The Voice of my Dad

April 2, 2014 § 2 Comments

I wrote most of this a few years ago. It seems much more important now. And so I added a bit to it at the end. Thanks for reading.

What is my father’s voice? What does it sound and feel like? What does it say? What difference does it make? I’ve written about how radio broadcasts would help me mute the sound of his voice as he and my mother argued and how, at a metaphorical level, my father’s desires and voice loomed as large in my childhood as Wilt Chamberlain loomed in the Philadelphia Warriors offense. But in fishing out the memories of those feelings, I’ve also snagged some other memories, other stories, and other feelings. They don’t all literally involve his voice, but the most important one does.

My dad was one of my earliest opponents on the basketball court (my two older brothers and, on occasion, my sister or her boyfriend were the others). My father loved to watch basketball—a quick and intelligent student of the game’s more subtle dynamics. But, a Spanish immigrant to the United States, he was neither experienced nor skilled as a player. Moreover, around the time I was eight or nine, he suffered a serious back injury that made it impossible for him to run and jump. Most of my memories of playing against my dad come from that time, when he was grounded, but still willing—somehow—to come out and play with me.

What a complex classroom in basketball and in life those contests would be. I say he was inexperienced, unskilled, and hampered by injury, but my father, as I recall his game, possessed a fair bit of natural athletic ability. I don’t remember him jumping, but I imagine he had pretty good hops in his day. Around 5-foot-9 with a medium build, he was quick with wiry, strong muscles in his legs and arms.

He was a determined competitor. At the time, I appreciated that. For me, playing ball was about playing against grown-ups and thereby feeling like less of the family baby. I couldn’t tolerate the idea of someone going easy on me. I’m aware now that the grown ups were both probably going easy on me and protecting me from the knowledge of that. But I still remember each game as an all-out war of bodies and minds.

Offensively, my dad had a somewhat limited repertoire. He had a fairly accurate one-handed set shot, given the time to set it up. He had a pretty quick first step to the basket, but he needed to look at the ball to dribble, which slowed his drives to the hoop. He also had this methodical way of backing in toward the basket, keeping his dribble alive, and then, finally close enough, tossing a quick turn-around, half-shot, half-hook, off the backboard. That was tough for me to stop because he was bigger and stronger. I still remember feeling the dread of the inevitable as I desperately dug in, trying to hold my ground.

But what I remember most viscerally is his suffocating style of defense. My dad gave new meaning to the phrase “man up.” I see him–feet wide apart, crouched low, back ramrod straight—playing torso-to-torso defense. He got as close as he possibly could without touching, his hands stretched to the side or straight up in the air depending on whether I was shooting. As I’d begin to dribble, his arms would come together in a kind of stiff-armed hug. I’d press my drive around him and it felt like I was trying to enter a turnstile the wrong way—a little give, but no way to get through. I imagine that we acknowledged fouls in those games, but I don’t actually remember any.


I do remember the combination of frustration and determination that his intense defense used to provoke in me, as well as the elation and triumph I’d feel when I scored. Sometimes I felt so beaten and trapped that I wanted to cry in frustration and complaint. Sometimes, I’m sure, I did (I cried easily as a boy). But sometimes I found that my father’s will to stop me seemed to infect me, and I’d feel an unshakeable will not to give up until I got past him. Then, no matter how many times I slammed into that turnstile, I’d backtrack my dribble, try a still-emerging crossover or fake, and try to get around him on the other side. Or I’d try a wider path to the hoop, hoping to elude his reach entirely. More than anything, what stays with me is the sense that I lost myself. And in that tiny, intense battle for a swath of poured concrete, that felt good.

Those times I drove past him, I felt elated, proud, relieved, but also a little anxious. I couldn’t tell what my dad felt, and that worried me. Was he proud? Hurt? Angry? All I could be sure of was that he was determined and serious. Probably, I was wrong even about that. Maybe all he was doing was trying to endure the pain caused by the herniated disk in his back. Maybe he was thinking about something else entirely. Yet it never felt that way. It felt like he was all there, all about stopping me by hook or by crook. It felt like we both had something personal at stake.

Sometimes this was confusing and unsettling, but most of all I remember those games against my dad as strengthening. They built my confidence, not to mention certain skills and qualities in my game that I still notice today when a stronger, bigger, more physical player guards me. I still usually respond by going to the basket with extra determination. I still do my best to bang underneath and to hold my ground when he tries to post me up. And so, above all, I feel the surging and energizing desire to win—more, to vanquish. And if I do, when I do, I feel it has so much to do with will, with wanting it more. I think of my dad and feel sure that nobody but him could have instilled that in me.

I’m reminded of Dave Hickey’s excellent essay “The Heresy of Zone Defense” in the book Air Guitar. Hickey opens with a description of this play:

Julius [Erving] takes the ball in one hand and elevates, leaves the floor. Kareem [Abdul Jabbar] goes up to block his path, arms above his head. Julius ducks, passes under Kareem’s outside arm and then under the backboard. He looks like he’s flying out of bounds. But no! Somehow, Erving turns his body in the air, reaches back under the backboard from behind, and lays the ball up into the basket from the left side.

Hickey thinks about the joy the play elicits and decides that its perfection is as much Kareem’s doing as Dr. J’s. Kareem’s perfect defense elicited Dr. J’s perfect response. I now think of my dad as my Kareem, the one whose perfect intensity and, ultimately, respect for me as his opponent elicited my best. He brought out my technical skills and most intense determination. Playing against my dad gave me the ability to transform feelings of frustration and anger into a combination of focused desire and intelligent calculation.


