Disbelieveland

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:

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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 Culture of Moving Dots

Here is a video of “The Culture of Moving Dots: Toward a History of Counting and of What Counts in Basketball,” a public presentation I gave last week at a workshop on “Doing Sport History in the Digital Present.” The workshop was sponsored by the North American Society for Sport History and the Georgia Tech Sport, Society, and Technology Program. A few people who couldn’t be there had asked if I could make it available.

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 Basketball that 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.

The Radical Free Agency of LeBron James

IMG_2056 (1)I spoke recently to the Department of Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College. I enjoyed reframing and revising the work on LeBron James’s “Decision” and “Return” that I published in Ball Don’t Lie! and also producing what I hope is an engaging visual accompaniment.

I hope you enjoy.

 

 

 

Inventing Basketball Autonomy (Ball Don’t Lie! Excerpt)

Allen Iverson was recently elected into the basketball Hall of Fame. To honor his inspiring career, I offer this excerpt from my new book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball.

It is the final section of Chapter 7, “The Myth of Blackness, March 12, 1997.”  Readers might recognize the date: that’s the night Iverson famously crossed-over Michael Jordan. The first part of the chapter analyzes media coverage of the game, which portrayed Iverson’s performance in racialized stereotypes with a long history in basketball culture and in American society. The second part of the chapter examines the factors, in and out of basketball, that shaped such perceptions of Iverson and other black players of his generation.  And in this final section, I offer my own interpretation of this famous play as way to disrupt these perceptions and the myths they give rise to.

“I saw Iverson cross Jordan on television when it first happened, and I have viewed it again since then to prepare for classes. But in drafting this chapter, I wanted to see it again. I found it mesmerizing and could not stop watching—again and again, clicking on different links to see the different angles and replays and commentaries and contexts. The whole play is so quick: from the time Iverson gets the ball to the time the shot drops through the net takes no more than twelve seconds, the actual cross no more than about four seconds. So my interest partly stems from cognitive thirst, as though I were watching a magician at work, replaying frame by frame to see how Iverson did it, to isolate the moment that sealed Jordan’s fate. But I can see there’s something more than detached intellectual curiosity about technique driving me there. There’s also an affective investment at work, an emotional response—admiration? gratitude? even love?—that keeps me glued to the play.

Hans Gumbrecht rightly observes that “what we enjoy in the great moments of a ballgame is not just the goal, the touchdown, the home run, or the slam dunk” but “the beautiful individual play that takes form prior to the score.” A “beautiful play,” Gumbrecht writes, “is produced by the sudden, surprising convergence of several athletes’ bodies in time and space.” Indeed, Leonard Koppett, decades earlier, had already noted the way in which, because baskets themselves are relatively routine, basketball draws attention to the play unfolding before the score and, in particular, to its style. Perhaps obviously, this applies to the Iverson crossover. The pick and the flip pass prompt a switch in defensive assignments that suddenly put Jordan (the league’s top player) on Iverson (the league’s top rookie).

Even set plays, Gumbrecht continues, become surprising because they are achieved “against the unpredictable resistance of the other team’s defense.” Ideally, a ball screen for the point guard that results in a defensive switch creates an advantage for the offensive team in that a larger and presumably slower player is now left alone to defend the smaller, quicker point guard (and at the same time, the smaller defensive guard is left alone to defend the larger offensive player who set the original screen and who may roll toward the basket where he can better exploit his height advantage). But in this case, although the expected size differentials did occur—the six-foot-six Jordan was left alone to defend Iverson, who was perhaps six feet tall, in the center of the floor—they do not lead to any obvious advantage for Philadelphia because Jordan was also quick and widely considered the best defensive player in the game at the time. So as Gumbrecht describes it, “The team in possession of the ball tries to create a play and avoid chaos, its opposing team in the defensive position tries to destroy the emerging form and precipitate chaos.”

In addition to this complex and unpredictable convergence of bodies, Gumbrecht argues, part of the fascination of plays as epiphanies lies in their temporality—that is, in the fact that they begin to end the moment they start. “No still photograph,” Gumbrecht writes, “can ever capture the beauty of this temporalized reality.” Indeed, my own repeated replays of even the video of the play testify to the elusive—because temporally finite—quality of the beautiful play. Moreover, considering the temporal aspect of the play suggests also another fascinating aspect of the crossover: good timing, which Gumbrecht defines as “perfect fusion between a perception of space and the initiation of movement . . . the intuitive capacity to bring one’s body to a specific place at the very moment when it matters to be there.”

