Pigs and Fishes. This is Auspicious.

Basketball, Alchemy, and Mantic Insight into the Workings of the Universe


An interest in the [I Ching] has become more widespread, and as its popularity as a text for translation has grown, it has sometimes been considered as a philosophical gem suspended in a historical and cultural void, removed from its ancient Chinese context. Without this context, some translators and writers on the [I Ching] have dressed it in clothes of their own choosing, often inappropriately.

I first became interested in applying religious theory to basketball practice in 2007. I had just picked up a book about Zen, and, naïvely believing that it might fulfil its promise of “hard-won insights” rather than “second-hand slogans,” began reading with the expectation that I would soon learn how to hit targets in pitch darkness (a skill that Glen Rice claims to have mastered).

Of course, as I explained in a previous entry, Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery is a dubious sort of book, and certainly not one that I would recommend to anybody interested in reading an accurate account of Zen as it is practiced in Japan. But this initial disappointment did not deter me. I turned next to Daoist alchemy, which, according to one practitioner, could be used to transmogrify the body into a “shining, adamantine substance, weightless yet hard as jade.” This sounded as though it would be useful for taking charges and finishing through contact.

Xian (immortals or genies, roughly translated) were those who had successfully conquered mortality and acquired magical powers by performing certain exercises or consuming the correct elixirs. These elixirs were made using either vegetable, mineral, or animal elements (or a combination), though the first two were generally favoured. Ingredients like gold and jade were considered superior to herbs since they do not decay when buried or turn to ashes when burnt, and it was understood that such properties could be transferred to one who consumes an elixir created from such materials. One recipe guarantees that “having eaten the medicine for three years a man attains buoyancy in movement and is able to travel great distances; stepping over fire, he is not scorched; dropped into water, he does not get wet. He is able to appear and disappear at will. He will be happy for ever.”

Unfortunately, owing to the deliberately esoteric nature of alchemy, instructions and recipes were not made available to the general public or the merely curious[1], so most of the methods of concocting these elixirs are not known today. Even in those few cases in which exact ingredients[2] are given, the proportions are withheld. Nevertheless, a few quick and easy tricks have survived: juniper sap, for example, will enable one to walk on water if spread on the soles of the feet (I haven’t yet tried this, so I can’t confirm). Similar prescriptions abound in western alchemy: dog piss, mouse blood, and stones found in a crab’s head (?) were said to cure heart trouble, while baldness could be eliminated by the application of bees burnt to ashes (this last one actually works, by the way).


To those rational sceptics out there who foolishly believe that such pursuits are a waste of time, I invite you to consider the words of the renowned alchemist Ge Hong (283–343 CE): “Although the deaf could not hear thunder or appreciate music, and the sun and the splendour of the Emperor’s robes were invisible to the blind, it did not mean that these things did not exist.” Indeed, although statistical studies have yet to detect it, this does not mean that the hot hand is a myth! Alchemical elixirs are basically PEDs, anyway, making athletes the natural inheritors of the alchemical tradition[3].

Elixirs may not be the most affordable or reliable way to get ahead in basketball, but there is one method for success that we can all make use of relatively easily: consulting the I Ching[4]. The I Ching (well, this translation at any rate) promises “mantic insight into the workings of the universe and into the dynamic of a situation.” The applications for basketball should be obvious; from foreseeing the specific set plays your opponent will run during a game to predicting the winners of NBA championships. I have used this method myself for several years now, betting successfully on NBA games and accumulating such an enormous fortune that I now enjoy the luxury of blogging full-time from a solid gold laptop.

Since I don’t have any yarrow stalks[5] lying around, I’ll be using coins to make my divinations. I’ll try to keep each entry short, selecting only the most relevant fragments and passages. To avoid confusion, I will be asking each question from the perspective of the team with home court advantage (i.e., “will the Warriors defeat the Blazers?”). This is all very scientific, you understand. And so, without further ado, let’s play.

[As a result of changing lines, most of the readings below include two hexagrams, but in each case I’ve only included the image of the first for reasons of aesthetics and not wanting to do any more scanning.]

Round 1

Warriors vs Blazers

round 1 warriors v blazers 1

Be steadfast to the very end. None can hinder you.

Pretty straightforward.

Forecast: Warriors in 4.


Clippers vs Jazz

round 1 clippers v jazz

The True Gentleman Has a Destination.

Forecast: Clippers in 6.


Rockets vs Thunder

round 1 rockets v thunder

Slight fortune for a traveller.