But my dad was more than my opponent. Once I started playing competitively, he was also my biggest, most conscientious, and most enthusiastic fan. I started playing soccer in competitive leagues when I was five or six and played every season through my senior in high school. I started playing competitive basketball in sixth grade and, again, played all the way through high school. I’m sure he must’ve missed a game or two because he travelled regularly during part of that time, but I can’t remember any.

Home and away, he was always there with my mother—a fixture among the sparse crowd of parents and friends on the sidelines of a soccer game or up about five or six rows behind our bench at our more crowded basketball games. With his bad back, I don’t really know if it hurt him to sit in the pullout wooden bleachers or to stand for the duration of a soccer game. I always imagined that it did. That was the reason, I figured, why he always paced the sideline. If his back did hurt, he never told me about it. He never complained once.

What’s more, and I’ve never heard of any other dad doing this, he kept track of the statistics at my basketball games all the way from sixth grade through high school. He used a small yellow steno pad and one of the ever-present fine-point pens from his shirt pocket. In neatly labeled columns, he recorded my field-goal attempts, field goals, free-throw attempts, free throws, assists, steals, turnovers, rebounds, fouls, and points. Once I made varsity, he started doing it for the entire team.

My dad never used these statistics to criticize me or my teammates. I don’t remember him actually ever even making any neutral observations about the statistics (He eventually entered them into a database, so he could print from his new personal computer in the early 1980s). My dad was a scientist, a very capable scientist, with a brilliant statistical mind and love of numbers. Though I never had his aptitude, I did love the mathematical games and tricks he shared with me when I was a boy, and I did love to pore over sports statistics. I even—I’m a little embarrassed to say—kept track of the statistics from one-on-one games against my friend Robb (I kept track, consulting him of course, of his statistics too). All of this is to say that my dad’s stat keeping was a way for him to connect more deeply with my life. It was enough that he was always there at the games, no matter what else might be going on. But he took it further, connecting one of his abilities and passions to one of mine. This enhanced and augmented the space we shared.

Of all these memories of competing with my dad and poring over statistics with him, the one that most sticks out in my mind is the sound of his voice—deep, hoarse, slightly accented—bellowing over the sound of my coaches and the hundreds of fans at one of our basketball games. “Go Yago! Goooooo Yago!” Sometimes my friends made fun of me. That annoyed and embarrassed me, but, very secretly, I was grateful to my dad for being the kind of dad-fan who yells for and not at his kid. Not all my friends’ dads were like that. Some of them never came to games. Others came but were quiet supporters. Others came and berated their sons publicly during and after each game. My dad came, kept stats, occasionally gave the ref a piece of his mind, and shouted “Go Yago!”

It’s not just that he yelled “Go Yago!,” it’s in that “Go Yago!” that he expressed all the pride and love and joy he drew not only from my accomplishments but from my participation. My dad let me know that he was proud of me when I won an award, or made all my free throws, or had a high assist-turnover ratio. But he also let me know, just as frequently, that he was proud of me and loved just watching me run down the floor. He just loved to watch me run. I don’t even know if it was really the running. I dimly feel that my running on the court (or on the soccer field) just stands for my being. And by loving my running, my father expressed his love for me, just as I was, just because I was. So “Go Yago”—the name of my first basketball blog—is most deeply that: a calling forth of the love and acceptance of my father for me, just because I am and my being brings him joy.

PostScript. 4/2/2014:

I have talked to my Dad daily, usually via FaceTime since early July, when my mother, suffering from late stage Alzheimer’s, had a seizure and a bad fall and had to be placed in a skilled nursing facility. He was suddenly alone for the first time in his life. None of this was what he imagined his final years would look like. For nine months I’ve talked to him daily. We have never been closer, talking openly of regrets, angers, sorrows, and love and mutual admiration. Sometimes, we would just be silent, looking at each other’s images on our respective devices, feeling the strange combination of proximity and distance. We closed our conversations by blowing each other a kiss. In January he received a diagnosis of inoperable cancer. In March he moved into the same facility with my mom. My wife and I were there to put him to bed on his last night in the home he shared with my mom for 44 years, the home they raised me in. “Ah, Yago and Claire,” he said before closing his eyes that night, “You are so sweet!”

We still talk every day, but his mind is going fast, and he’s frequently too tired to all for more than a few minutes. His voice doesn’t make much sense when it speaks or me anymore. His eyes aren’t open that often and when they are they are looking at something else. I don’t know what.

I’m afraid of how it will feel when I know I won’t hear his voice ever again; his voice, and eyes, and smile, expressing that joy that I exist.

Our Myth of Creation

March 18, 2014 § 3 Comments

This is the text of a presentation I gave this past weekend at the American Comparative Literature Association annual conference at New York University.  It’s also an abbreviated version of Chapter One of my book manuscript.  I know it’s a scholarly work, and long for a blog post, but I trust the intelligence, curiosity, and attention span of my readers.  Feedback welcome as always!


From its beginnings in 1891 and over the course of basketball’s subsequent history, changes in society and in the sport have sparked sometimes contentious discussion over the putative essential nature of basketball as well as over the techniques and tactics that ostensibly best convey that nature. Investigating these discussions, I have identified clusters of recurrent stories, metaphors, and images, arising around key events and personalities. I call these clusters “myths” not to suggest that they are untrue, but rather to emphasize my interest in their narrative character and cultural function. These myths give narrative shape to a collective struggle with changes—particularly related to race—taking place in basketball and in society. In general, they fabricate an idealized, timeless essence of the game and project it onto a succession of moments, individual players, coaches, and teams or conversely, fantasize that a contrasting succession poses a destructive threat to that essence.  Sometimes, the same myth simultaneously hails an embodiment of basketball’s essence and decries an imagined threat to that essence.

