Why Fab 5 at 25?

This is the text of my opening remarks for the Fab 5 @ 25 round table symposium.  The University video taped the event and will be making that available to the public, hopefully before too long.

screenshot-2016-10-10-06-44-48The impact of the Fab Five on basketball and our cultural landscape was immeasurable.  As we’ve just heard it was felt even by a young Hoosier attending a small liberal arts college who would grow up to become a quantitative political scientist and our Dean.  He was not alone, of course. Their superb and electrifying play, their exuberant and authentic self-expression, and their courageous outspokenness transformed not only college basketball, but, in some ways, all of sport, and sparked challenging and increasingly urgent conversations about race, money, and education in big time college sports.  But you know all that.  You know, too, that their legacy was left in limbo as a result of investigations uncovering the loans that one member of the team accepted.

We are here, as Dean Martin explained, to address these topics openly, in an academic setting, in keeping with the mission, and best traditions, of the great community of students and scholars that comprise the University of Michigan.  We have here an opportunity to lead by continuing and deepening the challenging and urgent conversations these players and their teammates helped amplify:  how can universities like Michigan preserve their educational mission and safeguard the well-being of their students in the context of the rapidly expanding commercialization of college sports? What sort of opportunities do college sports provide us for addressing and overcoming social inequalities and cultural stereotypes? What is the legacy of the Fab Five in Michigan’s own history, and what is the most appropriate way for the University to mark that legacy?

But, even as we take up these questions today, I know from experience that our event offers another, deeper opportunity for all of us.  I met Jimmy King in March of 2012, when he accepted my invitation to speak to students in my undergraduate Cultures of Basketball class.  He has come every time I’ve taught the course since then and has even played in the intra class 3 on 3 tournament the students organize at the end of each semester.  Now, I pride myself on being an effective teacher. But I know they feel that the hour and a half they spend with Jimmy is the unforgettable highlight of the semester and that the challenging and inspiring lessons he imparts will stay with them forever.

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I understand why they feel that way.  I feel that way too.  It’s because Jimmy is, among many other things, a superb teacher.  In fact, though I don’t know Ray as well, nor Jalen or Juwan at all, I believe that all four of these men are, and were when they were students here, superb teachers. In fact, I view them as one of the University great treasures: a trove of unique life experiences which they transform into accessible lessons. These are lessons not only about basketball, or college sports.  Not even only about race or class or exploitation.  They are deeper life lessons about joy, creativity, and integrity, about solidarity, trust, and loyalty and, perhaps above all, about freedom.  We should consider ourselves fortunate that we have here today something life doesn’t often provide: a second chance; a second chance not only to hear their voices, but to listen to them and so to learn what we may have missed when they first offered it 25 years ago. I for one, plan to make the most of it.

As the fellas used to say before stepping into the arena: let ‘em hang.

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5 for the Fab 5 @ 25

The Fab Five first set foot on Michigan’s campus 25 years ago.  The first group of freshman ever to start for a major college program, they led their teams to consecutive NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship games in 1992 and 1993, and sparked a cultural revolution in the sport and beyond.  In time, a scandal led to sanctions imposed by both the University and the NCAA.  The Final Four banners came down and were tucked away in the Bentley Library and a shroud of silence settled over the players and their era.

Until now.

The Fab Five are returning to campus on at 2 pm, October 8th to discuss their experiences in Hill Auditorium.

In honor this group of teenage black men whose messages of brotherhood, community, joy, and freedom has never been more resonant, here are 5 links to things I’ve written on the Fab 5 shared in celebration of the 25 year anniversary of their arrival at Michigan.

1.“Free the Banners, Free Discussion” – (2013)
Op-Ed piece I wrote for The Michigan Daily in which I called for the kind of public discussion we will finally be holding this Saturday.
2.“Uphold the Heart” – (2012)
A reflection on Jimmy King’s first visit to my Cultures of Basketball course, and on the impact of the Fab Five.
3.“Where is 1968?” – (2013)
On some of the lessons about race and social activism we can draw from the Fab Five. Never more urgent than now.
4.“Alphabet Soup” – (2013)
On hype, names, and numbers.
5. “_______________” – (2013)

Still today, the most viewed thing I’ve ever written, my open letter to Chris Webber asking him to join his former teammates in the stands at the 2013 NCAA Championship game to support Michigan, and five of my freshman students, in the game against Louisville.

