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.

 

 

 

On Boxing

Here’s a little introductory reflection I just wrote for my Global Sports Cultures students in preparation for our unit on Muhammad Ali, which will be in our second week of classes.

Probably when most of us think of boxing we have strong reactions.  You may have mixed feelings, but I think few people are indifferent to boxing.   It’s good to note the difference between emotional ambivalence and emotional indifference.  Mixed feelings can sometimes be hard to tolerate, especially when they are strong.  Strong mixed feelings can be confusing or disorienting.  Usually when we have a strong feeling we take it as a pretty clear guide to action. Love something? Go toward it! Hate something? Go away from it.  But what if you have mixed feelings? What do you do then? How do you decide what to do?  Many people try to make this confusion and paralysis go away by simply pretending that one of their feelings is the “real” one, and they explain away the other as “false.”  Or, at least, they might decide that one of the feelings is just the most important one.

It sounds like I think this is a bad thing.  But I don’t think so, not necessarily anyway.  When we have to act, urgently, it’s important to prioritize and compartmentalize this way.  But, when we have the luxury of not having to act immediately, when we have the luxury of taking the time to experience our feelings and to reflect on them and whatever we think is causing them, we have an exceptional opportunity to learn a great deal about ourselves and our world—an opportunity that is not to be missed; an opportunity you have right now just by being in this course.  So take it.  Here, I’ll go first.

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I’m terrified of boxing.  I’ve never once in my life struck another person or been struck by one (if you don’t count a spanking my father gave me when I was a little boy). The force of the blows in a boxing match make cringe.  I mean literally, physically cringe.  And wince, and kind of crunch up my shoulders, as if to protect myself from something.  And the anticipation of more punches, more force, more contact, more blood, more violence gives me a feeling similar to what I get watching a suspenseful horror movie (which I also hate): a kind of knot in my stomach that seems to tie together all the tensed muscles in my entire body.

All of this, I notice, also makes me feel something like a creeping sense of shame. When I look at that shame I see that it resembles the feeling I have when I enter a hardware store and have to ask questions, or when I go take my car to get fixed and don’t know what they are talking about.  It is as though I’m somehow not man enough.  After all, these activities—fighting, tools, cars—have been traditionally associated with men.  I’ve grown up in the same culture as everyone else and however much I may be aware that there is no intrinsic, necessary connection—no causal—connection between punching someone, hammering a nail, and changing your oil and being male, I’m still prey to a certain insecurity in those moments.  It’s an insecurity about my masculinity.  Probably to compensate for this, or defend myself against the belief that really truly I do have a reason to be ashamed, I also notice a rising sense of disdainful superiority toward those who gleefully revel in every punch, watching the critical highlight over and over again.  I think that feeling lets me imagine something like this:  “You may be more of a man than me, but you’re less of a human.”   I don’t say it.  I’m not even conscious that I’m thinking it in the moment that I have that feeling.  But still, there it is.

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However, it doesn’t stop there.  I’m also fascinated by boxing. Having never once been in a fight, the image of two men fearlessly (or bravely, because they overcome their fear) charging at each other, trying to hit each other in the face as hard as possible, hopefully to actually render the other man unconscious is utterly alien to me—I just can’t put myself in that picture, you know?  However, it’s also strangely familiar to me, because even if I haven’t ever been in a fight, I’ve certainly felt the desire to strike other people, even to pound them mercilessly within inches of their lives.  And in that fantasy, knowing the whole time that I’m asserting my domination over them, and that they know this too only sweetens the image.  So there’s something at once completely foreign and distant and something intimately familiar, primally my own in boxing. It appears I find that combination fascinating.

Now those are just some of the feelings, mixed and strong, as you can see, that I notice in myself when I encounter boxing.  I want to explore your versions of these this week.  To narrow that a bit and provide a focus, we’re going to look at one boxer in particular, Muhammad Ali and even at one fight in particular, his 1974 heavyweight championship fight against the reigning champion and heavily favored American boxer George Foreman.  That will give us something very specific to consider. And, we’ll see, in the course of this (that is, if we didn’t know or imagine it already in our foolishness), the technique, intelligence, imagination and artistry that boxers weave into their sport.

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But, to complicate this, we’re going to provide a framework for thinking about how we feel about boxing, about Ali, and about that fight.  That framework will involve culture, and society, and history.  Boxing—that elemental human thing going on it between two men, Ali and Foreman, between the ropes—will also be inseparable from (shaped and shaped by) world political events like wars, dictatorships, colonization and revolution and by human attitudes and practices both vicious (like racism and slavery) and inspiring (like courage and political protest).  And finally, since none of this is unfolding live before our eyes in real time (but even if it were, as you’ll learn), we have to  think about the ways in which these events and figures are portrayed (in technical terms, that’s called the problem of “representation”).

misc_93_20140503_1535945948To help us do this we’ve got two reading assignments and one movie to watch:

When We Were Kings(D. Leon Gast, 1996)

Harvey Young, “Between the Ropes: Staging the Black Body in American Boxing” from Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), pp. 76-118 [CTools].

