Last week, as part of Oberlin College’s celebration of Black History Month, I had the honor of hosting and moderating a panel discussion on Black Athletes, Activism, and the Media.
The panelists included Kevin Blackistone (@ProfBlackistone), Louis Moore (@LouMoore12), Sarah Jackson (@sjjphd), and Jimmy King (@jimmyking24). As you’ll see, in exploring the issue, our guests complicated our ways of thinking about this issue by drawing our attention to its deep and complex history, the cultural, technological, and economic forces that both fuel and constrain the phenomenon, and the important forces for change that we often lose sight of by allowing the conversation to remain focused too narrowly on those statements and actions undertaken by the most celebrated Black male athletes and so reported by the media. But they also complicated by our thinking by showing us that this issue is not primarily about understanding injustice and thinking our way to action: it’s about allowing ourselves to feel and to trust so to be moved to action, in small and large ways.
As I said in my opening remarks, these are difficult financial times at the College and I find it heartening that even so we continue to invest in the kind of programming that liberal arts colleges are uniquely suited to offer their students: adventurous discussion on pressing and controversial issues—informed by the thoughtful work of scholars from different disciplines and the perspectives of participants and public intellectuals; all intentionally aimed at engaging and challenging our students and colleagues to expand the realm of truth, freedom and equality in this world and to imagine a better future for all. These panelists, and the students, faculty, staff, and community members who showed up to listen to and engage with them, far exceeded even these high expectations for what this event could be. Certainly, I found the event intellectually informative and stimulating. But more importantly, because of the emotional vulnerability and authenticity of those present, I most of experienced this event as an opening and stirring of my heart.
This picture is of Kansas City Chiefs star linebacker Justin Houston. While the national anthem played before his team’s game, he turned to face his fans, and kneeled.
I doubt anyone who thinks differently will even see this, or be swayed by it, and others with a bigger platform have already made these and other points more eloquently or forcefully. But I still want to make three points about the NFL player protests that I wish those opposing them would really consider seriously.
1) Please stop crowing that “spoiled, millionaire players should stop protesting.”
They are not protesting because they feel themselves to be personally or individually oppressed necessarily (though some of them probably have been at one point or another). They are protesting in solidarity with, and to amplify the voices of, many others who have been oppressed, and have been protesting, but whose names we won’t know because they aren’t celebrities and we as a country stupidly only get hyped up when celebrities do or say shit.
2) Please stop characterizing it as a protest against the flag or the national anthem.
It is a protest against structural racism and police violence exercised disproportionately against people of color, both of which are counter to what are supposed to be the ideals and values of the country; ideals and values that the anthem and the flag symbolize. The protest means something like: “hold up, y’all, before we stand up and congratulate ourselves for how awesome we are at our values, let’s take a knee to remember those suffering for our shortcomings; let’s call our country to do better, to come closer to realizing those ideals of freedom and equality for all.”
3) Please stop saying “stick to sports” or that “sports should not be political.”
Sorry, but that is a counter-factual delusion. Sports are now and have always been political: political decisions finance arenas and stadiums with public dollars or tax breaks, political decisions determine who gets to play and who doesn’t, political decisions confer anti-trust law exemptions on teams, leagues, and organizations. All that is happening now (which has also happened in the past) is that athletes, mostly of color, are participating openly in this political process. If you didn’t insist that sports and politics be separate when your city council voted to finance a new stadium, or your state legislature and governor passed a law declaring that athletes at public universities are not employees and may not unionize, I don’t think insisting on the separation of sports and politics now is a very good look.
If you really understand these things, and still believe they should just shut up, stand up, and play football, then we have very fundamentally different views of how to be in the world. I can live and let live to a point, and I think I’m generally a pretty conciliatory guy. But in this case, your views are actually in the way of the freedom and equality I want for everyone. So I have a problem with your views.
The shoes are pretty sick, but I literally would not wear them even if Nike paid me to.
I’m not even going to show a picture.
Because the shoes are fucking sick. I have seen and heard (and smelled) a lot in the years that I have been scouring the colon of big time athletics at Michigan. But this is some next level shit.
According to the websites Nice Kicks and Sneakernews, Nike’s Jordan Brand previewed a new sneaker model: the Air Jordan 5 Fab 5 PE. Rapper DJ Khaled—who last fall emceed the Ann Arbor event at which Nike first unveiled the Michigan athletic apparel it had created as part of its $173.8 million deal with the University—posted photos and videos of the shoes on his Instagram account over the past weekend.
I wasn’t in any of the meetings that led to the appearance of this new thing in the world. So I can’t say with certainty whether it is stupidity, greed, irresponsibility, hypocrisy, cynicism, or merely irony that’s being manifested here, but I suspect a combination was at work.
