Time Out: July 15, 2009

The worldwide obsession with the passing of Michael Jackson devoured many of us during the past two weeks. No matter where you turned, the glare of the media lights were focused on everything Jackson. Speculation about how Jackson died and endless commentary concerning issues that marred his life made watching television or reading a newspaper almost painful.
Yet, through it all, I found myself becoming more and more interested in the comments of performers from the entertainment world who had worked with Jackson. No matter what one thought of The King of Pop’s personal life, it would be hard not to recognize the enormous reservoir of performance talent that was Jackson. I wondered what lessons young people honing their skills in any performance field could learn from the gloved one?
When they remembered Jackson, entertainer after entertainer marveled at his unending capacity for practice. In fact, Jackson completed a 10-hour rehearsal the day before he died for the 50-show tour he was soon to begin. Jackson meticulously scripted his routines and rehearsed them for countless hours, so hard and so long that his dance moves were no longer even a part of his conscious thought.
When asked in an interview what he thought when he was dancing, Jackson scoffed. “The last thing I would do would be to think about the dance moves,” he responded. Jackson went on to explain that he needed to work his dance moves so much that they became an extension of his body. Intense practice allowed the King of Pop to actually become the flute or the brass instrument or the piano as he moved. The dancing sensation then intuitively selected steps and maneuvers that matched the music’s rhythms and moods.
Jackson’s comments did a moonwalk through my brain as I studied basketball tapes this week. Specifically, I was viewing tapes addressing ball handling and shooting skills and drills. In the tapes, two different hoop teachers, Chris Collins, the son of former NBA player and coach Doug Collins, former star point guard of Duke University and current assistant coach on Mike Kryzewski’s Duke staff, and Ganon Baker, one of the world’s more prominent basketball teachers and trainers, both emphasized the need to practice until the ball became an extension of your hand. Once that happens these master instructors claim the act of dribbling, making fakes, driving and executing moves become muscle-memory reflex, when muscles automatically produce movement that follow a pattern that has been developed through intense repetition over long periods of time. Muscle memory reflex is what we use when after many years of practice we drive a car.
Ganon, in fact, emphasizes that activity by itself does not equal success. Success is dependent on correct practice, permanent practice. To improve their shooting, Ganon implores players to take repeated game shots from game spots at game speeds.
Interviewed on Larry King Live, Patti Austin, an actress who worked with Jackson in the movie The Wiz spoke of Michael’s insatiable curiosity and desire to learn. Austin shared the fact that Jackson carried a small notebook with him every day. He recorded ideas and observations about his work and the work of others. In every conversation, Jackson asked questions about his trade, jotting down the main ideas the other actors and actresses shared.
In his basketball teaching sessions, Ganon emphasizes the need to learn the nuances of defensive play. It is not enough for a basketball player to simply have great moves. The great performers on the hardwood have the poise to slow down with the ball and read the defense, then counter by using the right moves at the right time. Ganon advises that it’s not a wide repertoire of moves that makes the difference but a short list of well-honed moves and the ability to know how and when to use them as counters to strong defensive play.

Always taking inspiration
Jackson studied the masters of entertainment performance from every age. The idea of his famous glove is supposed to have evolved from his study of Liberace, his shoes and many of his dance moves from examining the work of Fred Astaire, his uniforms from Elvis, and on and on. A New York newspaper recently published pictures of a young Jackson dressed as Charley Chaplin. The posture and presence in the frames is proof of Jackson’s fascination of the entertainment masters at an early age. Jackson studied and mimicked the greatest in his field then applied his creative genius to stretch the boundaries they had forged.
It is no different in sports. In his teaching tape, Ganon shares a series of fakes basketball players can use to improve their play. One fake is called the Iverson fake, emulating the ball and foot fakes of NBA star Allen Iverson, another the Kobe fake, copying a foot fake of Kobe Bryant’s. Another tape is a mini documentary of sorts, portraying an annual summer pilgrimage once made by the greatest basketball players in the world. Each summer several of the tallest, broadest NBA stars would assemble at Pete Newell’s camp to learn basic fundamental and practice moves already performed by the NBA’s most imposing post playing legends. Newell, an aging basketball genius, would put the world’s best players through a weeklong session of grueling workouts and application of the moves the games’ previous masters made great.
Like him or loathe him, Michael Jackson was a giant in the entertainment field. His ascendancy to the top did not occur by accident. Instead, Jackson’s rise was the result of intense study and extended creative practice over decades of time. Jackson’s genius was about grit, determination, and hard work. Young people seeking to make their mark in any performance field have much to learn in looking at the work ethic of the King of Pop.