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 Ball Don’t Lie! (live radio interview)

This morning I did the first of what I hope will be one billion interviews about my new book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball.

As a native of Madison, Wisconsin, I was especially happy that this first one was a) with legendary Madison rocker Jonathan Zarov; b) on legendary Madison independent community radio station WORT-FM; c) a part of their pledge drive (in which, unbelievably to me, copies of my book were deemed donation-attracting premiums).

Here we go:

Basketball Analytics (Take 2): Winning

I’m realizing from the feedback on my post about basketball analytics that the issues the phenomenon raises are more complex than what I’d thought or allowed for in that post.  In fact, they are too complex to properly examine in any single blog post.

Truthfully, all this has been part of a longer, academic project that has me very excited, very curious, and very impatient to know more. That impatience, led me to cast my “reflections and reservations” about analytics in an aura of understanding and conviction that belied my confusion and uncertainty and concealed the fact that I’m at the beginning of an open-ended process of discovery.

In fact, I have a lot to learn. I don’t at this point have a firm grasp of the methods of basketball analytics at this point, nor of how they are implemented institutionally.  I’m not sure what they might “mean” for the culture of basketball, nor, therefore, do I have a definitive opinion about them.  In all these areas, what I have are glimpses and impressions, partial comprehension, intuitions and half-formed thoughts, strongly felt but as yet poorly understood aversions and attractions, and questions I’m not entirely sure how to formulate.

At this point, I’m not even sure that it’s accurate to say that I have “reservations about analytics.” To be honest, I’m just ravenously curious to better understand analytics (both the reasoning and its institutional implementation) and how it harmonizes with or sits in tension with other facets of the culture of the sport that might be characterized as irreducibly “subjective” or “qualitative”.

Maybe this means I should keep my mouth shut until I figure it out. But—you guessed it—I don’t think so.  For one thing, maybe unfortunately for readers, I learn not only by reading and reflecting in solitude, but also by writing, both by the process of putting thoughts into words and having words shape my thoughts and by the process of considering the feedback of readers.  But also I believe, or at least hope, that my sharing that process with readers can enliven a broader conversation about the various complicated aspects of this issue. So let me make another pass at this, with greater care, humility, transparency, and respect for the complexity of the issues.

Some Premises

First, all my research into the history of basketball and its cultural accompaniments indicates that to grasp any element of the sport requires us to consider its relationship to the broader social context, beyond hoops, in which it has occurred. I’ve seen nothing yet to persuade me that the rise of analytics is any exception. My research has also confirmed what I believe by temperament: that the culture of basketball is just that—a culture. This means that we all contribute to it to varying degrees and in varying ways and that we all bear responsibility for the shape it’s in and the future directions it takes.

Second, here is a partial and inchoate list of issues (or terms or concepts) that I have come to think are in some way or another in play: quantification, statistical reasoning, probability, chance, prediction, beauty, knowledge, fact, Protestantism, aesthetics, emotion, economics, competition, winning, efficiency, discipline, innovation, creativity, order, chaos, big data, play, surveillance, ethics, labor, profit, capitalism, rules, the market, and value.

I view all these terms, considered both in and out of basketball, and each with its own history, as threads woven together into a complicated, dynamic, still unfolding fabric.  That fabric is basketball. That means it’s difficult for me to grasp the end of any particular thread and follow it without running into other threads running alongside or intersecting with it.

Thoughts and Questions on Winning

That said, I’ve got to start somewhere and for the moment I’m interested in winning, by which I mean, winning games as a goal for owners, coaches, players, fans, and other stakeholders in NBA basketball.  It appears that if winning is your goal, basketball analytics provides you with a set of methods for understanding how to do that in general and, if you’re smart, you can learn to adapt the insights provided by analytics to your personnel to achieve more wins given the current rules governing play and the laws and contracts governing the construction of teams.  Moreover, if you’re an owner, analytics also promises to generate those wins, as Daryl Morey put it in 2005, for less money. Winning, it seems, is valuable and valued, and so, like any valuable and valued thing, if you can get it more cheaply, all the better.