Violence for Gumbrecht is “the act of occupying spaces or blocking their occupation by others through the resistance of one’s body.” Timing, then, relates to violence because “the player will be in the right place” at the right time “either because the spot in question will not be occupied (not covered) by the body of another player at that moment, or precisely because the body of another player will occupy it.” The latter describes good defensive timing whereas the former describes good timing from the perspective of the offensive player trying to get free. Jordan tries to anticipate where Iverson will be in the next instant so he can be there instead, while Iverson, of course, tries to—and does—get to the spot where Jordan will not be.

Koppett, again, seems to have presaged the central point of Gumbrecht’s comments on timing when he described the central task of the basketball player as “getting free,” although he centered on deception and fakery (rather than timing) as the means by which basketball players do this. Good timing, however, may also simply be a component of effective deception. At least, it is with Iverson’s crossover, in which it is not simply a matter of leaning explosively in one direction to throw the defender off balance (the fake) but of intuitively grasping the perfect moment to yank the ball quickly back in the other direction (the cross) to get free. That precise moment might be thought of as the kairos, which, you may recall from the preceding chapter, was what the Greeks called the opportune moment for invention and, indeed, as the instant in which an opportunity presents itself to crack open the still tomb of the end of history.

Beautifully ephemeral and deceptively magical, Iverson’s cross evokes the image of a jagged flash of lightning splitting the night sky. An epiphany of form, to be sure, the play reminds me of the position described by T. S. Eliot in the poem “The Dry Salvages”: “we had the experience but missed the meaning, and approach to the meaning restores the experience.”  Eliot might have had in mind something like a beautiful play, the illuminating arc that emerges and vanishes before you know it. Something’s happened; it was beautiful and elevating and thrilling and it somehow left itself in you. But what was it? Eliot suggests that approaching the meaning (trying to read the play, to understand what it meant) can restore the experience. That restored experience may be in a different form, but it may still, like the original, deliver an illuminating affective shine that eludes confining meanings.

As an individual tactic, a crossover dribble means the attempt, via precisely timed deception, by a player to get free from a defender. As we saw at the end of Chapter 1, however, the dribble itself stands within the history of basketball as a kind of outlaw or rogue maneuver that simultaneously violates the putative timeless spirit of the sport and thereby embodies perfectly a fluid, antiessentialist view of the game. The dribble, as Koppett puts it, is at once the sport’s “most identifying characteristic” and “one of the worst ailments of otherwise healthy basketball offenses.” Perhaps no particular form of the dribble exemplifies this better than the crossover.

When Iverson executed the crossover early in his career, he was sometimes whistled for a violation as it appeared to officials that he was actually carrying the ball to gain an advantage. But in addition, the crossover dribble is a product of urban playground experimentation and its culture of joyful individual one-upmanship. Alexander Wolff approvingly describes it as “of a piece with hip-hop culture” with its “rat-tat-tat rhythm, the badinage and braggadocio, and the distinctly big-city yearning to break-free of the crowd by making one’s mark.”

In this way, like the dunk before it—but perhaps even more dangerous because, as Wolff puts it, the crossover is more “democratic” (since you do not have to be tall or an exceptional leaper to execute it; you just have to practice)—the crossover dribble may bring the white basketball unconscious a little closer than it would like to come to the urban raw materials off which it secretly feeds but whose contextual realities it prefers in sensationalized, fantasy form.

Wolff’s comparison of the dunk and the crossover as different forms of individual self-expression, moreover, frames what might be the most evident and important symbolism of this particular crossover: Iverson (playground practitioner of the crossover par excellence) tries to get free of Jordan (the game’s most renowned dunker). In addition, this crossover echoes—through a kind of wordplay reminiscent of free-style rap—Iverson’s insistence on eluding Jordan’s ability to execute a crossover of a different sort (racially, I mean, as a commercial pitchman). When he turned pro, Iverson famously rejected a shoe deal with Nike because he felt the company would require him to follow in Jordan’s crossover footsteps. Instead, Iverson signed with Reebok, making the sole demand that “the company not try to change him.”

In this sense, in using the crossover to get free of Jordan, Iverson affirmed his independence and autonomy from the commercially tried-and-true, racial crossover model Jordan had established and, moreover, demonstrated the viability of his own path. Finally, this particular crossover, as an instance of perfect timing, evokes the kairos that reveals that—despite the myth of the greatest of all time—time has not stopped and that basketball (and other) history continues to march forward, as always, driven by the creativity of those with nothing to lose, for whom necessity is truly the mother of invention.

