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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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Headband

LeBron James

A poetic experiment, with apologies to Wallace Stevens

I

The cotton, nylon and spandex are blended

to provide superior softness, stretchy comfort

and to keep sweat out of your eyes,

so all you have to worry about is your game.

II

For eight dollars

you can own

your own NBA Logoman Headband®

that cost ten cents to produce.

III

Taut atop the 7’ frame

of the Big Dipper

the headband heightened

the threatened menace

of Goliath.

IV

Slick Watts first

used duct tape

as a headband.

V

Big Ben was benched and fined

for wearing his headband

in defiance of his coach’s prohibition.

VI

The rim,

the center circle,

and the headband are one

VII

A laurel wreath,

a tiara,

and a headband are also one.

VIII

Caught in the hand of a young fan

a headband is a treasured relic,

cast-off effluvium

preciously captured and made holy.

IX

Stretched

the headband prevents

awareness of our own effort

from blinding us.

X

Absorbing the

sweat of your brow

the headband buys you time in Eden

XI

Slipping ever higher, we conceal

the signs of time’s receding

with a headband.

XII

On King James’ dunk,

the headband left him of its own accord,

knowing it was a redundant crown,

and that time could flow again.

XIII

#noheadband

Why We Watch: Ray Allen, A Life

15heidel3

1.

The Zeitgeist gallery is located on Michigan Avenue in Detroit, maybe a half mile from a baseball diamond where Tiger Stadium used to be, and a long, long, long home run from the Michigan Central Railroad depot, the hulking ruin abandoned by the city fathers to pigeons, the homeless, graffiti artists, decay tourists and the assorted bricoleurs who would pilfer its high-end, mid-century building materials for a black market in construction materials to make new buildings, I suppose, out in the suburbs somewhere. It is fitting, given the bitter satire that inheres just in its geographic location, that Zeitgeist specializes in art brut, or outsider art.

24797

It was at an opening there some years ago that I found myself standing between two men, all of us facing a work of uncommonly brut-ish art brut.

The piece was executed with what appeared to be a ball point pen on a sheet of notebook paper and presented in the sort of cheap frame you might find at CVS. It was more or less a doodle: a human figure standing alone amidst other chaotic, sparsely scattered doodles. After a few minutes, the man to my left said, “What the hell? How is this art? I could do that.” I didn’t say anything. The man to my right, after a brief pause, replied, “Yeah. But you didn’t.

 

2.

Ray Allen has enjoyed, by pretty much any measure, a remarkable career. I don’t think anybody has missed it, but it’s worth recapitulating some of the basic facts. As a collegiate star at the University of Connecticut he was a first team All-American, set the school’s single season scoring record, and was subsequently named honorary captain of the Huskies’ All-Century Team. Drafted fifth and traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, Allen went on to help lead the Bucks to the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2000-2001 season, when he averaged 22 points per game. Moved in a trade to Seattle, Allen upped his production, averaging between 23 and, in 2006-2007, 26.4 points per game. He was, during that period, probably the premier perimeter scorer in the NBA.

Allen’s scoring numbers dropped off after the trade that sent him to Boston and helped create the team’s championship-winning Big Three, but nobody would argue that his performance was anything but critical in the Celtics remarkable 42-game turnaround. In his first year in Boston, the Celtics compiled a 66-16 regular season record en route to the franchise’s first championship since 1986. Allen’s seven three-pointers in the clinching Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals set a record for the Finals.

Allen and the Celtics would make it back to the Finals in 2010, but this time lost to the Lakers in the tight seventh game of a hard-fought series. By this time, Allen’s scoring average had dropped to 16.3 points per game, and, by the end of the 2012 season, it would drop still further, to just 14.2. Despite the evident decline in Allen’s scoring production and so his centrality to his team’s fortunes, Allen nonetheless put up the best three point shooting percentages of his career in his last two seasons in Boston, connecting on 44% and 45% of his attempts from beyond the arc and becoming the league’s all time leader in three-point field goals made. It was not all that, though: there were assists and rebounds and points, especially, on slashing fluid layups and pull up jumpers, and some free throw and all those three pointers; individual accolades and records, and championships. A full and varied basketball life, well-lived and not over just yet.

As a 36 year-old free agent, apparently frustrated with his role on the Celtics, Allen joined the defending champion Miami Heat. Now a 37-year-old role player, Allen averages just 26 minutes and around 10 points a game for a Heat team with other, more powerful weapons. Allen now only puts up around four three-pointers per game now, the lowest figure since his third season in the league; during his two best seasons in Seattle, he averaged twice as many attempts from distance.

