Day 11: Dunk You Very Much

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

This must be a very precious memory. I’ve even written about it before, in passing, in the first substantial post on this blog, before I even knew there would be a Cultures of Basketball course. I am small, 6 or 7, maybe 8. And for today, I decide, I will be Walt Frazier in my driveway. I will dribble around aimlessly at first, warming up my imagination. And then: Time is running out (time was always running out). The Knicks are down by one (my team was always down by one). Frazier steals the ball from West and glides – yes, glides — down the court (somehow fast and slow at the same time) but the Lakers are already back so he passes to Bradley on the wing. Bradley fakes a jumper and dribbles two steps toward the baseline, then facing a helping defender he flips it back to Clyde at the elbow, who rises, rises gracefully, cocking the ball back and releasing it like a gentle spring at the top of his jump. My imagination loses sight of everything except the ball, its rotation and the perfect geometry of its arc to the basket. It’s good! It’s good! Frazier wins the game! Then I have an idea. This could be better. I get out my tempra paints and transform an old t shirt into a Clyde Frazier Knicks jersey. I look in the mirror. Better. But it could be better still. I get the paintbrush and carefully paint myself a moustache and sideburns, or maybe it was a full beard. I don’t remember. Now I am Clyde.

I loved the Milwaukee Bucks as a kid. They were born as a franchise the same year my family moved to Madison, in time for the 1968-69 season. The Celtics won their last title that year, Russell retired (I still have the issue of SI in which he announced it), and the field was open. The Bucks sucked that first year and I don’t really remember anything about them, But then they got Lew Alcindor from UCLA. And through the 1973-74 season they would amass the best regular season won loss record of any NBA team, win the title in 1971, lose in the Western Conference Finals to eventual champion Lakers in ‘72, lost in the WC semis to Golden State in ‘73, and lose in the finals to Boston in 74. I watched them in person when they’d play games in Madison (rarely), watched them on TV (a little less rarely), and listened to them on the radio (all the time). The other perennial contenders of that time were the Lakers (champs in 72), Bullets and, of course, the Knicks, who won the 1970 and 1973 titles. These were my formative basketball years, the experiences and memories of teams, games, and players (Robertson and Jabbar, Wilt and West, Hayes and Unseld, and then, Reed, Monroe, Barnett, Bradley, DeBusschere, and, of course, Frazier) that to this day outsize all others in my mind; that make me bristle irrationally at any suggestion that any other NBA era was better, and that make it hard to even understand what teaching the period should look like, let alone to formulate a coherent lesson plan.

So I approached Tuesdays class, for which we had read the FreeDarko chapter called “The Get Along Gang: Why Everybody loves the New York Knicks”, with a mixture of intense childlike excitement, middle-aged nostalgia, and pedagogical cluelessness and panic. I have always loved reading, and there are certain writers that I have loved especially. But they are not confusingly intertwined with the core of my being like 1970s hoops. I feel that I’ve mostly managed to integrate my passion into my teaching without becoming wholly incoherent. So much for that.

Even now, as I’m writing, I’m having a hard time weaving a story or a focused argument out of the tangled skein of memories and feelings that the period evokes for me. All the more so, since as I told the students at the outset of class, that decade of NBA history is often dismissed as a kind of low-ebb middle-ages sandwiched between the Celtics dynasty and legendary era of the 1960s and the resurgent media friendly era of Magic Bird and Jordan. The 70s offered no single dominant franchise. But that’s not all, the ABA helped drive salaries up and the league became mostly black for the first time in its history. Meanwhile, widely reported drug use among the players gave a mostly white audience an excuse to cluck in moralizing disdain and to turn the channel rather than watch rich young black men ball. All of this, of course, in the context of Vietnam, Watergate, and the Energy Crisis. Oh, and disco. So what do you when your fondest and most powerful memories of the game are of what most – not all – NBA chroniclers would prefer to forget, if not write-off as an embarrassing exhibition of what is not-Amazing? What do you do when the story of your formative years is of dissolution and wasted promise?

1.Evasive action II: Nickname poll (What is your favorite all time hoops nickname?). Results: Iceman and Mailman tied with two votes each (Skip-to-my-Lou also got two votes but I invalidated them in unaccountable contradiction of the political philosophy I advocated on Day 10). My own choice: Black Jesus.

2.Time killer: Three video clips: one of Earl Monroe (see 1 above), one on the 1970 Knicks title team and one on the 1973 Knicks title team.

3.Passing the Buck open-ended question for the class: What made the biggest impression on you as you read the chapter on the Knicks or as you watched the video clips?

Hmmm. Lots of silences in today’s class. I clearly came neither ready to play nor ready to really expose myself and try to make my inability to be coherent into a teaching opportunity. Which doesn’t mean that they didn’t try to step-up and fill the void. I’d say they did. You know, sometimes it’s the students who have somehow to find a way on the spur of the moment to pull together and make a particular class work, a job that I could at least have made easier by confessing that I needed them to do it. But even without that they came up with several interesting observations. Among them, the one that most stuck in my mind is that the Knicks rarely dunked in any of the clips we watched. Why, a student wondered?

I don’t mean to be coy or over-complicating in what follows. I know that the prevalence of the dunk today really had its origins historically in the 1976 ABA inaugural dunk context, in the merger that brought acrobatic dunkers like Julius Erving and David Thompson into the NBA fold and of course especially to the confluence of Michael Jordan and ESPN, with its nightly parade of dunk highlights in the 1980s, not to mention the overall superior athleticism of NBA players today. So that it might seem that the responsible thing would have been to politely explain that the question was anachronistic, like asking why the pioneers on the Oregon Trail didn’t just take a plane. But not quite, because it’s not as though nobody dunked in the NBA back then (and, indeed, the NCAA had not long before banned dunking, imagining the threat that anticipated Lew Alcindor dunks posed to the game), and the Knicks defense certainly generated plenty of breakaway opportunities for crowd rousing jams. So it was a valid question.

And, anyway, when you are teaching or thinking about things, sometimes, I have found, it can turn out to be useful to recall and then set aside the obvious path and just pursue the question along whatever paths it takes you. You might not get to a better answer to the original question (we didn’t) but you might discover some interesting other thoughts along these not obviously promising side roads. Plus, like I say, I didn’t really have the presence of mind to come up with something on my own so I wasn’t about to piss away a student contribution. What emerged from the discussion were three points that weren’t necessarily, and perhaps shouldn’t be, related, but part of the fun of this writing is making dubious connections and offering speculative interpretations that are only tenuously tethered to the facts.

The first two possibilities were offered by students: 1) the Knicks didn’t dunk because it was at odds with the unselfish style of play to which they all obviously subscribed. The dunk might have felt like an attempt to drawn attention to oneself as an individual player. And 2) the Knicks didn’t dunk because they preferred the understated cool and fluidity of the lay up over the staccato violence of the throwdown. So, I observed, we have a moral interpretation and an aesthetic interpretation of the no-dunk Knicks. Before going on I just want to pause to point out how pleased I was with my students for thinking “beyond a boundary” and recognizing how much more there can be to understand in what appears to be a simple technical choice between two equally effective options on the court: do I lay it in or do I throw it down?

The third idea wasn’t so much an explanation of why they didn’t dunk as an account of the hidden racial politics dogging the dunk, which I offered off the cuff in response to a student question about the legal history of the shot. The dunk was never illegal in NBA competition, but was banned by the NCAA, as I mentioned above, beginning with the 1967-68 season until 1976, But the point I also made about the dunk in that context is that the first dominant dunker, Wilt Chamberlain, as has been amply noted elsewhere, terrified basketball purists who feared he would destroy the game (see John McPhee’s elegant paean to Bill Bradley, which is structured in part around the sophistication of Bradley’s style drawing McPhee back to the game in the mid 1960s after its pleasures had been spoiled for him by dunking giants). It’s difficult, and probably unwise to separate the fears of Chamberlain in that era (and of Alicindor in the next) from white fears of a black uprising in the game, which in turn are difficult to separate from white fears of a black uprising in society. In short perhaps overly simplistic but still illuminating terms, the dunk was unconsciously (though also no doubt in some quarters consciously and explicitly) racialized as a brutish black play at odds with the more sophisticated white traditions of the game.

So, for now, just keep these speculative notions in the back of your mind: the Knicks preference for the lay in over the dunk could be read as having moral, aesthetic, and political layers of meaning. Meanwhile, our reading for the day, as I say, was Bethelehem Shoals’ investigation into “why everybody loves the New York Knicks.” His argument, already succinctly expressed in the title of the chapter: “the get along gang”, is two fold. In the first instance, the Knicks embodied a style of play (aggressive team defense and unselfish offense with quick passing and lots of movement away from the ball) that “was a direct descendant of the ball that had been played in New York colleges during the first half of the century. It harked back to the city’s past and resonated with generations of fans from the New York diaspora (and not just Jews).” Second, the Knicks employed the style successfully with a roster of players who represented exactly the particular racial, ethnic, geographical, and socio-economic groups that were most definitely not getting along in American society at the time, In Shoals’ words: “everyone loves the one about the pimp [Frazier], the nerd [Bradley – also a Midwestern banker’s son], the black Southern Gentlemen [Willis Reed], the white workingman [Dave DeBusschere], the hippie [Phil Jackson], and the street urchin they picked up along the way [Earl Monroe]. The Knicks were America’s Team for a country trying to make sense of itself –and wondering what coexistence might look like.”

In addition, I think that Shoals, in his comparison of Red Auerbach (architect and coach of the 60s Celtics dynasty) and Red Holzman (laconic coach of the Knicks), is also suggesting that the Knicks offered a different kind of response to the essential hoops tension between the individual and the team. Where the Celtics became interchangeable parts in a durably and predictably (if also magically) effective winning machine, the Knicks players were all personalities, celebrities even, off the court who found a way to mesh perfectly on the court – despite, or perhaps because, of the considerably greater spotlight that the new era and their New York home shined on them.