Michael Ezra, “Introduction” and “Good People” from Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009), pp. 1-3 and 135-197 [CTools].

Bad Prof’s Top Basketball Books – Honorable Mention

Perhaps by now you’ve seen my First Team, Second Team, and Third Team All-Bad Prof Basketball Book List selections. They were the fifteen books, grouped into three tiers of five, that I’ve returned to again and again for teaching, research, and enjoyment because of their 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.

These final five books (listed alphabetically by title), my Honorable Mention selections, are further down this list not because of any objective deficiency, not even because of any defect I would identify.  They are rounding out my top twenty simply because I’ve relied on the books on the Third, Second and especially First teams even more often than these.  Nevertheless, these five works easily satisfy the criteria I set out initially. Indeed, as you’ll come to see, they might just as easily have been the first team.

I’ve read each of these at least twice, used at least parts of each of them in my teaching and cited each of them regularly in my research. And a contrarian basketball fan (after my own heart) could certainly forego my ridiculous three-team system and start right here with these five books and he or she would certainly deepen his or her understanding of the sport, its promise and problems and its important figures and events.

 

After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness

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“As basketball is more than a game, the policies, representations, and narratives articulated through and about the NBA (and its black players) have a larger place, meaning, and significance in our society.”

by David J. Leonard (Originally published in Albany by State University of New York Press, 2012; 262 pp.)

After Artest is at the forefront of interdisciplinary scholarly work in sports studies that identifies and critiques new forms of so-called “colorblind” racism. In this book, Leonard, who teaches at Washington State University, examines the cultural and administrative “assault on blackness” among NBA fans and executives as well as some in the media in the wake of the melee that broke out during a Detroit Pistons home game against the Indiana Pacers in 2004.  Leonard’s persuasive chapter-length studies of the racial politics of the so-called “Palace melee,” NBA age limits, dress codes, and the representation of violence in the NBA more generally amply document instances of the kinds of racialized popular discourse in question and clearly explain the theories of race, sport and culture being used as lenses to frame these popular discourses.

 

Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball

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“This Black aesthetic has not only changed basketball but . . . has been the catalytic force behind the sport’s extraordinary growth in popularity and profitability.”

by Nelson George (Originally published in 1992; reprinted in Lincoln, NE by University of Nebraska Press, 1999; currently out of print but available used; 261 pp.)

Nelson George’s history of “black men and basketball” is one the most important histories of basketball out there. Colloquial and readable and style, this well-informed volume tracks the participation of black men in basketball from the earliest years shortly after Naismith’s invention of the sport in 1891, through the changes wrought by the Great Migration before concluding with the ascendance of Michael Jordan.  Some of the material (on Russell, Chamberlain and other NBA superstars) can be found in greater detail elsewhere. But what makes George’s treatment of these figures especially illuminating and interesting is that their stories are here set alongside those of far lesser known figures from all-black pro teams and leagues, historically black colleges and universities, and even black high schools.  Throughout the history, George gracefully weaves developments in basketball (black and otherwise) into a a more comprehensive narrative that incorporates other forms of black popular culture and the broader social and political history of the United States in the 20th century.

 

“The Heresy of Zone Defense” from Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy

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“In professional basketball, however, art wins.”

by Dave Hickey (Originally published in Los Angeles by Art Issues, 1997; pp. 155-162)

The only article to crack the list of my top twenty books, “The Heresy of Zone Defense” is a short meditation by the maverick art critic Dave Hickey on basketball as an exhibition of freedom that Hickey finds exemplary for both arts and civic life in the United States.  Hickey’s point of departure is Julius Erving’s incredible behind the scoop layups against Lakers in the NBA playoffs.

But his genius lies in recognizing that Kareem’s defense is integral to Erving’s improvisational brilliance.  And this becomes the occasion for a brief and funny, but profound and very sharp, argument about the relationship between constraint and freedom in sport, art, politics, and life.  This essays is floating around on the web, but Hickey is a genius and you should have to buy the book.

 

Michael Jordan, Inc.: Corporate Sport, Media Culture, and Late Modern America

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“This anthology brings together a selection of chapters that use Michael Jordan as a vehicle for developing progressive understandings of the broader social, economic, political, and technological concerns that frame contemporary culture.”

Edited by David L. Andrews (Originally published in Albany by State University of New York Press, 2001; 301 pp.

The existence of this book was nothing short of a revelation for me, a kind of discovery of academic heaven on earth: a collection of scholars from different academic disciplines demonstrating at one and the same time their unabashed love for the basketball play of Michael Jordan and their intelligent, well-informed, and well-argued critiques of the corporate-media-sports complex that transforms this beautiful art into commodified celebrity and profit. Andrews, who edits the volume, may be the most important and wide-ranging sociologist writing about sport in the world today and in this volume he has brought together other luminaries from the world of academic sports studies who approach Jordan from more (and more inventive) angles than you could probably imagine possible.  Jordan and the celebrity economy, Jordan and corporate culture, Jordan and identity politics, Jordan and the global marketplace, Jordan and critical pedagogy: these are the unit headings within which the book’s ten chapters are distributed.  Every one of them is worthwhile, as is Andrews introductory essay “Michael Jordan Matters.”  It’s not only an indispensable pathbreaking work for academics like me, it should be required reading for every basketball fan that has every participated in a debate about whether Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time without pausing to reflect on the fact that Michael Jordan, the player, is also “Michael Jordan”—this … I dunno… thing we have collectively conspired to create and consume.  Because this book will help that fan understand why he is even having that argument.