In each of nine chapters, I focus upon a key myth pertaining to a different era in basketball’s history. Within each chapter, I first employ interpretative methods drawn from literary studies to identify the key thematic and formal elements of the myth in question. I then situate this myth in and against the overlapping contexts, in basketball and in society, in which it emerged—the “history” of my subtitle—to show how it simultaneously suppresses, pretends to resolve, and expresses anxieties related to change in the sport and in society. Finally, I propose alternative histories of the phenomena in question—the “inventions” of my subtitle—that are centered around close readings of the creative aesthetics of on court play. These close readings attend to the specific tactical and stylistic innovations of players and the ways in which these might carry meaning beyond the boundaries of the basketball court and thereby disrupt the more confining myths that have crystallized around them.

I’d like to flesh this out now by sharing an example from Chapter One: The Myth of Creation, December 21, 1891, which addresses myths arising around the invention of the sport.

Basketball, like other world civilizations, has a creation myth. On the occasion of the 2010 auction of basketball’s original thirteen rules, Sotheby’s vice-president Selby Kiffer offered an extremely compact version of this myth to explain why someone would pay 4.3 million dollars for the two page typescript: “This,” he said “is like Athena bursting out of Naismith’s head full-blown. . . Nothing else like this exists that captures the origin of a sport. One day there wasn’t basketball. The next day there was. You don’t have that with football, baseball, lacrosse, golf. This is the birth of one of the most popular games in the world.”[1] Though just a single, and perhaps off the cuff, quotation, Kiffer’s remarks nicely embody a version of events that has appeared in many accounts of the game’s invention over the past one hundred years, according to which, to boil it down to its basic elements, basketball was born, full-grown, directly from the head of its father, James Naismith, in the form of thirteen written rules.[2]

Of course, none of this is literally true or, to put it slightly differently, historically accurate.[3] Basketball was not “born.” It was invented. And it was not invented “full-grown”—that is, in the form it is played today: the original version of the game bears little resemblance to today’s game. Finally, while it is true that James Naismith devised the original thirteen rules, he did so neither in isolation nor through an effort of pure intellect, but rather as the culmination of an extended process of experimental and sometimes haphazard collaboration with colleagues and students that included physical trial and error, conversation, study, and solitary reflection. Given the myth’s distortions of the historical record, I ask myself what sort of broader, underlying cultural work it may be accomplishing for those who adhere to it.

I believe the key to this question lies in the image of Athena, born fully formed from the head of Zeus, that the myth frequently employs as a metaphor for the sport itself. This metaphor at once reveals and suppresses a tension that runs through the entire history of the sport between a desire for growth and a desire for stability; or, to put it in more concrete terms, between a desire to capture new participants and markets and a desire to police the technical, aesthetic, moral, and social impact these new participants would have on basketball. On the one hand, the metaphor tells us that basketball, like Athena, was born. Basketball then, as a born thing, is alive and so must undergo growth and change. On the other hand, the metaphor tells us that basketball, like Athena, is immortal and appeared full-grown from the start, subject to no developmental changes. The metaphor first acknowledges change through the invocation of birth and then hastily suppresses that by emphasizing the timelessness of the thing born.  Furthermore, by portraying the sport as a brainchild, the metaphor lays emphasis on the intellectual, idealized dimension of the sport’s invention and suggests that Naismith was the game’s sole progenitor.  This squares with the decision reductively to equate the invention of basketball with the act of writing the original thirteen rules. Basketball’s creation myth, in short, portrays the sport as beyond time, matter, and society.

In view of this analysis of the Athena metaphor, I would now ask why, given the obvious evidence to the contrary, it should be so important for the myth’s adherents to cling to this image of basketball as beyond time, matter, and society?  Examining various versions of this myth, I’ve been led to think that this emphasis occurs to protect the precious moral cargo the myth’s purveyors believe basketball conveys.  Naismith and other social reform minded physical education professionals believed that virtues like unselfishness, cooperation, efficiency, and hard work could be developed directly through physical behaviors like those dictated by the rules of basketball. For purveyors of basketball’s creation myth, therefore, when Naismith created basketball he created at one and the same time, like the God of Genesis, a complete, morally ordered universe. This raises the stakes involved in changing that universe and, indeed, in even narrating the origin of that universe as hypothetically vulnerable to change. To introduce—or even to portray the introduction of—a technical change to basketball as Naismith conceived it—whatever that change might be—would automatically also tamper with the orderly moral dimensions of that universe.  If the game is subject to change, that is, so also is morality.