I have mixed feelings about reposting this because I don’t feel exactly the same way I did when I first wrote and posted it three and a half years ago. Chris showed up at the game, but never responded to my letter and, more painfully, elected not to sit with his teammates.  Recently, I once again invited Chris to join his former teammates, and brothers, at a public event—Fab 5 @ 25—and once more he has not responded. So I thought about not reposting this, and even about taking it off my site—after all, the University came through by sponsoring, and paying for, this discussion. That means they would’ve bought Chris a plane ticket to get him to campus. If it he’d been willing to appear.

But so much about this conversation is about how we look at history, memory, and our own past.  And so much of what is painful in this derives from people trying to erase or ignore or deny the past.  I understand why this is tempting. But I think it is deadly.

There has been enough erasure and denial.

“An Open Letter to Chris Webber”

The Culture of Moving Dots

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

The presentation was a distillation of a longer scholarly essay I wrote for the workshop which I expect will be published in the Journal of Sport History.  But as I did the research for that I really became so fascinated with the topic that it has become the seed of what I envision as my next book, a companion volume to my recently published book, Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball that I’m calling, for the moment anyway, Numbers Don’t Lie! A History of Counting and What Counts in the Cultures of Basketball. It will situate the analytics movement in basketball in broader frameworks of statistical reasoning in sports, measurement and statistics in scientific culture in the west, the use of digital technologies in the age of Big Data, and, as usual, the cultural and political dimensions of hoops.

Because the project is in its initial stages, I’m especially eager to get constructive feedback on it.  So as always, but more than usual, leave me comments or shoot me an e-mail.

The Radical Free Agency of LeBron James

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

I hope you enjoy.

 

 

 

Integrating Academics and Athletics in the American College and University

Last week I spoke at Oberlin College, where the Athletics Department had invited me to share some of my ideas on this topic.

The turnout was impressive, the audience engaged and responsive, and the questions important and intelligent. I really had a blast exchanging ideas with this wonderful community.

And, they taped it, so I can share it with you as well. I hope you’ll check it out and let me know what you think.

(FYI: My friend, Oberlin’s Associate Men’s Basketball Coach Tim McCrory does a short funny intro first, then I go for about 35 minutes, followed by the QA).

I really enjoyed trying to create a quasi-documentary experience for the audience (ever experimenting to try to improve my lecturing technique).  And I learned a lot preparing for it, and thinking about the differences, and some surprising similarities, between the issues facing a DI FBS school like Michigan and those facing a DIII school like Oberlin.

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Image from NCAA.org, explaining the difference between Division I and Division III.

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Time Demands Comparison DI vs. DIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[. . .]

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest of Ball Don’t Lie!

AVAILABLE NOW: 

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

 

 

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:

Why I Hate “the Warriors”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What The Answer Taught me About the Dismissal of David Blatt

As the Internet caught fire with reactions to the news, clever kids tripped over themselves to photoshop images of Tyronn Lue, who was once famously stepped over by Allen Iverson after a made jumper, stepping over David Blatt.  Okay, why not.  But in the midst of the mass euphoria/hysteria, there was Allen Iverson himself, stepping into the Twitterverse, as he rarely does, with this:

Screenshot 2016-01-23 13.05.23

Was it a joke? Was he being ironic? Maybe. I don’t know Allen Iverson personally so I couldn’t really tell you for sure.  But actually, I think that’s sort of the point.

To me, this Tweet, whatever Iverson may have intended, tells me that there is something deep and intimate shared by NBA players that we, who are not them, often fail to recognize. To us, Lue is mockable roadkill left in the wake of the speeding rebel genius Iverson (he was for me too until I saw this tweet). But Iverson seems to step in here to say that we don’t understand anything, or rather, that we and our views—to the degree that we fail to see their limitations—are rrelevant.

That’s why he addresses Lue directly.  “Love you” he says to Tyronn Lue in the presence of 980,000 followers.  He may have delighted in making that shot, and in stepping over Lue, but that delight, I believe I understand, was not at the expense of the loving bond they share, but rather a function of it.  I think it can be hard to understand that from the outside; hard to understand, I mean, what it must be to be among a group of a few hundred young black males suddenly experiencing riches and fame and adoration and pressure in a world that otherwise mostly seems to fear and despise them, at least if mass incarceration and police violence is any indication; hard to really grasp the solidarity that experience, those experiences, engender.

So what? Well, I’m not an NBA player, or a young black man, so I’m sure I can’t presume to say with any kind of certainty.  But from the vantage point that Iverson seemed to me to have pointed to here, and which I can at least intellectually comprehend, here’s how the whole thing with the Cavs, Blatt, and LeBron looks.