 

Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man

41oLRpibyHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_By Bill Russell and Taylor Branch (Originally published in New York by Random House, 1979; currently out of print but available used; 265 pp.)

This one is tough for me to write about. Its value as a hoops book, let’s just say, was secured the other day by none other than Bethlehem Shoals, co-founder and key conspirator in the FreeDarko collective who said it was his favorite book ever. And if that’s not good enough for you, then add the enthusiastic endorsement of Aram Goudsouzian, author of the definitive Russell biography, King of the Court.  That’s two writers from my first team telling you this book is important.  What else do you need? Okay, how about a Hall of Fame center with eleven championship rings, who was also an outspoken political activist involved in the most important struggles of his time.  Now put him together with a MacArthur genius grant winning independent journalist and scholar who wrote perhaps the most detailed biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. that is also an astonishingly wide-ranging history of the period in American history in which Russell was formed and in which he acted. Okay?

It’s not the book’s claims to being on my list that make it hard to write about. It’s that I cannot separate it from some of the crucial experiences my own life.  The book came out in 1979, according to the frontispiece of the first edition I am holding in my hand. On June 13, 1980, my father received it as a gift for his saint’s day from my mother.  He inscribed it with the date, his initials and last name, and his city, state, and zip code.  They were separated at the time.  I would turn 15 a month later. In the front flap is a card from my mother who wrote, in their native Spanish, “a remembrance of all the games that we’ve seen together and of the ones we haven’t seen together.”  She was a simple hearted person, but she had a subtle, sharp gift with language.

I was there for a lot of those games:  some were my oldest brother’s that I, adoring, attended with my parents, some were Wisconsin Badger games at the old Field House long after and long before they were good, some were Milwaukee Bucks games, played occasionally at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison or at the Mecca in Milwaukee.  I went to most of those too.  And of course, many (perhaps most) were my own games, from junior high through high school, when I got to play on the floor at Mecca myself.  In my childish memory, my father vastly preferred Russell to Chamberlain on political grounds (Chamberlain briefly campaigned for Richard Nixon, whom my father despised).  He corrected that later, saying simply that he didn’t really have a preference, but simply the commonplace opinion that Russell harmonized his abilities with his teammates better than Chamberlain.

I read Second Wind that summer that my mom gave it to my dad, that summer (one of several) that they were separated during my formative years, that summer that I was aspiring to become a basketball player, a man, and a human adult.  I remember what most stood out in my mind at that time were Russell’s recollections of how he used his imagination to visualize his basketball inventions before executing them.  He wrote: “When the imitation worked and the ball went in, I could barely contain myself. . . . Now for the first time I had transferred something from my head to my body. It seemed so easy.”  Indeed it did.  And what an intoxicating possibility not only for an athlete but for an adolescent: to transfer something from my head to my body! I tried, but it didn’t work for me.

Years later, rereading the book during college, I was drawn to Russell’s strong anti-racist, non-conformist political opinions.  “Most of us today are like cows,” he wrote, “we will quietly stand in any line or fill out any form if there’s a sign telling us that’s what we should do.  As a result, the country is filled with people who either paint signs or stand in line. I don’t like doing either one.” Me neither.  But when, like Russ copying the basketball moves in his own mind, I tried to mimic his opinions before my father, thinking he’d be proud, he only argued with me, rejecting my new found political convictions as inadequately founded.  It hurt, but he was right. But it hurt.

In the past 15 months, both my parents died.  First my dad, on April 9, 2014, then my mom, almost exactly one year later, on April 16, 2015. He died quickly of cancer. She died slowly from Alzheimer’s. My dad was aware, and proud I think, of the turn my career had taken into basketball studies—at least he was proud that I was finally fucking productive again!  I don’t have any idea what my mom knew or didn’t know about what I did.  But she was always, always proud.  But by the time they were each dying, their pride didn’t matter so much to me as just getting to look into their eyes and getting to see them laugh.

Somewhere around halfway between the day my dad died and the day my mom died, I shared a stage with Taylor Branch, the co-author of Second Wind.  He was in Ann Arbor appearing as one of two keynote speakers for a conference on values in college sport that some colleagues of mine and I had co-organized. It was my job to introduce him, which I did very proudly; beginning by recalling this book and its importance in my family’s life and thanking for it.  He was gracious and inscribed and signed it for me: November 14th, 2014.

This book is a treasure, most deserving of a genuinely honorable mention, which I hope I have given it.  And I hope too that by doing so, I scramble a bit the stupid conventional sports logic by which I have ranked twenty books into four categories, as though they have not all been priceless treasures for me.