I’m not sure yet whether I want to try to question whether winning is a primary goal of everyone with a stake in NBA basketball. I wouldn’t know how to determine that, and anyway it does seem that winning is a primary goal for most of those (like owners and general managers) in a position to influence the way basketball gets played in the NBA, which really is more to the point.  And I’m guessing, though I’m not sure, that winning is their primary goal, among other reasons, because they presume that winning is a primary goal of most fans, who express that by spending money on the sport and so generate revenues for those decision makers.

But I do want to challenge the assumption that winning should be the primary goal and its frequently voiced corollary that it is natural for winning to be the primary goal where professional (or any other) sporting events are concerned. At the very least, I’d to make room in the conversation to ask some questions.

  • Is the drive to win really natural?
  • If not, how and by what forces did winning became the primary goal?
  • According to what criteria of rightness or goodness do we assert that winning should be the primary goal?
  • How were those criteria determined? And by who?
  • What impact, if any, does the primacy of winning have on the way professional basketball gets played?
  • What other aims do stakeholders bring to their engagement with NBA hoops?
  • What elements of play do these aims lead these stakeholders to value?
  • How are these aims and elements of play impacted, if at all, by the primacy of winning and the elements and styles of play valued by the drive to win?
  • Let’s say that I have a friend who worries that the drive to win, harnessed to the drive to make a profit, and capacitated by the powerful tools of basketball analytics, is tending toward a homogenization of the game by a process of “capitalist selection,” what should I tell my friend to do?

I have some thoughts about these questions, but I don’t want to take up too much time.  I realize there’s nothing terribly groundbreaking or provocative here.  But I’m hoping by taking it slow to invite reasoned conversation and to lay the groundwork for actually generating insight.  In any event, in my next post on the topic, I’ll to begin to explore these questions. . . . unless, of course, the questions change in the meantime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.

 

Bad Prof’s Top Basketball Books – Third Team

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

 

Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story

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

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

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

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

 

FreeDarko Presents the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac

(Originally published in New York by Bloomsbury; 2008)

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

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

 

Heaven is a Playground

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

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

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

 

The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams

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

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

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

 

The Game They Played

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

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

 

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

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

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

Bad Prof’s Top Basketball Books – Second Team

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

 

All-Bad Prof Book List – Second Team

Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism

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

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

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

 

The National Basketball League: A History, 1935-1949

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

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

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

 

Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool

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

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

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

 

Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Stay tuned for the Third Team, coming soon.

What is "coach"? Do we need it?

In a post yesterday, I appeared to strike a chord (and for some a nerve) when I supplied the history of the attitudes manifest in Marc Stein’s scolding LeBron James for his “unbecoming” behavior in “emasculating” Coach David Blatt. I concluded with a fantasy of my own: that LeBron would indeed become the coach of the Cavs.

This morning, Mike Foss of USA Today weighed in granting that LeBron may be good enough to LeBron “to call his shots, to draw up plays, maybe even draft a team. But he does lack one necessary ability required of a coach, and that’s managing personalities. Do you think LeBron wants to be the guy who tells Mike Miller he isn’t setting foot on the floor in Game 6 of the NBA Finals because he’s an old and tired shell of himself?” Foss concluded that Blatt plays a “thankless and necessary role.” It may be thankless, but I’m not so sure it’s necessary and I think it’s important not to assume that it is. And I don’t mean Blatt specifically, I mean the conventional way of thinking about what a coach does and, on that basis, what a “coach” should look like. Read more

On LeBron James and Coaching

Today, ESPN senior writer Marc Stein wrote a piece lambasting LeBron James for behavior Stein described as “unbecoming” and “unflattering.”  Apparently, Stein witnessed

LeBron essentially calling timeouts and making substitutions. LeBron openly barking at Blatt after decisions he didn’t like. LeBron huddling frequently with Lue and so often looking at anyone other than Blatt.

