Day 4: Why Can’t I Be Chris Paul?

Woke up excited: the players will be back today! I can’t wait! Stop it! You’re not supposed to be a fan. You’re the professor. Plus, you know better than to glorify college athletes. You’ve read the headlines, you’ve read the exposés: these guys have probably been tracked since they were 12, spoiled, pampered, egocentric beyond the usual adolescent norm, entitled. They’re probably jerks.  Who cares if they’re back? It was better when they weren’t there and we had space to spread out and the room wasn’t so hot. I wonder if they’ve read my blog. I wonder if they’ve talked about me. Besides, those exposés are usually written by moralizing old white guys, huffing indignantly about the state of the game, hiding behind a pious claim to really care about the kids, while secretly hating them for their talent. But I really do care about the kids. They fill me with tenderness. Will the beaten up old red and black Clash hoodie I’m planning to wear seem cool to them. Idiots won’t even know the Clash.  Faker: you didn’t even know about the Clash when they were playing.  Does it go with my Nike sweats? The red on the hoodie is faded and doesn’t really match the red of my red and black 25th anniversary Air Jordan Alpha 1’s. Oh, and thank you for the zit on my forehead — what am I, 13?  It’s shining like a beacon in the dim basement light bulb that is the sun in Ann Arbor in midwinter. Now I’ll have to wear my hat for sure, even if it’s too hot. Crap. I’ve only been up for thirty seconds. I thought I had this shit under control. It’s a good thing I have therapy this morning. 

You don’t care about my therapy. If I really take the foot off the brake the whole post could veer drastically over the edge of the cliff, tumble, crash, explode and burn, and then explode once more. So I’ll try to keep it tight. I really, really like my therapist. And I’m pretty sure he really, really likes me. In fact, he once told me (cause I asked) that he thought we could be friends if he wasn’t my therapist and I wasn’t his patient. And that admission probably tells you about as much about my therapy (and my problems) as you need or want to know.   Suffice it to say it’s where I go to enjoy the spectacular parade of disgusting and pathetic poses and pratfalls my mind continually trots out behind the scenes; or while I’m on the bench, sitting next to Scottie and Dennis, just before the house lights darken, the spots start to swirl madly, and the Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” kicks in.

So after getting my due props from the doc for following my bliss with the course and the blog we put on the hipboots and waders and went fishing in the chattering stream of fantasies, fears, and self-judgment that flows pretty much constantly through the mind of a resurgent insecure adolescent wanna-be baller who is posing as a university professor.   That always helps clear the air. I’m settled and relaxed again, perspective restored, reassured that my issues aren’t deep in this case, that I’m not crazy, that it’s probably pretty normal and that I’m probably doing the best I can to manage them by just naming them and being aware of them. It’s like the scene in Maus where Artie, who has already published the first volume to acclaim and fame goes to see his therapist cause he feels guilty and awful and he draws himself child size sitting on the chair in session. But after he talks through it and gets some perspective, he is restored to his adult self.

Chuckling compassionately at my adolescent self, patting him on the shoulder with a hint of condescension, I well-nigh bound out of there, and go to teach my first class. (Great students, by the way, we’re reading dizzying Jorge Luis Borges short stories — for example, this one — and they are rocking it in our discussions: too bad they’re not college athletes or I’d write about them too.  I suck.) I put on the headphones and turn on the iPod and head over to hoops class. I don’t like how fast I have to walk to get there in time. It leaves me feeling rushed, sweaty, breathless and unathletic by the time I enter the classroom. I wonder if my music is cool. Claire made me a hip hop mix a few months ago. The her cousin, Li’l Gherkin, made us a couple of different mixes. Then I made one combining the things I liked most from those two. I’m happy and buoyant listening to it; except when I’m stabbed by the certainty that as much as I like it, it must not be the really cool stuff or I wouldn’t even know about it. I pause as I enter the building to switch the song to something that I think they will think is cool if they happen to ask me what I am listening to.

Nobody asks me what I am listening to. They look bemused, as always. Everyone’s there, which is good, but they’re sitting in different places, which is both good (the players are a little more evenly distributed) and bad (early in the semester I remember names best by where people sit, until I begin to associate them with the way they think and speak). Lots to do today: we are scheduled to talk about “Only the Ball was Orange,” the section of FreeDarko’s history in which, in a series of cartoons and short descriptions, Jacob Weinstein introduces some of the best known of the many barnstorming squads that crisscrossed the country from the late teens through the 1940s. But I also have to take care of some logistical matters, like making sure everyone has chosen their elective assignments for Unit 1. And I have to attend to the helpful AV tech who is bringing me the adaptor cable so that I can project youtube clips from my laptop to the large pull down screen. I’m glad we have a lot to do.  I’m businesslike and important. But it also makes me sweat more and feel disorganized because papers are all over the place, including the notes where I wrote down what we have to get done.

So I am shuffling paper, glazed and talking, and some students are straggling in so that I have to start over, and then the AV guy comes in and a player realizes that I’m gonna want to show video and he is sitting directly under the screen so he gets up to move, saying “Oh, are you gonna show video, then I’m gonna move” and I stupidly respond “Oh, uh, yeah, but you don’t hafta move.” And then, realizing my stupidity, I apologize, “Oh sorry, that was stupid I guess you do hafta move if you want to see the video and not get hit on the head by the screen.” Why do I talk so much, why do my sentences always have to go on and on and on? Why do I always have to say everything?

Logistics covered, questions answered – well and with a sprinkle of successful humor, I might add – my self-satisfaction is on the rise.  Then it skyrockets!  We’ve had a fun little exchange about the class and the blog and how famous writers on the internet are following our syllabus. My one student that I’ve had before says, “Yago, you blowin’ up.” And I laugh, tilt my head back and stretch my arms out to the side in my best we are all witnesses pose [LINK}. And then – here is my moment of triumph – I say, “You can’t check me.” Cash. Count it. Game. I win. Go home.

Today I have divided my notebook page into two columns. Left hand side: things I want to say about the barnstorming teams, with a few talking points and some arrows; right hand side: blank with the heading “things they say.” I tell them I have some ideas of what I want them to notice about the reading but I’m gonna keep them on the back-burner (that suddenly seems like a terribly unfashionable expression; I wish I could download urban dictionary directly into my brain like in the Matrix). I want to know what struck them as they read?

I’m impressed by the fact they’ve actually read the assignment (which I should not be since today’s reading – no disrespect to Jacob Weinstein who I think actually did a brilliant job of condensing and making interesting complex and repetitive raw material — was pretty much like reading the comics section of the paper, in terms of length and intellectual complexity). But I’m also impressed by their instincts for what is interesting.

Someone points out the humor in Weinstein’s description, giving the example of the entry on the “Hong Wah Kues,” a Chinese American team from San Francisco who barnstormed for one season in 1939. Weinstein wryly observes that one of their games was publicized with “flyers announcing ‘WAR! Grangeville to be attacked.” It’s funny. Even funnier to me, is his introduction to the Buffalo Germans, an early barnstorming team that mercilessly pounded lesser opponents: “Shrouded in mystery, this team of creepy teenagers from Upstate New York was forced into barnstorming by geographic isolation.” We laugh. I make fun of one of the players who I know is from somewhere in Upstate New York. We all pretend he looks just like the creepy teenagers in Weinstein’s cartoon: goth without realizing it.

I ought to have slowed down here. In fact, my main teaching point from today’s class is that I ought to slow down in general in class. Breathe more. Listen better to what they say. Slow down in my response. Usually I’m good at abiding silence in class. I haven’t been so good here. Then, I would be better able to push them more deeply into the presuppositions, implications, and associations of what they say. Because in this case, the humor of the section – while in some ways an incidental stylistic feature – can also be an avenue into what is most substantively relevant about the barnstormers.

Some of what now is funny – like the Hong Wah Kues poster, or the quotation from Paul Gallico’s 1920’s New York Daily News column that noted, of the SPHAS, Jewish barnstormers from Philadephia: “The reason that basketball appeals to the Hebrew is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness” – wouldn’t have been funny then and is only funny because of the ironic distance, which is to say because we would never hold such attitudes today. Except that, maybe just a teensy weensy bit, we do.  Weinstein says in the next line:  “Though Jews soon faded from the courts as players, these traits continued to serve them well as they moved into coaching and managerial positions in later years.”

Good time to tell my students about irony. Not just as a trope or an attitude, but as a way of knowing  in which we can simultaneously (1) know things and (2) understand (2a) how we have known them, (2b) that our knowledge is partial, and (2c) that things could actually be different than what we feel we know them to be. Irony can be a valuable component of the stories we tell. In this case, the deadpan paraphrasing or direct quoting of racist statements, framed by the comic genre, sheds a critical spotlight on that kind of statement, but without defensively over-distancing itself from the attitudes, so that we know the author doesn’t think he’s absolutely purified all such offensive discourse.  What this does is let us safely acknowledge our own participation in racism, which is of course indispensable to beginning to transform it.   The brilliant caricatures, some based on real photos, help – again ironically – to stress what the section’s introductory text has already told us: as funny as these teams will be, they were struggling against real issues, real issues that still exist today.

