I do realize that the stuff we call amazing coincidences are often, in fact, not all that unlikely. Still, coincidences FEEL amazing. Thursday around lunch time, I was getting some Mongolian barbecue at a restaurant in the Charlotte airport when I felt a hand tap my shoulder. I turned around and two customers behind me was Michael, one of my best childhood friends in Cleveland, a guy I have seen, maybe, three times in the last thirty years.
At that moment, it seemed like the most impossible thing imaginable. What are the odds, really, in this huge world, of an old Cleveland childhood friend going to the same restaurant in the same Charlotte airport at the same time? My initial thought was that the odds had to be astronomical.
Then, well, I started to think about it using some basic facts.
1. Michael travels a lot on U.S. Air, which means he goes through Charlotte a lot.
2. I travel a lot and Charlotte is my home airport.
3. The restaurant is in the center of the airport, so anyone changing planes will probably go by there.
4. It was lunch time.
5. Everyone loves Mongolian BBQ.
6. Michael was one of my best, but not my only, childhood friend.
Putting all this together I realized it was kind of amazing we had never run into each other before.
The sixth of these facts, by the way, seems to me (as someone who really doesn’t understand probability or math or anything else) important and something that we too often miss when thinking about coincidences. The other day, I wrote something about Pat Tabler, who went 43 for 88 with the bases loaded in his career. It is super unlikely for Pat Tabler, a lifetime .282 hitter, to hit almost .500 with the bases loaded in his career.
But is it super unlikely for someone LIKE Pat Tabler, someone with his general hitting skill and durability, to do it? How many hitters in baseball history have been roughly as good as Pat Tabler? Figuring out stuff like this is fun and based on a few dubious calculations, I would guess there have been somewhere between 750 and 1,000 Tableresque.
To say: Pat Tabler will go 43 for 88 in his career with the bases loaded … hugely improbable.
To say that one of the Tableresque hitters would do it — not nearly as improbable.
So, seeing Michael — even given his tendency to travel through Charlotte — might have been somewhat unlikely. But realistically I would have been just as surprised if I had seen 100 or 200 people — an old high school friend, a parent of an ex-girlfriend, an old teacher, even a sibling of one of my friends. Any one of those would hit me as just as unlikely (if not more unlikely) as seeing Michael. If I woke up that morning and said, “What are the odds of seeing my old pal Michael today,” then I’m sure those are pretty long odds. But, like every morning, I woke up yesterday not expecting to see anyone from my past would have been just as surprised to see any of them. That lowers the odds considerably and makes amazing coincidences happen much more often than the brain believes possible.
I should add here that Michael and I sat down for a while and talked about childhood stuff, but mainly we talked about the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are now officially playing a ridiculous brand of basketball. I might argue that no team since Magic’s Lakers has poured in points the way this Cavaliers team does when the offense is clicking. Kyrie Irving might be the best in basketball at attacking the basket. Kevin Love has not yet won Cleveland’s love, but dammit night after night it’s 18 points, 10 rebounds … 16 points, 12 rebounds … 20 points, 8 rebounds. And LeBron, even slightly diminished, is still the best guy in the world to have on your basketball team.
There are, of course, countless things that can go wrong … and I really do think the Hawks are sensational, and the West is loaded with good teams, and the Cavs can still go into painful lulls. But after a lot of dubiousness, I now think this Cavs team really could win the championship. I’m not saying they will. But I honestly think they could.
And Cleveland winning a championship, now THAT would be amazing.