The Goal is to Forget the Goal
On New Year’s Day, my brother sent me this photo, attached to an e-mail that read, “you don’t need a rim, only the space it surrounds.” It ran in the Travel Section of the New York Times a few days before with the caption “Novice Monks at the Lhagang Monastery play a version of basketball.” In the article it accompanied, free-lance reporter Kit Gillet, touring the Lhagang Monastery high on the Tibetan plateau in the Sichuan Province of Northern China, described the scene more fully:
Later in the afternoon I spotted a group of young monks playing basketball using a hoopless telephone pylon as a net on a grassy field across the town’s river, their robes billowing around them. There was no bridge in sight, but I removed my shoes to cross the ice-cold, knee-deep water. On the other bank I was quickly invited to join the game.
“We try to play basketball every day before our 6 p.m. studies,” said Laozang Tsere, a gregarious 18-year-old novice born in a nearby village.
On the face of it, it’s obvious and accurate that what the monks are playing is, as the original caption stated, only “a version of basketball” – obvious if only because their telephone pylon is “hoopless.” On the face of it, indeed, it seems generous even to call hoopless basketball “a version of basketball.” It wouldn’t seem to be basketball at all. After all, though James Naismith’s original 13 rules only imply the existence of a “basket” as goal, it’s also clear that he considered the horizontal, elevated goal one of the five fundamental principles constituting basketball. But seeing a picture like this — maybe just because it has monks in it, or maybe because there is something artfully provocative about the photo — I also feel invited to look more deeply for what is not obvious in the image and its description.
I look back through Naismith’s early writings and discover there precise specifications for the height and diameter of the goals. But this precision is mixed surprisingly with folksy invitation to improvise with imprecision: “At a picnic the baskets may be hung on a couple of trees and the game carried on as usual.” I think about the almost too-worn cliched images of legendary players, driven by poverty and hunger for the game, to throw any improvised sphere through any improvised elevated circle: a wire coat hanger nailed to a tree, as one player recalled for me his first hoop. I think about some of my earliest indoor games, played by myself in the unfinished basement of my parents house in which a piece of copper tubing running through wooden beams served as my elevated horizontal goal. It starts to seem to me that all there is to basketball is versions of basketball, all the way back to the so-called beginning.
I think about the spirit behind Naismith’s conception of the elevated, horizontal goal. It was to compel players to throw the ball in an arc so that “force,” as he put it, “which made for roughness, would be of no value.” I look at the picture of the monks again: the ball arcing smoothly on its upward trajectory from the monk’s hand toward what my brother called “the space the rim surrounds.” That seems like basketball. But is it only basketball because of that upward arc of the unaccompanied ball?
I think of John McPhee’s eloquent paean to Princeton (and later Knicks’) legend Bill Bradley, prefaced by a subtly acknowledged aversion to a version of the game played above the rim, then being inaugurated by such African-American stars as Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Elgin Baylor. I think about the rule, implemented by the NCAA in 1956 prohibiting a player on a free throw from breaking the plane of the free throw line until his shot had made contact with the basket: that was to keep Wilt Chamberlain from dunking his free throws.
But as I think about it, I don’t think a dunk — in itself — violates the spirit of Naismith’s game. The ball still moves in an arc and it still requires accuracy. It’s just that Naismith couldn’t envision a player carrying the ball all the way from the ground up and into the goal…in an arc. But even if he could have imagined this, I think he might have liked it. In fact, in recalling his formulation of the original rules, Naismith explicitly rejected provisions constraining the force a player could exert on a shot knowing “that many would resent my limiting the power of the player.”
So I think that all of these — the imaginary arcing shot Naismith first imagined, Bill Bradley’s graceful soft jump shots, the novice monk’s shot at the space the imaginary rim surrounds, Dr. J’s free-throw line dunk in the 1976 ABA All-Star Game dunk contest, my juvenile shots at the space between the copper tube and the basement ceiling — are versions of basketball. And “versions of basketball” is the only basketball we have.
But there is another thing to say on this matter of basketball, hoops, hopelessness, and goals — especially given the context of the photo and the timing of its arrival in my inbox. I might pose it as a question: the monk in the photo is playing basketball, that’s for sure, but will he ever make a basket? Can you make a basket when there is no basket? What would that look like? What would it feel like it? How would you know?
Here is a still from the work of Paul Pfeiffer. In his digital video art, such as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” from which the image is taken Pfeiffer digitally eliminates from sports footage all branding, competition and even the ball and hoop. What is left?
This might seem like esoteric and pointless rumination and in a way that’s exactly what it is — as pointless as the monk’s shot at hopelessness and as pointless as Dr. J’s free throw line dunk; as pointless as the player leaping for nothing in Pfeiffer’s still and as pointless as Pfeiffer’s still itself. But, consider also that it’s a New Year and with it come resolutions, the setting of goals, the elevation of horizontal hoops in our minds that we will devote a certain amount of energy toward trying to throw ourselves through: drop more pounds, save more cash, love more better. It’s part of the story of such resolutions that they rarely make it all the way through the year. Gradually the hoops recede, perhaps fading from sight altogether as we despair — perhaps guilty, perhaps resentfully, perhaps numbly — of reaching our goal. Hooplessness becomes hopelessness. Is that what shooting at no hope has to feel like?
I’m not sure, but I hope not and I don’t really think so. In one of my favorite stories from Zen lore, another monk, the Vietnamese Zen buddhist monk Thich N’hat Hanh, was once addressing a group of eager Berkeley students — novice adherents to the Middle Way. As they discussed the Buddhist precepts (or ethical tenets), the American students patiently explained to their visitor that some of these might need updating in order to account for several thousand years of human history (also psychedelic drugs and free love). They were worried they couldn’t keep the precepts, that their shots would go astray, not through their own lack of effort or skill but because the goal was too high, or too far away, or maybe even non-existent.
Thich Nhat Hanh told them this: “When you are following the North Star, you aren’t trying to get to the star. You’re just trying to go in that direction.”
Happy New Year!