The Genesis of The Corner Three

14zonesIn an original and stimulating post yesterday, Curtis Harris at Pro Hoops History speculated on the idea of genre in basketball.  Specifically, he was prompted by former English professor turned director of the Stanford “Literary Lab” Franco Moretti’s book Graphs, Maps, Trees to think about particular basketball “genres” as emergent phenomena of what might be called the basketball system.  Moretti’s groundbreaking and controversial (among literary scholars) work rewrites literary history by looking at it from the point of view of quantitative history (“graphs”), geography (“maps”), and evolutionary theory (“trees”).  Or, as the books summary tells us, Moretti wants literary scholars to stop “reading books and start counting, graphing, and mapping them instead.”  Another way of putting this would be to say that Moretti sees world literature as a complex system and wants to apply advanced statistical methods to understand how it changes over time and space.

Curtis draws upon the parallels between emerging, rising, falling, and disappearing literary forms and plays or ways of playing in basketball and concludes with the following

Could the same thing happen in the NBA and with basketball?

It doesn’t seem that far-fetched that new events, technologies, fads, and social forces could force out one way (genre, if you will) of playing in favor of something new. Few people take hook shots these days. No one does two-handed set shots anymore. Corner three-pointers didn’t exist back in 1945. Without doing the full research now, my gut feeling is that basketball genres do exist.  Now to only figure out what events cause the genre changes.

I think I was trying to poke at this idea a couple of times in my course diary (here and here) and as some of you know, I’m working on my own book of hoops history from the vantage point of the “life in the game.” I like how pointedly and clearly Curtis here arrives at a version of the question that drives my own work.  He’s not just writing hoops history, he’s reflecting on what it is to think about the history of something like hoops and he’s doing it with an economy that I admire and envy.

When sports studies scholars (at least their cutting edge) think about hoops history, they are thinking about it from a cultural studies vantage point, which means that they put the names of individual players in quotation marks.  What does “Michael Jordan” mean?  How does “Michael Jordan” work?  Where did “Michael Jordan” go?  It’s not that different in its premise from Paul Simon writing “Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio?”  The idea — and it is a good and useful one — is that (especially in sports: both as a critical corrective to the passions awakened by drama and excellence and because of sports’ obvious status as entertainment industry) it’s useful to see players not (or not only) as the human individuals they are or the superb athletes they are, but as signifiers circulating like so many coins in a vast economy of signs: that we consume, pass along, and help produce.  The result of this is that when they look at changes in basketball over time they mostly look to those points where the game intersects with society:  Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement for example, Ron Artest running up into the stands at the Palace, Magic and Larry entering and “saving” the NBA.

As I say, I like this approach and find it stimulating and valuable in its critical and firm insistence upon a context that too many sports fans would rather just not think about for fear that it would sully their escapist (not to say racist) enjoyment of the game for its own sake.  But I’ve also been disappointed that this approach doesn’t tell us much about the formal evolution of the style of the game, as played on the court (or courts).  This gap in the model corresponds to a history of style.  And this is where Moretti seems to be coming in, at least if, like Curtis, we are willing to abide a certain fuzziness in equating literary genres with styles of play in basketball, which I am for the moment.

Moretti’s book is subtitled “Abstract Models for a Literary History.”  And I should begin by acknowledging that I have had no interest in his approach; less in fact than I have had in its equivalent in the world of sports (and I have had reservations about that).  I might put my resistance this way:  I don’t really care about literary history to the degree that doing so would require me to internalize an abstract model for the simple reason that what I love about literature is the concrete sense of wholeness that my participation in its history as a reader, teacher, and writer gives me.  If the history I might thereby produce is shoddy — from a scientific perspective — then that is a price I am willing to pay or, more precisely, I can live with that.

Still, Moretti’s approach does have for me the appeal of depersonalizing literary history and that is an agenda that — in both my relationship to literature and to hoops — I can get behind.  That is because my love for literature and hoops (that “concrete sense of wholeness that my participation” in their history gives me) is not mine, not mine personally.  It is just love, a kind of always running current that I get to plug into.  This might seem like an over-subtle point.  But it’s important to me because I need something to affirm in the face of a generalized abstraction (like Moretti’s) that leaves me and the world as cold as clockwork, something that is large, powerful, and abiding.  And a sentimentalized account of my individual, personalized, affections (the kind of literary history Moretti’s work justly attacks) won’t do the job.  Only to the degree that I can convey — or transmit — these individual affinities as a duly contextualized part of that general, universal love can I supply something to our understanding of history that has force and value.

So here’s my short answer to Curtis’ about the genesis and rise to prominence of the basketball “genre” known as the Corner Three:  the racial legacy of slavery in the US + the Cold War = The Corner Three. Of course, it is and isn’t that simple.

Think of those three things — the racial legacy of slavery, the Cold War, and The Corner Three — as three points, not on a graph, but in a story.  The multiple lines that  connect them would be different narratives of cause and effect.  And along those multiple lines we could cut line segments that would be micronarratives with no obvious or explicit connect to either the legacy of slavery in the US or the Cold War (think: “here’s the story of a conversation among ABA executives about how to make their product exciting given that they had no good big men when they started out” — as in pp. 70-75 of Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls).  And within those line segments, of course, are points — events:  this thing that this person saw or did or said or thought or felt at this moment in time that might not only have nothing to do with the legacy of slavery in the US or with the Cold War, it might not have any obvious or explicit connection to The Corner Three or to basketball at all.  Any of these points, line segments, or lines might — in any given version of the story of the rise of the The Corner Three — be excluded, contracted, or expanded and combined with others that might also vary in “size” and emphasis.