The so-called “Block M,” which appears on the front of the tongue of the new sneakers is a federally registered trademark, which means that any use of the logo on merchandise sold for profit requires approval from the University’s Trademark Licensing office.
Apart from some generalities available to the general public, I don’t know what legal stipulations govern the relationship between the University and Nike. But I assume that the main thing that Nike got for its 174 million dollars was the right to use the block M on merchandise sold for profit. I doubt anyone at Michigan ever saw—let alone signed off on—this shoe before it hit the internet this weekend. But I still hold the University partially responsible for selling its soul—(soul, brand, whatever)—to the highest bidder.
I know, that’s obvious. It’s how college licensing works. Universities sell the rights to use their name and brand logos to commercial entities. According to the Collegiate Licensing Company, “the retail marketplace for college-licensed merchandise in 2013 was estimated at $4.59 billion” and Michigan ranked third behind the University of Texas and the University of Alabama in sales that year.
Along with the money generated by ticket sales, commercial sponsorships, and television contracts, the revenues generated by these licensing deals are why so many of us consider college athletes, whose compensation is limited to aid covering cost of attendance, to be economically exploited laborers.
That is why as a general rule I don’t buy Michigan athletic apparel. It is not that I don’t support those students of mine who are Michigan athletes. It is that I do support those students of mine who are Michigan athletes, and so I refuse to be complicit with this aspect of their exploitation. And yes, I’m aware that is an arbitrary line to draw and that it has pretty much no effect on the system as a whole. But it at least lets me look my students in the eye.
But if all that’s just basic Big Time College Sports 101, then the Air Jordan 5 Fab 5 PE kicks are, as I say, next level, advanced graduate seminar, shit. To understand why, consider this.
In 1990-1991, the year before the five freshman who would come to be known as the Fab Five arrived on the UM campus, the University took in $2 million in merchandising revenues. In 1992-1993, after their sophomore year, that number had jumped more than 500 %, to $10.5 million, fueled by the extraordinary popularity of the styles pioneered by the five talented and successful young black men. Meanwhile, Nike and the University of Michigan were at the time pioneering what would become the standard relationship between large apparel manufacturers and universities in this country.
On November 7, 2002, University President Mary Sue Coleman announced that Michigan would be imposing sanctions on its own athletic program as a result of NCAA violations involving a handful of players during the 1990s, among them Chris Webber of the so-called Fab Five. The sanctions included vacating the basketball team’s two Final Four games from the 1991-1992 season, and every game of the 1992-1993 season. As a result, the banners commemorating the team’s appearance in the Final Four in both those seasons would be removed from the rafters of Crisler Arena.
In 2012, nearly ten years later, in response to a question from a student of mine during a fireside chat, President Coleman reiterated her position that the self-imposed sanctions were proper and should remain in effect. She said that what happened was not good and was a source of shame for the University.
To this day, despite increasing calls from University faculty, candidates for the Board of Regents, and alumni, the University still does not officially recognize the on-court accomplishments or off-court impact of the five players and their teammates. According to the University, those teams won no games stretching from the end of the 1991-1992 seasons through the whole of the 1992-1993 season. Though these “facts” were the result of the University’s own policy decisions, unilaterally reversing these decisions and reinstating the banners, University administrators appear to feel, could jeopardize the University’s relationship with some wealthy alumni and with the NCAA.
In other words, according to the University, the so-called Fab Five were literally not victors. And yet, on the opposite side from the black Block M on the tongue the new Air Jordan 5 Fab 5 PE sneakers is the word “Victors,” a reference the school’s fight song: “Hail to the Victors.” The five, it seems, as ever, may be considered Victors for the purposes of generating revenue, but not for the purposes of acknowledging the reality of the institution’s history.
And for what it’s worth, I don’t think it matters much that this shoe is designed as a limited edition and not for retail. Both Nike and the University, I feel confident, will still profit indirectly from the manufacture of this shoe, if only through the free publicity for both that is generated by having celebrities like DJ Khaled post images of the shoe to their social media accounts.
I’m disgusted that the University should at one and the same time refuse publicly to celebrate the legacy of the teams and take in revenue associated with the manufacture of a product that celebrates and trades on that legacy.
But here is perhaps the most cynically and shamelessly exploitative aspect of the whole deal. The heel of the shoe features a black hand, index and middle finger crossed in a sign the young players made famous 25 years ago as emblematizing the nickname they’d chosen for themselves: 5X (pronounced “five times.”).
