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.

 

 

 

Integrating Academics and Athletics in the American College and University

Last week I spoke at Oberlin College, where the Athletics Department had invited me to share some of my ideas on this topic.

The turnout was impressive, the audience engaged and responsive, and the questions important and intelligent. I really had a blast exchanging ideas with this wonderful community.

And, they taped it, so I can share it with you as well. I hope you’ll check it out and let me know what you think.

(FYI: My friend, Oberlin’s Associate Men’s Basketball Coach Tim McCrory does a short funny intro first, then I go for about 35 minutes, followed by the QA).

I really enjoyed trying to create a quasi-documentary experience for the audience (ever experimenting to try to improve my lecturing technique).  And I learned a lot preparing for it, and thinking about the differences, and some surprising similarities, between the issues facing a DI FBS school like Michigan and those facing a DIII school like Oberlin.

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Image from NCAA.org, explaining the difference between Division I and Division III.

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Time Demands Comparison DI vs. DIII

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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Why (and how to) Read CLR James on Cricket

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What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?

Over the past month or so, I’ve been reviewing my plans for Global Sports Culture, a course  I’ll be teaching for just the second time this fall. I knew there were some things I wanted to improve upon based on my first go round and so some changes I needed to make to the content and structure.  I’ve done a lot of that work, including create an interactive concept map which I’m going to share here once I’ve finalized it.

But for all the changes I’ve made (and there are many), one thing I knew early on that I wouldn’t change was the reading assignment for the first week’s lecture, in which I introduce students to the challenges, opportunities, and methods for studying global sports cultures. That’s a week where I want to entice a couple of hundred adolescent sports fans at a Big Ten university that reflecting upon their passion and the cultural objects that incite it can be a valuable thing: not only edifying, but pleasurable in its own right, and even, enhancing of the enjoyment they currently take in sports.  To aid me in this task I have recruited two different, short readings, both of which elegantly—though with different kinds of elegance—make the case for keeping our thinking brains working even as we let our feeling brains run riot in our encounters with sporting cultures.

Sports as Escape, Struggle, and Art

In their superb introduction to Blackwell’s A Companion to Sport, a comprehensive volume the two also edited, Ben Carrington and David Andrews—two of the most prolific and well-regarded sports studies scholars writing today—explain how the study of sports can move us past unhelpful dichotomous approaches to sport that either unsubtly trash it as a kind of opiate excess or naively adore it as a repository of proper values.  Instead, Carrington and Andrews encourage students of sports culture to think about sport

as an escape from everyday life whilst understanding that no cultural activity is completely autonomous from societal constraints, to examine sport as a form of cultural struggle, resistance, and politics whilst recognizing that it is also compromised by forms of commodification, commercialization, and bureaucratic control, and to consider sport as an embodied art form that is formed in relation to both intrinsic and extrinsic goals and rewards that sometimes over-determine the stated aims of the participants.

This is sport, in their words, as escape, struggle, and art.  We are to see not one or the other, but all three functions at once served in some way or another, though probably in different proportions, in every sporting event.  And, moreover, we are to see that sport’s ability to fulfill these three functions is constrained by the very condition that allows it to serve these functions: namely, that sport is a swatch in the social fabric.

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In this, Carrington and Andrews draw their inspiration from C. L. R. James who thought about sport, they write

as an activity that is simultaneously a space to which we escape for fun, relaxation, and enjoyment, a space charged with social significance and political possibilities for expressing who we are as individuals and the larger communities to which we belong, and as an embodied art form, a physically creative and aesthetic mode of being human, a world replete with all the ugliness and beauty, tragedy and joy, that resides within human society.

James, therefore, provides the second reading with which I begin my course.

For those unfamiliar with him, Cyril Lionel Robert James was, to put it simply, one of the most awe-inspiring cultural and political figures of the twentieth century. Novelist, playwright, philosopher, literary critic, historian, teacher, activist, journalist, cricketer and sports fan, James, who was born in 1901 in a small village in then-colonial Trinidad, lived, traveled and worked in Latin America, the United States, Africa, and England (where he died, in London, in 1989).  James is probably best known for The Black Jacobins, a definitive history of the Haitian revolution.  My personal favorite, for the record, is Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In.  James presents Moby Dick as a prescient portrayal of the industrial and imperial might American would come to acquire in the century after the novel’s publication.  James wrote the book in the United States, while interned on Ellis Island as McCarthy’s HUAC investigated the activist work he’d done in Detroit. James believed the book would reassure his persecutors of his love for what he called “American Civilization.” It didn’t work.

Yet Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, like all his writing, is imbued with extraordinary erudition, a breathtaking capacity to grasp as ambiguity not as an impediment to commitment, but as its precondition, and by an elegant style balanced by a teacher and activist’s commitment to clarity.  All this is in full force in Beyond a Boundary (1963), the work that inspired Carrington and Andrews (and before them several pioneering generations of students of sport and society).  Beyond a Boundary deftly mixes autobiographical recollection, historical analysis of West Indian decolonization, and reflection on the moral, aesthetic, cultural and political dimensions of West Indian cricket (here, by the way, is a documentary that was made of Beyond a Boundary in the late 70s).

