The Radical Free Agency of LeBron James

IMG_2056 (1)I spoke recently to the Department of Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College. I enjoyed reframing and revising the work on LeBron James’s “Decision” and “Return” that I published in Ball Don’t Lie! and also producing what I hope is an engaging visual accompaniment.

I hope you enjoy.

 

 

 

Inventing Basketball Autonomy (Ball Don’t Lie! Excerpt)

Allen Iverson was recently elected into the basketball Hall of Fame. To honor his inspiring career, I offer this excerpt from my new book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball.

It is the final section of Chapter 7, “The Myth of Blackness, March 12, 1997.”  Readers might recognize the date: that’s the night Iverson famously crossed-over Michael Jordan. The first part of the chapter analyzes media coverage of the game, which portrayed Iverson’s performance in racialized stereotypes with a long history in basketball culture and in American society. The second part of the chapter examines the factors, in and out of basketball, that shaped such perceptions of Iverson and other black players of his generation.  And in this final section, I offer my own interpretation of this famous play as way to disrupt these perceptions and the myths they give rise to.

“I saw Iverson cross Jordan on television when it first happened, and I have viewed it again since then to prepare for classes. But in drafting this chapter, I wanted to see it again. I found it mesmerizing and could not stop watching—again and again, clicking on different links to see the different angles and replays and commentaries and contexts. The whole play is so quick: from the time Iverson gets the ball to the time the shot drops through the net takes no more than twelve seconds, the actual cross no more than about four seconds. So my interest partly stems from cognitive thirst, as though I were watching a magician at work, replaying frame by frame to see how Iverson did it, to isolate the moment that sealed Jordan’s fate. But I can see there’s something more than detached intellectual curiosity about technique driving me there. There’s also an affective investment at work, an emotional response—admiration? gratitude? even love?—that keeps me glued to the play.

Hans Gumbrecht rightly observes that “what we enjoy in the great moments of a ballgame is not just the goal, the touchdown, the home run, or the slam dunk” but “the beautiful individual play that takes form prior to the score.” A “beautiful play,” Gumbrecht writes, “is produced by the sudden, surprising convergence of several athletes’ bodies in time and space.” Indeed, Leonard Koppett, decades earlier, had already noted the way in which, because baskets themselves are relatively routine, basketball draws attention to the play unfolding before the score and, in particular, to its style. Perhaps obviously, this applies to the Iverson crossover. The pick and the flip pass prompt a switch in defensive assignments that suddenly put Jordan (the league’s top player) on Iverson (the league’s top rookie).

Even set plays, Gumbrecht continues, become surprising because they are achieved “against the unpredictable resistance of the other team’s defense.” Ideally, a ball screen for the point guard that results in a defensive switch creates an advantage for the offensive team in that a larger and presumably slower player is now left alone to defend the smaller, quicker point guard (and at the same time, the smaller defensive guard is left alone to defend the larger offensive player who set the original screen and who may roll toward the basket where he can better exploit his height advantage). But in this case, although the expected size differentials did occur—the six-foot-six Jordan was left alone to defend Iverson, who was perhaps six feet tall, in the center of the floor—they do not lead to any obvious advantage for Philadelphia because Jordan was also quick and widely considered the best defensive player in the game at the time. So as Gumbrecht describes it, “The team in possession of the ball tries to create a play and avoid chaos, its opposing team in the defensive position tries to destroy the emerging form and precipitate chaos.”

In addition to this complex and unpredictable convergence of bodies, Gumbrecht argues, part of the fascination of plays as epiphanies lies in their temporality—that is, in the fact that they begin to end the moment they start. “No still photograph,” Gumbrecht writes, “can ever capture the beauty of this temporalized reality.” Indeed, my own repeated replays of even the video of the play testify to the elusive—because temporally finite—quality of the beautiful play. Moreover, considering the temporal aspect of the play suggests also another fascinating aspect of the crossover: good timing, which Gumbrecht defines as “perfect fusion between a perception of space and the initiation of movement . . . the intuitive capacity to bring one’s body to a specific place at the very moment when it matters to be there.”