I certainly didn’t say any of this though maybe over the course of the day I described it or evoked it without actually calling it irony. And someone, it might have been me, did build off the observation about the humor in this section to notice that just about every team was distinguished either by race, ethnicity, or gender. Weinstein puts it quite succinctly when he notes that, while for some teams barnstorming was the best financial option among several, “for other teams, generally those made up of minorities, nomadism was the only option available. Like much of America’s society in the early twentieth century, these teams fell along ethnic and religious fault lines.” So, it seems, the barnstormers, in many cases, are the marginalized flip side of the early pro leagues that we had discussed on Day 3.

But as it turns out the early pro leagues were themselves the marginalized flip side of early 20th century American capital (just then flexing its post-pubescent muscle and beginning to go global) under the auspices of the WASPish ethos that held, among other things, that the “gentleman sportsman” wouldn’t deign to sully vigorous physical activity and healthy competition with an exchange of cash (see Robert Peterson’s Cages to Jump Shots for some good passages on this). That is to say that even the pros who were not minorities were often in the game in order to supplement arduous, underpaid working class jobs or to escape dead-end lives in some ethnic ghetto.

That’s why, to answer the question begged by a student observation, they’d put themselves through what might seem to us like the terrible physical and emotional punishment of traveling around the country’s nascent road network, packed into uncomfortable cars, in order to play a couple of hundred games a year. Beckley Mason, who has been a great friend to the course and to this blog, had an excellent post on John Wall maybe hitting a wall here at mid-season.  Mason compassionately observed that it’s a big adjustment to play as much as the pros play, and to travel, and to be at least a little hurt all the time, and to still have to play. And that is true, but at least Wall has a crack medical staff to look after him and try to mitigate some of that. Who looked after the Rens, or even the Original Celtics when they sprained an ankle?

Someone in class says that they’re impressed that the Globetrotters beat the Minneapolis Lakers in 1948 and 1949. This is perfect for me because I wanted to show them a clip of the Globetrotters. I emphasize that the Globetrotters weren’t always primarily entertainers and they didn’t always play fixed competition. I try to get across that, in fact, up until right around the formation of the NBA (notice, I say,  hierarchy, centralization) they played pretty much straight basketball. It was only after the NBA was formed and began to grow in popularity that they became what we think of them as today.

I go to set up my AV cable and the projector and to pull up the clip on my computer. Disaster, I have the wrong cable. Hold up, I tell them, just sit tight for a couple of minutes. I run down to the main office to explain. The secretary makes a call. Hopefully the tech dude will be up in a few minutes to bring me the right cable. I’m so flustered that I dash out of the office and back up to my classroom without waiting to see if she even got hold of him and if he was in fact coming. So back in the classroom I stall for time: “while we’re waiting for the right cable, let’s talk a little about the Globetrotters.”

“Globetrotters,” I say, “good or bad from the point of view of racial progress?”  I think of the SNL parody of “The McLaughlin Group.”  Wrong!!  Sometimes I like to pose discussion points to my students in terms of either-or starkly opposed terms. My hope is that they will feel the constraint of the such binary categories; and to exercise their own powers of intellectual subtlety and nuance against those constraints and, like an angry Bill Bixby, bursting through the outworn clothes of dualistic thinking.

I’m pretty sure we didn’t really get there, exactly. Although maybe, on second thought, collectively we did. Students offered several different perspectives on the question, sometimes contradicting themselves so that I felt like they had a handle on what might be seen as problematic about the Globetrotters, but also why it might not be so simple as “the Globetrotters were and are bad for racial progress because they feed directly off tropes of black minstrelsy that in turn feed off the attitudes of slave holders.”  I wished I’d been able to show them this video, which presents the Globetrotters as the precursors of contemporary cool.

I pointed out that for some who have played or written about the game, the Globetrotters are often set in opposition to the NBA. I asked them what they thought of that, or rather, I provoked them by asking “are they really so different?” Of course, they are quite different in many ways that are important. But it’s also worth noting one major similarity: in both cases primarily African-American men are employed by primarily white men to entertain by exhibiting their athletic ability to a primarily white paying public.  And in both cases, each individual owner gets a bigger cut of the take than any individual players.

Just to push things a little further I brought up The Decision. I didn’t want to jump the gun too much because we’ll certainly talk about Lebron later in the semester, but the video cable wasn’t coming and we still had about twenty minutes of class left. I asked them why everyone was so mad about Lebron’s decision to leave Cleveland. Someone pointed out that it wasn’t the decision so much as The Decision.  Sure, I say, so he’s a little immature, a little high on himself. So what? Does that really – I mean really – hurt the millions of people who have heaped scorn and worse on him?

Another student points out that in Cleveland people acted like they owned Lebron and that this was fucked up because it sounded like slavery. I agreed and then added that it wasn’t only in Cleveland. Enter the Q ratings discussion from a few months ago, wherein it was observed that Lebron’s negative Q ratings skyrocketed (from 24 to 44 %) among Caucasians, while basically holding steady among African-Americans.  So white people hate Lebron for the decision or The Decision or both, but black people don’t. What is that about?

“This country’s racist,” a student said. I agree. And I agreed. But I also told them that the point of my raising these issues in class was not only to reach that pretty obvious conclusion. In fact, more important to me than what sort of judgment the students were to come to about the Globetrotters or the decision or The Decision or the Backlash to The Decision was the fact that we were able to take a step back – SLOW! IRONY WORKING – and to begin to make visible the invisible definitions of race, racism, and racial progress that were secretly driving our various contributions to the discussion, just as they suffuse most of the cultures of the game.

And what is true of race is also true of gender, though not only in the obvious ways such as that the women’s game doesn’t get nearly the coverage the men’s game does. It does so also in that one line of criticism of Lebron’s decision was that “he would never be The Man” in Miami. Several of my male students are practice players for the UM women’s team. We talked about that briefly. I think it’s a minor act of gender courage for a young man – who has probably grown up veering clear of the possibility of being told he plays like a girl – to assume the role of practice player for a women’s team. That is a young man who loves to play the game and who gives me hope that the next generation will have fewer hangups around gender issues than my own does.

Almost out of time, I shifted into motivational summary mode.  “All our stories about basketball are informed, if only implicitly, by attitudes about race, gender, class, ethnicity, and nationality. These racialized, gendered, etc stories have been around so long, are so common, and repeated so often, that they start to seem natural to us.  I  want to break that, to fracture that sense of naturalness and to make those aspects of the stories seem strange.  I don’t want to tell you what to think or what you can and can’t say.  But I want to make you look at the way you think and talk with a critical eye so that you can make a freer decision about how you want to think and talk.”

To give an example, I told them how at the playground or gym in my neighborhood in St. Louis, where I am frequently the only Caucasian playing pickup, if I have a bad day I am ignored. But if I have a good game I will be regaled with shouts of “Steve Nash! Manu Ginobili!” or, among the older fellas, “Vinny del Negro!” or even “Ernie di Gregorio!”

“Why,” I pleaded to my students, with mock and real desperation in my voice, “Why can’t I be Chris Paul?” I mean, seriously, I don’t really play like any of those players and those players don’t really play like each other. So what’s really being noted with the names is that I’m a white player who has surprised. And that is true. But it is only part of what I am. I don’t mind it. In fact, I kinda love it when they call me Nash. But that might be because there’s not any threat to my political, economic, or civic freedom attached to the reduction of my being to race and basketball performance. But what if it was? And what if it were repeated again and again? Only not just when I’m on the court, and not to praise me, but to criticize, humiliate, and to limit me in the expression of my being; and to try to cause me to doubt the worth of my being? And not just in words, but in deeds and practices and whole legal and economic structures?

Even without all that, it bothers me a little bit, maybe almost on aesthetic grounds because it shows a lack of imagination: exactly the kind of imagination I want my students to learn to exhibit and deploy. C’mon, I sometimes want to say back, we can do better than that, we can think more creatively than that.  I imagine crossing someone over and hitting a step back jumper and someone shouting out “AI!”  I’d about fall down:  “You are an artist!”  Because why, if you’re gonna call me by the name of a player who is a million times better than me and whose signature repertoire of skills I could not possibly begin to match, why, in that case, can’t I be Chris Paul?
I wanna be Chris Paul.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment (catch Day 5’s lively and frank discussion of amateurism here) when I might actually bust out my Sheed Pistons jersey for class. In the meantime, check out these sites where Cultures of Basketball is also being followed or discussed:

Hoopspeak, where Beckley Mason has recruited some of the fine journalists and bloggers from the TrueHoop network to “take” the class, beginning with Bret Lagree on George Mikan.
Hoopism, where one of my students, Matt Gordon, will be blogging about his experiences in the course.
FreeDarko, where Bethlehem Shoals, FreeDarko.com founder and co-author of our class textbook, responds to my accounts of our class discussions on Day 2 and Days 3 and 4.

