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.

 

 

 

To go or not to go? A View from Inside Big-Time College Sports

A couple of days ago I received an e-mail from the Athletic Director (AD) at the University of Michigan, inviting me and other members of the Advisory Board on Intercollegiate Athletics (ABIA) to join the “University Official Party” on a trip, courtesy of the athletic department, to watch the University’s football team compete at the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida on New Year’s Day.

I have decided to decline the very generous invitation. It is not, I want to emphasize at the outset, that I think I have a complete understanding of this industry, and less that I believe mine is the only reasonable or morally appropriate response.  Far from it.  In fact, as I’m not a big football fan and the trip falls at a somewhat inconvenient moment, I really don’t think of my decision as having been primarily a moral one.

However, that’s not to say that I don’t think there are moral questions at stake, questions that go well beyond the specific issues and choices raised by this particular invitation.  Among these, I’m most interested in what role university faculty members, entrusted with the intellectual growth and overall well-being of their students, should have in relation to university athletic departments. So I share this information and, below, the feelings and thoughts that informed my decision about it in the hopes that it sheds light on the tensions at work in one small, but perhaps telling, corner of the massive entertainment industry that big time college sports has become.

Let me first share my reflections on sharing this information in this format, which I considered carefully. First, the fact that the athletic department offers this benefit to ABIA members is a matter of public record.  Likewise, all the information that I’m sharing concerning ABIA’s constitution and function come, as you’ll see if you follow the links, publicly available documents.  This is, I believe, as it should be: we are a public institution and I think our discussions regarding how to administer this institution should be available to the public. I don’t think we as a board should take positions or make decisions that we wouldn’t stand by publicly.  That said, I also respect my colleagues. Everyone I’ve worked with in this capacity has impressed me as sincere, thoughtful, and well-meaning, even when I disagree with them, and I do not wish to embarrass them or cause them discomfort.  For this reason, I have not here and do not intend in the future to share the remarks or views of my colleagues on the board, even in anonymized form.  I hope this will be sufficient to assure my colleagues of my intentions.

Now, I’m new to the ABIA and to the Academic Performance Committee (APC; a subcommittee composed of the faculty members on ABIA), having just started my first three-year term this Fall, so I confess I’m still fairly ignorant of how all this plays out in actual practice. But as I understand it, the ABIA’s role is to provide faculty input into the decisions made by the AD concerning the athletic department and the APC’s role is to provide faculty oversight concerning matters pertaining to the academic experience, performance, and eligibility of athletes—all this subject to the final authority of either the President or the Provost. There have been questions raised in the past at Michigan, and elsewhere, about whether this really constitutes adequate faculty control. (For details on the constitution and function of the ABIA and APC, and their history at Michigan, you can jump to the end of this post. As I say, everything there is drawn from publicly available documents to which I’ve provided links.)

But, seeing aside the historical details of ABIA at Michigan and beyond the specifics of the particular issue of the invitation to attend the Citrus Bowl, there remains the underlying, substantive issue, which I’ll frame in personal terms since that’s how I best process such questions: what (speaking now as a Michigan faculty member with a scholarly interest in matters of sport and society who regularly teaches students who are also athletes, and who know holds an administrative position on the only university agency through which faculty have input on the activities of the athletic department) should my role be?

I’d like, in part at least, to be the kind of person who, finding himself in this situation, can draw upon a set of stable, consistent, rationally derived moral principles to guide my decision making.  To my mild disappointment, however, I’m not locating such principles within myself.  Mostly, in fact, I’m encountering what feels like a pretty unstable mire comprised of visceral pulls and aversions, feelings, conscious and unconscious investments,  (some quite idiosyncratic, personal, and narcissistic), sparsely mixed with opinions whose strength is not quite matched by my still-growing knowledge about the issues.  It’s kind of a mess, and a mess that I find points my actions in different and sometimes contradictory directions at different moments depending on the the specific circumstances facing me.

That said, a promising, because relatively solid, starting point I find is my strong feeling of care for my students.  I’m not talking about students in general, nor about all students who are athletes. I’m saying I find I care very much about the well-being of my students, including those who are athletes.  But what does it mean, in this case, to act on that feeling? Some of my students are on the football team. I care about them and I remember that when I was an athlete, it meant a lot to me that teachers came to my games. I don’t mean to exaggerate the importance of this, but I’m sure that my football-playing students would feel some version of this.

On the other hand, they are also my students, some of whom have during this semester in my Global Sports Cultures course heard me describe the current state of research on the harmful effects of sub-concussive brain trauma sustained regularly by football players in the course of practice and games; or the vast sums of money that the NCAA and its member institutions, media conglomerates, and apparel manufacturers make off their efforts.  I’ve asked them, as I’ve asked all my students, to consider carefully their position in relation to these dynamics. What lesson—and I don’t mean this rhetorically, but genuinely—might they draw by my going to the Citrus Bowl—where they will collide with other young men as millions watch and millions of dollars are generated? I wonder.

Moreover, I care about my students not only as athletes or students, but in a holistic way; perhaps most of all in a holistic way. I feel responsibility for their growth and development and well-being as adolescent human beings.  As such, I’m concerned about the toll that their participation in college sports, as currently configured, may have on them. I don’t just mean the physical toll, but the psychological and intellectual toll. Don’t get me wrong: I’m aware that most of them would say that playing college sports is one of the most physically, psychologically, and intellectually satisfying parts of their life experience.  That may be true from their point of view and perhaps that is where my rumination should stop.  But I’m their teacher and mentor, not to mention their elder, with all the differences in perspective, for better and or worse, that comes with that. From that perspective, my concern only heightens precisely because they seem so innocently unaware of it. I worry, in other words, about their futures.

But I’m also a sports fan and have been for as long as I remember. What does that mean to me? It means that I’m drawn to the aesthetic beauty of athletic performance as a form of art and to the suspenseful narrative micro-dramas that unfold in the course of sporting events. It means that to some degree I’m identified with and invested in the success of particular teams, like those that represent Michigan, and to individual players, some of whom I know personally.

It means also, in my case, that I feel a desire to be in the close proximity of sports and of athletes.  I feel a rush from my personal acquaintance with athletes that others know only as distant objects, two-dimensional figures on a television screen or dots on a field or court far below their perch in the nosebleed seats.  Of course, I also know this is childish and perhaps foolish. I know—I just said—that they are just human kids and that their being constructed as heroic objects of veneration by fans, the media, and their institutions is part of the problem. In fact, this dimension of sports culture is part of what makes me averse and somewhat ashamed to be a sports fan when I’m talking to people who are not. And yet, there that childish, foolish feeling is, rising up and nudging me toward the thrill of seeing a bowl game in person (never mind that I’ve probably watched no more than a dozen of them on TV in my entire life).

Finally, what about my role as a faculty member on the ABIA? Can I really perform the independent advisory functions I have been appointed to perform when I am also accepting a gift from the university agency that I’m supposed to be independently advising and overseeing? Honestly, I feel that accepting the gift wouldn’t cause me to pull any punches I’d otherwise be inclined to throw. But maybe I’m wrong. Yet, even if I’m right, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a structural conflict of interest involved, nor does it mean that this conflict of interest should be ignored.

Some of my students, when I shared the situation with them in class the other day, suggested that I should go because, after all, that would put me face to face with decision makers and augment the scope of my influence over them.  Maybe.  Though, if I’m honest, I have to say I don’t really believe it.  For one thing, I’m not sure that a bowl game is a place where any matters that matter are going to be discussed. As I told my students, it’s not as though I imagine getting Jim Harbaugh drunk in the hotel bar and convincing him to agree, with tearful relief, to blow up the whole system like some NCAA Mikhail Gorbachev presiding over the dismantling of the Soviet Union. My wife, who has a talent for storytelling, thought this would make a great short story, especially if it ended with me, having broken him down, berating him to “get it together, man, ’cause, after all, you got a ballgame to win tomorrow!” I wish, kind of, but I don’t think that’s how it would go down.

In fact, since I’m being honest, I’m somewhat skeptical about the possibilities of anything that matters in college sports changing as a result of the discussions and decisions that are made in the meetings of the ABIA. That’s not because of anything that has occurred in my experience so far.  And part of me understands that meaningful change in human history has sometimes occurred in piecemeal fashion.  But I also understand that these sorts of piecemeal changes don’t always add up to meaningful structural changes; indeed, that sometimes they defuse the energies that might drive more significant changes.

In this case, though I reserve the right to contradict myself and change my opinion, I see college sports changing in ways that significantly address what I see as the injustices in them only because athletes rise up collectively and threaten, as the Missouri football team did a few weeks ago, to refuse to play unless changes are made, which is why I actively support the work of the College Athletes Rights and Empowerment Coalition (CARE-FC).  In the long run, I suppose my hopes for change lie in the belief that subsequent generations of athletic and university administrators, if drawn from the ranks of the more politically conscious of today’s younger generation, will imagine and implement a new system.  Maybe.