Violence for Gumbrecht is “the act of occupying spaces or blocking their occupation by others through the resistance of one’s body.” Timing, then, relates to violence because “the player will be in the right place” at the right time “either because the spot in question will not be occupied (not covered) by the body of another player at that moment, or precisely because the body of another player will occupy it.” The latter describes good defensive timing whereas the former describes good timing from the perspective of the offensive player trying to get free. Jordan tries to anticipate where Iverson will be in the next instant so he can be there instead, while Iverson, of course, tries to—and does—get to the spot where Jordan will not be.

Koppett, again, seems to have presaged the central point of Gumbrecht’s comments on timing when he described the central task of the basketball player as “getting free,” although he centered on deception and fakery (rather than timing) as the means by which basketball players do this. Good timing, however, may also simply be a component of effective deception. At least, it is with Iverson’s crossover, in which it is not simply a matter of leaning explosively in one direction to throw the defender off balance (the fake) but of intuitively grasping the perfect moment to yank the ball quickly back in the other direction (the cross) to get free. That precise moment might be thought of as the kairos, which, you may recall from the preceding chapter, was what the Greeks called the opportune moment for invention and, indeed, as the instant in which an opportunity presents itself to crack open the still tomb of the end of history.

Beautifully ephemeral and deceptively magical, Iverson’s cross evokes the image of a jagged flash of lightning splitting the night sky. An epiphany of form, to be sure, the play reminds me of the position described by T. S. Eliot in the poem “The Dry Salvages”: “we had the experience but missed the meaning, and approach to the meaning restores the experience.”  Eliot might have had in mind something like a beautiful play, the illuminating arc that emerges and vanishes before you know it. Something’s happened; it was beautiful and elevating and thrilling and it somehow left itself in you. But what was it? Eliot suggests that approaching the meaning (trying to read the play, to understand what it meant) can restore the experience. That restored experience may be in a different form, but it may still, like the original, deliver an illuminating affective shine that eludes confining meanings.

As an individual tactic, a crossover dribble means the attempt, via precisely timed deception, by a player to get free from a defender. As we saw at the end of Chapter 1, however, the dribble itself stands within the history of basketball as a kind of outlaw or rogue maneuver that simultaneously violates the putative timeless spirit of the sport and thereby embodies perfectly a fluid, antiessentialist view of the game. The dribble, as Koppett puts it, is at once the sport’s “most identifying characteristic” and “one of the worst ailments of otherwise healthy basketball offenses.” Perhaps no particular form of the dribble exemplifies this better than the crossover.

When Iverson executed the crossover early in his career, he was sometimes whistled for a violation as it appeared to officials that he was actually carrying the ball to gain an advantage. But in addition, the crossover dribble is a product of urban playground experimentation and its culture of joyful individual one-upmanship. Alexander Wolff approvingly describes it as “of a piece with hip-hop culture” with its “rat-tat-tat rhythm, the badinage and braggadocio, and the distinctly big-city yearning to break-free of the crowd by making one’s mark.”

In this way, like the dunk before it—but perhaps even more dangerous because, as Wolff puts it, the crossover is more “democratic” (since you do not have to be tall or an exceptional leaper to execute it; you just have to practice)—the crossover dribble may bring the white basketball unconscious a little closer than it would like to come to the urban raw materials off which it secretly feeds but whose contextual realities it prefers in sensationalized, fantasy form.

Wolff’s comparison of the dunk and the crossover as different forms of individual self-expression, moreover, frames what might be the most evident and important symbolism of this particular crossover: Iverson (playground practitioner of the crossover par excellence) tries to get free of Jordan (the game’s most renowned dunker). In addition, this crossover echoes—through a kind of wordplay reminiscent of free-style rap—Iverson’s insistence on eluding Jordan’s ability to execute a crossover of a different sort (racially, I mean, as a commercial pitchman). When he turned pro, Iverson famously rejected a shoe deal with Nike because he felt the company would require him to follow in Jordan’s crossover footsteps. Instead, Iverson signed with Reebok, making the sole demand that “the company not try to change him.”

