Sport offers opportunities for the integrated experience of human embodiment. At the same time, sport occurs within, shapes and is shaped by a sometimes vexing tension in which individual desire unfolds and contends with various broader converging forces such as physical limitation, natural and artificial environments, technology, institutional norms, cultural attitudes and stereotypes, social circumstances, and political struggles. Scholars in disciplines from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities have all shed important light on these different dimensions of sport. For this volume in the series Studies in Somaesthetics, we intend to develop a mutually illuminating and enriching dialogue between sport, broadly conceived, and the interdisciplinary methods of somaesthetics.
Richard Shusterman, who coined the term, has defined somaesthetics as “the critical study and meliorative cultivation of the soma as our medium of perceptual appreciation and performance but also as the site of our expressive self-fashioning” and as “concerned with a wide diversity of knowledge forms, discourses, social practices and institutions, cultural traditions and values, and bodily disciplines that structure (or could improve) such somatic understanding and cultivation.”
(For more on somaesthetics and the series Studies in Somaesthetics, please see the series page on Brill’s website.)
As such, somaesthetics describes at once topics and perspectives that might emerge from any discipline in the arts, humanities, social sciences or natural sciences and that may be brought to bear on any sporting phenomenon from organized mainstream sports (soccer, American football, tennis, etc.) to so-called action sports (Parkour, surfing, hang gliding) and from recreational sports (pickup basketball, squash) to wellness activities (yoga, swimming, pilates) to curricular initiatives in physical education.
We welcome contributions from scholars, from any discipline and on any aspect of sport, with an interest in cultivating the dialogue between sport and somaesthetics. We are interesting not only applications of somaesthetics to sport, but in ways that the study of sport may contribute new questions, topics, and methods to somaesthetics. With that in mind, some possible topics, foci, lines of tension, and questions potential contributors may consider:
How do the respective somaesthetics experiences of spectator and participant differ? How are they similar? How do they mutually shape one another?
What role may somaesthetics play in developing curricula in wellness and physical education?
What are the somaesthetic qualities of athletic training and performance?
How do emerging scientific and technological discourses and practices relating to sport impact the somaesthetics of sport?
To what extent and in what way is there a role for explicit, critical body consciousness or reflective somaesthetic awareness in sports? Is it limited to training or does it extend to competent or high-level performance.
How might a somaesthetic perspective approach the risk, prevalence, and impact of injury in sport (for example, but not only, of concussions and concussion-related brain trauma)?
How might somaesthetics shed light on the position of the sporting body as a site of social difference and political struggle, and vice-versa?
What are the somaesthetic dimensions of disability sport? What sort of light can the study of disability sport shed on the topics and methods of somaesthetics?
How do situational variations in sport (informal/recreational vs. institutionalized/commercial; individual vs. team vs. collective) impact the kinds of somaesthetic experiences available to spectators and participants?
What roles do different media (news, broadcast, instructional, social) play in shaping the somaesthetic dimensions of sport?
How do different spaces and environments—public or private, massive stadiums or informal playgrounds, urban, suburban, rural, or natural, indoor or outdoor, —shape the somaesthetics of sport?
How are the somaesthetics of sport impacted by the varied conditions of sport—from private, individual or group recreational activities to elaborately staged, commercial spectacles?
What relationships exist between the arts (literature, visual arts, music, cinema) and the somaesthetic dimension of sport?
In what ways might somaesthetic dimensions of sport, or somaesthetic approaches to sport, shed light on any of the functions regularly attributed to sport (e.g. escape, social bonding and identification, ideological interpellation, cultural struggle, and/or art and creative self-expression)?
Information about abstract and paper submissions.
Authors should submit a separate cover page indicating: author’s name, institutional affiliation, paper title, abstract of 250 words, word count, keywords, and contact information.
Abstracts due **November 15, 2018**
Papers should be between 6,000 and 8,000 words and prepared for blind review. They should also be prepared according to the publisher’s style guidelines as indicated on the Brill website.
Final papers due early Fall, 2019.
All submissions should be sent to Professor Yago Colás (firstname.lastname@example.org). Please put “Studies in Somaesthetics Submission: Somaesthetics and Sport” in the subject line.
