Edward Rothstein,

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March 3 1998 12:30 AM

Edward Rothstein,

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       I don't know many critics who go out for team sports, particularly not critics like myself, who are eggheads. We spend too much time determined to figure out everything for ourselves, shunning the dangers of groupthink, opposing the forces of fashion, the pressures of indebtedness, the obsequies of fandom.
       Whatever drummer this critical mass marches to, it is not often compatible with notions of teamwork, self-sacrifice, and submission to the will of a coach. We march to the spastic beats of self-conscious individualism--a perverse conformity. Which is why we are so often so similar in our iconoclasms. As the art critic Harold Rosenberg once slyly suggested (in a somewhat different context), we are a herd of independent minds.
       All right, I exaggerate; I know some ball-loving, sports-playing intellectuals. But I was shocked to hear myself cheering a basketball game on Sunday afternoon. There, on the court, was on display everything a critic avoids. The players were not taking the time to contemplate each move but were reacting swiftly and decisively to twists and turns of the opposition; the players were not determined to make a distinctive mark but were giving up a high-risk chance for individual glory in favor of a greater chance of group success; the players were not marking out their own borders of mastery but were fluidly shifting territories in reaction to circumstance. Not a herd, but a team.
       And I watched in admiration.
       Of course, it helped that my 10-year-old son was one of the players--wiry, small, focused, indefatigable, racing across the court to interfere with the opposition's layup, passing, leaping, blocking, shooting. Where had this spiritedness and sprightliness, this energetic devotion to a goal, the inner determination to compete and win--where had all this come from?
       I was more accustomed to spectacles like the one I saw a few days before, in a sinewy, smart piano recital at New York's Alice Tully Hall by a young man named Max Levinson. I've given up going to many concerts or recitals--20 years of music criticism is more than enough, particularly in an era as uneven and uninspired as our own. But when Mr. Levinson toyed with the lilting syncopations of a Gershwin prelude, or disclosed the ways risk and passion are knit into the architecture of Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy, I was reminded of the profession's pleasures.
       And I conveyed them to his piano teacher, Patricia Zander, when I gave her a warm, sustained embrace during intermission. For a short time, too long ago, Patricia was my teacher as well, providing weekly glimpses into the extraordinary worlds that lay on the other side of technical labor and hours of drill. I remember the bicycle ride to her house in Cambridge, Mass., my fingers still warm from practice, my ears rehearsing the music's possibilities. Sometimes I would leave lessons in frustration, stymied by limitations and awed by demands. Other times, I would leave practically humming with a sense of the interpenetration of music and life, having gratefully submitted to the glories of a musical order while thrilling to hints of potential mastery.
       Maybe that is a bit of what Aaron also feels when he's racing for the ball. I'm going to go see him play again next week. Then, maybe I'll make some inquiries about getting Knicks tickets. Someday, I may even reconsider my herding instincts.

Edward Rothstein is cultural critic at large for the New York Times and writes the paper's "Connections" column on technology (archived here). He is the author of Emblems of Mind: The Inner Life of Music and Mathematics.