In this sense, in using the crossover to get free of Jordan, Iverson affirmed his independence and autonomy from the commercially tried-and-true, racial crossover model Jordan had established and, moreover, demonstrated the viability of his own path. Finally, this particular crossover, as an instance of perfect timing, evokes the kairos that reveals that—despite the myth of the greatest of all time—time has not stopped and that basketball (and other) history continues to march forward, as always, driven by the creativity of those with nothing to lose, for whom necessity is truly the mother of invention.

Now remember that Iverson scored on the play—two of the thirty-seven very efficient points he would put up on the defending champs that night. Recalling that the crossover is a means by which a point guard, usually the smallest man on the floor, can become a scoring threat draws Iverson’s crossover dribble into yet another framework of meaning: Bethlehem Shoals’s concept of a “positional revolution,” which I described in Chapter 5.

[. . .]

Iverson and his crossover present a revolution at the other end of the positional spectrum: the emergence of the scoring point guard. Iverson led the league in scoring four times from the point guard position and, moreover, in a body deemed relatively small by NBA point guard standards. Iverson may nowadays be criticized for inefficiency by some on the basis of (a misuse of) advanced statistical analysis of his play (more on this in Chapter 8), but it is also true that he paved the way for the style of play that characterizes the best point guards in the league today, such as Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, and Russell Westbrook, who create more opportunities for teammates by having established themselves as viable scoring threats capable of getting free for scores by use of, among other weapons, the crossover dribble.

Although fans may view the positional revolution as a tactical advance, even as such it carries a broader cultural significance, for as a tactical advance it was initiated by the successful experimentation of players who refused to be chained to a limited set of functions by conventional wisdom and the authority of coaches. These new physical moves and forms and new tactics emerged first experimentally in informal play before being presented in their more refined form to coaches—sheer unstoppability providing a kind of irrefutable argument.

Considering that the myth of blackness projects essentializing stereotypes concerning black Americans (especially black men) onto African American basketball players and so inhibits “their individuality, agency, and works toward curtailing any conception of black self-determination,” the positional revolution restores the thrill of witnessing black self-determination on the court.

In this sense, an emotionally expressive black player who effectively takes the game into his own hand by revolutionizing the point guard position appears as anathema to the conventional wisdom of the white basketball unconscious. The fact that even the most established of today’s coaches embrace the positional revolution should not obscure the fact that the positional revolution, like the dribble itself, began as a creative bid for autonomy and self-determination by players and one inaugurated precisely by a generation stereotyped as undisciplined dangers to the game, even as the game at its highest levels, as it always has, happily absorbed and exploited the entertainment and commercial value of their inventions.

Jorge Luis Borges once used the fiction of Franz Kafka as a lens through which to reconstruct a literary history of his “precursors.” Likewise, from the present vantage point, a player like Allen Iverson may serve as a lens through which we may retrospectively liberate other players—Jordan, Magic, Dr. J, Russell, and Chamberlain, to name just a few—from the hoops mausoleum in which the sport’s dominant culture has immured them. To see them through the lens of Iverson is to see them as constituting a renegade tradition of creative, self-determining hoops inventors that stretches back to both James Naismith and the game’s “incorrigible” first dribbler.”

Read the rest of Ball Don’t Lie!

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The Triangle Myth

In thinking about basketball culture, I’ve found it useful to think about certain recurrent themes, images, metaphors and topics of discussion as myths.  I don’t mean “myths” in the sense of falsehoods. Instead, I mean myth in the definition given by scholar Robert Segal as a story that conveys a belief that, whether it is true or false, is tenaciously held by its adherents.  Another scholar once referred to myths as “cultural dreams.” If you accept that dreams can shed light on our deeper feelings and attitudes, wishes and fears, then it can be useful to explore the shame of these cultural dreams called myths, for they can help us to better understand the things we feel collectively as a culture but perhaps are not in touch with enough to articulate directly.  Better understanding these things, in turn, can help empower us to change those things that we discover may need changing, just as better understanding our individual fears and wishes can lead us to improve our lives.

