Cultures of Basketball Course Diary, Day 8: Failed Best
I hadn’t expected it. We’d had an awesome class Tuesday talking about the Celtics dynasty and the importance of specialization of roles. And I was particularly proud of my title for Thursday’s class—“Close, But No Cigar”—for which I’d assigned FreeDarko’s chapters on Wilt Chamberlain and on Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson. Get it? “Close, But No Cigar” cuz they all came close but they didn’t hardly win any titles and Red Auerbach smoked victory cigars in their faces and they didn’t get to do that. So, I’d thought to myself, great day to put on the table a first go around at the question: what role, if any, should team championships play in our assessment of individual players? A topic, after all, I knew would resurface in relation to Lebron and The Decision.
But there was more to my optimism than just a catchy title and one solid question. We were, for example, arriving at the era of my own living memory. So to our comparisons of myth and history as modes of storytelling we could now begin to layer in personal memory: how does that change the emotional tone and stylistic inflections of our stories of hoops past? Also, the statistical enormity of these players (especially Wilt’s 100 point game and his 50ppg/25rpb season and Oscar’s triple double for a season and over the first five years of his career, but also Baylor and West combining to average 70 a game one season) would allow me to raise the question of comparing players from different eras and by extension different eras, a problem in thought that involves statistics, historical methods, logic, and metaphysics. Finally, the players would be absent (already in Columbus to stake the fragile momentum of their two game win streak against the number one college team in the country) so we’d have smaller numbers, more space, less nerves (on my part), and so obviously a livelier and more focused discussion.
Nuh uh. They were already chattering like monkeys when I walked in the room. Fewer bodies, but much more noise. They were talking about the impending OSU game, then somehow simultaneously about the snowstorm. I’m not sure how they managed but they were all saying at least two different things on at least two different topics at exactly the same instant. I tried to stem the tide—“so today…”—but was swept away, as inconsequential as a leaf on the swirling surface of a flooding river. Or, even when I did manage to complete a sentence and so to set the agenda, they yanked it away and went howling and leaping off, dragging the dismembered carcass of my sentence behind them in the dust.
Finally joining them around the flickering firelight at the mouth of their cave, idiotically and with apparently zero grasp of the vibe in the room, I actually gave them a choice – discussion first or vid clips? – and so provoked a new round of chaotic yelping. “Vid clips! Vid clips!” they chanted in unison, their voices growing unaccountably higher in pitch. So, with my newly found classroom technology chops, I fire up the series of clips I had chosen. First, a Paramount Newsreel announcing the arrival on the scene of 7-1 giant and straight A high school student Wilton Chamberlain, erstwhile bellhop and regular on the summer courts of Kutscher’s Catskills Resort.
Then I turn to Wilt video # 2. This feels precarious given the Lord of the Flies ambience. See, the clip is more of a eulogy and is set to the lilting, longing rhythms of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You.” “I wanna hold the hand inside you,” she moans as the video moves lovingly through a Ken Burns still-to-still transitions. “Oh shit,” I’m thinking, “they’ll think I’m in love with Wilt.” I am in love with Wilt, or at least with a set of qualities I sometimes call “Wilt” for short, I say, “Some of the music choices on these is sometimes weird, but I have to admit on this one I found it really moving.” A student, momentarily reassuming human form, says helpfully, “those differences in musical choices say a lot about all the different ways people have of connecting to the game.” I smile at him, and draw a deep breath of relief. “That’s a really good point.” I settle in to be transported by Wilt’s utterly unparalleled combination of strength, size, speed, agility, lightness, grace, and skill. They seem to be soothed as well.
We move on to another clip, newsreel type again, that recounts the rise of the Lakers upon the arrival of, first Elgin Baylor and then Jerry West.
We watch Elgin’s smooth and subtle athleticism and I’m thinking of how spot on Bethlehem Shoals description of Elgin seems: “Don’t watch newsreels of Baylor,” he cautions, “expecting to see him kissing the rim or cradling the ball way up above a sea of defenders. Compared to those who followed in his footsteps, Baylor played a more subtle game, a series of broken dribbles, lateral glides, and exploratory parries that resolved into either a bounding drive or high jumper.” I love this sort of formal analysis: true and attentive to the specific material form in motion that is the game (in this case Baylor), lucid and compact in situating that form in history (those who would follow), and poetic, but economical, in its own right. It’s what criticism – whether literary, artistic, social or otherwise – should be.
