America’s Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Phil Jackson and the Essence of Basketball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On LeBron James and Coaching

Today, ESPN senior writer Marc Stein wrote a piece lambasting LeBron James for behavior Stein described as “unbecoming” and “unflattering.”  Apparently, Stein witnessed

LeBron essentially calling timeouts and making substitutions. LeBron openly barking at Blatt after decisions he didn’t like. LeBron huddling frequently with Lue and so often looking at anyone other than Blatt.

Stein went on to contrast this “unpalatable behavior” to Spurs’ star Tim Duncan’s support for Gregg Popovich, even before the coach was “POP.” I think this is the worst kind of moralizing, patronizing, unconsciously racist reprimand, resting on a tower of unstated and unsavory assumptions with a long history in the culture of basketball. Please read carefully: those adjectives in the last sentence do not refer to Stein himself, but rather to his reprimand, to the assumptions it makes, and to the history of basketball.

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Let me tell you a story to clarify why I think this and why I feel so incensed.  Back in the Fall of 1981, Magic Johnson told reporters that he wasn’t “having any fun” and that he wanted to leave the Lakers.  Less than twenty-fours later, Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss fired Lakers Coach Paul Westhead, replacing him with assistant coach Pat Riley. The next night, as the Lakers took the floor in Los Angeles, perhaps for the first time in his life, Magic Johnson’s own fans loudly booed him.

A disapproving chorus of journalists echoed the fans’ boos. They pointed to the new contract—$25 million over 25 years, unprecedented in NBA history at the time—Johnson had signed during the off-season as evidence that Johnson had grown narcissistic, arrogant and, perhaps worst of all, cynically professional. Johnson was vilified as a “spoiled brat” and a “spoiled punk,” “an infidel,” and a “traitor,” “un-American” and a “Bolshevik,” a “monster,” a “villain” and a “pariah.” But beyond the name-calling, what emerged in the firestorm of criticism was that Johnson had ruined the story, part of which was that Magic played ball for the fun of it and his mega-watt smile proved it.

The ideology of amateurism originated in England where it was a ““product of the nineteenth-century leisure class, whose ideal of the patrician sportsman . . . was part of their pursuit of consicuous leisure.” Referring to the athlete who plays for the love of the sport, the concept came to imply a number of corollary qualities including that the amateur derives pleasure from the contest, participation is freely chosen, the process of competition is as important as its outcome, the amateur is motivated by rewards intrinsic to the sport, rather than by extrinsic rewards such as fame or money and, finally, sportsmanship—a valuation of the sport itself above all else—is paramount. This effectively kept working class athletes, who had neither the resources nor the leisure time, from challenging upper-class domination of sport so that, in effect, amateurism “established a system of ‘sports apartheid’ with white males from the upper classes enjoying the advantages.” Allen Guttman puts it more bluntly: “The amateur rule was an instrument of class warfare.

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Within the culture of basketball, amateur ideals have been applied selectively toward similar ends. Over the first half of the twentieth century, during the period of the consolidation of the modern basketball state, it was amateur basketball, particularly intercollegiate competition, that established a national market for the game and affirmed the core values that, from the time of its creation, basketball was supposed to convey: unselfishness, cooperation, sportsmanship, effort. At the same time, the growth of the college game and the institutionalization of coaching as a profession forced the amateur ideal to accommodate two additional values: respect for the authority of the coach (as an expression of humility and unselfishness) and competitive intensity (not winning for its own sake, of course, which was seen as unseemly, but the desire to win as a mechanism for spurring the passion and excellence that would reflect positively on the larger body—such as a college—one represented).

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Because the amateur ideal took root in basketball culture while the sport was still segregated, the values came unconsciously to be associated with whiteness.

Returning to Johnson, media and fan criticism betrays a rage that he violated these ideals first by failing to respect his coach and second, by both getting paid and insisting that he have fun playing the game. Red Auerbach, Bill Russell’s former coach, was marshaled to explain the perils awaiting franchises “when a player is bigger than the organization.” Apparently, a black superstar, like Russell, Magic, or LeBron, can only assume the mantle of coaching authority when a white overlord deems it appropriate (as Auerbach did when he named Russell player-coach).

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Coach Larry Brown of New Jersey (later inducted into the Hall of Fame) criticized Johnson for a selfish unwillingness to make sacrifices for the good of the team and therefore violating the moral tenets of Brown’s “play the right way” mantra. Perhaps it’s no accident that the relatively common employment of player coaches in the NBA disappeared precisely during the decade (the 1970s) when the sport was perceived as “too black” and its black players as undisciplined, selfish, incorrigible miscreants.

Another column reminded readers that even as a college player, Johnson had led a group of Michigan State players who confronted Coach Jud Heathcote, insisting that he allow them to implement a more up-tempo style of play. As Johnson was judged to have violated the (amateur) ideals of the sport, sportswriters and fans alike—in perhaps the most telling trope of the backlash—determined that “Magic” was no longer magic (or “Magic”), but rather now just “Earvin.” Thus one Los Angeles Times columnist—under the headline “Just Call Him Earvin Johnson; Magic is Gone”—quoted another:

For the rest of his days, he won’t be Magic anymore. He will be the spoiled brat who couldn’t wait until he owned a team of his own to show his power, the infidel who had to have a coach’s scalp to go with his millions, the traitor who hid behind a false, happy face, and he was someone we loved. That’s the frightening thing.