I have zero objection to this view of what made (and makes to this day) the Knicks of that era so appealing. Indeed in class we talked about this (oddly arriving at it ourselves without reference to the book – a sign of my poor psychological preparation for the day) and it led to an interesting, if abbreviated, discussion of the kind of roles that teams can play for their cities and for the society at large. We talked about and cited the numerous examples of teams galvanizing and inspiring a city that is struggling (as with the Pistons and Detroit, both in the late -80s and in the more recent edition). But we also wondered together whether there was a flipside to the way teams can inspire and excite struggling cities (and societies). Whether there is a palliative effect at work whereby the success of a team and the feel-good atmosphere it can inspire can serve to dissipate anger at conditions and injustices that persist after all the ticker-tape has been swept up. In other words, we tried to think about the ways in which a team’s success can lead us either to stop thinking that our society has problems that need our attention and effort or to stop working for those problems because after all, unlike a title run, there really isn’t a clear cut sign of final triumph in the struggles against, say, poverty or racism.

I want to emphasize that I’m not proposing an either or here, nor am I trying to tell anyone (including my students) what they ought to think about this issue, or about any particular instance of these dynamics in general. I’m just trying to encourage critical, well-rounded thought on the question and, in class, anyway to try to introduce students to a long standing debate in the humanities over the role of art in society (a debate of which I take, for the present purposes, the sports and society question to be a kind of related offshoot). I like and wished I had pointed out to the students that its possible to feel and think both ways at the same time, as Shoals does when he writes, “if the Knicks offered hope for the country, they did so while acknowledging that things would never be the same again. For America, these teams were not an attempt to deny the trauma of the sixties but a reality that offered a way forward. They continue to resonate because, in the end, the Knicks are about the possibility of shared values even after the whole world seems to have broken wide open.”

I find that to be extremely stirring, well-thought-through stuff. It even helps me to understand why, even as they eclipsed my beloved the Bucks in agonizing fashion in the early 70s, I was dressing up as Clyde and loving the Knicks. Now that I think about it, I realize that as a kid I was looking pretty desperately for a get along gang in my own family, which suffered its share of tension and strife at the time. I’m not saying I thought this consciously of course. Consciously I just knew Clyde was fucking cool and I was going to be him when I grew up (which as it turns out is exactly what happened as you can tell from my account of the first day of class), I’m just saying that unconsciously I had picked up on the get along discourse of the Knicks and had internalized it as a kind of fantasy I wanted to live in, even if I was too young to really realize that my whole country – and not just my family — might have been in need of that too.

So I’m down with all of this. But I’m still left wondering how to solve the case of the missing dunks, and I’m still not content to go with the easy and true historical answer (that the dunk was just not yet a big part of anybody’s game in the NBA at that time). I want to try to put this all together. It’s actually pretty easy with the moral and aesthetic qualities we in class attributed to the non-dunk. That is: if the Knicks’ non-dunk is an affirmation of unselfish humility and of understated fluidity then it’s not hard to see how that supports the kinds of values the Knicks would be supplying their city and the nation as a whole.

I’ll admit all of this may just be the sign of an oft remarked upon general shift in basketball culture. I’d never noticed the lack of dunks on the Knicks. But it was one of the first things my students – and a “Jordan baby” from the Chicago area no less — noted. And believe me, I was and am as seduced as anyone by those Knicks teams. Above all, they created open look after open look whether on a fast break off a steal or in their unstructured intelligent and cool offensive flow – everything looks so easy. Who needs a dunk? Who even misses them when you are watching that?

But when I think about the racial politics of the dunk I’m left a bit confused and uncomfortable. Let me explain. The City Game, published by journalist Pete Axthelm in 1970s, is a moving, elegantly written account of the 1970 Knicks championship season that shows why the Knicks were so popular in New York by telling their story alongside those of countless city playground stars who played the very same kind of ball the Knicks played. But as Axthelm acknowledges, as galvanizing as those Knicks were, they did not cure the ills of the city or of society, and many of those same enthusiastic playground ballers wound up strung out on drugs, trapped in poverty, imprisoned or dead. What feelings does that give rise to? And what is the appropriate expression of those feelings? Where I want to ask, in the Knicks playbook, is the basketball play that expresses the sadness and rage occasioned by that social violence, that colossal waste of human creativity and talent?

It is as though, in light of all this, in addition to everything else I have also felt and thought about the Knicks, that I feel and think about the Knicks, I am also provoked – in spite of myself — to view them as a kind of populist compromise. I mean, the sort of populist compromise that appears to offer room for everyone and everything at the social banquet table, but that has actually done so at the expense of leaving some standing outside the door. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s inevitable. Yet it doesn’t feel okay to me now, even as I still feel lured by the stirring style of play and success of those Knicks teams, even without the dunks.

If the dunk has historically been seen as the flamboyant, sometimes violent expression of individual power (if not anger, or gleeful anger), not to mention racialized as such, then I can’t help but think that there was no room for those things in the new reality the Knicks promised us. All of which would be just fine if it were also the case that the conditions that give rise to the feelings that get expressed in a dunk had disappeared from society. But if they didn’t (and we know they didn’t and maybe that is the not so secret story of the lost decade in which I was formed, basketballically and otherwise), then what do we do with our desire – what do I do with my desire and I mean this as a real, not rhetorical question — to forego the extra pass, eschew the easy lay up, and throw down a “Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam”?

Maybe I’m overstating things. I usually do. Maybe all I’m saying is the the missing jams now look to me in retrospect like an index of where we fell short in putting it all together. Where we are still falling short.

go back to read about our discussion of coaching and the surprising deep needs it satisfies in us

 Check out Go Yago! to my review of Clyde Frazier’s Guide to Basketball and Cool


Go on to read how the missing dunks wound up in the ABA

Day 12: What It Is

I didn’t plan it this way when I designed the syllabus, but it seems especially appropriate to be teaching, thinking, and writing about the old ABA during the media-amped spawn of pure skill and utter silliness that is NBA All-Star Weekend. We wrestled no bears, but it was as though the giddy 70s hallucination that the ABA can appear to have been infected my students (and me) so that we had a wacky day worthy of the most surreal of that defunct’s league’s half-time shows.

I undoubtedly set the tone for this, in part, by beginning class with my personal anecdote about watching the Michigan game the night before at Applebee’s next to a couple of puffy, red-faced, slick-haired vulgarians who were ragging endlessly on each and every one of the players that I have in class. I was surprised to find myself offended. The students (players more than anyone) insisted on hearing the criticisms in all their blockheaded, paunchy glory. And with that I seem to have informalized the classroom beyond the point of no return.

From there, after a brief and meaningless introduction, I rolled a 3-minute clip of Julius Erving tearing up the ABA. As Dr J exhibited his assortment of pull-up threes, twisting finger rolls, and, of course, elegant swooping slams to a funky instrumental backbeat, the students got rowdy and loud.

Beating on their little desks, they screamed for more clips: “Where’s the drifting-out-from-behind-the backboard scoop?!!” “That was the NBA,” I tell them, oldly, “against the Lakers.” “We wanna see that!” “Julius in the NBA!” Inside I’m resisting – this isn’t about Julius per se, but about the ABA – but I’m weak. I don’t want to lose them, I don’t want to police them, and most of all, as I’ve said before, I could watch these clips all day. I want to see the Doctor too. “You really wanna see that?” I ask, suggestively, blithely unaware of the doom about to descend. “Yayyyyyyy!!” they shouted, birthday hats akimbo, noisemakers blaring, faces smeared with cake. “Okay!” I say brightly.

With my computer’s desktop projected enormously on the screen in the front of the room, I quickly Google “Dr J in the NBA”, self-conscious about how slow I am in this medium compared to these kids who were all born and raised in the Matrix (even slower than usual since I can’t type normally because of the splint immobilizing my right hand). But I manage to get to a long list of video links. Now I can’t decide. We see one called “NBA Julius Erving Mix”, with a subtitle in Spanish: “dunk de Julius Erving.” That looks like fun. I click and then watch with horror as the first static image appears on my screen (and therefore, I know, 1 billion times larger on the screen over my left shoulder, and probably on a monitor in the Dean’s office): a woman wearing a cut off tank-top with the words “Got dick?” emblazoned across the front. Yeah. Of all the stupid things I’ve done, of all the humiliations I’ve suffered in the classroom since I taught my first class as a graduate student at Duke University in 1988, nothing like this has ever happened. Now we are indeed in a time machine hurtling toward the ABA.

The students are like teenagers – well, most of them are teenagers – at their first keg party. Howling, laughing, shouting clever comments to the person sitting two inches away from them, hysterical with embarrassment and excitement at having blasted through a taboo. Jumping over a car seems like nothing when you’ve just seen that in your college class. My crippled fingers stab at the keyboard trying to make it go away, my clumsiness magnified exponentially as I try to restore a semblance of calm to what has become a roomful of very large, coked-up 6th graders. I find a new clip and, as always, the graceful moving images of baller excellence gradually bring them back to their senses, or, at least, make them quiet down a bit. But, as the last image fades, along with the last bellowed note of Whitney’s “Greatest Love of All,” I sense the loopy energy bubble back up to a boil.