Yesterday morning, ESPN.com posted a video clip entitled “Smith the wrong Cav to take final shot.” The caption explained: “According to Second Spectrum, JR Smith was not the best Cavalier to try the game-winner, as Jordan Clarkson was more than four times more likely to make the final shot.”
“What shall we call this devotion to breaking down things and energies and practices and perceptions into uniform parts and counting them?” asked historian Alfred Crosby in his history of measurement in early modern Europe. “This is quantification” he answered, speaking its name, before concluding: “This is how we reach out for physical reality, push aside its darling curls, and take it by the nape of the neck.”
And this is how we reach out for basketball reality, push aside its complexity and dynamic fluidity, and take it by the nape of the neck: Read more
I stood in my socks in our unfinished basement. My body tingled with anticipation. But from my heels to my head, I tried to make my body as straight and flat as the poured concrete it was pressed against. I looked straight ahead, as levelly as possible. My father held a metal ruler flat against the top of my head, its sharp edged pressed perpendicular to the wall. “Ahora, ¡quédate quieto!” he commanded.
I froze myself, not just my bones and muscles and face, but all the way to my cells and the blood in my beating heart, I froze. It was important to keep perfectly still or everything would be inaccurate and ruined.
My father ran the freshly sharpened point of a pencil along the edge of the ruler against the wall, making a clean, straight line. I could hear the even steady scratch of the lead.
I didn’t need to be told to step out from under the ruler and get out of the way. With one hand my Dad held the flat metal tab at the end of his heavy duty tape measure against the floor where my heels had been a moment before. Pushing its right angle securely into the corner, he then jammed it still more firmly, just for good measure. “Pón tu dedo aquí, y mantenlo fijo.” Nervously, I obeyed, getting down on the cool floor and putting my finger against the tab, careful not to let it move. I felt him push his own finger against mine, as if to nail it to the right spot. Then, one end anchored, he slowly raised himself up, unspooling the tape measure up the wall toward the freshly drawn black line.
Watching silently, I saw the numbers appear from inside the metal housing, first inches, then the larger, bold “1” in red: the first foot. “2.” The second foot. The inches rolled by and I counted them rapidly in my mind—“32,” “33,” “34,” “35,” “36”—then the big red “3”: the third foot. But I already knew I was more than three feet tall. I couldn’t even remember ever being less than three feet tall. “37,” “38,” “39.”
Anyway, I was good at math. I knew there were twelve inches in a foot, and so I knew that the key number was 47; that after 47 the next inch would be 48 and 48 was 4 feet: my goal. As my father’s hand crept steadily up the wall toward the pencil mark on the wall, I watched more closely as the inches crept upward into the mid-forties. It slowed down, I could see the tall, half-inch and even the shorter, quarter-inch hash marks march by. “45,” “46,” “46 1/2.” It slowed to a crawl. “47,” “47 1/4,” “47 1/2.” Almost there. “47 3/4.” Focused intently on the parade of numbers, I’d lost sight of where the housing was in relation to the mark on the wall. I was surprised when my gaze came to an abrupt halt. The tape measure had stopped. The numbers held still, the red number “4” remained inside the housing, waiting implacably.
I had failed to become four feet tall.
“Suéltalo hijo”: my father’s voice broke through the stupor of disappointed disbelief into which I’d had fallen. My end of the tape measure obediently snapped back up to my father’s hand.
I was disappointed, but all was not lost. I’d been through this before. I knew that the absolute measure was only the first part, and not even the most important one. What mattered more than my height was how tall I was compared to other boys my age.
I followed my father, past the engraved plaque—“Dr. Antonio E. Colás, M.D., Ph.D.”—by the doorway to his den, into the dense, comforting aroma of pipe tobacco mixed with old papers and books. There, in its place on the metal shelving, was the thick, red, hard bound volume with the words “CIBA-GEIGY Scientific Tables” embossed on the spine. I did not know what those words meant. But I knew that inside the book, and (because I’d sneaked in here many times to look at it) precisely where inside the book, there was a page on which two groups of lines gracefully snaked their way from the lower left to the upper right of a graph. The lower group was for weight, which I did not care about it. The upper group was for height. At the top of the page was the chart title: “2-20 years: Boys” and below that “Stature-for-age and Weight-for-age percentiles.”
