June 11, 2013 § 4 Comments
My title promises the story of a reason. Of reason. But there will be no reasons here, and less Reason. Consider it more a chronicle of an evening adrift on a roiling sea of inclinations, of aversions and attachments, of affections and affinities.
Sometimes, I think that the whole teeming, cacophonous universe of basketball culture lives all inside me as in a lane tightly packed with jostling big men – arguing with itself, voicing feelings it finds reprehensible, formulating analyses it finds arcane and over thought, impressed with its own subtlety, appalled at its own ignorance. I watched the 2nd half of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals series between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers at a Public House in Northeast Ohio. There I had, in public naturally, a mild, good-natured argument with Me-Circa-2010, only Me-Circa-2010 manifested as a late 30-something African-American man with dreadlocks wearing a flannel shirt over an Autism Awareness tee-shirt.
Let it be known that I’d often walked by, but never into, B. McK’s Public House. Though I often arrogantly trumpet my own status as a Townie in Oberlin — smugly and only half-ironically reminding my student and faculty friends that I’m “Just a citizen, folks” — and though this is the Townie sports bar in Oberlin, I am so far from home there that from the moment I first saw the owner (?) carefully applying the letters onto the window pictured above I (a) snarkily noticed that the letters were ascending from left to right relative to the window frame and (b) ignorantly read the name as “B. Mick’s”, which is what I have been calling it, publicly, ever since. It took an Oberlin student from Brooklyn to pull the rug out from under all of this pretense and (a) inform me that was in fact called B. McKay’s and (b) get me actually into the bar. Which is how I found myself walking in to the very small B. McK’s Public House in Northeast Ohio, 15 minutes from the South Beach of Lake Erie, and a half-hour from the Q, awkwardly sqeezing into the only open seat at the bar and incongruously (for myself and for the bar) ordering a Jameson’s on the rocks.
Miami was just beginning to pull away, crushing with its suddenly rejuvenated bounce the dreams of HoosierNation and the Rust Belt denizens of the Right Way who’d climbed onto the Pacers bandwagon. The Public House was groaning and, awkwardly sitting in the center, I determinedly fixed my gaze at the TV above me as if unaffected, as if being here weren’t a huge adventure for me. I was grinning, but only inside. As is my habit in pickup games among strangers, I was playing conservatively, playing defense, setting picks, moving the ball and moving without it, talking minimally. It took a few minutes for me to brazenly throw-up a contested three pointer: ”Man, I LOVE the Heat!” I said to nobody in particular, to everybody, to the words of hatred for the Heat that were a broken pillow of feathers floating in the air and settling on the bar before me.
No reaction. The denizens of B. McK’s, the true Townies and Citizens of Oberlin (of Northeast Ohio), ignored me and continued their strangely orchestrated composition for groans, complaints, lamentations, and thinly veiled displacements and projections. Rankled by my apparent invisibility, my courage stiffened by the Jameson’s and a Miami runout culminating in a Ray Allen corner three, I said more loudly, “I don’t!” — meaning, “hate the Heat” — “I LOVE the Heat!” This time I looked around, fishing for a gaze, and that is when I found Me-Circa-2010, in a different body and clothes.
I can’t write dialogue, so I won’t even try. Let me simply share my now-fellow-Citizen’s opening sally: “How can you love the Heat, man?! They’re not even a …. real… team.” Ho Ho! I think to myself. I’ve had this kind of argument a dozen times in my day job at Michigan, where I am neither Townie nor Citizen but the Dr. J Distinguished Bad Prof of Cultures of Basketball. Here, I thought to myself, I will bring to bear, through the Socratic method, a panoply of thought tools and rhetorical tricks and bring this man around. By the end, he will write a glowing evaluation of how I had caused him to revisit the opinions he held before taking the class – er – entering the bar.
But a Public House is not a University Classroom, I am thinking now, to the disadvantage of the classroom; and it was I who reconsidered the opinions I held: not of Lebron, but of the stock profile image I’d formed of those who despise him.
First of all, It is not true that I love the Heat. I can’t even say it’s true that I love Lebron. I love to watch the Heat play well, love watching them do what they do, and I love Lebron when he appears as the Bearer of Basketball Inevitability – all which was unfolding on the screen above our heads as Me-Circa-2010 and I had our mild argument. Moreover, Me-Circa-2010 HATED the Heat because they weren’t a real team. Me-Then even said this in one of the very Cultures of Basketball class in January 2011 to none other than Tim Hardaway, Jr., who was, at that moment wearing a Miami Heat snapback cap and whose father had been a player-hero for the Heat and was currently employed by the franchise. Timmy was too respectful a student to challenge me on that. He just nodded with a look that I now understand to have meant “I know what you mean better than you do, Professor” and then let it go.
