“Rifkin’s characters are ruined, desperate creatures, comic and soulful, perpetually in line for a ladle full of redemption.” —Hammer Museum

“Rifkin is what might have happened had Nathanael West lived on and been even more talented . . . . Exquisite.” —Kirkus Reviews

The Metaphysics of Hang Time
By Alan Rifkin

THE SUBJECT IS HANG TIME: The mystery of jumping into the air, and then staying in the air, heels measurably above the hardcourt, now negligibly above the hardcourt, but above the hardcourt all the same, until they’re not anymore, until they’re resting blatantly on the hardcourt, fooling no one. Of necessity our discussion will be scientific.

“See now,” says Elgin Baylor, Hall-of-Famer, Clippers GM, legend. “One person doesn’t stay in the air longer than any other. One person might jump higher. And the person that jumps higher will come down after the person that doesn’t jump as high. But also what happens is the defensive person, they’re the ones that commit themselves first. So they’re going to go up first--they’re going to come down first. And if you watch, that’s exactly what happens.”

The physicists, I tell Baylor, say that if two objects are dropped from a great height above the earth one after the other the distance between them lengthens as they fall because the lower object is nearer to the earth’s center and accelerates always faster than the object above it.

“That’s right,” Elgin Baylor says.

Believing is seeing

Before a basketball player could hang in the air he had to think to try it--the question, from our modern frame of reference, being why the obvious idea wasn’t obvious always. I like coach Jim Valvano’s theory. He offered it to Sports Illustrated in 1984, only partly tongue in cheek, and it centered on the observation that coaches throughout history valued “control”--which to a fifties-vintage coach with cigar in his mouth meant two-handed set shots with eyes narrowed. In 1955, you simply didn’t leap before you thought, any more than you shot free throws with your elbow pointing at the scorer’s desk, because every cultural verity you knew called it Jungleball. In 1955, Michael Jordan would have been benched for his imagination.

Whereas by 1990 he was deified, a measure of how much the game had changed in 35 years. And almost entirely for the better. Forget about the neoconnoisseur’s dissent, which likes to imply that old-school, Celtic-style teams--i.e., flatfooted teams--held a monopoly on teamwork and court sense; it’s a defensive, race-tinged argument anyway, and only accentuates the power of the new, which exults in Opportunity. For played above the net, basketball elevates itself to saving myth--offers instants of triumph unavailable not only to the average life, but to the average sport. This is a telling point. Precisely because they allow no such Scoring as Statement, baseball and football fields everywhere are trampled by extraneous ritual: a tented-arm reception at home plate, a lineman’s sack dance. But the one major sport a kid can practice alone on a playground supplies an imagery to match any gloom he’s yet encountered; then it leaves the rim shaking, so he’ll remember.

Playing above the net, of course, is not the same thing as staying above the net--which is what gives the notion of hang time its mystique. And anyone who doubts the depth of fan willingness to embrace a mystique ought to survey the stands next allstar weekend. I remember a night at LA’s old sports arena, where real people once could afford seats, when Julius Erving took a long step from the foul line and faked rightwards with the ball, then raised it high above the defense, torch-bearing through the key, then turned it over in the air and cupped it low as a lawn bowler when other arms shot up to stop him; and all at once I was aware of an insurgence in the arena, a sort of silent gathering shout, so that when Dr. J pitched the ball underhand into the basket off the glass, not even a real Dr J move by any standard, more suggestion than actual flight, like a song remembered half-aloud, I looked around the colonnade and saw a peculiar thing: a couple dozen bodies landing. In the aisles. I mean, I never saw them jump--just landing, as if from branches, hurling two-fingered referee’s signals at the floor: Count it! Then they climbed back politely to their seats. The sporting equivalent of air guitar.

