The Art of the Art of the Game

I originally wrote this for the now-defunct audio blog “Voice on the Floor” back in March of 2011. 

I have no course diary post this week. 1) My flight from St. Louis to Detroit on Monday was delayed 6 hours so that I arrived in Ann Arbor at about 3 am on Tuesday morning; 2) Bethlehem Shoals was already in town, waiting for me in his own room at the Red Roof, in pajamas, watching a horror movie; when I arrived 3) the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion of coordinating Shoals’ remarkable visit and lecture left me, through no fault of his, entirely surpassed; 4) the Fab Five documentary and aftermath dominated our class discussion on Tuesday and left me with too many feelings and thoughts to be able to put together coherently, maybe later; 5) the start of March Madness, St. Patrick’s Day, and Spring Weather made Thursday’s class into let’s-watch-the-games-on-the-big-screen SlackFest.

Ergo, no post. I’ll be back on schedule for the course diary next week. So stay tuned. I do, however, have the following reflections on the occasion of reading Leonard Koppett’s classic 1974 book The Essence of the Game is Deception: Thinking About Basketball, wherein I explain why Koppett shows me that basketball is not only the most beautiful, but also the most Nietzschean and vital game of all.

Those of you who have been following my course diary know that I like to use basketball – players, fans, writing about the game, technical elements, fundamentals, and tactics – as a way to think through issues that at first glance seem far removed from the game. Sometimes these are social issues, sometimes cultural issues, and sometimes, like today, philosophical issues.

I don’t claim to be a philosopher or even to have a thorough or accurate understanding of the philosophy I have studied or read on my own. But I have read a lot of philosophy, I’ve taught a bit of philosophy as part of my day job at Michigan, and I think I have an adequate grasp of some of the basic questions that at least some strands of philosophy have wrestled with.

So I was delighted to discover, when preparing for my course on hoops culture, a book published in 1974 by Leonard Koppett called The Essence of the Game is Deception: Thinking About Basketball. I can’t recommend this book highly enough for its style, wit, clarity, insight, and surprising relevance today. And before I get into riffing on what I make of it, I want to pay its author the respect of talking a little about its success on its own terms.

The book includes a short Introduction, followed by twenty three chapters divided into three sections: “The Game,” “The People,” and “Things to Think About.” The very first of these parts, “The Game,” opens with a chapter entitled, and describing, “The Main Idea” of the book as a whole.

This first chapter itself gives a superb taste of the style of the whole: informal in tone, and ironic, but deeply informed, rigorous, and illuminating. Koppett acknowledges that the theoretical goal of the game is to throw the ball in the hoop, but goes on to argue that “on the real world, physical level, you must ‘deceive’ your opponent in order to get a decent shot, and so basketball is a game in which various types of fakes and feints, with head, hands, body, legs, eyes, are proportionately more important than in other games.” The game, he argues, “boils down to getting good shots, and getting good shots boils down to deceiving the defense.”

Koppett then goes on to introduce the implications of his insight. The first of these is that the game is likely to attract, at its highest levels, a psychologically “devious” type; or, to put it in less dramatic terms, individuals who enjoy deception, who are, as Koppett puts it, “poker” rather than “bridge minded.” Of course, he’s not arguing that this sums up the totality of every basketball player’s psyche. He’s just drawing out the point that just as certain physical gifts draw on to and are in turn reinforced by the particularities of a given sport, so that is also true of psychological propensities. In the case of basketball, it is a kind of delighted and delightful deception, a delight in deception that basketball cultivates, attracts, and rewards.

Koppett doesn’t force all the raw material of the game through the mill of his main idea about deception. Rather he holds the idea lightly throughout his treatment of shooting, dribbling, passing, teamwork, and defense, and likewise when he discusses, in Part Two, the various agents involved in the game such as coaches, players, officials, fans, and the media. He seems to know that to assert that the essence of the game is deception is not the same as saying that the most illuminating way to analyze absolutely every aspect of everything that happens on the basketball floor is in terms of deception.

Koppett’s method, in this sense, is more a kind of empiricism than anything else. He has clearly carefully observed what happens on the floor and he is trying to reverse engineer the game: to look at what actually happens and in a sense imagine what sort of problems it solves, what sort of purpose it serves. In this, reading Koppett was interestingly like reading James Naismith’s account of his invention of the game, but in reverse. Naismith built the game up in his mind by beginning with certain principles and aims and then imagining what sort of play would follow from those and what sorts of rules would be necessary. Koppett takes the ever evolving game as it is in real life and works backward to see what principles and aims must be at work for it to exist the way that it does. In this sense, while deception is for him the essence of the game, it is a kind of immanent presence that expresses itself through myriad particular modes, subordinate aims, and complexly interrelated elements and forces that might play a much stronger role at any given moment than deception itself per se.

All of this combined for me to make reading Koppett a curiously absorbing experience. I say curiously because it was not so much that it was a riveting page turner as that it was mesmerizing. A few weeks ago someone asked me how I watched games, what that was like for me. The best answer I could come up with came relatively instinctively. I said I watched them the way that I watch a fire burn, a river flow, or the ocean break against the shore. All of those things mesmerize me and put me into a frame of mind in which I am somehow simultaneously focused and distracted. Or, in other words, in which I am somehow absorbing the whole while my attention shifts from one evolving particular detail to another. That’s how Koppett books worked for me as I read it.

