This is the text of my opening remarks for the Fab 5 @ 25 round table symposium. The University video taped the event and will be making that available to the public, hopefully before too long.
The impact of the Fab Five on basketball and our cultural landscape was immeasurable. As we’ve just heard it was felt even by a young Hoosier attending a small liberal arts college who would grow up to become a quantitative political scientist and our Dean. He was not alone, of course. Their superb and electrifying play, their exuberant and authentic self-expression, and their courageous outspokenness transformed not only college basketball, but, in some ways, all of sport, and sparked challenging and increasingly urgent conversations about race, money, and education in big time college sports. But you know all that. You know, too, that their legacy was left in limbo as a result of investigations uncovering the loans that one member of the team accepted.
We are here, as Dean Martin explained, to address these topics openly, in an academic setting, in keeping with the mission, and best traditions, of the great community of students and scholars that comprise the University of Michigan. We have here an opportunity to lead by continuing and deepening the challenging and urgent conversations these players and their teammates helped amplify: how can universities like Michigan preserve their educational mission and safeguard the well-being of their students in the context of the rapidly expanding commercialization of college sports? What sort of opportunities do college sports provide us for addressing and overcoming social inequalities and cultural stereotypes? What is the legacy of the Fab Five in Michigan’s own history, and what is the most appropriate way for the University to mark that legacy?
But, even as we take up these questions today, I know from experience that our event offers another, deeper opportunity for all of us. I met Jimmy King in March of 2012, when he accepted my invitation to speak to students in my undergraduate Cultures of Basketball class. He has come every time I’ve taught the course since then and has even played in the intra class 3 on 3 tournament the students organize at the end of each semester. Now, I pride myself on being an effective teacher. But I know they feel that the hour and a half they spend with Jimmy is the unforgettable highlight of the semester and that the challenging and inspiring lessons he imparts will stay with them forever.
I understand why they feel that way. I feel that way too. It’s because Jimmy is, among many other things, a superb teacher. In fact, though I don’t know Ray as well, nor Jalen or Juwan at all, I believe that all four of these men are, and were when they were students here, superb teachers. In fact, I view them as one of the University great treasures: a trove of unique life experiences which they transform into accessible lessons. These are lessons not only about basketball, or college sports. Not even only about race or class or exploitation. They are deeper life lessons about joy, creativity, and integrity, about solidarity, trust, and loyalty and, perhaps above all, about freedom. We should consider ourselves fortunate that we have here today something life doesn’t often provide: a second chance; a second chance not only to hear their voices, but to listen to them and so to learn what we may have missed when they first offered it 25 years ago. I for one, plan to make the most of it.
As the fellas used to say before stepping into the arena: let ‘em hang.
The Fab Five first set foot on Michigan’s campus 25 years ago. The first group of freshman ever to start for a major college program, they led their teams to consecutive NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship games in 1992 and 1993, and sparked a cultural revolution in the sport and beyond. In time, a scandal led to sanctions imposed by both the University and the NCAA. The Final Four banners came down and were tucked away in the Bentley Library and a shroud of silence settled over the players and their era.
In honor this group of teenage black men whose messages of brotherhood, community, joy, and freedom has never been more resonant, here are 5 links to things I’ve written on the Fab 5 shared in celebration of the 25 year anniversary of their arrival at Michigan.
Still today, the most viewed thing I’ve ever written, my open letter to Chris Webber asking him to join his former teammates in the stands at the 2013 NCAA Championship game to support Michigan, and five of my freshman students, in the game against Louisville.
I have mixed feelings about reposting this because I don’t feel exactly the same way I did when I first wrote and posted it three and a half years ago. Chris showed up at the game, but never responded to my letter and, more painfully, elected not to sit with his teammates. Recently, I once again invited Chris to join his former teammates, and brothers, at a public event—Fab 5 @ 25—and once more he has not responded. So I thought about not reposting this, and even about taking it off my site—after all, the University came through by sponsoring, and paying for, this discussion. That means they would’ve bought Chris a plane ticket to get him to campus. If it he’d been willing to appear.