Even this brief description probably explains how Beyond a Boundary complements Carrington and Andrews in helping get students to think about sports.  Because of time constraints, however, I can’t assign the entire work.  Instead, I ask them to read Chapter 1, called “The Window,” and the Preface.  Here I just want to share with you my way of reading the Preface, which is extremely brief and yet somehow, remarkably, already expresses in a kind of holographic magic, the whole of Beyond a Boundary and, for that matter, the whole of my course. In fact, it’s so brief that I can show it to you right here.

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Questioning

Now let me show you what we might make of it in class.  The first thing I notice is that James begins by telling us what this book is not: neither “cricket reminiscences nor autobiography.” This might seem curious since the book clearly includes both, and in great detail. So we have a puzzle right from the start: how do we make sense of this? James helps somewhat in the very next sentence, when he tells us what the book is, or rather—significantly—when he tells us what it is by telling us what it does: the book, he says, “poses the question [emphasized by italics] what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”  The question, through its repetition of the terms, requires us to think about the relationship between cricket and knowing (which is to say, for my students, between sports and study).

Imagine that you are sitting with an alien from outer space during a Michigan football game on a Saturday afternoon in the autumn.  The alien has asked you to explain what you are witnessing together. How you choose to answer says a lot about what you know about football but also about what you think is important to know about football.  Would you identify the teams and the players?  Would you talk about where the players come from and how they came to be here? Would you mention that most of them are black? Would you talk about the individual fundamental skills and techniques they are exhibiting? The strategies and tactics employed by coaching staffs and players? The rules? The violence? The behavior of the fans? The history of the stadium? The relationship between what is happening on the field and the mission of the educational institution to which it is attached? The economic aspects?

If you imagine a sport (like cricket or football) as a country with a border clearly separating it from another country, then you might imagine that the best way to know that country would be to ignore everything on the other side of the border.  But James implies with his rhetorical question that to know that country you have to know what is not that country, what is on other side of the border.  But sports and countries aren’t the only things with borders.  Books and genres have them too, or at least we are used to thinking of them that way:  “cricket reminiscences” is a country, clearly separated from another country called “autobiography.”  So now, perhaps, we can see that with his opening line, James is rejecting those confining categories of thought.

Borders and boundaries.  Notice the title of James’s book: Beyond a Boundary.  In cricket, the word “boundary” refers to two things: 1) the edge of the playing field (like the homerun wall in baseball if it encircled the entire diamond and not just the 90 degree slice extending out from home plate); 2) a run scoring play in which the batsman hits the ball over the boundary (like a home run).  But, considering the emphasis James has already placed on crossing boundaries, the title itself echoes and expresses the central lesson: to know—not just cricket, not just sport, but anything—is to cross boundaries, which is to say, to travel (an image the importance of which James will emphasize momentarily).

It’s striking too that James presents this point as a question rather than simply stating: “those who only know cricket don’t really know cricket.” It’s striking, I mean that a proposition about knowledge and its limits should be posed in the form of a question.  For questions, as forms of discourse, are invitations to come to know, to do the traveling required to get to know.  In this sense, James seems to avoid the trap of illusory certainty.

However, the question is also a rhetorical question in two ways.  First, in the usual sense in which the question isn’t really or only a question but also a way of offering the answer: in this case, “nothing.”  But the question is rhetorical in another sense.   On one side we have “know-cricket” and on the other side we have “cricket-know.”  This structure actually has a name: chiasmus (pronounced “Kye-as-muss”).  It is named after the Greek letter chi (which looks like our “x”) because of the criss-cross pattern of the word repetition.
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The symmetry of chiasmus offers a feeling of closure and a sense of completeness that can lead the listener or reader to feel that all aspects of an issue have been accounted for. This is part of what makes chiasmus effective as a figure of speech.  But if the chiasmus work partly because of the impression of completeness and the confidence it can impart to a listener or reader, what happens when a chiasmus takes the form of a question (as it does here)? And a question that challenges the assumptions we might have about the completeness of knowledge?

James’ ironical, rhetorical question doesn’t hold still while we pin one meaning, one answer to it. Just when we try to frame an answer, some solid ground we could stand on, protected by firm boundaries separating us from ignorance, it shifts. James seems simultaneously to be challenging the claims of knowledge that base themselves on the fixity of categorical boundaries and to be trying to inoculate that challenge against itself falling prey to the same trap.

James has very assertively set down a challenge regarding what it means to know a sport.  That’s an excellent way for us to begin a semester in which we too are studying sports.  So let me pause to go into greater detail here on this question of knowledge.

Knowing

James brings up knowledge twice in the Preface.  First, in the rhetorical question we just looked at, then again in the final sentence:  “To establish his own identity, Caliban, after three centuries, must himself pioneer into regions Caesar never knew.”  Though brief, this is a tricky, but very important, sentence.  In part, it’s tricky (at least for most of my students) because of the references to Caliban and Caesar and then doubly so because the references are employed metaphorically. So let’s just see who they were to begin with, then we can look at how they work as metaphors, and then finally we can tackle what it means that Caliban must go into regions unknown to Caesar.