The ‘Fab Five’ was totally the media. That wasn’t us. Doesn’t that sound corny, ‘Fab Five’? That’s corny. Who would give yourself the name ‘Fab Five’? How corny is that? So you know, what we did was come up with our own name, which was ‘Five Times’ or “Five Times One’ and the reason why we came up with that name is because the five of us would come together as basically one group or one ultimate player, kinda like Voltron—if you remember that show, where the five pieces come together and you become this one giant entity. So that was the idea behind the name of ‘Five Times.’ And also it was the number ‘5’ with the letter ‘X’ and the number ‘1’ and the ‘X’ because of a play on Malcolm X with the ‘no identity’ having given ourselves our own name and not being branded by the media.
Jimmy was explaining that they sought, in effect, to elude the latest in a centuries-old tradition in this country of naming (or renaming) black men and, conversely, to take their place in a proud tradition of black men choosing their own names and in the process telling their own stories, authoring the course of their own lives.
Original art work, created for a class project by my student Peter Mascheroni.
So with this new sneaker, Nike and, by association, the University of Michigan have managed to turn a name and symbol the players devised to defy their commercial exploitation into a commodity that will enrich everyone involved except the young men who created it.
According to Steve Busch, Brand Manager at the University, in determining when to approve of the use of the Block M for commercial purposes, the University stays “away from things that we would call the ‘sin items’: We don’t do anything affiliated with items like alcohol, tobacco, drugs or pornography.”
We stay away from “sin items,” but that apparently does not include exploiting the creative talent and cultural impact of five young black men while simultaneously disavowing them.
This should shock us. But I’m afraid it won’t shock very many people. I understand why. But I also think that only further underlines the importance of calling this shit out and revealing it for the strange, unnatural, harmful, and anti-educational practice that it is.
For sports fans, like me, and even educators (also like me), finding a clean path through the thicket of moral entanglements in college sports is more than tricky. It is impossible. You follow college sports, like me, you’re dirty. It’s that simple. Of course, if you use an Apple product, you’re also dirty, and so on. But the impossibility of perfect cleanliness shouldn’t, I think, prevent us from doing the murky good we can.
And nobody associated with the University of Michigan should be cool that the University profits off the labor of students—especially students of color—it officially pretends did not exist.
So even though I feel the shoes are sick, I won’t wear them. I wouldn’t wear them if Nike paid me to. Of course, if Nike or UM were to pay Ray, Jimmy, Jalen, Juwan, and Chris? Well, that would be, precisely, a different story.
This is the text of my opening remarks for the Fab 5 @ 25 round table symposium. The University video taped the event and will be making that available to the public, hopefully before too long.
The impact of the Fab Five on basketball and our cultural landscape was immeasurable. As we’ve just heard it was felt even by a young Hoosier attending a small liberal arts college who would grow up to become a quantitative political scientist and our Dean. He was not alone, of course. Their superb and electrifying play, their exuberant and authentic self-expression, and their courageous outspokenness transformed not only college basketball, but, in some ways, all of sport, and sparked challenging and increasingly urgent conversations about race, money, and education in big time college sports. But you know all that. You know, too, that their legacy was left in limbo as a result of investigations uncovering the loans that one member of the team accepted.
We are here, as Dean Martin explained, to address these topics openly, in an academic setting, in keeping with the mission, and best traditions, of the great community of students and scholars that comprise the University of Michigan. We have here an opportunity to lead by continuing and deepening the challenging and urgent conversations these players and their teammates helped amplify: how can universities like Michigan preserve their educational mission and safeguard the well-being of their students in the context of the rapidly expanding commercialization of college sports? What sort of opportunities do college sports provide us for addressing and overcoming social inequalities and cultural stereotypes? What is the legacy of the Fab Five in Michigan’s own history, and what is the most appropriate way for the University to mark that legacy?
But, even as we take up these questions today, I know from experience that our event offers another, deeper opportunity for all of us. I met Jimmy King in March of 2012, when he accepted my invitation to speak to students in my undergraduate Cultures of Basketball class. He has come every time I’ve taught the course since then and has even played in the intra class 3 on 3 tournament the students organize at the end of each semester. Now, I pride myself on being an effective teacher. But I know they feel that the hour and a half they spend with Jimmy is the unforgettable highlight of the semester and that the challenging and inspiring lessons he imparts will stay with them forever.