Now remember that Iverson scored on the play—two of the thirty-seven very efficient points he would put up on the defending champs that night. Recalling that the crossover is a means by which a point guard, usually the smallest man on the floor, can become a scoring threat draws Iverson’s crossover dribble into yet another framework of meaning: Bethlehem Shoals’s concept of a “positional revolution,” which I described in Chapter 5.

[. . .]

Iverson and his crossover present a revolution at the other end of the positional spectrum: the emergence of the scoring point guard. Iverson led the league in scoring four times from the point guard position and, moreover, in a body deemed relatively small by NBA point guard standards. Iverson may nowadays be criticized for inefficiency by some on the basis of (a misuse of) advanced statistical analysis of his play (more on this in Chapter 8), but it is also true that he paved the way for the style of play that characterizes the best point guards in the league today, such as Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, and Russell Westbrook, who create more opportunities for teammates by having established themselves as viable scoring threats capable of getting free for scores by use of, among other weapons, the crossover dribble.

Although fans may view the positional revolution as a tactical advance, even as such it carries a broader cultural significance, for as a tactical advance it was initiated by the successful experimentation of players who refused to be chained to a limited set of functions by conventional wisdom and the authority of coaches. These new physical moves and forms and new tactics emerged first experimentally in informal play before being presented in their more refined form to coaches—sheer unstoppability providing a kind of irrefutable argument.

Considering that the myth of blackness projects essentializing stereotypes concerning black Americans (especially black men) onto African American basketball players and so inhibits “their individuality, agency, and works toward curtailing any conception of black self-determination,” the positional revolution restores the thrill of witnessing black self-determination on the court.

In this sense, an emotionally expressive black player who effectively takes the game into his own hand by revolutionizing the point guard position appears as anathema to the conventional wisdom of the white basketball unconscious. The fact that even the most established of today’s coaches embrace the positional revolution should not obscure the fact that the positional revolution, like the dribble itself, began as a creative bid for autonomy and self-determination by players and one inaugurated precisely by a generation stereotyped as undisciplined dangers to the game, even as the game at its highest levels, as it always has, happily absorbed and exploited the entertainment and commercial value of their inventions.

Jorge Luis Borges once used the fiction of Franz Kafka as a lens through which to reconstruct a literary history of his “precursors.” Likewise, from the present vantage point, a player like Allen Iverson may serve as a lens through which we may retrospectively liberate other players—Jordan, Magic, Dr. J, Russell, and Chamberlain, to name just a few—from the hoops mausoleum in which the sport’s dominant culture has immured them. To see them through the lens of Iverson is to see them as constituting a renegade tradition of creative, self-determining hoops inventors that stretches back to both James Naismith and the game’s “incorrigible” first dribbler.”

Read the rest of Ball Don’t Lie!

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Order online from Temple University Press, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon.

 

 

Basketball Analytics (Take 2): Winning

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.

Some Premises

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.

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“Gladiators” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 6)

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.

Detail of Circus Games from a Roman Mosaic Showing Amphitheater Scenes from Leptis Magna --- Image by © Roger Wood/CORBIS

Detail of Circus Games from a Roman Mosaic Showing Amphitheater Scenes from Leptis Magna — Image by © Roger Wood/CORBIS

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.

Gumbrecht:

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.

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.

The other striking element of this is the important role played by competition in this scenario.  In his definition of athletics, Gumbrecht stressed the defining importance to his conception of athletics of arete (the striving for excellence) at the expense of agon (competition).  But here, it seems, excellence really doesn’t play much of a role and, even if competition is not the ultimate aim, it is a necessary catalyst to the staging of the moment that Gumbrecht believe was most fascinating to the ancient Roman spectator.

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.

Basketball Analytics: Reflections and Reservations

Okay, here’s the short version for those require maximum efficiency (n=”the point”/number of words) in their reading environment:

At the heart of my reservations is my sense that value can be defined in many ways: economically, aesthetically, morally, to name just a few.  And that economic definitions of value in terms of efficiency productivity may be beginning to eclipse and drive out of the public conversation considerations of aesthetic and moral and other values, particularly when these appear to be at odds with economic value.  In short: some very beautiful (aesthetically valuable) things are not economically efficient.  I am worried that once we have allowed certain kinds of things that we value to be eclipsed, we could find ourselves in the position of having lost those kinds of things forever.