My therapist asked me today to imagine going to the game and sitting next to our AD, Jim Hackett, who in my few encounters with him has struck me as a sincere and caring person, one who has in his short time as interim athletic director left the program in better shape than he found it. What, my therapist asked me, do I imagine myself saying to him as we munch on Buffalo Wild Wings and watch, comfortable behind the plexiglass walls of a skybox, my students bashing into some Florida professor’s students on the field far below under the Florida sunshine? I had an answer straightaway. “Man, Jim, I love sports and I love my students, but I’m finding it hard to watch this.  They’re hitting each other so hard and I just can’t forget what I know may be happening to their brains on every play. What do you do with that?”  My therapist thought that would be a good thing to say. He said it sounded empathetic and inviting.  Maybe that would be good.  Certainly, I’ve found Jim to be an empathetic person.

But I must admit that the fantasies my imagination has generated—with and without therapeutic prodding—in response to this invitation suggest an investment I have in being important and being recognized as such; in being uniquely suited to somehow say the right thing, push the right button, and save the day.  “Bad Prof Fixes College Sports” the headlines in my imagination might read.  Those fantasies and the insecurities and investments they bespeak don’t feel like very promising ground from which to be making decisions.

So all this messiness might disqualify me in some eyes from holding the positions as professor, as scholar, or as board member, that I hold. I confess I feel that way myself sometimes.  But I wind up feeling that it shouldn’t be so.  On the contrary, I feel that faced with the enormous complexity of the situation called big-time intercollegiate sports in this country, and the powerful cocktail of emotions that situation stirs in just about everyone (even those who hate them and feel they have no place in universities) it might actually be better if more of the participants and decision-makers were honest with themselves and publicly forthcoming with others about their uncertainties and ambivalences.

It’s not that I’ve encountered any individuals who I’ve felt were insincere or deceptive in the their words or actions.  It’s more that I feel that there are systemic pressures in place that subtly lead all of us involved to disregard certain concerns or uncertainties as either out of place or unworkable or for some other reason not worth considering or not safe to say.  Airing these, as I’ve tried to do here might not lead to any immediate solutions. It might lead to some ultimately unproductive discussions.  Perhaps, even, it would create some chaos.  But imagine a conversation in which various “stakeholders” were free to say, “Man, we really love college sports, but this is a bit of a cluster fuck right now, isn’t it? Let’s try to do better!” or whatever their version of that might look like. Things could get interesting.  In any event, I guess I’m feeling that a little honest chaos would be preferable to what seems to me to be a somewhat dishonest order.

A History of ABIA, APC and Faculty Control Issues at Michigan

In accordance with the University of Michigan Regents’ Bylaws (section 11.58.1), I was appointed to the ABIA by the president from a panel of senate members chosen by the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, subject to the approval of the Board of Regents. The ABIA also includes two members of the faculty senate, the University’s Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR), two student-athletes, two alumni, the AD (who has no vote), and an executive officer of the University.  The Bylaws also specify that the faculty members on ABIA, myself included of course, will constitute—together with a representative from the  Registrar’s office—a separate committee, now known as the Academic Performance Committee (APC).

The ABIA’s functions are also defined by the Regents’ Bylaws. First, the ABIA advises the AD, who is supposed to seek and consider our advice on “all major financial and policy decisions with respect to the program on intercollegiate athletics.” Then, the ABIA makes, adopts, and enforces—”subject only to the ultimate authority of the president and the Board of Regents”—”the necessary rules and regulations governing all questions pertaining to the eligibility of players, intercollegiate relations, and membership in associations of universities and colleges organized for the regulation of athletics” (11.60)  As for the APC, its function is—”subject to the final authority of the provost”—”to examine and appraise the academic performance of intercollegiate athletes, to determine their eligibility for competition in intercollegiate athletics, and to take any other action regarding such candidates as may seem necessary or appropriate under the circumstances (11.59).”

Now, according to “Rule 3. Membership” from the Big Ten Conference’s 2011-2012 Handbook, “Only a university having full and complete faculty control of its intercollegiate athletic programs may hold membership in the Conference. Faculty control is achieved whenever authority over a university’s intercollegiate athletic programs is vested in a university agency composed entirely of faculty members or in which faculty members are in a majority.” I first encountered this passage before I’d been appointed to the ABIA and, at the time, I wondered whether Michigan had any such agency (i.e. “composed entirely of faculty members or in which faculty members are in a majority” vested “with authority” over the university’s intercollegiate athletic programs).

Colleagues with greater knowledge of our institutional history weren’t sure, but they explained to me that up until 2001, there was an agency with a faculty majority called the Board in Control of Intercollegiate Athletics.  This body appears to have been replaced by the ABIA and APC through amendments to the Regents’ Bylaws proposed by then University-President Lee Bollinger. Bollinger said at the time that “All of this is to make sure intercollegiate athletics don”t get out of control. The Athletic Department is not an independent body within the University but is subject to University policies.”  He went on to explain that the “Board in Control should be, and has been, unmistakably advisory the name should be changed to reflect that.”

According to The Michigan Daily‘s article on the change, “Bollinger said he wants to limit the authority of the Board in Control to issues in which academic and financial concerns collide, such as extending the sports season for playoffs even when such a move could compromise students” academic life by conflicting with exams,” but, quoting Bollinger now, “the question of whether our football players should practice in a national playoff should not be rested [sic] in the board.”

Apparently, some members of the faculty-comprised Senate Assembly Committee on University Affairs voiced concerns that this put the University’s policies at odds with both the Big Ten and the NCAA’s membership criteria.  Of even greater concern to the faculty at the time was the codification of the merely advisory function of the newly constituted ABIA: “‘If the president is the one making the final decision,” one faculty members asked, “is there a reason why the president should seek the advice of the Board in Control?'”   Bollinger, according to the article “said that although changes to the bylaws will place more power in the hands of the president, he does not believe the Board in Control’s concerns will be ignored or that the University”s Big Ten membership will be compromised.”  Some might argue that the APC’s authority over academic standards and eligibility or the President’s final authority on all these questions satisfies the membership criteria concerning “complete faculty control” described in the Big Ten Handbook.

I’m not so sure it does. But—surprise!—that might be okay with me since I’m not even sure that “complete faculty control” over athletics is a principle I support without qualification. I believe faculty with expertise in the matters constituting the intersection of athletics with the university’s mission (education, health and well-being, economics, ethics and culture) should be represented as the majority on a board that collectively has complete control. But I also believe that students (both non-athletes and, especially, athletes) should be on that board. Finally, I think it’s important to have representatives of the athletic department administration and the university’s central administration on the board, without a vote.

 

 

 

Nothing, Everything, and Something: On Watching Association Football

In my Global Sports Cultures course this fall, we’ll devote two weeks to association football.  The first, early on, will focus on the issues at stake in the 2006 Men’s World Cup Final between Italy and France, in which French star and captain Zinedine Zidane head butted Italian defender Mateo Materazzi (who, it appears, had made some inflammatory comments to Zidane). Zidane was ejected and Italy won the match on penalty kicks.  The second unit, later in the term, will be on what you might call the Legend of Diego Maradona. In other words, we’ll look at how Maradona is perceived and, in fact, constructed by the media, fans (and haters), and artists. Some excellent, thoughtful material has been produced on both these topics. And these materials will anchor our discussions.  But I wanted to share some of what I’ll offer my students by way of orientation to the world’s most popular sport.

First thing, we’re gonna call it “football” or “association football.” Yes, I know we’re in America and if I don’t like it I can just, blah blah blah.  No, duh, I’m not going to make you call “elevators” “lifts” or make you raise your hand for permission to go the “lou.” Yes, I recognize the confusion since, as Michigan students but above all as Americans, football means something else to you, something much closer to your heart.  And no, finally, it’s not that big a deal whether you call it “football” or soccer.”  It’s more like a small deal that’s connected to bigger deals.  So let’s call this little exercise practice for the bigger deals.

Naming matters. They may in some ways be arbitrary, but they matter because we care about the things named and we care about the things because we’ve got something of ourselves bound up in them.  Through names we come to express and shape who we are as individuals and as members of groups and through names we exercise our power to shape our place in the world and the paths of our lives.  That’s what the rest of the world (except Americans and those who speak Afrikaans) are doing when they call the sport they love and devote themselves to “football” (or something that sounds like it).

What are we doing—in relation to them—by insisting on calling it “soccer”?

Let that question percolate in the back of your mind this week as you participate in this awkward linguistic experiment and learn more about the sport, its history, and its relationship to world politics.  I’m not saying we have to be absolutists or purists about it.  I’m not going to correct you everytime you make the mistake.  And I’m going to make the mistake myself.  But just while we’re working in this class let’s try the exercise and the experiment of adopting the language of the rest of the world and see if that doesn’t start to help us feel a little bit what the rest of the world feels and understand a bit of what the rest of the world understands.