Or work your way back by looking at my lament for the leagues and possibilities devoured by the seeming inevitability of the NBA

Day 3: Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

When I first saw that UM players were signing up for the course, back toward the end of the Fall semester, I was mostly just excited. Then I started to feel a little anxious, which, as previously reported, bore gruesome fruit on Day 1. But I also a felt a more realistic, pedagogical concern: if I had 8 or 9 players in a class of 20, what would happen when they all had to miss a day (or more) because of travel for a game? And what would happen when they all came back the next day? At the time, I brushed this question off and didn’t really think through a good response since it was a bridge I hadn’t come to yet and I was still mostly just excited. But this particular repressed reared its ugly head earlier this week and I had to start worrying about it again. 

The e-mail came on Monday, as I was prepping for Tuesday’s class, from an Academic Counselor in the Academic Success Program at the University.   The subject line named all the players enrolled in my class. I was excited. Probably they’re writing because want me to get more involved with the team because the players reported to their coach what a phenomenal asset they were sure I’d be. As it turns, the message very politely, but pleasantly informally, let me know that players would miss class on Tuesday because they’d be traveling to their game against Northwestern and asked me about any assignments “the guys” (I did dig that the sender referred to the players as “the guys” to me; made me feel like part of the gang) would need to make up from not being in class on Tuesday.  My heart sank:  I’m nine and my older brother says he has to go to work and doesn’t have time to play me one-on-one.

But the message in itself was neither a problem nor a surprise. Only last week, a member of the track team who is also in the class had handed me a copy of the track schedule covered by a letter from the Provost and Vice-president for Academic Affairs, endorsed by the Chair of the Faculty Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs. I also enjoyed that letter because while I talk a good game,  I’m also craven enough to be gratified to be contacted by Power, even when it’s just telling me what to do.

The Provost informed me that “the student bearing this letter” would find it “necessary to miss a portion” of my class in order “for him/her to represent the University of Michigan.” It went on to explain that the student was not relieved of responsibility for completing course requirements and that the Provost expected the student and me to make alternative arrangements that did not “unduly inconvenience” me or the student. Alright, this seems like a reasonable approach to the issue.

After all, students miss class for much stupider reasons. Like, say, being drunk at 9 am on St. Patrick’s Day. I’m not kidding – I’ve passed them on my way to class and they call out to me with a surprising lack of sheepishness:  “Yo! Professsssssor CO-las!”

On Tuesday, it was great to have more space in our tiny overheated classroom.  The remaining students had dispersed throughout the available space like gas molecules in a drawing.  I noted with relief that I wasn’t worried about what I was wearing. But the absences made me a little down.  And, they present a practical problem in my class for reasons that have something to do, in a way, with the topics we covered in class yesterday. First, for those of you keeping track at home, the required reading assignment was pp. 16-19 of FreeDarko’s Undisputed Guide to the History of Pro Basketball. That’s the section, called “Go Forth and Dribble: Basketball’s First Great Age of Expansion,” covering professional basketball leagues in this country from 1898 up to the creation of the NBA from two existing leagues in 1949.

Though a short selection, it contains a wealth of material ingenously presented by Jacob Weinstein in four sections, one per page: “Micro Leagues: 1898-1909”, “Regional Leagues: 1910-1924”, “Big Leagues: 1925-1937”, and “Major Leagues: 1938-1950”. Each section includes a map showing the number of teams from different cities in each league and then provides short descriptions of the “Structure,” “Venues,” “Style” and “Innovations” characteristic of each of the four types of league. It struck me as a quite brilliantly economical way to present a great deal of information on the “pre-history” of the NBA to an audience that’s really mostly interested in the NBA. In a way, it read to me like a combination of summary and interpretation of the much more detailed book From Cages to Jump Shots, by Robert Peterson, which is a terrific resource in its own right.  This is a great section but because of its structure (which is not exactly narrative), it’s a little harder for me to feel at home there, like playing on a court without lines, or with different lines.

My plan for the day was to recap our discussion of Naismith and the invention of the game in ways that might link it to the reading about the early pro leagues, then to pull student impressions of the reading, and then to steer the discussion in the direction of the two most interesting topics that the Free Darko reading raised for me: first, how we tell “pre-history” of something (in this case the NBA), and what happens to our view of things that didn’t themselves know they were part of the pre-history of anything when they were happening; and second, how tensions between spontaneity and calculation, horizontal (or non-hierarchical, decentralized) organization and vertical (or hierarchical and centralized) organization, informal versus formal business models, and local vs. national scales were present and manifested themselves in these early leagues. That was the plan, but as always I wasn’t sure how – or if — we’d get from A to B to C.

I reminded them that we’d spoken of stories of how things come into being or how they come to have the form they have, and I pointed out that we can, in telling those stories, tilt the narrative to stress the chance or coincidental nature of the emergence of the thing or, conversely, to stress the inevitability of its emergence. Or, as philosophers might put it, we can, for reasons of temperament and agenda, stress contingency or necessity.  I’m not a philosopher, so I might have that not quite right.

In the case of Naismith, I cited the height of the goal, which didn’t “have to be” (necessity, inevitability) 10 feet, but “happened to be” (contingency, chance) because that was the height of the balcony in the Springfield Y to which he nailed the peach baskets. We also talked about how this plays out in other stories and had a good laugh imagining “Hoosiers” (a story narrated as destiny if there ever was one, but that really becomes a story worth telling only because a player hit a literally improbably, game-winning last-second shot) as a comedy. Maybe Chevy Chase could play the Gene Hackman role and a baffling series of wacky accidents and zany hijinks could brings tiny Hickory to the Indiana state title.Of course, I’m not the first to point out that the “Hoosiers”-as-destiny narrative is powerfully racially coded so that it’s unlikely that remake is gonna happen anytime soon.

For some, a stress on the contingency of history leads naturally to wonder: well, if it didn’t have to happen this way, what if it had happened another way? And these counterfactuals, as they are called, can provide for an amusing pastime, as exemplified for some in the “what ifs” section of Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball: speculating as to how the course of history might have changed if you alter one chance variable in the past (what if Jason Williams hadn’t crashed his motorcycle, what if Memphis had won the Lebron draft lottery instead of Cleveland). In fact, it’s a whole subdiscipline in the field of history. But I wasn’t interested, not in class anyway, in actually debating these what-ifs. I said this with as much weary disdain as I could muster so as to discourage what I envisioned would be a disintegration of the classroom into a kind of amateur “Around the Horn” (or, for 30 Rock fans: Sports Shouting). I just wanted the students to learn to spot these sorts of elective emphases when they are present (as they must be) in any story about the coming into being of something new.

But with that recap in mind to orient our discussion, I let go of the reins and stepped into the abyss, asking the students what had struck them in the reading. Several hands went up, catastrophe averted. I don’t care so much whether they say anything smart, so long as they say something. For better and for worse I can make just about anything sound smart, at least to 19 year-olds. In this case, fortunately, the students picked up on things that I think really were at least potentially interesting aspects of the early history of the game.  One student was struck by the violence of the early leagues. Another student was struck by the mobility of the contract-less players in the regional leagues. We laughed imagining a league in which Melo could play for NY, NJ, and Denver. Then another student described being struck by the ability to “see the evolution of the game.” He talked about how bit-by-bit, as he read the four pages, the game he is familiar with started to emerge and take shape.


Good feeling.  Scintillating.  I liked the image and seized on the term evolution.  Here is possibility.  Here is the pebbled surface of the ball in my hands.  I pointed out, parenthetically acknowledging that he surely used the word evolution deliberately, that often times we use that term with a teleological (look it up) connotation, as though we knew all along where something that was evolving was evolving to. And then I pointed out that at the heart of the theory of evolution and its mechanisms of natural selection and genetic drift is the phenomenon of random variation generated by mutation.  Only after these random variations have manifested and proved advantageous do they begin to get “selected,” … “naturally.” That’s a bit too much chance for some storytellers though, I said, just because it sounded good, and so some want to assign a motivating, necessary cause to “random variations.” An example of such a cause would be God. I’m not a biologist (I know, I fake it a lot), so I might have that evolution stuff wrong, but if I do, it’s the way it ought to be.

I hadn’t planned it, or thought at all ahead of time about evolution in relation to the day’s reading (obvious though it now seems to me). But that’s one of the advantages of having a relatively unstructured class format and bright students willing to participate: they can come up with things I haven’t thought of and I’m free to pursue them. Of course, sometimes those things turn out to be a dead end or I’m not skillful enough as a teacher to make them pay off. You never know for sure. Yesterday, I only knew that evolution was an important word, but I didn’t yet know how and I was both exhilarated and a bit afraid as I grabbed the rebound and pushed the ball up the floor in traffic without numbers:  cool because I didn’t know what’s going to happen next, scary because I didn’t know what going to happen next.  It’s weird because I count on the trailer and even though I’ve been told a million times that I can always pull it back out if there’s nothing there, something inside me just keeps pushing me toward the basket where something magnificent or something catastrophic will happen.  Nothing in between.

And that’s the where the day’s topic of discussion connects back to my concerns about the absence of a third of my class. In this respect, I’m thinking, my course works very much like evolution itself: “random” variations (like a student throwing out a word that happens to catch my fancy) generate a kind of “natural selection” of topics (I take the word and shape the rest of the discussion with it, explicitly or implicitly).  Students who miss class can, and I’m sure will, keep up with all the formal assignments. However, because my class time is not carefully planned out, but relies heavily on impromptu student participation, discussion, and improvisation there is no real way for the absent students to ever “get” what they missed.