The rest of you, who enjoy the backroads of an intellectual journey, please carry on with my sincere thanks.

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Why I Hate “the Warriors”

I’m annoyed.  Here’s the thing:  I thought I was gonna write a quick explanation of why I hate the Warriors, hot take click bait for contrarians.

Because: I do, I hate them!  See, it’s easy for me to feel that, it’s always right there, seething under the surface, clamoring to be voiced. I hate the Warriors. That part is like falling off a log. But an explanation is a different kind of thing. For an explanation I have to think, and when that happens, at least for me, things get complicated.

Why do I hate the Warriors? What about them do I hate?  People ask me this. It’s fair. What’s to hate about a superb team made up of apparently likable players playing well individually and together? What’s to hate about ball movement or great shooting or winning or appearing to have fun? What’s to hate about Oakland having a great team?  What am I even talking about?! People ask me these very difficult questions. And I keep repeating, confirming the stereotype of the egghead academic, that it’s complicated.

Let’s start with what I don’t hate. I don’t hate Steph Curry. His skills are peerless, the precise, but seemingly effortless creativity with which he deploys them is joyful and awe striking, not to mention at times hilarious, and it  manifests at least as much dedication and hours of effort as I’ve ever admired in any other player.  I don’t hate Draymond Green and the ability to adapt to his environment by growing new capacities in leaps and bounds that he’s demonstrated as part of this team. Nor do I hate his brash, trash talking confidence. I don’t even hate the Warriors for beating the heroic LeBron James and the closest thing I have to a hometown club in the finals last year. I don’t hate their crisp pace, or their spacing, or their ball movement. I don’t hate three pointers in particular or great shooting in general. I love all these things. And yet…

And yet, basketball doesn’t just exist within the lines of the court. Basketball is also, for me anyway (and I would argue for anyone, whether they are aware of it or not), a set of stories, stories that convey (and influence) attitudes and beliefs and values. And basketball also is a set of broader societal forces and practices that find their way into the game, moving the minds and hearts and bodies of owners, general managers, coaches, players, fans, and the media. So that while I can watch and admire all that I described above, it’s simply not possible for me to do so without also experiencing feelings provoked by all the other things I can’t help but notice are in play when the Warriors take the floor. (By the way, that, in case you wondered, is why “the Warriors” is in scare quotes in my title.)

I’ve written about this before, so I won’t belabor the point at length, but I can’t help, I’m sorry, but be disturbed by what lurks between the lines of the collective adoration of Steph Curry. It’s not that his skills don’t deserve our admiration. They do, and I believe he is rightly considered the best basketball player alive at this moment.  It’s the way that many (I know: not all) in the media, in the corporate world, and in fandom convey their delight in his success (particularly when it involves licking a saber’s edge over the slain body of the last player they made into an object of worship, LeBron James).

I’m repelled, heretical though it may seem in our country, by the celebration of his Christianity, as though believing in Jesus were a talent or an accomplishment, or evidence of moral virtue, or, um, at all relevant to being a basketball player. And I wonder why in Jesus’s name we, as a culture, give a shit about what Steph believes. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate Christians or that Steph Curry is one. I hate that this fact ever appears to his credit in a story about basketball.  Ditto for his having an adorable child and loving her: happy for him that he has one, happy for her that he loves her. Stop talking about it (or start talking about all the NBA players, especially those who didn’t come from two parent households, who are also devoted to their kids).

I’m irritated (not repelled, I’m trying to be precise here) by the open-mouthed marveling at his physical stature, as though with every floater he drops in heavy traffic he were preschooler spelling a difficult word or moonwalking on his parents coffee table, as though he has somehow overcome greater obstacles than other great NBA players.  He’s not, and he has not.  Yes, he is not as tall as the average NBA player, nor as strong, but he’s neither the shortest nor the weakest of his peers. He’s 6-3, was raised amidst material privilege by both his parents (one a former NBA player and three-point specialist), and spent his childhood at NBA practices and games, surrounded and tutored by NBA players. That doesn’t make him a lock to become the greatest player alive (far from it, as I’ve already acknowledged: he’s clearly worked his ass off), but it also doesn’t make him a miraculously prodigious tiny street urchin who wandered in grubby off the street corner and began launching step back threes with unprecedented accuracy.