I’d learned what this meant two years before, just before my 5thth birthday. Having measured me, my father showed me the graph, and carefully put a small plus sign at the point where my age intersected with my height. The plus sign was just above the lowest line of the upper group.
Then, standing next to my father, who was seated at his desk, I watched as he drew a row of ten, faceless stick-figure boys on a blank sheet of paper. Each boy was a little taller than the boy to his right, my left as I looked at them. Next he drew another boy, all the way to the left of the page, who was a little shorter than the shortest boy. Above that boy’s head he wrote my name: “Yago.” Then he explained to me that “percentile” allowed me to see how I measure up against all the other boys my age: how many were taller than me, and how many were shorter. He was careful to note that even though his drawing made me look like the shortest boy of all, there were actually four boys shorter than me (out of 100), whom he had not drawn. That meant I was in the 5th percentile.
There were also other plus signs on the page, all marked above or very near to the upper-most line. They were for my oldest brother. He was nine years older than me, played basketball and already had two gold trophies: a basketball player standing tall, reaching high above his head with a tiny golden basketball cradled in his palm. My goal was to have my plus signs bound up the page so they’d be next to his—that, and to get trophies of my own.
Already last year, at 6, having shot up 6 1/2 inches from the year before, I’d tasted the thrill of passing half the boys in the row. Now at age 7, what mattered to me even more than being four feet tall, which I was not, was how high my plus sign would climb on that ladder of lines, where I would stand in that row of stick-figure boys.
My father opened the book to the percentile tables and laid it flat on a work table. He hovered the fine-point pen he’d removed from his plastic pocket protector just above the page, following the line up from the number “7” printed above the word “Age” on the x-axis, while his left index finger moved to meet it from the left-hand side of the page, along an imaginary line just below the number “48.” Before he even marked the spot with the little plus-sign, I could see where they’d meet: just below the middle one of the group of lines. Not only had I not moved up any lines, I’d actually moved down, from just above the middle line last year to just below it this year.
One of the stick-figure boys had shouldered confident past me, dropping me from 5th place to 6th. I had not grown fast enough. I did not measure up. What was wrong with me?
Moments after the final buzzer signaled the improbable triumph of the Cleveland Cavaliers over the Golden State Warriors in this year’s NBA Finals, Cavs star LeBron James fell away from a celebratory team embrace and collapsed to the floor, wracked with sobs. Encircled by teammates, cameramen, and others, some of whom set hands on his shoulders or rubbed his head or back, LeBron lifted his head slightly, only to let it fall back against his forearm, his hand covering his eyes.
* * *
Earlier this year I wrote an essay describing what I hated about the Warriors. In it, I lamented what I took to be the eclipsing of uncertainty and surprise by their efficient domination of the game. Friends, including friends who are analytics enthusiasts, tried to get me to relax. For all that analytics may aspire to “tame chance,” they rightly argued, the game of basketball and its players are too complex to ever eliminate uncertainty and surprise. I was grimly unswayed throughout the season.
Even in the Finals, my assessment of Golden State’s first two victories took this form: “Every Golden State basket looks effortless and expected. Every Cleveland basket looks ugly and lucky.” That’s when I posted on the Facebook wall of a friend who was a Golden State fan on his birthday, “I hope someone bought you a broom because you’re gonna need it when the Dubs sweep.” The prognosticating website 538 was more generous, giving the Cavs an 11 % chance of winning the title at that point. When Cleveland fell behind three games to one after dropping game four at home, the already absolute certainty with which I knew that Golden State would win the series became, somehow, improbably, even greater. At that point, 538 had the Cavs chances at 5 %.
Cleveland won Game 5 to make the series three games to two. But because Draymond Green of the Warriors had been suspended, I didn’t count that victory. All I considered was the stupid shit the talking heads were repeating endlessly: no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA finals, the Warriors had not lost three straight in two years, the Warriors had only lost two games at home in the whole regular season.