Caliban is a character in the play “The Tempest,” written by William Shakespeare.  The play is set on a tropical island, where a European nobleman named Prospero has set himself as a ruler over the island’s native inhabitants, including Caliban, whom Shakespeare portrays as a kind of animal.  For example, in one scene, Prospero berates Caliban for ingratitude, reminding him that he didn’t even know how to speak until Prospero arrived and taught him.  Caliban’s sharp retort to this is that he wished he had never learned to speak, since the only good it has done him is that now he can curse Prospero for occupying his island and enslaving him.  Though “The Tempest” is not set on any actually identifiable island, Shakespeare wrote the play at a time when Europeans like himself were becoming familiar with reports from the English, Spanish and Portuguese men who explored and colonized the Americas, including the tropical islands of the Caribbean that we know today as the West Indies.  Some of these included descriptions of native inhabitants as barbaric and uncivilized cannibals.  Some scholars believe that the character of Caliban (whose name is almost an anagram of the word cannibal) is loosely based on these descriptions and that the play represents the European colonization of the West Indies.

Around the time that James was writing “The Window” numerous artists, intellectuals, and political leaders in the Caribbean who were dissatisfied with the effects of colonial rule on their native lands had seized on this idea and began to use Caliban as a symbol for themselves and their people.  Just as Caliban cursed Prospero in the language the latter had taught him, so these individuals claimed that the Caribbean people would have to dismantle the effects of colonialism by using the tools—meaning the language, ideas, and social institutions—imposed on them or their ancestors by their colonizers.  This process of dismantling the political, economic, cultural and psychological structures of colonialism is called “decolonization.”  And decolonization, in a word, is the metaphorical meaning of Caliban as James here employs the name in his Preface.

Caesar you may be somewhat more familiar with, perhaps by the name Julius Caesar. He was a Roman statesman and military leader who amassed popular power at home and expanded the territory under Roman control all the way to what is today England and Germany as a means of transforming the democratic Roman republic into the dictatorial Roman Empire.  As he did with the fictional character of Caliban, James is using the historical figure of Caesar as a metaphor: in this case, a metaphor for imperial rulers.  Through these metaphors, though Caliban is a fictional character created fifteen centuries after the death of Julius Caesar, James creates an image of a relationship between colonized (Caliban) and colonizer (Caesar).

Now, as I mentioned above, the “regions Caesar never knew” are metaphorical as well.  James isn’t necessarily talking about literal exploration of unknown territories.  We can tell from the context (the sentence immediately before this describes, autobiographically, the process by which certain ideas James first encountered as a boy in the West Indies could only be tracked down and tested when he’d gone to England) that these regions probably refer to regions of thought.  So the metaphor “regions Caesar never knew” means something like “thoughts or ideas that colonizers and imperial powers never knew.”  Caliban meanwhile, who is the colonized, will have to “pioneer” those regions, that is, to go beyond his colonizing rulers in order to discover these “regions” of thoughts and ideas, these bodies of knowledge, that they never knew.  And he must do this in order, James tells us, “to establish his own identity.”

So knowledge of ideas and the world, according to James, is inseparable from the process by which we come to form ourselves as distinct individuals with unique identities.  This is true for all of us, of course, but James is especially concerned with those, like himself, who grew up as colonized individuals within a colonial empire.  James reminds us that the very structures and dynamics of colonial society establish the ideas, customs, morals, and values of the colonial rulers as natural and superior, while the ideas, customs, morals and values of the natives are seen as strange and inferior.  It follows from this that within such a system the “best” that a native (or colonized) individual could become is something like an adequate copier of the colonizer’s superior way of life.  But in doing so, this individual must distance himself from his own native way of life as well as from the history of his land and his ancestors.  The result is a kind of unbearable duality of experience for such individuals one with serious and documented psychological effects:  among the colonizers he can only ever be a second-rate copycat, while among the natives he is an alien, a poser who has forfeited his native identity for a kind of second-hand foreign one.

When James speaks of Caliban establishing “his own identity” he means an identity that escapes from this lose-lose dichotomy.  Rather than either rejecting or trying to copy wholesale the ideas of the colonizer, Caliban can combine his unique experience and various acquired ideas in order to discover new thoughts and ideas and in this way “pioneer into regions Caesar never knew.”  Of course, we should keep in mind that the fact that Caesar “never knew” these regions doesn’t mean that Caesar never traveled to them. I’m not saying he did.  Just cautioning that given the rhetorical question with which James began, we should beware of conflating different sense of the word “know.”

Part of what makes this passage so powerful, in my opinion, is that in this sentence James (following from the preceding, autobiographical sentence) is using the metaphors to speak of himself and his own experience but in terms that render that experience more general: it becomes the possible experience of every colonized or formerly colonized person.  In this way, it is a kind of battle cry or slogan, meant to inspire others like himself to establish their own identities.

But even so, the other part of what makes this passage powerful, again in my opinion, is that it is built around metaphors drawn from European culture (Caliban and Caesar) and, specifically, from the history of conquest and colonization (including “pioneering” and “regions”).  These metaphors, in that sense, are European tools in two senses:  first because they come from European texts, and second because they are about European conquest and colonization.  You wouldn’t think such metaphors would be very promising raw materials for a sentence describing the process by which a colonized individual can free his or her mind, but James makes them just that.