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Nicholas Dawidoff published an elegantly produced, honest and informative inquiry into the Triangle in yesterday’s New York Times. The piece inspired this post and I’ll be using examples from it to illustrate just what I’m talking about. Discussion of the Triangle doesn’t always take on the form of a story, thought it almost always includes stories (such as the story of Tex Winter, who originally devised it, or the story of Phil Jackson’s implementation of it when he was coaching the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan to multiple championships). But, regardless of the prominence of narrative in discussions of the Triangle, I think it’s still useful to probe them for those tenaciously held beliefs; useful, in other words, to speak of something we might call “The Triangle Myth.”

So what are the defining element of the Triangle Myth? In no particular order, the Triangle Myth consistently affirms several beliefs: 1) the complexity of the Triangle; 2) a strong association of the Triangle with the success of Jackson-coached teams in Chicago and Los Angeles; 3) the beauty of the Triangle; and 4) the qualities, especially moral qualities, required of players in order to run the Triangle effectively.

All these elements are visible in Dawidoff’s article. Indeed, the complexity of the offense appears as one of his motivations in writing the story.  He writes,

The system is basketball’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, renowned for being highbrow and difficult to understand. Yet trying to get through an abstruse book about the essence of cognition is one thing; that basketball could be over our heads is somehow harder to take.

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I found the idea of Triangle particularly intriguing. An offensive system that had won all those championships in full public view yet remained off-limits to others — that seemed provocative, a sports riddle.

This leads him to embark upon a quest he describes (albeit ironically) in a quasi-mythological terms:

Was Triangle the golden basketball mean? Was it a mirage? Mine would be a quest of sorts, deep into the heart of Winter.

In the course of this quest, he interviews a number of college and professional coaches and players.  The result is a veritable compendium of variations on the Triangle Myth.  So, we hear former player and current analyst Jay Williams testifying to its complexity:

You hand me a piece of paper and say, ‘Jay, define the triangle for me,’ it’s kind of like a kid with Magic Markers drawing a cartoon. It’s all over the page. So many series of actions, I get lost trying to explain it.

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The whole article revolves around the enormous success Jackson enjoyed using the Triangle, the challenges he has faced in implementing in New York, and the vicissitudes of other coaches and players efforts to work with the offense.  We find, moreover, none other than Kobe Bryant extolling the its beauty:

We were successful because we played in such a beautiful system.

Meanwhile, Stanford University women’s coach Tara VanDerveer compared it to improvisational jazz:

“The ball movement is beautiful!” she said, sounding the way people do when they are discussing the source of deep significance in their lives.

Meanwhile, both Jackson and his acolyte, Steve Kerr (first year coach of this seasons NBA champion Golden State Warriors) lament the difficulty of finding players with the requisite qualities for understanding, accepting and implementing the Triangle.  Thus, Jackson, speaking of his challenges as President of the Knicks:

Identifying players who can be good at it is our chore.

And Kerr elaborates the complaint:

Players grow up with the pick-and-roll, so they don’t naturally play without the ball. So many one-and-done guys are incredibly gifted,but they’re not seasoned fundamentally. In Triangle, they’d be completely lost.

Ultimately, in addition to fundamental skills and intelligence, players are required to possess the moral qualities of unselfishness, self-discipline, and trust.  They must be willing, first of all, to place the team’s interests over their own individual interests or rather more precisely: they must identify their individual interests with the team’s interests.  But also, they must be willing to trust their teammates to do the same and, moreover, the offense to produce positive outcomes for the collective.

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Former Bulls’ player Horace Grant brings all the elements together:

You need intelligence to run Triangle. We have great one-on-one athletes out there in the N.B.A., but to be as one, you need to know your role in Triangle. It was a smooth operating machine. Baryshnikov in action! Picasso painting! A beautiful thing!

What Bethlehem Shoals once called the “NBA bildungsroman” of Michael Jordan laboring selfishly and unsucessfully year after year in a Sisyphian task of rolling the Chicago Bulls up the hill of the NBA playoffs only to fall back down again before coming under the firm but benign and quasi-mystical guidance of Phil Jackson and the Triangle serves as the exemplary moral tale here, sisyphus-1549which Dawidoff dutifully recounts, in the form of a quotation from then-Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause:

Michael’s smart as hell. It took him a few months, but then he realized what he could do in Triangle. He went back to Carolina, and all he did all summer was work on post stuff. For the next eight or 10 years, he scored more points in the post than most centers did.