Politics and society and race, media and the market, art and philosophy, freedom and injustice, the scholarly analysis of institutions and discourses, the informed but colloquially styled reflection on past events, the acute sensitivity and intelligence shining through a player speaking for himself—in this way these books offer an exemplary sampling of the range of genres of basketball writing that I most enjoy and that I find most informative and stimulating to my own thinking and really, that characterize my whole list.

In fact, I think what make the books on this list of mine so incredible, so worthy of your time, is that each one of them is a like a hologram of all the wisdom of basketball culture.  If you read only one of them, you could pick any one of them and you would, in a certain sense, know all you needed to know, and feel all you needed to feel, about the culture of the game.  That’s obviously false in another sense.  But that it feels true to me perhaps can tell you a lot about these twenty books.

If it doesn’t, here’s one more thing to recommend them: if my book is 1/10 as impactful on just one reader as every one of these has been on me (and, I know, on many others), I’ll consider it an unqualified success beyond my wildest imagination.

 

Our Myth of Creation

This is the text of a presentation I gave this past weekend at the American Comparative Literature Association annual conference at New York University.  It’s also an abbreviated version of Chapter One of my book manuscript.  I know it’s a scholarly work, and long for a blog post, but I trust the intelligence, curiosity, and attention span of my readers.  Feedback welcome as always!

From its beginnings in 1891 and over the course of basketball’s subsequent history, changes in society and in the sport have sparked sometimes contentious discussion over the putative essential nature of basketball as well as over the techniques and tactics that ostensibly best convey that nature. Investigating these discussions, I have identified clusters of recurrent stories, metaphors, and images, arising around key events and personalities. I call these clusters “myths” not to suggest that they are untrue, but rather to emphasize my interest in their narrative character and cultural function. These myths give narrative shape to a collective struggle with changes—particularly related to race—taking place in basketball and in society. In general, they fabricate an idealized, timeless essence of the game and project it onto a succession of moments, individual players, coaches, and teams or conversely, fantasize that a contrasting succession poses a destructive threat to that essence.  Sometimes, the same myth simultaneously hails an embodiment of basketball’s essence and decries an imagined threat to that essence.

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Day 20: Kobe Is Us

No clever pictures today. I don’t feel like it. I wasn’t gonna write about this. In fact, I wasn’t gonna write again until after our tournament next Wednesday. I’m tired. But it came up in class and it came up in a way that made me feel compelled to call some students out. And that’s made me feel compelled to write about it here too. Now, I think I wish I’d felt compelled to write about it here anyway. I’m talking about Kobe Bryant hurling an anti-gay slur at a referee during the Lakers game against the Spurs on Tuesday night and the events and media coverage that have ensued in relation to the incident since. Here’s how it went down in class.

The classroom was already pretty riotous when I walked in. Our tournament jerseys had arrived and I was as excited as the students to check out my black dri-fit tee with the logo on the front and LIGHT SKIN JESUS emblazoned above the number 11 on the back. Tim Hardaway Jr. brought donuts (or at least he was the one passing them out when I walked into the room). Students were wearing a variety of basketball jerseys because it was wear-a-jersey-day in class. And, they were stoked, laptops out, to watch Youtube videos (which, by the way, for those unfamiliar with FreeDarko’s history of the NBA) is a legitimate use of class time since the final chapter of our textbook deals with the democratization of the NBA archive and of hoops memory via youtube. So consider that a lab.

I put on my tournament jersey and sat on the teacher’s table at the front of the room (boy I’ve come a long way from the insanely nervous wreck I was on the first day), when one of the players suggested we might talk about the Kobe incident. The player in question is a pretty sincere kid, but he also likes to needle and in this case I think he both wanted to talk about it and to needle the Laker fan in our class, which fan was promptly spotlighted to give his opinion on the matter.

I’ve got to be honest here. I can’t remember precisely what he said. And I think that’s because I wasn’t really listening to him. Or to the two or three other students who chimed in before I gave my opinion. I mean I heard them, but I wasn’t really listening because I was already thinking of what I wanted to say (and confident that no student was gonna say it). I know, I know. That’s absolutely horrific pedagogically. There’s an explanation, but no good excuse and I’m sorry.

I can say that nobody said anything offensive. Nobody thought it was “no big deal.” Everybody seemed to think that Kobe ought to apologize and the $100,000 fine levied by the NBA was merited. There was a bit of discussion back and forth on the main points that the mainstream sports media has raised in connection with the incident: 1) “the heat of the moment point” and 2) “the sports icons are held to a higher standard point”.

Those two points can and have been combined in different ways: e.g. I can understand saying that in the heat of the moment, BUT Kobe’s a sports icon and is held to a higher standard and out to know better; or I can understand saying that in the heat of the moment, but if I said it at my job, I’d be fired – sports icons should be held to higher standard. But however they are combined, when those are the terms of the discussion, it leaves a gaping hole where something much more direct and pointed should be.

Let’s pretend that at this point in our class discussion, stymied by the limited terms offered them by the media, my students had pleaded: “Yago, Professor, Professor Yago, Light Skin Jesus! Help us out of this bind, this whole thing has made us feel dirty and uncomfortable, but we aren’t sure how to think our way through those feelings. We feel weird because any of us might say some asshole things and we know it’s not okay and it shouldn’t be but, Christ, we’re only human and sometimes, well, shit comes out.” That’s what I pretended.