In addition to the intrinsic dangers posed to the religious minded by the mutability of morality, the stability of this particular moral code was vital to American capitalist development at the end of the 19th century.  The virtues supposedly coded into the rules of basketball were believed to attenuate the deleterious extremes of unbridled capitalism; extremes which, left unchecked, could lead to social disintegration or worse, revolution.[4]  The imperatives of this tight nexus of technique, morality, and social order have driven some proponents of the myth to explicitly lament elements of the game introduced after Naismith’s time, such as the dunk, as technical aberrations tainted with the hue of moral degradation and, most disturbingly, inherently linked to particular, socially marginalized, racial or ethnic groups.[5]

If myths, as some have said, are “cultural dreams,” and dreams fulfill unconscious wishes, then what sort of wish does basketball’s creation myth fulfill?  And, what sort of unconscious has that wish?  In response to the latter question, I want to posit the work of what I call the “white basketball unconscious.” Now, let me be clear that the white basketball unconscious is not necessarily or exclusively a property of the psyche of white Americans.  Nor do I conceive it as a preexisting repository.  It is rather hypothetical container that is constituted by its contents—the wishes, terrors, and impulses related to race and basketball that the conventions of time and place require us to repress, before we are even conscious of them.[6] I hypothesize that the white basketball unconscious fabricated this cultural dream of the game springing, full-blown like Athena, directly from the head of James Naismith as a means of expressing its unsavory wish that basketball was in fact still played by white Christian men under the supervision of an appropriate authority figure in order to cultivate the moral values of the late 19th century American middle-class. It is as though if that dream could be real then a century and a quarter of social change, which includes the challenging of American white male privilege by ethnic minorities, women, people of other nations and, especially in this case, African-Americans, might just have been a nightmare from which the white basketball unconscious could now safely wake up.[7]

I hope this gives you an idea, albeit a schematic one, of how in Ball Don’t Lie! I critique the myths of basketball culture.  But as I said, I also counter these myths with alternatives, counter-myths if you like, that I call inventions.  I’d like now to give you a sense of one of these.

Basketball’s creation myth elides a striking historical detail: namely, how Naismith got the idea that a sport might be the sort of thing that one could invent. Mythmakers may ignore it, but Naismith was careful to acknowledge the source of this idea and to emphasize the impression it made upon him. In a seminar, Naismith’s teacher and mentor, Luther Gulick, suggested that “’There is nothing new under the sun. All so-called new things are simply recombinations of things that are now existing’.”Naismith took the lesson to heart, recombining Gulick’s general observation that invention is combinatorial creativity with an earlier discussion of the need for a new sport. “’Doctor,’” Naismith replied, “’if that is so, we can invent a new game that will meet our needs. All that we have to do is take the factors of our known games and recombine them, and we will have the game we are looking for’.”[8]

Gulick’s and Naismith’s particular usage of the term “invention” here derives from the classical art of rhetoric. In that context, it referred to the process of coming upon, finding, or discovering—among all had already been said about an issue (called “the inventory”)—those resources that would contribute to constructing the most persuasive new argument under the current circumstances. Rhetorical invention implies an awareness that creating an effective, novel argument involves not the creation of new words, but the repurposing of old ones and their experimental recombination for a decidedly pragmatic purpose: persuasion or, in other words, veri-fication—truth-making as a dialogic process. Invention, in other words, may be seen not as the instantaneous creation of something out of nothing (as basketball’s creation myth would have it), but rather as a process of rearranging the other “things that are now existing” so as to come upon something new that suits the purpose at hand.[9] 

If we think of coming up with a new sport that will both entertain an unruly gym class and impart moral and social lessons as analogous to coming up with a persuasive new argument, we can see how Naismith’s process in inventing basketball resembles the process of rhetorical invention. He consulted the inventory of existing sports and physically tried them out in his class. As each successive attempt failed to produce the desired effect in his audience, he adapted: dropping elements of one game, adding those of another—recombining, as Gulick had suggested, the elements of existing things in a back and forth process taking him from gymnasium (and his skeptical audience) to office and back. Moreover, Naismith recognizes the new game’s success would depend less on its intrinsic qualities than on the persuasiveness with which he could present it to his leading, or most persuasive, students.

Thus basketball was in fact invented, and invented in the rhetorical sense of the term, as an embodied form of persuasion. That is to say, first, that Naismith followed a classical rhetorical model of invention in order to discover the elements of the new game; second, that he was conscious that his audience would have to be persuaded of the value of the new game; and third, and perhaps most importantly, that the new game was invented to serve as a means of physical persuasion whereby players would be moved to incorporate certain moral codes as desirable by cultivating them through their play.  Invention, therefore, in this same sense, is the very foundation of basketball, its lifeblood and its essence.

But it is a curious foundation and essence.  For, as an essence, basketball-as-invention dictates no particular style, form or result outside of what works in any given situation. Basketball, understood in this way, happens whenever an individual or group gather and agree to call what they are doing basketball. There may be discussion and so adaptation of the rules governing a given instance of this activity. Likewise, there may be lively debate about what constitutes sportsmanship, moral virtue or aesthetic value. But what there is not—in basketball so conceived, in basketball as invented by James Naismith—is a single form or style of play (much less a single skin tone, nationality, or gender performance) that embodies a fixed essence of the sport because the essence of the sport is that it has no such fixed essence.

Let me flesh this out by turning to one of the more fanciful versions of basketball’s origin story. John Grissmer’s little known musical, The Perfect Game: Jim Naismith Invents Basketball, includes several scenes depicting the events leading up to Naismith’s invention of the game. Much of this material follows the story as both historians and Naismith himself recounted it. But the musical deviates from the historical record in one seemingly trivial but illuminating way: Grissmer portrays Naismith both conceiving the dribble in its modern form as a critical step in inventing his new game and calling it “the key” to the game.[10]

