On Steph Curry: A Reply and a Clarification

Yesterday, Robert Silverman examined why retired NBA legends have emerged recently to make claims in the media that Stephen Curry (and the Warriors) wouldn’t have been able to torch the league back in their own era.  Silverman, who interviewed me for the piece, wasn’t trying to adjudicate these claims so much as try to understand what underlying feelings or forces be driving them to the surface of basketball culture right now.

This morning, pioneering basketball writer Bethlehem Shoals (a friend and a strong influence on my own thinking about the game to whom I owe a great debt), voiced first bafflement about what he took to be the central position of Silverman’s essay:

before offering a criticism by way of an analogy:

Shoals did not direct these comments at me personally, but I nonetheless, justifiably or not, felt interpellated by them; particularly having been one of Silverman’s sources for the view that Curry, to use my own words as quoted in the essay, “embodies what I see as a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.” And, thus interpellated and, frankly, hurt, I feel compelled to respond to what I feel is a mischaracterization both of my views (and of Silverman’s own position—but I’ll let him speak for himself) in the essay.

Shoals’ analogy characterizes the position as “going at Curry as the face of analytics-driven ball” and then compares that to “blaming Jesus for the Inquisition.”  Though colorful and clever, I feel this analogy mischaracterizations the positions that I (and Silverman) expressed in the essay.

First, it’s not clear what Shoals means by “going at” but I wouldn’t say that either Silverman or myself went at Curry. Silverman did accurately quote me as saying that I found Curry’s play “predictable” (which I do) and Shoals is right if he surmises that this is for me a mark against Curry.  But it hardly seems to me to constitute “going at,” particularly when in the very same sentence I said that “I marvel at his ability” (and Silverman too devoted considerable space and lexical imagination to evoking Curry’s wondrous play).

Second, Shoals analogy conflates this “going at [X] as the face of [Y]” with “blaming [X] for [Y].  Blaming involves an attribution of causality and therefore the analogy implies that those who “going at Curry as the face of analytics-driven ball” believe he has caused “analytics-driven ball” (just as “blaming Jesus for the Inquisition” would be assert that Jesus somehow was a, or the, cause of the Inquisition).  I never said that (nor did Silverman) and I don’t believe it (and I don’t think Silverman does).

Third, the analogy implies that “analytics-driven ball” is equivalent to “the Inquisition.”  That may or may not be the case in Shoals’ eyes, but it is not the case in mine, and not only because of the obvious differences in scale and magnitude, which I’m sure Shoals did not mean by his analogy to gloss over.  It’s not the case in my eyes because while the Inquisition is unequivocally bad in my eyes, basketball analytics is not. I don’t think analytics is bad for basketball in the way that I think the Inquisition was bad for, well, humanity.

So let me try, once more, to clarify what I actually believe (and believe I actually said in Silverman’s piece or elsewhere).

First, I marvel at Curry’s ability. I’m saying this because nobody who references anything I’ve ever written or said in interviews about Curry (or the Warriors) seems to notice.  One more time: I marvel at Curry’s ability.

Second, I find Curry’s play predictable.  Others may not and that is fine. I do. I can’t help that I am not surprised by what he does.  While this diminishes my desire to watch him it does not prevent me from—as I said—marveling at his abilities.

Third, “Curry embodies what I see as a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.”  This voices my concern about Steph embodying what I would characterize as a cultural phenomenon.  Apparently, I have not been clear. And I need to spell out what I mean by this more carefully so that it will not be mistaken or caricatured. To “embody” something is very different than “causing it” (I’m gonna trust y’all to look that up on your own if you’re not convinced). Moreover, the problematic cultural phenomenon I feel Curry “embodies” is not “basketball-analytics” per se, but rather “a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.”

Are those two things—”basketball analytics” and a “fetish with efficiency”—related? Sure. Are they the same thing? No. Is one responsible for the other? No. It’s not that simple. Yes, basketball analytics is responsible for devising statistical tools for measuring efficiency in basketball play and for producing arguments that may be used to support the claim that efficient basketball is the best basketball.  And yes, I believe the persuasiveness of this argument has led to an increased emphasis in the discourse around the game on “efficiency” an emphasis I would still characterize as a “fetish,” by which I mean an over-prioritization.

I don’t actually think that basketball analytics, understood specifically as a way of using quantitative reasoning to investigate questions about basketball play, is bad for basketball. On the contrary, I think it’s good.  I think what’s bad for basketball (or bad for me anyway) is when any one way of approaching and understanding the game comes to be seen as the only, or the best, way of approaching and understanding the game. And I do fear, and I acknowledge I may be wrong, that this may be happening today. It’s up to all of us to prevent that from happening.

But I do not believe, nor have I said, that Steph Curry or basketball analytics are either equivalent to or the cause of this fetish of efficiency. I think the cause is much simpler: capitalism.

When I say that Curry embodies this fetish, I mean that his success and likable persona can be taken as a demonstration of the superiority and desirability of a narrow emphasis on efficiency.

Read with care, please, so as to be sure you understand what this does not mean:

  • It does not mean that this is Curry’s fault or his responsibility to prevent.
  • It does not mean that Curry is the only player (or the Warriors the only team) that could be said to embody this fetish.  I don’t think that. I only think that because of their extraordinary success they can serve as a more persuasive example.
  • It does not mean that Curry’s play (or Curry himself as a cultural figure) can only mean that. That is obviously false, as I have written about elsewhere by now ad nauseum. “Curry” means, among many other things: talent, hard work, Christian faith, accessibility, family, fatherhood, creativity, daring, confidence, overachievement, youth.

It can be difficult, as Shoals knows better than I, to sustain thoughtful, informed, sensitive, and intelligent discourse about basketball in the sports media sphere.  Long standing attitudes among fans, economic pressures, and the forms of social media themselves often seem to demand and to reward facile oversimplifications and polarizing dichotomies so long as they are cleverly phrased.

For those of us (I take the liberty of including both Shoals and Silverman) in this, who love the sport as a complex form of athletic ability, cultural expression, embodied thought, aesthetic experience and social condensor, it seems especially vital to take care that our public contributions to discourse about the game are adequate to its depth and complexity.

A Desire Named Steph Curry

Besides being the name of a phenomenally exciting and innovative basketball player, “Steph Curry” is the name for a desire about the future of the NBA; a desire we express through consumption, which the media then chronicles and reflects back to and justifies for us. Around the time of the NBA All-Star game this past season, NPR’s Tom Goldman asked me for my thoughts about a couple of articles that had appeared noting Curry’s rising popularity among fans and marketers; a popularity, it was noted, was on the verge of eclipsing that of LeBron James.  As it turns out, Curry won the regular season MVP award and now, with his Warriors leading beaten LeBron’s injury-riddled Cavaliers 3-2 in the best of seven NBA Finals series, he may well be poised to win the Finals MVP.

Let me get a couple things out of the way.  First, Curry’s play thrills me.  The smooth speed with which he moves himself and the ball on the court, and then the ball alone into the bottom of the net is pure fluid beauty.  And, speaking now as a Cavs fan, the terror he inspires in me every time he gets the ball, even in the backcourt, is sublime.

Second, though I think LeBron is more valuable to his team that Steph is to his team and should therefore have won the MVP award and should therefore win the Finals MVP award, I don’t think it’s insane to give it to Curry and, anyway, I’m not here going to make an argument about that.

Because this isn’t about Steph Curry the basketball player.  It’s about “Steph Curry” the desire and I’m just here to explore the conditions of possibility and implications of that desire.  Where does it come from? What nourishes it? Just what exactly are we wanting when we want “Steph Curry” so badly? Excellence and excitement no doubt, but if that were all there’d be no explanation for why collectively we want Curry so much more than other NBA superstars.

By temperament and professional habit, I find it useful to look at how we articulate our desire.  What are the words and stories within which we cast our love for Steph. When I look at these more closely I’m struck by certain recurring themes, some of which have little to do with Steph Curry, the actual player and human being. And these begin to offer a clue into the deeper feelings that might drive our desire for the future we’ve made him represent.

To see these things—or rather more precisely to consider my argument plausible—requires first a brief reminder about the history of basketball, especially pro basketball, in this country.  It’s no secret that pro basketball’s history is vexed by racial problematics.  In a nutshell, for more than half a century, most pro basketball players and most of the best pro basketball players have been black.  Meanwhile, most of the administrators, coaches, owners and fans are white.