But so much about this conversation is about how we look at history, memory, and our own past. And so much of what is painful in this derives from people trying to erase or ignore or deny the past. I understand why this is tempting. But I think it is deadly.
The presentation was a distillation of a longer scholarly essay I wrote for the workshop which I expect will be published in the Journal of Sport History. But as I did the research for that I really became so fascinated with the topic that it has become the seed of what I envision as my next book, a companion volume to my recently published book, Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketballthat I’m calling, for the moment anyway, Numbers Don’t Lie! A History of Counting and What Counts in the Cultures of Basketball. It will situate the analytics movement in basketball in broader frameworks of statistical reasoning in sports, measurement and statistics in scientific culture in the west, the use of digital technologies in the age of Big Data, and, as usual, the cultural and political dimensions of hoops.
Because the project is in its initial stages, I’m especially eager to get constructive feedback on it. So as always, but more than usual, leave me comments or shoot me an e-mail.
It is the final section of Chapter 7, “The Myth of Blackness, March 12, 1997.” Readers might recognize the date: that’s the night Iverson famously crossed-over Michael Jordan. The first part of the chapter analyzes media coverage of the game, which portrayed Iverson’s performance in racialized stereotypes with a long history in basketball culture and in American society. The second part of the chapter examines the factors, in and out of basketball, that shaped such perceptions of Iverson and other black players of his generation. And in this final section, I offer my own interpretation of this famous play as way to disrupt these perceptions and the myths they give rise to.
“I saw Iverson cross Jordan on television when it first happened, and I have viewed it again since then to prepare for classes. But in drafting this chapter, I wanted to see it again. I found it mesmerizing and could not stop watching—again and again, clicking on different links to see the different angles and replays and commentaries and contexts. The whole play is so quick: from the time Iverson gets the ball to the time the shot drops through the net takes no more than twelve seconds, the actual cross no more than about four seconds. So my interest partly stems from cognitive thirst, as though I were watching a magician at work, replaying frame by frame to see how Iverson did it, to isolate the moment that sealed Jordan’s fate. But I can see there’s something more than detached intellectual curiosity about technique driving me there. There’s also an affective investment at work, an emotional response—admiration? gratitude? even love?—that keeps me glued to the play.
Hans Gumbrecht rightly observes that “what we enjoy in the great moments of a ballgame is not just the goal, the touchdown, the home run, or the slam dunk” but “the beautiful individual play that takes form prior to the score.” A “beautiful play,” Gumbrecht writes, “is produced by the sudden, surprising convergence of several athletes’ bodies in time and space.” Indeed, Leonard Koppett, decades earlier, had already noted the way in which, because baskets themselves are relatively routine, basketball draws attention to the play unfolding before the score and, in particular, to its style. Perhaps obviously, this applies to the Iverson crossover. The pick and the flip pass prompt a switch in defensive assignments that suddenly put Jordan (the league’s top player) on Iverson (the league’s top rookie).
Even set plays, Gumbrecht continues, become surprising because they are achieved “against the unpredictable resistance of the other team’s defense.” Ideally, a ball screen for the point guard that results in a defensive switch creates an advantage for the offensive team in that a larger and presumably slower player is now left alone to defend the smaller, quicker point guard (and at the same time, the smaller defensive guard is left alone to defend the larger offensive player who set the original screen and who may roll toward the basket where he can better exploit his height advantage). But in this case, although the expected size differentials did occur—the six-foot-six Jordan was left alone to defend Iverson, who was perhaps six feet tall, in the center of the floor—they do not lead to any obvious advantage for Philadelphia because Jordan was also quick and widely considered the best defensive player in the game at the time. So as Gumbrecht describes it, “The team in possession of the ball tries to create a play and avoid chaos, its opposing team in the defensive position tries to destroy the emerging form and precipitate chaos.”