This is not a surprise: Allen was hired to support LeBron James, who is after all the greatest player alive and playing the best basketball of his life. If there’s a single reason to watch the Heat, it’s James. There are another two good ones rounding out Miami’s own Big Three, and then there’s Allen down the depth chart. As a whole, the Heat are thrillingly great; individually, there is James and the inspirational and indomitable Dwyane Wade. These are all good reasons to watch, but not the reason why I watch the Heat. Even now, even given that Allen now orbits other, brighter stars, I watch and wait for Ray Allen to take a three-pointer.

I’ll watch to see one of the four jump shots that Ray Allen might attempt in any given game. Just jump shots, just four of them.

 

3.

There’s a kind of distillation of self that comes with aging. This sounds more dramatic than it is; in reality, it’s more a simple process of shedding the facets of our personalities developed in response to various external imperatives: get through school, make friends and families, succeed in our work lives. As these imperatives fall away, our primary purpose is winnowed down to simply persisting, continuing to be with dignity. We retain only what is essential to our being.

Nietzsche described himself as “well-disposed toward those moralities that impel me to do something again and again, from morning ’til evening, and to dream of it at night, and to think of nothing else but doing this well, as well as Ialone can! When one lives that way, one thing after another that does not belong to such a life drops off: without hate or reluctance, one sees this take its leave today and that tomorrow, like the yellow leaves that every faint wisp of wind carries off a tree.”

Ray Allen’s once diverse and spectacular game as a scorer has been distilled to what perhaps was always its essence: that beautifully smooth, remarkably consistent, three-point shot, the residue and object of a lifetime spent in dedicated repetition. And in so enduring, or embracing, this distillation, Allen stands for me also for a distillation of the game itself to its simplest individual play: an individual tossing the ball into the hoop. It doesn’t look so hard or complicated, it doesn’t seem to depend on some transcendent combination of athletic power and complex skills. It’s just a jump shot, and we might be tempted to look away, thinking, like the would-be art appreciator at Zeitgeist, “What the hell? I could do that.”

The answer, here is the same:

you didn’t, we didn’t, even those of us who have taken a great many jumpshots over the course of our lives didn’t make developing the perfect jump shot into a pursuit at the very core of our beings. We didn’t shoot tens of thousands of them over the course of tens of thousands of hours with the certainty—unvoiced, perhaps even unconscious—that each and every one of those shots had value in and of itself. And maybe Ray Allen didn’t, either; I don’t know him. But when he gets open and a teammate finds him, when he shoots up quick and in one motion the ball is gone on its long graceful arc towards where it wants to be, I feel certain that Ray Allen did do that. And I didn’t. And you didn’t.

 

4.

Remarking that “every day we slaughter our finest impulses,” Henry Miller, once explained that “that is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers.” That is the heartbreak to be found in watching the distilled simplicity of each Ray Allen jump shot, each one unmistakably written by the hand of a master, each one a testament to his belief in his powers, each one a reminder of the myriad moments of self-doubt that trampled the tender shoots of my own possibilities and maybe yours. We were probably never going to be Ray Allen, of course. But he is Ray Allen, and we’re not.

Ray’s shots are not only reminders—in their haunting combination of proximity and impossible distance to what I myself have done thousands of time—of what I have failed to accomplish, or even to attempt, for lack of faith. They are also, from another vantage point, utterly simple expressions of the extraordinary beauty lurking in the mundane.

When I teach my students the fragment of William Carlos Williams poem “Spring and All” that is known as “The Red Wheelbarrow,” their first response is bewilderment: “What the hell? How is that literature? I could’ve written that.” You know the poem:

so much depends

upon

 

 

a red wheel

barrow

 

 

glazed with rain

water

 

 

beside the white

chickens.

You could’ve written that. I could’ve written that. But I didn’t and you didn’t. But if Williams’ poem—like the art at Zeitgeist, like Miller’s lines written by the hand of a master, like Ray Allen’s jumper—seems like just another occasion for self-punishing regret, it is not, or not only or primarily that. Because there’s something else in Williams’ poem, and in all of it: a celebration, and an invitation, and then another celebration.

the_red_wheelbarrow

It is to be sure a celebration of the beauty and importance of the simple and the mundane. But it is also an invitation to see—to see the red wheel barrow, to see the glaze of rain, to see the white chickens and to see that so much, all of existence, depends on them and, crucially, depends upon our seeing them. And when we pause long enough to focus and to see with these ordinary words these ordinary things and all that depends on them we may celebrate with Williams not just these things, but our own ever-present powers to see them and, by seeing them, to participate in them by bringing them forth again and again.

Every Ray Allen jump shot for me is that. Every one is ordinary, every one extraordinary. And every one is an invitation to watch and so to participate in bringing forth what is life. For every one—like the items in Williams’ poem—contains all of a life; all of a trajectory that each and every shot mimics in its powerful emergence, in its hopeful rising and its graceful falling, finally, towards home.

Originally published at The Classical.