Uncoachable, A Fantasy (and a Hoops Heresy)

images-3There is an oft-related apocryphal story of an exchange in the Fall of 1906 between James Naismith, inventor of basketball and at the time Chapel Director and Head of the Department of Physical Education at the University of Kansas, and rising sophomore Forrest C. (“Phog”) Allen, star of the Kansas basketball team.  Naismith had received a letter from administrators at Baker University inviting Allen to coach Baker’s basketball team in the upcoming season.

Naismith:  “I’ve got a good joke for you, you bloody beggar.  They want you to coach basketball down at Baker.”

Allen:  “What so funny about that?”

Naismith: “Why, you can’t coach basketball, you just play it!”

We don’t actually know if this exchange ever occurred, though historians agree that even if it didn’t, Naismith’s pithy comment accurately reflects his belief.   We do know that, pace his reservations, Naismith did hold the position of basketball coach at Kansas, compiling a mediocre 55-60 record (1898-1907).  As for Phog Allen, he took the job at Baker and a couple of others, before settling in as Head Basketball Coach at Kansas, amassing a record of 746-264 between 1919 and 1957 and, in the process, led the movement to professionalize the role of basketball coach and established a coaching lineage whose members include Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, Ralph Miller, Larry Brown, and Roy Williams, among other greats.

Now see this exchange, a mere 15 years after the sport’s invention, as a bifurcation point in the game’s history regarding the role of the coach: one path, the one the sport took, follows Allen and leads to the current culture, in the college game at any rate, of the Coach as highly paid institutional presence and media celebrity; the other path, Naismith’s, the road not taken, opens up to a parallel universe, a bizarro basketball world in which there are no coaches, but just players playing the game.

I used this exchange as a point of departure for an open-ended discussion in my Cultures of Basketball class the other day addressing this question: is there anything that a coach provides that a team of players could not provide for themselves?  In other words, to begin with, can we conceive of a hoops universe that followed the path advocated by Naismith in his exchange with Allen?  Then, if we can, what might that look like?  How would it compare with the hoops universe we actually inhabit?  Would it be better? Worse? In what ways?  It doesn’t matter, as I tell my students, if it’s realistic or not.  This is an exercise in using the imagination to think deeply and critically about the world we live in.  You have to let yourself go a little bit.

The way this begins (or rather, the way it began in class) is with some brainstorming about what coaches today to provide (or at least, what we think of as “good” coaches provide).  Students were quick with responses:  the coach recruits players to his team, he runs practices in which he instructs and trains them in both individual fundamentals and in the principles of the system of basketball he favors, he makes both strategic and tactical decisions regarding individual opponents both before and during games, including deciding which players to play and for how long.  In addition, the students pointed out, the good coach will motivate the players to give maximum effort and to subordinate their individual desires for the good of the team and, moreover, provide a reliable source of support for players not only in their roles as players, but in their lives off the court as well.  The coach, in short, is the leader of the team:  charged with the responsibility and entrusted with the authority or power to identify and make myriad decisions that will harmonize individual abilities and so serve the team’s interests in improving and, of course, winning the most games possible.

Now, the issue in question is not whether or not the functions currently carried out by the coach are desirable, but rather instead whether the arrangement whereby the coach is the primary repository of those functions is desirable.  In other words, what would be gained and lost, if players themselves assumed the responsibility and the authority to carry out these functions?

It’s not hard for most fans to come up with what would be lost if basketball had followed the path of Naismith into a hoops universe consisting of self-organized and self-managing teams of players.  We imagine all sorts of terrible scenarios:  players unwilling to practice in order to improve weak areas of their game, tensions and conflict over playing time, chaos on the court.   And so it might be.

But let us at least frankly acknowledge that all these scenarios presume that players — bereft of a coach, or rather more precisely under the terms of this thought experiment: never having been exposed to or even imagined the idea of a coach — would allow the worst of their human (and basketball) natures to run amok: laziness and selfishness would rule the day, with players powerless to manage these forces.  In this Hobbesian view of a basketball state of nature, the only thing that makes basketball the beautiful, complexly patterned sport that we know and love is the firm and authoritative, but deeply caring, hand of The Coach.

But lest I seem to be tilting to hastily in the direction of banishing all the coaches, let me say admit that I think it’s unreasonable to claim that nothing is gained through the arrangement we currently have where coaches serve as technicians, chemists, parents, authors, architects, and generals.  The other day in my Cultures of Basketball class, when we discussed this issue, students very reasonably came up with a number of advantages.  Most of these could be summed up by asserting that by entrusting the coach with these responsibilities, players are free to focus their energies and attention on playing, on executing.  But also, many students felt that the coach, either by virtue of experience or by virtue of his or her position as sideline observer, could offer a valuable perspective unavailable to any of the players.  Finally, there is the argument that sees the basketball team as a group required to make decisions and, given that, believes that entrusting those decision-making powers to a single individual (the Coach) is most efficient.  These are all fairly reasonable things to say.