I try to channel it: “what do you see in the clips of Erving? “ Some of the answers: “grace, dunks, the range on his finger-roll, his athleticism.” Great, I tell them. And then I remind them that much of what we saw in the Dr J clips was occurring at the same time as what we had seen two days before in clips of the Knicks. But it looks like a different game, like a different era, like our era. And, in fact, it’s true, they see it too, today’s NBA game – driving athletic layups, rim rattling dunks, three-pointers – owes much more to Erving and the ABA than it does to Red Holzman and the Knicks. Unfortunately, scintillating and promising though that postulation may be, they’ve lost interest and begin to bombard me with irrelevant questions about Dr J’s career. That happens a lot: class disintegrating into a streetball version of Jeopardy.

I countered by putting a concrete focal object in front of them. “Take out your books,” I droned, “and open to this picture, on p. 86.” At least they are obedient, even if glumly so. We look at Jacob Weinstein’s trippy ABA artwork, a two-page visual explosion, in magenta, yellow, and the palest of pale blues, of elevating players, towering stylized afros, skyrocketing shapes and stripes, squiggles and loops, and bears and dancing girls. It’s really a brilliant piece of work, like mainlining Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls (the canonical documentary account of ABA zaniness). “Let’s look at this,” I say, “like a work of art, what jumps out at you?”

First answer: “the 70s.” I press for a little elaboration. They do pretty well, pointing to the color palette and the explosive lines and forms just barely ordered. They smartly contrast this with the art work we’ve already examined in the class: the neat lines and subdued colors of the Celtics trophy machine, the slightly more individualized and fantastic but still by no means chaotic image of the Knicks plying their trade against a skyline of newspaper headlines and box scores. What do the 70s mean to you? I ask.

One kid’s answer: “I don’t exist.” By which, it turns out, he meant neither to roll out a slip-n-slide of Cartesian doubt, nor to transport us into a paradoxical first-person consciousness prior to his conception, but rather just to state the obvious: it’s before his time and so doesn’t mean much. It’s the flipside of the Trivial Pursuit version of historical interest: none. I choke back the rising gorge of self-righteous indignation so as to glide past that worrisome – and all too common — ignorance and lack of curiosity about any frame of reference outside the first person singular in the present tense. Fortunately, someone else says, “It’s the 70s, it just looks like, like, anything could happen. You tell me something crazy happened in the 70s and I’d believe it, because anything could happen in the 70s.” A couple of students echo that, as though the first one hadn’t even spoken, like academics in a committee meeting.

Bingo. I can work with that. “The 70s,” I say, “I’m hearing means possibility to you, an expanded field of possibilities.” I hear a sound. Everybody laughs. I look confused. I hear the sound again. Not sure if it is a fart or a snore. Everyone laughs again. “Please,” I think I begged, “can y’all stay with me here.” A hand goes up: “Who is the guy holding the McDonald’s bag in the fur coat?” I look more closely at the illustration. I can’t remember and I’m so irritated by their unrepressed fascination with the marginal detail. Then I come up with it: Marvin Barnes. I tell them the story about Barnes refusing to board a St Louis bound plane in Louisville because it would arrive “before” it departed: “I’m not getting on no time machine,” said the player some felt could’ve been the greatest ever. No hand, but a voice calls out, “Who is the guy with the gun in the Condors uniform?” I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t fucking know. Their fucking attention spans are like the 2005-6 Phoenix offense: 7 seconds or less. I say none of this. Instead I laugh: “you can look it up if you want, y’all are so much faster on your devices than I am.” (it was John Brisker, for the record).

I try again: “Possibility,” I say richly, trying to make the word sound like an open door rather than a lead balloon. I really want to bring home the point that this marginalized insanity of the ABA, the league that apparently folded, had actually migrated into the NBA and taken over, viz. All-Star Weekend. But I also want them to get not only that historical point about the game, but to glimpse that there’s a way of thinking about possibility and growth, about marginality and centrality here. I fantasize about them going out in the world and scrambling social hierarchies because of Culture of Basketball class.

“Wendell Berry,” I tell them, “is an American poet and essayist, who is also a farmer in Kentucky.” (Snickers). “He’s interested in questions of land use, farming, productivity, and ecology,” I say. Back in the late 70s, just after the ABA folded, he took a trip to Peru to study the farming practices of Andean peasants there. I remember almost nothing of this essay except the following (which I may in fact be misremembering): Berry was struck by the fact that the Peruvian farmers would leave a wild margin all around their cultivated plots. Accustomed to the US practice of tilling and planting every possible square inch of arable land, Berry was puzzled. The farmers explained that the margin was sort of like a research laboratory. If some sort of pest, for example, destroyed their crop one year, they could look to the margins and see what had survived and in that way begin to develop hybrids that would resist that blight the next time.

Now it all started coming together for me. I began to see the students’ wildness today as an expression of, a way of responding to, by reflecting, the wildness of the ABA. “What the hell was the ABA?” asks the subtitle of Bethlehem Shoals’s chapter (entitled Notes from the Underground) on the league in FreeDarko’s history of the pro game. Indeed, what the hell was that? The question we ask after something absurd occurs. Or, even more pertinently, after we come to our senses having participated in something absurd and inexplicable, or maybe even embarrassing. The question we ask having seen a UFO shoot across the evening sky, a quick trailing flash in our peripheral vision. It’s the question that might be asked of anything that grows in the unpoliced, uncultivated, untended margins of our attention. What the hell was that?

Indeed, that’s why I’ve allowed myself (why I always allow myself), against my judgment, to ramble about the seemingly unproductive, distracted and distracting occurrences and comments in class. The students seemed to me to be pestering for the identities of players on the margins of the picture, but they were really asking what the hell was that on the periphery of their egocentric, adolescent vision? What was that in a cowboy hat and six shooter? In a fur coat clutching a McDonald’s bag? Is Will Ferrell true? What was that world before I was born? (Indeed, the viral metaphor helps me understand how I kept getting carried away on the tide of their appetite for the decontextualized marginal detail; they were bitten by the ABA and I was bitten by them). What the hell was that?

And the answer, just like when someone hauls out the baby pictures (or better yet, the ultrasound images), is: it’s you, silly! Your game, your day and age. Saturday night Claire and I watched – riveted, bored, and embarrassed all at once — a high-heeled, dolled up Heather Cox (I know its obvious, but really, why is a woman wearing heels to a basketball game?) escort Clippers guard Eric Gordon to a green screen, where he bashfully donned a Spartan helmet, grabbed a fake sword, and stood awkwardly before Jon Barry, ESPN commentator, who himself was also holding a sword and wearing a gladiator mask. They proceeded to mumble a few lines from the movie “Gladiator” and half-heartedly to knock their swords together like two embarrassed six year olds who are friends only because their parents are. “Thanks for the giggles, Eric” said Heather. He wandered off probably wondering “What the hell was that?” That was just before Justin Bieber nailed a three pointer in the celebrity game; which was just before he claimed his MVP trophy shouting props to “my boy Magic Johnson.” Did Justin Bieber really say “my boy Magic Johnson”? Did Magic really not only let him, but slap palms with him as he did? What the hell was that? The ABA –oops, the NBA – Its FANtastic! Have we really come so far from wrestling bears and playboy bunnies?

It’s true, the ABA may primarily be a mine of retro cache for a few urban hipsters, or a nostalgia trip for some middle-aged ballers like myself, but in some very real ways the ABA didn’t fold at all, it just implanted itself parasitically into the NBA and mutated (Shoals himself offers the viral metaphor in passing, and refers to the league as a “workshop or laboratory”). Add it’s not just the shamelessly, insatiable appetite for attention in the global media marketplace or the brazen techniques for securing it that the farmers of the NBA found and hybridized in the margins that were the ABA. It’s also, as I pointed out to the students, the game itself, the product on the floor.

If LeBron idolized Michael Jordan, well, it’s well-known that Michael idolized North Carolina State, then ABA, high-flyer David Thompson. Thompson may have burned out, but Dr. J didn’t, becoming instead a dominant gene in the host body of his new league. Where clips of the 70s Knicks offer an endless series of sober layups and mid-range jumpers (their regularity only emphasized by the oddity of an Earl Monroe scoop shot), the typical NBA game today presents itself as a series of 3 pointers, twisting layups in traffic, and mighty jams: in short, as a Dr J ABA highlight reel. And never is that more evident than during All-Star weekend, when the game turns itself inside out: parading as spectacular exhibition what in fact it is all the time.

There is a beautiful coda I would like to add, though it didn’t occur to me in class, lest I sound too disdainful. I’m only a little disdainful. After all, I’m of original ABA vintage and my authentic ABA game ball (autographed by the 1975 Spurs) sits proudly on our mantle. It’s in my DNA. But if I nonetheless seem less than caught up in the spectacle let me offer this by way of gratitude to the progenitors of Amazing.

The students, in responding to the artwork, mentioned the word “psychedelic.” In the feverish haze of my own ABA acid trip, I neglected to tell them that etymologically, “psychedelic” means “soul manifesting.” But it strikes me now that the phrase is a perfect response to the question: what the hell was the ABA? It was soul, manifesting. And while it may well have been an economically futile, exploitative, drug driven ride for a few martini-soaked businessmen, it also implanted some much needed soul (and style) into the genetic material of the mother ship that would first absorb and then be possessed by it.

go backward to read the previous day’s explanation for why the early 70s Knicks didn’t dunk and why it matters


Go on to read Day 13 and another version of soul

Day 10: Put Me in Coach

Thursday was the second of three “college” days on my syllabus. The first, a few weeks ago, we devoted to a discussion of the idea of amateurism. The third, a few weeks from now, will look at Michigan’s own Fab Five. For this day, though, which falls during our unit on the long decade of the 1960s in pro basketball, I wanted to spotlight what I think are two of most important phenomena of the 1960s in the college game: the UCLA dynasty under Coach John Wooden (10 NCAA titles in 12 years between 1964 and 1975) and the Texas Western title in 1966 (in which Coach Don Haskins elected to start five African Americans, and to play only his seven African American players in a win over heavily favored all-white Kentucky, coached by the white supremacist coaching legend Adolph Rupp). Though there are certainly a number of different valid avenues of inquiry to and from these two phenomena, I had decided ahead of time that I would use them as a way to talk about coaching. More particularly, I hoped to raise the provocative question of what, if anything, a coach is good for that couldn’t be gotten in other ways. And, this, in turn, I wanted to discuss in part as a screen to discuss questions of authority, ways of organizing, and the role of hierarchy in sports and beyond. We certainly got there, but as usual our path was pretty circuitous, in part because while I wanted to get to these points, I also wanted to see what other things might come up (also because I’d been hoping that Michigan Men’s Coach John Beilein would come to visit but that didn’t pan out, though I didn’t know for sure until class started and he wasn’t there).