Still photo of the Celtics celebrating another title. They suddenly look sinister to me, Now Jerry West appears upon the scene, flawless relaxed jumper, coming off a screen, one hard pound of the ball off the floor to hasten his elevation and the perfect release. But I’m watching the tightened anxiety in the muscles of his face. He doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself, Maybe he was hurting. Maybe he was worried about falling short, about the monkey on his back.
I move on to the next video, easing a bridge across the moment of dead screen with a laughing observation that the comments on this one are awesome (because the video’s curator, who calls himself “thekobe24and8”, provocatively titles this Oscar montage: “Mr Triple Double: As Good as Jordan and Magic” – but not, I guess, Kobe, which is part of what prompts the comment hysteria). The beats of Jurassic 5’s “The Influence” set in, a couple of still shots and then Oscar, one of my two boyhood heroes (the other is Clyde), appears in full Bucks regalia.
He’s at the elbow with the ball, his back to the basket. O checks over his right shoulder, taking in all the movement on the weakside, including of course the defender who cheats toward him when Oscar dips his shoulder ever so slightly in that direction. Then Oscar reverse pivots on his left foot, facing the basket and jab stepping hard with his right foot at the same time. You can see from the body language that Jim Barnett of the opposing Warriors is already beaten. He is all uncertain tension, on his heels and leaning to O’s right, when O puts the ball on the floor hard with his left hand, steps aross Barnett’s body with his right foot, then elevates high, leaning back, the ball coming up a couple feet above his head for his high release – he’s created at least 3 feet of space between he and Barnett. Barnett recovers, he is a pro after all, but by that time Oscar is already releasing the ball on a high arcing trajectory toward the bottom of the net. If you write off the stats, I think to myself, then you really have to break Oscar’s game down frame by frame because he is so spectacularly unspectacular, so economical. And this I think to myself, this reserve whereby no energy is wasted on the world outside his game seems to express whatever was also being expressed by Oscar’s personality: by turns impossibly shy and sharply grumpy.
That’s fun. Like I said last time, I could videos all day, though today the students don’t seem so much like popcorn buddies as they do three year olds from whose riotous antics I have bought myself a few minutes of relief by popping Barney into the VHS.
But now that’s over and I have to teach. Still drunk, perhaps, from watching Wilt and Oscar, I repeat the mistake I’d made just five minutes before and offer them a choice. I say to them basically what I wrote in paragraphs two and three above. I’m thinking that sometimes you have to let the team run. So I tell them that today’s reading had made me think of three different, but perhaps related topics, that we could explore:
- The role of team championships in assessing the careers of individual players
- The comparison of players across eras
- The relevance of memory.
Where do you guys wanna go I ask? That was pretty clear, right? And I think to myself, really there’s nowhere they can go that I don’t want to go. I mean I love Wilt, as I’ve written about here before. Not so: “They said he was a quarter miler. Do you know how fast Wilt ran the quarter mile?” I’m as fascinated by Wilt’s athleticism as the next guy, but today I’m more interested in other things. So I try to respond to it courteously but economically, like Oscar dispatching Barnett with a pivot, a jab, and one dribble: “Fast.” Not good enough. I should never have given them choices.
One kid pulls out the book he’s reading on Wilt’s 100 point night (which gratifies me because he’s enthusasitic and ahead of the game and irritates me because it pulls me in deeper). “49 seconds! 49 seconds!!” everybody seems to shout, but it immediately becomes clear that they are just shouting, like Brick in Anchorman, because nobody really knows whether that’s fast or not. Nor do I care. But I open up my laptop hoping to settle this quickly, two boys have stopped texting in order to locate the world record for the quarter mile, both today (around 43) and back in the late 1950s (around 45). Everybody shouts that Wilt’s time was indeed good! Shout-adding that it was incredible when you consider that he wasn’t really training for the event! My tragically miscalculated reference to Wilt’s desire to box Ali is met with the shouted proposition that we should watch clips of “Shaq Vs.”, which is met with another chorus of hearty shouts!!!