I understand why they feel that way. I feel that way too. It’s because Jimmy is, among many other things, a superb teacher. In fact, though I don’t know Ray as well, nor Jalen or Juwan at all, I believe that all four of these men are, and were when they were students here, superb teachers. In fact, I view them as one of the University great treasures: a trove of unique life experiences which they transform into accessible lessons. These are lessons not only about basketball, or college sports. Not even only about race or class or exploitation. They are deeper life lessons about joy, creativity, and integrity, about solidarity, trust, and loyalty and, perhaps above all, about freedom. We should consider ourselves fortunate that we have here today something life doesn’t often provide: a second chance; a second chance not only to hear their voices, but to listen to them and so to learn what we may have missed when they first offered it 25 years ago. I for one, plan to make the most of it.
As the fellas used to say before stepping into the arena: let ‘em hang.
The Fab Five first set foot on Michigan’s campus 25 years ago. The first group of freshman ever to start for a major college program, they led their teams to consecutive NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship games in 1992 and 1993, and sparked a cultural revolution in the sport and beyond. In time, a scandal led to sanctions imposed by both the University and the NCAA. The Final Four banners came down and were tucked away in the Bentley Library and a shroud of silence settled over the players and their era.
In honor this group of teenage black men whose messages of brotherhood, community, joy, and freedom has never been more resonant, here are 5 links to things I’ve written on the Fab 5 shared in celebration of the 25 year anniversary of their arrival at Michigan.
Still today, the most viewed thing I’ve ever written, my open letter to Chris Webber asking him to join his former teammates in the stands at the 2013 NCAA Championship game to support Michigan, and five of my freshman students, in the game against Louisville.
I have mixed feelings about reposting this because I don’t feel exactly the same way I did when I first wrote and posted it three and a half years ago. Chris showed up at the game, but never responded to my letter and, more painfully, elected not to sit with his teammates. Recently, I once again invited Chris to join his former teammates, and brothers, at a public event—Fab 5 @ 25—and once more he has not responded. So I thought about not reposting this, and even about taking it off my site—after all, the University came through by sponsoring, and paying for, this discussion. That means they would’ve bought Chris a plane ticket to get him to campus. If it he’d been willing to appear.
But so much about this conversation is about how we look at history, memory, and our own past. And so much of what is painful in this derives from people trying to erase or ignore or deny the past. I understand why this is tempting. But I think it is deadly.
Moments after the final buzzer signaled the improbable triumph of the Cleveland Cavaliers over the Golden State Warriors in this year’s NBA Finals, Cavs star LeBron James fell away from a celebratory team embrace and collapsed to the floor, wracked with sobs. Encircled by teammates, cameramen, and others, some of whom set hands on his shoulders or rubbed his head or back, LeBron lifted his head slightly, only to let it fall back against his forearm, his hand covering his eyes.
* * *
Earlier this year I wrote an essay describing what I hated about the Warriors. In it, I lamented what I took to be the eclipsing of uncertainty and surprise by their efficient domination of the game. Friends, including friends who are analytics enthusiasts, tried to get me to relax. For all that analytics may aspire to “tame chance,” they rightly argued, the game of basketball and its players are too complex to ever eliminate uncertainty and surprise. I was grimly unswayed throughout the season.
Even in the Finals, my assessment of Golden State’s first two victories took this form: “Every Golden State basket looks effortless and expected. Every Cleveland basket looks ugly and lucky.” That’s when I posted on the Facebook wall of a friend who was a Golden State fan on his birthday, “I hope someone bought you a broom because you’re gonna need it when the Dubs sweep.” The prognosticating website 538 was more generous, giving the Cavs an 11 % chance of winning the title at that point. When Cleveland fell behind three games to one after dropping game four at home, the already absolute certainty with which I knew that Golden State would win the series became, somehow, improbably, even greater. At that point, 538 had the Cavs chances at 5 %.
Cleveland won Game 5 to make the series three games to two. But because Draymond Green of the Warriors had been suspended, I didn’t count that victory. All I considered was the stupid shit the talking heads were repeating endlessly: no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA finals, the Warriors had not lost three straight in two years, the Warriors had only lost two games at home in the whole regular season.
So sure, the Cavs got Game 5 in Oakland (with Draymond out), but neither Curry nor Klay Thompson had really gotten on track yet and still Cleveland was struggling to win games and to keep Golden State from scoring, so even if somehow, the Cavs managed to draw inspiration from the home crowd and win Game 6, they had no chance at all of winning Game 7 in Oakland. 538 agreed with me: Cavs had only a 20% percent chance of winning the title (even if they had a 59 % chance of winning Game 6).
Then they won Game 6. I was happy for them. I was delighted by the sight of Steph Curry whipping his pacifier mouthguard into the crowd in a petulant tantrum. But it didn’t change any of my calculations and only modestly bumped up 538’s estimate of the Cavs’ chances of winning to 35 %. Would you bet on a 35 % free throw shooter to make the next shot? Me neither.