In addition to this complex and unpredictable convergence of bodies, Gumbrecht argues, part of the fascination of plays as epiphanies lies in their temporality—that is, in the fact that they begin to end the moment they start. “No still photograph,” Gumbrecht writes, “can ever capture the beauty of this temporalized reality.” Indeed, my own repeated replays of even the video of the play testify to the elusive—because temporally finite—quality of the beautiful play. Moreover, considering the temporal aspect of the play suggests also another fascinating aspect of the crossover: good timing, which Gumbrecht defines as “perfect fusion between a perception of space and the initiation of movement . . . the intuitive capacity to bring one’s body to a specific place at the very moment when it matters to be there.”
Violence for Gumbrecht is “the act of occupying spaces or blocking their occupation by others through the resistance of one’s body.” Timing, then, relates to violence because “the player will be in the right place” at the right time “either because the spot in question will not be occupied (not covered) by the body of another player at that moment, or precisely because the body of another player will occupy it.” The latter describes good defensive timing whereas the former describes good timing from the perspective of the offensive player trying to get free. Jordan tries to anticipate where Iverson will be in the next instant so he can be there instead, while Iverson, of course, tries to—and does—get to the spot where Jordan will not be.
Koppett, again, seems to have presaged the central point of Gumbrecht’s comments on timing when he described the central task of the basketball player as “getting free,” although he centered on deception and fakery (rather than timing) as the means by which basketball players do this. Good timing, however, may also simply be a component of effective deception. At least, it is with Iverson’s crossover, in which it is not simply a matter of leaning explosively in one direction to throw the defender off balance (the fake) but of intuitively grasping the perfect moment to yank the ball quickly back in the other direction (the cross) to get free. That precise moment might be thought of as the kairos, which, you may recall from the preceding chapter, was what the Greeks called the opportune moment for invention and, indeed, as the instant in which an opportunity presents itself to crack open the still tomb of the end of history.
Beautifully ephemeral and deceptively magical, Iverson’s cross evokes the image of a jagged flash of lightning splitting the night sky. An epiphany of form, to be sure, the play reminds me of the position described by T. S. Eliot in the poem “The Dry Salvages”: “we had the experience but missed the meaning, and approach to the meaning restores the experience.” Eliot might have had in mind something like a beautiful play, the illuminating arc that emerges and vanishes before you know it. Something’s happened; it was beautiful and elevating and thrilling and it somehow left itself in you. But what was it? Eliot suggests that approaching the meaning (trying to read the play, to understand what it meant) can restore the experience. That restored experience may be in a different form, but it may still, like the original, deliver an illuminating affective shine that eludes confining meanings.
As an individual tactic, a crossover dribble means the attempt, via precisely timed deception, by a player to get free from a defender. As we saw at the end of Chapter 1, however, the dribble itself stands within the history of basketball as a kind of outlaw or rogue maneuver that simultaneously violates the putative timeless spirit of the sport and thereby embodies perfectly a fluid, antiessentialist view of the game. The dribble, as Koppett puts it, is at once the sport’s “most identifying characteristic” and “one of the worst ailments of otherwise healthy basketball offenses.” Perhaps no particular form of the dribble exemplifies this better than the crossover.
When Iverson executed the crossover early in his career, he was sometimes whistled for a violation as it appeared to officials that he was actually carrying the ball to gain an advantage. But in addition, the crossover dribble is a product of urban playground experimentation and its culture of joyful individual one-upmanship. Alexander Wolff approvingly describes it as “of a piece with hip-hop culture” with its “rat-tat-tat rhythm, the badinage and braggadocio, and the distinctly big-city yearning to break-free of the crowd by making one’s mark.”
In this way, like the dunk before it—but perhaps even more dangerous because, as Wolff puts it, the crossover is more “democratic” (since you do not have to be tall or an exceptional leaper to execute it; you just have to practice)—the crossover dribble may bring the white basketball unconscious a little closer than it would like to come to the urban raw materials off which it secretly feeds but whose contextual realities it prefers in sensationalized, fantasy form.