It may be tempting to read this as yet another attempt to fabricate a continuity of identity between the contemporary game (which includes dribbling) and Naismith’s original game (which did not). However, I want to read this particular historical fantasy differently. I want to argue that there is a critical truth in Grissmer’s lie: the dribble may be the key (or at least a key) to the game for reasons relating to the true history of basketball that Grissmer omits in his musical. Though today a practiced fundamental skill, a tactical maneuver, a form of artistic expression, and a means of social one-upmanship (think AI crossing Mike—but that’s Chapter Seven), the dribble was never imagined, expected or planned. It just happened spontaneously and from there grew rapidly through myriad contingent factors into what it is today, what it is still becoming. According to Naismith’s own later account:  “when a player was facing the corner, for instance, and the other men were covered, it was a man to man game at the time; and a player was right behind him, so there wasn’t any chance for him to get rid of that ball. What he did was roll it across the floor and then run after it. Theoretically, we are not permitted to move with the ball in our possession. When I roll it, theoretically I let it out of my possession, but I follow it as closely as I can and get it. Then they began to bounce the ball, one bounce, and from one bounce they began to get a number of them.”[11]

In other words, a player’s body responded to an intractable, seemingly insoluble problem encountered in the course of play—being trapped in a corner with the ball, surrounded by defenders, prohibited from running with it and unable to pass it successfully—by breaking the rules, and so inventing the game (again). In an instant a player’s body reflexively reinvented the game and the game then accepted and assimilated that foreign body.  Moreover, in doing so he was replicating on the floor the process by which Naismith invented the game in the first place.  That Naismith himself delighted in the improvisational, inventive violation only strikes me as emphasizing how distant was Naismith’s understanding of what he had invented and how he had invented it from the image portrayed in basketball’s creation myths.

The sportswriter Leonard Koppett once argued that while the theoretical aim of basketball is throwing the ball through the hoop, in practical terms, “you must ‘deceive’ your opponent in order to get a decent shot, and so basketball is a game in which various types of fakes and feints, with head, hands, body, legs, eyes, are proportionately more important than in other games.” Koppett deduces this from a detailed, historically accurate, version of the game’s invention, concluding that the parameters Naismith set for the game made the ability to deceive a defender in order to “get free” a basketball player’s most important trait and greatest skill. Koppett in effect describes the theoretical conditions—the imperative to get free through deception—under which the dribble first emerged.  Countering those who believe that so-called “flash” contaminates the purity of Naismith’s game, Koppett concludes that the indispensable, practical importance of deception together with its connections to style and art explain why “any knowledgeable crowd will cheer louder for a fancy pass, behind the back, or through the legs, that doesn’t lead to a score than it will for a routine basket.”[12]

It’s hard indeed to find, among basketball’s plays, a more apt emblem for the game than the dribble—the play that originated as a deceptive breaking of the moral code in order to get free and that came to delight the inventor whose code it broke. When you see the game through these eyes, you see that every single game of basketball—every single play—entails, at least on the micro level, myriad improvisational reinventions of the game; myriad exhibitions of a body, in an instant of time, adapting itself and its circumstances into the shape of something we’ve not yet seen to solve a practical problem. The history of the dribble, in other words, shows as much as anything the lack of continuous, essential identity of basketball: it shows it to be a game evolving in multiple places at different times, through accidental and deliberate violations of its origins that, having been pragmatically tested, only later come to be accepted as valued parts of the game. The dribble, I am arguing, may be seen as a metonym—a part that stands for the whole—for basketball itself: elusive, heterodox, deceptive, dynamic.

And this brings me back to Athena, but not so much Athena as we encountered her in basketball’s creation myth: at the moment of her birth, bursting forth full-grown and fully armed from the head of Zeus, a symbol of the power of Athens, the city-state which bears her name, consolidated and defended well beyond the reach of time and its corrupting effects.[13] I’m thinking instead—or better yet, also—of the multiplicitous Athena who declares in the Odyssey “‘I am preeminent among the gods for invention [metis] and resource’” (XIII: 338-339). This Athena’s more important parent is not so much Zeus as her mother Metis, whose very name spans a range of meanings including “many-coloured” and “shimmering” and is associated with a “shifting world of multiplicity” and “deceit” and comes to mean an efficacious “way of conniving with reality”, a way whose “suppleness and malleability give it the victory in domains where there are no ready-made rules for success, no established methods, but where each new trial demands the invention of new ploys, the discovery of a way out (poros) that is hidden.”[14]  Recall, here, the improvisational pragmatism of rhetorical invention that foregrounds the discovery of devices—such as new sports—that will effectively persuade; or the deceptive dribble that breaks the rules and gets the player free from a trap; or the frankly imaginative falsification of history that better conveys the truth of the past. All begin to appear as arts falling under the aegis of metis and so of Athena.

Of course, on the other hand, for basketball to exist at all it must—like any other entity, cultural or otherwise—exist in a continual tension between stasis and movement, stability and flexibility, tradition and innovation.  Basketball’s creation myth tends to support a vision of the game as static and stable, beyond the realm of matter and time.  Inventive modes of narrating the game’s origin tend, on the other hand, to emphasize the moving, flexible, and innovative facets of the sport.  Basketball in fact and inevitably arises as a tension or, better yet, an oscillation between the tendencies expressed through these two narrative modes. However, I have here critiqued the mythical and the static in favor of the inventive and the mobile because (as with many cultural forms in our world) the mythic and the static predominate in the imagination as if they were the natural, exclusive essence of basketball, obscuring the inventive and the mobile—and, more crucially, obscuring key historical forces and marginalized social actors associated with it. My emphasis on the foundational importance of invention is meant then, not to dismiss or ignore as unimportant those ways in which basketball has exhibited continuity of identity since its invention, but rather as corrective to the tendency to hypostasize that aspect of the game.