I can point them to other students’ notes, or to my own, or even to this blog post – but all of those are not only inevitably going to be partial and distorted representations of the discussion, they are of a completely different nature than discussion. Because class discussion is not only about the content and the points that were raised, not even mainly about that: it’s mainly about the form – the escalating energy and vibe of collaboration as a group tentatively stumbles and gropes its way to discovery.

As a humanities professor, I feel that one of the main things of which I am a steward and which I am responsible for conveying to my students and nurturing in them is just this experience of open-ended, collaborative discovery. In a way, the whole canon of the humanities can be seen as a very long, extended discussion in which one person says, for example, “Hmm, it looks to me like, despite the appearance of change, everything is, deep down, fixed and unchanging?” and then someone else says, “Mehhh, not so much, to me everything looks as though is fluid and mutable.  What makes you think there’s a ‘deep down’?”  I want my students to learn about that history.  More than that I want them to live it and to feel themselves heirs to it and participants in it and in that way to come to be invested in it and in making it better and more useful in addressing the world they live in.

Okay, so that’s a lot. And it’s not like the absence of a third of the class a handful of times (or two handfuls; how many handfuls will it be exactly? I wonder) over the course of the semester is the end of the world, or a problem that can’t be addressed. But it adds a degree of difficulty to any class. And in a class in which there is already some awareness, for better and for worse, of differences, this just adds one more. It’s a loss not only for the players and the journalist who missed out on Tuesday’s class and who have to show up on Thursday, I imagine, with some degree of anxiety or pressure, but also for those who were there on Tuesday and may be wary of participating in ways that refer to Tuesday’s class and so exclude their classmates from fully participating. As I say, I can deal with this, but I also have to deal with this.

On the other hand, as I’m writing, it occurs to me – thinking of the ways in which discussion in my classroom and evolution resemble free-lancing in a pickup game – that it may perhaps be easier to deal with a shifting roster if you don’t have a highly structured, set offense that depends heavily on the skill set of particular players who might be injured or traded and that, moreover, has to be taught to new players that might be acquired.  In this sense, each class meeting is like a single game.  Players are removed and added to playground teams all the time – even the winning team. And that works in part because there are no set plays. Everyone is improvising and so its easier to remain effective even when you’ve lost a player and had to pick up a new one, even if that new player sucks. So maybe even as the unstructured nature of the class makes it harder to “catch people up”, perhaps it will be easier to accommodate the goings and comings of my student-athletes (and of other students for other reasons) because the class is more or less free-lanced.

At the same time, it’s also true that playing even a couple of games in a row with the same players can lead you to familiarize yourself with your teammates’ tendencies, strengths, and limitations and make you more effective.  So I think part of my job is going to be to step up and assert myself enough to communicate to returning students the valuable tendencies (things like an emerging class “vocabulary” or even a vibe) that the class developed in their absence. That sort of thing happens all the time on the playground. You join a team that’s been playing or where a couple of players already know each other and they pull you aside and in a few seconds bring you up to speed. And I think I can do this successfully while encouraging returning students to make their own improvisational contributions without fear that this is somehow going to jeopardize or destroy what is already in place.

And this issue of how to harmonize the interests and abilities of the individual with those of the group also echoes something we already talked about in class, though we were talking about it in the guise of the tension between “one-on-one” style and “team” style that is highlighted in Weinstein’s account, particularly, of the “Regional Leagues” that predominated between 1910 and 1924.  Weinstein makes the point that at this time, pro players were still permitted to double-dribble so that games were dominated by one-on-one play, “with the dribbler acting like a football running back and bowling over defenders by head-butting them.”   In other words, because players could double-dribble they did double dribble as a means of advancing the ball toward the basket.  At the same time, as he also points out, “while teams might barely last a season intact [because of player mobility], pairs and groups of players often stuck together for years, and their familiarity with each other led to the development of the pick and roll, or, as it was known at the time, the buddy system.”

So in the very same league two different tendencies are in effect; tendencies that, taken to their logical extreme, are incompatible with one another and so, in that sense, are vying for ascendancy in the game.  Will pro basketball come to be about one-on-one play and physical strength or will it be about collaboration, ingenuity, and finesse (the pick, after all, works only because it’s illegal for the defensive man physically to blast through a screener)? And what decides this?

In class (I feel obliged to point this out because some of the students at least will be reading this) none of this emerged with great clarity and we spent most of the time talking about the way the relative emphasis on one-on-one vs. team styles changes depending on the level of play, the skill of the players, the culture of the institution, and the power dynamics between players and coaches – all of which was very worthwhile in its own right. But here I want to stress what I only mentioned incoherently in passing on Tuesday: namely that “fitness” in the evolutionary sense of the term, as far as the history of pro basketball is concerned, has to some degree come down to commercial viability.

The double-dribble was eliminated from most pro leagues following its ban from the American Basketball League in the 1920s. The ABL, in turn, banned it in part because it had already been banned by the much more popular amateur circuits such as the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in 1908-1909. “Henceforth,” as Robert Peterson puts it, “the professional game would gradually become faster and depend less on bulk and strength and more on speed, agility, and cleverness,” like its more popular college and amateur counterpart.

Now, once the ABL banned the double-dribble, players were forced to make a different decision once they’d picked up their dribble. They had to shoot or pass. And it’s at this point that certain “team” features – like the pick and roll — that had originally emerged as an almost accidental function of small groups of players growing accustomed to one another in an era of no contracts and great player mobility became dominant strategies.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the market “decided” ahead of time how the pro game evolved, then or now. Part of the beauty of basketball is that technical innovations born of informal, horizontally organized, extra-institutional venues make their way into the formal game because they are strategically more effective (indeed, the dribble itself began as an accident:  someone knocked the ball out of an early player’s hands and it rolled and as he raced to retrieve it he realized he’d succeeded in advancing the ball up the court without running with it, which was disallowed; eventually this became deliberate). But strategically more effective is only one of the variables that makes those innovations stick. By itself it might not be enough. Think, for example, of the anxiety that gets generated when those innovations appear to be too effective: Mikan camping in the lane, Russell’s offensive goaltending, Wilt or Kareem’s dunks.

In class, I tried to emphasize how this whole issue is heavily moralized and racialized so that one-on-one play is thought to be selfish and ostentatious and black while team play is though to be selfless and humble and white. I felt that this moral and racial coding of a properly technical, strategic issue is so prevalent and seemingly natural that it had to be named and not only named, but ridiculed, which I did by overstating the case that in no other game do technical and strategic choices get fraught with moral and racial meanings.   Of course, that’s not true, but it worked it seemed to get the students to really stop and see how weird it is that we make my decision about whether or not to pass the ball at a given moment in a fast-moving game into a morally and racially significant one.

Moreover, I stressed (or at least I wish now I had stressed), the history of the game can be told in ways that make it appear that the “essence” of the game is team play and has been from the very start. Whether or not it’s true that team play is critical to success at the highest level of basketball is beside the point. I want my students to understand how stories get told that associate the essence of something desirable with certain classes, races or ethnicities, and genders and thus position individuals of other classes, races or ethnicities, and genders as potentially dangerous interlopers, marauders. The snake in the garden.

But with all this in mind, the market, too, sooner or later plays a role in determining the “fitness” of certain innovations, sometimes in ways that dovetail with these moralizing and racializing narratives and sometimes in ways which run against them.  Part of what is exciting about the early history of the NBA is the decentralization that served as a kind of dispersed laboratory in which experiments with the game could thrive. That laboratory still exists today of course: on playgrounds, the And-1 circuit, minor leagues like the new ABA, and so forth. But the NBA, very obviously, exerts a much more powerful, constraining gravitational pull than any institution did in the first half of the 20th century.

I love the NBA game: not only the game on the floor, but also the accompanying personalities and even the consumer culture associated with it. I love, of course, the athletic ability and skill of the players. I love the variety of styles that teams play. I don’t think the game is worse now than it used to be, nor do I think it’s necessarily better than it will be. It’s just different and, well, amazing (sorry). So in that sense, I can’t really complain about how evolution has treated the pro game.

But I also couldn’t help but feel a little sad as we read about and discussed the early pros, who were riotously experimenting with a brand-spanking new game rife with possibilities and didn’t know that they were simply participating in someone else’s pre-history.  I can’t help but be irritated that when I search for early NBA history videos on line what I get are actually videos of a BAA game from 1946 that the NBA has colonized as its own, as though it were inevitable that the BAA would, after its merger with the more talent-laden NBL, evolve into the NBA.   And so I couldn’t and can’t help but pull for what I think of as some anarchic impulse that challenges the naturalized, hierarchized, centralizing force of the NBA, even if the expression of that impulse seems to come – temporarily — at the expense of the “quality” of the game on the court.