Lastly, I’m repelled (yes, repelled again), by what I view as a pernicious racist subtext in the cult of Steph Curry. Let me emphasize: I am not referring to conscious attitudes held by individuals who adore Steph Curry. I’m talking, as I have tried to demonstrate in my book, about the workings of collective, unconscious dispositions and desires that we have all inherited by American society and the history of basketball.  Unless we actively and explicitly combat these, then it becomes too easy for the celebration of a light-skinned, blue eyed, average-sized guard to come at the expense of dark-skinned, brown-eyed, over-sized black men.

Is any of this Steph’s fault? Mostly, I would say no, it’s not. But it is to the degree that he deliberately reinforces (or capitalizes upon) any of these elements of the narrative that has risen up around his brilliant on-court performances.  I leave it to others to judge whether he has or not, and with that, enough about the Church of Steph Curry.

Next up, I can’t watch the Warriors peerless team play and lights out three point shooting without seeing it as the most advanced current manifestation of a tide that has been slowly swelling in basketball over the last 10 years or so that prizes productive efficiency above all else. This feeling has spurred me to a more extensive research project into all the elements, conceptual, technological and otherwise that have driven this development; which is to say, I’m still learning a lot about it. But in my currently oversimplified understanding of the story it goes like this.

Inspired by the advances in the statistical analysis of baseball, some fans with statistical proficiency began to think about the game of basketball and how to quantify what looked to the rest of us more or less like pure, unquantifiable material flow. In doing so, they isolated “the possession” as the fundamental unit of basketball play and to begin to experiment with methods for calculating the productivity of teams (and individuals) in terms of how the various basketball actions they undertake affect the ability to generate points per possession.

Here let me say: of course they did! Because, I say as someone who is just trying these lenses on for size, it’s cool as hell to see the game through them! (I’m the guy, I’d like you to know, who kept stats of the imaginary NBA Finals series he played against his best friend in the driveway and I’m the guy whose Dad kept stats at everyone of his games and then printed out reams of analysis generated by his IBM XT.) I don’t hate numbers. I love numbers and wish I understood them better. So I don’t fault these individuals. I don’t attribute to them soulless, malign intentions. I turn the game into stories and appreciate it with words, they turn it into formulas and appreciate it through numbers. Live and let live, right?

Definitely.  But I worry that the beautiful curiosity, wild imagination, unorthodox vision, and intellectual energy driving their efforts came also to be recognized for its potential value to owners and general managers seeking to maximize and stabilize the return on their financial investment in players.  How, in essence, these individuals might be asking themselves, do I get the most points per possession for the fewest dollars? Now we’ve gone from a few teams hiring some statistically minded kids to analyze their box scores to a half-dozen cameras perched in every arena in the league surveilling the every movement of players and delivering a torrent of big data to small armies of analysts to crunch and transform into actionable information for executives, coaches, and yes, even players.

Of course, I don’t expect that capitalist owners (or their paid underlings) would prioritize questions other than those related to maximizing their ROI.  And, if you’re comfortable with having the unencumbered freight train of free market logic trundle along, you’re probably thinking I’m naive.  After all, this is just the nature of things in our world. Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or its effects.

The Warriors, it seems to me, who lead the league in offensive efficiency, seem not only to be the incarnation of this tendency, but, by their success, seem also to be spurring other franchises to try to figure out how to do what they’ve done—as evidenced by Steph and others telling teams not to try.  This may be fine for many fans, whose favorite team either is the Warriors or is trying to become them. But for me it threatens to turn the NBA, which I have long loved to the degree that it presented me with an alternative to the corporatization of daily life in America, into the advance guard for ever more invasive attempts to make economic efficiency the mother of all values, to maximize productivity, and to create more reliable predictive models.

I don’t mind efficiency, I don’t mind productivity, and I don’t mind predictions. God knows I like to get my work done and to know what shit storm is coming around the bend so that I can prepare for it or avoid it.  But these are strong tides in which we are blithely romping in America today and if we don’t watch out, we may find that they’ve swept out to sea some other things that we used to like to have around: beauty, surprise, chance, and nonsense, to name just a few.

