Touching the Stars

I grew up in Washington Heights, in northern Manhattan. Every Friday after school (or Sunday, if the weather was bad on Friday), I’d go to Fort Tryon Park – home of the famous Cloisters, the “medieval-style” museum (built by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. who also designed Central Park – but I digress). At the entrance to the park was a large basketball playground where guys would show up for serious pick-up games. Occasionally, we would be joined by a very tall teenager by the name of Lew Alcindor…

If that name doesn’t mean anything to you, here he is in a nutshell: possibly the greatest high school basketball player of all time (only Wilt Chamberlain was of the same stature). Of course, it helps that at the age of 16 he was already 6’ 10” (approximately 2.10m). Alcindor lived about a mile from the park and would take the 10-minute bus uptown to shoot the hoops with us. As an aside, I can vouch for the fact that even then he was a fine fellow – never playing under the basket (with his height, no competition there) but only shooting from the outside. Oh yes, I forgot to mention (for all you non-basketball mavens) he went on to a stellar career in college where he converted to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul Jabbar. (If that name still doesn’t ring a bell, where have you been living these past decades?)

For me, my few pickup basketball games with the “Great One” are a matter of “that’s nice” – but nothing to brag about. After all, I didn’t do anything here other than being at the same place, and playing a few games, where he too happened to be. However, I find it very interesting that every time I mention this vignette in passing, people are not only amazed but also never forget the “story” – even years and decades later.

Which brings me to the point of this essay: humans are social animals through and through, i.e. we haven’t left behind our “caveman” nature by much, if at all. The term “social” sounds nice but embedded within it are all sorts of other characteristics, a central trait being “competitive hierarchy”. Let it be said at the outset that while most “primitive” societies (then and now) have been patriarchal, we know of several that were and are matriarchal, meaning run by women. So the social structure is not gender-specific, even if most have been led by males.

Every human being strives for social status. In our distant past that was mostly (perhaps exclusively) for procreation – the more socially powerful, the more food and other resources the individual gained, thus attracting more fertile mates (yes, plural). Today, such social status is sought for other goals as well, but the underlying drive is still psycho-biological.

Who gets to the top of the pile? The “Alpha Male” (or Alpha Female). Others can be close hangers-on who are in the middle of the social hierarchy, and still others are socially “back of the pack”. The social “rat race” is perpetual, no matter our age: kids do it, adults do it, and even Third Agers do it (for a day or two, try being an anthropologist in a Retirement Home; social “competition” might express itself more subtly, but it’s there).

The Abdul-Jabbars of the world are “Alpha”, but what’s interesting are those in the coterie “circles” around them. Many people are Mid-Social due to their own accomplishments: a good lawyer; an excellent teacher; a minor league ballplayer. However, a large number get to the mid-hierarchy by “touching stardust”, i.e. being near, working for, or having some sort of relationship with, the Alpha.

Among other things, this explains the widespread (universal?) phenomenon we see on social media of “Leaders/Influencers” and their minions, e.g. Twitter “followers”, Facebook “sharers” and “likers”, and so on. By signing up and receiving constant feeds, people have the feeling that they are part of the VIP’s “circle”, even if it’s an outer one. And if they should actually get a real response from that Leader, well they’ve then moved into an inner circle of sorts – something that might be “worth” social status credit with their friends and family.

This sounds awfully crass, but real life isn’t all flowers and cookies. That’s not a “moral” judgment; just calling the way things really are. There’s no harm in wanting to be part of something “bigger” – except when it prevents us for DOING something bigger ourselves because we’re too caught up in constantly being with someone bigger.

I touched future stardust on the playground with Lew Alcindor and it was fine. More important was my ability not to view that as the pinnacle of my life. I never made “Alpha” – but achieving “Beta” is nothing to be ashamed about, especially when there are a lot more lower letters on the alphabet…

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