This is all to say that there is no one story (or scientific explanation) for the rise to prominence of The Corner Three.  There are many stories and the one that sticks best, I think, will be the one that is 1) told most engagingly; 2) accounts most plausibly for most of the known historical facts; 3) is internally coherent; and 4) as the pragmatists might say, helps most of its audience put itself into more congenial relationships with the world.

In a way, the answer to Curtis’ question is obvious:  The Corner Three is here because it is the 2nd most efficient scoring play in basketball after the wide-open lay up or dunk (shooting 40 % from beyond the arc = shooting 60 % from 2, and the three point line is closest to the basket in the corner) and perhaps the most efficient scoring play that can be regularly attempted.  But that assertion begs at least two more questions, at least for the historically minded:  where did the three-pointer come from?  And if it’s so efficient, why wasn’t it always there (in other words, when and how did we come to know of its efficiency, and, for that matter, when and how did “efficiency” become part of the vocabulary for talking about basketball)?  The answer to the first question is:  the ABA.  The answer to the second question is: advanced basketball statistics (or metrics or analytics).  These might be two more points along the lines I just talked about.

Let’s look at the first one for a second: the ABA.  We all know the conventional history: the ABA was really just a ploy by some rich guys who wanted to own NBA teams to force a merger.  In the process, they created this wacky thing with a red, white and blue ball, elevated player salaries, a slam dunk contest, and …. a three point shot.  Everything but the red, white, and blue ball is now part of the NBA (along with four once ABA franchises).  So it kinda worked.  They got their merger (for the 1976-’77 season) and the three point shot made its appearance in the NBA for the 1979-1980 season.

The cultural studies version of this would be that the merger stands as a moment in the NBA’s ongoing process (ongoing for sure since the mid 70s, and probably since earlier) to modulate the delicate balance between “blackophobia” and “blackophilia” — I borrow the terms from Bill Yousman’s 2003 article on the consumption of rap — among its key market (middle-aged white males).  In the racial coding stereotypically associated with basketball the merger gave the NBA the dunk (black) and the 3 point shot (white) at a time when understanding among league executives, the mainstream media, and the fan base was that the league had a “racial problem.”

What Bethlehem Shoals calls “the real merger” in Free Darko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History would occur when Magic Johnson (black) and Larry Bird (white) would enter the league and properly assume their leading roles with their respective franchises Los Angeles (black) and Boston (white).  Bird, of course, would win the NBA’s first All-Star game three-point contest, in 1986 and would play a key role in popularizing the shot.

Of course, the facts remain that the top 6 (and 8 of the top 10) leaders in 3 point FGM in NBA history are African-Americans.  But one might also say that white players are overrepresented on that top ten list.  How’s that Chris Rock joke go? What’s the most terrifying thing to a black man? A white guy alone behind the three point line?  In any event that’s an admittedly sketchy and oversimplified (but I think, with more room, completely substantiable) version of a story that links the appearance of the 3 point shot in the NBA to the legacy of slavery in the United States via the racial politics of basketball in the US in the 1970s.

Now that we know how the 3 pointer made it into the NBA, let’s look at what made it stay and rise to prominence: its efficiency.  Here again, everyone knows the key points in the mainstream plot:  Bill James and Moneyball, the use of advanced statistical methods to gain competitive advantages in baseball’s marketplace; the migration, via Dean Oliver’s Basketball on Paper, of an adapted version of these methods to basketball; Darryl Morey and the Houston Rockets; Michael Lewis on Shane Battier in The New York Times Magazine, and the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (where, quite uncoincidentally, Curtis Harris was when he got to thinking about Franco Moretti’s book and basketball).

The more complicated social account of all this, however, would have to include the history of computing in the context of World War II cryptography, its connection to electronics around the same time, and the post-WW II, Cold War military demand for ever-more powerful computational technology capable of processing vast amounts of data at previously unimaginable speeds.  Now that we can do it, we start thinking of new things to measure.  And so, eventually, down the line a few decades, among the things that get measured, at a level of detail that is mind-boggling even to someone just as modestly old (47) as I, is exactly from where on a basketball court each player in the NBA is at his most efficient.

Put this all together, again very roughly, and it looks to me like The Corner Three emerges and sticks as a “genre” in the NBA not just because it a beautiful and dramatic shot, not just because it “opens up the floor” and so makes the game as a whole more fluid, faster, and so more entertaining (all part of the ABA’s original rationale for utilizing it).  It is and it does all those things and that matters.  But I think if Franco Moretti were telling the story, he would say that The Corner Three emerged and has had evolutionary staying power in the NBA because 1) it is a tactically, and so economically, efficient producer of quantitatively measurable value for a generation and in a market that is capable of and values, indeed demands, vastly more precise measures of efficiency and 2) it may be associated (factually or contra-factually) with whiteness by the white basketball unconscious and thus aids in the league’s ongoing attempt to capitalize on the (mainly) black bodies of its premier players without alienating the (mainly) white bodies of its premier fans.

At the same time, I’m not sure that any of this would account for this suspicion that has been just nagging at me for months now that the feeling I have — and enjoy having — as I watch and wait (they’re only happening 4.1 times per game this season) for a Ray Allen triple is somehow the same feeling I have when in the course of my day I unexpectedly run across a fragment of a poem by William Carlos Williams:  “So much depends upon…” The Corner Three.

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