To know is to travel and to travel, in this world, is always to go where someone else has already been. Whether they know where they have been is another, open question. And what we do in that encounter with the other person is yet another, also open question.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget, all of this begins with an ironic, rhetorically posed challenge to remember that if we only know cricket, then we don’t know cricket.  Is all of this, on knowing, and Caliban and Caesar and traveling all part of the response to that question? Part of its elaboration? Perhaps part of what we need also need to know if we are truly to know cricket is the history of colonization and the process by which native subjects try to free themselves of its influence by using the tools of colonization.  And this is because cricket—like language and Shakespeare and the history of the Roman empire—is one of those tools.  And to see the ways that cricket is more than cricket, or rather that cricket is also a means for political domination and political liberation (which is the subject of James’ book on cricket), is precisely to pioneer into regions Caeser never knew.

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The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent (Basketball) Knowledge

All my life, I have loved ordering my things.  My new Matchbox cars go in one line, and the ones I inherited from my older brothers go in another one, and the ones I found or stole from my friends go in a third.  The beer cans in my collection will be ordered in the shape of a pyramid ranged from most common at the bottom (ordered alphabetically by brand from left to right and bottom to top) to the most rare at the top (with an architecturally-required exemption for 7, 16, 24 and 40 oz cans, which get their own rows).

When I got to graduate school, a more experienced student advised me that success in our profession depended on the ability to make bibliographies. I’m not sure what he meant, but what I heard was: “order your book collection,” which was a snap for me because I’d already started…when I was seven and labeled Follow My Leader “Book # 1” in my own personal library.

At first glance, it’s not so mysterious—this drive to classify and order, especially not in the contexts of childhood and graduate school. For both of these situations involved for me much confusion and little sense of power and therefore, a deep feeling of vulnerability.  Of course I would order my beer cans when I couldn’t order my family or my own feelings! Of course I would create a bibliography to throw a net around the leaping beast of my own growing ignorance snarling and snapping at my heels!

The writer Jorge Luis Borges once made fun of me when he included in a story a Chinese Encyclopedia he made up: the “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.”  In its “distant pages,” Borges informs us “animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.”

His point, he claimed, was that “there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and speculative.”  Sure. I get it. But that doesn’t really apply to mine.  Or, at least, there are more and less arbitrary and speculative classifications of the universe.  Aren’t there?  I mean, what does his psychotic example (made up after all) have to do with something so naturally reasonably as putting my underwear, undershirts, and socks in one drawer, my shorts and tee shirts in the next one, and my pants and long sleeve shirts in the next one?

Maybe, from a certain somewhat superficial point of view, I’m justified in my indignation. But Borges is working the depths.  The reason that all such taxonomies are “arbitrary and speculative” is a simple one:  “we do not know what the universe is.”  The rug is starting to slip.  Not only do we not know what it is, Borges shockingly continues, but “there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word.”

Oh shit, I think to myself. I thought there was.  Or maybe, I always felt there was.  In fact, I’ve always harbored the feeling, described by Borges’ compatriot, the writer Julio Cortázar, that the universe must “contain, in some part of its diversity, the encounter of each thing with all the others.”  What is that if not a description of a “universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word”? Each thing connected to every other thing.

I didn’t encounter this quotation until I was grown, but it echoed and articulated an inchoate feeling I’d had since childhood.  Maybe I couldn’t always discern the connections, but I could console myself with the knowledge that they were there nonetheless, and that if I could discern some then perhaps with enough patience and effort I could discern them all.  And trailing in on the coattails of these consolations came the deeper elemental indispensable comfort that if this is how things are, then, regardless of what I know, I was myself connected.  Regardless of how I felt, I was not alone.

But then there is Borges, who I suspect is right, and this renders my organizing impulse—my taxonomania—not only futile, but absurdly delusional.  If there is no universe (and—to cover all the bases—we don’t know what it is), then what is the point of any of it? Why not just leave my Matchbox cars in a heap on the carpet, a miniature model of some grisly aerial shot on the 11 o’clock news? Why even bother collecting beer cans or books? In fact, why bother reading books at all, let alone going to graduate school? In fact, what is the fucking point of doing anything at all if there is no universe, let alone an orderly one, let alone one whose order I can discover and mimic with my classificatory schemas?

Fortunately, Borges himself helps me stop this runaway train of existential despair.  For he goes on to say that “the impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of the universe cannot, however, stop us from planning human schemes, even though it is clear that they are provisional.”  And Cortázar adds an encouraging word: “the poet if she cannot connect them by intrinsic features, does what everyone does when looking at the stars: she invents the constellation, the lines linking the solitary stars.”

He seems to be saying that the creative—making—activity of the poet really resides in a way of seeing; a way of imaginatively reconfiguring the relations among existing things to make new patterns (like a constellation).  Which I suppose is what Borges himself was getting at when emphasized the importance of “planning human schemes”; indeed, what Borges himself was doing when he invented the extravagant human scheme of the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.  None other than James Naismith himself was under the influence of such a view when he responded to his teacher’s assertion that “All so-called new things are simply recombinations of things that are now existing” by recombining elements of familiar games to invent basketball.

So this helps me see that there is more to my drive to organize and classify than merely the  Quixotic impulse to know and control the universe. I can see that in doing so I’m playing, exercising my imaginative and cognitive faculties in recurrent experimentation; I can see that I’m forging connections, maybe not so different from the ones I try to forge with my body and the ball on the basketball court; I can see that I’m making new and at least personally satisfying, possibly beautiful, patterns out of what the existing world has dealt me.