So all the elements are here: the Triangle is a bafflingly complex system, associated with some of the most unparalleled team successes in basketball history, but its complexity, together with the individual skills and moral traits required to implement it are beyond the reach of most of today’s players. So having reviewed these examples of the constitutive elements of the Triangle Myth, let me look a little more critically and deeply.

The first thing to note is the logic whereby an offensive system (or “rubric” as Dawidoff nicely terms it) that has been successfully implemented in specific circumstances is viewed as a kind of tactical, moral, and aesthetic ideal to which coaches and teams should aspire.  This is important because it only through this elevation of the contingent into the necessary that it makes any sense for coaches to complain that they don’t have the right circumstances (read: “players”) in which to implement the Triangle.  

The tacit idea here is that running the Triangle is the best of all possible basketball worlds, the Eden every coach and team would blissfully inhabit if only those players—unschooled in the fundamentals, lacking the intelligence, or unwilling to sacrifice their own interests for the good of the team—weren’t mucking it up.

The Triangle may well have been enormously successful, perhaps more successful than any offensive system in basketball history, and many may consider the patterns of ball and body movement it generates to be beautiful.  It may even exemplify certain moral traits reasonable people would consider desirable such as unselfishness, self-discipline, and trust.  I don’t have any problem with assenting to any of this.  My problem comes when in idealizing the Triangle through the Triangle Myth it becomes yet another bludgeon with which to hammer players (past and especially present) for what they appear—through the lens of this mythto lack.

The deficiencies of today’s players seem to me to be enumerated so frequently that I fear people will come to really believe that NBA players lack fundamental skills, or intelligence, or moral qualities like unselfishness, self-discipline, or trust.  When the list of deficiencies is harnessed to the cart of a powerfully compelling story like the Triangle Myth, I think such distortions become all the more likely to be accepted as truths.

Anybody’s who has been reading me ever, but especially lately, probably knows that this is the moment to remind you that most NBA players are black and most NBA coaches are white and that it’s troubling to me to see basketball culture repeat, as though in a social vacuum, any number of criticisms of black men that have been a staple of racist discourse in this country for centuries.  That Michael Jordan (who is obviously black) is trotted out as a counter-example is itself another staple of such discourse: the exhibition of an African-American who through determination and individual virtue manages to hoist himself above his culture and so to fulfill the expectations of the dominant, white culture.

Instead of this, we might remove the distorting lenses furnished by myths like that of the Triangle.  In doing so, we might appreciate that in every NBA game we witness dazzling exhibitions of fundamental skills honed through long hours of solitary practice, of moral virtue cultivated in, often times, the least nourishing of soils, and of a kind of embodied intelligence that—because we fall prey to the longstanding assumption that minds and bodies are two separate facets of the human being and that the mind is the sole residence of intelligence—we’re likely to overlook because it is not expressed in the forms—such as speech—we expect.

As a teacher (a kind of coach if you will) I try—when I am at what I think of as my best, which is certainly not always—to approach my classes as though the students already possess the basic skills and dispositions required to make the course a success.  I assume they are all intelligent, curious, and open to learn from and teach one another.  But I recognize that intelligence, curiosity and openness take different forms.  And I spend a fair amount of time over the first few weeks of each semester getting to know the specific individual and collective gifts a given group of students will be bringing to the table.  Only then, having established that I respect and value them, have I earned in turn th respect that allows them to accept and meet the challenges I offer them to go further and to stretch themselves.

Phil Jackson and the Essence of Basketball

phil-jackson-joins-knicksYesterday, Howard Beck published a fine profile of New York Knicks President Phil Jackson. Jackson, a former player (on the championship teams of the Knicks in 1970 and 1973) and coach (of 11 championship teams in Chicago and Los Angeles), is at least as well known for the string of popular books popular books blending autobiography, basketball strategy and tactics, and a mix of fundamentalist Christianity, Lakota Sioux religion, and Zen Buddhism; nuggets of wisdom from which he occasionally releases in interviews with the media.  All this makes Jackson an extremely interesting figure to me combining as he does, in his approach to the game, a love of basketball, an interest in the nuts and bolts of the game, and an awareness of wider social, philosophical and psychological issues shaping and shaped by basketball.