Wolff’s comparison of the dunk and the crossover as different forms of individual self-expression, moreover, frames what might be the most evident and important symbolism of this particular crossover: Iverson (playground practitioner of the crossover par excellence) tries to get free of Jordan (the game’s most renowned dunker). In addition, this crossover echoes—through a kind of wordplay reminiscent of free-style rap—Iverson’s insistence on eluding Jordan’s ability to execute a crossover of a different sort (racially, I mean, as a commercial pitchman). When he turned pro, Iverson famously rejected a shoe deal with Nike because he felt the company would require him to follow in Jordan’s crossover footsteps. Instead, Iverson signed with Reebok, making the sole demand that “the company not try to change him.”
In this sense, in using the crossover to get free of Jordan, Iverson affirmed his independence and autonomy from the commercially tried-and-true, racial crossover model Jordan had established and, moreover, demonstrated the viability of his own path. Finally, this particular crossover, as an instance of perfect timing, evokes the kairos that reveals that—despite the myth of the greatest of all time—time has not stopped and that basketball (and other) history continues to march forward, as always, driven by the creativity of those with nothing to lose, for whom necessity is truly the mother of invention.
Now remember that Iverson scored on the play—two of the thirty-seven very efficient points he would put up on the defending champs that night. Recalling that the crossover is a means by which a point guard, usually the smallest man on the floor, can become a scoring threat draws Iverson’s crossover dribble into yet another framework of meaning: Bethlehem Shoals’s concept of a “positional revolution,” which I described in Chapter 5.
[. . .]
Iverson and his crossover present a revolution at the other end of the positional spectrum: the emergence of the scoring point guard. Iverson led the league in scoring four times from the point guard position and, moreover, in a body deemed relatively small by NBA point guard standards. Iverson may nowadays be criticized for inefficiency by some on the basis of (a misuse of) advanced statistical analysis of his play (more on this in Chapter 8), but it is also true that he paved the way for the style of play that characterizes the best point guards in the league today, such as Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, and Russell Westbrook, who create more opportunities for teammates by having established themselves as viable scoring threats capable of getting free for scores by use of, among other weapons, the crossover dribble.
Although fans may view the positional revolution as a tactical advance, even as such it carries a broader cultural significance, for as a tactical advance it was initiated by the successful experimentation of players who refused to be chained to a limited set of functions by conventional wisdom and the authority of coaches. These new physical moves and forms and new tactics emerged first experimentally in informal play before being presented in their more refined form to coaches—sheer unstoppability providing a kind of irrefutable argument.
Considering that the myth of blackness projects essentializing stereotypes concerning black Americans (especially black men) onto African American basketball players and so inhibits “their individuality, agency, and works toward curtailing any conception of black self-determination,” the positional revolution restores the thrill of witnessing black self-determination on the court.
In this sense, an emotionally expressive black player who effectively takes the game into his own hand by revolutionizing the point guard position appears as anathema to the conventional wisdom of the white basketball unconscious. The fact that even the most established of today’s coaches embrace the positional revolution should not obscure the fact that the positional revolution, like the dribble itself, began as a creative bid for autonomy and self-determination by players and one inaugurated precisely by a generation stereotyped as undisciplined dangers to the game, even as the game at its highest levels, as it always has, happily absorbed and exploited the entertainment and commercial value of their inventions.
Jorge Luis Borges once used the fiction of Franz Kafka as a lens through which to reconstruct a literary history of his “precursors.” Likewise, from the present vantage point, a player like Allen Iverson may serve as a lens through which we may retrospectively liberate other players—Jordan, Magic, Dr. J, Russell, and Chamberlain, to name just a few—from the hoops mausoleum in which the sport’s dominant culture has immured them. To see them through the lens of Iverson is to see them as constituting a renegade tradition of creative, self-determining hoops inventors that stretches back to both James Naismith and the game’s “incorrigible” first dribbler.”
However, I’m also realizing that there’s enough material, and enough curiosity on my part, to make a book out of this. Moreover, I discovered that there are no comprehensive histories of statistical thinking in basketball (or in sports, period) of the sort that exist for statistical thinking in general. So I think there’s a need; perhaps for a companion volume to Ball Don’t Lie! called Numbers Don’t Lie! The Quantification of Basketball. Who knows? Perhaps it’ll be volume 2 of a Hoops Quartet, I’m beginning to visualize.