Johnson’s popularity among writers and fans depended more on his ebullient on and off-court personality than on his exceptional individual talents or his contributions to his team’s successes. Johnson could be “loved”—and recall the importance of love to the amateur ideal—insofar as he joyfully brought amateur ideals into the professional game. By mixing the professional (through the power of his long-term contract and relationship with owner Jerry Buss) with the amateur (his insistence on having fun), Johnson had unwittingly exposed the myth of the amateurs as a ruse and betrayed fans’ love for him. The purveyors of this myth disciplined him accordingly.

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Though none of his critics explicitly invoked race, their invective nonetheless reveals a racializing subtext since criticism of the NBA at the time yoked complaints about player apathy and excessive salaries with the perception that the league was too black. In this sense, perhaps, fans and media observers were unconsciously enraged because Magic “robbed” them of something they desperately needed: the image of an entertaining black basketball player who played just for the fun of it and loved everyone while doing so. Or, to put it another way, it was as though Magic betrayed fans by turning out to be “black” after all.

Stein’s piece disturbingly echoes these (over) reactions to Johnson and broadcasts the nasty attitudes that motivated them.  Remember, by Stein’s own account, all LeBron did was “essentially” call a few plays or ignore some that Blatt called.  It’s not like LeBron said he’d go back to Miami, or burn the Terminal Tower if they didn’t fire Blatt and hire the coach of his choice.  So I think it’s disingenuous when Stein opens his piece by asking:

I have a question for LeBron James that I really hope he’ll field someday.

A question that can be asked a variety of ways.

What kind of coach do you want? 

Who out there is a coach you’d actually like to play for? 

Who could ‎the Cleveland Cavaliers hire that you’d give some meaningful backing?

These are rhetorical questions veiling Stein’s command that LeBron shut his mouth and do like Timmy Duncan.

Perhaps in this, as in so many ways already during his career, LeBron is offending by refusing to be a character in a fantasy scripted by someone else.  In this case, he is tacitly rejecting the very terms of Stein’s question, which assumes he must want some coach, right, because, we have to have coaches, right, or everything will be chaos. birthplace-of-basketball-teamAfter all, it is part of the hallowed myth of the invention of basketball that James Naismith’s students were called “the incorrigibles.” 

Perhaps, when confronted with such questions, LeBron rightly takes it as a disingenuous power move on the part of critics seeking to preserve a power structure in which white owners buy and sell black bodies, white coaches command black bodies, and black bodies go where, and do what, they’re told and keep their mouths shut unless it is to express gratitude for being #blessed to make with their talents a tiny fraction of what is made off them.  “You can’t build your own team! That’s for the owners to do!” “You can’t call plays, that’s for the coaches to do”!

Maybe LeBron wants to be the coach; or maybe LeBron would like a more fluid, horizontal (as opposed to hierarchical and authoritarian) approach to strategic and tactical decision making, or maybe out there is a coach he wishes he had, or maybe he’s just fine with the way things are.  I really don’t know.  But Stein’s “unbecoming” kind of moralizing, authoritarian, crypto-racist reproaches make me wish that what he calls a “charade” would end, and that LeBron would become the first player coach since Lenny Wilkens and then, after that, the first player-coach-owner since ever.

And If you feel that I’m “injecting” race into this discussion in a way that is unwarranted or unfair, I’d ask you to take a minute to read my post briefly explaining what race means to me. Thanks.

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.

In Praise of Inefficiency and the Incalculable

Much has been written in recent days about the Cleveland Cavaliers improbable victories over the Golden State Warriors in Games 2 and 3 of the NBA Finals.  The Warriors, the NBA’s best team during this year’s regular season and, according to several advanced metrics, one of the most dominating and efficient teams ever, were supposed to steamroll the Cavs, especially given injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, two of Cleveland’s big three stars.  And yet, as we’ve seen and then read about, this is not the case.  Observers have noted a number of reasons for this.  Cleveland has slowed the pace of games by running down the shot clock, aggressively pursuing offensive rebounds (which prevents Golden State’s big men from releasing on fast breaks), and pressuring the ball in the back court.  Golden State has thrived on playing a fast paced game and they’ve clearly been confounded by Cleveland’s tactics.  Of course, a big factor in Cleveland’s ability to set the pace has been the play of LeBron James.  Here, we read how James, whose career has been marked by efficient scoring and unselfishness, has reluctantly adapted to the conditions of this series by controlling the ball more on offense and putting up many  more shots than usual.  The story, to boil it down to oversimple terms, is that, contrary to predictions based on statistical analysis of the regular season (and even the longer career trajectories of key participants), inefficiency is beating efficiency.

