever seen on a basketball court in game one, LeBron went into the locker room after his team lost the game because of a last-minute lapse by one of his teammates and in frustration smashed his right fist, his shooting hand, against a chalk board and broke his hand.

How the TV pundits and sports writers interpreted what LeBron did is now ancient history. But at the risk of making a mountain out of a mole hill, I want to address that question because I am convinced that doing so helps us understand some crucial issues of art and politics, of language and culture and meaning itself.

When the sports writer asks what is the meaning or significance of what LeBron James did to his hand, that writer faces the same challenge that any literary critic faces when asked what the meaning of Hamlet’s soliloquy is or Elizabeth Bennett’s response to seeing Darcy’s house in Pride and Prejudice. It will come as no surprise that the pundits had a field day with LeBron:

1. For the best player on a team to give into his frustrations at the cost of disadvantaging his team is inexcusable.

2. For the best player to allow his emotions to lead him to self-destruction is appalling.

3. How could he be so stupid?

4. How could he be so selfish?

5. The lapse of his teammate JR Smith cost them the game but James’s lapse cost them the series.

6. He should have told his teammates after it happened.

7. He should have told the press after it happened rather than walking into his post-game press conference with a cast on, knowing he’d be asked about the cast and accused of providing an excuse in advance for losing the series.

One could go on. But for me what is missing is what makes this story so powerful, and that is the centrality of anger. The work of literature that addresses the issue of anger most profoundly is Homer’s THE ILIAD. Homer proclaims explicitly, and right from the poem’s first line, that anger is the subject of the long epic he is now beginning: the anger of Achilles.

Whenever I teach The Iliad I begin by telling my students how Aristotle defined anger. When I first encountered Aristotle’s explanation, it made no sense to me. Anger, he said, is that impulse towards revenge that a person feels when they have been unjustly slighted. Why talk of revenge? I wondered. What does anger have to do with revenge? But I soon came to understand that an impulse towards revenge is indeed a defining feature of anger. You put money into a Coke machine, you push the button, and nothing comes out. You push the button again and then you jiggle the machine. And next thing you know you are kicking the machine. You have put in your money and now you have been unjustly slighted, and that feeling of being unjustly slighted leads immediately to an impulse to lash out, to get back at something, to get revenge, and since the only thing there to get back at is the Coke machine, you kick it.

Hopefully when you kick the machine you don’t break your foot. But you might. If you were angry enough and kicked it hard enough, and had unimaginable strength in the leg you were kicking with, you might well have broken your foot, your ankle, or at least a toe or two. LeBron was angry as hell, and he was angry because he felt he had been unjustly slighted. Despite the fact that his team was completely overmatched against the amazing Warriors, he played one of the greatest games in the long history of basketball, surpassing even the most extravagant expectations and putting his team ahead with less than a minute to go. And then he is called for a foul on a play where the next best player in the league, Kevin Durant, was originally called for charging by another referee whose decision was reversed after the refs looked at the replay and gave Durant two free throws to tie the game that, seconds before, they seemed certain to lose. Unjustly slighted? The refs hardly ever reverse a charging call. But to do so in the final seconds of the game with the most talented and respected player in the game?

But wait. If LeBron had reason to be angry for the bad call, how much more reason had he to be angry when, seconds later, one of his teammates, JR Smith, missed a foul shot that would have given the Cavs back the lead, and then, even more implausibly, when the rebound from that missed foul shot was retrieved, against all odds, by Cleveland, and the Cav who got it, JR Smith, was just a few feet from the basket and could easily have made the shot to win the game as the clock ran out. But no. Not only does Smith not even attempt a shot; instead, acting as though his team is ahead and all he has to do is dribble the ball away from the basket until the buzzer goes off and the game is over, he does just that, which sends the game into overtime and the whole Cavs team into a state of utter disbelief and shock. And then, to no one’s surprise, they get blown out in the overtime.

Against every prediction, the Cavs, based on LeBron’s epic performance, should have won that game. Slighted? Unjustly slighted? Of course LeBron slammed the chalkboard after that. Of course he did. Anyone with the slightest understanding of both basketball and human nature can understand why someone would do such a thing. That is no justification for it but it certainly is a basis for understanding. It was his expression of anger, his version of kicking the Coke machine, and in my view that was simultaneously tragic and completely understandable, which is to say profoundly human, just as Achilles’ anger is simultaneously blameworthy and justifiable.