Perhaps, if there must be a mythological emblem of basketball’s origin, this multifaceted, ever-moving Athena conveys more effectively and, yes, with more style, the invention of a sport whose original parameters—designed to persuade a recalcitrant audience—put a premium on trickery, cunning, invention, and artfulness and so launched a proliferating evolution of all manner of form and style of play. A game whose players—of every color, gender, class and country—have over a century so insistently and joyfully improvised new means of deception in order to “get free”—even when it meant breaking the rules, basketball deserves a symbol and stories of its inventive origin capable of acknowledging continuity and tradition while matching this dazzling historical mutability as well as the brilliant variety of its contemporary forms.

[1] Kiffer is quoted in Sandomir, “Basketball’s Beginnings” and in There’s No Place Like Home; emphasis added to both quotes.

[2] For examples see Gulick, “Basket Ball,” 86; “James Naismith,” Peterson, Cages, 15; Mandelbaum, The Meaning of Sports, 201; LaFeber, Michael Jordan, 33, and Davies, Sports in American Life, 106; There’s No Place Like Home; Rains and Carpenter, James Naismith, 45; Grissmer, The Perfect Game, 46; Horger, “Play By the Rules,” 14; George, Elevating the Game, 3.

[3] The most thorough modern scholarly history of the origin of basketball is Horger. A useful summary appears in Baker. Finally, see also James Naismith’s own account, composed toward the end of his life, but based upon notes and reports written at or shortly after the time of his invention of the game (Basketball 29-60).

[4] Horger, Cavallo, Muscles and Morals; Mrozek, Sports and the American Mentality; Putney, Muscular Christianity.

[5] For an example see Kretchmar, “Basketball Purists”.

[6] Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 585-604, esp. 604, where Freud offers his famous dictum that “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”  My specification of a particular “white basketball unconscious” follows loosely the elaboration and critique of Freud found in Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 65-68.

[7] Though he does not use the phrase, Jeffrey Lane offers an approximation of at least some of the intolerable impulses constituting the white basketball unconscious : “It is simultaneously a frantic desire to be included and a patronizing belief that the white athlete can restore the sanctity that has been traditional to sports and reverse the damage caused by black irreverence. This is the motivation behind the long-lasting phenomenon in sports of rooting for the white guy; it combines a nostalgic remembrance of how sports used to be with anger over what’s become of them.” Lane, Under the Boards, pp. 142-143.

[8] Naismith, Basketball, 33.

[9] I owe my understanding of the role of invention in classical rhetoric to the detailed studies of Bruns, Inventions, 1-13; White, Kaironomia; and Toye, Rhetoric.  Meanwhile, Bruns, Inventions; White, Kaironomia; and Muckelbauer, The Future, are among recent works that emphasize the pragmatic nature of classical invention’s primary interest in devising what is effective for the purpose at hand and thereby forge a quasi-tradition linking classic rhetoric, sophistry, philosophical pragmatism, modern literature, and poststructuralist philosophy.

[10] Grissmer, The Perfect Game, 42-3, 55-56, 93. Naismith, for his part, made no provision for bouncing the ball off the floor. His original rules didn’t prohibit it, but from these he appears not to have even considered the possibility. It is true that in an 1892 booklet entitled “Rules for Basket Ball,” Naismith does allow for a player to throw the ball and “endeavor to get it again” and “by this means he may make progress from one part of the field to another.” Reminding his reader that a player may bat the ball in the air as he runs (Rule 2), Naismith also here allows that a player may “dribble it with his hand along the ground, but he may not kick it with his feet, not even to dribble it.” From the contextual prohibition against dribbling with the feet, however, we might imagine that the “hand dribble” Naismith envisions is more akin to a soccer dribble. That is, a player might attempt to guide the ball along the ground as it rolls. In either case, there is no indication that Naismith envisioned players bouncing the ball to themselves as a means of advancing from one part of the field or court to another without giving up possession.  See Naismith, Rules, 11-2.

[11] Naismith went on to add that he considered the dribble “one of the finest plays, one of the sweetest, prettiest plays in the whole bunch” and that he fought Y.M.C.A. administrators’ attempts to prohibit the play. But he makes no claim to it having been a play of his own devising, let alone a critical part of his original invention.  See Naismith “How Basketball Started,” 234; Naismith, Basketball; Peterson, Cages, 26-7; FreeDarko Collective, “Go Forth and Dribble,” 16; and Horger, “Play By the Rules.”

[12] Koppett , The Essence, 12-17.

[13] D’Angour, The Greeks and the New, 139,

[14] Detienne and Vernant, Cunning Intelligence, 21; Deacy, Athena, 7.

Works Cited


Baker, William J.. “Introduction.” In Basketball: Its Origin and Development, by James

Naismith, v-xvii. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Bruns, Gerald. Inventions: Writing, Textuality, and Understanding in Literary History.

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.

Cavallo, Dominick. Muscles and Morals: Organized Playgrounds and Urban Reform,

1880-1920. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

D’Angour, Armand. The Greeks and the New: Novelty in Ancient Greek Imagination and

Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Davies, Richard O.  Sports in American Life: A History.  Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

Deacy, Susan. Athena. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Detienne, Marcel, and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and

Society. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1978.

FreeDarko Collective. “Go Forth and Dribble: Basketball’s First Great Age of

Expansion.” In FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball         

History, 16-19. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010.

Freud, Sigmund.  The Interpretation of Dreams: The Complete and Definitive Text.

Translated and Edited by James Strachey.  New York: Basic Books, 2010.

George, Nelson. Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball. Lincoln: University of

Nebraska Press, 1999.