As I learn more, I’m finding I’m more interested in understanding, describing, and offering interpretations of the various facets of the rise of basketball analytics and less interested in making judgments about it, as I did too hastily here.
To that end, today I formulated two basic questions guiding my thinking and research.
That is, I have questions about the causes or conditions of possibility for the rise of analytics and questions about the effects of this rise.
Next I tried to turn these questions into a concept map, to which I added a branch for milestone events.
I then started filling in some of the first conditions of possibility I could think off the top of my head, or that basketball people on Twitter suggested. There are in no particular order.
To this, I added just a few obvious effects, as placeholders.
Lastly, I begin to fill in some of the most obvious milestone events.
When all these nodes in the concept map are expanded, it looks like this:
I’m still working out how best to use this concept mapping platform, and welcome suggestions in that regard. But most of all, I’d like to draw on the varied, collective expertise of readers to help fill in facts, refine conceptual distinctions, and suggest sources and specific avenues of research.
Hans Gumbrecht continues his brief history of sports in the West by turning from the ancient Greek games at Olympia to the very different events held hundreds of years later at the Colosseum in Rome. Gumbrecht’s account of this is divided between descriptions of these events and an interpretation of what allure they may have held for the tens of thousands of spectators who attended.
Gumbrech vividly fills out our often oversimplified stock images of these events. Thus, a program of events, usually paid for by a sponsor to curry favor with the populace and organized by a hired planner (called an “editor”) might last several days and include Greek style athletic events, simulated hunts, chariot races, reenactments of historical battles, music, and, yes, as the culminating attraction, gladiatorial combat. Here, though Gumbrecht professes to be wishing to stress discontinuities in sport history, he notes the obvious ways in which these extravaganzas resemble our contemporary mega-events.
The most interesting part of this section of the book is, I think, Gumbrecht’s speculation concerning what might have been fascinated Romans about this. We tend to think it is a kind of frenzy of distraction and bloodlust. But, as Gumbrecht informs us, modern research maintains that by a ratio of 10:1, vanquished combatants were not killed, but rather released. So it wasn’t likely to be the prospect of seeing some hapless possibly overmatched or outwitted fighter killed that made these battles the main event.
Together with the initial asymmetry between the combatants, the moment of truth must have drawn the crowd’s attention exclusively toward not the victor but the loser, who—for a few moments at least–lived publicly in the face of death (p. 105)
And what they wanted to see, Gumbrecht argues (prefiguring some comments he will make in a later chapter describing our own contemporary fascination with suffering) is “composure, a face ‘frozen as ice,’ ‘hard as stone,’ impenetrable as a mask” (p 106). The combat in itself therefore was less important, he claims, than the moment it led up to; the moment in which the defeated gladiator could be transfigured through his public stoicism in the face of death into a heroic “icon for the psychic strength required to brave human frailty” (p. 106).
Jerry West walks off the court after losing again in the 1969 NBA Finals.
Two aspects of this strike me as interesting. The first is how strikingly familiar this attraction seems to me as a contemporary fan and student of sports cultures. That is, not only is the stage spectacular mega-event context for the moment of truth somewhat continuous with modern sports, but so is appeal of the image of the human face overcoming the agony of coming to the limit point of physical destruction, mental stress, sheer exhaustion, or even simply tragic defeat. Again, I’m a bit surprised to find that Gumbrecht’s own accounts, aimed at disrupting a “romantic view” of continuity between ancient and modern sports continue to show the opposite, at least as I understand them.
I’m interested in this because I’m continually trying to find ways to articulate my own sense that competition and the drive to win is essential to my enjoyment of sports, but not because winning (or losing) is especially interesting to me (even as a partisan of particular teams). It is because of all that competition sets in motion before, during, and after a contest. In this too, I see more continuity than discontinuity between the fascination of modern sports and Gumbrecht’s description of sports in ancient times.