“Should LeBron have done it?” is the wrong question. Like Achilles, the consequences of his action were destructive and lamentable. But this seems to me a case in which the proper response is simultaneously feeling disappointment at Achilles’ response and also the deepest empathy. Feeling empathetic does not preclude judgment but it does not foreground it. Of course LeBron shouldn’t have done it, just as Achilles should not have sulked and refused to fight, which tragically led to the death of his best friend Patroklos. But what a human gesture it was, and understanding that act in its full complexity is not unlike understanding what constitutes a tragic hero, in Hamlet, in Achilles, and in LeBron – in the play Hamlet, the epic The Iliad, and the NBA Finals. All of these require what Keats called “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” For Keats the greatest practitioner of negative capability was Shakespeare. Keats’s point is not to condemn fact and reason but to suggest their limitations in the immensely complex task of interpreting meaning. This applies to understanding Hamlet or The Iliad; to grasping the mean-ing of my encounter with El Pepe; and to making sense of LeBron James breaking his hand by angrily hitting a chalkboard in the NBA Finals.

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In 1953, when I was eight years old, the most popular program on TV was Disneyland, whose weekly episodes took place in one of its four lands: Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, and Frontierland. Since my elementary school was only a few blocks from where we lived, everyone went home for lunch. On the walk home one day a classmate named Bobby Fein and I started arguing about which was the best of the four lands. I said Adventureland, and he said Tomorrowland. After making our best arguments for why our land was the best, we started cit-ing authorities. I began with my brother, who was three years older than us, and Bobby countered with his sister, who was five years older. After climbing the educational ladder of authority for a while, I ended with my best shot: my cousin Lee, who was in college, agreed with me. I thought I had the deal sealed but Bobby’s response was definitive. He had an uncle who actually knew one of the seven people in the world who understood Einstein’s theory of relativity, and that uncle agreed with him.

The discussion was over. Everyone knew that Einstein was the smartest man alive, and although we had no clue what the theory of relativity was, we knew it was the key to understanding the truth. If Bobby’s uncle actually knew one of the seven fabled people in the world who understood this staggeringly complex theory, and if that uncle agreed with Bobby that Tomorrowland was the best of the four lands, then it simply was. End of discussion.

It wasn’t until high school in the early sixties that the next life-changing shift occurred in my understanding of the idea of truth. Actually, we came to understand, “Truth is relative,” a view that descended indirectly from Einstein and completely undermined and replaced not only the longstanding assumption that truth was by definition absolute but also our naïve childhood view that truth was what the smartest person in the world said it was. By the time I was in college, anyone with any claim to being an intellectual simply assumed that relativity was the last word on the question of truth, even if some of us pointed out the contradiction that the statement “all truth is relative” could not possibly be true since it was itself a statement of absolute truth, and absolute truth was a naïve relic of an earlier time.

At some point in discussions about such issues, someone would use the example of Hitler or the Holocaust to establish the unimaginable horror that relativity led to since the truth of the claim that Hitler was evil was not relative in the least. Endless arguments ensued over terminology, and since this was the heyday of the language philosophers, most such debates never got past the call to define one’s terms.

Then, a full half-century ago, in the seventies, came the French theorists, especially Derrida, who presented an even more withering critique of any conception of absolute truth. Every so-called truth could be deconstructed endlessly. The very notion of truth was now off the playing field of serious discourse. At the same time scholars in a wide variety of fields were focusing on power relations and arguing that with regard to issues of gender and race, indeed to all matters of culture and history, the task was to unpack and reveal the power relations underlying all claims to truth, which were always constructed based on power relations.

For the past half-century, all serious discussions of what truth is have been influenced by these developments. But suddenly, with the presidency of Donald Trump, our culture has been confronted by an even more momentous development on the question of truth. For decades we have used the word “spin” to describe the commonplace practice, not only but especially in politics, of emphasizing certain interpretations of events or realities that better serve our own political purpose. For decades we have assumed that all politicians spin. It is one of the many ways that the issues of meaning and interpretation that we have been discussing play out in politics. But with Trump we have two massively important new developments.