Which brings me to my final point, the relationship between the Warriors increasingly predictable domination of all competition and the annihilation of uncertainty and of the emotional complex (and marvelous, wondering stories) to which it gives rise.  Last week, the Warriors demolished the Cavaliers by 34, the Bulls by 31, and the Spurs by 30. Two of those teams (the Cavs and Spurs) were supposed to represent the only significant challenge to the inevitability of the Warriors winning a second consecutive title this year. So much for that. Even if Nate Silver at 538 only puts their chances of winning the title at 46 % (still 20 percentage points higher than the Spurs), I don’t know anybody who really thinks that the Warriors won’t repeat.  Unless, of course, they get hurt. But even I don’t wish for that.

But that’s kind of the point for me. I don’t want to have to wish for great athletes to get hurt so that uncertainty will be restored to the game. And, in basketball, unlike in my life, I like not knowing what will happen next, or how the story will end. I like the tension in my stomach and shoulders, the quickening of my pulse this uncertainty brings, and I like the emotions of fear, hope, elation, relief, despair associated with these physical signs.  I think of basketball as a story-generating machine, but really, it’s the uncertainty that basketball creates and the emotions that uncertainty provokes that are, I think, the source from which the basketball stories I love have always come from.

The Warriors are on pace to tie the 1996 Bulls record setting 72-10 regular season won-loss record. I’d have hated watching those Bulls teams if it weren’t for the utter unpredictability of Dennis Rodman and the sense his existence allowed that I didn’t know what was happen next, or, to put it another way, what the story would be tomorrow. Hell the very presence of Rodman’s brightly colored, pogo-stick body alongside MJ’s in a Bulls uniform was itself a kind of ceaseless source of nourishment for the imagination delighting in the fragile, fleeting materialization of the improbable

I think I know what the story will be tomorrow, and the day after, and in June, when the Warriors finish off their thoroughly probable title run.

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“Demigods” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 5)

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.”

zeus-sanctuaryplan1355904744833

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).

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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.”

“Athletics” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 4)

Having arrived at definitions of “beauty” and “praise,” Hans Gumbrecht moves in the final section of the “Definitions” chapter of In Praise of Athletic Beauty to the question to the task of defining athletic performance.  He wants to know whether “the specific form of athletic performance”—whatever that might turn out to be in his definition—produces “a specific form of aesthetic effect.”  To get there he moves through a number of steps, some complex, some dubious, some really illuminating, that I’m going to track here.  Along the way, he’ll introduce several important concepts: “presence,” “agon (competition),” “arete (striving for excellence),” “tragedy,” and “transfiguration.”

The first move is to shift is actually to redefine the task of definition itself from “thinking about sports as a set of phenomena that are all rooted in a common denominator” to imagining “sports as a network of practices related through” the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblance” in which “item A shares some features with item B, and item B shares some features with item C” so that “even though A and C may have no features in common, their shared resemblance to B keeps them all in the family” (p. 58-59). Gumbrecht hopes this more flexible approach will be more productive and encompassing and allow readers to focus on the relations connecting ostensibly very different kinds of athletic performance.  I support this move, and think it inventive and useful, though I wondered whether it would be useful to consider how we determine which features we use to establish the resemblances and whether or not some features should have more weight than others.  But I don’t finally think that doing so would undermine the value of the basic procedure.

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The next criteria for his definition is that it should do “justice to the aesthetic appeal” of sports from the spectator’s perspective.  To get at this, Gumbrecht first explores the meanings of “performance,” since “spectators in a stadium experience sports as a performance,” albeit one that differs from other kinds of performances like ballet, opera, or symphony. Here, Gumbrecht’s animus for much contemporary work in cultural studies rears up again, calling most intellectual accounts of performance “incoherent, to say the least” (p. 60) Not sure what he’s thinking of here, since he doesn’t cite anyone, and I imagine he’s probably wrong.  But it’s the kind of wrong that gets him somewhere interesting after all when he jumps away from “performance” per se and lands on “presence” as a “possible opening or approach to the problem [of how] to define athletics in such a way as to take into account its aesthetic attraction.

He begins by noting that “presence” derives from the Latin prae-esse meaning “to be in front of” in order to emphasize that presence, for him, involves “immediate sensual perceptions” and, in that sense, “always binds to time and place” (p. 62).  He elaborates this by going on to describe presence as a “dimension” (I think he means something like a facet of or a perspective on something) that can be contrasted to something he calls “the meaning” dimension.  He then describes this contrast along seven categories, an exercise I think might be easiest to grasp in the form of a table.