In the first quarter of Game 7 I was dispirited. Though the Cavs held a slim one point lead, I felt like I was watching the first two games again. Every Cavs’ bucket looked hard, unlikely, while Golden State’s baskets were the predictable swished threes and wide-open dunks. Who do you think is gonna win that game?
The second quarter confirmed my impression. Golden State built a seven point lead by halftime as Cleveland’s defense fell apart, leaving Draymond Green to assume the role of the Splash Brothers’ new baby sibling, while their own offense continued to creak and sputter and smoke. To wit: more than one fifth of Cleveland’s offensive production in the second quarter came on a single four point play by Iman Shumpert. Iman Shumpert: you know what Iman Shumpert shot from behind the three point line in the series? 26.7 % (21.4 % if you take away that three in the second quarter of Game 7) We gonna ride Iman Shumpert four-point plays to the ‘ship? Yeah, I don’t think so either.
The second half was, as many have noted, a game of brief runs filled with both brilliant plays and tragic blunders on both sides. Cleveland closes the gap, Golden State pulls away, Cleveland comes back and pulls ahead, Golden State answers with a run to take a one point lead into the fourth. The fourth quarter is even tighter, with neither team able to generate more than a four point lead, which Golden State managed to do with 5:37 left in the game on a Draymond Green jump shot that gave them an 87-83 lead. What, I am asking myself at this point, are the chances that Cleveland outscores the Golden State Warriors by five points in the final five minutes of Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the Warriors’ home floor? At that point, I guess, I probably figured that the first team to 95 would probably win it. What’s more likely? That Golden State scores eight points in the next five minutes, or that Cleveland scores twelve? Nate Silver, what do you think?
Then improbability—no, impossibility (from my vantage point, anyway) happened. Golden State, the most devastatingly efficient offense in NBA history, scored two more points in the rest of the game (and none in the final four). Cleveland, of course, scored 10. But still I didn’t believe. The Kyrie three? I was elated, but I didn’t think they would win. LeBron’s free throw? There’s still ten seconds left: you think the Warriors can’t put up four points in 10 seconds? You haven’t watched the Warriors.
But I was wrong. The Warriors didn’t score another point. The buzzer sounded. LeBron fell into the group hug and then to his knees and then into convulsive weeping.
Here’s the thing: I still didn’t believe it happened. I really couldn’t take it in, couldn’t accept that everything I knew for sure would happen did not happen. In the past few days I’ve been walking around my patch of Northeast Ohio, of Believeland, wearing Cavs gear. People stop me. We say different things, but the thing we say most often is: “I still can’t believe it.”
* * *
So what is wrong with me besides the apparent fact for all my understanding of how the cultural narratives of basketball work, I have next to no ability to predict the outcome of basketball games? Of course I don’t: basketball games are unpredictable.
But that was my whole point to begin with. So what is wrong with me, I mean, that despite my well-documented, vitriolic protestations against certainty, I clung so stubbornly to my own certainty. I suppose I was, in a long tradition of idiotic sports fandom, hedging against disappointment: if I could maintain my certain disbelief in the possibility of a Cavs victory, I wouldn’t feel let down when Golden State did what they were supposed to do.
But there was more to it than that. There was also a semi-conscious, pathetic stab at shaping the outcome: if I could (with apologies to the President) keep hope dead, I wouldn’t jinx the Cavs. That’s a tricky balancing act, as anyone who has tried it knows, because the moment you become conscious of what you’re doing, you ruin it and have to start all over again. Pretty soon you’re spending the whole game rapping your knuckles against your stupid wooden head to prevent who knows what horrible thing you have no control over from happening.
That’s lame, I know. But I think that it also points to something in me that is not lame. It tells me that for my all my intellectual abilities, for all my scholarly detachment, I cared. That’s not lame. I really, really, really wanted the Cavs to win. Even more, I desperately wanted LeBron to win.
After all, I’m the guy who this year published a book whose last page looks like this:
I wanted what I came to believe LeBron stood for to win: the indestructible autonomous power of those marginalized and despised and written off and undervalued in this world to win. I wanted that freedom to win.
* * *
But the thing about freedom is that it is, well, free. You can’t control the vicissitudes of its exercise, particularly by others. You don’t know whether they’ll use it or how it will go if they try. It seems obvious that you can’t do this, as it seems obvious that all my mental machinations will not affect even a tiny bit what LeBron does with his freedom on or off the court, or how the game will come out.
But I think, seemingly paradoxically, that’s what makes these machinations so appealing to me. They become a kind of playhouse in which I can act out—precisely without risk or consequence—my own daily struggles to be free and to help others be free.