Now, I’m imagining that few of you make watching football a regular part of your sporting diet.  I’m guessing that if I asked most of you why this is you’d say something like it’s kind of boring, you don’t like the dives players take, and it’s stupid to have ties broken by penalty kicks.  You might grudgingly admit that the players are impressive athletes, and you probably will know someone who (or you yourself will have) played as a kid, and, finally, you probably follow the fortunes of the US men’s and women’s national teams—USA! USA! (who in the world doesn’t love that?!)—every four years during the World Cup organized by FIFA (the International Football Federation).

All of this is the product of a combination of factors (involving corporate media, American popular culture, the structure of sports, and so on) that have, in effect, caused you to develop certain habits, expectations, and attentional rhythms in relation to watching sports.  I’m not thinking that two units on football is going to undo all that.  But I am hoping that by  being exposed to the ways, both painful and inspiring, that the rest of the world cares passionately about the sport—and in tandem with having to call it football—you can begin if not to care about the sport yourself, then at least to have recognized that there is nothing natural or objective or necessary about your disinterest or aversion.

That said, in the spirit of walking that path with you in solidarity, let me just share with you some feelings that I have when watching football.  I played it from the time I was a kid through high school, and was a pretty good player.  But it is not my favorite sport to watch.  In fact, my favorite sport to watch—basketball—is in at least one way about as far from football as you can get.  In the average 48 minute NBA game last year, 200 points were scored.  That’s more points than were scored by all the teams in any single World Cup tournament in history put together.  Now, I must say that the heroic individual goal scored against all odds is pretty stirring.

But that doesn’t happen all that often.  So football would seem to hold little promise for a hoops junkie like myself, accustomed to a basket being scored a couple of times a minute.

Still, despite all this, I enjoy watching football from time to time.  What do I enjoy?  Well, for one thing I like what appears to me like calm.  It seems not uncommon for players at times to jog or even walk up the field.  I like that. It reminds me that even in the midst of some important tasks it’s important to pace myself, which is to say, it reminds me of the importance of breadth in perspective.

In fact, I see in those islands of calm a demonstration of perspective in relation to some pretty fundamental life categories: time (I’m walking because I’m aware there will be another moment in which all my energy is required), space (I’m walking because I’m aware that the action is elsewhere right now), purpose (I’m walking because I’m aware that the needs of my team require me to conserve my energy), and self (I’m walking because I’m aware of my role in the unfolding action of this match).  These are pretty important life lessons.  I sometimes lose track of them.  And so I find it helpful, and refreshing and reassuring to encounter them in the midst of a football game.

The next thing may sound like  it contradicts the first.  I like the rhythm, in a football match, of long stretches of what seems like nothing, punctuated by instants of what seem like everything.  Because isn’t that a bit like life as well?  Let me explain with an anecdote.

Close to twenty years ago I took a class in Zen Buddhist Meditation at the temple on Packard Street here in Ann Arbor.  When I arrived for my first class, one of the assistants greeted me at the door and asked me to take my shoes off.  I wasn’t expecting it, but it didn’t surprise me since it fit with my preconceptions.  But, as I begin to sort of wrestle off my left shoe with the sole of my right foot, he gently stopped me, invited me to sit down on a nearby bench, and to pay attention as I took my shoes off, first one, unlacing, using both hands, and then the other, unlacing, using both hands.  And to pay attention as I placed them, carefully side by side, laces now tucked unobtrusively into the tops of the shoes, in the place reserved for them.  Now I was surprised, and a bit perplexed.  I also felt a bit ashamed, as if some longstanding clumsy oafishness on my part had suddenly been exposed to me and to the world.

By way of explanation, the assistant explained that 99 % of life is made up of things like taking your shoes off, mundane things—we see them as necessities, or transitions, or delays, or interruptions—that we do on the way to the “important” things that actually only make up 1 % of our lives.  We expect ourselves to perform at top capacity for those important moments and activities: to be fully present and prepared to think, feel and act in graceful concert.

But we haven’t given ourselves a very good chance to do so if we haven’t trained ourselves in presence, if we haven’t cultivated in ourselves the ability to be fully absorbed by and responsive to the needs of every present moment.  Paying attention during the 99 % of our lives that seem unimportant is, among other things, a way to prepare ourselves for those things that happen less frequently and carry greater emotional impact:  the career-changing professional opportunity, the wedding, the birth, the death of loved ones, our own aging, illness and imminent death.  Seems like football players get this.  Or at least, when I watch, I’m reminded of it.  And it seems I can never get enough reminders of or practice in that.

Now, as a spectator, it can be harder to maintain that focus that football players have throughout the match.  But, when I can manage to absorb myself in the long stretches of what looks—to my basketball eye—like nothing, I find, well, something.  Maybe not everything.  But something. And, moreover, I find the ways in which that something that previously looked like nothing is actually seamlessly connected to the parts that seem like everything.  Suddenly, the continuity of action that used to just get in the way of me getting more nachos or going to the bathroom for fear I’d miss something—everything!—becomes a riveting lesson in the dynamic, complex web of cause and effect that makes up life.

Who is to say, in that flowing river of action, where exactly the beginning and the end lie? Do you suppose that something has ended when a goal is scored? Do you think the players on the pitch feel that way?  Who is to say what was important and what was not important in the combination?  And who is to say what was necessary and what was accidental? For, it’s not that it suddenly appears that every thing led perfectly and inevitably to that outcome.  I can see all kinds of little chance wobbles and bounces and deviations as destiny runs its course.  At any moment, it seems, it could have gone a different way. But there it is. It went this way, and who is to say?

Then, when I stop looking at what is in fact something as if it were just a barren nothing between rare and precious everythings, then that something reveals beauties and charms of its own.  These may or may not have value I can perceive in terms of their relationship to, say, the scoring of goals.  But, in this absorbed state of attention, they possess an intrinsic value.  The arc traced by this player as he loops behind a teammate, while another teammate charges, straight, down the far sideline, the tap tap of two short passes, the ball tumbling along carelessly, before rocketing off the foot of a midfielder to sail, sail, sail—as bodies rearrange themselves in anticipation—before landing, corralled by the foot of a striker, who manages this even while keeping an eye on a defender closing in fast and hard.

This is something.  There is something in this.  Something that is valuable in itself.  And something that is valuable because of the way it is also nothing and everything and so temporarily collapses the hierarchical structure I’ve made of the world.  Sometimes, don’t get me wrong, this makes me anxious and stressed out and annoyed at the sport. Like I said, it’s not my favorite sport to watch.  But sometimes, the result is not the chaotic rubbled heap of ruined projects and plans (or at least not only that), but also serenity and the enjoyment of seeing possibilities playfully popping up at every turn.  That it can provoke this effect at all, in the face of the combined force of corporate media interests, American imperialism and, not least, the inclinations and aversions marking my own personality, is a testament to its power.

The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent (Basketball) Knowledge

All my life, I have loved ordering my things.  My new Matchbox cars go in one line, and the ones I inherited from my older brothers go in another one, and the ones I found or stole from my friends go in a third.  The beer cans in my collection will be ordered in the shape of a pyramid ranged from most common at the bottom (ordered alphabetically by brand from left to right and bottom to top) to the most rare at the top (with an architecturally-required exemption for 7, 16, 24 and 40 oz cans, which get their own rows).

When I got to graduate school, a more experienced student advised me that success in our profession depended on the ability to make bibliographies. I’m not sure what he meant, but what I heard was: “order your book collection,” which was a snap for me because I’d already started…when I was seven and labeled Follow My Leader “Book # 1” in my own personal library.

At first glance, it’s not so mysterious—this drive to classify and order, especially not in the contexts of childhood and graduate school. For both of these situations involved for me much confusion and little sense of power and therefore, a deep feeling of vulnerability.  Of course I would order my beer cans when I couldn’t order my family or my own feelings! Of course I would create a bibliography to throw a net around the leaping beast of my own growing ignorance snarling and snapping at my heels!

The writer Jorge Luis Borges once made fun of me when he included in a story a Chinese Encyclopedia he made up: the “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.”  In its “distant pages,” Borges informs us “animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.”

His point, he claimed, was that “there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and speculative.”  Sure. I get it. But that doesn’t really apply to mine.  Or, at least, there are more and less arbitrary and speculative classifications of the universe.  Aren’t there?  I mean, what does his psychotic example (made up after all) have to do with something so naturally reasonably as putting my underwear, undershirts, and socks in one drawer, my shorts and tee shirts in the next one, and my pants and long sleeve shirts in the next one?

Maybe, from a certain somewhat superficial point of view, I’m justified in my indignation. But Borges is working the depths.  The reason that all such taxonomies are “arbitrary and speculative” is a simple one:  “we do not know what the universe is.”  The rug is starting to slip.  Not only do we not know what it is, Borges shockingly continues, but “there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word.”

Oh shit, I think to myself. I thought there was.  Or maybe, I always felt there was.  In fact, I’ve always harbored the feeling, described by Borges’ compatriot, the writer Julio Cortázar, that the universe must “contain, in some part of its diversity, the encounter of each thing with all the others.”  What is that if not a description of a “universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word”? Each thing connected to every other thing.

