America’s Game

Yago Colas

Independence Day always leaves me feeling a little bit out of place. Some of it is just an aversion to noise and explosions. But it goes deeper.  On July 4th, my social mediasphere splits pretty evenly between, to be it briefly: “Yay freedom! Go America!” and “Boo oppression! Down with America!” and I find myself on a slow motion fall into the abyss stretched open up by these polarizing tendencies.

It’s not that I don’t feel either of the sentiments.  On the contrary, It’s that I feel both, and strongly. I could intellectualize this and give you reasoned arguments justifying both of these sets of feelings.  But, whatever the more refined, reflective sources of this today, I’m more attuned to the tangled roots of this feeling in an upbringing in which I was simultaneously extremely proud to be American and extremely ashamed.  Basketball, then and now, I just can’t extricate from those experiences, or these feelings.

My parents immigrated from Spain to the United States in the 1962 via a brief detour in Cali, Colombia.  My parents and my oldest brother (then 15 months old) landed in Cali in May, 1957 right smack into a local manifestation of Cold War violence—a period actually known as “la Violencia“— that would make Game of Thrones look like Disney and that gave my father, though (or because) he grew up during the Spanish Civil War, cause to reconsider his decision.

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A few days later another brother would be born and about two years later, my sister.  I’ve seen pictures of this.  Crisp black and whites with the five of them under exotic foliage by a swimming pool, or perched near the peak of a mountain in the Andes.  My father was a scientist who, disheartened by the research conditions in Franco’s Spain, accepted a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation to found a department of biochemistry at the University of Cali.

A few years later, it seems the opportunities for professional advancement were not my father had hoped and he began to look for new positions.  As the story was told to me, he came to be offered two positions: one at the University of El Salvador and one at the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland. He preferred El Salvador, but my mother put her foot down: “If we move again, it will be to the United States or nowhere.”  And so they did, in 1962, to Portland, where I was born in 1965.

My father learned English in school and improved it while doing his Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh in the late 50s. My mother learned what English she knew (heavily accented until the time of her death last year) from a friend in Portland and from her avid reading. Their accents were always a source of embarrassment to me growing up.

My siblings learned it the hard way, on the playground of the elementary school they were thrown into upon arrival in the United States, not knowing a word of the language. But English was my native tongue.  My father fought hard to make our home an island of Spanish, protected against the forces of peers and popular culture. To this end, we had a penny bank shaped like a soldier on the dinner table every night into which, every night, we had to deposit a penalty for speaking English.

 

I remember sometime during the Miami Dolphins undefeated season hitting upon a terrific idea for eliminating the mockery and subsequent embarrassment my strange name—Yago, Yoga, Yogurt, San Diego—caused me at school. I would change it! I knew that my full name, Santiago, meant Saint James in English, and that the short form, Yago, could be translated as James.  The Dolphins that year had a running back named Jim Kiick. His last name struck me as some kind of stroke of cosmic genius: a football player named Kiick! How perfect that his first name was mine! My proposal to change my name officially to Jim Kiick fell flat. In fact, it launched my Dad into a tirade about how his gringo son was betraying la patria. The lament, voiced in Spanish at top volume, that “these kids are forgetting Spanish” rings in my ears to this day.

Language was thus the beginning of my sense of strangeness and unbelonging at home and in my world outside the home, but it was only the beginning. There was the fact, oft-repeated, with pride, by my father, that I was by virtue of my birth the only Colás who could become President of the United States. But given his disdain for so many of the things that to me, influenced by my friends and their families, defined America—baseball, Hee Haw, the Brady Bunch—it was hard for me to know whether to internalize his pride or his disdain at this Americanness.

Our national identity was, anyway, more declared than anything else.  After all, we didn’t eat American food (and when we tried to it felt weird), we didn’t do American things like going to rural Wisconsin town to visit grandma and grandpa or our cousins.  We had Thanksgiving turkey and on the 4th of July I was taken to fireworks, but, perhaps because there was no history of doing so, no existing family version of these traditions, the experiences—even if I couldn’t have articulated it in these terms at the time, even to myself—always felt performed, as though we were the foreign factory workers that Henry Ford used force to wear outlandish versions of their native garb as they climbed into a 20 foot “melting pot” only to emerge Americanized. Only we never got out of the pot since in so many ways my experience showed me all the ways we—and I, despite my claims on the White House—were not American.