A Wanderer moves on, writes Magister Liu. He does not linger in one place. […]. This is the Tao of the Wanderer. He passes through and does not linger; he is not attached to any country.

A soft style of leadership should be adopted when operating away from home, writes Professor Mun.

Forecast: Rockets in 4.


Spurs vs Grizzlies

round 1 spurs v grizz 1

There’s quite a lot of talk here about danger and peril.

He is caught in a thicket of thorns. For three years there is no success. Misfortune.

One has lost the means to escape from peril. This thicket of thorns, writes Magister Liu, [consists of] bad habits of Heart-and-Mind, vanity, and self-destruction.

A leader who has misjudged his direction, writes Professor Mun, now has to pay the price. He has fallen into a deep pit. 

Forecast: Grizzlies in 5.


Cavs vs Pacers

round 1 cavs v bulls 1

Calamitous advance, nothing profits.

This hexagram is generally seen as inauspicious.

When pleasure is the sole goal, writes Magister Liu, when desire and emotions dominate, the union will be inauspicious. The True Gentleman perceives these flaws; he sees that the union is not harmonious and well founded at the outset.

No fruit. An empty basket.

The marriage is broken. It is void. […]. The sacrifice is without effect. It bodes ill. This is a selfish union which will fail, writes Magister Liu. There can be no profit.

Great matters are abandoned.

Forecast: Pacers in 6.


Wizards vs Hawks

round 1 wizards v hawks 1

Supreme fortune. It profits.

The True Gentleman cultivates inner strength. He rouses the folk.

The Son sets right the blight of the Father in its early stages, before the corruption is too deep and advanced. In the end, the Father will be seen as having caused no lasting harm. […]. If an executive, writes Professor Mun, can carefully clear up the mistakes made by his predecessor, things will turn out well in the end. The decay is at an early stage.

The Leader’s resources accumulate: his knowledge, his experience, friends, special abilities.

Forecast: Wizards in 6.


Raptors vs Bucks

round 1 raptors v bucks 1

The hexagram name has traditionally been taken to mean “wounding of the bright,” and the individual lines contain frequent references to wounding and injury, and to the repression of all that is good and bright. […]. In human affairs, there is a Dark Lord above, and a Bright Minister below, one who cannot show his Light. It is a time of great Darkness. One cannot go along with the general trend, which is impure. […]. In such times the True Gentleman should find a way to preserve his integrity amid Darkness. A loyal minister is steadfast, and serves his country, even in hard times under a weak and unsympathetic sovereign.

Darkness. The left thigh is wounded.

The wound is not fatal or disabling. There is still a way to save oneself, and maintain Aspiration.

In this case, the second hexagram is actually quite auspicious and suggests that aspiration was indeed maintained. This will be a very close series, but the Raptors will overcome injuries and advance.

Forecast: Raptors in 7.


Celtics vs Bulls

round 1 celtics v pacers 1

Good faith. Luminous fortune. This is auspicious. For the steadfast, it profits.

The True Gentleman takes his ease; He feasts joyfully.

Respect and caution stave off defeat.

This is the very brink of the abyss. Advance has provoked resistance, which may result in injury. Mud is dangerous, writes Professor Mun. People can be trapped in it. A leader needs to be particularly cautious.

The True Gentleman calibrates.

The ruling idea of this hexagram is…the maintenance of a well-regulated cadence or rhythm, a fine sense of timing. It is essential to be in tune with Time, to be at one with the rhythms of the seasons and the equilibrium of society.

If one does not adapt to change, if one is too rigid, writes Magister Liu, this can create danger.

Forecast: Celtics in 7.


Round 2

Warriors vs Clippers

round 2 warriors v clippers 1

This is auspicious. To be steadfast profits. […]. There is success.

The work is of long duration, writes Magister Liu. It requires order, and gradual progress. This is not a contrived union…the marriage is not for the sake of a moment’s pleasure. […]. This union grows stronger with time, until finally the work is completed and the effort becomes effortless spontaneity.

Nothing can stand in her way. Her aspirations are fulfilled.

Difficulties will eventually be resolved, writes Professor Mun.

It is auspicious to be steadfast.

Forecast: Warriors in 7.


Rockets vs Grizzlies

round 2 rockets v grizz 1

There is no profit in making war. […]. That which one most esteems is exhausted.

Corrupt and powerful influences must be put out of the way. […]. He must be generous and not isolate himself in the pride of self-cultivation. […]. The Heart-and-Mind is mired in delusions.

Ultimately there is misfortune. Ultimately one will not prevail.

In this dark extremity, Small Men prevail.

Today’s revolving movement [gives way] to an identical movement tomorrow.