Grissmer, John. The Perfect Game: Jim Naismith Invents Basketball. Indianapolis:

AuthorHouse, 2010.

Gulick, Luther. “Basket Ball.” International Association Training School Notes.

December, 1892 (1.8): 86. Web. 20 October 2013.

Horger, Marc Thomas. “Play by the rules: The creation of basketball and the

progressive era, 1891-1917.” PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 2001. Pro

Quest (Order No. 9999397).

“James Naismith.” Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. 2009. Web. 20 October 2013.

Jameson, Fredric.  The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act.

Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Kretchmar, R. Scott. “Basketball Purists: Blind Sentimentalists or Insightful Critics?”

In Basketball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Paint, edited by Jerry L. Walls and Gregory Bassham, 31-43. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2007.

LaFeber, Walter.  Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism.  New and Expanded

Ed.  New York: Norton, 2002.

Lane, Jeffrey. Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball. Lincoln:

University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

Mandelbaum, Michael. The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football,

and Basketball and What They See When They Do. New York: Public Affairs, 2004.

Muckelbauer, John. The Future of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the

Problem of Change. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.

Mrozek, Donald J… Sport and the American Mentality, 1880-1910. Knoxville:

University of Tennessee Press, 1983.

Naismith, James. Basketball: Its Origins and Development. Lincoln: University of

Nebraska Press, 1996. .

——. “How Basketball Started.” In Aims and Methods in School Athletics: Wingate

Memorial Lectures, 1931-1932, edited by Dana Caulkins, 221-235. New York: Wingate Memorial Foundation, 1932.

——. Rules for Basket Ball. Springfield: Press of Springfield Printing and Binding

Company, 1892. Web. 20 October 2013.

Peterson, Robert W.. Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball’s Early Years. Lincoln:

University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Putney, Clifford. Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America,

1880-1920. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Rains, Rob, and Hellen Carpenter. James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball.

Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009.

Sandomir, Richard. “Basketball’s Beginnings Are Headed for Auction.” New York

Times, October 26, 2010, B16.

There’s No Place Like Home. Directed by Maura Mandt and Josh Swade. ESPN 30 x

30, Season 2, Episode 3, aired October 16, 2012. DVD.

Toye, Richard. Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press,


White, Eric Charles. Kaironomia: On the Will-to-Invent. Ithaca: Cornell University

Press, 1987.

New UM Course: Comp Lit 100: Global Sports Cultures

September 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

alfred-eisenstaedt-professor-norbert-wiener-american-mathematician-who-founded-cybernetics-in-classroom-at-mitToday I received the good news that the new course I designed — Global Sports Culture — was approved so that I will be able to offer it as Comparative Literature 100 in the Fall semester of 2014.  This gives me a chance to devote more of my teaching time to the topic of sports, to broaden my teaching repertoire beyond the culture of basketball, and it offers students who have been interested in, but unable to enroll in my Hoops Culture course, a chance to take a different sports-related course with me.  So please share this with anyone you think might be interested.

I’m still sifting through the specific materials I’ll be using.  But I have a course description and schedule in mind and thought I’d share them.

(Note: I welcome suggestions for materials that would be appropriate (in terms of the balance of ease and difficulty) for college undergrads.  Please post them in the comments or e-mail me with a brief sense of where and how your suggestion would fit.  Thanks.)

Course Description:

Playing, watching, and talking about sports is perhaps the most popular pastime around the world today.  Taking an astonishing variety of forms in different locales, sports and the images, metaphors, narratives, and values that spring up around sports weave themselves into the stories we tell about ourselves and our world, even when we don’t think we’re talking about sports.  In this course, we’ll study stories and images purveyed and consumed within sports culture around the globe.  We’ll be looking at what they tell us about how we think about such things as play, beauty, goodness, violence, money, sex, gender, race, and nations.

The course format is lecture and discussion.  Each week’s lecture will offer students historically grounded, philosophically informed reflections on concepts key to critically understanding sports culture in its transnational and global dimensions.  Then, in discussion sections, students will explore these concepts in greater detail and more concretely by 1) completing a reading assignment that fleshes the lecture topic out in relation to a particular example or case from global sports culture; 2) completing a short written reflection on the reading assignment prior to the discussion section meeting.  Students will also complete three short and one longer paper.

Week 1            “Introduction: Studying Global Sports Culture”

Week 2           “Play”

[Introducing the concept of “play” as a fundamental impulse underlying global sports culture.  We will explore cross-cultural, philosophical, and social and historical dimensions of play, while at the same time noting the differences between anthropological, philosophical-aesthetic, and sociological-historical approaches to the topic.]

Week 3           “Rules”

[Introducing the concept of “rules” as structuring parameters in sport.  We will view them from the putatively “universal” perspective of the philosophy of games as well as historically in the concrete case of the invention of the rules of basketball in the US and its subsequent export and transformation abroad.]

Week 4           “Creativity”

[Explore the creative expression that can arise when the desire to play meets the constraints of rules by looking at the aesthetic quality of sport in general from a philosophical perspective and by critically examining the ways that nationality, globalization, and race influence both that creative expression and the way it is understood as a sport migrates transnationally.]

Week 5           “Competition”

[introducing the idea of “competition” as a way to explore questions of inter-subjective relations in global sports culture.  This includes a detailed examination of how competition comes to be consciously or unconsciously invested with geopolitical significance.]

Week 6           “Ethics”

[Approaching the issues of ethics in global sports culture from the disciplinary perspectives of philosophy and sociology and by comparing the way in which ethical issues pertaining to sport vary transnationally.]

