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.

A Desire Named Steph Curry

Besides being the name of a phenomenally exciting and innovative basketball player, “Steph Curry” is the name for a desire about the future of the NBA; a desire we express through consumption, which the media then chronicles and reflects back to and justifies for us. Around the time of the NBA All-Star game this past season, NPR’s Tom Goldman asked me for my thoughts about a couple of articles that had appeared noting Curry’s rising popularity among fans and marketers; a popularity, it was noted, was on the verge of eclipsing that of LeBron James.  As it turns out, Curry won the regular season MVP award and now, with his Warriors leading beaten LeBron’s injury-riddled Cavaliers 3-2 in the best of seven NBA Finals series, he may well be poised to win the Finals MVP.

Let me get a couple things out of the way.  First, Curry’s play thrills me.  The smooth speed with which he moves himself and the ball on the court, and then the ball alone into the bottom of the net is pure fluid beauty.  And, speaking now as a Cavs fan, the terror he inspires in me every time he gets the ball, even in the backcourt, is sublime.

Second, though I think LeBron is more valuable to his team that Steph is to his team and should therefore have won the MVP award and should therefore win the Finals MVP award, I don’t think it’s insane to give it to Curry and, anyway, I’m not here going to make an argument about that.

Because this isn’t about Steph Curry the basketball player.  It’s about “Steph Curry” the desire and I’m just here to explore the conditions of possibility and implications of that desire.  Where does it come from? What nourishes it? Just what exactly are we wanting when we want “Steph Curry” so badly? Excellence and excitement no doubt, but if that were all there’d be no explanation for why collectively we want Curry so much more than other NBA superstars.

By temperament and professional habit, I find it useful to look at how we articulate our desire.  What are the words and stories within which we cast our love for Steph. When I look at these more closely I’m struck by certain recurring themes, some of which have little to do with Steph Curry, the actual player and human being. And these begin to offer a clue into the deeper feelings that might drive our desire for the future we’ve made him represent.

To see these things—or rather more precisely to consider my argument plausible—requires first a brief reminder about the history of basketball, especially pro basketball, in this country.  It’s no secret that pro basketball’s history is vexed by racial problematics.  In a nutshell, for more than half a century, most pro basketball players and most of the best pro basketball players have been black.  Meanwhile, most of the administrators, coaches, owners and fans are white.

In my research, I’ve looked at the stories that basketball culture has generated to avoid dealing forthrightly with this problematic, not to mention with the broader societal racism with which it overlaps.  These stories tend to conflate the unrelated issues of style, tactics, and morality in order to promote players or teams that seem to embody the essence of the game as it emerged, developed and was played prior to racial integration.  Conversely, players and teams that seem to depart from that essence tend, in these stories, to be villainized.

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In all cases, whatever is perceived as threatening blackness is either suppressed out of the story or demonized.

When I look at how the media reports the appeal of Steph Curry I encounter terms that are familiar to me from my research.  You all have seen the stories.  Curry is an underdog, underrated and under-recruited, partly because of what tends to be characterized as his small size and slight build.  Already here, we find elements that have historically been appealing to the collective white basketball unconscious, which reacts to black domination of the sport and its own irrepressible desire for black basketball players by fabricating a fantasy that someone—”nature” perhaps?—has stacked the deck against white players and, by metonymy, white people more generally.  Then add to this our attention to Curry’s personality: humble, down-to-earth, approachable, genuine…human.  Emphasizing these obviously laudable and desirable traits help cement the identification with Curry.  And of course, it doesn’t hurt, from this point of view, that Curry is blue-eyed (okay, hazel, but whatever) and light skinned. Let’s not even talk about his adorable daughter.

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Finally, there is the matter of Curry’s style of play, especially the two hallmarks of his innovative game: amazing ball-handling ability and an unprecedented ability to make three point shots.  We are treated repeatedly to clips of Curry tirelessly practicing these skills, subtly reminding us that they have been honed through solitary practice and effort, the result therefore neither of  superior size or natural talent nor of resources or mentorship.  We may not have chosen to put in that effort, but we can all imagine that if we had, we too could be breaking Matthew Delledova’s ankles and draining step-back threes from just across the half-court line.  That his particular skill set dovetails with the ascending league obsessions with efficiency (as measured by advanced statistical methods) helps as well.  However dazzling Curry may be, his efficiency is indispensable to his appeal here given a longstanding association basketball culture has made between inefficient flair and black basketball. Indeed, his efficiency and other elements of his style of play, as my friend Eric Freeman notes, may be emphasized as a way of minimizing markers of what may be perceived as threatening blackness.