Having defined the key terms of his investigation, “praise,” “beauty,” and “athletics,” Hans Gumbrecht proceeds, in the “Discontinuities” section of his In Praise of Athletic Beauty, to provide an outline history of sports in the West. But he wishes, he states from the outset, to disrupt what he calls the “romantic view” of this history which sees it as a continuous line from the ancient Olympics to the mega-events of today’s sports world (p. 85).
Instead, he argues, if you look at the history of sport from the vantage point of the variables he has already defined, “present-day sports are no longer the endpoint of one of htose long sagas of progress or decay that we have all read so many times” and this, he claims, is important because it “allows us to ask how it was possible—historically possible, I mean—that sports became so expansive and so important in our own time” (p. 88).
To that end, he will provide “brief sketches” of seven moments, each summed up with a one-word title. Thus, “Demigods” refers to Ancient Greece, “Gladiators” to Ancient Rome, “Knights” to the middle ages, “Ruffians” to the Renaissance, “Sportsmen” to the 19th century, “Olympians” to the 20th century, and “Customers” to our own era. I’ll be covering all of these, but for today’s post, I’m gonna stick to just the first of these: “Demigods.”
Olympia around 325 BCE
Gumbrecht begins by evoking an image of the arduous journey of days and even weeks undertaken by hundreds of athletes and tens of thousands of spectators to the village of Olympia every four years between 776 BCE and 394 BCE in order to ask the question that’s been driving most of his reflections thus far: ‘what the specific attraction of those five days spent at Zeus’ most famous sanctuary could have been? (p. 91). After briefly describing the lush, remote valley setting of Olympia, and the religious rituals and athletic contests unfolding over the five days of the games, Gumbrecht turns to the Odes of Pindar to get some answers to his question.
[For those whose knowledge of classical literature is sketchy, a little background information might be helpful here. Pindar of Thebes was a poet who lived from 518 BCE to probably 443 BCE. In the words of my colleague David Potter, in his work The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium, “Pindar was a poet who became famous because he wrote poems about the famous. His subjects were people who won at one or another of the four great athletic festivals of his time” (The Victor’s Crown, p. 37). And, according to Donald Kyle in Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, Pindar was “the greatest writer of victory (epinikian) odes,” having “composed 45 poems for victors from 16 states” in which he articulated “an aristorcratic ideology of athletic preparation, competition, and victory.” (Sport and Spectacle, p. 203) Pindar’s Odes, then, are widely used by scholars trying to convey a sense of athletics in Greece during this period.]
Gumbrecht sees in Pindar an “obsessive focus on the joy and pride that came with athletic triumphs” (p. 96) and so draws from this the conclusion that for spectators must have been drawn to the experience of “being in the presence—in the physical presence—of the athletes’ shining bodies at the moment of their highest performance” (p. 96). And he goes on to emphasize that this pleasure would be heightened by the “winner-take-all” emphasis at the games and, according to Gumbrecht, “in many nonathletic institutions in ancient Greece” (p. 96).
It’s all about the W.
I understand that Gumbrecht’s emphasis on the appeal of physical presence echoes the importance he has already sought to bodies and presence in his more theoretical, definitional meditations. And, though I am no expert in classical literature and culture, what little I have read of Pindar’s Odes seem to support his conjecture. I was, however, surprised to find Gumbrecht emphasize the central importance of winning (and so of competition) to the fascination of the games for spectators given that in his definition of athletics he argued that competition (agon) is secondary to excellence (arete) in athletics. But perhaps for Gumbrecht this exemplifies the sort of “discontinuity” that he wants to highlight. However, since I don’t really accept, theoretically or practically, his hierarchization (and occasional separation) of “excellence” and “competition”, his description here strikes me as quite familiar: “Winning and being remembered at Olympia gave athletes, their families, and their towns bragging rights that they used with a shamelessness” (p. 97). GoBlue.
The continuity between the ancient and the contemporary is even more evident when Gumbrecht turns to what was it in for the athletes: a springboard to success in other careers, fame, and fortune. As he rightly concludes, in the ancient Olympic games “a particular version of professionalism had emerged long before the ideal of the ‘amateur’ in the modern Olympic tradition” (p. 98). There’s an irony there involving, to put it bluntly, the hypocritical and ahistorical nonsense involved in deploying the category of the “amateur” as a moralizing bludgeon in the contemporary sporting universe, especially in the United States.