My three topics are now buried deep in a pile of adolescent, internet fueled distraction and coated with a patina of middle-aged fatigue and ennui. I can barely be troubled, but I hold my nose and try to fish an idea out and put it back on the table. It reeks. But I hold it out once more, with a mixture of half-heartedness and impatience. So, I say, speaking of Wilt, how do you think he would fare as a center in today’s game? In the course of the half hour of little listening and loud babbling (my own included) that followed, we managed to establish Wilt’s weight at different points in his career, and to argue about Lebron’s playing weight, and – horribly, in response to my attempt to get at what Wilt meant and means today – to a discussion of his claim to have slept with 20,000 women. I think more smart phones were brought in for research at this point but I really can’t recall because I was in a state of semi-panicked, giggling, disbelief at what my once awesome class had descended to.
The closest we came to actual discussion looked to me more like a large family’s holiday meal: lots of volume and distraction, punctuated by little eddies of partially fragmented focus. In those eddies we did manage to draw close to the edge of insight. They had the unexpected sense to know that even if he wouldn’t score 100 points or average 50 and 25 or maybe even 30 and 15, Wilt would absolutely be a force, if not the top post player in today’s league. And: they showed wisdom in wanting to think about what array of forces had caused such changes in the style of low post play (Though they did not always show acuity in the conclusions they drew).
But we really didn’t get to reflect on what it means to compare players from different eras with one another (even as we were doing it, they really wouldn’t be baited into reflecting on their own thoughts, not today). Nor did we really address the questions of memory and history (though I did force them to listen to my story of having seen Wilt and West’s Lakers play Kareem and O’s Bucks in Madison back in in 1973). And we certainly didn’t say one word about what I most wanted to talk about: the role of team championships in assessing an individual players career.
And I really wanted to talk about it because I despise the position that team championships are or should be a measure of individual greatness in a team sport. I despise it in all its dimwitted, chest-thumping, blockheaded abstracting lack of appreciation for nuance, subtlety, detail, and chance. Not to mention its weak-minded moralizing insistence on the superior value of something it calls “the team” over something it calls “the individual,” only to then trumpet one individual as greater than another on the grounds that the former’s teams won more championships than the latter’s. When someone finds a way rationally to extract and quantify from the swirling whirl of teammates, coaches, organizations, random occurrences on the floor, and injuries one player’s role in winning championships, then I will believe it makes sense to hold a lack of such against individual players.
What’s that? Oh, win shares? You mean that sophisticated and complex measure of what share of his team’s wins a player has contributed? Okay, that’s not championships but I’ll go there just for the sheer delight of pointing out that of the top ten individual seasons for win shares in the history of the NBA, Wilt Chamberlain occupies spots 2, 3, 5, 7, and 9 (Jabbar: spots 1, 4, 6; Jordan: spot 8; and Oscar spot 10). Bill Russell? Oh yeah, spot 42. Wilt Chamberlain is second to Kareem on the career win share list (Russell is 16th). Wilt Chamberlain led the league in win share in 8 of the 14 seasons he was in the league (losing out Jabbar in his 3 final seasons, to West once, Willis Reed once, and Oscar once).
Look, I love statistics, but I have a terrible head for interpreting them. Or rather, my heart is too impatient to wait for my head always to figure out the numbers. But here’s what win shares mean tell me: that after Kareem, the player—we are talking here about statistically measurable contributions—who contributed more wins more consistently, season after season was Wilt Chamberlain. Bill Russell doesn’t really even show up in this discussion. Okay so the Celtics won 11 titles, including eight straight, and Russell was a – maybe even the most — valuable player for his team in that run of titles. But asserting that fact is not the same as demonstrating that he deserves a quantifiable share of credit for those titles and that his total imaginary “title shares” statistic is greater than Wilt’s. But really, what the stats show me, more than anything is that the Celtics teams were grater than the sum of their individual parts and while I think that is to, to some degree, to the credit of the parts, there’s no way to draw certain conclusions about that.