Let me be clear, I never once privately or publicly begrudged Lebron his ethical and legal right to take his talents to South Beach. On the contrary, I publicly defended it. And, though I found “The Decision” program to be in gaudy poor taste, I didn’t experience it as a moral outrage or as a personal offense (somewhat surprising since I am an aesthete and tend to experience poor taste as an affront directed personally at me). Same goes for that whole weird glam-rock party with the flames and shit that Pat Riley through for Miami’s new Big Three.
But as Miami’s 2010-2011 season got off to a rocky start, I secretly rejoiced. It had already been too much that the Celtics — and the Danny Ainge, multi-vectored target of my endless hatred, no less — had engineered a Championship Team overnight. When the Heat followed suit, the deep nausea came from knowing with certainty that none of the franchises with which I’d ever identified — Milwaukee, Portland, or Detroit — would ever win a championship again because they would never be the kinds of places that even a Big One, let alone the Two or Three now necessary to win championships in the NBA’s New Global Order would ever want to go; at least not at least until the 22nd century when Global Warming goes into Full Effect and makes Detroit a resort destination owned by the distant descendants of Blue Ivy Carter.
I knew this, in part, because I’d already seen a younger and rawer Lebron single-handledly humiliate my Pistons en route to the 2007 NBA Finals. Those were the same Finals where the Spurs — the aspirational twin for fans of the Going-to-Work Pistons of 2003-2008 — dismantled Lebron’s Cavs in 4 straight games, briefly reassuring those of us ensnared in false dichotomies between the Individual and the Team, and nefarious ideologies about Playing the Right Way that God was still watching.
In short, back in the early years A.L. (Anno Lebromini), I held the following truths to be self-evident: 1) that Lebron was overrated, coddled by the league and the refs, lacked both style and character; 2) that the Making a Championship Team was An Art, an art of patience, endurance, hard-work and durability and so 3) that one of these Insta-Champ Packets of Powder, especially one whose main ingredient was Lebron, was disturbing for sure, and possibly even treasonous to the Republic of Basketball and a turning away from God.
My new friend at B. McK’s says to explain why he hates the Heat and wants the Pacers to win: “Lebron spent $250,000 on alcohol at that Party they had down in Miami.” He says, “Magic, Michael, Bird — they would NEVER do what Lebron did.” He says, “Lebron cares more about the fame and the glam than about winning. He has NO CHARACTER.” He says, “Anyway, I can’t wait for the Finals: the Spurs are gonna show Miami how it’s done.” (He also explains, to demonstrate his even-handedness, that he used to love the Heat teams of Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. I shudder at something in me this calls forth.)
I know all of these feelings as my own because I held them. All of this I parry good-naturedly, sometimes believing what I’m saying, sometimes not, sometimes conceding points, sometimes dismissing them, but mostly enjoying the game and that I am part of it now. One thing I will insist upon: Miami is a rock solid and sometimes overwhelming force of a basketball team, by pretty much any definition of the word team. Any honest basketball fan must admit this, regardless of how you feel about the process by which the team came to acquire the players comprising it.
Then he says, and this breaks my heart, “He left Cleveland.” He looks at me. And I look at him. I can’t tell if he might want to say something more. I think he can’t tell if I’m going to say something about that. Everything between us becomes suddenly liquid. ”He left Cleveland,” I repeat. ”I get that. You’re true to your home place. That’s cool.” I mean it, but it’s not enough as it comes out – it doesn’t meet the enormity of the Loss of Lebron, not even close.
My friend, though, deftly manages to meet me halfway, simultaneously affirming the validity of what I’d just said, relaxing his generalized hatred for the Heat, and in the process admitting that it’s all about the pain of Lebron leaving Cleveland: ”You know who I love on the Heat? I love Norris Cole. He’s from Cleveland State.” I nod. I don’t say anything but I am thinking that I love Norris Cole too because the Michigan Freshman in my class this year told me that Norris Cole had come into the Michigan lockerroom along with his Miami teammate Juwan Howard and his Fab Five teammates Jimmy King, Ray Jackson, and Jalen Rose to comfort them after their loss to Louisville in the NCAA Final. They’d been excited by that. So I can share my friend’s love for Norris Cole. Somehow vaguely, it comes from the same kind of place – a place in each of us that has little or nothing to do with Norris Cole and pretty much everything to do with other affections.
I wanted to find a way to impart to my friend how I came to love Lebron especially, as I say, when — as in Game 2 of the Finals — he goes off like a bomb; suddenly arising from some epochal slumber, shudders, and shakes off the whole of the basketball world, leaving even the inanimate trembling in the wake of his unprecedented capacity to dominate a game in every way it is possible to do so.
But I know that my reasons are my own and not his and, if anything, will only twist the knife in the gut of his pain.