I didn’t encounter this quotation until I was grown, but it echoed and articulated an inchoate feeling I’d had since childhood.  Maybe I couldn’t always discern the connections, but I could console myself with the knowledge that they were there nonetheless, and that if I could discern some then perhaps with enough patience and effort I could discern them all.  And trailing in on the coattails of these consolations came the deeper elemental indispensable comfort that if this is how things are, then, regardless of what I know, I was myself connected.  Regardless of how I felt, I was not alone.

But then there is Borges, who I suspect is right, and this renders my organizing impulse—my taxonomania—not only futile, but absurdly delusional.  If there is no universe (and—to cover all the bases—we don’t know what it is), then what is the point of any of it? Why not just leave my Matchbox cars in a heap on the carpet, a miniature model of some grisly aerial shot on the 11 o’clock news? Why even bother collecting beer cans or books? In fact, why bother reading books at all, let alone going to graduate school? In fact, what is the fucking point of doing anything at all if there is no universe, let alone an orderly one, let alone one whose order I can discover and mimic with my classificatory schemas?

Fortunately, Borges himself helps me stop this runaway train of existential despair.  For he goes on to say that “the impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of the universe cannot, however, stop us from planning human schemes, even though it is clear that they are provisional.”  And Cortázar adds an encouraging word: “the poet if she cannot connect them by intrinsic features, does what everyone does when looking at the stars: she invents the constellation, the lines linking the solitary stars.”

He seems to be saying that the creative—making—activity of the poet really resides in a way of seeing; a way of imaginatively reconfiguring the relations among existing things to make new patterns (like a constellation).  Which I suppose is what Borges himself was getting at when emphasized the importance of “planning human schemes”; indeed, what Borges himself was doing when he invented the extravagant human scheme of the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.  None other than James Naismith himself was under the influence of such a view when he responded to his teacher’s assertion that “All so-called new things are simply recombinations of things that are now existing” by recombining elements of familiar games to invent basketball.

So this helps me see that there is more to my drive to organize and classify than merely the  Quixotic impulse to know and control the universe. I can see that in doing so I’m playing, exercising my imaginative and cognitive faculties in recurrent experimentation; I can see that I’m forging connections, maybe not so different from the ones I try to forge with my body and the ball on the basketball court; I can see that I’m making new and at least personally satisfying, possibly beautiful, patterns out of what the existing world has dealt me.

And so it goes: I have loved the discovery of sets in math, Ven diagrams, sentence diagrams, the great book on the shelf next to the one I was looking for in the stacks at the library, the moment when two friends who don’t know each other meet and hit it off, the perfect combination of passes and cuts and passes leading to an easy score in pick up ball, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, kaleidoscopes, and, come to think of it, constellations.

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Which brings me back to books, to books about basketball, to my favorite twenty books about basketball. Here they are, in the order, top to bottom, in which I originally presented them.

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There’s so much more to be done with these “solitary stars” than force them into four, hierarchically ordered, groups of five. Sure, it flowed pretty naturally from the subject matter since this way of ranking things, like basketball players (which—oh—are not things), is familiar to me and my readers. And maybe it was even kind of novel or catchy.  But like other conventions of mainstream sports there’s at least as much that obscures (if not offends) as illuminates in such schemas, especially since, as I realized by the end, I didn’t really believe in mine: they were just twenty really important books about basketball and any schema I might plan for deciding which were more important were, well, as Borges might say, “arbitrary and speculative.”

Considering that, it could be fun or instructive or beautiful to connect these books differently. I’d hoped to build something like a dynamic “recommendation engine” (partly because of  that name), but alas such a device is beyond my capabilities. Instead, I resign myself to static pictorial representations of my taxonomies.  How might that look?  I could, for example draw a simple path connecting only those books that either consider basketball philosophically or consider the philosophical aspects of basketball.

Philosophy Path

 

Or a different path connecting those that portray failure (or tragedy):

Failure

We could combine these two paths together (philosophy now in red, failure in yellow).

failure plus philosophy

Already from this simple, arbitrary and speculative exercise you might, as a prospective reader with an interest in basketball, philosophy, and failure or tragedy, deduce that either FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Basketball History or Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story by David Wolf would be promising places to begin your reading excursion.  And you’d be right. It really works.

Now, you could do the same with paths of your own liking. Interested in money? I’d probably draw paths through LaFeber’s Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, Murry Nelson’s The National Basketball League, Lane’s Under the Boards, Wolf’s Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story, Cohen’s The Game They Played, Leonard’s After Artest, and Andrews, Michael Jordan, Inc.. Let’s add those to the last drawing:

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So now, you might go to LaFeber, Cohen, Leonard and Nelson’s books for a combination of money and failure, and you might throw Foul! in to get your philosophical consideration of the intersection of basketball, money, and failure (or tragedy). In addition to valuably denaturalizing the hierarchical way in which I first presented these books (and which seems so reflexive a way of classifying in sports), these kinds of groupings are a narrowing, a filtering process that can be useful if you want to impart some direction and focus to your reading experience.

But of course, speaking for myself what I make and have made of these books depends heavily on other things I’ve read that are not included in these twenty books. That’s another way of saying that my very selection of these twenty books as well as the way in which choose to define the paths I use to connect them to one another is itself the result of still other lines connecting these books (or subsets of them) to other books I haven’t so far included here, only some of which, by the way, having anything explicit to do with basketball. Here’s what a partial representation of this might look like.

hoopsplusoutside

Remember these pathways just represent three, rather broad, categories of similarity: philosophy, failure, and money. And I’ve only added, more or less off the top of my head, fifteen books not on my original list of twenty top basketball books. At this point, the classification process still narrows by selecting just some of the the original set of twenty books, but it also expand by adding a few others to the reading list.  So you might now have a list that includes Kafka, Agassi, and Spinoza alongside, from the original list of my top twenty basketball books, Leonard, Nelson, LaFeber, Wolf, FreeDarko’s history, Melander, Frey, and Cohen.

But finally, books aren’t the only thing, not even when we’re reading.  In fact, books aren’t even the most important thing, even when we’re reading.  For we are always—like it or not and more or less consciously—drawing lines between the book we are reading and something else that is not the book we are reading, and not a book at all.  Obviously this is a probably infinitely complex network of conscious and unconscious associations anchored in words, sounds, memories, fantasies, world events past and present and imagined, films, paintings, photographs, songs, TV shows, affects, sensations, thoughts, ideas, experiences, instances, and other people.

We could start filling in those empty shelves on the bookcase above with scraps of paper on which I might write down some of these non-book entities.  Imagine how vast that network of informing anchor points would be, just for one person.  Now imagine red, green, and yellow lines extending from those anchor points through the books that are not the top twenty basketball books and then converging at the various books in the top twenty.  Now add pathways in new colors to represent things like humor, race, technique, scholars, authors named David, books that are blue, imaginary books, amateur basketball, the early history of the game, gender, the perspectives of players themselves.

Now we have something so vast that I can no longer draw it.

Maybe it would look like this, but moving and enormous.

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It’s harder to imagine the books and the other nodes and the categories and associations that connect them.  And I know it’s no longer useful as a filter to provide direction to my reading.  But it does do something else for me. For one thing, I simply find the images beautiful.  I also find them a valuable visual reminder of the vast, complex network of life that springs to life every time your or I open a book.

This network may not be the universe, and so I may not find myself securely connected to every other point in the universe, as I might have obscurely desired as a child.  Indeed, there may not be, as Borges speculated, any universe at all. But this is okay because there is something else I’ve discovered in the process.  Borges’ “human schemes,” Cortázar’s “poet” drawing “lines connecting the solitary stars,” and my own less elegant attempts to convey networks of connection appear to me now as a kind of exercise or practice or maybe training.  But for what?

Sometimes, especially as I get older, especially as I work through the deaths of people that I have loved, I find myself wondering about the purpose of it all, which is to say, the meaning.  But maybe “life,” as Stephen Batchelor says, is “neither meaningful nor meaningless.  Meaning and its absence are given to life by language and imagination. We are,” he adds, “linguistic beings who inhabit a reality in which it makes sense to make sense.” If he’s right, then what I’ve been doing and calling exercise or practice or training is also the performance itself; the performance of living purposefully, of actively creating a meaningful universe, aware that in doing so we may contribute to the efforts others are making to do the same.

It seems I’ve wandered too far from books, and collections of books, and reading lists, let alone from basketball, which is why I’m guessing most readers even bother with this blog. And I’m feeling a bit sheepish.  But I’m hoping that’s okay, hoping even that for some readers the pathways back to these things—to hoops and books and reading—suddenly gleam, illuminating like the lights in the aisle of a plane, taking us where we need to go. Or else, maybe you can help me find my way back. Or not, I remind myself, since it’s okay sometimes to wander, to not have it all figured out, and to get nowhere.

 

Bad Prof’s Top Basketball Books – Third Team

Having selected my First Team and Second Team All-Bad Prof Books, I’m moving out of the top ten today.  However, it’s important to say that these books are classics, that I personally love them, and that I think they are important reading for anyone who wants to understand the past and present of the sport and its relation to the world beyond the court.