These days, Beck and others are especially interested in the decisions Jackson plans to make to improve the Knicks during this NBA off season and in the principles guiding those decisions. I’m not so interested in what he will do with the Knicks, but Beck’s profile from yesterday offered a nicely distilled version of the philosophy Jackson has always espoused and that I am very much interested in.  Given the misunderstandings that some of my recent writing has engendered, I want to say up front that I’m not taking issue with Jackson’s abilities as a coach.  But I am interested in the limitations and implications of some of the underpinnings of his views of the game and the world. So let me start with what Jackson said and then try to explain my reservations. In his interview, Jackson offered both a critique of today’s game and a few basic principles he’d like to see the NBA, and his Knicks in particular, get back to.  So what has Jackson seen that bothers him?

When I watch some of these playoff games, and I look at what’s being run out there, as what people call an offense, it’s really quite remarkable to see how far our game has fallen from a team game. Four guys stand around watching one guy dribble a basketball.

He seems to  be thinking especially of how the Cavaliers responded to injuries to key players by emphasizing an isolation-style offense in which LeBron James dominated the ball, ran down the shot clock and then looked either to score, get to the free throw line, or, if he was double-teamed, find an open teammate.  Of course, LeBron himself, well-known for his unselfishness and efficiency as a player, was not happy with the tactic.  But, as many observers noted, with a severely depleted roster, Cleveland really didn’t have too many options. Yet Jackson had criticism for James:

I watch LeBron James, for example, He might [travel] every other time he catches the basketball if he’s off the ball. He catches the ball, moves both his feet. You see it happen all the time.

Jackson is not alone in this criticism of James, though the criticism might be leveled with equal validity at many other NBA players.  For Jackson, though, this particular problem bespeaks a larger malaise:

There’s no structure, there’s no discipline, there’s no ‘How do we play this game’ type of attitude. And it goes all the way through the game. To the point where now guys don’t screen—they push guys off with their hands.

And here already is where Jackson starts to become interesting to me, when he invokes values such as “structure” and “discipline” from outside of basketball to explain why he has a problem with the game as he sees it today.  He goes on:

The game actually has some beauty to it, and we’ve kind of taken some of that out of it to make it individualized. It’s a lot of who we are as a country, individualized stuff.

It seems to me as though Jackson means to connect the “structure” and “discipline” he sees as missing in the game (as exemplified by LeBron’s play in the finals) to other values “beauty” and (implicitly) “cooperation”.  Indeed, Jackson says as much—while adding one more, very important, time-honored value—in elaborating upon what was missing with a musical analogy:

It struck me: How can we get so far away from the real truth of what we’re trying to do? And if you give people structure, just like a jazz musician—he’s gotta learn melody, and he’s gotta learn the basic parts of music—and then he can learn how to improvise. And that’s basically what team play is all about.

“Structure,” “discipline,” “beauty,” “cooperation,” “truth.”  I have no quarrel that these are part of basketball.  On the contrary, part of what draws me to Phil Jackson is that in steadfastly invoking such values over the course of his career he implicitly and sometimes explicitly affirms the connections between basketball and things that are not basketball and thereby the importance of basketball as a cultural form to be taken seriously.  In this particular case, these terms connect the sport to art (“beauty” and “structure”), to morality (“structure,” “discipline,” and “cooperation”) and to politics (“cooperation” invoked, by contrast, to how we do things in American society).  

“Truth” seems, as it often does in culture, to serve as a kind of overarching trump value, governing and tying together all the rest.  “Truth” here seems to mean  “how things should be” according to some fixed essential identity to basketball that involves prominently exhibiting the other values he invokes.  So that Jackson seems to be saying that it’s not basketball, in his view, if it doesn’t revolve around “structure,” “discipline,” “beauty,” and “cooperation.”

I think things—LeBron’s performance, the state of today’s NBA, and basketball in general—are more complex than what Jackson allows.  It’s hard, for example, for me to see James’ performance in the final as lacking in structure or discipline given that James systematically and with almost relentless consistency employed an offensive tactic that ran counter to his own sense of how basketball should be played and, indeed, counter to his team played for most of the season.