On the other hand, examining them more closely, they strike me as less persuasive, as other students in the class pointed out.   Take, for example, the argument that a coach has a unique and superior perspective because of his or her position as non-participating observer.  This argument, ultimately, is an argument about knowledge and, more specifically, about the ideal knower being the non-participant who, above the fray, may provide a more objective and rational assessment of the state of reality and so of the best decisions to make in relation to it.  John Dewey called this the “spectator notion of knowledge” and he considered it a fantasy.  There is no such ideal knower, he thought.  Instead, there are only difference in the degree to which one is in the fray or, in his words, “different ways of being in and of the movement of things.”  For better and for worse, there is no escaping participation and, Dewey believed, the best way forward for knowledge and decision making was a candid acceptance of that fact and from there the attempt to maximize the better and mitigate the worse.

From this standpoint, the coach, who does not play in the game, has not a better perspective from which to know and decide what to do, but rather just a different one.  Indeed, his perspective begins to look not much different from that of the last player on the bench.  Ah, but  it is different — because the coach has more experience.  We mean of course that in all likelihood the coach has seen more basketball games and has thought more about basketball than his or her players.  This experience observing and thinking about the game does give the coach a unique perspective.

But is that perspective superior such that it should serve as the grounds for entrusting responsibility and power over to him or her?  Possibly, but not necessarily since with experience in observation and thought comes also the potential for habit and rigidity.  We have perhaps all encountered at one time or another that situation in which what Zen buddhists call “beginner’s mind” (as in “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few”) yields a novel solution to a problem precisely because that mind has not naturalized the truisms, the habits of perception, and the conventional patterns of analysis internalized by the more experienced.

I’m not implying that the ideal perspective on a game of basketball would come from someone who had neither heard of nor ever seen the sport played.  Nor am I suggesting that total ignorance is the superior ground.  I am arguing simply that neither the coach’s putatively detached position off the court nor his greater experience as an observer and analyst of the game necessarily offers the sort of superior perspective that would warrant giving him or her the authority he or she currently enjoys.

After all, as my students wisely pointed out, a good coach holds his or her perspective (putatively detached and more experienced though it may be) lightly;  the good coach incorporates information provided both by players on the floor and by, for example, assistant coaches who may be younger and less experienced.  And I believe this is the case and that the best coaches probably do just those things.

But I also believe that, being the case, it is as much an argument against centralizing basketball authority in the coach as it is for centralizing that authority.  After all, if we grant that a good coach will take seriously such input then we are tacitly affirming that such input is invaluable, a necessary part of good decision-making.  Moreover, we have thus begun to nuance our Hobbesian view of players:  they are no longer incorrigibly lazy and selfish, but capable of rational assessments of their situation and of offering novel solutions to on-court problems.  And if that’s the case, since that was the reason we needed a coach in the first place, then we need a different rationale for granting college coach’s the nearly absolute authority over players that they currently have.

Hmmm.  Well, someone has to be in charge, right?  If only for the sake of efficiency.  Perhaps, but that’s exactly the point I wanted to use this thought experiment to question and to have my students seriously entertain.  I told them:  “The most harmful thing about naturalizing the authority of the college coach is that it implicitly reinforces our socially ingrained habit of assuming that some individual has to be in charge; that a collective cannot make decisions other than by turning its powers of thought and execution over to some sovereign individual who, we presume on whatever bases, will not only do better things with our transferred powers than we could do, but will refrain from abusing that power.” Or something like that at least.  Some individual has to be in charge?  Tell that to these people, who occupied their factories after the owner’s bailed with the money and who operated them without owners and without bosses.

A year ago, in this same class, we talked about the Fab Five and the 1992 and 1993 NCAA Final Four banners they and their teammates earned.  “Do you think,” a student earnestly asked me, “that the President and Athletic Director would let us put them back up?” Most students began to shake their heads:  “Never gonna happen.”  Right there.  “Why,” I asked, “do you leave it up to them? Why do you not see that it is your university as well?  Why have you yielded your power, as though the President and the Athletic Director, just by virtue of occupying those positions, know what is best and should be left to make the decisions on their own?”  I know there are answers to those questions and I think I know what they are.  And I’m sorry if it appears that I am oversimplifying complicated matters of political theory, of university governance, or of athletic organization and in the process offending those who know more about these things than I.

But I remain unconvinced that we have gained more than we have lost by following the path of Phog Allen.

I believe that if we seized the opportunity to practice calm, experienced observation, openness to unimagined solutions, flexibility and adaptability, unselfishness, self-discipline, and cooperation then we would get better and better at them.  But to seize that opportunity means, in the first place, to see that opportunity.  And to see that opportunity means to hit the pause button on the naturalized reflexive response that, “well, somebody has to be in charge,” even if it is only long enough to imagine for an hour and a half a basketball universe without the coach.

In that case we might begin to see the ways in which a world without the coach is not a world without coaching and all the prized functions we associate with it.  Instead, it could be a world in which we are all coaches, of ourselves and of one another and of our collective selves.

I think we owe it to our love of the game, of ourselves, of each other and of our world to imagine it and to ask ourselves, each of us, does it really look worse than what we have?

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