In my research, I’ve looked at the stories that basketball culture has generated to avoid dealing forthrightly with this problematic, not to mention with the broader societal racism with which it overlaps.  These stories tend to conflate the unrelated issues of style, tactics, and morality in order to promote players or teams that seem to embody the essence of the game as it emerged, developed and was played prior to racial integration.  Conversely, players and teams that seem to depart from that essence tend, in these stories, to be villainized.

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In all cases, whatever is perceived as threatening blackness is either suppressed out of the story or demonized.

When I look at how the media reports the appeal of Steph Curry I encounter terms that are familiar to me from my research.  You all have seen the stories.  Curry is an underdog, underrated and under-recruited, partly because of what tends to be characterized as his small size and slight build.  Already here, we find elements that have historically been appealing to the collective white basketball unconscious, which reacts to black domination of the sport and its own irrepressible desire for black basketball players by fabricating a fantasy that someone—”nature” perhaps?—has stacked the deck against white players and, by metonymy, white people more generally.  Then add to this our attention to Curry’s personality: humble, down-to-earth, approachable, genuine…human.  Emphasizing these obviously laudable and desirable traits help cement the identification with Curry.  And of course, it doesn’t hurt, from this point of view, that Curry is blue-eyed (okay, hazel, but whatever) and light skinned. Let’s not even talk about his adorable daughter.

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Finally, there is the matter of Curry’s style of play, especially the two hallmarks of his innovative game: amazing ball-handling ability and an unprecedented ability to make three point shots.  We are treated repeatedly to clips of Curry tirelessly practicing these skills, subtly reminding us that they have been honed through solitary practice and effort, the result therefore neither of  superior size or natural talent nor of resources or mentorship.  We may not have chosen to put in that effort, but we can all imagine that if we had, we too could be breaking Matthew Delledova’s ankles and draining step-back threes from just across the half-court line.  That his particular skill set dovetails with the ascending league obsessions with efficiency (as measured by advanced statistical methods) helps as well.  However dazzling Curry may be, his efficiency is indispensable to his appeal here given a longstanding association basketball culture has made between inefficient flair and black basketball. Indeed, his efficiency and other elements of his style of play, as my friend Eric Freeman notes, may be emphasized as a way of minimizing markers of what may be perceived as threatening blackness.

All of this, taken together, may be usefully contrasted with how we have tended to approach Curry’s foil in this season’s narrative: LeBron James.  In nearly every respect—body type, personality, skill set and style of play, and, of course, skin tone—LeBron appears as Curry’s diametrical opposite.

Obviously blessed with size, LeBron’s strength, speed and athletic ability appear as natural gifts.  Far from under-recruited, LeBron has been basketball’s “Chosen One” since his junior year in high school, a seemingly privileged status that, we all know, went to his head, most notoriously in The Decision to take his talents to South Beach. And the hallmark of LeBron game?  Powerful locomotive drives to the basket punctuated by tomahawk dunks that we could never hope to replicate, not if we devoted 10 million hours to it.

When I survey all this, it suggests to me that insofar as “Steph Curry” is the name of a desire for basketball future, we haven’t come very far from the days when John McPhee was writing in praise of Bill Bradley because tall players like Wilt Chamberlain had ruined the sport. Or rather we have come forward to the past, to a sport played by humble, hard-working, underdog, light-skinned jump shooters with solid fundamentals.

And, as always in the history of basketball, what we want for the game tells us something—not everything, just something—about what we want for the society more broadly. Perhaps it tells us that we’d prefer a society in which privileged, upper-class, college-attending kids from stable, two-parent families (preferably without ink) took the place of dark-skinned, heavily tattooed kids raised in poor neighborhoods by single-mothers.chosen-tattoo

I’m not arguing that everyone who admires or even loves Stephen Curry subscribes, consciously or even unconsciously, to these attitudes.  I’m simply wanting to caution those who do thrill to Curry’s considerable abilities on the court to carefully examine the narrative package in which their love for Curry is being reported back to them.  If we’re not careful, consuming these narratives can be, as my wife said, a propos of a different (but related) news item, “like joining the Empire because the Death Star has a gym.”  And uncritically purveying them, well, that takes your membership to a whole other level.

The good news is that these stories are ours: we make them and we can tell them differently if want to; we can uncouple the unholy complex of style, tactics, morality and race through which historically our hoops culture has masked its complicity with racism in our society more broadly.  And we can simply love all the many different manifestations of excellence and creativity and excitement that hard-working, talented pro basketball players provide us on a nightly basis.

Steph Curry and the Three-Ball: My Star Turn on NPR

Around the time of the NBA All-Star game, NPR’s sports reporter Tom Goldman wrote me to see if I’d be interested in doing an interview on the relationship between Steph Curry’s rising popularity and the advancing importance of the three-point shot in the NBA.  As a related question, I was to consider whether these signify the passing of the torch from LeBron James to Curry.  Tom passed on a couple of articles  by Darren Rovell and Brian Windhorst that had prompted his thinking.

We talked for about an hour at the time and I shared my perspectives, including my admiration for Curry’s play on the court, which is not only effective but beautiful.  But I focused on the deeper factors in the history and culture of basketball that might lead pundits to desire Curry (and the three ball) over LeBron as an emblem for the game and the league, including race and a growing obsession, in all areas of American society, with efficiency.  Unfortunately, most of those reflections were left on the cutting room floor due to time constraints.  I may share those views in a later post.  But for now I wanted to share the interview as it aired this morning on NPR’s morning edition.

You can also see the transcript here.

Disbelieveland

Moments after the final buzzer signaled the improbable triumph of the Cleveland Cavaliers over the Golden State Warriors in this year’s NBA Finals, Cavs star LeBron James fell away from a celebratory team embrace and collapsed to the floor, wracked with sobs. Encircled by teammates, cameramen, and others, some of whom set hands on his shoulders or rubbed his head or back, LeBron lifted his head slightly, only to let it fall back against his forearm, his hand covering his eyes.

 

* * *

Earlier this year I wrote an essay describing what I hated about the Warriors. In it, I lamented what I took to be the eclipsing of uncertainty and surprise by their efficient domination of the game.  Friends, including friends who are analytics enthusiasts, tried to get me to relax. For all that analytics may aspire to “tame chance,” they rightly argued, the game of basketball and its players are too complex to ever eliminate uncertainty and surprise. I was grimly unswayed throughout the season.

Even in the Finals, my assessment of Golden State’s first two victories took this form: “Every Golden State basket looks effortless and expected. Every Cleveland basket looks ugly and lucky.”  That’s when I posted on the Facebook wall of a friend who was a Golden State fan on his birthday, “I hope someone bought you a broom because you’re gonna need it when the Dubs sweep.”  The prognosticating website 538 was more generous, giving the Cavs an 11 % chance of winning the title at that point. When Cleveland fell behind three games to one after dropping game four at home, the already absolute certainty with which I knew that Golden State would win the series became, somehow, improbably, even greater. At that point, 538 had the Cavs chances at 5 %.

Cleveland won Game 5 to make the series three games to two. But because Draymond Green of the Warriors had been suspended, I didn’t count that victory.  All I considered was the stupid shit the talking heads were repeating endlessly: no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA finals, the Warriors had not lost three straight in two years, the Warriors had only lost two games at home in the whole regular season.

So sure, the Cavs got Game 5 in Oakland (with Draymond out), but neither Curry nor Klay Thompson had really gotten on track yet and still Cleveland was struggling to win games and to keep Golden State from scoring, so even if somehow, the Cavs managed to draw inspiration from the home crowd and win Game 6, they had no chance at all of winning Game 7 in Oakland. 538 agreed with me: Cavs had only a 20% percent chance of winning the title (even if they had a 59 % chance of winning Game 6).

Then they won Game 6. I was happy for them. I was delighted by the sight of Steph Curry whipping his pacifier mouthguard into the crowd in a petulant tantrum. But it didn’t change any of my calculations and only modestly bumped up 538’s estimate of the Cavs’ chances of winning to 35 %.  Would you bet on a 35 % free throw shooter to make the next shot? Me neither.

In the first quarter of Game 7 I was dispirited. Though the Cavs held a slim one point lead, I felt like I was watching the first two games again. Every Cavs’ bucket looked hard, unlikely, while Golden State’s baskets were the predictable swished threes and wide-open dunks. Who do you think is gonna win that game?