We actually began with an open ended discussion of the chapter of Wooden’s autobiography They Call Me Coach in which he describes the Pyramid of Success. To get things started, I just wanted to know how they viewed the Pyramid and Wooden’s discussion of it. There was no clear consensus, but the overriding impression I drew from the varied comments included three sentiments: 1) it’s not much different from any number of other formalized steps-to-success documents they have apparently been exposed to already in their lives 2) as such, it may be more useful as a kind of touchstone upon which one might meditate when things aren’t going well than an actual plan one might consciously follow, and 3) it’s hard to know how much of Wooden’s success as a coach is due to this philosophy and how much due to the fact that, to paraphrase one student, he was never coaching bums. I didn’t really have any problems with what they said or with the quality of thought they exhibited in putting forth these arguments. Indeed, I thought to myself, I doubt Coach Wooden would have an objection to any of this.

Now I want to say here what I didn’t say in class. Wooden was one of my boyhood heroes. I remember watching lots of UCLA ball on TV, including the loss to Notre Dame that ended the 88 game win streak. Though gear was nowhere near the hoopshead staple that it is now, I had my share of Bruin gear including a small stuffed basketball brought by a visiting colleague of my fathers. I read the Wizard of Westwood and knew all the UCLA players past and present, and the scores of all their tournament games. Later, my father recently reminded me, I had entertained, in fact tried to push for, the idea of going to UCLA upon my 1983 graduation from high school in order to walk on. Sure, they were down at the time, but, still, that shows an impressive combination of delusion and determination. But my prized possession was a copy of the very Pyramid of Success we were about to discuss in class, but mine was autographed by Coach himself and personalized: “To Iago [sic], Best Wishes, John Wooden.”

The handwriting was neat as a nun’s.

If my serious boyhood crush on Coach Wooden is of any interest here, it might be mainly because I’m over it. Don’t get me wrong: I still feel awe at his accomplishments as a coach and I feel tremendous respect for what appears to be the very high degree of integrity with which he lived his life.  By almost all accounts he was a good man.  I felt sad when he died last year and I’m sure I would have lost it had I ever had the chance to meet him. But all that notwithstanding, it’s true that I’m over my wide-eyed slavish devotion to Coach and to the style and substance which he taught and embodied, and which he formalized in the Pyramid of Success. Now I hadn’t thought too much about this change. It was more like something that just happened naturally without my thinking about it, But two bits of language that I encountered recently in connection with this course served to remind me of what I had worshipped and of what I had gone beyond.

The first bit of language I encountered before the course even began, on my first read through of FreeDarko’s Undisputed History of Pro Basketball. It’s in the Chapter on Walton and Kareem, both of whom, as Bethlehem Shoals puts it in the chapter, “had played for Westwood’s bromide-spewing legend John Wooden.” That was it. Just that adjective: “bromide-spewing.” It took me aback. Briefly I felt hurt and defensive. But that didn’t surprise me as much as the speed with which those feelings turned into laughter and a nod. Say what you want about Coach, but he certainly did spew bromides. It’s not a big deal, not even a bad thing in and of itself. It just is what it is. He was a bromide spewer and I felt something like a burden lifted upon seeing that particular quality called precisely and unfussily by its name.

The second encounter occurred some weeks later, just a couple of weeks ago, in connection with the Basketball Culture 101 series organized by Beckley Mason over at Hoopspeak.  Two weeks ago Tim Varner of 48 Minutes of Hell, a San Antono Spurs blog, was assigned Wooden’s They Call me Coach for his turn. Varner titled his own insightful reading of the autobiography “John Wooden and the Culture of Ought.” There was another stab (and it has nothing to with Tim’s essay, just the title ripped from its context), but this didn’t involve injury or defense. It was instead a stab of recognition: a) Tim was right to associate Wooden with a culture of ought b) I used to love that about Coach c) now I don’t.

Put these two fragments of language together and I wound up with an oddly apt little portrait of Coach: his message was ought and his medium was the bromide, I want to take pains here to emphasize, again, that it’s not that I think there’s something wrong with that in and of itself as it was taught and lived by John Wooden. This isn’t exactly about him. It’s about me (of course) and about coaches and authority, and maybe about growing up and leaving childish things behind,

It’s hard for me to disentangle the various forces, around and within me, that would account for my changing feelings and views. And I’ve thought and talked about these things a great deal. How much harder than for my students, in a different time of life, to make manifest, let alone disentangle, the buried nest of needs and fears, hopes and desires that shape their attitudes not toward Wooden per se, but toward what Wooden can be said to be the embodiment of: the coach as horizon of truth and authority? That’s what I really wanted to discuss.

What good are coaches? I asked them. What do we really need them for? Try, I urged, to imagine basketball without coaches and see when you get to a point where your need for a coach arises. In relation to what problem, what need, what fear do you find yourself bringing in a Coach as the only – or even the best – solution? Try to figure out what you are creating the coach for and whether or not that function could be better served by some other delivery device.

For the most part – and with lots of due qualification that it all depends on the level — the students tilted their responses toward the indispensability of the coach. Some felt the coach’s technical expertise was indispensable. Others felt that he or she needed to manage the personalities and desires of individual players. Others saw the coach as offering an indispensable vision and rallying point: inspiration. Though the view was not universally shared there was a strong sense that the coach was there to keep chaos at bay.

I, accordingly, tried shamelessly to push them toward the chaos. I’m pretty sure that even when I’m wrong, I can make better arguments than they can or, failing that, that I can make them feel uncertain about their own arguments. I’m trying to beat them down, just enough; to irritate them into coming back with something stronger, In the case of this topic, there was a strange feedback loop at work, one that probably tangled me up.

Here’s what I think – besides the glacially slow resolution of my own Oedipal issues — was at stake for me. The remarkable, heretical philosopher Baruch Spinoza asked in his 17th century political philosophy why people desired their own enslavement as if it were their freedom. I ask that too, of myself and others, Why do we look to others to exercise capacities that we ourselves have? Why are we so quick to transfer our own powers? Spinoza showed us, among many many other things, how this was a recipe for sadness, as we moan and flail and wonder why we feel so powerless when in fact we have separated ourselves from our own powers. In fact, to simplify only slightly, that was Spinoza’s definition of sadness (joy, conversely, he said is the name we give to what we feel when we are connected to our power to act). In code, this is what I am asking my students: why are you so sure you don’t have the power to do what you are saying only the coach can do?

When Tim argued that Wooden was a teacher and that what he taught was the culture of ought, I think he was trying to emphasize three things: the first is that Wooden saw no separation between teaching basketball and teaching a life well-lived. The second is that Wooden believed a life lived ought to turn on self-respect, self-discipline and care for others. The third is that Wooden’s “ought” was neither “the must” of legislation nor the “shalt not” of negating prohibition. In other words, for Tim, Wooden was offering an affirmative life wisdom centered on love for oneself and love for others. I can certainly see that, but it’s not how it feels to me.

I hear that ought as a must. Some of this no doubt has to do with being the youngest by far in a family of strong personalities. I was certainly well-loved, but for many reasons I felt my position in the family as a kind of defenselessness, a kind of chaos, and I responded to that, in part, by turning “shoulds” (and “should nots”) and even “you might want to’s” (and “you might not want to’s”) into “musts.”  I wanted, in other words, not to think for myself. I wanted a clear formula for love and approval (which is what success meant to me at that young age). If I do this then I will be played with, not punished, not left alone, I will be congratulated, attended to; I will be loved. Among the problems with that is that once I’d reduced the world’s script to “you ought to”, I imultaneously reduced my own script to one of two options: “yes sir,” or “fuck you” (with maybe some numb silences thrown in at times when this whole machine got a little creaky). I think that working through that (or rather, that having only partially worked through that) has made me both productively aware and perhaps unproductively hypersensitive to the culture of ought.

But I also think it has made me sensitive and suspicious of bromides and formulas (even as I still crave them and fantasize that somewhere out there is the one magic formula for extra good feeling). Spinoza (who owns the distinction of having been ostracized not only by his native Jewish community, but also by the Christian community there, not to mention by Amsterdam’s economy) argued that at the heart of Judeo-Christian mythology lies a misinterpretation very similar to mine as a child. We read the story of Adam and the apple as if it was about prohibiton, disobedience, and punishment, as if Adam were a child and God the tough-love father. But what if we see it as a story about ethical advice in which someone with a different – even greater – understanding of cause and effect says to someone else if you eat the fruit of this tree the following things will happen because you are made of “x” properties and it is made of “y” properties. It’s the difference between prohibiting upon pain of punishment the touching of a hot stove and explaining through demonstration the effects of touching a hot stove.