And so it goes: I have loved the discovery of sets in math, Ven diagrams, sentence diagrams, the great book on the shelf next to the one I was looking for in the stacks at the library, the moment when two friends who don’t know each other meet and hit it off, the perfect combination of passes and cuts and passes leading to an easy score in pick up ball, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, kaleidoscopes, and, come to think of it, constellations.

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Which brings me back to books, to books about basketball, to my favorite twenty books about basketball. Here they are, in the order, top to bottom, in which I originally presented them.

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There’s so much more to be done with these “solitary stars” than force them into four, hierarchically ordered, groups of five. Sure, it flowed pretty naturally from the subject matter since this way of ranking things, like basketball players (which—oh—are not things), is familiar to me and my readers. And maybe it was even kind of novel or catchy.  But like other conventions of mainstream sports there’s at least as much that obscures (if not offends) as illuminates in such schemas, especially since, as I realized by the end, I didn’t really believe in mine: they were just twenty really important books about basketball and any schema I might plan for deciding which were more important were, well, as Borges might say, “arbitrary and speculative.”

Considering that, it could be fun or instructive or beautiful to connect these books differently. I’d hoped to build something like a dynamic “recommendation engine” (partly because of  that name), but alas such a device is beyond my capabilities. Instead, I resign myself to static pictorial representations of my taxonomies.  How might that look?  I could, for example draw a simple path connecting only those books that either consider basketball philosophically or consider the philosophical aspects of basketball.

Philosophy Path

 

Or a different path connecting those that portray failure (or tragedy):

Failure

We could combine these two paths together (philosophy now in red, failure in yellow).

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Already from this simple, arbitrary and speculative exercise you might, as a prospective reader with an interest in basketball, philosophy, and failure or tragedy, deduce that either FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Basketball History or Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story by David Wolf would be promising places to begin your reading excursion.  And you’d be right. It really works.

Now, you could do the same with paths of your own liking. Interested in money? I’d probably draw paths through LaFeber’s Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, Murry Nelson’s The National Basketball League, Lane’s Under the Boards, Wolf’s Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story, Cohen’s The Game They Played, Leonard’s After Artest, and Andrews, Michael Jordan, Inc.. Let’s add those to the last drawing:

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So now, you might go to LaFeber, Cohen, Leonard and Nelson’s books for a combination of money and failure, and you might throw Foul! in to get your philosophical consideration of the intersection of basketball, money, and failure (or tragedy). In addition to valuably denaturalizing the hierarchical way in which I first presented these books (and which seems so reflexive a way of classifying in sports), these kinds of groupings are a narrowing, a filtering process that can be useful if you want to impart some direction and focus to your reading experience.

But of course, speaking for myself what I make and have made of these books depends heavily on other things I’ve read that are not included in these twenty books. That’s another way of saying that my very selection of these twenty books as well as the way in which choose to define the paths I use to connect them to one another is itself the result of still other lines connecting these books (or subsets of them) to other books I haven’t so far included here, only some of which, by the way, having anything explicit to do with basketball. Here’s what a partial representation of this might look like.

hoopsplusoutside

Remember these pathways just represent three, rather broad, categories of similarity: philosophy, failure, and money. And I’ve only added, more or less off the top of my head, fifteen books not on my original list of twenty top basketball books. At this point, the classification process still narrows by selecting just some of the the original set of twenty books, but it also expand by adding a few others to the reading list.  So you might now have a list that includes Kafka, Agassi, and Spinoza alongside, from the original list of my top twenty basketball books, Leonard, Nelson, LaFeber, Wolf, FreeDarko’s history, Melander, Frey, and Cohen.

But finally, books aren’t the only thing, not even when we’re reading.  In fact, books aren’t even the most important thing, even when we’re reading.  For we are always—like it or not and more or less consciously—drawing lines between the book we are reading and something else that is not the book we are reading, and not a book at all.  Obviously this is a probably infinitely complex network of conscious and unconscious associations anchored in words, sounds, memories, fantasies, world events past and present and imagined, films, paintings, photographs, songs, TV shows, affects, sensations, thoughts, ideas, experiences, instances, and other people.

We could start filling in those empty shelves on the bookcase above with scraps of paper on which I might write down some of these non-book entities.  Imagine how vast that network of informing anchor points would be, just for one person.  Now imagine red, green, and yellow lines extending from those anchor points through the books that are not the top twenty basketball books and then converging at the various books in the top twenty.  Now add pathways in new colors to represent things like humor, race, technique, scholars, authors named David, books that are blue, imaginary books, amateur basketball, the early history of the game, gender, the perspectives of players themselves.

Now we have something so vast that I can no longer draw it.

Maybe it would look like this, but moving and enormous.

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It’s harder to imagine the books and the other nodes and the categories and associations that connect them.  And I know it’s no longer useful as a filter to provide direction to my reading.  But it does do something else for me. For one thing, I simply find the images beautiful.  I also find them a valuable visual reminder of the vast, complex network of life that springs to life every time your or I open a book.