The second quarter confirmed my impression. Golden State built a seven point lead by halftime as Cleveland’s defense fell apart, leaving Draymond Green to assume the role of the Splash Brothers’ new baby sibling, while their own offense continued to creak and sputter and smoke. To wit: more than one fifth of Cleveland’s offensive production in the second quarter came on a single four point play by Iman Shumpert. Iman Shumpert: you know what Iman Shumpert shot from behind the three point line in the series? 26.7 % (21.4 % if you take away that three in the second quarter of Game 7)  We gonna ride Iman Shumpert four-point plays to the ‘ship? Yeah, I don’t think so either.

The second half was, as many have noted, a game of brief runs filled with both brilliant plays and tragic blunders on both sides. Cleveland closes the gap, Golden State pulls away, Cleveland comes back and pulls ahead, Golden State answers with a run to take a one point lead into the fourth. The fourth quarter is even tighter, with neither team able to generate more than a four point lead, which Golden State managed to do with 5:37 left in the game on a Draymond Green jump shot that gave them an 87-83 lead.  What, I am asking myself at this point, are the chances that Cleveland outscores the Golden State Warriors by five points in the final five minutes of Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the Warriors’ home floor? At that point, I guess, I probably figured that the first team to 95 would probably win it. What’s more likely? That Golden State scores eight points in the next five minutes, or that Cleveland scores twelve? Nate Silver, what do you think?

Then improbability—no, impossibility (from my vantage point, anyway) happened. Golden State, the most devastatingly efficient offense in NBA history, scored two more points in the rest of the game (and none in the final four). Cleveland, of course, scored 10. But still I didn’t believe. The Kyrie three? I was elated, but I didn’t think they would win. LeBron’s free throw? There’s still ten seconds left: you think the Warriors can’t put up four points in 10 seconds? You haven’t watched the Warriors.

But I was wrong. The Warriors didn’t score another point. The buzzer sounded. LeBron fell into the group hug and then to his knees and then into convulsive weeping.

Here’s the thing:  I still didn’t believe it happened.  I really couldn’t take it in, couldn’t accept that everything I knew for sure would happen did not happen. In the past few days I’ve been walking around my patch of Northeast Ohio, of Believeland, wearing Cavs gear. People stop me. We say different things, but the thing we say most often is: “I still can’t believe it.”

* * *

So what is wrong with me besides the apparent fact for all my understanding of how the cultural narratives of basketball work, I have next to no ability to predict the outcome of basketball games? Of course I don’t: basketball games are unpredictable.

But that was my whole point to begin with. So what is wrong with me, I mean, that  despite my well-documented, vitriolic protestations against certainty, I clung so stubbornly to my own certainty. I suppose I was, in a long tradition of idiotic sports fandom, hedging against disappointment: if I could maintain my certain disbelief in the possibility of a Cavs victory, I wouldn’t feel let down when Golden State did what they were supposed to do.

But there was more to it than that. There was also a semi-conscious, pathetic stab at shaping the outcome: if I could (with apologies to the President) keep hope dead, I wouldn’t jinx the Cavs. That’s a tricky balancing act, as anyone who has tried it knows, because the moment you become conscious of what you’re doing, you ruin it and have to start all over again. Pretty soon you’re spending the whole game rapping your knuckles against your stupid wooden head to prevent who knows what horrible thing you have no control over from happening.

That’s lame, I know. But I think that it also points to something in me that is not lame. It tells me that for my all my intellectual abilities, for all my scholarly detachment, I cared. That’s not lame. I really, really, really wanted the Cavs to win.  Even more, I desperately wanted LeBron to win.

After all, I’m the guy who this year published a book whose last page looks like this:

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I wanted what I came to believe LeBron stood for to win: the indestructible autonomous power of those marginalized and despised and written off and undervalued in this world to win. I wanted that freedom to win.

* * *

But the thing about freedom is that it is, well, free.  You can’t control the vicissitudes of its exercise, particularly by others. You don’t know whether they’ll use it or how it will go if they try. It seems obvious that you can’t do this, as it seems obvious that all my mental machinations will not affect even a tiny bit what LeBron does with his freedom on or off the court, or how the game will come out.

But I think, seemingly paradoxically, that’s what makes these machinations so appealing to me.  They become a kind of playhouse in which I can act out—precisely without risk or consequence—my own daily struggles to be free and to help others be free.

Think of daily life as a Cavs possession and the task of carving out and renewing my own freedom as trying to get a bucket. You—or at least I—rarely get the LeBron breakaway dunk thrown like a thunderbolt from the sky, or the string of JR Smith step back threes raining in like meteorites, or Kyrie crafting some bank shot while lying on his back in the corner with four people on top of him. Mostly, daily life ends in turnovers, ill-advised, contested step-back threes and Matthew Dellevedova air-balled floaters. Then you need a time out and you brace yourself for Klay to put up 40 on you or Steph to bank in an underhanded scoop from half-court, on which you also fouled him. Perhaps I am not alone in not being astute enough to have figured out how to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

Under these conditions, I guess it’s easier for me to speculate about probabilities and to pretend that by doing so I am affecting the outcome of events I do not control (especially when I’ve already forged an association between those events and freedom). After all, because I don’t control them and because it’s all in my head, it can go on forever, frictionlessly skating along on the surface of reality, which never gets traction on it.

But here’s the thing.  The Cavs did win, LeBron really did dominate, and he really did collapse on the floor in sobs. These things happened. independently of the probability of their happening.  They were not destined to happen. They were not miracles. They just happened. Perhaps in some important way they happened because neither LeBron nor anyone else intimately involved in making them happened devoted much energy to speculating about the likelihood they would succeed.

I think that’s how freedom, in tiny and massive ways, probably happens: when it happens; I mean, when people—me, you, LeBron—go ahead exercise freedom, put freedom into the world even when Nate Silver puts the chances of success at, like, 5 %.

Why I Hate “the Warriors”

I’m annoyed.  Here’s the thing:  I thought I was gonna write a quick explanation of why I hate the Warriors, hot take click bait for contrarians.

Because: I do, I hate them!  See, it’s easy for me to feel that, it’s always right there, seething under the surface, clamoring to be voiced. I hate the Warriors. That part is like falling off a log. But an explanation is a different kind of thing. For an explanation I have to think, and when that happens, at least for me, things get complicated.

Why do I hate the Warriors? What about them do I hate?  People ask me this. It’s fair. What’s to hate about a superb team made up of apparently likable players playing well individually and together? What’s to hate about ball movement or great shooting or winning or appearing to have fun? What’s to hate about Oakland having a great team?  What am I even talking about?! People ask me these very difficult questions. And I keep repeating, confirming the stereotype of the egghead academic, that it’s complicated.

Let’s start with what I don’t hate. I don’t hate Steph Curry. His skills are peerless, the precise, but seemingly effortless creativity with which he deploys them is joyful and awe striking, not to mention at times hilarious, and it  manifests at least as much dedication and hours of effort as I’ve ever admired in any other player.  I don’t hate Draymond Green and the ability to adapt to his environment by growing new capacities in leaps and bounds that he’s demonstrated as part of this team. Nor do I hate his brash, trash talking confidence. I don’t even hate the Warriors for beating the heroic LeBron James and the closest thing I have to a hometown club in the finals last year. I don’t hate their crisp pace, or their spacing, or their ball movement. I don’t hate three pointers in particular or great shooting in general. I love all these things. And yet…

And yet, basketball doesn’t just exist within the lines of the court. Basketball is also, for me anyway (and I would argue for anyone, whether they are aware of it or not), a set of stories, stories that convey (and influence) attitudes and beliefs and values. And basketball also is a set of broader societal forces and practices that find their way into the game, moving the minds and hearts and bodies of owners, general managers, coaches, players, fans, and the media. So that while I can watch and admire all that I described above, it’s simply not possible for me to do so without also experiencing feelings provoked by all the other things I can’t help but notice are in play when the Warriors take the floor. (By the way, that, in case you wondered, is why “the Warriors” is in scare quotes in my title.)

I’ve written about this before, so I won’t belabor the point at length, but I can’t help, I’m sorry, but be disturbed by what lurks between the lines of the collective adoration of Steph Curry. It’s not that his skills don’t deserve our admiration. They do, and I believe he is rightly considered the best basketball player alive at this moment.  It’s the way that many (I know: not all) in the media, in the corporate world, and in fandom convey their delight in his success (particularly when it involves licking a saber’s edge over the slain body of the last player they made into an object of worship, LeBron James).