It’s probably fair to say that the expectations for, and pressure on, David Blatt changed after he accepted the job. He thought he’d be coaching a young team and trying to shape them into contenders.  Then LeBron came back, management traded the young players to create a Big 3 out of James, Kyrie Irving, and  Kevin Love, and merely contending was no longer enough.  The job description changed: the Cavs had to win a championship. Racking up wins in the woeful Eastern Conference and making it through to the Finals wouldn’t cut it if the now-full-strength Cavs were still—as was appearing to be the case—likely to go down in the Finals.  So, while that may have been tough for Blatt to adapt to, it remains the case that he was still collecting paychecks and that the change in expectations were not unreasonable.  That is why it is totally irrelevant, if not disingenuous, for critics of the decision to wring their hands over the fact that Blatt had the best won-loss record of any fired coach in history, or that the team, depleted by injuries, made the finals last season.  Who cares? And who says that was because of Blatt anyway? Why do you say that was because of Blatt?

Those upset that so seemingly successful a coach as Blatt should have been fired explain what otherwise seems inexplicable by presuming that LeBron James had something to do with it, even if he was not, as the Cavs maintain, explicitly consulted.  We might ask why we presume this when there is no evidence. But my gut response to the speculation is, nonetheless: ya think?  Of course he had something to do with it! I should hope so!  He might not be the best player in the league this year (though, as I’ve argued before, we should think hard about our delight in his having been surpassed by Steph Curry).  But he’s been the best player on the planet for a decade and, contrary to some wayward speculation, he’s far more crucial to the Cavs hopes of winning a title anytime soon than was David Blatt. More important than whether LeBron had a role in this or not, is the question of why those not on the team are so invested in maintaining a putative hierarchy in which players don’t express their dissatisfaction about their coaches publicly or in any way that might cause management to fire the coach.  So, why? Why are you so invested in that hierarchy?

Trailing closely in the wake of the collective garment-rending and breast-beating for David Blatt is the head-shaking and finger-wagging at LeBron James for what these observers take to be his egomaniacal savior complex.  LeBron may or may not have such a complex.  I don’t know him.  What I do know is that before he returned to Cleveland, before he left Cleveland, before he called himself King, or tattooed himself with the word “Chosen,” these same people now complaining about him had already called him “the Chosen One.”  Incidentally, many of these people who rip what they see as James’ narcissistic selfishness will also have criticized him, in effect, for being too unselfish on the court. Nor does this criticism seem to capture that the main advantage that Lue seems to have over Blatt, as far as Cavs players goes, is that he will actually criticize them, even LeBron.  Whose fault is it that David Blatt wouldn’t do that? But let’s not get bogged down in these details.  Here’s the bottom line, don’t get it twisted: we wrote the script for the new gospel and cast LeBron as the messiah.  That’s on us and it’s our problem, not his, when he doesn’t conform to the plot we’ve laid out.  

That’s the reminder and the lesson of Iverson’s tweet:  we are ever placing these human beings into our doll houses, playing out dramas with them, and them tossing them under the sofa when one “malfunctions” or a “better one” comes along…all the while acting as though our playroom theatrics were reality. We’re just playing. But they’re not: not Iverson, not Lue, not James, not even Blatt. We can play and enjoy our games.  But they’re not reality, at least not all of it, and definitely not the most important part of reality.

Now, we may not have access to the reality.  That’s not our fault.  And it makes our—my—mythmaking understandable.  I get that.  But getting that also carries with it a responsibility to acknolwedge that we are just playing, and that our play is not a source of any kind of knowledge, unless it is knowledge about the kind of games we like to play.  Morever, it requires us to refrain from passing moralizing judgments and pretending them that they are grounded in anything other than our fantasies and the deep desires shaping them.

Just How Exploited Are My Students? An Adventure

Yesterday, I tweeted this out:

Screenshot 2016-01-19 14.46.11

 

It’s gotten a certain amount of traction (Twitter tells me around 20,000 people have seen that Tweet) and so I began to be concerned that I was being irresponsibly provocative.  So let me explain how I got that number.

The Indy Star reported that the NCAA made $769.4 million off March Madness in 2013 ($681M from CBS for TV rights, $82.3 in ticket sales, and $6.1M in ancillary revenue streams).  So, partly for fun, partly out of curiosity, but also out of the conviction that the labor of performing athletes is the primary driver of these revenues, I divided the total revenues by the total player minutes to come up with a figure of $30,224.91 generated per player minute of the 2013 NCAA D1 Men’s Basketball Tournament.  Based on that figure, my five students together “generated,” with their 1017 minutes of basketball over 6 games, $30,738,733.50.

