Friday, September 7, 2007

Heart of a Warrior

This past May I wrote a post suggesting that the idea of having the heart of a champion is overrated in the NBA, largely because it seems that dominant big men (in particular, Shaq and Duncan) have ruled the NBA in recent years simply by virtue of their size and skill. I’ll gladly admit that Jordan won with heart (though having Pippen on the team didn’t hurt), but with most anyone else I have my questions.

However, there clearly are times you can perceive a notable lack of heart (think: Chris Webber), and this is what Dirk has been accused of. This summer I was surprised to find the same conversation about heart going on in a very different forum: Homer’s Iliad, the story of the Trojan War, written more than 2500 years ago.

The Iliad tells the story of the Greeks trying to sack Troy to win back Helen, the stunningly beautiful wife of a Greek soldier, who had been kidnapped by Paris, a prince of Troy.

Over and over again in the story, its characters talk about warriors in the same terms we use to describe athletes. I don’t know what real battle was like in ancient Greece, but people who listened to Homer envisioned mythic warriors who fought face-to-face at close range with sword and spear. They taunted each other aloud as they fought, and they took the weapons and armor of their fallen foes as plunder of war and as marks of honor. (They also held chariot races and boxing matches on the battlefield in honor of fallen comrades, seeking to display their valor in sport as fiercely as they did in battle.)

Centuries later, under the Roman empire, people apparently wanted to witness this kind of glorious battle so badly that they threw gladiators up against each other in the Coliseum, making battle and sport one and the same thing.

Today, we still have our images of great warriors--think Rambo or Jack Bauer--but it seems to me we save most of our warrior language for professional sports. This is where the Big German comes into play, and the light that the Iliad casts on him isn’t favorable.

Dirk, people say, has great skill but lacks heart. In the Iliad, people say the exact same thing about Paris, the prince of Troy who kidnapped Helen from her Greek home and took her as his bride, but who is a better lover than a fighter. A couple of quotes from book 6 will help show what I mean.

The first is spoken by the beautiful Helen, who apparently loved Paris at one point but has grown resentful that the entire city is about to be sacked by the Greeks just because Paris won’t send her home with them. She says,
I wish I had had a good man for a lover
who knew the sharp tongues and just rage of men.
This one--his heart’s unsound, and always will be,
and he will win what he deserves.
The next quote, from Paris’ warrior brother Hektor, is a little more generous:
My strange brother! No man with justice in him
would underrate your handiwork in battle;
you have a powerful arm. But you give way
too easily, and lose interest, lose your will.
What's especially interesting to me here, in light of the Dirk analogy, is that Paris is primarily an archer, which means he shoots from long range but gets accused of lacking the will to fight up close. And even though the Trojans do have their fair share of more forceful warriors (like Hektor), and even though Achilles has a frankly unfair advantage, being divine on his mother’s side, at the end of the day Helen is Paris’s wife, and the battle is his to fight. But instead he largely stays in the background, whereas Achilles becomes the aggressor.

Guess whose side wins the war.