My problem with the bromide or the formula (which is also what I love about them): is that in their very form they prohibit (or relieve us of) independent thought and experimentation. Short and pithy, elegant and succinct, they admit no debate, no questions even. And when the content or message borne by that form of discourse is “you ought to do this” then I am thrown into a kind of authoritarian echo chamber in which there is no space for me to think for myself, no space to try things out, no space to make mistakes and, crucially, no space perhaps to discover a new way that works better for me in the face of the chaotic messiness life sometimes presents.

Sometimes I am stupidly contrarian. Like on this day when I provoked them by asking if anybody else felt, like me, that it must have been a bummer for the white kids on the Texas Western team (I mean the ones who had been starting or playing regularly all year, who also had been working their whole lives to play in an NCAA title game, and for whom that game would be last game of their careers) when they were told by their Coach that they would be sitting on the bench and watching instead. Not too many takers for that feeling. And that’s fine. I’m glad my students could recognize that in that situation there were larger issues of collective well-being at stake and that these sometimes override our individual wishes and disappointments.

And I hope they understood that my position was not that Haskins made the wrong choice, or that the outcome was bad somehow.  The opposite is true. But the feeling I described stems from my sense that these things (collective well-being and individual satisfaction; outcome and decision-making process, ends and means) need not have been placed at odds with one another. Precisely such a momentous ethical stand as was taken by Coach Haskins and per force by extension his team, would have been even more thoroughly ethical and emancipatory had it been arrived it collectively, by the whole team, and not handed down from on high by the (white) coach as the only (and already arrived at) way through an urgently demanding ethical and political (not to mention basketball-ical) situation. I think it’s awesome that they did what they did. And awesome that all the players seem ultimately to have accepted the decision. I just think it would have been more awesome had Haskins said: here’s what I’ve been feeling and thinking, “what do y’all think about it?”  Let the discussion ensue.

Maybe my edging toward the position that there is something dangerously authortiarian in the traditional role of the coach as tough-loving parent-God sounds far fetched. Maybe it is.  I hope at least that if it does it is not because the game seems to have little to do with life.  After all, like life basketball involves harmonizing individual skills and aspirations with those of others in pursuit of excellence and joy.  And, like life, this delicate task happens often on the fly, under duress, in the midst of rapidly changing circumstances suffused by, among other things, random events.  In any event,  I hope I have shown that I acknowledge it to be a view I can’t separate from my own issues. But if I have, that hardly invalidates my argument since all arguments are insperable from someone’s own issues. Indeed, I think that doing so just supports my argument further. Because life is complicated, because the stakes are high, because we are all different and all have issues, we cannot afford not to assume the freedom and responsibility to be full participants ion the decisions that will affect us.

And whatever position one finally takes, I have no doubt that all the issues I have just tried to name are buried beneath the surface of a discussion like the one we had on the purpose of a Coach, Just as I am certain they are buried beneath the surface of most discussions of the functions of a teacher. And this is where the discussion tangles me up in it. I think we’re talking about coaches and I’m trying to push them to question their assumption that they need someone to keep order and to tell them what to do and how to do it and suddenly I realize I am talking about what’s going on in our classroom, in their relationship to me as a teacher, as the latest in a line of teacher after teacher they’ve had since before they could read. So what’s my job? Am I doing anything in there that they couldn’t find another way – a better way perhaps – to do for themselves.

I guess the short answer is no, I really don’t think so. I tried to tell them this in class too. I tried to step out of that strange feedback loop by doing the paradoxical two-step of talking about how to erase myself in the class as the source of truth and authority. I explained how for a number of years I experimented with self-grading in my classes in an earnest effort to dehierarchize the classroom, to detach what I had to offer as an older person with special education in the field of study (all of which I felt and feel it is my responsibility to make available to them) from any sort of regulatory or police function, from any sort of dictatorial use of language, to clear the decks of all excuses they might have for not thinking for themselves, for not identifying what they want and taking responsibility for shaping themselves and their surroundings in accordance with those aspirations, proportionately shaped by their freely exercised capacity for thought.

The best I can do in the classroom, I guess, is to invent (through reflection and improvisation) ways to help them locate their own powers of action (including feeling and thought). This can certainly entail lending resources and offering critique and feedback and other traditional components of pedaogogy, But even more crucially I feel that my job involves finding ways to use what they have invested in my position against that investment. Sometimes this involves being deliberately, provocatively, wrong; sometimes direct challenges, sometimes refusing to provide answers, including an answer to the question: “how am I doing? Am I okay?”

I know this doesn’t work for all my students all the time. I know that I don’t always do it effectively, even when I have correctly identified what to try. I work within an institutional context, though I am lucky that in this course, taught within the University of Michigan’s experimental Residential College, I feel fully supported in my experiments.  But even so, we have all, my students and I, learned within deeply grooved educational experiences that sometimes work so powerfully against this aim that it is all we can do just to blindly grope our way along those grooves and try to mumble the name of the trap we are caught in.  I’m certain that I could be a lot better as a teacher.  Certain that I have known better teachers than I, both in the classroom and outside of it.

More than 40 years ago, at a cultural congress in Havana, Cuba that was convened to discuss the tasks of intellectuals in the third world, the great Trinidadan activist and writer C. L. R. James – author of among other things Beyond a Boundary, one of the greatest sports books ever written – shook things up by telling Fidel and a number of other political and cultural luminaries that he felt the real task of intelletuals in the third world was to labor to abolish the category of the intellectual as the social embodiment of learning, thought and culture. I’d be happy as a teacher if it could be said of me that I have tried earnestly (and sometimes successfully) in getting students to drop the notion that a teacher is somehow the social embodiment of discovery and truth and to embrace instead the idea that at best a teacher is another human being, like them, in relation to whom they can discover and develop the powers they themselves already have for transforming themselves and their world for the better.

Postscript: A student interrupted discussion today by saying “I have bad news for any Jazz fans. I got a text from my pop that Jerry Sloan just resigned.” Now, I don’t in principle care whether a student is texting in class so long as they don’t distract me or other students. After all, I figure, it is their loss. I mean, I ask them not to and I tell them that I think it is rude and disrespectful, but I’m not going to disrupt my own class by telling someone who doesn’t seem to be disturbing anyone else to stop texting. So here in the middle of the class comes this interruption which threw me into a mini-eddy of confusion because a) the kid was not only texting, but announcing that he was texting b) the text came from his father; c) the father was texting him about basketball; d) the particular text had everything to do with our class discussion and, oh yeah, e) the father in question is a Hall of Fame basketball player and current NBA GM and, as such, has provided me with some of my most cherished basketball memories of the last 20 years, Faced with such unforeseen and unforeseeable events, it’s hard for me to wish I had more control over my classroom.

Go back to read about our fascination with foreshortened careers


Go on to read about the missing dunks of the New York Knicks ca. 1970-1973

Day 9: I — I mean You — Coulda Been a Contender

I’ve gotten into a rhythm of writing up my thoughts about Tuesday’s classes on Tuesday evening and Wednesday. This past week I was unable to do so, which frustrated me (because I felt that Tuesday’s class had been really rich) and left me anxious (because if I miss a post people will stop coming here and reading me and this excellent development in my life will vanish as quickly as it emerged). The silver lining: on the plane ride home from Detroit to St. Louis last night I had nothing to read and so I was stuck with Southwest Airlines’ in-flight magazine Spirit. For this month, they’d taken advantage of the occurrence of the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day to run some pieces on sports – well. football really – and love. And one of these pieces was a 40th anniversary conversation with some of the parties involved in the making of the movie Brian’s Song, which depicted the untimely death from cancer of Chicago Bears’ running back Brian Piccolo through the lens of his close friendship with fellow running back Gale Sayers. As it turns out this piece spoke directly to the themes that emerged during Tuesday’s class, for which we had all read Bethlehem Shoals’ chapter, from the Undisputed History, on Maurice Stokes and Connie Hawkins: shortened careers and the kinds of stories they make us want to create and consume.

I felt eager and prepared for this particular class. Not only was Hawkins one of my favorite players when I was a child, spurring my earliest efforts to learn from my older brother how to palm the ball. But I’d just finished reading his biography Foul! movingly written by David Wolf in the early 70s. Then, I’d been enjoying some informal, but exciting conversations with Shoals himself on this very topic, or at least on related matters that he’d been thinking about on his own (and much better) for some time. I had pulled video clips, had my discussion questions in mind, as well as a decent idea of where they’d lead, and reporter Mike Rothstein was in attendance to do a story about our class. Usually for me, this combination of positive signs would spell doom:   as surely as a 90 % free throw shooters’ streak of 35 consecutive shots made (duly noted by the obtuse announcer) virtually guarantees that he will miss his FT with the game tied and no time remaining on the clock.

But lo, the doom would come later, much later, after class and perhaps in a way not at all karmically linked to the class itself, which for me anyway, was a thrill (though I must admit that if not karmically, the doom was certainly linked to class). I dealt with some logistical matters effectively and charmingly, set the stage for our class by asking the guilefully guileless question: why are we spending a whole day on these two players? Why does FreeDarko devote a whole chapter on them?

And then we watched the videos (you don’t have to watch them to get what I’m saying but they are beautiful to watch). First a three part clip that narrated the Maurice Stokes story: from his rise to pioneering NBA star in just a few years, to his injury and subsequent struggle to regain control of his body, his close friendship with former teammate Jack Twyman, his death at age 36, and the subsequent charitable efforts that his life and death inspired.

