Racquet Man.

We Can't All Be Pro Squash Players

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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Remember George Plimpton's classic book, "Paper Lion"? In the 1960s, Plimpton decided to find out what would happen if an ordinary person tried to play professional football. Amazingly, the Detroit Lions agreed to give him a tryout, allowing him to come to training camp as a third-string quarterback.

The result? Disaster. As human beings go, Plimpton was a pretty good athlete. But as professional athletes go, he couldn't throw, he couldn't run, and he couldn't take a hit. Allowed to play quarterback in a scrimmage, he fumbled, he fell down, and he couldn't complete a pass. He couldn't even hand off the ball.

Nevertheless, his tale was hard to resist. On behalf of all of us, he posed the question: Suppose you had the chance to play a professional sport. What can the pros do that you can't? What's the distance between you? If you were ever an athlete -- even in high school or college - there's probably a part of your brain that says, "Coach, just put me in! I can do it!"

Plimpton's conclusion? You really can't.

A few days ago, I followed in his footsteps.

Not, thank goodness, on the football field. My sport is squash -- played with a racquet and a small ball in an indoor court. No one is trying to knock you down, but the game is physically demanding, and the ball can go up to 170 miles per hour. At the professional level, Pakistan long dominated the sport, which is now led by players from Egypt and the U.K., though the current number one, Greg Gaultier is French. The top-ranked American, Julian Illingworth, is 55th.

If you have time on your hands, and look all the way down the long list of professional players, you'll eventually come to the bottom-ranked American. That's me.

Now, I'm not exactly a newcomer to squash. I played in college, and our team managed to win the national title. But that was college squash, not professional, and our glory year was 1976 -- about 10 years before today's older professional squash players were born.

In the past few years, I've been playing pretty regularly, and I made it onto a local team in Washington, D.C. As a result of a series of small miracles, I was invited to compete in (pause for dramatic effect) the Squash Revolution National Capital Open 2014. To be sure, it was just the qualifying rounds, and I was a humble local qualifier -- privileged to compete against the genuine professionals on the sport's world tour, but not actually one of them. Nonetheless, Plimpton's questions remained: What would happen? Aren't sports the great equalizer?

In the first round, I was scheduled to play Umar Balaj Malik, a 20-year-old from Pakistan. I had only one chance: Maybe Umar wouldn't show up? He didn't show up! (Visa problems, apparently.)

Onto the next round, where I faced Mubarak Mohsin, another 20-year-old from Pakistan, ranked a lot higher than Malik. He showed up. Watching him hit the ball during our warm-up -- with such power, grace and effortlessness -- I felt my arms grow heavy. (Has anyone in the history of the world dropped out of a sports competition because of exhaustion during warm-up?)

Unfortunately, a squash match takes at least three games; you have to win three out of five. Each game is played to 11 points, so pre-match exhaustion is not ideal.

It is said that sheer randomness would enable a monkey, spending enough time on a keyboard, to at some point write the works of Shakespeare. In the first game, sheer randomness (undoubtedly accompanied by some bemusement on Mohsin's part) enabled this particular monkey to grab an improbable win. But Mohsin had me running the whole time, and my legs really didn't enjoy that. As Shakespeare would say, "When sorrows come, they come not single spies. But in battalions!" Victory to Mohsin, 9-11, 11-9, 11-3 (ouch), 11-9.

Plimpton wrote that the pleasure of sport lay in "the cessation of time," captured in the moment athletes savor before "committing themselves to action." He had that wrong. For the professional, the little leaguer, the duffer with a bad knee, the spectator as well as the participant, the pleasure is the moment of action itself -- the three-point jump shot before halftime, the long putt for par, the foul ball that prolongs an at-bat, the second serve that kicks hard to the right, the tackle that stops the dive for first down. The savoring comes not before, but after.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net