So sure, the Cavs got Game 5 in Oakland (with Draymond out), but neither Curry nor Klay Thompson had really gotten on track yet and still Cleveland was struggling to win games and to keep Golden State from scoring, so even if somehow, the Cavs managed to draw inspiration from the home crowd and win Game 6, they had no chance at all of winning Game 7 in Oakland. 538 agreed with me: Cavs had only a 20% percent chance of winning the title (even if they had a 59 % chance of winning Game 6).
Then they won Game 6. I was happy for them. I was delighted by the sight of Steph Curry whipping his pacifier mouthguard into the crowd in a petulant tantrum. But it didn’t change any of my calculations and only modestly bumped up 538’s estimate of the Cavs’ chances of winning to 35 %. Would you bet on a 35 % free throw shooter to make the next shot? Me neither.
In the first quarter of Game 7 I was dispirited. Though the Cavs held a slim one point lead, I felt like I was watching the first two games again. Every Cavs’ bucket looked hard, unlikely, while Golden State’s baskets were the predictable swished threes and wide-open dunks. Who do you think is gonna win that game?
The second quarter confirmed my impression. Golden State built a seven point lead by halftime as Cleveland’s defense fell apart, leaving Draymond Green to assume the role of the Splash Brothers’ new baby sibling, while their own offense continued to creak and sputter and smoke. To wit: more than one fifth of Cleveland’s offensive production in the second quarter came on a single four point play by Iman Shumpert. Iman Shumpert: you know what Iman Shumpert shot from behind the three point line in the series? 26.7 % (21.4 % if you take away that three in the second quarter of Game 7) We gonna ride Iman Shumpert four-point plays to the ‘ship? Yeah, I don’t think so either.
The second half was, as many have noted, a game of brief runs filled with both brilliant plays and tragic blunders on both sides. Cleveland closes the gap, Golden State pulls away, Cleveland comes back and pulls ahead, Golden State answers with a run to take a one point lead into the fourth. The fourth quarter is even tighter, with neither team able to generate more than a four point lead, which Golden State managed to do with 5:37 left in the game on a Draymond Green jump shot that gave them an 87-83 lead. What, I am asking myself at this point, are the chances that Cleveland outscores the Golden State Warriors by five points in the final five minutes of Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the Warriors’ home floor? At that point, I guess, I probably figured that the first team to 95 would probably win it. What’s more likely? That Golden State scores eight points in the next five minutes, or that Cleveland scores twelve? Nate Silver, what do you think?
Then improbability—no, impossibility (from my vantage point, anyway) happened. Golden State, the most devastatingly efficient offense in NBA history, scored two more points in the rest of the game (and none in the final four). Cleveland, of course, scored 10. But still I didn’t believe. The Kyrie three? I was elated, but I didn’t think they would win. LeBron’s free throw? There’s still ten seconds left: you think the Warriors can’t put up four points in 10 seconds? You haven’t watched the Warriors.
But I was wrong. The Warriors didn’t score another point. The buzzer sounded. LeBron fell into the group hug and then to his knees and then into convulsive weeping.
Here’s the thing: I still didn’t believe it happened. I really couldn’t take it in, couldn’t accept that everything I knew for sure would happen did not happen. In the past few days I’ve been walking around my patch of Northeast Ohio, of Believeland, wearing Cavs gear. People stop me. We say different things, but the thing we say most often is: “I still can’t believe it.”
* * *
So what is wrong with me besides the apparent fact for all my understanding of how the cultural narratives of basketball work, I have next to no ability to predict the outcome of basketball games? Of course I don’t: basketball games are unpredictable.
But that was my whole point to begin with. So what is wrong with me, I mean, that despite my well-documented, vitriolic protestations against certainty, I clung so stubbornly to my own certainty. I suppose I was, in a long tradition of idiotic sports fandom, hedging against disappointment: if I could maintain my certain disbelief in the possibility of a Cavs victory, I wouldn’t feel let down when Golden State did what they were supposed to do.