I love the NBA, but I also love the things that put the NBA in crisis in various ways.  Think of Rodman and Artest (maddening combination of effective and unruly on the court).  Think Iverson and Arenas (maddening combination of effective on and unruly off the court).  Think Russell and Chamberlain (maddeningly unstoppable).  Think Cousy and Robertson (maddeningly confrontational in the boardroom).  Think Rasheed (maddening combination of extraordinary individual talent, modest individual ambition, and extraordinary outspokenness).  I know the NBA probably isn’t really threatened by these figures.  Maybe even they learn to capitalize on them.  But when they first surface there’s a least a shudder in the powers that be.

I’m not sure, but I think that in a very roundabout way I just set myself up to be David Stern and my students to be the early pros. The point is that I want my class to have the room to evolve. I want there to be enough flexibility that random heretical comments – the classroom equivalent of a crossover dribble flying in the face of the conventional wisdom that the ball handler should keep his body between the ball and the defender; the kind of innovation a ref blows the whistle on because he’s never seen it before — have a chance to prove their fitness. And so that students have the opportunity to practice being part of a genuine intellectual dialogue. But part of that practice also entails I think developing with them some criteria of fitness in the form of an emerging common vocabulary and set of shared interests that we can return to when our actual or figurative wandering has left us feeling lost, which seems like an appropriate place to end since Thursdays class will be devoted to the itinerant barnstormers.

Go back to read about how basketball is like a religion or a nation

Go on to read about why I should be but am not identified as Chris Paul on the playground

Day 2: We Are All Witnesses

This may not be so funny or dramatic. My fiancée, Claire, who’s also a university teacher, once observed with a perfect mixture of relief and wry disappointment how that hideous flower of anxiety seems to wilt and wither into something like dry routine, or even boredom, after the first day. Day 2 certainly wasn’t boring, but it didn’t pack quite the terrifying emotional punch of Opening Day.

That’s no doubt because of the change of clothes I carefully planned:  no hat, sweats, and a Nike track jacket. Or maybe because I spent much of Tuesday afternoon and evening blubbering in Claire’s arms and giving vent to the massive gold mine of insecurities that teaching this course tapped. Or maybe because in class we were actually going to be reading a text and that gave me a kind of home court advantage. Probably all of the above. But whatever the reason, Day 2 turned out to be less dramatic and more unambiguously positive and exciting than Day 1. And we actually got some interesting intellectual work done, even if it did entail partially misreading the main reading assignment.

Students were to have read the first section of “Chapter Zero” of our course textbook, FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, in which Bethlehem Shoals tells the story of James Naismith’s invention of the game in 1891. It’s a fluid six page read.  I certainly like it a lot, but in putting it on the syllabus, I had no clear idea in mind of what I wanted the class to get other than the fact that a man named James Naismith invented the game of basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891.

Now, I sometimes I unpleasantly fantasize that students project onto their college classes and professors the K-12 educational model of the lesson plan,

where every date and assignment on the syllabus and every minute within every day of every class is minutely orchestrated for minimum rowdiness and maximum pedagogical efficiency. But that’s not how I roll. The reading assignments that appear on my syllabuses are more like the food I bring to a potluck, or an item at the buffet. Hopefully they’ll try it. I have some ideas of what I think is worthwhile about it, and I certainly want to share these ideas, but at least as much I want them to learn to develop and to articulate their own ideas.  Or better yet, I’d rather them spontaneously voice my ideas. 


So the beginning of a typical meeting of one of my classes goes like this:  “So for today I asked you to read ‘x’. I have some ideas about what I find interesting and important about ‘x.’ But I’m going to keep those on the back burner and first hear your own impressions. Then, I’ll work my own ideas in when they seem relevant. So, what were your impressions?” Then, as they begin to say things, I take notes on the board, furiously scrawling everything that is said, trying to organize it spatially on the board into categories that make sense to me and mightily trying to make it seem that there’s no such thing as a stupid or irrelevant comment, which in a way turns out to be the case in the end, but it doesn’t always feel that way at first.

This works pretty well, except when some uptight, overachieving, structure-loving punk torpedoes the whole operation by asking where this is all going or what’s the point. But paradoxically it puts a lot more pressure on me than preparing a highly structured plan of what needs to be said about a given reading assignment. I have to think rapidly on my feet, do a lot of “translating” and at the same time weave together the disparate textures and weights of numerous threads into something coherent enough that the students can walk away feeling like they have either a) learned some “thing” or b) have some “thing” to think about.

So, already terrified of this hoops class and of my own feelings about it, there was no way in hell I was going to start off Day 2 – especially after Day 1 – by just asking these students to tell me what they thought of Shoals’ essay “Down By Law: James Naismith, the Peach-Basket Patriarch.” No way.

Instead, I did the pedagogical and intellectual equivalent of firmly belting my pants well up and above my waist to be absolutely certain they wouldn’t come down on me. (Interestingly, in terms of my actual clothes, as I said, I went in the other direction – feeling much more confident and comfortable in sweats than in jeans and a sweater that seemed, on Tuesday anyway, to just grow tighter and smaller with every passing moment.)

I carefully read and reread the assignment from FD’s history. As I read and thought I let myself just jot down what was striking me as important about it, which is how I realized that what was most interesting to me was the way that Shoals tells the story, by self-consciously drawing it into a narrative web with other stories, create a network (Moses – Martin Luther – James Naismith) that is at once ridiculous and sublime. But I didn’t want to say that to the students because then, well, that would take about 45 seconds and then there’d still be 1 hour, 19 minutes, and 15 seconds left of class. Also I didn’t think they’d have any idea what I was talking about, not on Day 2.

So I backed up. I don’t just mean I got simpler or more basic in my thoughts. I mean I backed up to how I felt. I realized that I really only cared about the invention of basketball as a story. I mean to say that as a fact, as something that happened, I didn’t really care much about the invention of basketball. Obviously I feel it’s a good thing since without it there’d be no basketball. But as mere fact, it’s not very interesting.

In a way, as mere fact it doesn’t really exist for any practical purpose. From a certain point of view, it doesn’t exist at all (since it is in the past and so is no longer) outside of the stories that are told about it. To my academic colleagues, this might seem like an obvious acknowledgment of the mediated nature of the past, but it’s still exciting to me when I rediscover it (in a “Whoa! Look! I invented a wheel!” kind of way).  Besides, in my experience, it is by no means obvious to undergraduates, especially Freshmen, which is mostly what I have in the class. Also, it seemed nicely connected to what I’d already promised the students I wanted the course to be about: not just the game on the floor but the power of the stories we tell about it.

Shoals’ comparison got me thinking about the story of the invention of basketball as a story of origins, a story about where something came from.

I realized the way I wanted to start was by asking my students to think about the stories they consume and create about where they came from.  How have those stories changed over time?  How do they vary in the present depending on who they are talking to:  an academic advisor, a childhood friend, a stranger at a frat party? How are those changes driven at least partly by the conscious and unconscious purposes they – the students, I mean – bring and have brought to each of these different situations. Maybe getting them to think about the practical variability of their own origin stories would make it easier to think more generally about origin stories as pragmatic instruments (rather than as objective or value-neutral, transparent descriptions of fact, or as shackling structures with the authority to determine what we do in the future).

But I still felt like something was missing. The two things I am afraid of as a teacher – hold up, the two things I most afraid of as a teacher are: 1) talking too much and boring the students and 2) running out of things to say — it’s a vexing combination, I know, which I suppose is why it works so well as a fear.  Probably my worst teaching-nightmare has me speaking animatedly on a topic, offering illumination after blinding illumination in a kind of improvised escalating spiral of profundity and originality and then I look up ready to say “see you next time” only to find that only five minutes have passed and half the class is jerking itself back onto the road like sleepy motorists.  The only thing that makes it worse is when my pants fall down.  I felt I needed more belting, figuratively speaking.

Luckily, and by luckily I mean through an unconscious survival instinct, I had tossed Naismith’s book into my satchel on Monday just before leaving St. Louis to catch my flight up to Michigan. I hadn’t read it yet (embarrassing admission for the professor of “Cultures of Basketball”; like a religious studies prof not having read Genesis or something).   On the plane up on Monday I started reading it and found that it was actually really fascinating reading. I mean, some of it was boring and I skipped pages here and there, but the story of the actual invention of the game as Naismith tells it I found pretty gripping.  Now that I think of it, it was like listening to my father recount his invention of the game of basketball, except that I could control it better.

Naismith came to mind as I prepared for Day 2 thinking about origin stories and how we shape them.   I figured that if Shoals was self-consciously shaping the story, it would be interesting for students to compare his story to another version of the same event.  What could be better, more authentic, and more apparently unshaped than Naismith’s own first-hand account? Here I imagined deliberately leading my students down the alley of comparing FD’s “disorted” version to the “true” version of Naismith and then, suddenly, flinging open a secret, hidden door in which, with great rhetorical flourish, I asked them: “but is Naismith’s account really ‘true’? Is it not distorted as well, only differently? What do we mean by true?” Ha-ha!  So all I needed to do was to photocopy the relevant pages from Naismith and bring them into class. This I did on Thursday morning before class. For good measure, I made 24 copies of the entire 17 page syllabus to distribute in class so that anytime I referred to it they’d have it in front of them and then I would avoid the dizzying experience I’d had the first day.