Incidentally, some other facts I discovered in the process: 674 players saw action during the tournament, sharing a grand total of 25,254 minutes of playing time.  Of course, common sense would tell you, since half the teams are eliminated after the first round, that the players on teams making deeper runs are going to have a higher share of the minutes.  What I found, though, was pretty amazing

  • Just 14 players used 10 % of the total minutes.
  • Just 36 players used 25 % of the total minutes.
  • Less than one tenth of players used more than half of the total minutes.
  • Just one third of the players used 75 % of the total minutes.
  • Half the players used 85 % of the total minutes.

People go to NCAA games and watch them on TV to see basketball players play basketball.  In a very real sense, minutes of basketball played creates revenue dollars for the NCAA, a fact not lost on the NCAA which has increased the number of minutes played by expanding the tournament.  If so, then imbalances in the distribution of overall minutes matter. They matter no matter what. But they matter doubly, I would argue, when we consider that black players are disproportionately represented among the group of players using most of the minutes and so generating most of the interest and dollars (11 out of those top 14).

But minutes and NCAA revenues are just one way to frame the story.

Even someone who values the performance of these athletes as much as I do, who knows that if it weren’t for their hard-work and talent there would be no March Madness, must also admit that arenas, coaches, training and all other manner of capital investments (laid out before and during the tournament) also contribute to the madness and so to the revenues.  It also reduces player labor to a single quantity: minutes, which isn’t the worst way to do it, especially from the NCAA standpoitn.  Though I recognize the NCAA will make a bit more or less money depending on who makes a deep run in the tournament, it essentially makes its money regardless of who wins.

But there’s a reasonable argument to made that the productivity of a player, measured in terms of contributions to wins (which generate revenues) matters more, at least at the level of individual institutions.  So while I think my $31M figure illuminates, albeit roughly, the correlation between minutes of player labor and revenues, I wouldn’t necessarily go the mat with an economist arguing that it’s the best way to measure exploitation.

So, to begin get a more precise sense of the exploitation of those five students of mine during the 2012-2013 season, I’m borrowing a page from Dave Berri, who in 2014 wrote a useful primer on the economic exploitation of college athletes for Time magazine.  Let me walk you through that.  Berri defines exploitation as “paying a worker less in wages than their economic contribution to the firm.” In terms of college athletes, exploitation occurs when the value of the scholarship, housing, and any stipend the athlete receives in exchange for competing is lower than the amount of revenue the athlete generates for the school. So, though I’m not mathematically adept, I believe we can turn this definition into relatively simple formula (as Berri goes on to do).

Exploitation (E) = Scholarship Value (SV)/Revenues (R) x 100%

Following Berri, I begin by getting the basketball revenue figures reported by Michigan to the Department of Education and posted on the latter’s “Equity in Athletics Data Analysis Cutting Tool” and discover that Michigan basketball reported $13,636,966 that year.  Let’s just call it $13.6M.

2012-2013 University of Michigan Men’s Basketball Revenues = $13.6M

According to Berri, “Currently the NCAA restricts the payment of athletes to essentially the cost of attending the institution. But in a typical labor market, the payment to workers is unrestricted.” So the question is, what would Michigan have to pay its basketball players in an unrestricted market?

To get at this, we follow Berri in adopting the revenue sharing proportions used in the comparatively unrestricted major professional sports leagues in the United States, including the NBA, where the collective bargaining deal (because, you know, NBA players, unlike “student-atho-letes“, have a union) stipulates roughly a 50/50 revenue split between owners and players.  (Berri notes that the labor market for professional athletes in the US is, in fact, still restricted and that the proportion of revenues they’d receive would likely be higher in a truly unrestricted market, but whatever.)

So, if the 15 players on Michigan’s roster were to receive 50% of the 2012-13 revenues they’d be splitting $6.8M, which works out to $400K apiece.

2012-2013 University of Michigan Average Men’s Basketball Player Revenue Share (In Unrestricted Market) = $400,000

The University of Michigan estimated the cost of attendance for out of state freshman and sophomores living on campus for 2012-2013 at $51,976.  Let’s be generous and call that $52K.