After that, we watched a short clip describing Hawkins rise to high school stardom in Brooklyn, his recruitment by Iowa, his baseless implication in a gambling scandal and subsequent blackballing from the NBA, his itinerant journey through the pro game’s nether regions (ABL, Globetrotters, and ABA) before a successful lawsuit finally led to his abbreviated but still impressive NBA career with the Phoenix Suns.Partly because we’d taken a lot of time with the logistics and the videos, I really wanted to get straight at it. So I repeated in so many words the theme question I’d asked before we watched the videos: why do these kinds of stories fascinate us? That question obviously isn’t specific enough (what kind of stories?), nor does it distinguish between the lives and stories of these two men, which are as dissimilar as similar. So the first answer I got – because they opened doors, they were pioneers, like Drazen Petrovic, who died in a car wreck at 24 having helped open the door to European players in the NBA –though perfectly reasonable wasn’t quite what I was looking for in order to keep things moving. Before I could rephrase the question more intelligently, someone else piped up: potential. And someone else: fantasy. Yeah, alternative futures.We got off the rails a bit as we continued the discussion, but not terribly so, I myself trundled off the road by sloppily comparing the sort of “what if” story prompted by death or injury at a young age with the sort of “what if” story (made famous by Bill Simmons) prompted by speculative reevaluations of moments that hindsight permits us to see as perhaps pivotal (like the Pistons drafting Darko Milicic # 2 in the 2003 draft — ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh). Once we cleared that confusion away, we were left with wondering what makes us not only honor those who careers were cut short, but also what makes us often append to that honor, implicitly or explicitly, a speculated alternative future in which the career plays itself out, uninterrupted. Such speculation is like a branch of fantasy literature, almost like science fiction. What, I wonder, does it do for us? Why do we do it? Why do we incorporate a description of Maurice Stokes or Connie Hawkins imagined career into our discussions of their actual lives and careers?Human nature was the first answer I got: as in, it’s just the way we are as human beings. And it proved to be a surprisingly tenacious hypothesis, to the point that I’m fairly sure the students got aggravated with me for not letting it stand. And really, I might have even toyed with letting it stand if it hadn’t been for the fact that two students in the class – both apparently human – had already stated quite convincingly that they actually didn’t feel the lure to speculate on the “what could’ve been’s” of a stricken hero’s career. So to assert human nature as the cause of that lure or impulse – even setting aside my other objections – would have flown too directly in the face of the evidence at hand for my comfort as an educator.

So I tried every which way to challenge the human nature hypothesis: basically, unless you can show me the portion of the human genome responsible for this impulse, I’m gonna say that attributing it to human nature just begs the question. Yet my brave Herculean efforts to chop off the Hydra heads of this hideous hypothesis in the name of better thinking were initially futile, Not that it was a useless battle, since in the course of it students did bring up some terms that I think are useful to understanding the fascination of the tragically/unjustly abbreviated career story. Someone talked about empathy and the work of mourning, someone else said something that allowed me to point out the template of organic progress (birth, maturation, aging, death, decay) that we often unconsciously hold up as the measure of the actual course of events.

And ultimately, if I didn’t convince them that “human nature” was a poor explanatory delivery device in this case, I at least annoyed and fatigued them enough that one of them finally said, with some exasperation in his voice, “what then? Why do you think it is?” “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”  And the first thing I want to say is that the question is, in some ways, an unfair trap. There are as many reasons to tell and listen to a particular story as there are people telling and listening. So I’m not trying to say that everybody who has ever speculated about the career that Maurice Stokes, or Connie Hawkins might have had, or, for that matter, that James Dean, Heath Ledger, Marilyn Monroe. Kurt Cobain, Richie Valens, JFK, RFK, MLK, or Malcolm X might have had are all fulfilling a single purpose.

But I do believe that if we have identified certain narrative patterns as especially common in a society then part of the task of understanding that society and its culture involves hypothesizing about the kind of individual and collective “work” performed by such narratives. And as I write I realize that the whole human nature pitfall could have been avoided if I had not repeatedly pushed the students by formulating my query in the form of “why?,” which sends most students scurrying for an originary cause, when all I am looking for is a partial and speculative exploration and enumeration of purposes served.

Now part of that task of understanding, in turn, involves taking what seems natural and looking at it as though it were strange. Around 20 years ago, in my vain quest to make myself feel smart in graduate school, I purchased a book that had nothing to do with my interests but that many around me were hailing. It was called The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and Paris Commune by Kristin Ross. For those who don’t know, Arthur Rimbaud is a celebrated 19th century French poet who, among other notable facts, wrote all of his poetry between the ages of 16 and 21. Then he went off to trade in guns and slaves in Africa before dying at the age of 37.

I remember nothing about that book except that I was very struck by the author’s calling out the habit – almost like a knee jerk reflex – among Rimbaud scholars of imagining what his “mature poetry” might have looked like. She offered the provocative counter proposal that “mature” and “poetry”, in Rimbaud’s case, might have been a contradiction in terms. In other words, not only was there no mature poetry in actual fact, but that – aesthetically – there could have been no such thing as mature poetry from Rimbaud, not in the sense of mature these other scholars had in mind; that his poetry was, essentially and constitutively, immature. I’m thinking about arguments like Ross’s when I try to pose these questions of my students.

It’s not the elegy for the fallen, nor the lament on behalf of the unjustly treated that I’m interested in, so much as the fantasy that can be part of that elegy or lament: the part where we fill in what could have been, what the hero was robbed of, what we were robbed of. You know: had he not spent the prime years of his life playing under terrible conditions in empty arenas, Connie Hawkins would today surely be counted among the greatest scorers and rebounders, not to mention passing forwards, ever to play the game, as well as a creative innovator and precursor, a link, perhaps, in the lineage of Jordan, Erving and Baylor, or perhaps Lebron James or Blake Griffin avant-la-lettre. What would Rimbaud’s mature poetry have looked like? Why that?

The answer I gave my vexed students in class, too briefly and nervously, was that I felt such narratives were a kind of compensation, whereby we provide for ourselves in “fiction” what we feel we were robbed of in reality. Maybe that’s part of it. But upon reflection, I think there’s more to it than that, and some of that had its basis in what the kids said in class. For example, I think that the student who talked about empathy and mourning was on to something, We feel loss and one of the ways to work through that loss, perhaps, is to name it, to give it narrative form and shape, flesh and blood as it were and in that way we at once bring ourselves closer to what we have lost and begin to let it go and adapt to a reality without that in it.  I can’t believe I’m going to quote this, but why not? In SWA’s Spirit magazine, Brian’s Song writer William Blinn said “The loss of an athlete, a superhero, really, always hits us so hard. It makes us feel how fragile we are. When we lose someone like that, it’s a more painful loss because it remindsus that everyone falls” This is also to say, then, that we exercise a power in narratives that we do not always have in reality: the power to extend life in the face of death. So I think that certainly goes a long way toward describing the work that such narratives can do, the kinds of feelings that they can help us to organize and make sense of.

But Blinn’s explanation doesn’t account for why we do this not only with death but also injustice, nor does it address why such narratives are more frequently attached to the young. We didn’t, to state the obvious, have to imagine what Wilt’s career would have been like when he died because his career was over, had already had a chance to unfold. One of the students had said we are fascinated by potential and, in these stories also, by lost potential. Potential, interestingly, has its etymological roots in the word for power, as in capacity, as in power to (not power over). Perhaps then we are mourning not only the loss of the already powerful (as in the superhero of Blinn’s explanation), but the loss of the arc of ascent. Maybe this is because we find it easier to identify with the one who is on his way than with the one who has arrived, who surveys his field from the heights of command. Maybe we are inspired by the upward thrust and exhilaration of flight, of desire and energy combining with talent to do more. Maybe we are mourning the loss of “more” and we are supplying “more” ourselves where reality will not supply it,

Much of Shoals’ chapter on Hawkins and Stokes contrasts the two lives and the two careers, which is as it should be since, whatever spiritual work we need done ought not, in my opinion, come at the cost of sacrificing the individuality and uniqueness of others.  It may be inevitable for us to press memories of the dead into the service of continuing to live, but we ought to be careful in doing so not to falsify or dishonor, to reduce or oversimpify, the lives of the dead.  Shoals manages in this chapter to honor, remember and evoke their careers without oversimplification.  I want to stress that because I think there’s something admirably restrained and unselfish about being able to remember the career that was without indulging what is for me, ultimately a self-serving desire to fantasize about the careers that might have been.

Remembering them in the same chapter of my mind, among other things, reminds that in fact, both Stokes and Hawkins had careers.  And it’s only the fact that they had the careers, combined with the fact the careers were short that permit me to crank up the story machine in my soul that will tell you about the careers that could’ve been.  And thinking it of it this way highlights for me part of my stake in telling that  story.

I’m thinking of time passed, time lost.  Every career that is cut short, which indeed highlights lost potential reminds us I think — reminds me let me just say — of my own lost potential which, inevitably perhaps, means thinking about lost or wasted time. If I had known then what I know now,…. Here too the narrative is compensatory (helping to give a sense of control over time’s ineluctable passage) and adaptive (allowing me safely to name the loss of my time, the passage of time, of my life as a source of pain and sadness).

But there’s also a curious transfer at work there. Because after all, in my case, potential wasn’t lost because of death, injury, or legal or social injustice. So if I am to some degree identifying with Hawk or Stokes, even though empiricially we share only the fact of there being some quanta of lost potential in our lives (as in any human life), perhaps it is because the objective unfairness that is at the source of their lost potential captures and expresses a subjective feeling I have about my own. It is a cry.  “I know I might have done things differently, made different choices, but I didn’t know then, it was unfair!” And it feels as unfair, perhaps, as being framed and slandered and unjustly cut off from doing what you love; as unfair as the mishandled injury that leads to paralysis and premature death.

I feel embarrassed because I am trivializing their tragedies.  Both their potential and their suffering were greater than mine.  But maybe, even in this embarrassing impulse, I am expressing a truth — I mean beyond the subjective truth that  I have lost time, lost life.  I mean the truth that each experience of loss is utterly, irreducibly unique, incomparable, and immeasurable and that therefore every loss is of equal, which is to say infinite (or infinitely small) importance.  Or maybe I’m just saying that to make myself feel like less of an asshole.  I’m not sure what’s right.  I’ve got some issues here, I know that.

