Jack Haley and the Ride

Jack Haley had a basketball career that was longer than it should have been, and a life that was shorter than it should have been. It's more inspiring than it sounds.

Mar 18 2015, 6:50pm

Go back far enough in most NBA players' careers, and there is some evidence to be found that they are physical geniuses. This should be obvious, because they are playing basketball in the NBA, but also it is not obvious, or is at least too easy to forget, because they are playing basketball in the NBA. The context warps and depresses what would otherwise be clear, and so we are suddenly noticing that Superman has a zit on his lip, or that The Hulk has put on weight and that his new tattoo says "BELEIVE IN YOURSELF," which honestly should have been easy to catch.

If every NBA career is an exercise in being promoted to the level that best and most brutally exposes your flaws, then every player who earns these promotions does so through genius and work and luck. Almost every non-star was at one time a star with a skill that is still a bright memory in the minds of everyone who played against him; those players themselves, even lost at the end of a bench, even buried in the D-League or at odds with some chain-smoking coach in Slovenia, can access rich memories of games in which no one on earth could have prevented them from doing what they wanted to do.

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This is the strange thing about it: even the journeymen are, or have been for a few months, something like gods. The hapless would-be defensive specialists can all basically fly, their bodies do things that bodies mostly don't; there is a YouTube highlight video, made in earnest and comprised of impressive basketball things, to be made for all these middle-class superhumans. There were whole college seasons dominated stem to stern by players whose names, in the NBA, are heard only after being preceded by the words Universally Maligned Draft Bust. They were all too big for their competition at some point, until the NBA recontextualized them, and made them seem suddenly smaller, so that they could fit into the bigger firmament. Or this is true of almost all of them. There was also Jack Haley.

Haley played for four teams in parts of nine NBA seasons, and spent others playing for money in Spain and Greece and LaCrosse, Wisconsin. There is nothing in the statistical record that Haley put up during his three seasons at UCLA that would suggest any of this should have happened. In his senior year, Haley was the 11th-leading scorer and fourth-leading rebounder on a pretty good Bruins team that also featured Reggie Miller and Pooh Richardson; they lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Wyoming, devoured by the all-consuming and extremely fleeting dominance of a player named Fennis Dembo. During his near-decade in the NBA, Haley played a little bit on bad teams and hardly at all for good ones; he was on the Chicago Bulls roster throughout their record-setting 1996 NBA Championship season, and played in exactly one game, the team's 72nd and final regular season win.

As a result of this usage, Haley's numbers are opaque and unilluminating; he played for nearly a decade, and there are still some serious sample-size issues, here. His best season as a pro was, on balance, more productive than his best season at UCLA, but there is not much to be gathered about the sum of the output produced by a player during a blowout's frantic playground endgame or a brief release into an elbow-throwing fugue state while relieving some foul-troubled teammate in a meaningless third quarter. This is all a lot less mysterious—how these numbers happened, why they were permitted to keep happening for so long—if you actually saw Jack Haley play. That is a compliment.

Jack Haley died on Tuesday, at the age of 51, and there is nothing in the numbers he produced during his life in basketball that explains why this loss would mean what it does to those who saw him play, either. Although of course there isn't. These are just numbers, and we are talking about Jack Haley.

The easiest explanation for Haley's longevity in the NBA was his friendship with Dennis Rodman, which was an unusual thing both because Rodman had few close friends in the NBA and also because of how close this friendship was. The two became close during a pair of years together in San Antonio, in Rodman's first stop after his career-defining stint in Detroit under Chuck Daly and at the beginning of his transition into a being of pure overstatement. Haley then followed Rodman to Chicago for that one championship season.

Because there was no obvious basketball reason for Haley's presence on those teams—I would tell you to look at the numbers, although I have also already suggested that you shouldn't—Haley was generally cast as Rodman's caddy, designated cab-caller, and team-mandated chaperone. This may well have been true, but it is even more unfair to Haley than those statistics are. They, at least, provide a sort of baseline for assessing what type of player he was—Haley was at least these sub-mediocre numbers, plus everything they did not capture. To remember him as a bodyguard or a babysitter is to deny even that modest accomplishment.

It is also to deny the thing that, reportedly, gave him credibility with Rodman in the first place, which is that Haley played basketball like a fucking crazy person, always. In this area, if maybe only in this one, Haley always passed the eye test. Haley gesticulated like a drowning a man, he ran the floor like a person being pursued by incensed alligators, and his every basketball action was done with the sort of careening no-brakes mania of a sugar-rushing child wearing those light-up wheelie sneakers. Even his DNP-Coach's Decisions looked exhausting; he waved a towel as hard as he played, and as happily. What is inexplicable about Haley's longevity in his career statistics was impossible to miss in the moment. He looked like what he was, which is a big handsome surfer with good hair and family money, but he attacked the game with a decidedly un-chill fervor that undid all of that.

That Haley made a career out of such limited basketball ability is admirable, but it was not why I cheered for him during his time with the New Jersey Nets, a lousy team on which he played more than usual and with which I was locked in total tweenage transference. Everyone is a narcissist at that age, and a hungry one; we strip everything we can from everything we can and we feed ourselves with it, the better to grow up and out. There were players on those Nets teams I'd emulate in the driveway and try to become on the playground, although I could only touch that for fleeting and unceilinged moments. For the most part, though, I was down on earth with Jack Haley, trying to turn myself inside out, yelling and rushing and doing what I could.

We don't pick the right inspirations, mostly. We want to be immortal, we want flight, and then we are frustrated because most of us just do not get that. It is too much to tell a kid, or an adult made kid-like by the species of agape specific to fandom, to be reasonable. Reason is not what any of this is about; I have written 1,000 words about a stranger who could only barely play basketball, so this should be obvious.

But there is more to wish for than flight, and a humbler, harder grace that is only achievable closer to the ground. Jack Haley showed it, lived it, and made life as a mortal look every bit as thrilling and difficult as it is. He rode the edge of a low wave, wobbling but upright. He did not make it look easy, but then it isn't easy. He did make it look fun.