Forecast: Grizzlies in 6.


Wizards vs Pacers

round 2 wizards v bulls 1

Pigs and Fishes. This is Auspicious.

The leader’s good faith is such, writes Professor Mun, that the members of his organisation respond to him, like the chicks to their mother crane. […]. Relationships among people made on the basis of good faith will be deep and lasting.

The joy of the folk knows no bounds.

This indicates a good relationship among the respective units of an organisation at the upper level and below, writes Professor Mun. This creates a sense of cohesion and cooperation within the whole organisation. Helping others can be a mutually beneficial act.

Forecast: Wizards in 4.


Celtics vs Raptors

round 2 celtics v raptors 1

Stepping on the tiger’s tail. Not bitten. Fortune.

There is no failure, there is bright light.

Step forward in harmony and joy, with caution, writes Magister Liu. Then the tiger will not bite.

Calamity is avoided. What has been gained is not lost. Guard against overconfidence, writes Professor Mun.

This is auspicious.

Forecast: Celtics in 5.


Round 3

Warriors vs Grizzlies

round 3 warriors v grizz 1

Good faith. Luminous fortune. This is auspicious. For the steadfast, it profits.

The True Gentleman takes his ease; He feasts joyfully.

It profits to persevere.

Ultimately, all is auspicious.

This is a celebration of triumph. With steadfastness, one will go from strength to strength.

Fortune. The True Gentleman has a conclusion.

The humble, writes Magister Liu, possess but do not depend on, are not attached to, that which they possess. They have talent but do not presume on their talent. […]. All pride is gone. The Heart-and-Mind is level.

Forecast: Warriors in 4.


Celtics vs Wizards

round 3 celtics v wizards 1

Friends depart.

The city wall crumbles into the moat. The army is not deployed. In the hometown, orders are not issued.

Grandeur has run its course. It will be followed by stagnation. […]. The ruler may issue orders, but distress cannot be averted altogether. […]. It is too late for regret, writes Magister Liu. There is no point in resisting natural change, writes Professor Mun. The leader must accept the end of grandeur. He can do nothing to stop it. He must make preparations for the bad times to come.

It is dry. It is turtles, crabs, snails, mussels. Of trees, it is the hollow, rotten at the top.

Forecast: Wizards in 6.



Warriors vs Wizards

round 4 warriors v wizards 1

round 4 warriors v wizards 2

round 4 warriors v wizards 3

round 4 warriors v wizards 4

round 4 warriors v wizards 5

round 4 warriors v wizards 6

round 4 warriors v wizards 7

round 4 warriors v wizards 8

Interpret this last one for yourself!

quite frankly

[1] To the merely curious among my readers, I’ve got you covered. Here are the ingredients for the Empyrean-Roaming Elixir: cinnabar, realgar, malachite, laminar, amorphous sulphur, and quicksilver. Give it a go if you’re feeling brave. Alternatively, here is a different, somewhat more precise, recipe: “Prepare three pounds of the skin and fat from the back of a hog and one quart of strong vinegar. Place five ounces of yellow gold in a container and cook in an earthen stove. Dip the gold in and out of the fat one hundred times; likewise in the vinegar. Take a pound of this and you will outlast all nature; half a pound and you will live two thousand years.”

[2] As far as ingredients that are actually accessible and safe, we do know that asparagus was very highly regarded: it could “strengthen people and cause them to walk twice as fast as would thistle or knot-grass if taken for one hundred days.” The power of asparagus was most famously harnessed by Tzu-wei, who ate so much of it that “he had eighty concubines, sired a hundred and thirty sons, and walked three hundred miles a day.” Pine needles and peaches are good, too.

[3] Clear evidence exists of alchemical abuses at the highest levels of basketball. In his main remaining work, He Who Embraces Simplicity, Ge Hong describes how special diets can be used to improve one’s health and extend one’s life, and how elixirs may bestow magical qualities such as being in several places at once, becoming invisible, and flying in the air.

[4] Sticking with the Wade-Giles spelling here for the sake of familiarity. I’m using John Minford’s recent translation of the I Ching, which was written and arranged with lay idiots like me in mind. It’s pretty good; I’d recommend it.

[5] The yarrow is a plant botanically related to chamomile and tarragon, and it was traditionally used for divination in England as well (being placed under the pillow to induce dreams). Arthur Waley and his Bloomsbury friends used to use matchsticks instead of yarrow stalks. Waley’s translation of Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book is worth a read, incidentally (not because it’s accurate, but because it’s funny—he was a really good writer).


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