But we did watch and play basketball.  And, though few of my friends families seemed very interested in it (by comparison with football, baseball or even hockey), I think I wound up depositing all of these fraught investments—like generations of second-generation immigrants before me—into the sport and the sense of belonging I believed it promised. Promised, and mostly delivered. Though playing with my Dad sometimes only served for me to emphasize his foreignness by comparison with other fathers, enjoying games together in front of the TV or at the arena helped me forget that he, and by extension I, was not American.  And the skills I developed first in our driveway in competition with he and my siblings landed me a spot on school teams and—despite the shame I’d feel when my name was announced over the PA system during starting lineups—helped attenuate the sense I always had of being different from the other jocks, and so somehow alone.

All these childhood feelings come rushing forth on Independence Day, when everyone around me is either innocently or aggressively parading a prideful American belonging that I’ve never quite felt.  Everyone, that is, except those whose experience or education has led them to an acute sensitivity to all the ways in which the nation, from the time of its very foundation on ideals of liberty and equality, has fallen so short of realizing those ideals.  My education and my experiences (if only second-hand) have taught me to see this as well. But I can’t shake a possibly naive, perhaps even childish, desire for it to be true: for America to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, and for me to fully belong to it and it to me.

It occurred to me yesterday that in some sense—despite baseball’s longstanding and football’s more recent claims to the contrary—basketball is America’s game.  But upon a talking with my wife, who shares some of these feelings on the 4th, I realized it’s not that it is so more than any other game, not in a generalizable way. Basketball is, however, the game of Americanness for me.  And it is more than just that.  For there are ways in which basketball in this country harbors (again, not necessarily more so than any other sport) within itself the otherwise polarized opposing tendencies that cause she and I to feel so strange and alone on Independence Day.

That is to say that the world of basketball—I realize now the previously unnoticed importance of my having structured my forthcoming book around the metaphor of basketball as a republic, a state, and an empire and of my own participation in it as akin to a kind of dissenting citicenzship—offers all of the best and worst that America itself offers.  Basketball offers insane corporate profits, tasteless mass spectacle centered on glorified individualism, economic exploitation, racism, discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality, authoritarian ideologies, and empty dreams.  But basketball also offers the ongoing attempt to address social injustice, the exhibition of individual initiative and creativity working smoothly in the interests of a collective, the demonstration that effort, persistence and dedication can level the social playing field.

It’s so hard to hold all this together in my heart and mind.  I write the last sentence and I immediately want to qualify it, hearing the voices of others (inside me) pointing out all the ways in which these positive things are either not so positive or not the whole story.  I’ve written this kind of thing myself plenty of times.  But then I want to resist that, and argue back, but do you not see and feel the exhilarating freedom unfolding unpredictably with every movement of a basketball player on the floor? That, I want to say back, perhaps childishly, that is America.  And I’ve written that kind of thing plenty of times.  But, and here we go again, that is not all that is America.  And so I come to feel that the sport, no less than the country I think it embodies, will always leave me falling between two polarized extremes.

And then I think to myself: maybe the problem arises because of the myriad ways in which our current discursive fora in this country encourage the expression of extreme, one-sided views of things. I know, I’m not the first to point this out.  But what I feel that I hear less often than this complaint is the attempt to address it by offering, in public spheres like this one, more complex perspectives on the phenomenon in question; perspectives marked not only by reason (or rationalization), but by feeling and, along with feeling, by contradiction and paradox and a budding sense that one’s word is not the last word.  That the thing we’re arguing about isn’t really anything in the sense that it’s not one thing and that it’s not a done thing.  That we’re contributing, with every word we write, to the further elaboration of that thing.  It’s all unfinished, a work in progress.  America is unfinished.  Basketball is unfinished. And, if that could be the meaning of those things—America and basketball—then I feel pretty much at home because I, too, am unfinished.