But there was more to it than that. There was also a semi-conscious, pathetic stab at shaping the outcome: if I could (with apologies to the President) keep hope dead, I wouldn’t jinx the Cavs. That’s a tricky balancing act, as anyone who has tried it knows, because the moment you become conscious of what you’re doing, you ruin it and have to start all over again. Pretty soon you’re spending the whole game rapping your knuckles against your stupid wooden head to prevent who knows what horrible thing you have no control over from happening.
That’s lame, I know. But I think that it also points to something in me that is not lame. It tells me that for my all my intellectual abilities, for all my scholarly detachment, I cared. That’s not lame. I really, really, really wanted the Cavs to win. Even more, I desperately wanted LeBron to win.
After all, I’m the guy who this year published a book whose last page looks like this:
I wanted what I came to believe LeBron stood for to win: the indestructible autonomous power of those marginalized and despised and written off and undervalued in this world to win. I wanted that freedom to win.
* * *
But the thing about freedom is that it is, well, free. You can’t control the vicissitudes of its exercise, particularly by others. You don’t know whether they’ll use it or how it will go if they try. It seems obvious that you can’t do this, as it seems obvious that all my mental machinations will not affect even a tiny bit what LeBron does with his freedom on or off the court, or how the game will come out.
But I think, seemingly paradoxically, that’s what makes these machinations so appealing to me. They become a kind of playhouse in which I can act out—precisely without risk or consequence—my own daily struggles to be free and to help others be free.
Think of daily life as a Cavs possession and the task of carving out and renewing my own freedom as trying to get a bucket. You—or at least I—rarely get the LeBron breakaway dunk thrown like a thunderbolt from the sky, or the string of JR Smith step back threes raining in like meteorites, or Kyrie crafting some bank shot while lying on his back in the corner with four people on top of him. Mostly, daily life ends in turnovers, ill-advised, contested step-back threes and Matthew Dellevedova air-balled floaters. Then you need a time out and you brace yourself for Klay to put up 40 on you or Steph to bank in an underhanded scoop from half-court, on which you also fouled him. Perhaps I am not alone in not being astute enough to have figured out how to maximize the former and minimize the latter.
Under these conditions, I guess it’s easier for me to speculate about probabilities and to pretend that by doing so I am affecting the outcome of events I do not control (especially when I’ve already forged an association between those events and freedom). After all, because I don’t control them and because it’s all in my head, it can go on forever, frictionlessly skating along on the surface of reality, which never gets traction on it.
But here’s the thing. The Cavs did win, LeBron really did dominate, and he really did collapse on the floor in sobs. These things happened. independently of the probability of their happening. They were not destined to happen. They were not miracles. They just happened. Perhaps in some important way they happened because neither LeBron nor anyone else intimately involved in making them happened devoted much energy to speculating about the likelihood they would succeed.
I think that’s how freedom, in tiny and massive ways, probably happens: when it happens; I mean, when people—me, you, LeBron—go ahead exercise freedom, put freedom into the world even when Nate Silver puts the chances of success at, like, 5 %.
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.”
I’m realizing from the feedback on my post about basketball analytics that the issues the phenomenon raises are more complex than what I’d thought or allowed for in that post. In fact, they are too complex to properly examine in any single blog post.
Truthfully, all this has been part of a longer, academic project that has me very excited, very curious, and very impatient to know more. That impatience, led me to cast my “reflections and reservations” about analytics in an aura of understanding and conviction that belied my confusion and uncertainty and concealed the fact that I’m at the beginning of an open-ended process of discovery.
In fact, I have a lot to learn. I don’t at this point have a firm grasp of the methods of basketball analytics at this point, nor of how they are implemented institutionally. I’m not sure what they might “mean” for the culture of basketball, nor, therefore, do I have a definitive opinion about them. In all these areas, what I have are glimpses and impressions, partial comprehension, intuitions and half-formed thoughts, strongly felt but as yet poorly understood aversions and attractions, and questions I’m not entirely sure how to formulate.
At this point, I’m not even sure that it’s accurate to say that I have “reservations about analytics.” To be honest, I’m just ravenously curious to better understand analytics (both the reasoning and its institutional implementation) and how it harmonizes with or sits in tension with other facets of the culture of the sport that might be characterized as irreducibly “subjective” or “qualitative”.