I told them that what I think about the incident is that everyone’s energy (and money) ought to go toward examining how something like this happens. As far as I can tell, I said, nobody is claiming that Kobe Bryant is a vitriolic homophobe in his daily life. In fact, it’s pointed out that he’s not and that seems sometimes to be invoked as a reason to stop talking about what happened (see “the heat of the moment point” above). But from my point of view that’s all the more reason why this incident, lamentable as it is in so many ways, is a superb talking and teaching opportunity.

The issue to me, I said to the class, is not should Kobe have said this or not, nor is it how should he be punished, nor even what should he say afterward. Kobe, I said, was feeling angry and frustrated in a high-pressure, high-stakes situation and he lashed out. That, I feel safe in saying, can happen to anyone.

Like most of us, in lashing out he gave voice to mental contents (you can say unconscious material if you want) that he might not normally even be aware of harboring, let alone willing to express. What interests me, I said, is to use this moment as a way to put the spotlight on how those ideas – how the words Kobe used – get deposited into his mind in the first place, and how they get associated in his mind with anger, insult, and disrespect.

I’m not trying to be mysterious or coy or obfuscating here. Nor do I think I’m saying things that haven’t been said before (though I certainly haven’t heard it discussed enough during my brief foray into the sports media world). The issue, I was trying to say to the students: is that we all participate in a culture and a society that casually uses “gay” (and related terms) as a synonym for “stupid,” “unworthy,” “emotional,” etc – in short, that casually uses “gay” as an insult. What’s really shocking, given how widespread this unacceptable discourse is (especially in the generally hyper-masculinist culture of pro sports), is that we haven’t caught more players doing what Kobe did the other night.

So, I am thinking yesterday in class, all semester I’ve been reading these students (mostly white males) write some pretty moving reflections on the struggles by women and African-Americans to be allowed to play the game on the same court as white males. And I want them to see that this is an issue much like those. That it’s an issue fought on many fronts simultaneously: in government and in the courts, to be sure; on the streets in political actions, certainly; in art and culture also. And then, in lunch rooms, and dorm rooms, and locker rooms and bars: basically anywhere that we are. If nothing else, in other words, we can fight this issue in our own heart and mind and in our own use of speech.

We can be conscious that not that long ago it would have been acceptable for a white person to use the “n” word as an insult. And we can recall that that piece of language was linked to a host of forms of material injustice and psychological harm. We can think about why there are (a few) African-Americans in our classroom, and (a few) women in our classroom, and one African-American woman in our classroom, but not one openly gay student. We can think about why in the history of men’s professional basketball in this country only one player has ever come out as gay, and he did it only four years after his retirement. And we can think about whether our own behavior explicitly or implicitly contributes to that situation or fights to change it. And then we can fight to change it, even if only by speaking up whenever we see the word “gay” casually used as an insult.

You know, I don’t feel particularly informed on these issues. I don’t know if it’s historically or philosophically legitimate to compare the struggles of African Americans and women with the struggles of gays in this country. But I don’t think that I should wait until I feel fully informed, armed with knowledge, certain of every detail, to speak from my heart.

I’m just – I was just in class — trying to say that it breaks my heart that people of whatever age who are gay, or lesbian, or trans, or gender queer in any way whatsoever (and I’m sorry I’m too ignorant to properly recognize all the possible modalities and the preferred nomenclature) ever have to feel shunned or ashamed, let alone hated and like it would be better to pretend they were something else, or worse, like it would be better to be dead. It’s just so so wrong and so so sad.

Maybe I stopped talking then. Or around then. I’m not sure. Like I said, it was a pretty raucous day in our little classroom. The only thing I’m sure of at this point is that one student – I don’t know who – said to another “you’re probably gay” or something along the lines. Whatever it was, it prompted the other student to act out some clumsy mimicking of “fairy” before flipping the first student off. People laughed.

I wanted to cry. I felt so uncomfortable. Maybe I should’ve let myself cry. I think I’ve made more than clear in this blog how much I care about these students, how much I respect and admire and appreciate them. I’ve had precious few occasions to call them out over the course of the semester, and certainly none on an issue for me so emotionally charged as this one.

It’s a bit of a blur, but I think I said something like: “Hold up. Look, I don’t want to be an asshole, or to police anybody’s speech. But I gotta call you out on this. What just went down is exactly what I’m talking about. I know you were joking around, but joking around in that way reinforces the idea – in all our minds – that ‘gay’ is an insult. It’s not an insult. You don’t have to defend yourself against it. This is not just about gay people. It’s about collectively defending our freedom to be fully who we are as human beings. Finally, you just shouldn’t use it that way. It’s ignorant and wrong and you are smarter, better people than that.”

Maybe saying that or more would be really obvious to some of you. But I have a hard time calling people out and that goes at least double in this class. But for a moment, too quick to even be a thought, really, I just felt that teaching in this moment meant calling them out, however uncomfortably, and inarticulately, and probably lamely I did it. However little it probably stuck. Today, I’m glad I said something. I think I’d feel terrible today, ashamed really, if I hadn’t. One of the students, I noticed, nodded and seemed to smile quietly to himself.