This network may not be the universe, and so I may not find myself securely connected to every other point in the universe, as I might have obscurely desired as a child.  Indeed, there may not be, as Borges speculated, any universe at all. But this is okay because there is something else I’ve discovered in the process.  Borges’ “human schemes,” Cortázar’s “poet” drawing “lines connecting the solitary stars,” and my own less elegant attempts to convey networks of connection appear to me now as a kind of exercise or practice or maybe training.  But for what?

Sometimes, especially as I get older, especially as I work through the deaths of people that I have loved, I find myself wondering about the purpose of it all, which is to say, the meaning.  But maybe “life,” as Stephen Batchelor says, is “neither meaningful nor meaningless.  Meaning and its absence are given to life by language and imagination. We are,” he adds, “linguistic beings who inhabit a reality in which it makes sense to make sense.” If he’s right, then what I’ve been doing and calling exercise or practice or training is also the performance itself; the performance of living purposefully, of actively creating a meaningful universe, aware that in doing so we may contribute to the efforts others are making to do the same.

It seems I’ve wandered too far from books, and collections of books, and reading lists, let alone from basketball, which is why I’m guessing most readers even bother with this blog. And I’m feeling a bit sheepish.  But I’m hoping that’s okay, hoping even that for some readers the pathways back to these things—to hoops and books and reading—suddenly gleam, illuminating like the lights in the aisle of a plane, taking us where we need to go. Or else, maybe you can help me find my way back. Or not, I remind myself, since it’s okay sometimes to wander, to not have it all figured out, and to get nowhere.

 

Bad Prof’s Top Basketball Books – Second Team

Yesterday, I began presenting the list of my favorite basketball books with my First Team All-Bad Prof selections.  Today I move on to the second team (presented alphabetically by title), using the same criteria:  originality and accessibility, the depth they bring to their subjects and, perhaps most of all, their reliable avoidance of the cliches, dogmas and harmful myths of basketball culture.

 

All-Bad Prof Book List – Second Team

Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism

by Walter LaFeber (Originally published 1999; new and expanded edition published in New York by Norton, 2002; 220 pp)

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“The history of basketball, especially in the era of Michael Jordan, helps us understand this era known as ‘the American Century.'”

There are of course so many books on Jordan, and so many good ones. Lay readers might wonder why I haven’t included The Jordan Rules or Playing For Keeps, while sports studies scholars might wonder about Michael Jordan, Inc. (it will appear in my Honorable Mention post). All three of these are indeed excellent books well worth a reader’s time. However, LaFeber, one of our country’s most distinguished historians, makes the list with a slim, readable volume that pays tribute to the greatness of Jordan on the floor, while laying out the contextual forces in the global economy and culture which made Jordan a cultural icon.  By comparison with the first two Jordan books I mentioned above, LeFeber doesn’t give you much behind the scenes dirt or even much insight into Jordan’s personality.  But I for one believe that these elements are of secondary importance in understanding the myth of Michael Jordan. Instead, LaFeber succinctly and lucidly weaves together descriptions of the confluence of new communications technology and new economic practices and strategies in manufacturing and marketing with a history of basketball and of Jordan’s career. The result is a readable narrative portrait of Jordan that, without minimizing his stature as a basketball player, makes clear that his legacy is inseparable from global cultural and economic developments.

 

The National Basketball League: A History, 1935-1949

by Murry R. Nelson (Originally published in Jefferson, NC by McFarland, 2009; 284 pp.)

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“teams were often integral parts of the community’s identities and the owners were, more often than not, local business and civic leaders.”

Among the books detailing the early history of professional basketball in the United States, I consider this the most important, even though—or actually because—its focus is not the NBA, but rather the National Basketball League (NBL). Nelson, who taught education and American studies at Penn State for many years, nevertheless illuminates a vital facet of early pro (and NBA) history in this meticulously research, detailed and entertaining history of the NBL.  His narrative restores the indispensable contributions of the NBL in establishing professional basketball as an attractive career and entertainment option and, especially, in cultivating and showcasing the talented players who—once they merged with the Basketball Association of America to form the NBA in 1949—would carry the NBA through its rocky early years, only to be marginalized from the NBA’s subsequent official history of itself. More importantly still, to mind, Nelson’s portrait of the league, its players, owners and fans, reminds us that the economic and administrative structure characterizing the NBA today neither was nor is the only possible model for professional basketball. In this, Nelson exemplifies the great German writer Walter Benjamin’s proposition that those who would understand the past must brush history “against the grain,” looking in unpromising places to tell the story of the forgotten.

 

Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool

by Walt Frazier with Ira Berko (Originally published in 1974; reprinted in Chicago by Triumph Books, 2010; 144 pp.)

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“I can remember how prideful I felt to wear the sneakers, and how I dug looking down and watching me walk in them.”Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool

Unique among player autobiographies for originality, Rockin’ Steady is next to impossible to summarize. The book is divided into six chapters whose titles (“Defense,” “Offense” and “Statistics” among them) offer a deceptive image of conventional coherence. Sure the book lets readers in on Frazier’s strategies and provides a portrait of the game in the late 60s and early 70s. But it also teaches you how to dry off after a shower and how to catch flies. What it lacks in narrative coherence and factual detail, it more than makes up for in beauty of design and in its ability to convey the importance of style, on and off the court, to the game of basketball. In this respect, it is ahead of its time. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the University of Michigan library shelves this book in the children’s literature section, which is fitting, for the book is a guide though, like all the great classic guides in world literature, one that guides less by the information it imparts than by what it does to you.