The first is the staggering number of straightforward lies and misstatements of fact that the president has proclaimed publicly. As I write these words on August 12, 2019, the most recent count from The Washington Post’s Fact Checker’s Database, which tracks this carefully on a daily basis, is that our president has made 12,019 “false or misleading claims” during his first 928 days as president – roughly 13 a day. The second new development is Trump’s constant attacks on the press and his promulgation of the term “fake news.” It’s not simply that our president has flaunted dozens of conventions and norms. He has gone so far beyond spinning the truth, he has lied so flagrantly so many thousands of times, that it is now a serious question whether the American public has already been so desensitized to such violations that the claim that “that’s just Trump being Trump” has blinded us to the harsh reality that we have a president for whom the very idea of truth – truth of any kind that goes beyond self-interest—has already been profoundly eroded and undermined, let alone its connection with journalism.

Who knows how this will play out? We live in a time when every day brings not only multiple examples of mutually exclusive interpretations of facts but also endless discussions of the very concept of truth and fact. As the theory of relativity began filtering into the general culture decades ago, it was used by some people to justify any position at all. Einstein himself, who was so closely associated with the idea of relativity, was once asked directly about this issue. If you want to represent the shape of a cone, Einstein responded, both a circle and a triangle are accurate representations. Each is relative to its angle of vision. But if you claim that the following shape “&$%“ represents a cone, the theory of relativity cannot help you. You are, Einstein claimed, simply wrong.

I hope we keep this story in mind as we evaluate the political events and debates of the coming months. The stakes could not be higher. But in this essay I have been trying to address a closely related issue about meaning and interpretation in both life and art – an issue whose consequences may be much less important for the fate of our nation but have crucial implications for interpreting meaning in every aspect of our lives. By telling a story about how I decided to become an English professor and literary critic rather than a sportswriter, I have tried to establish a framework for understanding both a seminal moment in my early twenties when I was interviewing a Spanish bullfighter and also a more recent incident in the world of sports – namely, when LeBron James, after losing the first game of the NBA Playoffs to the Golden State Warriors, slammed and broke his right hand, his shooting hand, against a chalk board. Sports writers around the world have weighed in on LeBron’s act, doing what sports writers always do: reporting both what actually happened and the meaning or significance of what happened. In that crucial regard, after watching a sporting event, sports writers do what literary critics do after reading a book.

We are always faced with making sense of the world, whether it is a sporting event or a novel or a statement by a politician. One of the many gifts of art and literature is that they help us understand that doing so is often extremely difficult. In our time we need to remind ourselves of that, especially at a moment in our national political life when just the opposite is true, namely, it is not difficult to see a bald-faced lie as a lie, even if it is told by the president of the United States.

Interpreting what is actually happening in the world, including the political world, is of course not easy, and this is obviously the case with interpreting both works of art and sporting events. Even as such acts of interpretation can be difficult, we relish and are grateful for the rich complexity in understanding the world that art and politics and literature open up for us. But understanding that complexity provides no license for claiming that it is always just a matter of interpretation; it also compels us to recognize that there are important distinctions to be drawn between one kind of discourse and another. However multi-faceted some objects of interpretation may be, some interpretations are simply wrong: 2 +2 is not 5; the color red is not easily mistaken for blue; Ron Sharp is not a better writer than John Keats or a better basketball player than LeBron James. Issues of interpretation are not only complex and consequential in themselves; they are also hugely consequential in our daily lives. As I look back over the arc of my own life, I have now, like generations before me, come to understand certain past experiences in new ways. Is this not what we mean by education?

There is no way of knowing how much self-awareness or intentionality President Trump brings to his complete disregard for any notion of truth or of accuracy in interpretation. The immensely complex and important issues of meaning and interpretation that I have been addressing in this essay have now been kicked into another dimension altogether by a president who is daily eroding, perhaps even intentionally undermining, any legitimate conception of truth at all.

Fifty years ago I decided that I was much more likely to be able to understand the significance of what happened to El Pepe through the lens of literature than through the lens of sports reporting. I still believe that, but I have now come to see that it might be possible for a genuinely creative sports reporter to have done justice to El Pepe’s story. I now realize that I was not that guy, and that most literary critics are not either. That is why if I were El Pepe or LeBron, I’d be a lot more confident if I had neither a sports writer nor a literary critic telling my story but a novelist or a poet.