How can it help him to know that my wife, a basketball fan by marriage only, born in Miami but in almost no way of Miami, gleefully glues herself to these Miami Heat, gawking and stomping at Lebron’s every move, even as she chokes on the venality of the Miami fans in the lower bowl? How can it help him to know what it has done for me and for my life that my wife is now in on it with me and that Lebron helped to make that happen as well? Will he feel better because my creative and professional career have been rejuvenated thusly and so smoothly integrated into a happy marriage that the truth is I’d much rather be watching at home with my wife than sitting at the Public House among Men?
Or my quasi-obsessive fascination with the idea of Lebron as the Incarnation of Inevitability? I haven’t even begun to understand that side of my love for Lebron. For now it just seems to express some shameful micro-fascist love for my own enslavement and weakness, a desire to be dominated – or at least for there to be domination. How will that help my friend? What could Lebron as the Incarnation of Inevitability possibly mean for him except that, at least as a sports fan, he was born in hell?
What if I had been able to articulate — as well as my friends Travis or Beckley, each in their own precise ways, did in the wake of what Lebron did in the second half of Game 2 — my appreciation for Lebron simply as a basketball player? Would that have soothed the pain, frustration, and resentment of Me-Circa-2010, of my friend in the bar who was anyone who has ever suffered long, hoped and hoped and hoped beyond hope, then shining rising come so close only to be ceremoniously and very publicly dumped and abandoned like a pile of useless, outgrown toy blocks on the South Beach of a dirty Lake?
I love Lebron now, because he is a bomb in the face of everyone — of all of us — who think we can know and master this game because we know something of it and its past. And I know now too that, at least for my friend at the Public House, that bomb was a terrible thing. And all of that lives together — and more — in my overcrowded basketball heart.
…to be continued
May 6, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Here’s what I see when I walk into Cultures of Basketball on the first day. I’m not proud of this, nor am I proud of confessing it, but I’m saying it because I think it may be productive to acknowledge it frankly. I see a certain number of “basketball players” (this semester 5) and a certain number of “students” (this semester 23; mostly white, mostly male). Usually I already know the names of the “basketball players.” Usually I do not know the names of the “non-players.”
My primary goal as a humanities educator teaching this course is to work on fixing what’s wrong with my eyes that make me see 28 utterly unique human beings as relatively homogenous representatives of two categories. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 16, 2013 § 2 Comments
I approach teaching Cultures of Basketball with the hope I can make the course and each class meeting more than just a forum for the kind of discussion a fan might have in a dorm room or sports bar with Bill Simmons. On the one hand, I want the passionate energy that kind of discussion contains and, after all, I am a fan too. But then I also want that kind of discussion to be something that students can step out of, and look at with a critical eye; I want them to come to see what sort of broader cultural purposes – often collective and unconscious — are served by particular positions in that discussion and even by the topic itself. Because this is when actual learning, self-understanding, and growth occur.
Yesterday was “LeBron Day” in class and it generated a great opportunity for this sort of thing. For, inevitably, within minutes the topic was raised: Is LeBron James the Greatest of All Time (the common acronym for non-hoops-nerds is GOAT). This question quickly narrowed to a single comparison: “LeBron vs Michael” (as in Jordan), which is when things got really animated. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 9, 2013 § 13 Comments
Early on in Hoops Culture class, my students read an essay by an established philosopher of sport, Professor R. Scott Kretchmar. He begins an essay on the moral qualities of different styles of basketball with a distinction between two kinds of basketball: one that he calls “purist” and one that he calls “modernist.” He draws up a table with two columns indicating the contrasting features of each style, touching on everything from the kind of offense and defense, individual skills, and even the pace that he believes characterize each one.
In the end, he argues for the superior moral virtue of what he calls “a modified purism” but along the way he acknowledges that he believes “purist basketball, generally speaking, is better than modernist basketball.” I don’t think it’s a particularly convincing essay and moreover the distinctions he draws are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) racialized. This is important and something I’ve written about extensively elsewhere, and something we talk about in class. But it’s not really what I want to emphasize here. What I want to focus on here is his claim that “purist” basketball is “centered on team capability” while “modernist” basketball is “centered on individual capability.”
It’s a commonplace in basketball culture, really in all of sports culture, to say that “there is no ‘I’ in ‘Team.’” And Kretchmar’s two column table begins more or less as a dressed up version of that cliche. But I disagree and want to challenge that truism. Among the things that stirred me so and inspired me in this year’s Michigan team was that they demonstrated very obviously, in my opinion, that there is an “I” in “team”, indeed that there must be an “I” in “team” and, in fact, that there must be and more than one “I” in “team.” « Read the rest of this entry »
April 9, 2013 § 6 Comments
Today is Tuesday. But it doesn’t feel like any Tuesday. I’ve been through something, though I’m not yet sure what it is. I’ve been through it with my wife and family and friends, with my students and colleagues, and — through this blog and social media — thousands of strangers. « Read the rest of this entry »