Think of daily life as a Cavs possession and the task of carving out and renewing my own freedom as trying to get a bucket. You—or at least I—rarely get the LeBron breakaway dunk thrown like a thunderbolt from the sky, or the string of JR Smith step back threes raining in like meteorites, or Kyrie crafting some bank shot while lying on his back in the corner with four people on top of him. Mostly, daily life ends in turnovers, ill-advised, contested step-back threes and Matthew Dellevedova air-balled floaters. Then you need a time out and you brace yourself for Klay to put up 40 on you or Steph to bank in an underhanded scoop from half-court, on which you also fouled him. Perhaps I am not alone in not being astute enough to have figured out how to maximize the former and minimize the latter.
Under these conditions, I guess it’s easier for me to speculate about probabilities and to pretend that by doing so I am affecting the outcome of events I do not control (especially when I’ve already forged an association between those events and freedom). After all, because I don’t control them and because it’s all in my head, it can go on forever, frictionlessly skating along on the surface of reality, which never gets traction on it.
But here’s the thing. The Cavs did win, LeBron really did dominate, and he really did collapse on the floor in sobs. These things happened. independently of the probability of their happening. They were not destined to happen. They were not miracles. They just happened. Perhaps in some important way they happened because neither LeBron nor anyone else intimately involved in making them happened devoted much energy to speculating about the likelihood they would succeed.
I think that’s how freedom, in tiny and massive ways, probably happens: when it happens; I mean, when people—me, you, LeBron—go ahead exercise freedom, put freedom into the world even when Nate Silver puts the chances of success at, like, 5 %.
The presentation was a distillation of a longer scholarly essay I wrote for the workshop which I expect will be published in the Journal of Sport History. But as I did the research for that I really became so fascinated with the topic that it has become the seed of what I envision as my next book, a companion volume to my recently published book, Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketballthat I’m calling, for the moment anyway, Numbers Don’t Lie! A History of Counting and What Counts in the Cultures of Basketball. It will situate the analytics movement in basketball in broader frameworks of statistical reasoning in sports, measurement and statistics in scientific culture in the west, the use of digital technologies in the age of Big Data, and, as usual, the cultural and political dimensions of hoops.
Because the project is in its initial stages, I’m especially eager to get constructive feedback on it. So as always, but more than usual, leave me comments or shoot me an e-mail.
The turnout was impressive, the audience engaged and responsive, and the questions important and intelligent. I really had a blast exchanging ideas with this wonderful community.
And, they taped it, so I can share it with you as well. I hope you’ll check it out and let me know what you think.
(FYI: My friend, Oberlin’s Associate Men’s Basketball Coach Tim McCrory does a short funny intro first, then I go for about 35 minutes, followed by the QA).
I really enjoyed trying to create a quasi-documentary experience for the audience (ever experimenting to try to improve my lecturing technique). And I learned a lot preparing for it, and thinking about the differences, and some surprising similarities, between the issues facing a DI FBS school like Michigan and those facing a DIII school like Oberlin.
Image from NCAA.org, explaining the difference between Division I and Division III.
It is the final section of Chapter 7, “The Myth of Blackness, March 12, 1997.” Readers might recognize the date: that’s the night Iverson famously crossed-over Michael Jordan. The first part of the chapter analyzes media coverage of the game, which portrayed Iverson’s performance in racialized stereotypes with a long history in basketball culture and in American society. The second part of the chapter examines the factors, in and out of basketball, that shaped such perceptions of Iverson and other black players of his generation. And in this final section, I offer my own interpretation of this famous play as way to disrupt these perceptions and the myths they give rise to.
“I saw Iverson cross Jordan on television when it first happened, and I have viewed it again since then to prepare for classes. But in drafting this chapter, I wanted to see it again. I found it mesmerizing and could not stop watching—again and again, clicking on different links to see the different angles and replays and commentaries and contexts. The whole play is so quick: from the time Iverson gets the ball to the time the shot drops through the net takes no more than twelve seconds, the actual cross no more than about four seconds. So my interest partly stems from cognitive thirst, as though I were watching a magician at work, replaying frame by frame to see how Iverson did it, to isolate the moment that sealed Jordan’s fate. But I can see there’s something more than detached intellectual curiosity about technique driving me there. There’s also an affective investment at work, an emotional response—admiration? gratitude? even love?—that keeps me glued to the play.