 

Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story

by David Wolf (Originally published 1971; currently out of print but available used; 511 pp.)

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“I try to do things that are artistic with my body and my moves. I get pride being able to do things nobody else can do. It gives me confidence about myself when I can be special.”

Foul is, first of all, a biography of Hawkins centering on the events leading up to and from the high school and playground legend’s unjust implication in a gambling scandal.  But as such, it provides unblinking descriptions of the conditions that made this tragic story possible: from poverty and substandard education induced by systemic racism, to the exploitation of college athletes by colleges, the NCAA and gamblers, to unethical practices by law enforcement agencies, to the single-minded pursuit of profit by the NBA. All these threads converge impersonally to form a kind of spider’s web ensnaring Hawkins.

This would be heartbreaking enough it weren’t that countless others whose names we do not know are snagged alongside Hawkins in this same web.  That Hawkins emerges from the tale not as a hapless victim, but as a thoughtful, sensitive talented athlete, unbittered and determined to pursue his dream of playing against the best only heightens the sense of injustice and tragedy permeating his tale.

 

FreeDarko Presents the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac

(Originally published in New York by Bloomsbury; 2008)

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“We embrace their Foibles, even those that prevent them from Winning. We exalt their Particularities and intriguing Backstories, and endorse a League in which these Virtues are fostered.”

The first work from the blogging collective known as FreeDarko is in some ways more original and fascinating than the second (their history of pro basketball which I selected for my first team). The book opens with a tongue-in-cheek but nonetheless inspiring manifesto to liberated fandom and appreciation of individual players “personal Styles, both during and outside of Play,” and then offers a jaw dropping visual “periodic table of style,” revealed as a “mix of the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual.”The book profiles eighteen significant players of the late 2000s, organized into six groups (“Master Builders,” “Lost Souls,” and “People’s Champs” among them).  While today’s fans might already find some of these profiles outdated, the unique perspective, deep insights, humor, and extraordinary illustrations will also leave you longing for a revised and expanded edition accounting for today’s stars.  Though less straightforwardly informative than their subsequently published history (and so in a certain sense less useful to students), this work more brilliantly showcases the idiosyncratic approach to the game that FreeDarko pioneered and that has inspired a generation of thinking fans (myself among them).

 

Heaven is a Playground

by Rick Telander (Originally published in 1976; Reprinted in a 4th edition in New York by Sports Publishing; 2014; 272 pp.)

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“I walk up and down the courts, but only after intense scrutiny do I realize why they are empty: there are no rims on any of the backboards.”

Telander, then a 24 year old photojournalist, spent part of the summer of 1973 and all of 1974 living alongside and playing pickup ball with some of the residents of a community in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. The book is justly celebrated as a classic of journalistic memoir and partly remembered for its profiles of legendary players Fly Williams and Albert King.  But if it were only a story about pickup basketball it would not make my list. What distinguished it for me and many other readers, I suspect, is that Telander does not isolate his story of playground basketball from the stories of the lives of those playing alongside him, nor indeed, from his own life. He develops strong personal relationships with his teammates, opponents and neighbors.  But, though these are at times close bonds, they are not facile or sentimentalized.  Telander and his “subjects” clearly like each other, but are also confused and at times angered by one another. What is particularly striking—especially when read alongside Foul! and The Last Shot—is the sense of the enduring importance of basketball—for better and for worse—in communities limited, to say the least, by racial and socio-economic injustice.  Consider that as Telander’s games unfold at Foster Park in the early 70s, a 30 year-old, broken-kneed Connie Hawkins has only just finally made it—14 years after his own legendary exploits on the City’s playgrounds—to the NBA for what would be an abbreviated career, even as elsewhere in Brooklyn, a new generation is appearing—among them Stephon Marbury and the other youngsters featured in The Last Shot—that will soon pursue its own hoop dreams.

 

The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams

by Darcy Frey (Originally published 1994; Reprinted in New York by Mariner Books, 2004; 230 pp.)

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“Avoiding pickup games, he gets down to work: an hour of three-point shooting, then wind sprints up the fourteen flights in his project stairwell, then back to this court where, much to his friends’ amusement, he shoots one-handers ten feet from the basket while sitting in a chair.”

A superbly narrated, and so moving story of players on Coney Island’s Lincoln High basketball players (among them future NBA star, then high school freshman Stephon Marbury) who hope to parlay hard work, talent, and team success into college scholarships and, eventually, pro careers. The players are not only sympathetic in Frey’s portrait, they are embodiments of adolescence, navigating the treacherous passage from the innocence of childhood dreams and the experience of adult realities.  That their particular passage includes poverty, institutional racism, a broken public education system, rapacious college recruiters and coaches only makes their story more poignant and outraging, especially if one encounters (outside the text) the devastating follow-up on one of the players in Frey’s profile. It’s important to note here that the book has been the subject of some controversy (spoiler alert).  Even within the book, Marbury’s father challenges Frey to do more than profit off other people’s stories and demands compensation.  After initially resisting (ostensibly on ethical grounds) Frey attempted to set up a contract so that the player’s can share in the profits of the book upon publication but apparently was blocked from doing so by the NCAA. After the book’s publication, some residents argued that it was unbalanced and sensational in depicting conditions in the neighborhood. All this can and should be taken into account, but it should not, in my view, prevent readers from engaging with the stories of these young men, their community, and the issues these stories raise.

 

The Game They Played

by Stanley Cohen (Originally published 1977; Reprinted in New York by DaCapo, 2001; 256 pp.)

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“Five street kids from the City of New York—three Jews and two blacks—were about to whale the shit out of middle America.”

 

Before Stephon Marbury, before Fly Williams,  before Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and the rest of the Old School Knicks, before Connie Hawkins, basketball in New York centered on the Beavers of City College, the only team in history to win both the NCAA tournament and the NIT in the same season.  Stanley Cohen, an aspiring player and young fan of the team at the time, tells the story of that season, and of the events leading up to and from the shocking revelation, shortly after the celebrations, that several players had been fixing the outcome of games.  There are more efficient ways to get accurate information about the scandal and its impact, but I can think of few that are more moving or wide-ranging in perspective. Because Cohen invests himself in the story of the multiracial team’s rise to success against the basketball powers of the heartland, we are able to feel what lovers of New York basketball lost when, in the wake of the scandal, big time college basketball stayed away from the city. I assure you, I can be as irritated with the provincialism and basketball narcissism of New Yorkers as anyone, but caught in the power of this narrative, I actually begin to sympathize with those who look back nostalgically at this period in the City Game’s history or at its subsequent avatar in the early 1970s, when the Knicks played and won with a style pioneered at the city’s colleges in the 1940s.

I notice looking over these that there is a distinctly New York axis running through four of the five titles and that these four all concern hopes and failures amidst promises and betrayals, of different sorts.  They remind me of the distinct, singular human lives that the vast athletic, institutional and economic machinery that is basketball draws into its maw, and so also of the humanity of what that machine spits out as so much waste. And perhaps that is what ties these together with the non-Big Apple member of the team. For the authors of the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac have always found the beauty, interest and redemptive gleam in what conventional sporting wisdom has judged unworthy detritus.

Tomorrow, I round out this list of my top twenty basketball books with five Honorable Mention selections.

Bad Prof’s Top Basketball Books – Second Team

Yesterday, I began presenting the list of my favorite basketball books with my First Team All-Bad Prof selections.  Today I move on to the second team (presented alphabetically by title), using the same criteria:  originality and accessibility, the depth they bring to their subjects and, perhaps most of all, their reliable avoidance of the cliches, dogmas and harmful myths of basketball culture.

 

All-Bad Prof Book List – Second Team

Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism

by Walter LaFeber (Originally published 1999; new and expanded edition published in New York by Norton, 2002; 220 pp)

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“The history of basketball, especially in the era of Michael Jordan, helps us understand this era known as ‘the American Century.'”

There are of course so many books on Jordan, and so many good ones. Lay readers might wonder why I haven’t included The Jordan Rules or Playing For Keeps, while sports studies scholars might wonder about Michael Jordan, Inc. (it will appear in my Honorable Mention post). All three of these are indeed excellent books well worth a reader’s time. However, LaFeber, one of our country’s most distinguished historians, makes the list with a slim, readable volume that pays tribute to the greatness of Jordan on the floor, while laying out the contextual forces in the global economy and culture which made Jordan a cultural icon.  By comparison with the first two Jordan books I mentioned above, LeFeber doesn’t give you much behind the scenes dirt or even much insight into Jordan’s personality.  But I for one believe that these elements are of secondary importance in understanding the myth of Michael Jordan. Instead, LaFeber succinctly and lucidly weaves together descriptions of the confluence of new communications technology and new economic practices and strategies in manufacturing and marketing with a history of basketball and of Jordan’s career. The result is a readable narrative portrait of Jordan that, without minimizing his stature as a basketball player, makes clear that his legacy is inseparable from global cultural and economic developments.