2012-2013 University of Michigan Cost of Attendance = $52,000

Now let’s plug these values back into the exploitation definition/formula Berri gave us before.  E (UM) = 52K (COA/player)/ 400K (1/2 hoops revenue/player) x 100 %.  Do the math and I come up with Michigan players getting about 13 % of what they generate. Or, to put this another way that makes more sense to me: Michigan netted about $348K in profits off each player on the team in 2012-2013.

Average University of Michigan Profit Per 2012-2013 Player = $348,000

Here I hit a wrinkle that Berri does not account for (and I welcome anybody reading this to correct my efforts to do so). The University told the Department of Education that it cost about $7.5M to operate the men’s basketball program in 2012-13. I don’t have a breakdown of those costs (though I assume scholarships are figured in there and so I’m probably double-counting that expense).  But just for fun, let’s subtract that from revenues.  Doing so ($13.6M-$7.5M) gives us $6.1M in profits. Now let’s split that 50/50 with our players, leaving them $3.05M to split 15 ways.  They’d each get a bit over $200K, which is still 75% more than the school’s own COA figure.  In other words, by the most generous calculation I can come up with, the school made nearly $150,000 off each and every member of the 2012-2013 men’s basketball team.

Adjusted Average University of Michigan Profit Per 2012-2013 Player = $148,000

This gives us the average rate of exploitation.  But, Berri, recognizing that pro franchises don’t pay all players the same amount but rather pay them to win games, applies a further calculation to factor in an approximation of each player’s contribution to the team’s wins. He takes the total revenues divided by the team’s wins to get at the value of a win, and then multiplies these by each player’s “win share” (or contribution to total wins, calculated through this complex formula, but also available here) to get at what he consider to be a more realistic and so equitable estimate of each player’s share of the revenues based on their actual productivity on the court.

[Caveat: I’m not really on board, philosophically with the individualistic, laissez-fair economic principles driving these calculations so you shouldn’t take this to mean that I argue that these numbers alone should dictate solutions to the problem of college athlete exploitation. But I think these numbers should be the starting point, after which we need to factor in other things that have value, even though that value isn’t reflected by an unrestricted market.]

Let’s go back to the five students I started with, who also happen to be the five players on the 2012-13 roster who led the team in win shares: Trey, Glenn, Nik, Tim, and Mitch.  And don’t forget, if I were using Berri’s values, which do not subtract expenses from revenues, these figures would all be about twice as high. Here’s how that turns out:

Screenshot 2016-01-19 12.49.03

That’s annually.  In other words, when productivity is taken into account using win shares, we find that the University of Michigan made $1.3M off its $52,000 investment in Trey Burke.

Now, for each of Michigan’s 31 wins during that season, the numbers look like this:

Screenshot 2016-01-19 13.44.14

Okay, now, let me also go back to my other starting point:  March Madness, where Michigan got five of their 31 wins before losing to Louisville in the title game.  How much did my students contribute to those wins? How much revenue did those five wins generate? How much did the UM pay for the players’ services in those five games? And how much profit did UM make off each of those players?  To be really precise, I’d have to calculate the WinShares for each player for the five March Madness victories and I don’t have time.  But to give an estimate, we just have to multiply the per win figures above by 5 (the number of March Madness wins).

Screenshot 2016-01-19 13.55.29

Lastly, I want to relate all this to minutes.  Basically, I want to know how much the UM made per minute that each of my students was on the floor during March Madness. So I’m going to take the total UM profit for each player for March Madness (the right hand column above) and divide it by each player’s total minutes.

Screenshot 2016-01-19 14.01.37

So that’s the bottom line for me. The University of Michigan reaped just under $1,000.00 off of every minute of Trey Burke’s performance during the 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

I want to say that I recognize I am neither an economist nor a statistician, and that both are real scholarly disciplines that people take years to master, just as I spent years mastering the skills involved in cultural interpretation.  So perhaps I have something wrong here. If so I welcome corrections.  I have not intended to mislead, but simply to find my way through a thicket of ideologies and numbers to get a sense of what the school I work for is doing in its contractual relationship with the students whose educational well-being and, in some sense, overall growth, I am entrusted to protect.

Lastly, a word on the term “adventure” in my title. I take it from Ian Hacking’s remarkable book The Emergence of Probability, in which, at the point in question, he describes four different kinds of “experiment” in early modern Europe.  One of these is “the adventure,” which he describes as follows and in the spirit of which I have conducted my own little experiment:

Screenshot 2016-01-19 15.20.57

 

 

 

 

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