Hans Gumbrecht rightly observes that “what we enjoy in the great moments of a ballgame is not just the goal, the touchdown, the home run, or the slam dunk” but “the beautiful individual play that takes form prior to the score.” A “beautiful play,” Gumbrecht writes, “is produced by the sudden, surprising convergence of several athletes’ bodies in time and space.” Indeed, Leonard Koppett, decades earlier, had already noted the way in which, because baskets themselves are relatively routine, basketball draws attention to the play unfolding before the score and, in particular, to its style. Perhaps obviously, this applies to the Iverson crossover. The pick and the flip pass prompt a switch in defensive assignments that suddenly put Jordan (the league’s top player) on Iverson (the league’s top rookie).
Even set plays, Gumbrecht continues, become surprising because they are achieved “against the unpredictable resistance of the other team’s defense.” Ideally, a ball screen for the point guard that results in a defensive switch creates an advantage for the offensive team in that a larger and presumably slower player is now left alone to defend the smaller, quicker point guard (and at the same time, the smaller defensive guard is left alone to defend the larger offensive player who set the original screen and who may roll toward the basket where he can better exploit his height advantage). But in this case, although the expected size differentials did occur—the six-foot-six Jordan was left alone to defend Iverson, who was perhaps six feet tall, in the center of the floor—they do not lead to any obvious advantage for Philadelphia because Jordan was also quick and widely considered the best defensive player in the game at the time. So as Gumbrecht describes it, “The team in possession of the ball tries to create a play and avoid chaos, its opposing team in the defensive position tries to destroy the emerging form and precipitate chaos.”
In addition to this complex and unpredictable convergence of bodies, Gumbrecht argues, part of the fascination of plays as epiphanies lies in their temporality—that is, in the fact that they begin to end the moment they start. “No still photograph,” Gumbrecht writes, “can ever capture the beauty of this temporalized reality.” Indeed, my own repeated replays of even the video of the play testify to the elusive—because temporally finite—quality of the beautiful play. Moreover, considering the temporal aspect of the play suggests also another fascinating aspect of the crossover: good timing, which Gumbrecht defines as “perfect fusion between a perception of space and the initiation of movement . . . the intuitive capacity to bring one’s body to a specific place at the very moment when it matters to be there.”
Violence for Gumbrecht is “the act of occupying spaces or blocking their occupation by others through the resistance of one’s body.” Timing, then, relates to violence because “the player will be in the right place” at the right time “either because the spot in question will not be occupied (not covered) by the body of another player at that moment, or precisely because the body of another player will occupy it.” The latter describes good defensive timing whereas the former describes good timing from the perspective of the offensive player trying to get free. Jordan tries to anticipate where Iverson will be in the next instant so he can be there instead, while Iverson, of course, tries to—and does—get to the spot where Jordan will not be.
Koppett, again, seems to have presaged the central point of Gumbrecht’s comments on timing when he described the central task of the basketball player as “getting free,” although he centered on deception and fakery (rather than timing) as the means by which basketball players do this. Good timing, however, may also simply be a component of effective deception. At least, it is with Iverson’s crossover, in which it is not simply a matter of leaning explosively in one direction to throw the defender off balance (the fake) but of intuitively grasping the perfect moment to yank the ball quickly back in the other direction (the cross) to get free. That precise moment might be thought of as the kairos, which, you may recall from the preceding chapter, was what the Greeks called the opportune moment for invention and, indeed, as the instant in which an opportunity presents itself to crack open the still tomb of the end of history.
Beautifully ephemeral and deceptively magical, Iverson’s cross evokes the image of a jagged flash of lightning splitting the night sky. An epiphany of form, to be sure, the play reminds me of the position described by T. S. Eliot in the poem “The Dry Salvages”: “we had the experience but missed the meaning, and approach to the meaning restores the experience.” Eliot might have had in mind something like a beautiful play, the illuminating arc that emerges and vanishes before you know it. Something’s happened; it was beautiful and elevating and thrilling and it somehow left itself in you. But what was it? Eliot suggests that approaching the meaning (trying to read the play, to understand what it meant) can restore the experience. That restored experience may be in a different form, but it may still, like the original, deliver an illuminating affective shine that eludes confining meanings.
As an individual tactic, a crossover dribble means the attempt, via precisely timed deception, by a player to get free from a defender. As we saw at the end of Chapter 1, however, the dribble itself stands within the history of basketball as a kind of outlaw or rogue maneuver that simultaneously violates the putative timeless spirit of the sport and thereby embodies perfectly a fluid, antiessentialist view of the game. The dribble, as Koppett puts it, is at once the sport’s “most identifying characteristic” and “one of the worst ailments of otherwise healthy basketball offenses.” Perhaps no particular form of the dribble exemplifies this better than the crossover.