Week 7           “Aesthetics”

[Considering global sports culture as an art form or at least as an aesthetic phenomenon, taking up the issue both from a philosophical standpoint and from the more concretely historical and sociological perspective and situation of West Indian cricket in the mid 20th century.]

Week 8           “Watching”

[Taking up the issue of spectatorship and fandom.  The accompanying readings, from philosophical, literary critical, and sociological perspectives, address both the putatively universal condition of watching sports as well also the global vicissitudes of that condition.]

Week 9           “Stories”

[Spotlighting the pivotal role that narrative plays in global sports culture.  The readings concretize this by exploring how narratives shape performance, spectatorship and consumption of global sports culture and how these narratives are shaped by such categories as self and other, location and nationality, globalization and universality, and class, race, and gender.]

Week 10          “Media”

 [Examining the role of the mass media in global sports culture, focusing in particular on how, in different global contexts, the mass media directs traffic at the the intersections of sport with such political and social categories as class, race, migration, ethnicity, and nationalism.]

Week 11          “Market”

 [Focusing on the market as the place where the spectacle of global sports culture is manufactured, bought, and sold.  The readings, from the perspectives of history and of cultural studies, focus on the branding and selling of American basketball player Michael Jordan in the context of neo-liberal globalization.]

Week 12          “Gender”

[Introducing the concept of “gender” as a lens through which to examine global sports culture.  The readings offer both theoretical reflection on the concepts of gender in sport and case studies of how gender and sports intersect in national and transnational sporting contexts.]

Week 13          “Race”

[Examining how race functions in global sports culture.  The accompanying readings help to ground this examination by exploring the vicissitudes of race’s functioning depending on its intersections with gender, the particular sport in question, and the national and international setting.]

Week 14          “Geopolitics”           

[This lecture concludes the course by focusing directly on how global sports culture is shaped by and shapes forces of nationalism and imperialism in the context of globalization.]


The Freedom in Dennis Rodman

August 24, 2013 § Leave a comment


This was written sometime in the summer of 1996, after the Bulls won the NBA championship, led by the trio of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and, implausibly, their former nemesis and Detroit Piston Bad Boy, Dennis Rodman.

 A former colleague and good friend of mine, Grant Farred, with whom I’d shared numerous conversations about sports, invited me to write it for a collection he was putting together.  Grant went on to a very successful academic career in the field of sports studies, but this particular collection never got published and I thought my contribution was lost forever. But I recently found the typescript in a drawer at my parents’ house and thought I’d share it here.  Some of the writing and formulations are out-of-date, embarrassing, or just wrong.  But I haven’t changed anything in it. 

 You have to turn your imagination back to the 1995-1996 season and especially the finals (or fire up some youtube clips from the period).  And if you can, then this piece might have some historical or archival value – as a way of seeing the Dennis Rodman of that time. ~ yc


Dennis Rodman looks out of place on a basketball court.  His body doesn’t seem to belong, not to him and not on the court.  First, there’s the way he runs the floor.  For all his athletic ability, maybe even because of his athletic ability, Rodman runs like that guy in middle school: the one the coach pulled out from behind the school where he was smoking cigarettes with the other dirtballs, switched his leather jacket for a pair of gym shorts, and put him at center because he’d hit puberty before anyone else.  He could run the floor faster and longer than any of us who had been doing it all our young lives, but purely as a physiological act.  His body seemed to do it in spite of himself, in spite of his mind, which surely was elsewhere.  Knees picked up too high, landing almost on the tips of his toes, arms doing nothing but helping him run.  He could run alright, he was a natural runner, but not a basketball player who was running.  He could jump too, but the same way, as a natural jumper.

Our resentment surely began there, covetous of squandered gifts we knew already we would never enjoy, we turned our timid pre-pubescent wit at everything else about him:  his skills first, but also his grades, his appalling and shameful delinquency, and above all, his nonchalance, which we, true to the formula of athletics, recast as “lack of intensity,” egotism, or when it related to the coach, “insubordination.”  The “head case” was born of our envious juvenile imaginations.  This is Rodman, and you see it everytime he pulls down a defensive rebound.  He seems almost afraid to move his feet because of the disaster that will ensue if he tries to do that which he does so well when he’s just moving in a straight line down the flow while he has to think think of something else, like how to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. « Read the rest of this entry »

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Headband

June 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

LeBron James

A poetic experiment, with apologies to Wallace Stevens


The cotton, nylon and spandex are blended

to provide superior softness, stretchy comfort

and to keep sweat out of your eyes,

so all you have to worry about is your game.


For eight dollars

you can own

your own NBA Logoman Headband®

that cost ten cents to produce.


Taut atop the 7’ frame

of the Big Dipper

the headband heightened

the threatened menace

of Goliath.


Slick Watts first

used duct tape

as a headband.


Big Ben was benched and fined

for wearing his headband

in defiance of his coach’s prohibition.


The rim,

the center circle,

and the headband are one


A laurel wreath,

a tiara,

and a headband are also one.


Caught in the hand of a young fan

a headband is a treasured relic,

cast-off effluvium

preciously captured and made holy.



the headband prevents

awareness of our own effort

from blinding us.


Absorbing the

sweat of your brow

the headband buys you time in Eden


Slipping ever higher, we conceal

the signs of time’s receding

with a headband.


On King James’ dunk,

the headband left him of its own accord,

knowing it was a redundant crown,

and that time could flow again.



How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Lebron

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. « Read the rest of this entry »

A Last Bit of Hoops Culture Awesomeness

May 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

And then this happened:

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