Stein went on to contrast this “unpalatable behavior” to Spurs’ star Tim Duncan’s support for Gregg Popovich, even before the coach was “POP.” I think this is the worst kind of moralizing, patronizing, unconsciously racist reprimand, resting on a tower of unstated and unsavory assumptions with a long history in the culture of basketball. Please read carefully: those adjectives in the last sentence do not refer to Stein himself, but rather to his reprimand, to the assumptions it makes, and to the history of basketball.

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Let me tell you a story to clarify why I think this and why I feel so incensed.  Back in the Fall of 1981, Magic Johnson told reporters that he wasn’t “having any fun” and that he wanted to leave the Lakers.  Less than twenty-fours later, Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss fired Lakers Coach Paul Westhead, replacing him with assistant coach Pat Riley. The next night, as the Lakers took the floor in Los Angeles, perhaps for the first time in his life, Magic Johnson’s own fans loudly booed him.

A disapproving chorus of journalists echoed the fans’ boos. They pointed to the new contract—$25 million over 25 years, unprecedented in NBA history at the time—Johnson had signed during the off-season as evidence that Johnson had grown narcissistic, arrogant and, perhaps worst of all, cynically professional. Johnson was vilified as a “spoiled brat” and a “spoiled punk,” “an infidel,” and a “traitor,” “un-American” and a “Bolshevik,” a “monster,” a “villain” and a “pariah.” But beyond the name-calling, what emerged in the firestorm of criticism was that Johnson had ruined the story, part of which was that Magic played ball for the fun of it and his mega-watt smile proved it.

The ideology of amateurism originated in England where it was a ““product of the nineteenth-century leisure class, whose ideal of the patrician sportsman . . . was part of their pursuit of consicuous leisure.” Referring to the athlete who plays for the love of the sport, the concept came to imply a number of corollary qualities including that the amateur derives pleasure from the contest, participation is freely chosen, the process of competition is as important as its outcome, the amateur is motivated by rewards intrinsic to the sport, rather than by extrinsic rewards such as fame or money and, finally, sportsmanship—a valuation of the sport itself above all else—is paramount. This effectively kept working class athletes, who had neither the resources nor the leisure time, from challenging upper-class domination of sport so that, in effect, amateurism “established a system of ‘sports apartheid’ with white males from the upper classes enjoying the advantages.” Allen Guttman puts it more bluntly: “The amateur rule was an instrument of class warfare.

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Within the culture of basketball, amateur ideals have been applied selectively toward similar ends. Over the first half of the twentieth century, during the period of the consolidation of the modern basketball state, it was amateur basketball, particularly intercollegiate competition, that established a national market for the game and affirmed the core values that, from the time of its creation, basketball was supposed to convey: unselfishness, cooperation, sportsmanship, effort. At the same time, the growth of the college game and the institutionalization of coaching as a profession forced the amateur ideal to accommodate two additional values: respect for the authority of the coach (as an expression of humility and unselfishness) and competitive intensity (not winning for its own sake, of course, which was seen as unseemly, but the desire to win as a mechanism for spurring the passion and excellence that would reflect positively on the larger body—such as a college—one represented).

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Because the amateur ideal took root in basketball culture while the sport was still segregated, the values came unconsciously to be associated with whiteness.

Returning to Johnson, media and fan criticism betrays a rage that he violated these ideals first by failing to respect his coach and second, by both getting paid and insisting that he have fun playing the game. Red Auerbach, Bill Russell’s former coach, was marshaled to explain the perils awaiting franchises “when a player is bigger than the organization.” Apparently, a black superstar, like Russell, Magic, or LeBron, can only assume the mantle of coaching authority when a white overlord deems it appropriate (as Auerbach did when he named Russell player-coach).

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Coach Larry Brown of New Jersey (later inducted into the Hall of Fame) criticized Johnson for a selfish unwillingness to make sacrifices for the good of the team and therefore violating the moral tenets of Brown’s “play the right way” mantra. Perhaps it’s no accident that the relatively common employment of player coaches in the NBA disappeared precisely during the decade (the 1970s) when the sport was perceived as “too black” and its black players as undisciplined, selfish, incorrigible miscreants.