 

Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball

by Jeffrey Lane (Originally published in Lincoln, NE by University of Nebraska Press, 2007; 256 pp.)

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“the NBA . . . chastises players for looking or acting ‘too street’ while it manipulates and sells their street-bred swagger for all its worth.”Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball

Race is a prominent theme in a number of superb books on the history of basketball, particularly those that deal with the era from the early 1990s through the present when the so-called “hip hop generation” rose to preeminence in the sport.  Most of these usefully focus on the intersection of racial dynamics in basketball with those in American society and culture at large. Among the latter, Under the Boards distinguishes itself in my mind for its accessibility, detail and nuance and for Lane’s ability to integrate research into the history of the game and American society—he is an “urban ethnographer” at Rutgers—during the period with an honest and vulnerable account of his own experiences of the phenomena he studies.  Intertwining the stories of the rise of hip hop, racial politics in Reagan-Bush era America, and on and off-court trends in basketball during the period, Lane’s chapters provides detailed and stimulating narrative analyses of Allen Iverson, Ron Artest and Latrell Sprewell, Larry Bird, Bobby Knight, and the rise of foreign-born players in the NBA.  But each of these topics also becomes the occasion for wide-ranging, well-grounded accounts of the historical contexts—from housing discrimination in Boston to the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana—necessary to grasping more fully their cultural significance.

 

Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era

by Gary M. Pomerantz (Originally published in New York by Three Rivers Press, 2005; 267 pp)

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“He reduced to rubble the white-defined ideas of fair play and sportsmanship, which he knew as lies. Whites didn’t want fair play; they feared it.”Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era

Pomerantz is a journalist with a great deal of experience writing about race in America and brings this sensitivity to his thrilling story of the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game. But if changing racial dynamics in America and in basketball in the early 60s are important to this book, they are so as a subtext.  What gets foregrounded in Wilt, 1962 is storytelling, as Pomerantz draws together the reports of numerous witnesses to the “night of 100 points” and composes them into a single fluid portrait of the game itself.  Pomerantz, a superb narrator, provides exciting recaps of each quarter.  But details of game action become occasions for digressive stories (going backward and forward in time) of the principal and marginal characters (among these, the story of the game ball alone is worth the price of the book and the portrait of Chamberlain as human being and player is the best I’ve read).  It’s through the rich and complex subtlety of these nonetheless readable stories, that the book comes to serve as a lens through which the larger social dynamics at work in the game, Wilt’s performance, and its legend become visible.

 

Looking over this group, I notice that the incorporation of the first person perspective is common in basketball books I appreciate. Perhaps when an author vulnerably involves him or herself in the subject of the writing (like all the authors on my First Team, and a few of them today), it becomes harder—especially with politically charged issues like race—for them to rely upon detached intellectualism or dogma. Even LaFeber’s history of Jordan and the context for his global stardom is infused by the mix of the author’s admiration for Jordan and his outrage at the human cost—not least to Jordan himself—of marketing his ability. What emerges then feels closer to me like the messy complexity of these issues as I experience them in my daily life.

Stay tuned for the Third Team, coming soon.

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.

A Desire Named Steph Curry

Besides being the name of a phenomenally exciting and innovative basketball player, “Steph Curry” is the name for a desire about the future of the NBA; a desire we express through consumption, which the media then chronicles and reflects back to and justifies for us. Around the time of the NBA All-Star game this past season, NPR’s Tom Goldman asked me for my thoughts about a couple of articles that had appeared noting Curry’s rising popularity among fans and marketers; a popularity, it was noted, was on the verge of eclipsing that of LeBron James.  As it turns out, Curry won the regular season MVP award and now, with his Warriors leading beaten LeBron’s injury-riddled Cavaliers 3-2 in the best of seven NBA Finals series, he may well be poised to win the Finals MVP.

Let me get a couple things out of the way.  First, Curry’s play thrills me.  The smooth speed with which he moves himself and the ball on the court, and then the ball alone into the bottom of the net is pure fluid beauty.  And, speaking now as a Cavs fan, the terror he inspires in me every time he gets the ball, even in the backcourt, is sublime.

Second, though I think LeBron is more valuable to his team that Steph is to his team and should therefore have won the MVP award and should therefore win the Finals MVP award, I don’t think it’s insane to give it to Curry and, anyway, I’m not here going to make an argument about that.

Because this isn’t about Steph Curry the basketball player.  It’s about “Steph Curry” the desire and I’m just here to explore the conditions of possibility and implications of that desire.  Where does it come from? What nourishes it? Just what exactly are we wanting when we want “Steph Curry” so badly? Excellence and excitement no doubt, but if that were all there’d be no explanation for why collectively we want Curry so much more than other NBA superstars.

By temperament and professional habit, I find it useful to look at how we articulate our desire.  What are the words and stories within which we cast our love for Steph. When I look at these more closely I’m struck by certain recurring themes, some of which have little to do with Steph Curry, the actual player and human being. And these begin to offer a clue into the deeper feelings that might drive our desire for the future we’ve made him represent.