I’m repelled, heretical though it may seem in our country, by the celebration of his Christianity, as though believing in Jesus were a talent or an accomplishment, or evidence of moral virtue, or, um, at all relevant to being a basketball player. And I wonder why in Jesus’s name we, as a culture, give a shit about what Steph believes. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate Christians or that Steph Curry is one. I hate that this fact ever appears to his credit in a story about basketball.  Ditto for his having an adorable child and loving her: happy for him that he has one, happy for her that he loves her. Stop talking about it (or start talking about all the NBA players, especially those who didn’t come from two parent households, who are also devoted to their kids).

I’m irritated (not repelled, I’m trying to be precise here) by the open-mouthed marveling at his physical stature, as though with every floater he drops in heavy traffic he were preschooler spelling a difficult word or moonwalking on his parents coffee table, as though he has somehow overcome greater obstacles than other great NBA players.  He’s not, and he has not.  Yes, he is not as tall as the average NBA player, nor as strong, but he’s neither the shortest nor the weakest of his peers. He’s 6-3, was raised amidst material privilege by both his parents (one a former NBA player and three-point specialist), and spent his childhood at NBA practices and games, surrounded and tutored by NBA players. That doesn’t make him a lock to become the greatest player alive (far from it, as I’ve already acknowledged: he’s clearly worked his ass off), but it also doesn’t make him a miraculously prodigious tiny street urchin who wandered in grubby off the street corner and began launching step back threes with unprecedented accuracy.

Lastly, I’m repelled (yes, repelled again), by what I view as a pernicious racist subtext in the cult of Steph Curry. Let me emphasize: I am not referring to conscious attitudes held by individuals who adore Steph Curry. I’m talking, as I have tried to demonstrate in my book, about the workings of collective, unconscious dispositions and desires that we have all inherited by American society and the history of basketball.  Unless we actively and explicitly combat these, then it becomes too easy for the celebration of a light-skinned, blue eyed, average-sized guard to come at the expense of dark-skinned, brown-eyed, over-sized black men.

Is any of this Steph’s fault? Mostly, I would say no, it’s not. But it is to the degree that he deliberately reinforces (or capitalizes upon) any of these elements of the narrative that has risen up around his brilliant on-court performances.  I leave it to others to judge whether he has or not, and with that, enough about the Church of Steph Curry.

Next up, I can’t watch the Warriors peerless team play and lights out three point shooting without seeing it as the most advanced current manifestation of a tide that has been slowly swelling in basketball over the last 10 years or so that prizes productive efficiency above all else. This feeling has spurred me to a more extensive research project into all the elements, conceptual, technological and otherwise that have driven this development; which is to say, I’m still learning a lot about it. But in my currently oversimplified understanding of the story it goes like this.

Inspired by the advances in the statistical analysis of baseball, some fans with statistical proficiency began to think about the game of basketball and how to quantify what looked to the rest of us more or less like pure, unquantifiable material flow. In doing so, they isolated “the possession” as the fundamental unit of basketball play and to begin to experiment with methods for calculating the productivity of teams (and individuals) in terms of how the various basketball actions they undertake affect the ability to generate points per possession.

Here let me say: of course they did! Because, I say as someone who is just trying these lenses on for size, it’s cool as hell to see the game through them! (I’m the guy, I’d like you to know, who kept stats of the imaginary NBA Finals series he played against his best friend in the driveway and I’m the guy whose Dad kept stats at everyone of his games and then printed out reams of analysis generated by his IBM XT.) I don’t hate numbers. I love numbers and wish I understood them better. So I don’t fault these individuals. I don’t attribute to them soulless, malign intentions. I turn the game into stories and appreciate it with words, they turn it into formulas and appreciate it through numbers. Live and let live, right?

Definitely.  But I worry that the beautiful curiosity, wild imagination, unorthodox vision, and intellectual energy driving their efforts came also to be recognized for its potential value to owners and general managers seeking to maximize and stabilize the return on their financial investment in players.  How, in essence, these individuals might be asking themselves, do I get the most points per possession for the fewest dollars? Now we’ve gone from a few teams hiring some statistically minded kids to analyze their box scores to a half-dozen cameras perched in every arena in the league surveilling the every movement of players and delivering a torrent of big data to small armies of analysts to crunch and transform into actionable information for executives, coaches, and yes, even players.

Of course, I don’t expect that capitalist owners (or their paid underlings) would prioritize questions other than those related to maximizing their ROI.  And, if you’re comfortable with having the unencumbered freight train of free market logic trundle along, you’re probably thinking I’m naive.  After all, this is just the nature of things in our world. Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or its effects.

The Warriors, it seems to me, who lead the league in offensive efficiency, seem not only to be the incarnation of this tendency, but, by their success, seem also to be spurring other franchises to try to figure out how to do what they’ve done—as evidenced by Steph and others telling teams not to try.  This may be fine for many fans, whose favorite team either is the Warriors or is trying to become them. But for me it threatens to turn the NBA, which I have long loved to the degree that it presented me with an alternative to the corporatization of daily life in America, into the advance guard for ever more invasive attempts to make economic efficiency the mother of all values, to maximize productivity, and to create more reliable predictive models.

I don’t mind efficiency, I don’t mind productivity, and I don’t mind predictions. God knows I like to get my work done and to know what shit storm is coming around the bend so that I can prepare for it or avoid it.  But these are strong tides in which we are blithely romping in America today and if we don’t watch out, we may find that they’ve swept out to sea some other things that we used to like to have around: beauty, surprise, chance, and nonsense, to name just a few.

Which brings me to my final point, the relationship between the Warriors increasingly predictable domination of all competition and the annihilation of uncertainty and of the emotional complex (and marvelous, wondering stories) to which it gives rise.  Last week, the Warriors demolished the Cavaliers by 34, the Bulls by 31, and the Spurs by 30. Two of those teams (the Cavs and Spurs) were supposed to represent the only significant challenge to the inevitability of the Warriors winning a second consecutive title this year. So much for that. Even if Nate Silver at 538 only puts their chances of winning the title at 46 % (still 20 percentage points higher than the Spurs), I don’t know anybody who really thinks that the Warriors won’t repeat.  Unless, of course, they get hurt. But even I don’t wish for that.

But that’s kind of the point for me. I don’t want to have to wish for great athletes to get hurt so that uncertainty will be restored to the game. And, in basketball, unlike in my life, I like not knowing what will happen next, or how the story will end. I like the tension in my stomach and shoulders, the quickening of my pulse this uncertainty brings, and I like the emotions of fear, hope, elation, relief, despair associated with these physical signs.  I think of basketball as a story-generating machine, but really, it’s the uncertainty that basketball creates and the emotions that uncertainty provokes that are, I think, the source from which the basketball stories I love have always come from.

The Warriors are on pace to tie the 1996 Bulls record setting 72-10 regular season won-loss record. I’d have hated watching those Bulls teams if it weren’t for the utter unpredictability of Dennis Rodman and the sense his existence allowed that I didn’t know what was happen next, or, to put it another way, what the story would be tomorrow. Hell the very presence of Rodman’s brightly colored, pogo-stick body alongside MJ’s in a Bulls uniform was itself a kind of ceaseless source of nourishment for the imagination delighting in the fragile, fleeting materialization of the improbable

I think I know what the story will be tomorrow, and the day after, and in June, when the Warriors finish off their thoroughly probable title run.

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What The Answer Taught me About the Dismissal of David Blatt

As the Internet caught fire with reactions to the news, clever kids tripped over themselves to photoshop images of Tyronn Lue, who was once famously stepped over by Allen Iverson after a made jumper, stepping over David Blatt.  Okay, why not.  But in the midst of the mass euphoria/hysteria, there was Allen Iverson himself, stepping into the Twitterverse, as he rarely does, with this:

Screenshot 2016-01-23 13.05.23

Was it a joke? Was he being ironic? Maybe. I don’t know Allen Iverson personally so I couldn’t really tell you for sure.  But actually, I think that’s sort of the point.

To me, this Tweet, whatever Iverson may have intended, tells me that there is something deep and intimate shared by NBA players that we, who are not them, often fail to recognize. To us, Lue is mockable roadkill left in the wake of the speeding rebel genius Iverson (he was for me too until I saw this tweet). But Iverson seems to step in here to say that we don’t understand anything, or rather, that we and our views—to the degree that we fail to see their limitations—are rrelevant.