As for the NBA more generally, I’m not sure why Jackson doesn’t find in the Warriors (or the Spurs last season—okay he did praise them). But why not the Heat in the two seasons previous to that, or the Mavericks in 2011—all NBA champions) exactly the “structure,” “discipline,” “beauty” and “cooperation” he claims are missing in the sport today.  Plenty of people have written about this over the past few years and, moreover, reported on how various less successful teams seek to model themselves after these winning teams. It’s odd to me that someone as experienced with and involved in pro basketball should make the general claims about the sport today that Jackson makes.

But what about the sport itself? Is there a “true” way to play basketball? Some approach that best exhibits a core essence to the sport, without which what is going on is basketball in name only?  Here’s where it gets tricky. On the one hand, the answer must obviously be “yes” because otherwise how would we know that what we are watching or playing or talking about is basketball and not, say, football or chess or cooking.  For many, that might settle it.  But it gets more complicated if we take a second to ask what is that thing that makes it basketball and not any of those other things.  A ball? A hoop? Players? Those all seem like minimum requirements.screen-shot-2015-03-29-at-4-36-39-pm

But Jackson is adding in other requirements.  Leaving aside that there is probably reasonable disagreement, in and out of basketball, on just what “beauty” or “structure” or “discipline” or “cooperation” mean, do we really want to say that it’s not “true” basketball or that we’ve strayed from the “truth” of basketball if those things aren’t present? All of this might seem like the kind of esoteric overthinking that people who do my job are often accused of.  After all, there is vast unspoken consensus on what basketball is, Phil doesn’t really mean that what LeBron is doing isn’t actually basketball but something else, and, perhaps most importantly, there seems to be nothing at stake: nothing anybody cares about and deserves gets taken away from them because of the way in which we define basketball.  Except that, historically, this is exactly what has happened in basketball.

Historians of the sport know that almost since the time of its invention, controversies and debates have played out over what is and isn’t basketball.  Is it basketball if you dribble the ball? What if you play physically? Is it basketball if you shoot it off the backboard or play in (or not in) a cage? Is it basketball without a center jump after each made basket? How about the dunk? Is that basketball? In my research, I’ve discovered that over the years self-appointed custodians of basketball have argued, like Jackson, for the exclusion, of certain elements of the game on the basis of a sometimes implicit sometimes explicit claim about what the essence of the game might be.

I fear that at this point, in the wake of my posts last week on Lebron and coaching, on Steph Curry, on coaching and on racism, that I may lose some readers.  But be that as it may, it is a demonstrable fact that over the course of the history of the sport, some of those claims and the resulting exclusions have been made if not with the intention of then certainly with the effect of excluding certain kinds of plays or styles of play and the players most commonly associated with it.  It’s a sad, but unavoidable and—given the history of the United States over the same time period—unsurprising fact that the players most often excluded or, if included, derided and criticized in the name of some supposed essence of basketball have been African-American.

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It would be absurd to argue that with these comments Phil Jackson was expressing a desire to exclude black players from basketball. And if we all agree that he’s not, why then bother with all of what many reading this might consider to be irrelevant, because ancient, history?

My answer is it doesn’t, unless you believe that language and culture matters because it carries forward our assumptions, attitudes and habits of thought. And, more specifically, that the language and culture of the past, if we use it in ignorance of its past uses, shapes our present, making certain kinds of change possible and other kinds of change impossible. It would be nice, maybe, if we could each of get to start all over again every time we used language. Speak and write with a blank slate and so feel somehow sure that we were conveying only our intended meanings and nothing more. But that is not how language works and so I believe that it be hooves us to be attentive of the social history of the language we use and inventive in coming with ways of talking about the things we care about that minimize the danger of inadvertently repeating harmful ideas and patterns of thought from the past.

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So what about the essence of basketball? My own view is that it’s best to keep our list of essential requirements minimal and responsive to changes in the game initiated by those intimately involved in play, above all: the players.  This allows a variety of styles of play to flourish and provides the requisite diversity for the game to thrive and for new forms, styles, tactics, maneuvers. It’s best too, in this regard, to beware of an understandable tendency to cling too tightly to forms of the past, especially those with which we identify with particular successes or with a particularly enjoyable basketball moment. It’s this last that I suspect Phil Jackson might be having a problem with, but perhaps not.