All of this, taken together, may be usefully contrasted with how we have tended to approach Curry’s foil in this season’s narrative: LeBron James.  In nearly every respect—body type, personality, skill set and style of play, and, of course, skin tone—LeBron appears as Curry’s diametrical opposite.

Obviously blessed with size, LeBron’s strength, speed and athletic ability appear as natural gifts.  Far from under-recruited, LeBron has been basketball’s “Chosen One” since his junior year in high school, a seemingly privileged status that, we all know, went to his head, most notoriously in The Decision to take his talents to South Beach. And the hallmark of LeBron game?  Powerful locomotive drives to the basket punctuated by tomahawk dunks that we could never hope to replicate, not if we devoted 10 million hours to it.

When I survey all this, it suggests to me that insofar as “Steph Curry” is the name of a desire for basketball future, we haven’t come very far from the days when John McPhee was writing in praise of Bill Bradley because tall players like Wilt Chamberlain had ruined the sport. Or rather we have come forward to the past, to a sport played by humble, hard-working, underdog, light-skinned jump shooters with solid fundamentals.

And, as always in the history of basketball, what we want for the game tells us something—not everything, just something—about what we want for the society more broadly. Perhaps it tells us that we’d prefer a society in which privileged, upper-class, college-attending kids from stable, two-parent families (preferably without ink) took the place of dark-skinned, heavily tattooed kids raised in poor neighborhoods by single-mothers.chosen-tattoo

I’m not arguing that everyone who admires or even loves Stephen Curry subscribes, consciously or even unconsciously, to these attitudes.  I’m simply wanting to caution those who do thrill to Curry’s considerable abilities on the court to carefully examine the narrative package in which their love for Curry is being reported back to them.  If we’re not careful, consuming these narratives can be, as my wife said, a propos of a different (but related) news item, “like joining the Empire because the Death Star has a gym.”  And uncritically purveying them, well, that takes your membership to a whole other level.

The good news is that these stories are ours: we make them and we can tell them differently if want to; we can uncouple the unholy complex of style, tactics, morality and race through which historically our hoops culture has masked its complicity with racism in our society more broadly.  And we can simply love all the many different manifestations of excellence and creativity and excitement that hard-working, talented pro basketball players provide us on a nightly basis.

The Fascination of Iverson Crossing Jordan: An Exercise in Praising Athletic Beauty

In my last post, I referred to Hans Umbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty in relation to my University of Michigan Comparative Literature course on Writing the Sporting Body.  I mentioned that Gumbrecht, in what I consider the heart of the book, offers a brief but rich and profound typology of the elements of sporting performance for which he is grateful and that move him to praise.  He calls these “fascinations” to capture the fact that every sporting performance entails “body movements always already shaped by the expectations and the appreciation that spectators bring with them to the game.”  The term fascination, Gumbrecht writes, “refers to the eye as attracted to, indeed paralyzed by, the appeal of something perceived. . . . But it also captures the added dimension that the spectator contributes.” My students and I worked with these seven fascinations a great deal this semester, finding them at the very least useful starting points for articulating the arresting beauty of the performances we each, or together, chose to write. I want to share these fascinations with you.  But I think the most enjoyable way to do so will be to put them to work in relation to a performance, an iconic, but brief play that continues to fascinate me.

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Sportsmanship? We talkin’ ’bout sportsmanship? On Harrison and Ryan

Over the weekend, the embers of America’s self-righteous disapprobation for Kentucky basketball, tempered briefly by their newly found love-affair with victorious Wisconsin, burst anew into joyful flames of fresh indignation by a couple of post-game incidents.  First, a few Kentucky players forgot to shake hands with their opponents after their semi-final loss.   But then, and far more thrillingly, Kentucky’s sophomore guard Andrew Harrison unwittingly muttered “Fuck that n***a” under his breath into a hot mic when his teammate was asked a question about Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, the national college player of the year.   A couple of days later,  the current incarnation of nostalgic amateur sports fantasy, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, was interviewed after his team lost to Duke for the title.  Ryan complained that officiating was unfair to Wisconsin and later referred indirectly to Duke and Kentucky as “rent-a-player” schools.  When I heard Bo last night, I wondered rhetorically what fans who’d lambasted  Harrison would say about Bo.  One of my followers quickly complained “totally different.  how can you compare?” I actually agree, though not for the reasons he might have imagined and since I compare for a living, I’ll bite. Read more