That’s why he addresses Lue directly.  “Love you” he says to Tyronn Lue in the presence of 980,000 followers.  He may have delighted in making that shot, and in stepping over Lue, but that delight, I believe I understand, was not at the expense of the loving bond they share, but rather a function of it.  I think it can be hard to understand that from the outside; hard to understand, I mean, what it must be to be among a group of a few hundred young black males suddenly experiencing riches and fame and adoration and pressure in a world that otherwise mostly seems to fear and despise them, at least if mass incarceration and police violence is any indication; hard to really grasp the solidarity that experience, those experiences, engender.

So what? Well, I’m not an NBA player, or a young black man, so I’m sure I can’t presume to say with any kind of certainty.  But from the vantage point that Iverson seemed to me to have pointed to here, and which I can at least intellectually comprehend, here’s how the whole thing with the Cavs, Blatt, and LeBron looks.

It’s probably fair to say that the expectations for, and pressure on, David Blatt changed after he accepted the job. He thought he’d be coaching a young team and trying to shape them into contenders.  Then LeBron came back, management traded the young players to create a Big 3 out of James, Kyrie Irving, and  Kevin Love, and merely contending was no longer enough.  The job description changed: the Cavs had to win a championship. Racking up wins in the woeful Eastern Conference and making it through to the Finals wouldn’t cut it if the now-full-strength Cavs were still—as was appearing to be the case—likely to go down in the Finals.  So, while that may have been tough for Blatt to adapt to, it remains the case that he was still collecting paychecks and that the change in expectations were not unreasonable.  That is why it is totally irrelevant, if not disingenuous, for critics of the decision to wring their hands over the fact that Blatt had the best won-loss record of any fired coach in history, or that the team, depleted by injuries, made the finals last season.  Who cares? And who says that was because of Blatt anyway? Why do you say that was because of Blatt?

Those upset that so seemingly successful a coach as Blatt should have been fired explain what otherwise seems inexplicable by presuming that LeBron James had something to do with it, even if he was not, as the Cavs maintain, explicitly consulted.  We might ask why we presume this when there is no evidence. But my gut response to the speculation is, nonetheless: ya think?  Of course he had something to do with it! I should hope so!  He might not be the best player in the league this year (though, as I’ve argued before, we should think hard about our delight in his having been surpassed by Steph Curry).  But he’s been the best player on the planet for a decade and, contrary to some wayward speculation, he’s far more crucial to the Cavs hopes of winning a title anytime soon than was David Blatt. More important than whether LeBron had a role in this or not, is the question of why those not on the team are so invested in maintaining a putative hierarchy in which players don’t express their dissatisfaction about their coaches publicly or in any way that might cause management to fire the coach.  So, why? Why are you so invested in that hierarchy?

Trailing closely in the wake of the collective garment-rending and breast-beating for David Blatt is the head-shaking and finger-wagging at LeBron James for what these observers take to be his egomaniacal savior complex.  LeBron may or may not have such a complex.  I don’t know him.  What I do know is that before he returned to Cleveland, before he left Cleveland, before he called himself King, or tattooed himself with the word “Chosen,” these same people now complaining about him had already called him “the Chosen One.”  Incidentally, many of these people who rip what they see as James’ narcissistic selfishness will also have criticized him, in effect, for being too unselfish on the court. Nor does this criticism seem to capture that the main advantage that Lue seems to have over Blatt, as far as Cavs players goes, is that he will actually criticize them, even LeBron.  Whose fault is it that David Blatt wouldn’t do that? But let’s not get bogged down in these details.  Here’s the bottom line, don’t get it twisted: we wrote the script for the new gospel and cast LeBron as the messiah.  That’s on us and it’s our problem, not his, when he doesn’t conform to the plot we’ve laid out.  

That’s the reminder and the lesson of Iverson’s tweet:  we are ever placing these human beings into our doll houses, playing out dramas with them, and them tossing them under the sofa when one “malfunctions” or a “better one” comes along…all the while acting as though our playroom theatrics were reality. We’re just playing. But they’re not: not Iverson, not Lue, not James, not even Blatt. We can play and enjoy our games.  But they’re not reality, at least not all of it, and definitely not the most important part of reality.

Now, we may not have access to the reality.  That’s not our fault.  And it makes our—my—mythmaking understandable.  I get that.  But getting that also carries with it a responsibility to acknolwedge that we are just playing, and that our play is not a source of any kind of knowledge, unless it is knowledge about the kind of games we like to play.  Morever, it requires us to refrain from passing moralizing judgments and pretending them that they are grounded in anything other than our fantasies and the deep desires shaping them.

“Beauty” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 3)

What are we saying when we say that an athletic play is “beautiful”? This is the question to which Hans Gumbrecht turns in the second subsection of the “Definitions” chapter of In Praise of Athletic Beauty. You might recall that in the preceding section he defined “praise” as speech or writing, motivated by gratitude, that lays bare the complexity of forms exhibited in athletic performance and relates these to their function and effect.  How, he’s now asking, should we understand “beauty” in the context of athletics?

Gumbrecht begins by observing that, at least among intellectuals or those he calls “cultivated people,” use of the word “beauty” tends to be reserved for canonical objects of high culture such as poems and novels, paintings and sculptures, musical compositions and dramatic performances.  Aesthetic experience, he considers, is thereby reserved for an intellectual elite and divorced from everyday life experiences.

Immanuel_Kant_(painted_portrait)

Immanuel Kant, Sporty Dude

This leads him into the first of the two major parts of this chapter, in which he turns to the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who authored a highly influential treatise on aesthetics.  For those who have tangled with Kant’s famously difficult prose, this might seem like a strange resource to bring into a battle to make a common vocabulary for describing aesthetic experience available to sports fans.  But Gumbrecht contends, correctly I think, that Kant’s treatise, called Critique of Judgment, was undertaken as “an attempt to understand the implications of the everyday use of the word ‘beautiful'” (p. 39).

Though, I must say that I think Gumbrecht offers one of the most lucid summaries of Kant’s work that I have encountered, one that even my group of undergraduates with next to no experience in the humanities seemed to be able to grasp, I think there are more promising sources in the history of aesthetic philosophy for this task.  John Dewey’s Art as Experience comes to mind as a more contemporary (it was written in the 1930s), more accessible, and more persuasive attempt to redress the same cultivated aversion to the beautiful the experiences of daily life.  And, indeed, Dewey’s work has inspired some contemporary philosophers (to name just a few: Joseph Kupfer, Drew Hyland, Randolph Feezell, and indirectly Richard Shusterman) who have undertaken to understand the aesthetic dimensions of sporting experience.  That said, I do think Gumbrecht pulls off the use of Kant quite effectively.

To do so, Gumbrecht attributes to Kant four defining qualities of what we call beautiful, or, to put it slightly different, of aesthetic experience. First, it is “disinterested,” meaning not that we don’t care about what we find beautiful, but rather that in experiencing and valuing something as beautiful we are not motivated by instrumental concerns such as making money, or finding a better job, or even winning a game.  That doesn’t mean that those concerns may not play a role in creating something beautiful (Steph Curry is trying to get paid, after all, as he should be), but rather that success or failure in that regard have no impact on our judgment of the thing as beautiful (pp 40-41).

Second, aesthetic experience is felt (“an inner pleasure or displeasure”), rather than grounded in or aiming at conceptualization.  This speaks to the material basis for aesthetic experience (the very word “aesthetics” derives from the Greek word meaning simply “sensation”; so that “anesthesia” is a substance that deprives us of sensation).  Before we can think about it, we call beautiful that to which we are drawn (and “ugly” that by which we are repelled) (p. 42).

Third, aesthetic experience partakes of what Kant calls “subjective universality.”  It is an irreducibly subjective, even private or intimate, experience, but one that invites others to share in them. In Gumbrecht’s words, “our individual acts of aesthetic judgment always imply the expectation, perhaps even then invitation, for everybody to agree” (pp. 42-43).

Lastly, those objects (or activities or experiences) we tend to call “beautiful” exhibit what is usually summarized by the formula: “purposiveness without purpose” (p. 44).  It need not have a purpose, let alone the purpose to be considered beautiful, but it appears to have had a purpose or design to it.  You can think of ocean wave or an oak tree in full autumn colors.  And, indeed both Kant and Gumbrecht stress the kinship between the properties of what we call beautiful in, say, art (or sport) and what we consider beautiful in nature (p. 45).