Don’t get me wrong, winning a championship is an impressive and beautiful accomplishment, Winning 11 in 13 years and 9 in a row, as I argued on Day 7, is to me nothing short of a wondrous mystery. But precisely because it is that, no single individual can be given credit for that in any serious comparison of the careers of individual players. The team gets credit for that and I give the Celtics teams of those years credit for being the best teams. And I give Bill Russell credit for being a revolutionary force in the league and for his team, not to mention for being an interesting and appropriately ornery dude off the court. I just cannot see how his team’s titles make him a more valuable individual player than, say, Wilt Chamberlain, who won only two (or for that matter, Oscar Robertson who won only 1). It might be stirring, but it is not good thinking and to call such a position anything other than potentially beautiful mysticism (my appreciation for which I think I amply demonstrated in my Day 7 post) is intellectually dishonest.
But the heretical truth I will here confess is that I hate this position most of all because of the transcendent emphasis it places on winning as a result to be clung to and valued above all else, I appreciate winning as a motive force, a kind of heuristic that brings out your best because you want it. And once it has done that work, I don’t care who wins. It really means very little to me, It is, in other words, what the desire to win—among a complex, dynamic array of other forces—produces on the court that excites me.
So it’s not just because I love Wilt like my own dad. And it’s not just because of the intellectual sloppiness involved in the argument. It’s also because of what the “team titles = individual greatness” position per force denigrates, obscures and makes us forget: the mysterious importance of the delicate relation between team and individual and, even more, the beauty and emotional force of the individual play that didn’t result in or contribute to winning a title, or even a game. Because, finally that is what basketball mostly consists of: plays that didn’t directly result in victories, let alone titles, let alone dynasties.
When I first learned to meditate I was told to take my shoes off mindfully because 99 % of life entails things like taking your shoes off. It stands to reason that, if you believe that mindfulness can be good for you, then you wouldn’t rope it off and confine it to the 1 % of your life spent seated on a cushion in a temple in front of a teacher. You’d want to experience the effects of mindfulness immanently, distributed throughout your life.
I say, similarly, don’t reduce the mysterious, complex beauty and excellence of basketball to the outcome of a poorly disguised shouting match about the number of rings your boy has. Don’t hate the individual player or play, don’t hate the “failure,” and don’t hate the everyday. It’s like hating a sudden, summer thundershower for not being the ocean (or vice versa) and forgetting that their differences are riveting partly because they are part of the same system, bearing the same elements.
Because the beauty of the game is happening all around, all the time, and not just in the role Russell played in helping the Celtics to run the table all those years. Not just in Jordan’s fist pumps. And also not just, I hasten to add, in the force of nature and ability and intelligence that was Wilt Chamberlain, much as I love him. Not just in the improvisational athleticism of Elgin Baylor, in the fraught excellence of West’s jumpers, or in the guarded economy of Oscar’s breathtaking, all around efficiency.
But even if “not just” in these places, the beauty of it does lie in them, which may be why I am so appreciative of the writing that Shoals has done in these chapters to evoke the feelings I get (and that I in turn tried to share with my descriptions above) watching these players on video, that I got watching them play as a boy. Shoals seems to understand this. I think, though I may be wrong, that it’s why Shoals ends his stirring chapter on Wilt as the Nuclear Option, with Russell’s own words upon hearing of his friends’ death: “Today, I am unspeakably injured”; or why he exhorts us to consider “how great Baylor was on his own terms.” Shoals also reminds me that, to some degree (unless I’m reading Bill Simmons), I am myself battling a straw man here because if, as he writes, “These were the days of the greatest team effort ever,” then it is also true that “it was also the age when, as they say in the pictures, a star really was a star.”
The beauty and emotional force of the game lies in the –forget it, I don’t know where it lies. Not yet anyway. Maybe not ever. I just know that if that beauty and emotional force is equated with excellence and excellence is in turn reduced to winning championships then most of basketball is a waste and the varied landscape of my own memories and passions in the game leveled to a deserted, wasteland because no more than a handful—and not even the best ones—involve championships.
It doesn’t mean that I don’t get excited when my teams win, or when players I love play on teams that win, I do. And I get bummed out losing and when my teams and players lose. But really, not that much. Because, for me, those wins and losses will never be the ultimate measure of those players. At most those wins and losses I appreciate for the motivating force they exert upon my players to be more intelligent, more creative, more inventive, more memorably, and more stirring. For me, those players—every player, every play—will be measured for me by the emotional force it stirs in me and the depth of the track they leave in my memory.Most of what I love in basketball—most of basketball—can be said to happen under the banner of the following quotation from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”