Maybe this means I should keep my mouth shut until I figure it out. But—you guessed it—I don’t think so. For one thing, maybe unfortunately for readers, I learn not only by reading and reflecting in solitude, but also by writing, both by the process of putting thoughts into words and having words shape my thoughts and by the process of considering the feedback of readers. But also I believe, or at least hope, that my sharing that process with readers can enliven a broader conversation about the various complicated aspects of this issue. So let me make another pass at this, with greater care, humility, transparency, and respect for the complexity of the issues.
First, all my research into the history of basketball and its cultural accompaniments indicates that to grasp any element of the sport requires us to consider its relationship to the broader social context, beyond hoops, in which it has occurred. I’ve seen nothing yet to persuade me that the rise of analytics is any exception. My research has also confirmed what I believe by temperament: that the culture of basketball is just that—a culture. This means that we all contribute to it to varying degrees and in varying ways and that we all bear responsibility for the shape it’s in and the future directions it takes.
Second, here is a partial and inchoate list of issues (or terms or concepts) that I have come to think are in some way or another in play: quantification, statistical reasoning, probability, chance, prediction, beauty, knowledge, fact, Protestantism, aesthetics, emotion, economics, competition, winning, efficiency, discipline, innovation, creativity, order, chaos, big data, play, surveillance, ethics, labor, profit, capitalism, rules, the market, and value.
I view all these terms, considered both in and out of basketball, and each with its own history, as threads woven together into a complicated, dynamic, still unfolding fabric. That fabric is basketball. That means it’s difficult for me to grasp the end of any particular thread and follow it without running into other threads running alongside or intersecting with it.
Thoughts and Questions on Winning
That said, I’ve got to start somewhere and for the moment I’m interested in winning, by which I mean, winning games as a goal for owners, coaches, players, fans, and other stakeholders in NBA basketball. It appears that if winning is your goal, basketball analytics provides you with a set of methods for understanding how to do that in general and, if you’re smart, you can learn to adapt the insights provided by analytics to your personnel to achieve more wins given the current rules governing play and the laws and contracts governing the construction of teams. Moreover, if you’re an owner, analytics also promises to generate those wins, as Daryl Morey put it in 2005, for less money. Winning, it seems, is valuable and valued, and so, like any valuable and valued thing, if you can get it more cheaply, all the better.
I’m not sure yet whether I want to try to question whether winning is a primary goal of everyone with a stake in NBA basketball. I wouldn’t know how to determine that, and anyway it does seem that winning is a primary goal for most of those (like owners and general managers) in a position to influence the way basketball gets played in the NBA, which really is more to the point. And I’m guessing, though I’m not sure, that winning is their primary goal, among other reasons, because they presume that winning is a primary goal of most fans, who express that by spending money on the sport and so generate revenues for those decision makers.
But I do want to challenge the assumption that winning should be the primary goal and its frequently voiced corollary that it is natural for winning to be the primary goal where professional (or any other) sporting events are concerned. At the very least, I’d to make room in the conversation to ask some questions.
Is the drive to win really natural?
If not, how and by what forces did winning became the primary goal?
According to what criteria of rightness or goodness do we assert that winning should be the primary goal?
How were those criteria determined? And by who?
What impact, if any, does the primacy of winning have on the way professional basketball gets played?
What other aims do stakeholders bring to their engagement with NBA hoops?
What elements of play do these aims lead these stakeholders to value?
How are these aims and elements of play impacted, if at all, by the primacy of winning and the elements and styles of play valued by the drive to win?
Let’s say that I have a friend who worries that the drive to win, harnessed to the drive to make a profit, and capacitated by the powerful tools of basketball analytics, is tending toward a homogenization of the game by a process of “capitalist selection,” what should I tell my friend to do?
I have some thoughts about these questions, but I don’t want to take up too much time. I realize there’s nothing terribly groundbreaking or provocative here. But I’m hoping by taking it slow to invite reasoned conversation and to lay the groundwork for actually generating insight. In any event, in my next post on the topic, I’ll to begin to explore these questions. . . . unless, of course, the questions change in the meantime.
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.