“But above all,” Gumbrecht comes to his conclusion, the games were appealing because “being in the presence of athletic greatness at Olympia meant being close to the gods.” He reminds us that unlike in the monotheistic traditions, the line dividing the divide from the mundane was porous. Rather than a transcendent deity perched on an immaterial throne, Greek gods roamed the earth and messed with human beings.
This, Gumbrecht argues, would dispose the Greek imagination to experience the athletic contests and achievements they witnessed as on a continuum with the divine attributes and battles with which they were familiar.
Because the boundaries that separated Greek gods from humans were so permeable, to aim for the highest level of physical perfection and to win an Olympic competition indeed elevated the victor to the status of a demigod (the ancient meaning of ‘hero’ is ‘demigod’). (p. 99)
To be in the immediate presence of such figures would understandably become an ecstatic experience, one that would make them feel “not just well but boundlessly well—about themselves, about the athletes, and about the divinely-infused world of which they were so intimately a part” (p. 99). Again, I’m not expert enough to gainsay this explanation. It seems plausible to me, if perhaps overly general and somewhat simplified.
But here again, I’m struck that Gumbrecht doesn’t seem, given his avowed dedication to establishing discontinuity, to recognize the continuity here between the classical and the contemporary. Pretty much every experience and value he attributes to the ancient Greek spectator (or athlete, for that matter), I think we could find in contemporary athletics. This doesn’t of course mean that there is an unbroken line connecting them, some transhistorical essential experience of athletics that simply incarnates itself continuously in every society at every moment in time over 2,500 years. But it does suggest that seeing some continuities might be more than just a romantic tic. What’s more, it suggests that seeing continuities might as important to understanding the scope and nature of modern sport in the West as recognizing discontinuities.
I’ll leave you with this astonishing and hilarious exhibition of how, for us as well, at least for some—for many—of us, “religious ecstasy and athletic ecstasy became one.”
As promised, I’m sharing my reading notes, thoughts, and questions on Hans Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty. Today, I want to look at the opening section of the book, entitled “Everyfan,” which occupies the place and fills the function of a preface or introduction.
In terms of structure, “Everyfan” consists of five very short sections. In the first four, Gumbrecht recalls a variety of personal experiences of watching sports. He first recalls in detail watching, as a novice fan, the then-young Montreal Canadiens goalkeeper Patrick Roy in a game at the Forum. The second section involves watching on screen: sumo wrestling on television at the Kansai Airport and clips of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics from Leni Riefenstahl’s famous propaganda film. In the third, he moves back to an early memory of watching a minor childhood soccer hero (the goalkeeper Egon Loy) in person during his youth, and then running into Loy after a match. This leads him, in the fourth, to an even earlier memory (“the first individual sports event he would remember”) of listening to the 1954 German World Cup victory on the radio, to a memory, a decade later, of an aging Loy beaten on a goal by Hamburg’s Uwe Seeler, to, finally, the memory of listening to “Cassius Clay” cleverly respond to interviewer’s questions after his title fight defenses. In the final section, he reflects on what these memories might suggest about the feelings involved in watching sports, the role of memory and time in those feelings, and the potential value of trying to understand and convey the power of those experiences.
This immersion into the sensory world of Gumbrecht’s (and possibly our own) memories of fascinating sporting performances leads to a couple of different more general themes that will be important to the book. Though Gumbrecht doesn’t use these terms, I found it useful to group these themes into the categories of “conditions,” “experiences” and “tools.”
The key condition Gumbrecht identifies as “distance.” It emerges as he shifts from Roy and Jesse Owens to the lesser known hero of his childhood Egon Loy:
It need not always be the objectively greatest of all times and the best of the world for sports to transfigure its heroes in the eyes of passionate spectators. All that it takes to become addicted to sports is a distance between the athlete and the beholder—a distance large enough for the beholder to believe that his heroes inhabit a different world. For it is under this condition that athletes turn into objects of admiration and desire.