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This is quite condensed, I know, and does not really illuminate (or do justice to) Gumbrecht’s full exposition of the contrasts.  But he does provide the following, summary paragraph to try to get at the importance for him of the analysis:

Counter to many academic (and highly incompetent) ‘readings’ of sports, athletic competitions do not express anything and therefore do not offer anything to read. They fascinate us with bodies ‘that matter’ (a useful pun invented by the philosopher Judith Butler), bodies that adapt themselves to multiple forms and functions. By interpreting these bodily forms and functions and transforming them into meanings, we run the risk of reducing, if not destroying, the unique pleasure we take in athletic events. (pp. 68-69)

As before, though I suppose there may be something, in a theoretical sense, to Gumbrecht’s perception of the perils involved in the meaning dimension, I also think he throws the baby out with the bathwater.  I’m not sure (because, again, he offers no citations) what sort of incompetent academic readings he has in mind.  Its probably the most persistently perplexing aspect of this book so far, Gumbrecht’s complaints about scholarship in sports studies.  I’ll just stick to saying that I see no reason why a single account of an athletic performance cannot both “praise” (in the sense he already established of gratefully laying bare the complexity of forms involved and relating them to function and effect) and “interpret.”

In any event, Gumbrecht proposes “that we may call any human body movement a performance as long as we see it, predominantly at least, in the presence dimension” but quickly recognizes that “performance and athletics are not coextensive”: not every performance is an athletic performance.  So what makes sports performances unique and distinguishable among all performances?  Gumbrecht’s finds the answer in two ancient Greek concepts: “agon” (competition) and arete” (striving for excellence).

He elaborates his conception of agon by describing it as the “domestication of potentially violent fights and tensions through institutional frames of stable rules” whereas arete by contrast “means striving for excellence with the consequence (rather than the goal) of taking some type of performance to its individual or collective limits” (p. 70).  He argues that the latter is the dominant component of athletic performance, first, by reasoning that you can have arete without agon but not the other way around and second, to try to avoid making the praise of athletic beauty about praising competition rather than excellence, which, he fears “would confirm a vision of sports that has given them a bad reputation among so many intellectuals” (again, who is he reading that’s provoked such a powerful combination of fear and loathing?).

Once more, I simply see no reason to choose between them.  In some performances, one may predominate over the other, certainly.  But I see nothing intrinsic to athletic performance that should require the assertion of a definitive preference.  On the contrary, I would say that part of my fascination in sports is the complex intertwining of these two dimension in athletic performance.  Agon facilitates arete and vice-versa, without either one subsuming the other, as in this example, which I borrow from one of my students:

Either way, both agon and arete are pursued by athletes within formal constraints (rules) and informal conventions (fair play) that spur their effort and ingenuity and generate uncertainty and risk, which, in turn give rise—and here I think Gumbrecht does a great job—to  moments that we may experience as dramatic, epic, tragic, or heroic (he uses these terms pretty much interchangeably here) (p. 77).  What I like about the argument here is that the beauty of athletic performance can be found as easily in loss as in victory, something I’ve always found important to assert against the more commonplace emphasis on victory alone as the measure of athletic greatness.  But displacing the partisan centrality on victorious outcomes is not the same, I repeat, as displacing the importance of competition to the beauty of athletic performance.

Gumbrecht himself, oddly, seems tacitly to acknowledge this when he expounds upon what he means by drama.  He redescribed drama in terms of “transfiguration of great athletes within our immediate perception, and later, our memory.”  Transfiguration involves, he says, a removal from one’s original place (side note: it would be interesting to think this through with the concepts of metaphor and translation, both of which, in different ways, involve such movements).  Like Jesus or Elijah, then, he says, “athletic competition [my emphasis] can transfigure bodies and their movements, making them shine in the particular light of triumphant victory or tragic defeat.  Rather than assigning [again, why the dichotomy?] assigning specific meanings to bodies and their movements, victory or defeat gives them something like what the Christian tradition used to call a halo—and what today we might call an aura” (p. 78)  Instead of auras or halos, though, we recognize the transfigured athlete, or rather perhaps constitute the athlete’s transfiguration, by way of what he calls “the gesture”: “a specific, concise movement, a critical moment in a dramatic narrative” that makes “the pathos associated with these dramatic moments more visible and more memorable” (p. 79).  Gumbrecht concludes with a series of personal memories of such gestures, all of which, tellingly, come in defeat, an experience, of course, that would be impossible without agon and insignificant, perhaps, without the arete that was exhibited in the course of competition.

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