 

The National Basketball League: A History, 1935-1949

by Murry R. Nelson (Originally published in Jefferson, NC by McFarland, 2009; 284 pp.)

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“teams were often integral parts of the community’s identities and the owners were, more often than not, local business and civic leaders.”

Among the books detailing the early history of professional basketball in the United States, I consider this the most important, even though—or actually because—its focus is not the NBA, but rather the National Basketball League (NBL). Nelson, who taught education and American studies at Penn State for many years, nevertheless illuminates a vital facet of early pro (and NBA) history in this meticulously research, detailed and entertaining history of the NBL.  His narrative restores the indispensable contributions of the NBL in establishing professional basketball as an attractive career and entertainment option and, especially, in cultivating and showcasing the talented players who—once they merged with the Basketball Association of America to form the NBA in 1949—would carry the NBA through its rocky early years, only to be marginalized from the NBA’s subsequent official history of itself. More importantly still, to mind, Nelson’s portrait of the league, its players, owners and fans, reminds us that the economic and administrative structure characterizing the NBA today neither was nor is the only possible model for professional basketball. In this, Nelson exemplifies the great German writer Walter Benjamin’s proposition that those who would understand the past must brush history “against the grain,” looking in unpromising places to tell the story of the forgotten.

 

Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool

by Walt Frazier with Ira Berko (Originally published in 1974; reprinted in Chicago by Triumph Books, 2010; 144 pp.)

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“I can remember how prideful I felt to wear the sneakers, and how I dug looking down and watching me walk in them.”Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool

Unique among player autobiographies for originality, Rockin’ Steady is next to impossible to summarize. The book is divided into six chapters whose titles (“Defense,” “Offense” and “Statistics” among them) offer a deceptive image of conventional coherence. Sure the book lets readers in on Frazier’s strategies and provides a portrait of the game in the late 60s and early 70s. But it also teaches you how to dry off after a shower and how to catch flies. What it lacks in narrative coherence and factual detail, it more than makes up for in beauty of design and in its ability to convey the importance of style, on and off the court, to the game of basketball. In this respect, it is ahead of its time. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the University of Michigan library shelves this book in the children’s literature section, which is fitting, for the book is a guide though, like all the great classic guides in world literature, one that guides less by the information it imparts than by what it does to you.

 

Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball

by Jeffrey Lane (Originally published in Lincoln, NE by University of Nebraska Press, 2007; 256 pp.)

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“the NBA . . . chastises players for looking or acting ‘too street’ while it manipulates and sells their street-bred swagger for all its worth.”Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball

Race is a prominent theme in a number of superb books on the history of basketball, particularly those that deal with the era from the early 1990s through the present when the so-called “hip hop generation” rose to preeminence in the sport.  Most of these usefully focus on the intersection of racial dynamics in basketball with those in American society and culture at large. Among the latter, Under the Boards distinguishes itself in my mind for its accessibility, detail and nuance and for Lane’s ability to integrate research into the history of the game and American society—he is an “urban ethnographer” at Rutgers—during the period with an honest and vulnerable account of his own experiences of the phenomena he studies.  Intertwining the stories of the rise of hip hop, racial politics in Reagan-Bush era America, and on and off-court trends in basketball during the period, Lane’s chapters provides detailed and stimulating narrative analyses of Allen Iverson, Ron Artest and Latrell Sprewell, Larry Bird, Bobby Knight, and the rise of foreign-born players in the NBA.  But each of these topics also becomes the occasion for wide-ranging, well-grounded accounts of the historical contexts—from housing discrimination in Boston to the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana—necessary to grasping more fully their cultural significance.

 

Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era

by Gary M. Pomerantz (Originally published in New York by Three Rivers Press, 2005; 267 pp)

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“He reduced to rubble the white-defined ideas of fair play and sportsmanship, which he knew as lies. Whites didn’t want fair play; they feared it.”Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era

Pomerantz is a journalist with a great deal of experience writing about race in America and brings this sensitivity to his thrilling story of the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game. But if changing racial dynamics in America and in basketball in the early 60s are important to this book, they are so as a subtext.  What gets foregrounded in Wilt, 1962 is storytelling, as Pomerantz draws together the reports of numerous witnesses to the “night of 100 points” and composes them into a single fluid portrait of the game itself.  Pomerantz, a superb narrator, provides exciting recaps of each quarter.  But details of game action become occasions for digressive stories (going backward and forward in time) of the principal and marginal characters (among these, the story of the game ball alone is worth the price of the book and the portrait of Chamberlain as human being and player is the best I’ve read).  It’s through the rich and complex subtlety of these nonetheless readable stories, that the book comes to serve as a lens through which the larger social dynamics at work in the game, Wilt’s performance, and its legend become visible.

 

Looking over this group, I notice that the incorporation of the first person perspective is common in basketball books I appreciate. Perhaps when an author vulnerably involves him or herself in the subject of the writing (like all the authors on my First Team, and a few of them today), it becomes harder—especially with politically charged issues like race—for them to rely upon detached intellectualism or dogma. Even LaFeber’s history of Jordan and the context for his global stardom is infused by the mix of the author’s admiration for Jordan and his outrage at the human cost—not least to Jordan himself—of marketing his ability. What emerges then feels closer to me like the messy complexity of these issues as I experience them in my daily life.

Stay tuned for the Third Team, coming soon.

The Culture of Moving Dots

Today I listened to a very well crafted, informative lecture by Rajiv Maheswaran on how basketball teams are using movement tracking devices and computing power to inform the decisions they make about roster composition, strategy and tactics.  Not only was the lecture itself admirable (something that, as a teacher, I care about a lot), but the human scientific intelligence and the technological power described in it leave me awestruck.  Moreover, the potential for the insights generated by this work to cut through certain persistent myths in basketball culture—myths that often harbor and purvey harmful social attitudes, especially about race—seems exciting to me.

Of course, as someone who has spent a lot of time analyzing the often irrational (if unconscious) attitudes embedded in the language and stories used to talk about basketball and basketball players from the game’s invention to the present day, the facts offered up by quantitative reasoning can be one useful instrument for countering these myths. And I can certainly see this presentation as a demonstration of the brilliant complexity of the physical and cognitive abilities of individual basketball players.  But still, quantitative reasoning and the technology and facts to which they lead remain just that—useful instruments—and ones whose utility depends, like that of any instrument, on the intentions of the user and the context of the use.  They are not, in my view any way, some sort of final horizon of human knowledge about basketball and its culture.  That’s why, despite these positive feelings, a reservation popped into my head almost from the outset, kept nagging at me throughout, and remained when I finished watching. 

At a linguistic and conceptual level, as I’ve expressed elsewhere on this blog, I’m concerned with the abstracting tendencies in basketball culture that lead us to see players as something other than human beings like ourselves.  So I get worried when Maheswaran boasts that in sports, through the “instrumenting of stadiums,” “we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.”

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we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.

There better be, in my view, some extremely compelling reason, some significant value delivered that outweighs for me the ethical cost of viewing (let alone “turning”) athletes—or any human being, for that matter—into a moving dots.  After all, psychologists have told us that seeing other people as moving dots, say on a radar screen, seems to make it easier to kill them.

But Maheswaran’s work seems driven by an assumption that the ability to track and quantify human movement is a desirable thing.  He asserts this more or less directly a few times in the course of his lecture, apparently to remind his audience of the practical value of the scientific research involved.  

So, he introduces his work with the relatively simple rhetorical assertion of value:

And wouldn’t it be great if we could understand all this movement? If we could find patterns and meaning and insight in it.

Then, after a detailed and informative explanation of how machines deliver NBA franchises information about shot selection and shooting ability, he explains that

it’s really important to know if the 47 [meaning the 47% shooter] that you’re considering giving 100 million dollars to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots.

Finally, in concluding he offers a touching glimpse of the personal value we might derive from non-sporting applications of this technology:

Perhaps, instead of identifying pick-and-rolls, a machine can identify the moment and let me know when my daughter takes her first steps. Which could literally be happening any second now.

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Think very carefully about this: are you prepared to live with what what you create?

Finally, he lands on a firmly optimistic and time honored Enlightenment era affirmation of the blissful marriage of science and progress in the quality of human lives:

Perhaps we can learn to better use our buildings, better plan our cities. I believe that with the development of the science of moving dots, we will move better, we will move smarter, we will move forward.

To some degree, I am with him on most of this.  However, I must say it’s no more important to me to know if the player that an NBA owner is considering giving $100 million to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots than it is to know whether my friend Johnny is moving his body in the most productive way during his shift as a stocker at the local Walmart. Beyond this, with regard to his final assertion, a great deal depends for me on what he means by better and smarter and even forward.

I am no scientist, but I am also no Luddite.  I recognize and depend upon the value of quantitative and scientific reasoning and its many technological applications countless times in the course of my daily life.  For example, at this very moment, I tap my fingers on a wireless computer keyboard that sends signals to my CPU that in turn transforms those movements into letters and words appearing on my screen in the post composition screen of a page on the internet. I may not understand the process in detail, but I know enough to know that my own work depends, directly or indirectly, on the work of people like Maheswaran.  And so I want to be clear that I am not adopting some sort of polarizing anti-technology stance whereby I’d advocate a world law banning the use of quantitative reasoning, science or technology in sport or elsewhere.