On Wisconsin

I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and graduated from the University there in 1987 and so many of my friends on Facebook have strong ties to the place and the school.  Understandably, then, my feed over the past week has been dominated by pro-Badger statuses, images, and story links, which culminated last night in a euphoric, celebratory extravaganza.  I was, in this particular group, the odd one out in rooting for a Kentucky victory, even though I have no ties whatsoever to that state or school; even though in most cases I’d probably find reasons to root against Kentucky.  When I expressed this, in a kind of lazy way, some of my friends took issue with my position. So I’m feeling the need to clarify it, maybe most of all to myself. First thing, my fandom is irrational. Read more

‘‘Ball Don’t Lie!’’ Rasheed Wallace and the Politics of Protest in the NBA

I’ve recently completed my book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, and am now revising it, so stay tuned for updates on the publication timetable.  But in the meantime, I’ve also published a few related essays in academic journals. Though the style of writing of these is a bit more formal than what you’ll find in the book, the substance of the arguments is very similar.  What I’m sharing today combines elements of the Introduction and Chapter 7 (“The Myth of Blackness, March 12, 1997”) of my book.  Just click on the image below.

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Race and Protest: A Confession from Global Sports Cultures

I hadn’t intended to write about this, but recent events have made feel compelled to do so.  First, the public displays of solidarity by athletes—from the St. Louis Rams on November 30 to Knox College women’s basketball player Ariyana Smith and from Derrick Rose to Reggie Bush and others—in support of nationwide protests against racism and police violence have brought these issues closer to the scholarly field where I do most of my work.  Second, and in view of this, I felt it important to raise these issues and discuss them in my Global Sports Cultures course at Michigan this past week.  Our course topic this week was “Watching,” as part of a semester-ending unit on “Ethics,” and so it seemed entirely appropriate to me, even urgently necessary, to tie this topic to current events.  I’m no expert in these matters, and there certainly is no lack of superbly informed and eloquent writing on the topic.  Perhaps more than anything I need to get this off my chest.  And perhaps, if I do so reasonably well, it may be of use to others. Read more

"Getting Free" and "Playing the Right Way"

Over the past year, as I’ve been working on Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketballmy book manuscript, I’ve also written a couple of essays that have been published in academic journals.  Unfortunately, many of those I’d like to reach with my writing do not have access to the institutional portals that house these very expensive journals.  So I’m making them available here for those who might interested.  I hope readers find them stimulating, enjoyable and edifying, and, as always, I welcome feedback. Read more

Values of College Sport Symposium

As some of you know, with my colleagues Silke Weineck and Stefan Szymanski I’ve organized a two-day symposium devoted to a discussion of the question: what that we value do we gain and lose by virtue of the current model of incorporating athletics into the university?

The event, free and open to the public, will be held on Friday November 14th and Saturday the 15th in Room 100 of the Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan campus.  It kicks off with a dual keynote address featuring Amy Perko, the Executive Director of the Knight Commission and Taylor Branch, author of The Cartel at 4 pm and 5 pm Friday, respectively.  There will be a q and a and discussion following Mr. Branch’s remarks.

Then, beginning Saturday at 10:30 a series of panels will zero in on the guiding question from the perspectives of Economics, Well-Being, Education and Ethics.  Each panel will consist of three speakers and will include time for discussion.

So, at 10:30: Rod Fort, Lawrence Kahn and Stephen F. Ross will comprise the Economics panel.  Following this at noon will be the Well-Being panel featuring Rebecca Hasson, Jane Ruseski and Billy Hawkins.  After a lunch break, the Education panel will begin at 2:15 with me, Jimmy King and Rob Sellers.  And the final panel of the symposium, Ethics, will include Jack Hamilton, Bruce Berglund and William Morgan.

I hope those of you near Ann Arbor will be able to make it for all or some of the event and that all of you will spread the word.

Here’s the full program with the titles of the talks.

My Interview on Race and Sports

A couple of days ago I was interviewed for a short article examining the role of race in the media portrayal and public perception of the most recent incidents of domestic violence by NFL players.  That led Marc Daniels, who hosts a radio show in Orlando, “The Beat of Sports,” to contact me for an interview addressing these issues on his show this morning.  I’m posting it here for those couldn’t hear it live.

Thanks to Autumn Arnett who wrote the original article, to Professor Lou Moore of Grand Valley State whose intelligent comments in that article made me look better, and to Dave Zirin who publicized the piece.  And thanks of course to Marc, who made the interview painless and even interesting and fun.

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