In 1967, I was a junior in high school sitting in Journalism class at Campbell High School in Campbell, California. One side of our classroom was a wall constructed of all windows. The windows looked out onto a driveway separating two rows of buildings that resembled a modern day storage facility. It was a very utilitarian view.
About halfway through class one day, I looked out the window (I actually spent a lot of time during my school years looking out of windows). In the alley I noticed a friend of mine who was walking to class. His first name was Prince and he was a pure blooded Hawaiian. Prince was a handsome young guy who was apparently from Hawaiian royalty. He was also in great shape. There was one thing I didn’t know about Prince that I was about to learn as I looked out the window that day.
As Prince walked down the driveway separating the storage units, I saw three guys surround Prince. I knew a fight was on. Someone in the classroom yelled those magic schoolyard words, “Fight”, and up from our desks we all stood and crowded toward the windows. What I saw next was amazing.
Prince went into a karate stance and his entire demeanor changed. He began to move like a cat. One of the bullies tried taking a swing at Prince and got decked with a lightning fast punch, another tried his best move and Prince kicked him really hard – like a mule - in the gut and sent him flying. Finally the last guy standing realized his mistake and ran off. I had just witnessed my first ever, real, karate street fight.
I went home that night and told my dad what happened and said, “I need to learn that stuff.” My dad used to be a boxer so this was music to his ears. Dad had been faithful over the years to rescue his two sons from my mom’s desire to turn my brother and me into tap dancers and movie stars. At age 11 our tap dancing lessons thankfully ended the day my dad bought us a go-kart. Dad was always willing to step up and help his boys experience his version of manhood. This was another opportunity.
The next day, when I returned home from school, dad mentioned he responded to a newspaper ad announcing the opening of a new karate studio – a dojo – in our hometown of Los Gatos, California. The instructor, David Cardenas, was a newly minted first-degree black belt from the Kenpo style of karate that has its origins in Chinese Shaolin Kung-Fu. My dad was a contractor and offered to build the partition walls in Mr. Cardenas’ new dojo in exchange for karate lessons for his sons. In two weeks I had a new gi (a karate uniform) and a white belt and was taking my first introductory class.
After several months of training, and advancing through a new belt rank, our instructor asked if we students would like to go to Long Beach, California to watch the International Karate Championship at the Long Beach arena. A few weeks later we all piled into several cars and drove south to Long Beach.
At the championship I was in awe. Famous names in the karate world like Chuck Norris and Joe Lewis would be fighting and a young man named Bruce Lee was slated to demonstrate his Chinese Kung Fu. Bruce performed a demonstration of his fighting techniques, his one-inch punch along with two-finger push-ups. Those of us in the arena knew we were witnessing a form of martial arts that was rare and formerly unseen.
When Bruce Lee conducted his demonstration, I never saw a human being move so fast. In fact, his feet moved faster executing a kick than most men can punch with their fists. Later in that same championship I watched a young Tang Soo Do fighter named Chuck Norris defeat Joe Lewis. It was all so epic.
Over the years since that trip to Long Beach the reality and the legend of Bruce Lee has grown. He was definitely a unique man and one of the world’s finest martial artists. He deserves that honor.
I have also seen how the legend of a man can grow beyond reality. Without any disrespect to the memory of Bruce Lee, there are mixed martial artists today who would be able to defeat Bruce Lee in a cage fight because the art of fighting has developed past the legend.
As we age and our pride hopefully mellows we begin to see the power of leaving a legacy. It would be an insult to the legends we currently esteem if their accomplishments became the terminal point of the development of what they taught us.
We do this not just in things like martial arts. We do it in art, music and literature. We also do it within the Church. We can allow the legend of those who have gone before us to override our current reality. God wants to take us beyond what took place at the inception of any single life or ministry. Jesus told the Church that we would do greater things. In life, and in God’s Kingdom, things are designed to get better. When God created us he gave us the ability to improve and grow into the ever-expanding revelation of his life in us and in the world.
When I realize someone is a legend I want to speak about him or her with great respect, but I also need to realize several things about the legends I choose to honor:
Blindly honoring a legend can blind me to my current reality.
Looking back and longing for the “good old days” when the legend lived can cause me to falsely believe that God’s best is always behind me.
It is important to allow a legend to be human. Deity belongs only to God.
Everything develops and progresses. God’s plan is for the student to do better than the teacher.
Today, if Bruce Lee were alive, I am sure he would want to be surrounded by students who had taken his art to a new level. He would want to be a father to his martial artist sons and daughters. He would want to be a healthy example of a legend that did not give his life energy to the perpetuation of his self-image. He would want to be an encouragement to others to take what they learned from him and go farther with it.
Finally, I think if Bruce Lee were still alive today, even as a senior citizen, he could kick most of our butts with both of his hands tied behind his back.