How long Erving was in the air I couldn’t say. That he was an aging legend when this demonstration took place, though, is revealing, because in a way his mystique did the work for him. A hand-fake, a gesture, the old warrior’s bluff that he’s holding something back--this stare-down mysticism is unique to a handful of heroic figures, without whom the notion of “hang time” would have been dismissed long ago as the sliver on a stopwatch that it was. Elgin Baylor, who just plain invented the phenomenon, had such carriage eyeing the basket that his opponents looked like ciphers in a spiritual test; Erving offered an updated parallel, the aplomb of an urban sorcerer. Jordan was the ‘90s savior, strong-armed and sleek, with the first oversized boxers, shaved head, tongue wagging loose as a coyote’s. Most importantly, each of these men was a born protagonist. Not even a rival fan could escape the mood of tragic theater in the NBA Finals the year Jordan was effectively barred from the lane by a belligerent Detroit defense; he was Superman succumbing to Greek K. Nor could that memory outlast his flights of transcendence. In Game Five, when heavyfooted nemesis Bill Laimbeer barreled in to smother a breakaway, Jordan neatly ducked him, slippped a virtual flying headlock, twisted 180 degrees and laid the ball up backwards over his head while the bad guy tumbled off court. Would this have been called “hang time” without the heroic storyline? Was Jordan really in the air longer than Laimbeer? Did he “hang” there longer than physics are supposed to allow? And does it matter?

In other words: Who, but a complete fool, would attempt to parse a miracle?

I Attempt to Break This Down

If Bill Laimbeer were dropped from a height above the earth, he would fall always faster than a body above him.

Actually, I’m wrong about that, according to The Relativity Explosion by Martin Gardner: Laimbeer falls faster if the play takes place in an elevator rocketing into space (if you like elevators in space, incidentally, and diagrams of men shouting “Hello” from speeding trains, this is your book), because in such a gravitational field all objects fall along parallel lines. Take away the elevator, and the paths will more likely merge, on account of the curvature of the earth. This is a factor Baylor and I managed earlier on to omit. I am kicking myself, and I assume he is, too.

Now comes Steven Frautschi (actually, I phoned him), Caltech Professor of Theoretical Physics, to assert that even under ideal conditions Laimbeer’s superiority in drop speed would be negligible--though the height of the jump, here, is going to be crucial (a point on which Frautschi and Baylor seem to be of one mind). “The motion your center of mass goes through in jumping,” Frautschi says, “is called a parabola. Which is--well, it’s a curve, really. Now, what determines how long the center of mass stays in the air is just the speed of takeoff. You’re going to have a certain ‘speed,’ at which you ‘launch’ yourself.” (Frautschi tries to help certain key words along with his inflection.) “Meanwhile gravity’s pulling you back down. And that takes a certain amount of ‘time.’ And the only thing you did that affects that is the speed of your takeoff. Now, these great basketball jumpers; they’re good, I suspect, even from a standing jump, because they’re, quote, good jumpers. Plus, well, they’re artists, which means they can do more with their hands, and that’s--that’s skill.”

We chuckle philosophically.

“But compared to someone who took off just as fast, with the same amount of push in the legs? They aren’t in the air any longer at all.”

Baylor’s point exactly: “Because most of the time, when you’re going to the basket, you’re going on an angle. But the guy defending against you, he’s going straight up, and so usually the defensive man--he’s gonna just come down sooner.” There’s simply no other way to say it. “He’s gonna come down sooner! I mean, if you’re going on an angle, most of the time, you’re going on an angle, so it’s like a broad jump, and he’s trying to go straight up--he’s gonna come down before you are!”

And inertia? I ask Frautschi. What of inertia?

“Well, if the mass is greater, it’s harder to change the motion.” Frautschi pauses, then adopts a more confidential tone. “In plain English,” he says, “it’s hard for the real heavy guy to jump as high as somebody of, let’s say, equivalent height who’s more lightweight. So your best jumpers, in general, are not going to be real heavyweights.”

I think about this.

He clarifies: “Because the heavyweight has to exert more force to get himself into the air.”

I admit to Frautschi that sounds logical.

He adds, somewhat mysteriously, “It’s harder to push a heavy guy around--that’s a separate issue.”

“Separate, you mean, from heaving himself into the air,” I say. “This issue of pushing him someplace.”

“Yes. Yes.”

A Writer is as Authoritative as His Sources

So I ask Elgin Baylor about the future of physics.

“I don’t think anyone will ever prove there’s any secret to hang time. Because, I’ll tell you what. You put Michael Jordan under the basket, and have someone else drive in on him; Michael will come down before them. You never see a defensive man hang in the air. Because if that was the case--they would be sensational! They would block every shot! I mean, they would just hang up there, waiting for somebody to shoot!”

I ask Professor Frautschi to pick the legends of hang time.

“That ‘60s player you mentioned before. The Laker. Baylor, was it?

“He was beautiful.”