I like this proposition because it seems to me both obviously and simply true and deceptively complex, so that I found my initial assent quickly complicated by a number of questions. How do we define the boundaries of the worlds that our athletic heroes and we ourselves supposedly inhabit? How do we measure the distance between those worlds? What is the role of proximity in that experience? After all, while that distance may be essential, I think we’re only likely to perceive it and experience it and the thrill it supposedly delivers, if we are also somehow close to those heroes—close either physically or in some other, metaphorical sense.
This same passage offers the first reference to the two primary “experiences” that Gumbrecht explicitly identifies in this section of the book: “transfiguration” and “fascination.” There’s a kind of chain of equivalence or association that stretches across these three sentences in this passage that makes me think that “transfiguration of heroes” = “addiction to sports” = “turning athletes into objects of admiration and desire” — all of which occur under the “condition” of “a distance large enough for the beholder to believe that his heroes inhabit a different world”. Later, that “transfiguring power” will be described in terms of its effect: “drawing his gaze to things he would no normally appreciate, like grotesquely overweight wrestlers, woolen caps with shields, or half-naked bodies that hold no sexual interest.” (p. 16)
But that makes the experience of the transfiguration of athletes appear as the flip side of what is happening to us in that same moment: namely, “fascination” when something “irresistibly captures the attention and imagination of so many people like himself” or “a phenomenon that manages to paralyze the eyes, something that endlessly attracts, without implying any explanation for its attraction” (p 16).
It’s in view of this that Gumbrecht’s decision to open the book with a series of vividly described sensory memories begins to make more sense and operate more powerfully. For he’s interested, in a nutshell, in the material, sensory experiences that arise between two (or more) bodies involved (as participant or witness) in a sporting performance and he wants to isolate and convey the involuntary and pre- or ir- or extra-rational dimensions of those experiences. And this makes sense to me when I recall what I know of the history of aesthetics, which began as a philosophy of sensation (the word “aesthetics” comes from the Greek aisthesis which just means “sensation” — we might consider this in relation to the term anesthesia). If Gumbrecht’s book is about athletic beauty and we think of aesthetics as philosophical thinking about beauty, then I see here that his first contribution is to assert very strongly, in form, style, and content, the irreducibly material quality of athletic beauty.
This emphasis on materiality, on the bodies involved, may also explain Gumbrecht’s brief meditation on the difference between remembering an athletic performance and witnessing one in the present. “Watching sports,” he reports, was about “being there when and where things happened and forms emerged through bodies, in real presence and in real time” (p. 14). In this sense, memories are a second best to “lived experience.” But that doesn’t make them useless or irrelevant. He describes a kind of mutual complication and intensification arising from the interaction of memories with lived experience whereby the past is recharged by the present and the present is complicated or enriched by the memory of the past. What strikes me as interesting here, though I don’t know whether Gumbrecht explicitly intends it or not, is that he’s suggesting that another complicated interplay between distance and presence or proximity is important to the sporting experience: the temporal distance between past and present.
Finally, Gumbrecht confesses that he really doesn’t know why this is so fascinating to him and he’s not even sure that the attraction will “become more intense if he knew its reasons. (p. 16). He’s certainly quick to say that sports don’t need “this kind of wordy blessing.” But he concludes that “he would not want to exclude the possibility that trying to understand his fascination may intensify his pleasure, and help him learn how to praise the achievements of his heroes, then and now” (p. 16).
I like this. I like it a lot. I like the idea that understanding may deepen pleasure (something I’m often trying to impress upon my sports fan students: that understanding need not be the enemy of love; perhaps even that true love cannot do without understanding). I like that the impulse to understanding is related to an impulse to speak, to praise, to affirm, not because sports needs that affirmation, but because, it seems, Gumbrecht can’t help himself; the impulse to praise is irrepressible. But I like it finally because he wants to do it well, he wants his writing in praise of athletic beauty to be as beautiful, as fascinating, as transfiguring as the performance itself. He wants, in other words, to do in words what his athletic heroes have done with their bodies: on the ice, the field, the mat, the ring, the court.