Before moving on from Kant, Gumbrecht devotes a few, mostly dismissive words, to what Kant called “the sublime,” distinguishing it from “the beautiful.”  The sublime refers to objects or experiences that, in contrast to the formally limited nature of the beautiful, generates an experience of limitlessness, of “that which is absolutely great…in comparison with which everything else is small” and that which may threaten to overwhelm us.  Here, following Kant directly, you can think of “nature in its chaos and in its wildest and most unruly disorder and devastation.”  Gumbrecht considers that, despite the interest of many sports lovers in records which would seem to suggest an investment in quantitative greatness, the “sublime has less of an affinity with sports than does the concept of beauty.”

landing-overview

If this is sublime…

Maybe or maybe not.  But my students and I found ourselves thinking that Gumbrecht underestimates the role of the sublime in our aesthetic experience of sports.  We considered that action sports offer superb opportunities for spectators to experience the sublime.  And moreover, that certain exhibitions of unparalleled domination (Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game, for example) or of simply superlative performance under severe duress (Michael Jordan’s “flu game,” Isaiah Thomas scoring 25 points in a quarter in a playoff game on a badly injured ankle, Curt Schilling pitching with a torn achilles tendon) can also stimulate this experience: a deep sense of awe at the overwhelming magnitude of the play or performance we’ve just witnessed.

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isn’t this?

But regardless of that minor difference, the point of what Gumbrecht has done with Kant was to convince readers that “watching sports may be a case of what philosophers call aesthetic experience” (p. 48).  And in this I believe he succeeds.  But he worries that Kant may be too dry—ya think?!—and so he moves to what I find the most inventive part of this chapter.

122fffdc20137d7ba2a92016abef1310Recalling an autobiographical account by Olympic swimmer Pablo Morales of his experience as a spectator watching Evelyn Ashford running the anchor leg of the women’s 400 meter relay in the 1988 Olympics, Gumbrecht seizes on Morales description of what he saw in Ashford.  She was, the swimmer said, the “lost in focused intensity” and the power of that brought Morales back, despite reservations about the sacrifices involved, into competition after a four year layoff.  Gumbrecht breaks this phase down, riffing off each of its component terms, as a way, he hopes, to get a little closer “to an understanding of the specific beauty of sports among all other varieties of aesthetic experience” (49).

“Lost” Gumbrecht understands to be the equivalent of Kant’s “disinterestedness,” the athlete “alone with herself, lost to the world, disconnected from all the goals that made up her everyday life, even from the goals that—extrinsically or intrinsically—belong to the athletic event in which she participated” (p. 52).

“Intensity,” in the first place, refers what Morales believes describes Ashford’s feelings, “both her emotions and the perception of her own body” (p. 52).  Gumbrecht interprets this term to suggest an intensification or “heightening of qualities and impressions that always already exist for us” and concludes that “athletic experience—and aesthetic experience in general—is not qualitatively different from our experience in other less marked situations” only that in this case “our physical and emotional capacities are operating close to their maximum” (p. 52).

That’s nice, and I agree wholeheartedly.  But I (nerdily) kept wanting to say “John Dewey! John Dewey!” for this is the entire point of Dewey’s own aesthetic treatise, Art as Experience, which takes as its points of departure and as the core of all aesthetic experience “the live creature” in its environment, citing as examples of the aesthetic in daily life:

“the fire-engine rushing by; the machines excavating enormous holes in the earth; the human-fly climbing the steeple-side; the men perched high in air on girders. . . . the tense grace of the ball-player.”

But okay, that’s enough of my riding for Dewey. For whatever reason, Gumbrecht prefers Kant.

Lastly, the “focused” part of Morales’ formula suggests to Gumbrecht the stance that Drew Hyland has called “responsive openness” in the chapter on “Sport, Art, and the Aesthetic” in his 1991 work, Philosophy of Sport.  Here, though, Gumbrecht adds something useful (and likely to be recognizable to anyone with athletic experience) by pointing out the seemingly paradoxical combination by which an athlete both excludes potential distractions and remains open to the unexpected.  There is here a hint of what Gumbrecht will dwell on in the next section defining athletics as “presence.”  But that grounded presence in the here (space) and now (time) makes the athlete available to respond gracefully to what may arise unexpectedly from elsewhere (space) in the next unfolding moment (time). A bit later, he’ll sum this up by saying “great athletes make things happen by letting things happen to themselves” (p. 56).

I find Gumbrecht at his most compelling here in his way of describing what Andrew Cooper, following athletes themselves, describes as “playing in the zone” (linking it to spiritual practices) and the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called “flow.”  But we’re talking about watching sports, not playing them, remember.  So Gumbrecht brings us back to that by simply recalling his own experiences as a spectator in which that feeling of being “lost in focused intensity” have taken over: “moments when my attention grows sharper and my emotions become overwhelming” but that are ‘always accompanied by a feeling of composure” (p. 55).  He’s capturing an experience of spectatorship that encompasses partisanship (wanting your team to succeed) but goes well beyond it to include an absorption in the unfolding action that allows Gumbrecht at least to “feel I can let go and let come (or not) the things that I desire to come. I am open to the next experience, whatever it may be (p. 56).

With this passage, Gumbrecht gets at something I’ve experienced myself and that the philosopher Steven Mumford has analyzed thoroughly in his book Watching Sport: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Emotion.  Though Mumford, to his credit, attempts to make room for a question raised by one of my students:  can we still call a play beautiful if the athlete making it is, off the field or court or ice, ethically repulsive (say, like Schilling)?  What is or should be, in other words, the relationship between ethics and aesthetics.  As I explained in my earlier posts on Gumbrecht, he’s so averse to what he dismisses as socio-cultural interpretations of sport that he really leaves no room to consider this question, which I consider a perfectly valid one.

To pivot, finally, to the next section of the book, Gumbrecht reminds us that all of this has really been about the “subjective conditions” under which “we call sports beautiful.”  But we also need to discover “whether there is anything intrinsically specific about athletic performance as an object of aesthetic experience”; anything, he wonders, “that could ‘objectively’ account for its irresistible appeal and for its so often overwhelming impact.”  But I’ll leave my account of his response to that line of questioning for my next post.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an image of the classroom whiteboard diagram reflecting my Writing the Sporting Body students’ discussion of this reading:

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What I Did in 2015

This felt like a productive, and pivotal, year for me.  So I thought I’d gather together the links to some of my professional activities during 2015…because, well, I feel proud.

In my teaching, I continued to refine Cultures of Basketball, developed an entirely new course called “Writing the Sporting Body,” and completely revamped my large lecture course “Global Sports Cultures.”

Over the summer, I had a few successful blog posts, two of which seemed especially to strike a chord: my thoughts on the deeper cultural forces that might drive the collective love affair with Steph Curry and my commentary on LeBron James and coaching.

These led to some fun media appearances: one at Over and Back on the meanings of the late Darryl Dawkinsone discussing NBA narratives with Seth Partnow, another on coaching with Nick Hauselman, and what can only be described as a cameo in Tom Goldman’s NPR story on Steph Curry.

I published a couple of academic articles, one, related to my book, on the meaning of the phrase “Ball Don’t Lie” and another, long-coming, on the cultural and political significance of Manu Ginobili’s style of play. Another article, on the myths surrounding the invention of basketball, will be published in the Journal of Sport History in Spring, 2016. I also was honored to accept a position, alongside some scholars I’ve long admired, on the editorial board of the Journal of Sports and Social Issues.

Most exciting to me was finishing up my end of the production process for my forthcoming book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, which will hit bookstores in the spring and is already available for pre-order on Amazon.

I also began new administrative appointments at Michigan related to college athletics, which brought me new perspectives on some controversial issues such as athlete compensation and faculty involvement, both matters that I plan to get more involved in, both as a researcher and administrator.

Now, as for the pivotal part, I’m excited to announce that, with the support of Deans Andrew Martin and Angela Dillard of the Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, Jimmy King and I began to plan a public symposium dedicated to examining the legacy of the Fab Five to mark the 25th anniversary of their 1991 arrival on campus. We’re still figuring out the dates and details, but it will happen sometime in 2016 and I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted.

Lastly, I’ve kicked off two new essay-length research projects.  The first, in response to a call for papers on the topic of doing sport history in the digital era, is a history, contextualization, and cultural review of the rise of basketball analytics and its impact on various issues pertaining to basketball history.  The second will be something like a map of the hoops historical imagination of ESPN’s 30 for 30 basketball documentaries.

It’s been a lot of work, but the most rewarding work of my life, and I’m grateful to everyone who has played a part in this.  Thank you.

I hope you all have a prosperous, peaceful, and joyful 2016.