When Iverson executed the crossover early in his career, he was sometimes whistled for a violation as it appeared to officials that he was actually carrying the ball to gain an advantage. But in addition, the crossover dribble is a product of urban playground experimentation and its culture of joyful individual one-upmanship. Alexander Wolff approvingly describes it as “of a piece with hip-hop culture” with its “rat-tat-tat rhythm, the badinage and braggadocio, and the distinctly big-city yearning to break-free of the crowd by making one’s mark.”
In this way, like the dunk before it—but perhaps even more dangerous because, as Wolff puts it, the crossover is more “democratic” (since you do not have to be tall or an exceptional leaper to execute it; you just have to practice)—the crossover dribble may bring the white basketball unconscious a little closer than it would like to come to the urban raw materials off which it secretly feeds but whose contextual realities it prefers in sensationalized, fantasy form.
Wolff’s comparison of the dunk and the crossover as different forms of individual self-expression, moreover, frames what might be the most evident and important symbolism of this particular crossover: Iverson (playground practitioner of the crossover par excellence) tries to get free of Jordan (the game’s most renowned dunker). In addition, this crossover echoes—through a kind of wordplay reminiscent of free-style rap—Iverson’s insistence on eluding Jordan’s ability to execute a crossover of a different sort (racially, I mean, as a commercial pitchman). When he turned pro, Iverson famously rejected a shoe deal with Nike because he felt the company would require him to follow in Jordan’s crossover footsteps. Instead, Iverson signed with Reebok, making the sole demand that “the company not try to change him.”
In this sense, in using the crossover to get free of Jordan, Iverson affirmed his independence and autonomy from the commercially tried-and-true, racial crossover model Jordan had established and, moreover, demonstrated the viability of his own path. Finally, this particular crossover, as an instance of perfect timing, evokes the kairos that reveals that—despite the myth of the greatest of all time—time has not stopped and that basketball (and other) history continues to march forward, as always, driven by the creativity of those with nothing to lose, for whom necessity is truly the mother of invention.
Now remember that Iverson scored on the play—two of the thirty-seven very efficient points he would put up on the defending champs that night. Recalling that the crossover is a means by which a point guard, usually the smallest man on the floor, can become a scoring threat draws Iverson’s crossover dribble into yet another framework of meaning: Bethlehem Shoals’s concept of a “positional revolution,” which I described in Chapter 5.
[. . .]
Iverson and his crossover present a revolution at the other end of the positional spectrum: the emergence of the scoring point guard. Iverson led the league in scoring four times from the point guard position and, moreover, in a body deemed relatively small by NBA point guard standards. Iverson may nowadays be criticized for inefficiency by some on the basis of (a misuse of) advanced statistical analysis of his play (more on this in Chapter 8), but it is also true that he paved the way for the style of play that characterizes the best point guards in the league today, such as Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, and Russell Westbrook, who create more opportunities for teammates by having established themselves as viable scoring threats capable of getting free for scores by use of, among other weapons, the crossover dribble.
Although fans may view the positional revolution as a tactical advance, even as such it carries a broader cultural significance, for as a tactical advance it was initiated by the successful experimentation of players who refused to be chained to a limited set of functions by conventional wisdom and the authority of coaches. These new physical moves and forms and new tactics emerged first experimentally in informal play before being presented in their more refined form to coaches—sheer unstoppability providing a kind of irrefutable argument.
Considering that the myth of blackness projects essentializing stereotypes concerning black Americans (especially black men) onto African American basketball players and so inhibits “their individuality, agency, and works toward curtailing any conception of black self-determination,” the positional revolution restores the thrill of witnessing black self-determination on the court.
In this sense, an emotionally expressive black player who effectively takes the game into his own hand by revolutionizing the point guard position appears as anathema to the conventional wisdom of the white basketball unconscious. The fact that even the most established of today’s coaches embrace the positional revolution should not obscure the fact that the positional revolution, like the dribble itself, began as a creative bid for autonomy and self-determination by players and one inaugurated precisely by a generation stereotyped as undisciplined dangers to the game, even as the game at its highest levels, as it always has, happily absorbed and exploited the entertainment and commercial value of their inventions.
Jorge Luis Borges once used the fiction of Franz Kafka as a lens through which to reconstruct a literary history of his “precursors.” Likewise, from the present vantage point, a player like Allen Iverson may serve as a lens through which we may retrospectively liberate other players—Jordan, Magic, Dr. J, Russell, and Chamberlain, to name just a few—from the hoops mausoleum in which the sport’s dominant culture has immured them. To see them through the lens of Iverson is to see them as constituting a renegade tradition of creative, self-determining hoops inventors that stretches back to both James Naismith and the game’s “incorrigible” first dribbler.”