The movie Rollerball was released in A.D. 1975. It starred James Caan as an athlete playing in a futuristic, violent sport called “Rollerball”.
Rollerball was the national pastime in a nation dominated by wealthy, super-corporations. These corporations wanted a world where “order” was maintained and enforced so as to keep commerce safe and profits predictable and substantial. Disorder is bad for bidness. Conformity was mandatory. Individualism was bad. All must work steadily. No one could escape his destiny to serve the economy.
Jame’s Caan’s character threatened that “new world order” simply because he was so much better than any other player that he demonstrated an unbridled individualism. Caan’s individualism awakened others to their own unique, non-commercial and “disorderly” nature. Caan inspired others to achieve rather than conform. For a moment, the individualist successfully resisted corporate “order” and the audience cheered.
We routinely see “heroes” of the sort Caan played in Rollerball, in many of our movies. Rocky was inspirational. James Bond displays a similar kind of individual greatness. Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter are cut from the same cloth as is “Iron Man”. Virtually every drama we see portrays the story of an individual man or woman who somehow summoned sufficient skill and courage to overcome a seemingly insurmountable adversary. We call these characters “heroes”.
We’re thrilled by the stories of heroes–but most such stories are fictional. As much as we’re inspired by those fictions, we believe that we can’t personally match their fictional performance. Worse, we can’t find examples in real life of real people who match the courage and talent of our fictional heroes. That’s depressing. Our dreams of heroes seem to be fantasies.
And then you see a three-minute video of Jeb Corliss “flying” inches above the ground in his squirrel suit and you’re reminded that we are, by God, men and woman who are each more than cogs in some damned economic machine and are, in fact, individually capable of great achievement.
Here’s another example: Jeremy Lin, point guard for the New York Knicks. Lin is Asian-American (everyone knows that Asians can’t play basketball). He’s also a graduate of Harvard (everyone knows Harvard students can’t play basketball). And he’s a sincere and humble Christian (everyone knows that real Christians don’t have the killer instinct required to play professional basketball). So, about two weeks ago, the Knicks were about to cut Jeremy from the team when another first string player was injured, couldn’t play. So, the Knicks decided to give the improbable Jeremy a chance to start. Lin shot the lights out. In his last five games, Lin made almost 50% of his shots, scored an average of about 25 points per game, and led his team to five consecutive victories. Last Friday, Lin out-shot the Laker’s Kobe Bryant 38 to 34.
Turns out that Harvard grads of the Asian and Christian persuasion can play pro ball.
And the crowds are on their feet. They’re cheering Jeremy Lin. He’s inspired people who’ve never played or hardly watched basketball. I don’t know how long Lin’s streak will last. But for now, we’re witnessing something similar to a real-life “Rollerball” moment. We’re seeing a “Rocky,” a “Cinderella story,” a Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. And the crowd is screaming “Ohh, my Godddd!” because they’re seeing something real.
Here’s a 2:38 video of Lin playing LA that illustrates Lin’s power: According to the announcer, “This is one of the great NBA stories of this decade.” Bunk. This is one of the great NBA stories of all time.
The New York Times, compares Lin’s story to a “Disney-like paradigm [that] stars some guy off the street who found a pair of magical sneakers.” But the NYTimes is wrong. This is not another Disney fiction. This is real.
The NYTimes also quoted a long-time Knicks fan who said, “I’ve been coming here since high school in 1955. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life, just out of nowhere.”
Kobe Bryant reportedly described Lin “in hushed tones for gravitas” that, “When a player is playing that well, he doesn’t come out of nowhere. [Yet] It seems like he comes out of nowhere. Go back and take a look, and the skill level was probably there from the beginning, it’s just that we didn’t notice it.”
Lin’s story isn’t about how many points, rebounds or assists he makes. It’s not about basketball, per se. It’s about defying the “natural order” of basketball. It’s about refusing to conform. It’s about insisting on living your own life. Lin has known for years that Harvard, Asian Christians can’t play basketball–but he just refused to believe that crap. Lin had the courage to defy the “order” of basketball.
Lin inspires us, but not because he’s a great basketball player. He inspires us because, like Jeb Corliss, Lin is a kind of “hero” in that he’s made a great achievement. More importantly, Lin inspires because if there is one real hero, or two, then there could be three, or three thousand, or even 3 million. If Lin and Corliss can be heroes, then they prove that maybe you and I could also be heroes.
And that’s where it starts to get exciting.
Maybe (if we dare), we could step out of our cubicles and live our lives as men and women rather than “human resources”. I know it’s hard and even unlikely, but maybe (if we dared) we might live our lives in pursuit of our own achievements rather than the achievements sought by government and corporations. We are inspired by the “heroics” of Corliss and Lin to think that we might also be capable of a great achievement.
And what is that great achievement? Flying inches above the ground? Building your own home or business? Being elected President? Outscoring Kobe Bryant?
The great achievement is overcoming our own fears. The great achievement is finding enough courage to try to live our own lives as we see fit rather than live them according the demands of a police state or a corporate employer.
Yes, I know that some our choices to “live our own lives” can be reckless and self-destructive. Some would-be “individualists” will choose to live their lives with drugs and die. Not everyone can skim just inches above the ground without crashing and killing themselves. Not everyone can try out for the pro’s and become a “Cinderella story”. But everyone can try.
In that “trying” to live your own life (rather than live the life imposed upon you by the-forces-that-be) and marching to the beat of your own drummer–there’s a measure of heroics that others may not recognize or appreciate But it’s there, just the same. If you live an heroic life, no one else may know, but you will. And knowledge can give your life meaning that the serfs in the New World Order can never know.
Of course, playing “hero” is a dangerous game. Discretion is the better part of valor. Most medals for heroics are awarded posthumously. If you lack the requisite skill to be a “hero,” your “courage” could cost your life at an early age.
Nevertheless, life is not merely about survival. In the end, we all eventually run out of time and lose (at least in this life). The question is, Did you take your shot in this life? Did you ever find the courage to defy the “order” imposed by the powers-that-be to follow your own heart? If you did, perhaps you’re a hero. If you didn’t, you’ve . . . . what? Wasted your life in timid conformity?
People who overcome their fear can cause change and instability. Such people are dangerous for government, dangerous to commerce; dangerous to order. Such people are bad for bidness. But those who overcome their fear inspire the rest of us and are sometimes great for Life.
That’s why the corporations hated James Caan’s character in Rollerball. Caan had the courage to live on his own terms. He had the courage to defy the economic order. Caan’s character was a fictional. But there are also real heroes in this world, and maybe you are–or could become–one of them. Maybe you could have a life that has meaning.
And what is “meaning”? A synonym for courage. If you want “meaning,” you must first find “courage”. Corliss and Lin show us that courage is possible. That’s exciting.