I think that, guided by these ideas, Phil Jackson might have said something like this: keep-calm-and-love-basketball-35a“I think it’s too bad, and I suspect LeBron also feels this way, that the imperative of competition and the constraints of the roster, required he and his teammates to play a style of ball that focused so heavily on his actions and left his teammates uninvolved or passive so much of the time, for the simple reason that basketball is a game of numbers and of using movement of ball and bodies and the space of the floor to create advantages in numbers. I recognize that most of the successful teams throughout history have done this, right up to the present day.  And I’m heartened to see that among today’s players there are so many who can dribble, pass and shoot and make plays for others, becoming functionally interchangeable while retaining their distinctive individual abilities. This balance of distinctive individuality expressed in harmony with that of others gives us a kind of liberty, a license, one that it would be good to see more of in our society.”  That’s a commentary, candid but informed by a critical sense of history and a nuanced appreciation of the present and free of any appeal to some fixed essence of the sport, that I could get behind.

On Wisconsin

I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and graduated from the University there in 1987 and so many of my friends on Facebook have strong ties to the place and the school.  Understandably, then, my feed over the past week has been dominated by pro-Badger statuses, images, and story links, which culminated last night in a euphoric, celebratory extravaganza.  I was, in this particular group, the odd one out in rooting for a Kentucky victory, even though I have no ties whatsoever to that state or school; even though in most cases I’d probably find reasons to root against Kentucky.  When I expressed this, in a kind of lazy way, some of my friends took issue with my position. So I’m feeling the need to clarify it, maybe most of all to myself. First thing, my fandom is irrational. Read more

‘‘Ball Don’t Lie!’’ Rasheed Wallace and the Politics of Protest in the NBA

I’ve recently completed my book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, and am now revising it, so stay tuned for updates on the publication timetable.  But in the meantime, I’ve also published a few related essays in academic journals. Though the style of writing of these is a bit more formal than what you’ll find in the book, the substance of the arguments is very similar.  What I’m sharing today combines elements of the Introduction and Chapter 7 (“The Myth of Blackness, March 12, 1997”) of my book.  Just click on the image below.

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"Getting Free" and "Playing the Right Way"

Over the past year, as I’ve been working on Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketballmy book manuscript, I’ve also written a couple of essays that have been published in academic journals.  Unfortunately, many of those I’d like to reach with my writing do not have access to the institutional portals that house these very expensive journals.  So I’m making them available here for those who might interested.  I hope readers find them stimulating, enjoyable and edifying, and, as always, I welcome feedback. Read more

Michael Jordan vs. David Copperfield

At last! A statistical measure of just how much of a bildungsroman a novel (or any story) is! And this indispensable and infallibly useful metric falls into my lap just when I most needed it: in the midst of pondering Michael Jordan and the stories we tell about him. Read more

Bill Simmons is Wrong! (But also…) On Russell and Chamberlain’s Supporting Casts

I just can’t let this go. My distaste for Bill Simmons’ smug pseudo-argumentation has led me on a four-day journey down a rabbit hole of advanced statistics and I feel compelled to share my report of the trip. Read more

Sterling and the Foundations of the Modern Basketball State

Somewhat under-examined in the Donald Sterling Shit Show of the past week has been Sterling’s rhetorical question asserting his creative importance as owner: “Do I make the game? Or do they make the game?”  Though Sterling has appropriately been chastised, lampooned, and punished for these and other remarks as well as for past behavior, I believe he has also to some degree been scapegoated by other owners, league executives, the news media and fans availing themselves of the easy opportunity to distance themselves from the kind of extreme and easily quotable form of racism that, too often, is the only form of racism acknowledged to exist in sports and in this country more broadly.  As Tim Marchman has put it, “Sterling isn’t some anomaly; he’s the perfect representative of his class.” Indeed.  In fact, his claim that it is the owners, rather than the players who “make the game” expresses a key component of a myth that runs like a fault line back to the very foundation of the NBA. Read more

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