I am, however, advocating for a place at the table where decisions concerning the development and use of such instruments get made.  

I don’t mean a place for me personally (though I can think of worse candidates), but for people like me (but smarter and better informed—in other words, I can also think of better candidates) who have devoted much of their lives to studying the history of the relationship between human technologies and human values.  People, I mean, willing to attend to the annoying complexity of concepts like better, smarter, and forward.

Our technological power, as Maheswaran so ably demonstrates, is growing in leaps and bounds and the demonstrations, like his lecture, we have of it—themselves reliant upon new technologies—grow increasingly enticing and compelling to more and more people. Meanwhile, despite a shrinking budgets for higher education around the country, corporations and university administrators continue to prioritize spending for the development of facilities, faculty and resources in science, technology, engineering and math.

But this expansion has often come at the expense of investments in the humanities disciplines that have been the traditional home (in universities, at any rate) of critical conversation about the ethical costs and benefits of the developments we find so enthralling.  0When we contemplate, individually or collectively, using a new tool (which is how I see the technological application of scientific research), we must ask ourselves, informed by historical knowledge and by a deep interest in the causal web that extends around the globe, into the earth itself, and forward into the future, what we stand to gain and to lose by its use.  As you might imagine, the conversation that follows that initial query is likely to be complicated and messy and, dare I say it, inefficient.  But it is no less—and perhaps more—urgent that we have it on that account.

We need, in other words, to think very carefully and to talk about what we’ll gain and lose by moving “forward” into a “better” and “smarter” world in which we may all transform one another into moving dots.

Teaching Values: Coaching the Right Way

In the wake of my posts last week exploring some of the history, assumptions and implications underlying various aspects of coaching, I had a great conversation with Nick Houseman at BBallBreakdown.  Nick is a coach, clearly an intelligent and caring one and so one who is looking to make coaches and coaching better. Perhaps in that spirit, he asked me the following question yesterday: “is there a debate about coaches using sports to teach overarching themes about life?”

I take it that Nick is asking not whether such a debate exists (for the record, there is quite a bit of scholarly discussion of this in the sport psychology, sport sociology and sport philosophy literature–contact me for some references), but rather, rhetorically, whether I believe that it is appropriate for coaches to use sports to teach overarching themes about life? My short answer is yes.  There’s no question that sports can provide numerous opportunities to learn, either through experience or instruction, about life; and a coach can be the individual who helps teach those lessons.  Moreover, as historians such as Dominick Cavallo and Clifford Putney (to name just two among many) have shown, sports have and probably will continue to be—for better and for worse—impactful arenas for imparting these lessons. In the case of basketball, for example, the game was in part designed to do so.  And individuals like James Naismith, John Wooden, Walt Frazier, Bill Russell, Bill Bradley, Mike Krysewski, and Phil Jackson, among many others, have authored volumes elaborating their ideas about what basketball can teach and how; even as scholars have complicated our understanding of how this might work best.

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But in specific circumstances (and leaving aside the kind of coaching behaviors that have left too many young people with a horrible impression of sports culture) , I might qualify my response depending on the answers to certain questions: what is the age of the athletes? What are the themes being taught and how are these being taught? And what is the social context outside of the sporting arena that might support (or undermine) the ability of individual athletes to incorporate these (presumably positive) lessons into their daily lives.  Each of these questions reflects underlying issues that complicate my answer.

Basketball for BoysThis may seem obvious, but generally speaking, I think it’s most appropriate and practical for coaches to impart life lessons to younger players. This isn’t because I think we can’t stop learning about life as we get older.  Life is complicated and challenging in ways that change as we age.  And none of us are ever too old to benefit from the experiences, perspectives, and wisdom of others.  However, in a professional context such as the NBA, where (depending on your definition) most or all of the players are adults, there is a danger that coaches seeking to impart life lessons may fail to respect or appreciate the life wisdom players already have and therefore take on a patronizing attitude.  That is, a situation can arise in which one grown adult is treating another grown adult as though he were less than adult. Because of the racial dynamic whereby most coaches are still white and most players still black and the history of race relations in the US, this such an attitude can become especially problematic.

Moreover, the NBA is a business in which coaches and players alike are employed to maximize, through their success on the court, the profit line of owners. It may not be practical in that context to prioritize life lessons.  And, in addition, the business aspect of the NBA means that coaches and players may not have the opportunity to develop the kinds of intimate personal relationships (knowledge of each other’s experiences and lives, trust, etc.) that should be the bedrock for any such instruction. However, in explicitly educational contexts (such as colleges and schools) and elsewhere that younger athletes are involved, I think using the sporting experience to impart life lessons can be appropriate and desirable, depending, as I said at the outset, on what the themes are, how they are being taught, and on the broader social context in which this is occurring.

It’s probably pretty common to consider, again taking basketball as an example, that certain qualities of character likely to lead to individual and team success are also valuable in life outside of basketball.  Hard work, self-discipline, physical health, enjoyment, graciousness, adaptability, individual initiative, cooperation, unselfishness, intelligence, self-respect and respect for others, and an appreciation of individual differences in personality and ability might comprise a non-exhaustive list of such qualities. I’ve certainly found in my life in and out of basketball that cultivating and exhibiting such qualities tends to contribute to more positive outcomes more often than not.  And most would agree in principle (even if some waver or fall short in actual practice) that these qualities should be prioritized over other values (such as winning) if and when they conflict.

I’m not claiming that these are universal values.  Some arguably are, some definitely are not.  Sometimes, the objection that they are not is voiced to prevent the specific experiences of certain socially marginalized group from being erased. Such erasure is a valid and serious concern.  But I wonder if it might be constructively addressed with careful attention to the conditions under which they are transmitted.  Perhaps this is naive on my part, but if it were the case, we could then avoid resigning ourselves to the position—which admittedly I find tempting, but ultimately counter to my experience, my reasoning, and my desire—that it is hopeless, or worse harmful, to attempt to use sports to impart life lessons to athletes we care about.

Some sociologists rightly observe that there can be in sport an excessive emphasis on defining well-being and development in individual terms. The concern behind this critical observation is that such an emphasis fails to take into account the role—both for better and worse—of society (and of other collectives) in the well-being and development of individuals. Because basketball is a team sport, and as the list of qualities I offered above suggests, this may be less of a problem when it comes to the actual values some coaches seek to impart to their young players. It’s hard for me at least to imagine a basketball coach sternly instructing his or her players to go after their own individual success on the floor at all costs and that this will stand them in good stead in life after basketball.  Even so, it may be the case that some coaches fail to recognize (for any number of reasons) the broader social context in which their players must operate; a context which might make some of these qualities less practicable or practically useful than would be the case on the team or in other social scenarios with which a coach might be familiar or, indeed, in some ideal society.

But I don’t think this means that coaches should refrain from attempting to instill the values they genuinely believe will be useful to their players on and off the court.  It does, however, mean that how a coach teaches and—equally importantly—embodies these values becomes very important.  And it does mean that we should all (coaches included, or especially) be invested in the broader conditions, both of youth sport and of the social and community contexts surrounding young athletes outside of the sporting context, that might make the difference between life lessons learned through sport becoming empowering tools for individuals and communities and such lessons becoming little more than cynically deployed empty promises leading to bitterness and mistrust.

Coach-Gray-Sports-Coach-Tip-No-18-Coach-John-Burns-1024x1024Take care of your body might be the most fundamental tenet of all coaches and the athletic principle with the most obvious relevance to daily life.  The habits of physical self-care that a young athlete might cultivate in the context of their sporting experience may well become a life-long habit with clear benefits.  But, in imparting that lesson, are we taking adequate account of the situations that athlete may be facing in their home or community that might undermine their efforts at attending to their physical well being? Do they have adequate nutrition, for example, or the opportunity to cultivate proper sleep hygiene?

Respect yourself and others: another fundamental lesson to be learned through sports.  But self-respect and respect for others are not cultivated in a vacuum, through sheer force of individual will (even if such a will is a necessary condition for their cultivation). So when we teach young athletes to respect themselves and others (teammates, coaches, officials, opponents) are we considering whether or not the conditions exist in their lives outside of sport in which such a lesson might take root and grow?  Are they respected by their teachers? By law enforcement? By their peers? What about the coach? Is the coach, in his or her interaction with players, showing respect? Or, indeed, exemplifying the other lessons of life and of character he or she seeks to instill in them?

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I think one could go down the list of qualities that I mentioned above and ask of each of them: is the coach exemplifying them? Is their adequate social support for the cultivation of these lessons in a wholistic manner? If not, is the coach (and others claiming to care about the well being of the young athlete) working to ensure that the conditions exist outside the sport—in the family, neighborhood, community and country—in which these qualities can be both practicable and practically useful?