To see these things—or rather more precisely to consider my argument plausible—requires first a brief reminder about the history of basketball, especially pro basketball, in this country.  It’s no secret that pro basketball’s history is vexed by racial problematics.  In a nutshell, for more than half a century, most pro basketball players and most of the best pro basketball players have been black.  Meanwhile, most of the administrators, coaches, owners and fans are white.

In my research, I’ve looked at the stories that basketball culture has generated to avoid dealing forthrightly with this problematic, not to mention with the broader societal racism with which it overlaps.  These stories tend to conflate the unrelated issues of style, tactics, and morality in order to promote players or teams that seem to embody the essence of the game as it emerged, developed and was played prior to racial integration.  Conversely, players and teams that seem to depart from that essence tend, in these stories, to be villainized.

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In all cases, whatever is perceived as threatening blackness is either suppressed out of the story or demonized.

When I look at how the media reports the appeal of Steph Curry I encounter terms that are familiar to me from my research.  You all have seen the stories.  Curry is an underdog, underrated and under-recruited, partly because of what tends to be characterized as his small size and slight build.  Already here, we find elements that have historically been appealing to the collective white basketball unconscious, which reacts to black domination of the sport and its own irrepressible desire for black basketball players by fabricating a fantasy that someone—”nature” perhaps?—has stacked the deck against white players and, by metonymy, white people more generally.  Then add to this our attention to Curry’s personality: humble, down-to-earth, approachable, genuine…human.  Emphasizing these obviously laudable and desirable traits help cement the identification with Curry.  And of course, it doesn’t hurt, from this point of view, that Curry is blue-eyed (okay, hazel, but whatever) and light skinned. Let’s not even talk about his adorable daughter.

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Finally, there is the matter of Curry’s style of play, especially the two hallmarks of his innovative game: amazing ball-handling ability and an unprecedented ability to make three point shots.  We are treated repeatedly to clips of Curry tirelessly practicing these skills, subtly reminding us that they have been honed through solitary practice and effort, the result therefore neither of  superior size or natural talent nor of resources or mentorship.  We may not have chosen to put in that effort, but we can all imagine that if we had, we too could be breaking Matthew Delledova’s ankles and draining step-back threes from just across the half-court line.  That his particular skill set dovetails with the ascending league obsessions with efficiency (as measured by advanced statistical methods) helps as well.  However dazzling Curry may be, his efficiency is indispensable to his appeal here given a longstanding association basketball culture has made between inefficient flair and black basketball. Indeed, his efficiency and other elements of his style of play, as my friend Eric Freeman notes, may be emphasized as a way of minimizing markers of what may be perceived as threatening blackness.

All of this, taken together, may be usefully contrasted with how we have tended to approach Curry’s foil in this season’s narrative: LeBron James.  In nearly every respect—body type, personality, skill set and style of play, and, of course, skin tone—LeBron appears as Curry’s diametrical opposite.

Obviously blessed with size, LeBron’s strength, speed and athletic ability appear as natural gifts.  Far from under-recruited, LeBron has been basketball’s “Chosen One” since his junior year in high school, a seemingly privileged status that, we all know, went to his head, most notoriously in The Decision to take his talents to South Beach. And the hallmark of LeBron game?  Powerful locomotive drives to the basket punctuated by tomahawk dunks that we could never hope to replicate, not if we devoted 10 million hours to it.

When I survey all this, it suggests to me that insofar as “Steph Curry” is the name of a desire for basketball future, we haven’t come very far from the days when John McPhee was writing in praise of Bill Bradley because tall players like Wilt Chamberlain had ruined the sport. Or rather we have come forward to the past, to a sport played by humble, hard-working, underdog, light-skinned jump shooters with solid fundamentals.

And, as always in the history of basketball, what we want for the game tells us something—not everything, just something—about what we want for the society more broadly. Perhaps it tells us that we’d prefer a society in which privileged, upper-class, college-attending kids from stable, two-parent families (preferably without ink) took the place of dark-skinned, heavily tattooed kids raised in poor neighborhoods by single-mothers.chosen-tattoo

I’m not arguing that everyone who admires or even loves Stephen Curry subscribes, consciously or even unconsciously, to these attitudes.  I’m simply wanting to caution those who do thrill to Curry’s considerable abilities on the court to carefully examine the narrative package in which their love for Curry is being reported back to them.  If we’re not careful, consuming these narratives can be, as my wife said, a propos of a different (but related) news item, “like joining the Empire because the Death Star has a gym.”  And uncritically purveying them, well, that takes your membership to a whole other level.

The good news is that these stories are ours: we make them and we can tell them differently if want to; we can uncouple the unholy complex of style, tactics, morality and race through which historically our hoops culture has masked its complicity with racism in our society more broadly.  And we can simply love all the many different manifestations of excellence and creativity and excitement that hard-working, talented pro basketball players provide us on a nightly basis.

For More, and Better, Sports Narratives

Is the sports media sphere being overrun by narratives? Are they getting in the way of facts and the truth?  A couple of recently published essays (one by Phil Daniels, writing in The Cauldron, and the other by Zach Lowe, writing for Grantland) lamenting the dangers of sports narratives might lead readers to just this conclusion.  And, while I share their dismay over the proliferation of bad narratives (I’ll come back to what I mean by “bad”), I can’t get on board with the idea that narrative itself is the problem, somehow by nature an obstacle to or at odds with the truth. Read more

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