Reading his Introduction, which I did only after I’d read the whole book, that effect made me happy because it turns out that he was hoping to make the book like a game. He writes:

we will run and shoot and jump and lunge from subject to subject, story to story, thought to thought, and, if we’re fortunate, emerge with some sort of unified network of impressions that constitute, when completed, a successful performance. It won’t be orderly, but basketball isn’t orderly. It may not even be coherent, but basketball often isn’t coherent. But it will try to be, as basketball usually is, fun. And fast. And imperfect.

In this the book is Ray Allen’s perfect three-ball or Kareem’s timeless, unstoppable sky hook dropping in again, and again and again; but also Jordan’s improvisational inventions in traffic or Lebron’s powerful locomotive assaults on the basket or Manú’s slithering serpentine deceptions (on the last of which see Beckley Mason’s analysis of his All-Deceptive Team).

All of which brings me to the other point that Koppett identifies as an immediate consequence of his assertion that the essence of the game is deception: namely, that “style attracts more attention in basketball than in other games.” He’s worth quoting at length on this point:

Football and baseball spectators are almost entirely result-oriented: how many yards gained on a play, how many bases or outs made. The means is quite secondary, and the universal tendency is to sneer at ‘showboating,’ defined as any extraneous movement. Flourish and flair do occur in those games, but they are not quite respectable and certainly not the main business of the day. A pop fly down the foul line that just reaches the stands for a bases full homer is accepted as far more thrilling than a 450 foot drive that is caught – even though in his heart of hearts, every baseball fan knows he gets a bigger flash of excitement from the latter He just doesn’t want to admit it. (And yet, when a Willie Mays comes along to combine super-efficiency with colorful style, the fans respond.)

In basketball, though, manner is very important to the spectators. Any knowledgeable crowd will cheer louder for a fancy pass, behind the back, or through the legs, that doesn’t lead to a score than it will for a routine basket. And an acrobatic shot that goes in is best of all. And why not? In other games, there can be many degrees of success: obviously a 15 yard gain means more than a 2 yard gain, and abases loaded triple means more than a bases empty double. But a basket is a 2 points no matter how you make it (except for the American Basketball Association’s 3 pointer, an exception that proves the rule), and there will be 50 to 80 of them in a normal game. The peaks and valleys of spectator delight, therefore are reached as easily by awesome maneuver as by the mere fact of scoring: the dunk or ‘stuff,’ the high speed fast break, the blocked shot, a sequence of passes, fancy dribbling – all transcend sheer efficiency.


While Koppett acknowledges that ultimately winning matters, he also argues that it matters to a proportionally smaller degree than in other serious team games. Because, as he puts it, “in basketball, flair and style are less separable from result, and closer to the essence of the action, and the underlying logic of this attitude folds back over the subject of deception: style is deception, made visible.”

It’s here, as well as in the terms of the very title of the book — essence, game, deception, thinking, and basketball – that Koppett opens the doors for me on a wondrous philosophical playground. You see, a venerable and popular philosophical view sees the essence of something as the opposite of its appearance. In this view, the way something appears or presents itself to us is deceiving, hiding the true core or essence of the thing as it really, truly is. For such a view, the aim of serious thought is to penetrate that deceptive veil and identify the stable, unchanging core essence of a thing. Only then do you know the truth of that thing.

But philosophers have also thought about that issue in other ways, perhaps none more remarkably than Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher whose complex work is too often reduced to a few “might-makes-right” clichés that lend themselves either to Tony Robbins style self-help slogans or Nazi propaganda. But the Niezsche that Koppett makes me think of is a Nietzsche with a subtle view of essence, appearance, and truth and a – dare I say deceptive – style to match.

For Nietzsche the supposition that there is some hidden essence veiled by a deceptive appearance and accessible only to philosophical reason was a harmful proposition that expresses nothing so much as an aversion to the ever-shifting reality of existence, a hatred for life. Accordingly, Nietzsche harshly criticized philosophies that maintained that view and tried to develop in his own, highly poetic and suggestive style of writing, a philosophy that would emphasize the life-affirming joy of appearance. And nowhere did Nietzsche see this affirmed more strongly than in art, which he saw, in the words of one astute commentator, as “the highest power of falsehood” and the “sanctification of the lie,” and as endowed with the power to invent new possibilities of life.

You may now perhaps begin to see why Koppett’s provocative thesis – that the essence of the game is deception – so excites me. It is Nietzschean though and through in its celebration of the game as an artful contest of subtle deceits. And in embracing the paradox entailed by describing something (the game of basketball) as having deception (or appearance) as its essence, Koppett in my opinion thrusts the game into the realm of art in the most profound and moving sense of the word. But in addition to this, by holding his own thesis lightly and emphasizing instead the fluid, swirling dynamic of the game as it is actually played, even at the cost of a certain systematic order, Koppett makes his own book a work of art as well, a work worthy of Nietzsche, of basketball, and of life.


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