 

Phil Jackson and the Essence of Basketball

phil-jackson-joins-knicksYesterday, Howard Beck published a fine profile of New York Knicks President Phil Jackson. Jackson, a former player (on the championship teams of the Knicks in 1970 and 1973) and coach (of 11 championship teams in Chicago and Los Angeles), is at least as well known for the string of popular books popular books blending autobiography, basketball strategy and tactics, and a mix of fundamentalist Christianity, Lakota Sioux religion, and Zen Buddhism; nuggets of wisdom from which he occasionally releases in interviews with the media.  All this makes Jackson an extremely interesting figure to me combining as he does, in his approach to the game, a love of basketball, an interest in the nuts and bolts of the game, and an awareness of wider social, philosophical and psychological issues shaping and shaped by basketball.

These days, Beck and others are especially interested in the decisions Jackson plans to make to improve the Knicks during this NBA off season and in the principles guiding those decisions. I’m not so interested in what he will do with the Knicks, but Beck’s profile from yesterday offered a nicely distilled version of the philosophy Jackson has always espoused and that I am very much interested in.  Given the misunderstandings that some of my recent writing has engendered, I want to say up front that I’m not taking issue with Jackson’s abilities as a coach.  But I am interested in the limitations and implications of some of the underpinnings of his views of the game and the world. So let me start with what Jackson said and then try to explain my reservations. In his interview, Jackson offered both a critique of today’s game and a few basic principles he’d like to see the NBA, and his Knicks in particular, get back to.  So what has Jackson seen that bothers him?

When I watch some of these playoff games, and I look at what’s being run out there, as what people call an offense, it’s really quite remarkable to see how far our game has fallen from a team game. Four guys stand around watching one guy dribble a basketball.

He seems to  be thinking especially of how the Cavaliers responded to injuries to key players by emphasizing an isolation-style offense in which LeBron James dominated the ball, ran down the shot clock and then looked either to score, get to the free throw line, or, if he was double-teamed, find an open teammate.  Of course, LeBron himself, well-known for his unselfishness and efficiency as a player, was not happy with the tactic.  But, as many observers noted, with a severely depleted roster, Cleveland really didn’t have too many options. Yet Jackson had criticism for James:

I watch LeBron James, for example, He might [travel] every other time he catches the basketball if he’s off the ball. He catches the ball, moves both his feet. You see it happen all the time.

Jackson is not alone in this criticism of James, though the criticism might be leveled with equal validity at many other NBA players.  For Jackson, though, this particular problem bespeaks a larger malaise:

There’s no structure, there’s no discipline, there’s no ‘How do we play this game’ type of attitude. And it goes all the way through the game. To the point where now guys don’t screen—they push guys off with their hands.

And here already is where Jackson starts to become interesting to me, when he invokes values such as “structure” and “discipline” from outside of basketball to explain why he has a problem with the game as he sees it today.  He goes on:

The game actually has some beauty to it, and we’ve kind of taken some of that out of it to make it individualized. It’s a lot of who we are as a country, individualized stuff.

It seems to me as though Jackson means to connect the “structure” and “discipline” he sees as missing in the game (as exemplified by LeBron’s play in the finals) to other values “beauty” and (implicitly) “cooperation”.  Indeed, Jackson says as much—while adding one more, very important, time-honored value—in elaborating upon what was missing with a musical analogy:

It struck me: How can we get so far away from the real truth of what we’re trying to do? And if you give people structure, just like a jazz musician—he’s gotta learn melody, and he’s gotta learn the basic parts of music—and then he can learn how to improvise. And that’s basically what team play is all about.

“Structure,” “discipline,” “beauty,” “cooperation,” “truth.”  I have no quarrel that these are part of basketball.  On the contrary, part of what draws me to Phil Jackson is that in steadfastly invoking such values over the course of his career he implicitly and sometimes explicitly affirms the connections between basketball and things that are not basketball and thereby the importance of basketball as a cultural form to be taken seriously.  In this particular case, these terms connect the sport to art (“beauty” and “structure”), to morality (“structure,” “discipline,” and “cooperation”) and to politics (“cooperation” invoked, by contrast, to how we do things in American society).  

“Truth” seems, as it often does in culture, to serve as a kind of overarching trump value, governing and tying together all the rest.  “Truth” here seems to mean  “how things should be” according to some fixed essential identity to basketball that involves prominently exhibiting the other values he invokes.  So that Jackson seems to be saying that it’s not basketball, in his view, if it doesn’t revolve around “structure,” “discipline,” “beauty,” and “cooperation.”

I think things—LeBron’s performance, the state of today’s NBA, and basketball in general—are more complex than what Jackson allows.  It’s hard, for example, for me to see James’ performance in the final as lacking in structure or discipline given that James systematically and with almost relentless consistency employed an offensive tactic that ran counter to his own sense of how basketball should be played and, indeed, counter to his team played for most of the season.

As for the NBA more generally, I’m not sure why Jackson doesn’t find in the Warriors (or the Spurs last season—okay he did praise them). But why not the Heat in the two seasons previous to that, or the Mavericks in 2011—all NBA champions) exactly the “structure,” “discipline,” “beauty” and “cooperation” he claims are missing in the sport today.  Plenty of people have written about this over the past few years and, moreover, reported on how various less successful teams seek to model themselves after these winning teams. It’s odd to me that someone as experienced with and involved in pro basketball should make the general claims about the sport today that Jackson makes.

But what about the sport itself? Is there a “true” way to play basketball? Some approach that best exhibits a core essence to the sport, without which what is going on is basketball in name only?  Here’s where it gets tricky. On the one hand, the answer must obviously be “yes” because otherwise how would we know that what we are watching or playing or talking about is basketball and not, say, football or chess or cooking.  For many, that might settle it.  But it gets more complicated if we take a second to ask what is that thing that makes it basketball and not any of those other things.  A ball? A hoop? Players? Those all seem like minimum requirements.screen-shot-2015-03-29-at-4-36-39-pm

But Jackson is adding in other requirements.  Leaving aside that there is probably reasonable disagreement, in and out of basketball, on just what “beauty” or “structure” or “discipline” or “cooperation” mean, do we really want to say that it’s not “true” basketball or that we’ve strayed from the “truth” of basketball if those things aren’t present? All of this might seem like the kind of esoteric overthinking that people who do my job are often accused of.  After all, there is vast unspoken consensus on what basketball is, Phil doesn’t really mean that what LeBron is doing isn’t actually basketball but something else, and, perhaps most importantly, there seems to be nothing at stake: nothing anybody cares about and deserves gets taken away from them because of the way in which we define basketball.  Except that, historically, this is exactly what has happened in basketball.

Historians of the sport know that almost since the time of its invention, controversies and debates have played out over what is and isn’t basketball.  Is it basketball if you dribble the ball? What if you play physically? Is it basketball if you shoot it off the backboard or play in (or not in) a cage? Is it basketball without a center jump after each made basket? How about the dunk? Is that basketball? In my research, I’ve discovered that over the years self-appointed custodians of basketball have argued, like Jackson, for the exclusion, of certain elements of the game on the basis of a sometimes implicit sometimes explicit claim about what the essence of the game might be.

I fear that at this point, in the wake of my posts last week on Lebron and coaching, on Steph Curry, on coaching and on racism, that I may lose some readers.  But be that as it may, it is a demonstrable fact that over the course of the history of the sport, some of those claims and the resulting exclusions have been made if not with the intention of then certainly with the effect of excluding certain kinds of plays or styles of play and the players most commonly associated with it.  It’s a sad, but unavoidable and—given the history of the United States over the same time period—unsurprising fact that the players most often excluded or, if included, derided and criticized in the name of some supposed essence of basketball have been African-American.

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It would be absurd to argue that with these comments Phil Jackson was expressing a desire to exclude black players from basketball. And if we all agree that he’s not, why then bother with all of what many reading this might consider to be irrelevant, because ancient, history?

My answer is it doesn’t, unless you believe that language and culture matters because it carries forward our assumptions, attitudes and habits of thought. And, more specifically, that the language and culture of the past, if we use it in ignorance of its past uses, shapes our present, making certain kinds of change possible and other kinds of change impossible. It would be nice, maybe, if we could each of get to start all over again every time we used language. Speak and write with a blank slate and so feel somehow sure that we were conveying only our intended meanings and nothing more. But that is not how language works and so I believe that it be hooves us to be attentive of the social history of the language we use and inventive in coming with ways of talking about the things we care about that minimize the danger of inadvertently repeating harmful ideas and patterns of thought from the past.