I find this heartening for many reasons, but I want here to focus on just one. Read more

One Shining Moment: Yago’s A-Town Throwdown Edition

Probably anyone reading this knows by now that my Cultures of Basketball course ends with a student organized intra-class 3 on 3 tournament.  What started as an off-hand comment by a UM basketball player in 2011 has become, over the several years I’ve now taught the course, into an integral, culminating experience of the course in which students take responsibility for their own desires, incorporate an embodied, hands-on component to the academic study of basketball culture, and bond strongly with one another, softening a variety of barriers that can make it hard for them to recognize and respect each other as peers—not least the one separating varsity athletes from students who are not varsity athletes.

Over the years, the organizational process has evolved in the wake of the preceding year’s experiences. This year, students formed themselves into a number of committees charged with locking down the various aspects of the event (Jersey Committee, Logo Committee, Naming Committee, Program Committee, Venue Committee, Bracket Committee, Draft Day Committee and Documentation Committee).  Drawing upon their own specialized talents and the feedback I’d given them about what had worked well and not so well in previous tournaments, each committee executed its responsibilities superbly, often informed in doing so by some of the cultural artifacts and issues we’d been talking about in the course.  I want to share with you just one bit of special awesomeness that emerged from this process.

In 2011, the first year of the tournament, there were no committees and documentation was limited to some photos that my wife and one of the students who couldn’t play took with cell phones.  In 2012 we had a lot of wonderful still photos and the first-ever video documentation of the event: a couple of shaky clips taken by a student’s friend on the sideline.  Last year, a member of the first-ever Documentation Committee recorded a few, higher quality clips, to go along with superb photos.  This year, in addition to all these elements, one Documentation Committee member brought a GoPro to the tournament and she and some other students filmed the whole tournament.  I’m not sure who had the idea in the first place, but the student decided to edit the raw footage into our very own One Shining Moment montage and, even though the class over, and the grades in, she followed through and shared the results with us last night.

I’m so grateful to and proud of these students for coming together in the way that they did over the course of the semester.  I hope you enjoy the video as much as I think they enjoyed not only the course and the tournament, but the experiences of autonomy, responsibility, and friendship they thereby created for themselves.

Steph Curry and the Three-Ball: My Star Turn on NPR

Around the time of the NBA All-Star game, NPR’s sports reporter Tom Goldman wrote me to see if I’d be interested in doing an interview on the relationship between Steph Curry’s rising popularity and the advancing importance of the three-point shot in the NBA.  As a related question, I was to consider whether these signify the passing of the torch from LeBron James to Curry.  Tom passed on a couple of articles  by Darren Rovell and Brian Windhorst that had prompted his thinking.

We talked for about an hour at the time and I shared my perspectives, including my admiration for Curry’s play on the court, which is not only effective but beautiful.  But I focused on the deeper factors in the history and culture of basketball that might lead pundits to desire Curry (and the three ball) over LeBron as an emblem for the game and the league, including race and a growing obsession, in all areas of American society, with efficiency.  Unfortunately, most of those reflections were left on the cutting room floor due to time constraints.  I may share those views in a later post.  But for now I wanted to share the interview as it aired this morning on NPR’s morning edition.

You can also see the transcript here.

Sportsmanship? We talkin’ ’bout sportsmanship? On Harrison and Ryan

Over the weekend, the embers of America’s self-righteous disapprobation for Kentucky basketball, tempered briefly by their newly found love-affair with victorious Wisconsin, burst anew into joyful flames of fresh indignation by a couple of post-game incidents.  First, a few Kentucky players forgot to shake hands with their opponents after their semi-final loss.   But then, and far more thrillingly, Kentucky’s sophomore guard Andrew Harrison unwittingly muttered “Fuck that n***a” under his breath into a hot mic when his teammate was asked a question about Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, the national college player of the year.   A couple of days later,  the current incarnation of nostalgic amateur sports fantasy, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, was interviewed after his team lost to Duke for the title.  Ryan complained that officiating was unfair to Wisconsin and later referred indirectly to Duke and Kentucky as “rent-a-player” schools.  When I heard Bo last night, I wondered rhetorically what fans who’d lambasted  Harrison would say about Bo.  One of my followers quickly complained “totally different.  how can you compare?” I actually agree, though not for the reasons he might have imagined and since I compare for a living, I’ll bite. Read more

On Wisconsin

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

Race and Protest: A Confession from Global Sports Cultures

I hadn’t intended to write about this, but recent events have made feel compelled to do so.  First, the public displays of solidarity by athletes—from the St. Louis Rams on November 30 to Knox College women’s basketball player Ariyana Smith and from Derrick Rose to Reggie Bush and others—in support of nationwide protests against racism and police violence have brought these issues closer to the scholarly field where I do most of my work.  Second, and in view of this, I felt it important to raise these issues and discuss them in my Global Sports Cultures course at Michigan this past week.  Our course topic this week was “Watching,” as part of a semester-ending unit on “Ethics,” and so it seemed entirely appropriate to me, even urgently necessary, to tie this topic to current events.  I’m no expert in these matters, and there certainly is no lack of superbly informed and eloquent writing on the topic.  Perhaps more than anything I need to get this off my chest.  And perhaps, if I do so reasonably well, it may be of use to others. Read more

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