I don’t care about the issues that I’ve seen most people discuss in relation to this incident. To me, they complicate and ghettoize the whole thing. To me, it’s simpler than all this: Kobe was wrong and hurtful in a way that expressed almost perfectly the way that American society (I include myself and my students) is wrong and hurtful on this issue and anything that isn’t primarily about making that the topic of conversation feels like a waste of an opportunity. We can villify him or exonerate him — but the more time we spend talking about his behavior the less we spend examining — let alone changing — our own.

Read last class’s discussion of the ethics of fan culture

or

Check out the program for our tournament

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Read my tournament recap and final reflections on teaching Cultures of Basketball.

Day 14: The Serpent's Tale

This also appeared earlier today on the FreeDarko website. But I’m keeping it here for the sake of consistency and for those few readers of mine who come here first

This is a hallowed day. They asked me to play. They actually asked me to play. Okay, well it wasn’t exactly that they asked me to play, but pretty much. Walking across campus to class from my previous class, the fantasy image flashed into the slide projector of my mind: an intra-class pickup game. The still image sprang into motion: all of us going up and down the court at Crisler Arena. I tried to push it aside, tried to stop it. No way I’m going to propose this in class and have the players break into uncontrollable sneering laughter. But then, I walk into class and I’ve barely put my stuff down on the desk when one of the players, having very courteously asked me how my broken hand was doing, said, “We should have a class game.” Moments later, another player walked into class and said the same thing.

I feel I shall burst with joy and excitement. If God himself, donning sweats, had parted the gray Ann Arbor skies, and entered the class on a Golden Litter, born by Clyde, the Hawk, Dr. J, and Wilt, and said, “you know what, that tree of knowledge thing, I was j/k!”, I could have been no happier. A weight of decades has been lifted from my shoulders. It was an auspicious way to begin the home stretch of Cultures of Basketball, after a two week hiatus, and leading in to the much-anticipated visit of none other than Bethlehem Shoals himself to our Ivory Tower next week.

We all began to babble excitedly about the match-up. “Players against the rest of us!” someone shouted. Oh no, I thought to myself, I didn’t wait nearly thirty years to play Division I ball in order to get clowned by a bunch of college kids. If you wanna go players and teacher against the rest of the class, I’m down, but otherwise we’re splitting the players up. Buoyed by my sudden surge of popularity among the players, and the riotous atmosphere of the room, I took a wild risk. I explained that I’d just been thinking the same thing on the way over to class and added, “But in my fantasy of this game, we’re playing at Crisler. So I want to give the players a special group assignment: make that happen.” I’m thinking that’s an impossibility, but that just saying it will curry even more favor. But lo, another player speaks up and says he thinks that shouldn’t be a problem. What! Verily, yea, I will tread the same hardwood as my forefathers CWebb and Jalen, and their forefather, Cazzie, did before them.

An evening of feverish tweeting and e-mailing ensued in which yet another player and I worked out the details of 1) a class lottery, presided over by David Stern, in which the eight players would draw names to round out the rosters for each of their teams and 2) the field of eight three-player teams would be seeded and compete in an April-Madness extravaganza culminating in the crowning of the first ever Cultures of Basketball national champion. My fiancée then tops it all off by suggesting we have the game on a weekend so that she can come up from St. Louis to witness, testify, and oversee the national media hordes that will certainly converge on Ann Arbor for the Blessed Event. So y’all can just get in touch with her about securing your media passes. I’m pretty sure that Ernie and the TNT gang already have their hotel reservations, Dicky V. called to make sure he wouldn’t be excluded, and the Goodyear Blimp, flown by Captain Jon Conrad and crew, has already secured airspace.

Talking to a student later during office hours, he shook his head with dread: “Maybe the players just wanted to play us so they could destroy us.” “Who cares?,” I said to him, “I just wanna play. It’s like when you’re little,” I explained, “you just want your big brother to play with you, you don’t care that he’s gonna beat your ass. It’s just about the attention.” My student smiled and said, “I was the big brother.” Well, okay, but you get the idea. I know I’ll actually be shitting myself on the day of the game, and I’ll probably dribble off my foot, shoot a couple of air balls, and – horror of horrors – be single-handedly responsible for decimating the ranks of next year’s Michigan basketball team by somehow injuring each and every one of the eight players through some clumsy display of aged overreaching. But really, who cares? It’s the sort of moment when it all comes together and several lifetimes’ worth of minor slights and trivial but embittering disappointments are swept away by a deluge that leaves your soul as brand spanking new and clean and naked as Adam and Eve in the Garden.

Speaking of paradise, today’s class was devoted to the section of FreeDarko’s history on Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the first segment of Chapter 4: “The Gold Standard: 1980-1990.” But before we got to Magic and Larry Legend, and after we’d settled down, we had one more bit of topical business to address: the controversy over the Heat “allegedly” crying in the locker room after their 1 point loss to the Bulls the other day, at the time their fourth straight loss. I asked them what they thought and they told me, but then I realized that I didn’t so much want to know what they thought as tell them what I thought they should think, or at least what I thought they should bear in mind as they formed their own judgments of the event.