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So what about the essence of basketball? My own view is that it’s best to keep our list of essential requirements minimal and responsive to changes in the game initiated by those intimately involved in play, above all: the players.  This allows a variety of styles of play to flourish and provides the requisite diversity for the game to thrive and for new forms, styles, tactics, maneuvers. It’s best too, in this regard, to beware of an understandable tendency to cling too tightly to forms of the past, especially those with which we identify with particular successes or with a particularly enjoyable basketball moment. It’s this last that I suspect Phil Jackson might be having a problem with, but perhaps not.

I think that, guided by these ideas, Phil Jackson might have said something like this: keep-calm-and-love-basketball-35a“I think it’s too bad, and I suspect LeBron also feels this way, that the imperative of competition and the constraints of the roster, required he and his teammates to play a style of ball that focused so heavily on his actions and left his teammates uninvolved or passive so much of the time, for the simple reason that basketball is a game of numbers and of using movement of ball and bodies and the space of the floor to create advantages in numbers. I recognize that most of the successful teams throughout history have done this, right up to the present day.  And I’m heartened to see that among today’s players there are so many who can dribble, pass and shoot and make plays for others, becoming functionally interchangeable while retaining their distinctive individual abilities. This balance of distinctive individuality expressed in harmony with that of others gives us a kind of liberty, a license, one that it would be good to see more of in our society.”  That’s a commentary, candid but informed by a critical sense of history and a nuanced appreciation of the present and free of any appeal to some fixed essence of the sport, that I could get behind.

What Racism Means to Me

This is probably hopeless, but the teacher in me won’t seem to allow me to let it go or write it off.  In the wake of my posts over the last week on Steph Curry, LeBron James and coaching, and coaching more generally, I’ve gotten some comments and responses that, in various ways, accuse me of injecting racial dynamics into issues where none are in fact in play.  Rather than try to respond to each of those individually, I thought it might be helpful if I explained what I mean when I talk about the racism.

First, a few points qualifying what follows.  Racism, obviously, takes many, many different forms.  I do not consider myself an expert in the history of race in this country or elsewhere.  I’m not a sociologist or an anthropologist or a historian.  These are all real scholarly disciplines with real methods that require years to master.  The study of race, undertaken from whatever disciplinary foundation, requires even more work on top of that.  I’ve done some of this work, to be sure, but I want to be careful to make clear that I am here just explaining what racism means to me, with my interdisciplinary training in literary and cultural studies and philosophy.  I don’t think of this as the last word, but genuinely as an attempt to clarify my own positions and, perhaps, to move the conversation forward a bit. In other words, I’m still learning and eager to continue to do so.  Finally, I’m confining myself to what I feel qualified to talk about: how racism gets sedimented in our language and culture, even or especially when its expression is not overt, and independently of the avowed views on race espoused by a given individual who is using language or adding to our culture.

Let me take the example of Marc Stein’s piece on LeBron James, which more than the others has occasioned the sort of objection to which I want to respond.  I should begin by saying (as I did explicitly in my post) that I’m not concerned with whether or not Marc Stein is, as an individual human being, a racist.  I’m not concerned, I mean, with whether or not he harbors prejudicial attitudes or feelings towards racial minorities.  For one thing, I don’t know him personally.  If pressed, I’d guess he probably doesn’t.  But I was never talking about Marc Stein.  I was talking about the language he was using, the assumptions he was relying upon in making his argument, and the history of that language and assumptions.  So that’s the first thing: when I talk about racism as I have this past week (and most of the time), I’m separating out the language and culture an individual is using from the individual him or herself.

I believe that when we speak or write the language we use inevitably means more than what we intend it to mean.  Of course, we may be more or less skilled at conveying our intended meaning clearly in language.  But even the most crystal clear bit of language always carries an excess of meaning.  This is first of all because language (and culture more broadly) has a history and second of all because it is social.  We like to think of language as a neutral instrument that we can employ to achieve only our intended effects, without concern for its past or where it came from and so without regard for the unintended effects it might have.  But I think, to put this directly, that this is naive at best and misguided and potentially dangerous at worst.

In Philip Pullman’s marvelous trilogy His Dark Materials, there is an instrument called the subtle knife.  subtle_knife_by_j_westOne edge of the knife is so sharp it can cut through any material. The other edge is sharper still, capable of slashing the molecules separating one universe from another.  At a crucial moment in the plot, this powerful tool, in the hands of our heroes, Will and Lyra, shatters, threatening to leave them forever stranded in a world that is not there own.  Fortunately, they have a friend who is a master blacksmith, capable of repairing the knife.  Only, he is not sure he wants to.  When they ask him why, he explains that the point of the knife is so fine that he cannot see it.  Though he trusts their good intentions in using the knife, the invisibility of its point tells him that the knife may have intentions and so effects unknown to any of them.  The heroes protest that regardless of the knife’s intentions, their intentions, the blacksmith knows, are pure and that, anyway, they have to do something important and they can’t do it without the knife.  The blacksmith agrees, reluctantly, but only after receiving assurances that Will and Lyra will be exceptionally mindful in their use of the tool, careful to monitor their own intentions as well as to be aware of the unintended effects of the knife.

Language and culture are like that knife. And the historical and social nature of language is like that very, very fine, potentially dangerous point, harboring meanings and effects possibly unknown to us, and possibly counter to what we might intend. Of course, as the blacksmith would acknowledge, we have no choice but to use the powerful tool of language.

Definition of language in dictionary

Language and culture are like that knife.

But we have, as he also insists, a serious responsibility to understand the history and social character deposited in the language we use and then to use that language responsibly.  I sound preachy.  I’m not always so informed or so careful, but I’m almost always regretful when I’m not.  And I certainly try to learn from my mistakes in language and culture by studying more about where the language I use comes from and where it is going.

In the case of how the media portrays Steph Curry, or how Marc Stein cast his criticism of LeBron James, I think there has been a lack of care about the history, within the culture of basketball and in our society more broadly, of certain seemingly innocent terms and apparently natural assumptions.8371413_orig  Basketball, as probably anyone reading this knows, was once segregated, separate and unequal.  Even after integration, quotas remained in place limiting the access of black players to teams, leagues, and playing time.   Even after the quotas faded, black players were subject to criticism for their style of play, their clothing and their behavior.

In that history, if admittedly probably not in the heart of Marc Stein or other writers today, these certain seemingly innocent terms and an apparently natural assumptions about how things ought to be in the game have been used directly to discriminate against, to demean, to control and to punish African-American players or else indirectly to justify such practices.black_fives_caro_page-bg_22944 This is real history, which I am not making up or “reading into” my objects of study. Anybody can read the newspapers of the past, the histories and biographies and autobiographies that I have read and discover the very same thing, plain as day.

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The system is called white supremacy and it is supported by racism.

What’s more, these very real practices are themselves linked (much as we sports fans would like to think that the entertaining games we love exist in isolation from the societies in which we enjoy them) to other very real practices in the world whereby, as my friend put it in a recent short essay, “people who are not white die sooner than those who are.”  This happens systematically, even though many white people naturally protest that they don’t want any part of it.  The system is called white supremacy and it is supported by racism.  The system is embedded in social behaviors, public policy, and the acts of individuals.  Language and culture may not be the most direct tools in the arsenal by which this system achieves its effects, but both language and culture are nonetheless indispensable to its existence and durability.

We may not have been responsible for using language and culture in this way in the first place, but we are certainly responsible for tossing the same ideas and words out into the world as though, just because we are ourselves have only innocent intentions, they can cause no further harm.  I can understand from experience how painful it can feel to realize that one has inadvertently stepped into it, contrary to one’s intentions, but I think we should try to keep that pain from driving us to close our minds to the possibility of growing, let alone our hearts to the pain of others.

And that is why, in my own little corner of the world, filled with basketball players, coaches, owners, fans, and journalists, I care about the language, the images, and the metaphors we use to talk about the game we love.  It is why I care about the assumptions that we too often carelessly wield in building arguments.  It is why I insist, and will continue to insist, that we can do better by our sports and better by ourselves.  We can’t stop using language and we don’t need to become control freaks or language cops.  We just need to reflect a bit more deeply on our feelings and intentions before we speak and write and create more culture.  We just need to inform ourselves a little better about the history of that language, that culture, and those assumptions.  It’s hard for me to understand why, understood in this way, anybody would object to the project of trying (whether by critique or by the creation of new versions of old stories) to use the powerful tool that is language more carefully, so that, as best as we can manage, it doesn’t aid in the perpetuation of a system whereby other human beings die sooner than others.

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