I had my plan: 1) find out whether and why they care about the invention of basketball, just as an icebreaker; 2) use the more “useful” responses as a way to turn the discussion to our fascination with stories of origin in general; 3) “thoughtfully” raise the question of how we know whether stories of origin are really true or not; 4) gracefully pivot from their earnest responses to this rhetorical question into making the point about the textually and narratively mediated nature of our access to the past; 5) reassure them that this need not be a bad thing, but can actually be an empowering thing; do a comparative reading of Naismith and Shoals in which the students talked about the shape of the respective stories and the purposes to which those stories might be put; 6) be prepared to talk about last night’s game — including Michigan’s closely fought loss to second-ranked Ohio State — in case numbers 1-5 above only take up  5 minutes of class.

Decked out in my sweats and Nike Chevron track jacket, I strode purposefully into class on Thursday. Just about everyone was already seated by the time I got there, but curiously, that felt better to me than having arrived so pathetically early on Day 1. I felt more confident: they were the pathetic ones! They couldn’t even start class without me! They needed me more than I needed them! “King Kong ain’t got nothin’ on me!” I roared in my head.

One of the players made, I think, a comment about my track jacket. It might have been derisive or ridiculing, but it might just have been surprise: professors don’t say “shit” and they don’t wear sweats and track jackets to class (a corollary of the solipsistic student axiom about their teachers: the teacher does not exist outside of class).   It might also not have been about me at all.  I wobbled but was undeterred. I tossed my bag on the teacher’s desk and began to take out the materials. I felt a little warm and toyed with the possibility of burning up as I had on Tuesday, but somehow came back from that abyss.

As I faced the class, taking roll and deliberately but subtly showing that I knew who the players were, I noticed that all the UM players (but one) were on one side of the room and all the non-UM players were on the other side. That was a little too close for comfort to a perfect physical manifestation of my own juvenile thoughts about the class. So, as I had the students distribute the various photocopies, I just pulled the curtain back. I remarked on the seating. And I said, “it seems like we’ve got players on the one side and fans on the other, or players on the one side and students on the other.  “But everyone” I said (I meant to “thunder” it, but I don’t think it came out that way), “everyone,” I said again for emphasis imagining John Houseman in the Paper Chase, “in this room is a student at this university, everyone is a fan, and everyone – whatever the level – is a player.” Good, everyone’s nodding.

Qui gon Jinn and Jar Jar Binks zooming around in the little underwater pod popped into my head and I found myself saying “Like me, you might not have ever played at the level these guys are playing, but don’t forget there is always a bigger fish.” I continued, “Oh, you don’t think so? Nobody’s a bigger fish than Lebron James? What about Kobe Bryant? [Kid I know to be from LA and a huge Laker fan nods vigorously]  Nobody’s a bigger fish than Kobe Bryant? What about Lebron James? [Kid looks confused and crestfallen]”

Then a student asked: “Who’s a bigger fish than Jordan?” (I’ve got a number of Chicagoland Jordan babies in my class).   Everyone laughed, it was a good question and it’s fun for everyone when the professor is stumped. Good question I said and laughed, maybe nervously, I’m not sure.  I wanted to be showing that I didn’t mind being stumped, even though I felt frustrated.  Images of Oscar Robertson kept pushing themselves into my mind.  I don’t want to have this argument.  I’ll lose it for sure, because I think probably nobody’s a bigger fish than Jordan but I can’t stand watered down absolutes.  It just doesn’t have the same effect to say “There’s almost always a bigger fish, unless you are the biggest fish, then there’s no bigger fish than you.”

So I replied, “Phil Jackson?” The student – also a player – smiled but shook his head. Perhaps I stirred a streak of rebellion against over-emphasizing the importance of coaching in the game, which is a streak I wholeheartedly sympathize with.  Plus in this setting, student = player and teacher = coach.  So  I felt a little stupid and abashed, as though I’d selfishly sided with Louis XVI during the French revolution.  I thought to myself, but didn’t say, how many titles did Jordan win without Jackson? (Answer = 0) how many titles has Jackson won without Jordan (Answer = 6 and counting). Not that I think that settles the question, but it would have been a good thing to say.

Anyway, the ice was unintentionally broken, and from there we got things underway and had what for me was a fun and interesting discussion that went more or less as planned up to a certain point. A variety of students responded to the questions I put to them about their interest (or lack thereof) in the invention of basketball and about their own stories of origins and how they work in their lives today. And they seemed to be taking it in when I made the point about how context and purpose influence the way we shape stories, even stories that purport to be objectively true (here a student who is also a writer for the school newspaper helped out by corroborating this).

Then we looked at Naismith together, me reading aloud the key passages in which Naismith, mostly flatly, like a human flowchart, reasons his way to the game of basketball. The narrative is mostly a thought experiment, in which he dryly imagines various scenarios sprouting forth from certain premises, rewinds the mental tape, changes the premise and then moves forward again.  The only instant when any trace of emotion appears — or indeed when Naismith himself emerges as a feeling human being (instead of a reasoning machine) — comes, tellingly, when he recalls coming up with the prohibition on traveling: “I can still recall how I snapped my fingers and shouted, ‘I’ve got it!’” “This time,” he continues, “I felt that I really had a new principle for a game.”

I say tellingly because Naismith’s story – apart from this little oasis or plateau – is like a desert of affect, dry and flat. But that is often the way with invention stories – the desert-like, rational surroundings help both to emphasize the calm intelligence of the inventor (thus de-emphasizing the role of chance and circumstance in the invention) and, of course, shed a spotlight on the actual moment of the invention.
I’m not sure I got this across so clearly in class, but we certainly did pause to observe and enjoy how much of what we take as divinely-ordained necessity in the basics of basketball is really due to chance and contingency in the circumstances of its invention. And how that chaotic element of chance seems to be corralled within the implacable rationality of Naismith’s storytelling style.

Then we turned to Shoals and the students slowly began to construct the “compare-and-contrast” paradigm.  I wasn’t thrilled with the points, but I was happy that I was getting a fairly well distributed level of participation.  Clearly, the students had read the assignment.   Finally, someone voiced what to me was the whole point of Shoals’ story: he compares Naismith to Moses and Martin Luther and so basketball to a religion (nevermind, for the moment, that this is not really the whole point of Shoals’ story).  At this point, I somehow forgot all about Naismith and the point of this whole comparative exercise, and, caught up in the testimony, just blurted out: “in what ways is basketball like or unlike a religion for you?”  Here’s where I should acknowledge that Shoals’ argument really goes from the mythico-religious (Moses) to the historico-religious (Martin Luther) to the secular (the Founding Fathers) and concludes that Naismith bears more of a resemblance to a founding father.  So really the question should have been: “in what ways is basketball like a country to you?”  But maybe that doesn’t matter and maybe, after all,  they’re not such different questions: religion and nation? Anyway, they responded so enthusiastically to the question about religion that I forgot the rest of the lesson plan and I forgot to point out this elementary fact about our primary text.

They came out with all kinds of great stuff: basketball involves ritual, basketball is a haven from earthly troubles, basketball involves superstition and the appeasing of higher powers, basketball awakens passions of love and hatred, basketball inspires devotion. Basketball, a couple of people collectively figured out, could even be seen as just one of the great religions alongside other sports like baseball, football or soccer as others. Ultimately, they decided, just as with “real” religions one can get caught up on the differences and become antagonistic and hostile or one can focus on the basic underlying commonalities. They talked about how you create value-systems through basketball. They talked about their own experiences as players and fans. We made fun of Lakers’ fans.  (Even the Lakers’ Kid admitted Lakers’ fans were insane, explaining that in a recent fan forum thread Lakers’ fans said that if they had one player with which to start a franchise they’d choose Andrew Bynum over Blake Griffin.)   We felt bad for Cleveland fans: how would you feel if the Messiah abandoned you cause you were cold and a loser? We enjoyed making the obvious observation, with verbal winks at each other, about the Nike “Witness” campaign and about Lebron’s “Chosen One” SI cover.

We also talked about whether there was any drawback to seeing basketball as a religion or, more precisely, to experiencing it as a religion. This led to a discussion of perspective, with some students feeling that it was important not to lose sight of the fact that basketball is, after all, a game and not as encompassing or important as religion.  While in some ways this is obviously so (and I said so), I also wanted to resist the point. I think partly I felt a peevish resentment at being brought back down to earth, as though I was being told that it was time to get serious. But I also felt that there was an intellectual point — at least a matter of rigor – at stake.

In virtue of what unstated assumptions and prejudices does religion feel more encompassing and important than basketball? How do we use the word “game” to dismiss basketball as diversion and so limit our potential to live the “game” creatively with all our human potential? Don’t at least some people divorce their zealous profession of religious belief from their  behavior in daily life and in that sense lose perspective as well? Is that any better or more desirable than living in the world of basketball as though it had no connection to daily life?

The point I meant to stress (and which I am almost 100 % sure that I did not get across) is that the more significant danger might not be taking basketball too seriously, but rather not taking basketball seriously enough.