Another column reminded readers that even as a college player, Johnson had led a group of Michigan State players who confronted Coach Jud Heathcote, insisting that he allow them to implement a more up-tempo style of play. As Johnson was judged to have violated the (amateur) ideals of the sport, sportswriters and fans alike—in perhaps the most telling trope of the backlash—determined that “Magic” was no longer magic (or “Magic”), but rather now just “Earvin.” Thus one Los Angeles Times columnist—under the headline “Just Call Him Earvin Johnson; Magic is Gone”—quoted another:

For the rest of his days, he won’t be Magic anymore. He will be the spoiled brat who couldn’t wait until he owned a team of his own to show his power, the infidel who had to have a coach’s scalp to go with his millions, the traitor who hid behind a false, happy face, and he was someone we loved. That’s the frightening thing.

Johnson’s popularity among writers and fans depended more on his ebullient on and off-court personality than on his exceptional individual talents or his contributions to his team’s successes. Johnson could be “loved”—and recall the importance of love to the amateur ideal—insofar as he joyfully brought amateur ideals into the professional game. By mixing the professional (through the power of his long-term contract and relationship with owner Jerry Buss) with the amateur (his insistence on having fun), Johnson had unwittingly exposed the myth of the amateurs as a ruse and betrayed fans’ love for him. The purveyors of this myth disciplined him accordingly.

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Though none of his critics explicitly invoked race, their invective nonetheless reveals a racializing subtext since criticism of the NBA at the time yoked complaints about player apathy and excessive salaries with the perception that the league was too black. In this sense, perhaps, fans and media observers were unconsciously enraged because Magic “robbed” them of something they desperately needed: the image of an entertaining black basketball player who played just for the fun of it and loved everyone while doing so. Or, to put it another way, it was as though Magic betrayed fans by turning out to be “black” after all.

Stein’s piece disturbingly echoes these (over) reactions to Johnson and broadcasts the nasty attitudes that motivated them.  Remember, by Stein’s own account, all LeBron did was “essentially” call a few plays or ignore some that Blatt called.  It’s not like LeBron said he’d go back to Miami, or burn the Terminal Tower if they didn’t fire Blatt and hire the coach of his choice.  So I think it’s disingenuous when Stein opens his piece by asking:

I have a question for LeBron James that I really hope he’ll field someday.

A question that can be asked a variety of ways.

What kind of coach do you want? 

Who out there is a coach you’d actually like to play for? 

Who could ‎the Cleveland Cavaliers hire that you’d give some meaningful backing?

These are rhetorical questions veiling Stein’s command that LeBron shut his mouth and do like Timmy Duncan.

Perhaps in this, as in so many ways already during his career, LeBron is offending by refusing to be a character in a fantasy scripted by someone else.  In this case, he is tacitly rejecting the very terms of Stein’s question, which assumes he must want some coach, right, because, we have to have coaches, right, or everything will be chaos. birthplace-of-basketball-teamAfter all, it is part of the hallowed myth of the invention of basketball that James Naismith’s students were called “the incorrigibles.” 

Perhaps, when confronted with such questions, LeBron rightly takes it as a disingenuous power move on the part of critics seeking to preserve a power structure in which white owners buy and sell black bodies, white coaches command black bodies, and black bodies go where, and do what, they’re told and keep their mouths shut unless it is to express gratitude for being #blessed to make with their talents a tiny fraction of what is made off them.  “You can’t build your own team! That’s for the owners to do!” “You can’t call plays, that’s for the coaches to do”!

Maybe LeBron wants to be the coach; or maybe LeBron would like a more fluid, horizontal (as opposed to hierarchical and authoritarian) approach to strategic and tactical decision making, or maybe out there is a coach he wishes he had, or maybe he’s just fine with the way things are.  I really don’t know.  But Stein’s “unbecoming” kind of moralizing, authoritarian, crypto-racist reproaches make me wish that what he calls a “charade” would end, and that LeBron would become the first player coach since Lenny Wilkens and then, after that, the first player-coach-owner since ever.

And If you feel that I’m “injecting” race into this discussion in a way that is unwarranted or unfair, I’d ask you to take a minute to read my post briefly explaining what race means to me. Thanks.

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