Time passes. It doesn’t care about me. It doesn’t slow down or back up for me when I fuck up, it doesn’t eddy and pool when I am on a good roll. It moves on impervious, grinding me, ultimately, to dust beneath its grave inertia. And then I, you, we are gone. But before we are gone, perhaps, we begin to tally accounts, to see looming ever larger the shadow of what we never became. Maybe, these stories of tragically, unjustly lost potential are for those times when we find it too hard to smoothly integrate our pasts, presents, and possible futures.

But ultimately, that might be bullshit. I mean, I think I’m on to something with this, but my first answer – “I don’t know. I really don’t know” – was also right. Whatever my speculation about the particular purposes served by this sort of narrative, what I’d like to have imparted to my students more effectively on this particular day is that these narratives serve practical purposes for us as human beings. They aren’t simply autonomic reflexes coded in our genetic material. They aren’t natural, but rather cultural. We invent them and partake of them, usually, at one and the same time to admit that we can’t control some things, to pretend to control what we can’t and to control what we can; to order the chaos around and inside us and to give some running room to that chaos. We tell these stories to modify reality, to adapt ourselves to it, and to allow ourselves to beat our fists against it in rage and complaint, and to soothe and rock ourselves to sleep when it has left us feeling crushed.

Go back to learn how to appreciate greatness that hath no rings


Go on to read an anarchist inspired critique of coaches.

Day 5: For the Love (and Hate) of the Game

Man, was that fun. I was feeling pretty unsure about today’s class. In addition to the usual adolescent insecurities (which I stepped squarely into by deciding to wear my Sheed jersey), I found myself approaching the week’s teaching with a deeper nagging worry that I’m somehow getting away with something here, teaching a basketball course, writing stuff that more than fourteen readers read. But I had the equivalent of a pregame session with the trainer and got right with my demons. Short version: “so what if I am?” No wait. I forget. Well, I’ll come back to that later. In any event, there was minimal neurotic drama today. There was, however, a different kind of challenge: how to incorporate discussion of the college game – especially its early years — into a course structured around a book on the history of pro basketball. My response: evade.

Not really. Well, sort of, yeah. I certainly was prepared, so I didn’t evade in that department. I spent a lot of time sifting through histories until I found a readable, reasonably succinct source, the 1994 Encyclopedia of College Basketball. Then I photocopied the first two chapters, which do a good job of chronicling the rise of the college game through 1950 (and especially up through the first NCAA tourney in 1939). Then I scanned the photocopies and put them up online for the students to read. I read and reread them. I carefully outlined them in my notebook so that I could take the students through the decades. Here’s the summary:

  • 1900s: birth of the conferences, IAA, the emergence of outside shooting and longer passes, the dominance of Chicago (78-12 between 1900 and 1909)
  • 1910s: Rules standardization as AAU and NCAA join forces; banning of the double dribbling, allowing the dribbler to shoot, only 4 personal fouls, no coaching during game; self-supporting basketball programs, professionalization of coaching ranks despite Naismith’s skepticism, coach as recruiter; Navy (109-9 b/w 1900-1909)
  • 1920s: Bigger arenas, limited integration of some teams; fouled players have to shoot their own FT’s, charging foul introduced, substituted-for player can return once; Ned Irish gets an idea, stock market crashes, Montana State (what?) (213-44 b/w 1920-1929)
  • 1930s: here we go: MSG promotions with NYC and other east coast colleges bring big crowds and cash leads to NIT 1938, NCAA 1939; Rule changes: 5 seconds closely guarded (1930), 10 second line (1932), 3 second (1932), 2 reentries permitted, center jump eliminated (1937), Luisetti one-handed runner
  • 1940s: first telecast 2/28/1940; ball movement, little dribbling; gambling – decade ends with gambling scandal, sets up rise in popularity of pro game, popularity of NCAA tourney over (NY-based) NIT tourney.  Oops.

Bored yet? Well, if you’re not, imagine me droning my way through this over the course of half an hour. Is that why you signed up for Cultures of Basketball? Me neither.

Enter evasive tactics. I decided on the spur of the moment to go in a different direction. I had already been uncomfortably aware that the set of names I couldn’t remember equaled “white-males-who-are-neither-on-the-basketball-team-nor-blogging-about-the-course.” While not unheard of, this is unusual for me three weeks into the semester. I needed to firm up the mnemonic webs so I decided to go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves and say what they were doing in the class. At the last second I told them to tell me their favorite team and their favorite player, any level.

This turned out to be maybe the best time we’ve had yet in the class: lots of banter and ribbing. One student offered the following logic for loving the Lakers: “I love the Yankees, and hate the Red Sox and all things Boston. Boston and the Lakers have been rivals a lot lately.” By the time we got all the way around everyone seemed really relaxed, particularly the student who explained thusly why he felt the class was made for him: “All I think about in life is basketball, females, and making money.” Wow. Ice broken.

Then a student asked me to answer my own questions (If you care: Portland, Oregon and Madison, Wisconsin; in class because I teach it; Early 70s Bucks, Mid 70s Blazers, Pistons – general bandwagon-ass cat as Sheed once said; players: Sheed, AI, Nash, Big O, Clyde, Zeke, forgot to mention Magic, forgot Ernie D). And the give and take only amped up further when someone asked me which player I most hated (Anderson Varejao) and then suggested we go around one more time to get everyone’s most hated player, with the stipulation that the player had to be current and you could only name one.

The best part of this round for me was when a student would start out by saying “umm, I dunno, I hate [insert names of two or three players ‘x’ ‘y’ and ‘z’].” Then, when I pressed the kid to name only one, he or she would suddenly blurt out the name of an entirely different player, as though shedding an enormous burden of repressed disgust. Best instance of this: “Um, Dwyane Wade and Vince Carter, ‘cause they’re always falling down, acting hurt.” Me: “you can only name one.” Student, rapidly: “Wally Sczerbiak.” “Wally Sczerbiak?” Ice totally shattered. Sometimes you just gotta play games.

For the record here are the tabulated results, carefully anonymized to protect the identities of the students (a promise I’m trying carefully to keep despite the enormous delight I think it would provide me to use the actual names).

Fav Player
Fav Team
Hated Player
Grew Up
Bad Boys
Grosse Pointe, MI
Washington, D.C.
T Parker
Bronx, NY
Big Baby
Chicago, IL (South Side)
Big Baby
Saginaw and Kalamazoo, MI
JR Smith
Troy, MI


Beverly Hills, CA
Reading, MA
Highland Park, IL
Lindsay Whalen
Scoop Jardine
“Small town north of Twin Cities”
Marquise Daniels
Seattle, WA
Novi, MI
Rye, NY
2004-05 Illinois team
Lake Forest, IL
UM Men’s
“NJ b/w Philly and NY”
N Robinson
Kalamazoo, MI
Bloomfield, MI
Whoever Dirk is playing for
Buffalo, NY
Miami, FL
No fav
Okemus, MI
D Williams
Troy, MI
Chicago, IL (North Side)
Carmel, IN
Evanston, IL

By this time I think we’d taken up half of class. There was no way I was going to squander the stash of excellent vibes we’d accumulated in the first 45 minutes. So I bagged the boring outline and just cut to the chase. I should say that most of the time that I’d been preparing for this day’s class, in fact back when I was putting the syllabus together I’d felt some obligation (and equal and opposite resentment) to putting the college game on the syllabus. A voice in the back of my mind kept nagging me: why are you doing college here? Of course, one obvious answer is that it is a college class, with college players. Another obvious answer is that the college game was crucial to the game’s development in the first fifty-odd years after the invention of the game. Another obvious answer is that the college game continues to make a ton of money, and currently serves at least in part to feed terrific Freshmen into the maw of the NBA draft each season. So, with all these obvious answers why was I resistant at all?

I used to love the college game. When I was little basketball for me was equal parts Bucks, Knicks, and UCLA Bruins. By the time Magic and Larry squared off in the ’79 final (late in my 8th grade year), I was already hooked and I participated fully in the well-documented madness that ensued all the way through college. An ACC fan at the time, I even chose my graduate school partly on the basis of basketball. My grad school years coincided with Duke’s 1991 title and then, after a one year stint at UCLA (passing hallowed Pauley Pavilion with a knot in my stomach and a quickened pulse), I landed at Michigan in time to see the tragedy of the talented, intelligent Chris Webber call a timeout his team didn’t have in the final seconds of the second of their back to back title-game appearances. And then, kind of suddenly, I stopped caring.

Now, it’s not fair to set this all on the doorstep of the college game. Much was unmanageable in my life at the time, both personally and professionally, and part of that entailed turning away from the game I loved (long story). And it wasn’t just college,  I eventually stopped caring about pro ball around 1998. But while I came back to the pro game pretty strongly around 2001, I still only really care deeply about the college game during the NCAA’s. Why?   Pretty reasonably, if you love something you want to see the best in the world do it. That’s the NBA. Of course, that’s been true for my entire life. But in the past the college game, for me at least, compensated for the relative inferiority of its individual players with other charms: an emphasis on team play, the opportunity to watch cohorts grow over several years and blend with other cohorts, the whole college spirit thing.