So we briefly discussed the possible meanings of tears and of emotions in general, the role that emotion plays in sport and in human life more generally, and the way that culture and upbringing, especially as coded by gender, shape the way we judge – and that we feel entitled to judge – public displays of emotion by other human beings.

One of the more interesting points was raised by a student, who pointed out that the gender double-standard also works against female athletes who show anger or swag in the course of competition. In both cases, culturally set parameters of appropriately “masculine” or “feminine” relationships to particular expressions of emotion wind up underwriting thoughtless critical judgments of particular athletes for crossing the boundaries of emotional expression.

It’s sad, really, that young men and women, athletes or not, should be subject to such constraints. And sadder, still, perhaps, that other young men and women should participate in limiting the scope of what it is possible to be and to feel and to show you feel as a young man or young woman. Nothing was resolved, of course, but I think that students by the end of our little conversation were equipped to do more than just accept the terms of the discussion as provided by ESPN or the guy next to them at Buffalo Wild Wings.

Having completed my pontification on the topic of emotion, gender, and athletics, we rode the FD time machine back to Bliss, the Gold Standard, the Paradise of the NBA in the 1980s. The religious, specifically Edenic, lexicon that I’ve been trying to weave into this post is neither accidental, nor really of my own invention. The illustration that fronts the Magic Bird chapter shows the two players, in iconic poses, emerging from a garden lush with sunflowers, ferns, daffodils and tropical foliage.

An unpaid student query about the significance of the image gave me the opportunity to say a few words about the myth of Eden and the kind of cultural work it can do in Judeo-Christian societies. I don’t want to go biblical on your ass, or be too dweebishly unsubtle about it (especially, in view of the compact subtlety of Jacob Weinstein’s visual argument), but it’s worth acknowledging, at least, the force and pervasiveness of that myth in the way that we lace often overly simplistic judgements of good and evil into narratives of memory and history. It’s not that Eden is always invoked explicitly, but rather that it doesn’t have to be because by now it is almost second nature (a distinctly un-Edenic concept, or maybe it is Edenic). Everytime you hear someone talk about the good old days, nostalgia, you know the routine, once upon a time – always, there Eden is at work.

In the case of Magic, and Bird, and the 1980s, it’s certainly understandable, and close to my own heart’s experience, that the myth of Eden should appeal. As FD writes in the brief Introduction to the chapter, the decade saw a truly awesome influx of talent into the game: not just Magic and Larry, but Isiah, Worthy, Jordan, Barkley, Akeem, Stockton, Malone, Ewing and others entered the league in the period. Moreover, unlike, say, in the 1960s, that talent was properly showcased by the rise of ESPN and other forms of media exposure and endorsement deals, all carefully overseen by the – whatever else you want to say about him – far-sighted and shrewd PR vision of Commissioner David Stern. The play on the floor was brilliant and more people than ever were getting to see it. FANtastic was born.

But there’s more to it than that. In Magic and Bird, of course, you had two players with a ready-made rivalry established in the 1979 NCAA title game (itself a watershed moment in most accounts of the college game), and a rivalry amped up by the storied history of the Lakers and Celtics, the franchises they joined. Moreover, as we discussed in class after watching clips of the two players, Magic and Larry truly showcased a remarkably complete (and remarkably similar – a fact I think that is often undernoticed) set of basketball skills.

Though neither was an exceptional athlete by NBA standards, each had the intelligence and put in the work to maximize the gifts they did have and so to turn themselves into astonishingly creative passers and effective rebounders, ball handlers and shooters (more Magic than Larry for the handle, more Larry than Magic for the shot). Both were capable of scoring from unpromising angles and traffic situations, both capable of unselfishly raising the game of their teammates, both clutch and both winners, and both driven to lead by example in squeezing every last drop out of seemingly every play on the floor.

In their styles of play, both players, as Brown Recluse, Esq. (BRE) notes, embodied the happy marriage of ABA creativity with NBA stability. BRE even concludes by correctly observing that Magic and Larry left us as a legacy the freedom that would evolve into positional revolution with oversize point guards, and bigs who can hurt you inside or step out and hit the three. And finally, of course, one was black and one was white. Put it all together and that’s hard to top if you’re looking for Paradise in the history of the NBA.

The myth of the Garden of Eden, though, is more than just an emblem of unadulterated bliss. It describes a tricky pseudo-contract in which submissive ignorance is the price exacted for that bliss. Moreover, it tells us that pain, labor, and sexuality are punishments for the violation of that contract. You remember, right? Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, aspiring in the process to have their blind eyes opened and to see as God sees and, as a result, are cast out of the Garden. Ultimately, the narrative carries for me a dark side by which we are commanded to remain in a childish state — lacking knowledge, desire, experience, and agency — if we are to be happy.