Obviously, as literal questions, the answer will be sometimes yes and sometimes no, depending on the coach.  But I mean them more as rhetorical questions designed to illuminate the more challenging areas that I fear are obscured by the broad popular consensus that sports are a good arena in which to learn life lessons and, therefore, that coaches are the appropriate instructors for such lessons.  I mean to be, in other words, pointing out some of the conditions that I think we need to meet if the potential of sport (and coaches) to work in this positive way is to be fulfilled.

The Triangle Myth

In thinking about basketball culture, I’ve found it useful to think about certain recurrent themes, images, metaphors and topics of discussion as myths.  I don’t mean “myths” in the sense of falsehoods. Instead, I mean myth in the definition given by scholar Robert Segal as a story that conveys a belief that, whether it is true or false, is tenaciously held by its adherents.  Another scholar once referred to myths as “cultural dreams.” If you accept that dreams can shed light on our deeper feelings and attitudes, wishes and fears, then it can be useful to explore the shame of these cultural dreams called myths, for they can help us to better understand the things we feel collectively as a culture but perhaps are not in touch with enough to articulate directly.  Better understanding these things, in turn, can help empower us to change those things that we discover may need changing, just as better understanding our individual fears and wishes can lead us to improve our lives.

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Nicholas Dawidoff published an elegantly produced, honest and informative inquiry into the Triangle in yesterday’s New York Times. The piece inspired this post and I’ll be using examples from it to illustrate just what I’m talking about. Discussion of the Triangle doesn’t always take on the form of a story, thought it almost always includes stories (such as the story of Tex Winter, who originally devised it, or the story of Phil Jackson’s implementation of it when he was coaching the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan to multiple championships). But, regardless of the prominence of narrative in discussions of the Triangle, I think it’s still useful to probe them for those tenaciously held beliefs; useful, in other words, to speak of something we might call “The Triangle Myth.”

So what are the defining element of the Triangle Myth? In no particular order, the Triangle Myth consistently affirms several beliefs: 1) the complexity of the Triangle; 2) a strong association of the Triangle with the success of Jackson-coached teams in Chicago and Los Angeles; 3) the beauty of the Triangle; and 4) the qualities, especially moral qualities, required of players in order to run the Triangle effectively.

All these elements are visible in Dawidoff’s article. Indeed, the complexity of the offense appears as one of his motivations in writing the story.  He writes,

The system is basketball’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, renowned for being highbrow and difficult to understand. Yet trying to get through an abstruse book about the essence of cognition is one thing; that basketball could be over our heads is somehow harder to take.

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I found the idea of Triangle particularly intriguing. An offensive system that had won all those championships in full public view yet remained off-limits to others — that seemed provocative, a sports riddle.

This leads him to embark upon a quest he describes (albeit ironically) in a quasi-mythological terms:

Was Triangle the golden basketball mean? Was it a mirage? Mine would be a quest of sorts, deep into the heart of Winter.

In the course of this quest, he interviews a number of college and professional coaches and players.  The result is a veritable compendium of variations on the Triangle Myth.  So, we hear former player and current analyst Jay Williams testifying to its complexity:

You hand me a piece of paper and say, ‘Jay, define the triangle for me,’ it’s kind of like a kid with Magic Markers drawing a cartoon. It’s all over the page. So many series of actions, I get lost trying to explain it.

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The whole article revolves around the enormous success Jackson enjoyed using the Triangle, the challenges he has faced in implementing in New York, and the vicissitudes of other coaches and players efforts to work with the offense.  We find, moreover, none other than Kobe Bryant extolling the its beauty:

We were successful because we played in such a beautiful system.

Meanwhile, Stanford University women’s coach Tara VanDerveer compared it to improvisational jazz:

“The ball movement is beautiful!” she said, sounding the way people do when they are discussing the source of deep significance in their lives.

Meanwhile, both Jackson and his acolyte, Steve Kerr (first year coach of this seasons NBA champion Golden State Warriors) lament the difficulty of finding players with the requisite qualities for understanding, accepting and implementing the Triangle.  Thus, Jackson, speaking of his challenges as President of the Knicks:

Identifying players who can be good at it is our chore.

And Kerr elaborates the complaint:

Players grow up with the pick-and-roll, so they don’t naturally play without the ball. So many one-and-done guys are incredibly gifted,but they’re not seasoned fundamentally. In Triangle, they’d be completely lost.

Ultimately, in addition to fundamental skills and intelligence, players are required to possess the moral qualities of unselfishness, self-discipline, and trust.  They must be willing, first of all, to place the team’s interests over their own individual interests or rather more precisely: they must identify their individual interests with the team’s interests.  But also, they must be willing to trust their teammates to do the same and, moreover, the offense to produce positive outcomes for the collective.

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Former Bulls’ player Horace Grant brings all the elements together:

You need intelligence to run Triangle. We have great one-on-one athletes out there in the N.B.A., but to be as one, you need to know your role in Triangle. It was a smooth operating machine. Baryshnikov in action! Picasso painting! A beautiful thing!

What Bethlehem Shoals once called the “NBA bildungsroman” of Michael Jordan laboring selfishly and unsucessfully year after year in a Sisyphian task of rolling the Chicago Bulls up the hill of the NBA playoffs only to fall back down again before coming under the firm but benign and quasi-mystical guidance of Phil Jackson and the Triangle serves as the exemplary moral tale here, sisyphus-1549which Dawidoff dutifully recounts, in the form of a quotation from then-Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause:

Michael’s smart as hell. It took him a few months, but then he realized what he could do in Triangle. He went back to Carolina, and all he did all summer was work on post stuff. For the next eight or 10 years, he scored more points in the post than most centers did.

So all the elements are here: the Triangle is a bafflingly complex system, associated with some of the most unparalleled team successes in basketball history, but its complexity, together with the individual skills and moral traits required to implement it are beyond the reach of most of today’s players. So having reviewed these examples of the constitutive elements of the Triangle Myth, let me look a little more critically and deeply.

The first thing to note is the logic whereby an offensive system (or “rubric” as Dawidoff nicely terms it) that has been successfully implemented in specific circumstances is viewed as a kind of tactical, moral, and aesthetic ideal to which coaches and teams should aspire.  This is important because it only through this elevation of the contingent into the necessary that it makes any sense for coaches to complain that they don’t have the right circumstances (read: “players”) in which to implement the Triangle.  

The tacit idea here is that running the Triangle is the best of all possible basketball worlds, the Eden every coach and team would blissfully inhabit if only those players—unschooled in the fundamentals, lacking the intelligence, or unwilling to sacrifice their own interests for the good of the team—weren’t mucking it up.

The Triangle may well have been enormously successful, perhaps more successful than any offensive system in basketball history, and many may consider the patterns of ball and body movement it generates to be beautiful.  It may even exemplify certain moral traits reasonable people would consider desirable such as unselfishness, self-discipline, and trust.  I don’t have any problem with assenting to any of this.  My problem comes when in idealizing the Triangle through the Triangle Myth it becomes yet another bludgeon with which to hammer players (past and especially present) for what they appear—through the lens of this mythto lack.

The deficiencies of today’s players seem to me to be enumerated so frequently that I fear people will come to really believe that NBA players lack fundamental skills, or intelligence, or moral qualities like unselfishness, self-discipline, or trust.  When the list of deficiencies is harnessed to the cart of a powerfully compelling story like the Triangle Myth, I think such distortions become all the more likely to be accepted as truths.

Anybody’s who has been reading me ever, but especially lately, probably knows that this is the moment to remind you that most NBA players are black and most NBA coaches are white and that it’s troubling to me to see basketball culture repeat, as though in a social vacuum, any number of criticisms of black men that have been a staple of racist discourse in this country for centuries.  That Michael Jordan (who is obviously black) is trotted out as a counter-example is itself another staple of such discourse: the exhibition of an African-American who through determination and individual virtue manages to hoist himself above his culture and so to fulfill the expectations of the dominant, white culture.

Instead of this, we might remove the distorting lenses furnished by myths like that of the Triangle.  In doing so, we might appreciate that in every NBA game we witness dazzling exhibitions of fundamental skills honed through long hours of solitary practice, of moral virtue cultivated in, often times, the least nourishing of soils, and of a kind of embodied intelligence that—because we fall prey to the longstanding assumption that minds and bodies are two separate facets of the human being and that the mind is the sole residence of intelligence—we’re likely to overlook because it is not expressed in the forms—such as speech—we expect.

As a teacher (a kind of coach if you will) I try—when I am at what I think of as my best, which is certainly not always—to approach my classes as though the students already possess the basic skills and dispositions required to make the course a success.  I assume they are all intelligent, curious, and open to learn from and teach one another.  But I recognize that intelligence, curiosity and openness take different forms.  And I spend a fair amount of time over the first few weeks of each semester getting to know the specific individual and collective gifts a given group of students will be bringing to the table.  Only then, having established that I respect and value them, have I earned in turn th respect that allows them to accept and meet the challenges I offer them to go further and to stretch themselves.

Phil Jackson and the Essence of Basketball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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