Go back to read my spine-tingling account of the nearly catastrophic first day of Cultures of Basketball

Go on to read Day 3’s recollection of the leagues and teams now all but lost to memory

Day 1: The First Day of School

It’s normal for me to be somewhat nervous on the first day of classes. Every semester it happens. Even though I’ve been at this for twenty years, even when I’m teaching a course I’ve taught successfully in the past, a small bud of apprehension implacably unfolds over the last days leading up to the new semester into a hideous blossom of full-body anxiety.

Somehow, even though I’m the professor, I’m the mature adult, and I’m the expert in the subject, a roomful of adolescents in sweatpants can make me feel like a loser and an idiot. The feeling only worsens as, going over logistical matters like my office hours, the syllabus, and course policies, the students sit immobile with blank expressions on their faces. I’ve bored them already. They don’t want to be here. I’m a fraud and they know it. They’re growing impatient with me. I crack a pathetic joke, then self-consciously mock my own attempt at humor. I’m growing smaller, erasing myself. I’m starting to glow red, warm, even the sweat that starts to form seems to mock and tease me: as if it’s deciding whether or not it’s going to start to pour off me, as if there were any question. The page swims before my eyes, then steadies, before the sight of my trembling hands leads my gaze to dart anxious around the room, like a terrified bird looking for a safe perch. There is none to be found.

All this is normal. It’s unpleasant, unavoidable (it seems), and temporary. Before the first session is even over, by the time I’ve gotten into the “why am I teaching this course and what I care about” part of the first day, I feel in my groove. I see most of the students begin to respond, leaning slightly forward, life returning to their eyes and expression. They may not be sure whether I know my stuff, but I know they are responding to my frankly expressed enthusiasm for the topic. And that is enough for me for the time being.

But I wasn’t prepared for the horribly intensified version of all this that I experienced yesterday in the first day of “Cultures of Basketball.” On the contrary, I had thought, teaching this should be like falling off a log. Moreover, I’d already received such positive responses for the course, not only from the many interested students, but from other, more experienced basketball bloggers whose work I had long followed and admired in anonymity. Actually teaching the course, I felt sure, would only enrich both the substance and the credibility of my own presence on the hoops internets. After all, I reasoned, nerves or not, I know I’m an effective teacher and basketball – well, basketball is home.

I arrived about ten minutes early to class, up on the second floor of the old building in Michigan’s East Quad. I’d never taught in this room before and was hoping to get settled in so as to avoid any clumsy physical maneuvers in front of the students. The windowless door was closed, but I could hear the drone of Spanish students repeating their first-day exercises from behind the heavy wood. I would have to wait. Probably the boy sitting on the stairs not far from the door, checking his phone, is in the class. I wonder if he knows I’m the teacher. Do I look old and uncool enough for that to be obvious? It’s cold and snowy outside and I’m bundled up, but now in this cramped second floor hallway, I’m getting really, really hot. Steaming hot. Why isn’t he wearing winter clothes?

I don’t know what to do. I can’t bear to stand outside the door of my own classroom for the next ten minutes while students pile up in the hallway. I walk casually down the corridor and turn the corner. A water fountain: I get a drink. This corridor is all dorm rooms so there’s no open classroom where I can just sit down and safely take off my hat, coat, scarf and gloves. I get another drink. I stand still. I walk back to my corridor, vainly hoping that the class before has let out early. The door is still closed. Now more students are there waiting. They know I’m the professor. It’s ridiculous that I can’t get into this room. Only an asshole gets to class so early.

I walk back down the stairs toward the main office. Another water fountain. I get another drink. Time is not moving. I pretend to look at the papers pinned to a bulletin board outside the office. I’m unbearably hot. My scarf is scratching and tightening around my neck. I have to get outside. I stagger to the exit and step into the undifferentiated gray of the quad and desperately gulp the cold air. I turn to go back in. The door is locked behind me. Fucking security protocols. Who cares about the students who live here? I have to fish out my ID card to swipe open the lock. I hate this. I do it.

I trudge back up the stairs, where several of the students are already talking to each other, forming a gang that will first ignore me and then mock and bully me. They lower their voices when they see me. How do they know I’m the professor? Why don’t they say hi to me? I hate this. I try to smile and say hello, but I think it doesn’t come out.

Or else they are deliberately ignoring me. They’ve already won. Blessedly the door opens and the jackholes from the previous class file out, an interminable line that deliberately blocks my access to the room. I wait, thinking the last one has finally cleared out, when one more straggles through, pausing, a dingle berry clinging to the classroom.

Finally, the space is mine. I’m horrified by how small the room is. I run ahead of the students, toward the front of the classroom in front of the white board, where there’s a long-ish desk that I can put my stuff on and hide behind. I tear off my gloves, coat, and scarf. I take off my hat, then feel self-conscious of my shaved head and put my hat back on. Will I be cooler with the hat or without it? If I was Ray Allen it would be okay to take the hat off. If I was Ray Allen it wouldn’t matter if I had the hat on or off. If I was Ray Allen I wouldn’t be here at all. Will I be trying to hard if I leave it on? I usually wear it around the house, so that would be the most natural thing. Insane logic because there’s nothing remotely natural about this moment. Every thought doubles back on itself in a horrible Escheresque moebius strip of self-consciousness. I take the hat off. I look at it. My head is already glowing and hot. I put the hat back on.

The students begin to take their seats. I can see that rows are going to form because it’s a small room and nobody wants to move the chairs. Lazy bastards, I think. No, I think, they’re just shy and nervous, like me. They’re nothing like me, I say to myself, look at them. Impulsively, I rush out from behind my long desk and start to arrange the remaining chairs into an oval, hoping that they’ll see my behavior and copy it. Nobody moves. It’s so hot in this room. Thank god I’m wearing a sweater or they’d see me sweating through my shirt. Is that why it’s called a sweater, I wonder, but I find that I’m turning to the students and asking them to arrange their chairs. “You want to do the circle thing,” one boy asks me, and I wonder if I’ve said anything at all and if so, what exactly. “Yeah,” I say as coolly as possible, “the circle thing.”

I beat a hasty retreat back behind my desk and start to shuffle some papers around, some of which is actually practical. The basketball players begin to arrive. I can tell because they are unusually tall, and also because I’ve seen some of their pictures before. Some of them are not only talented players in their own right but have fathers who had fabulous pro careers. But I’ve already decided that at least for now I will pretend that I don’t know who they are. I feel this will protect me, and I tell myself it is more respectful of their status as student-athletes. In this room, they should be treated – and should want to be treated – like all the other students, who aren’t 6-6 and the closest thing to gods the rest of us in this room will probably ever encounter. I don’t look at them or speak to them.

Instead, after the first handful of ball players come in and find a seat, I leave my things and go back out into the hall to get another drink. As I turn the corner back into my corridor, I see the one student in the class that I have taught before. He shouts down the hallway to me “Ya-Go!” and gives me a warm hug. I’m grateful to him. He’s so spontaneous and at ease. He should be teaching the class. I will cling to him.

I go back in. The classroom seems full already but as I quickly scan the room, I see that only 15 of the 24 students enrolled are even in there yet. The basketball players are so big! Especially in a group like this. The room is tiny, like a play house or something out of Lewis Carroll – it is shrinking and impossibly hot. I ask a player if he can open the window behind him. He is very agreeable, gets up and fumbles with the window for a minute, unable to open it. He seems embarrassed. I feel a surge of confidence. Finally, he gets the window open and the drapery starts to billow madly towards me, whipped by the sadistic wind. The player exclaims and snatches the drapery – surprisingly quick hands for such a big guy, Jesus no wonder I never played beyond high school – and then reins it in and ties it up behind his shoulder.

Not everybody is here and it’s not even time to start yet but I just can’t bear to wait any longer. So I mumble that I’m going to begin to go through the roll call even though it’s stupid to do so before everyone has arrived. I begin to go down the list. A couple of names in, everything going smoothly, I check off the names, when more students walk in, a mix of players and civilians. I hate myself for making this distinction. I feel a rising panic as I watch them try to find places to sit in this tiny pathetic classroom. It’s my fault this classroom is so small, and growing smaller, and that they don’t fit in it comfortably. A real professor would have a real classroom.

I get to the first name I know to be a player and I am careful to pronounce the full name, even though I know he goes by the shorter version.

Indeed, I pretend to look up and around the room as though I don’t’ know who he is, waiting to hear the response that he is present and that he prefers to be called by the shorter version of the name. This occurs. I make the annotation on my roster and check him as present and move on down the list. I wonder if I could score on him in a game of one-on-one. I bet I could, but maybe not if he really tried. I can’t believe I’m thinking about this. I’m completely transparent. Who was I kidding with this course? I’m little more than a scrub and a loser who happens to have gamed the system such that he can force the cool kids to be around him – like the rich kid who has his own car and gets his license before everyone else. Oh god. I push these thoughts back down my throat into the roiling pit of my stomach.