I’m not the first to point this out, of course. John Milton in Paradise Lost (perhaps in spite of himself) and William Blake (very much not in spite of himself) long ago suggested or argued outright that it’s not so clear who might be the good guys and the bad guys in the story of our “Fall.” More recently, the British author Philip Pullman rewrote the whole story in his remarkable trilogy His Dark Materials. There Pullman conceives that our “Fall” was really a kind of elevation, a growing-up of the species if you will, prompted by angels rebelling against a God who was really just the first angel, but had usurped authority, styling himself the Creator of the rest, and establishing a tyrannical Kingdom of Heaven in place of the immanent Republic of Heaven.

In Pullman’s reading, the rebel angels did us a favor and every time we think for ourselves, enjoy our existence as beings with minds and bodies, and make independent decisions, every time we assert the right to determine the course of our own futures, we are embodying the empowering legacy that the Judeo-Christian myth of the Fall would have us lament and repent for unto eternity.

Offering this counter-vision doesn’t mean that I think the myth of a fall from grace, or innocence, is useless or bad. Just that it’s a more complicated tool for organizing our understanding of ourselves than might appear at first glance. In my own case, the bliss ushered in by Magic and Bird’s appearance in the NBA (which was indeed a paradise for me: my room was plastered with Magic posters, and I still have a scrapbook I started keeping in 1979 with Magic clippings from the local papers and Sports Illustrated) coincided with my exit from the innocence of childhood via a number of doors simultaneously: I learned to shoot a jump shot, my parents separated, and I entered puberty.

So it was a complicated Eden for me, that: one that sends my mind and my emotional memories snapping back and forth wildly like a standard in a strong wind. But I wouldn’t trade that complicated and painful time – and all that grew from it – for the relatively less complicated, ignorant bliss of pretending to be Clyde in the driveway at age 7.

By now you might be imagining that I am of the Devil’s party, as Blake once said of Milton. Maybe that’s true in some sense. It is certainly true that the serpent is for me the most interesting character in the story. And, in relation to this Golden Era of NBA history, I certainly wonder where (or who or what) the serpent is.

About fifteen years ago, in a first futile stab at doing this kind of writing, during a leave year in which I received tenure at the University, I became fascinated with Dennis Rodman. Around this time Terry Pluto published a book called Falling from Grace (1995). Its subtitle was “Can the NBA Be Saved?” In it, if I remember correctly, Pluto characterized the then-current crop of young players as brawling, trash-talking thugs whose basketball fundamentals were decidedly underwhelming. I’m pretty sure Dennis was singled out in that book, along with a few other players as symptomatic of all that had gone wrong with the game.

At the time, I wrote an essay – now long lost – on the joy of being Dennis Rodman. I wasn’t interested so much in defending Dennis’ style choices (or behavior), so much as pointing out that in his play on the court (tenacious defense, hard-nosed intelligent rebounding, good passing), Rodman embodied many of the values that Pluto himself was nostalgically associating with a different, now bygone era (not to mention race, I remember feeling upon reading the book).

I’m not sure what I’d think of Pluto’s book or of my own argument now. Maybe I wouldn’t stand by it any longer. But I definitely do stand by the impulse I acted on to complicate simple notions of human history that characterize it as either a steady progress toward something good or a steady (or precipitious) fall from something good. That much, perhaps, is the serpent in me.

In fact, maybe the serpent isn’t so much a character in the story, or not only a character in the story, but a role we all step into whenever we question the story and read it against the grain; whenever we take the childish dichotomies we are offered – and which, make no mistake, can be quite useful in limited cases – and begin to poke at the boundaries separating them.

So when I think of the NBA since Magic and Bird’s time, back, when, as they recently wrote, “the game was ours,” I think as much of Bird’s legendary trash-talking, I think of the image of Magic posterizing some chump with a tomahawk jam and then pointing to him as he lay splayed on the floor along the baseline. He wasn’t beaming. Sure I think of and marvel at their amazing array of skills and their run of titles. And I’m genuinely moved by the way their rivalry evolved into friendship and love. But I also think of their personal lives, seriously troubled at times like those of any human being. I think as well, as Brown Recluse, Esq. advises, of the marvelous players that have come after them in a more or less continuous stream since that time, patterning their unusual combination of skills and size and styles of play on some permutation of Magic and Bird.

And when I think that way, the gate at the Eastern end of the Garden of Eden, the one guarded by the angel with the flaming sword, the one that Adam and Eve left through, and that supposedly clearly marks the line between paradise and our own sorry existence starts to blur and fade.

I like that moment because the alternative offered by subscribing to the Eden story is to spend all of existence trying to make up for something I didn’t do and that I don’t think was wrong in the first place. It is to hate actual existence in the name of a time that has long since ceased to exist and that I don’t think ever existed in the first place.

So when the gates swing open, and I can acknowledge the splendor of Magic and Larry Legend in all its complex shadings, then the present and the future open back up and I am once again in a position, as one of Phillip Pullman’s characters urges: “to build the Republic of Heaven right here, because for us there is nowhere else” and to appreciate those in the game and the world today who are laboring to build it too.

go back to read my account of Walton and Jabbar and the politics of the late 70s NBA

or

Go on to read about our discussion of the Young Michael Jordan here