I finish the names and introduce myself. I write my name on the white board: “Yago,” I write. And I say it, and I hate it and am horribly embarrassed that this is my name. I recall being a boy and informing my father that I wanted to change my name to “Jim Kiick.” I knew that my full name “Santiago” meant “Saint James” and so I thought that “Jim” would be a reasonable alternative to the mortifying “Yago-Yoga-Yogurt” (Yoda would come later). I added “Kiick” because the Miami Dolphins, for whom he played, had just gone undefeated and I thought that being a football player and having the last name “Kiick” was pretty much the most amazing coincidence ever and as sure a sign of intelligent design as there could be. The humiliating sense of feeble difference my name always caused rushes to me helpfully as I write on the white board: “Yago” “Santiago” “Professor Colás” – “you can call me whichever of these you prefer.” I wish I could teach this class without having to say my name because already they are thinking that I’m weird and have no business in America, let alone pretending to know about sports.

I tell them when and where my office hours will be held (in a nearby café). One of the players nods. I fantasize that he thinks it’s cool that I hold my office hours in a café. I cling to this for the next few minutes. I turn to the course organization and requirements. These are printed on a syllabus I have in front of me. I am very proud of this syllabus. It took me a long time to figure out how I wanted to put it together and I even agonized over the choice of font. The course structure is simple but flexible, the requirements well-thought through and challenging but fair. I know it like the back of my hand. This is, for the time being, my masterpiece.

I begin to review it and I realize that it is impossibly complex and probably incoherent. It is much longer than the usual syllabus (because of the beautiful structure I created) and so I made it available to the students electronically ahead of time rather than xeroxing 24 copies of it (I felt ashamed at its length). It would be an enormous aid to me if they had a copy with them at this moment. Most do not.

I apologize. Exactly the way that I apologize when someone who is not looking where they are going runs into me on the street (that is, if I haven’t successfully avoided them my altering my path having already carefully scanned the sidewalk ahead for wayward walkers). I tell them that I know it was long and that it’s okay if they didn’t print it out.

I explain the requirements, confusing myself and certain that I’m confusing the students. They look blankly back at me and I fill those blank spares with bemused looks of disdain for the psycho loser who has painstakingly built this hideously complicated structure and then presented it to the world with delusional pride. I don’t understand my own syllabus or the rationale behind the different assignments. I know there is one, but it’s like a word on the tip of my tongue: I just can’t seem to find it as I stand, boiling hot and wishing I could take my hat off, in front of this roomful of teenagers.

There is a disaster with the textbook. The players, one of them explains, don’t have it because the bookstore lists it as “optional” and therefore not covered by their scholarships. I feel hot: angry and apologetic at the same time. Really? I’m thinking, Really? You couldn’t shell out the $20 for the book anyway? But then I’m also thinking what do I know of their circumstances and why should they have to shell it out? They are on scholarship after all. And what’s up with the bookstore? I told those assholes that it was required. But all I say is thank you for telling me and I’ll take care of it. Others don’t have the book yet because they ordered it on Amazon and it hadn’t been delivered. I will take care of that too, I say, by scanning the very few pages they have assigned for Thursday.

I quickly move on. I begin to talk about my aims for the course, my excitement and sense of gratitude for the opportunity to teach it. I struggle to convey to them the way in which thinking about the game can be a way to think about everything, about the stories that we consume and produce all the time in relation to the game and about how those stories are shaped by and in turn shape such social and cultural categories as race and gender, but also physical categories such as speed, strength, and size, and aesthetic categories such as style and beauty and grace.

I’m dribbling the ball against a frenetic full-court man-to-man press. I know this feeling. It’s all on me to get the ball up the court.

Opponents’ hands are everywhere, enemy jerseys in every direction. They’re even slapping at me, but the refs don’t see it. Each dribble of the ball feels tenuous and fragile, I have control but just barely. I’m getting angry, or is it determined? It gets hard to tell the difference. I just want to get it over with, to get the ball across the half-court line and pass it to someone else for Christ’s sake.

I try to meet the gaze of the ball players as I speak of a game that has probably been at the center of their lives and that, in some sense at least, they know much more about than I do. I remind myself silently that I know some things they do not know. I remind myself that it is okay that they know some things I do not know. Somehow, I find myself saying these things aloud to the class. I may have shit myself. I feel I’ve exposed myself for sure. I am a comedian, a clown, a buffoon and nobody is laughing. But in the time it takes me to feel all that and to get ready to close back up into a tight ball of uptight nerves, I see a smile. It is a ball player. I honestly don’t remember which one or his name, just his face. But there is a smile. And through some mysterious process I cannot understand, I shift gears entirely.

Rather than speak abstractly about the kind of thinking I want them to start to do in the class, I say, I’m going to give them a couple of examples. I tell them how I used to play the point in high school. What style our team played, how our coach was a Bobby Knight fanatic and how I became proud of my ability to distribute the ball, to understand the needs and tendencies of my teammates, to grasp and anticipate the subtle dynamics of the game. Then I told them how how I’d come to understand many of fears, impulses and choices in life off the court in terms of an overheated logic of the “coach-on-the-floor-pass-first” kind of point guard. I told them that I’d recently started playing again in St. Louis. Not very well I told them, but not badly either. I explained that I found that I liked shooting and driving and creating my own shot just as much as, if not more than, I liked passing. Moreover, I said, I found that I was good at these things. And I wondered where that came from and then had remembered that before I settled into my pass-first point guard identity I had been more of a creative, self-expressive point guard, that this too was part of my identity. That I want to get mine in life as well. I say that they can see then how something that happens on the court, the basic components of the game – passing vs. shooting – have everything to do with everything in life off the court.

By this point, everyone in the classroom is paying attention. Some of the ball players are nodding. I tell them another story: about the difference between playing pickup ball at the campus recreation center at the University of Michigan and playing at the outdoor public park in St. Louis. I recall for them the silent, joyless, business-like efficiency with which the middle-class white college students played in the rec building and I contrast it with the talkative, time-wasting exuberance of the poor African-American kids (and grown men my own age) that I play with in St. Louis. “Why,” I asked my class, “were the students at the rec center not talking any shit?”

I said “shit.” The entire room relaxed, even the ball players laughed. “Ooooh, Professor said ‘shit’!” I had them. For that moment, at least, I had them. And, having gotten them, I added “it is a mystery to me why I feel so alien among a group of players who fit my own experience, demographically and culturally speaking, so closely: white, middle-class, Big Ten college students who probably played decently in high school but weren’t good enough to go on. And, why, conversely, I felt so at home on the playground, among a group of people with whom, superficially speaking at least, I had so little life experience in common. This, I said, has to do with race, class, gender, but it has to do with many other things as well, things you perhaps need a finer toothed comb to untangle, if they can be untangled at all. Perhaps they cannot be fully understood. Perhaps I won’t know why this is so, I admit, but I’m interested in exploring this sort of experience and this sort of question in the course.”

Now I’m hitting my stride, in the zone. I’m draining jumper after jumper. It doesn’t matter if it’s a catch-and-shoot or a pick-and-roll. It doesn’t matter if it’s long three or a step back in traffic.

The hoop is an ocean and everything I throw at it goes in. Opponents are shaking their heads, throwing different defenders at me. They are starting to bicker, which casues my teammates, who are looking for me on every play, to whoop it derisively.

Now that I have them, I return to the requirements and I find myself surprised to be speaking with earnest confidence. If it was practical to do so, I say, I would make your grade 100 % dependent on the intensity and effort of your engagement with me, with the course materials, with your classmates, and with your own potential. But that’s not practical, so I’m doing the next best thing that I know how. These requirements are tools I’ve devised to help facilitate a learning experience. I expect you to try using them and I expect you to be responsible for your own education and to inform me if they are not working for you so that together we can devise other tools. What I will not accept, I say and I can’t believe I’m speaking with such command in my voice, is that you simply ignore the requirements or give them only a half-hearted effort.

I want them, I realize, to feel like they are part of a team. But it’s not just because it’s a course on basketball or because there are athletes in there. I realize, rather, that this is the way I always teach and it is the part of my teaching, of my professorial spiel, in which I feel confident; probably because it is what I most want and most believe in. But it’s disorienting and exhilarating to find how that coach-like, motivational discourse fits the students – and not just the players in this class – in this class like a glove. For these moments, I know, we are speaking a deep common language.

“We have an opportunity here,” I say with excitement, “to do something really exceptional: not only to spend time in a college classroom thinking and talking about a game we love, but to do so in a way that helps us all to grow as human beings and that, I say, is what being in a college humanities classroom, whether you are a student or a professor, should be all about.”

I should’ve stopped there, but I suddenly grew self-conscious – like suddenly thinking about a jump shot after making ten in a row: it clangs off the rim and what seemed like magic now seems gone and pedestrian to boot. I think I rambled on for a few more minutes, repeating things I’d already said. The students understandably returned to their glazed state. The moment had passed. There was nothing more to say for today.

It’s weird how teaching and learning, for me, happens that way, how it has its own temporality: sometimes whole semesters seem packed into an instant; sometimes several hours are needed to unfold some simple point. Yesterday, the students realized it before I did (though I’m not certain that they experienced their realization as such – more likely they just experienced a loss of interest). Either way, I caught up with the students’ realization and stopped abruptly: “There’s nothing more to day for today. I’ll see you on Thursday.”

On Kieran Egan’s The Educated Mind (Chicago, 1997)

Why are teenagers so damn sure they are right? What is fascinating about ghosts? Why was I obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records in middle school? Read more

1 4 5 6