But now it’s a different world than the one in which I had to walk five miles to school … in the snow …  barefoot … uphill … both ways. The NBA won’t let high school kids come straight into the League so most standout high school players put in an obligatory year at college before jumping to the pros. Even second tier potential pros rarely stay around for more than two years. Coaching salaries have grown astronomically so that coaches flit from program to program like drunken hummingbirds. Television and apparel contracts have injected even more money into the whole system and helped contribute to a the perception (if not the fact) of widespread, large scale corruption. But even all of that wouldn’t bother me so much if the NCAA-Media-Coaching-Nike complex weren’t shoving the “One Shining Moment” discourse of the stirring charm of college basketball up my ass so hard. That’s why I resisted putting it on the syllabus.

I don’t want to stress the perception (undoubtedly fueled by personal nostalgia) that the college game was once (at least in my life time) somehow “pure” and has progressively grown tainted, though there’s probably some truth to that story. I’m more interested in the categories that get mobilized to defend the status quo in the college game: terms like “spirit,” “emotion,” “teamwork,” “effort” and, of course, “amateurism,” which is to say, the love of the game. And the way these get grouped together and made mutually exclusive with an NBA game that is seen as cold-blooded, lazy, individualistic, and mercenary. Don’t forget the racialization of these groups of categories too: though it is true that the percentage of African-American playing college basketball is disproportionate to the percentage in the general population, it is as yet smaller than the percentage in the NBA ranks. Then these college terms get a boost from the barrage of images of cutesy, clean-cut cheerleaders with something painted on their cheeks (as opposed to slutty dance teams), a pep band (as opposed to blaring house music), and ivy covered halls (as opposed to massive branded, arenas in anonymous suburbs or downtowns).

So it all adds up to something like the following cultural formulas:

  • college game = tradition + amateurism + spirit + teamwork + effort + wholesomeness + innocence x whiteness.
  • pro game = rootlessness + mercenariness (it’s a word) + heartlessness + selfishness + laziness + vulgarity + sinisterness (also a word) x blackness.

It’s offensively simplistic and hypocritical and so widely disseminated (even by the same agencies that expose it) that I felt a pedagogical responsibility to try to challenge it in class.

“Amateur,” I explained, “comes from the Latin word for ‘love.’” As in, I play basketball for the love of the game (as opposed to, say, for money). A big part of the history of college basketball in the period in question, as the game increased in popularity, drew larger and larger crowds, attracted promoters, investors, and gamblers, is the emergence of amateurism as a problem for college athletics. I wrote “amateur” on the board and above it the word “love.” I wrote “professional” on the board and above it drew a dollar sign. As with my Globetrotters good or bad question last week, I meant deliberately to pose a stark, oversimplified opposition. And then I just said, “I just want to hear your thoughts about these terms.”

Whoa! I was not expecting this. A student’s hand shot up. “I think players should get paid.” And here I wish I had a recorder. Almost everyone had something to say. I don’t know if this is pedagogically sound or not, but I know from experience that when college professors observe other college professor’s classrooms one of the indexes of successful teaching is the number and variety of students who participate in a given session. I don’t know exactly how many did yesterday, but it was more and more varied than for any other discussion we’ve had yet this year. So I didn’t record it, but I want to try to convey the discussion by just listing paraphrased versions of the comments (oh, and I want to emphasize that players were on both sides of the issue).

  • “Players should get paid.”
  • “Players do get paid.”
  • “Players should get paid more because they can’t hold regular jobs or take summer internships that might enhance their future career prospects in other fields.”
  • “If we pay players, what about athletes in ‘non-revenue’ sports.”
  • “We shouldn’t pay players because they will get big heads. The humility of paying your dues as a player is an integral part of the experience of growing into a professional.”
  • “It’s hard to be a player and see all the money that is being made around you and not feel like you should be getting more of it.”
  • “No way that 18 to 22 year olds should be getting money to play basketball for a college team. They are already getting an education. They aren’t professionals. In fact, in the Ivy league there are no scholarships.”
  • “Should there be no scholarships at all?”
  • “If there were no scholarships a lot of people who have the desire and the ability to attend college wouldn’t be able to because it’s too expensive.”
  • “While scholarships are great, a lot of people don’t realize that they don’t cover lots of the essential costs of attending college. Players don’t have the time or the opportunity to cover those costs with other jobs.”
  • “If we pay players then the richest programs will field the best teams and there will be no parity.”
  • “That already is the case because the richest programs have the best facilities which attract the best players.”
  • “The players should just be happy with the attention they get. Try playing a sport that nobody attends.”
  • “The players are already getting paid. Anyone who has been in the basketball community knows that every year the top players are bidding themselves out to colleges.”

I can’t resolve these issues and I have no positive alternative to offer. For my part, I was mainly just thrilled that the class had finally hit its full stride, with lots of participation and disagreement and mutual respect. I did try to suggest that they might think of various different policy pieces as “delivery devices” with advantages and disadvantages and the path to a sounder system might begin by prioritizing, honestly, the purposes of intercollegiate athletics and then formulating policies that help fulfill those purposes while discouraging others that are in conflict with the prioritized purposes. But whatever, it’s not my job to formulate or even think coherently about the details of NCAA policies. It’s my job (and what I love) to think and talk about the way we think and talk about the various aspects of basketball culture.

So I was excited that even in a college classroom, in a university strongly associated with college athletics, in a course 33 % full of college athletes, there was a willingness to take apart the ridiculous, dualistic equations I mentioned above. And, in a way, the seemingly random evasive tactic with which I began class — who do you love? who do you hate? — turned out not to be incidental to the subject of our discussion because in going around the room we # 1 inflamed passions and # 2 tacitly admitted that the pro game aroused at least as much passion as the college game. We saw, in other words, that we were basketball culture even as we were studying it; that there’s (fortunately) no divorcing passion from reason in this case (which isn’t the same as saying that they can’t or don’t inform and check each other); and that love of the game and love of money exist in both the college game and the pro game.

I’m not saying college players don’t love basketball, just that I’m tired of the assertion that they and their coaches and fans are the ones who really love it. And, even more deeply, I’m tired of the assumption on which that assertion rests: that the proof that you really love something is to do it for free. That smacks of something rich people say to everyone else: “ooh, money’s dirty.” “Yeah,” I want to reply, “it’s dirty because you’ve been wiping your ass with it for the last hundred years. But I’ll still be happy to take it off your hands.”

That attitude, especially coming from people who are making loads and loads of cash off talented, hardworking young people, that’s just too stinky. I have nothing against people doing what they love for free or for little if that’s what they want and if they are truly free to choose. But I’m offended by the obverse normative stricture that if you are doing what you love and getting paid you have fouled something clean, and are somehow getting away with something, or gaming the system. Yago 1, Demons 0.

Go back to read about the way categories of race, ethnicity, and gender shape our basketball narratives


Go on to read about the elements of style in hoops.

Day 4: Why Can’t I Be Chris Paul?

Woke up excited: the players will be back today! I can’t wait! Stop it! You’re not supposed to be a fan. You’re the professor. Plus, you know better than to glorify college athletes. You’ve read the headlines, you’ve read the exposés: these guys have probably been tracked since they were 12, spoiled, pampered, egocentric beyond the usual adolescent norm, entitled. They’re probably jerks.  Who cares if they’re back? It was better when they weren’t there and we had space to spread out and the room wasn’t so hot. I wonder if they’ve read my blog. I wonder if they’ve talked about me. Besides, those exposés are usually written by moralizing old white guys, huffing indignantly about the state of the game, hiding behind a pious claim to really care about the kids, while secretly hating them for their talent. But I really do care about the kids. They fill me with tenderness. Will the beaten up old red and black Clash hoodie I’m planning to wear seem cool to them. Idiots won’t even know the Clash.  Faker: you didn’t even know about the Clash when they were playing.  Does it go with my Nike sweats? The red on the hoodie is faded and doesn’t really match the red of my red and black 25th anniversary Air Jordan Alpha 1’s. Oh, and thank you for the zit on my forehead — what am I, 13?  It’s shining like a beacon in the dim basement light bulb that is the sun in Ann Arbor in midwinter. Now I’ll have to wear my hat for sure, even if it’s too hot. Crap. I’ve only been up for thirty seconds. I thought I had this shit under control. It’s a good thing I have therapy this morning. 

You don’t care about my therapy. If I really take the foot off the brake the whole post could veer drastically over the edge of the cliff, tumble, crash, explode and burn, and then explode once more. So I’ll try to keep it tight. I really, really like my therapist. And I’m pretty sure he really, really likes me. In fact, he once told me (cause I asked) that he thought we could be friends if he wasn’t my therapist and I wasn’t his patient. And that admission probably tells you about as much about my therapy (and my problems) as you need or want to know.   Suffice it to say it’s where I go to enjoy the spectacular parade of disgusting and pathetic poses and pratfalls my mind continually trots out behind the scenes; or while I’m on the bench, sitting next to Scottie and Dennis, just before the house lights darken, the spots start to swirl madly, and the Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” kicks in.

So after getting my due props from the doc for following my bliss with the course and the blog we put on the hipboots and waders and went fishing in the chattering stream of fantasies, fears, and self-judgment that flows pretty much constantly through the mind of a resurgent insecure adolescent wanna-be baller who is posing as a university professor.   That always helps clear the air. I’m settled and relaxed again, perspective restored, reassured that my issues aren’t deep in this case, that I’m not crazy, that it’s probably pretty normal and that I’m probably doing the best I can to manage them by just naming them and being aware of them. It’s like the scene in Maus where Artie, who has already published the first volume to acclaim and fame goes to see his therapist cause he feels guilty and awful and he draws himself child size sitting on the chair in session. But after he talks through it and gets some perspective, he is restored to his adult self.

Chuckling compassionately at my adolescent self, patting him on the shoulder with a hint of condescension, I well-nigh bound out of there, and go to teach my first class. (Great students, by the way, we’re reading dizzying Jorge Luis Borges short stories — for example, this one — and they are rocking it in our discussions: too bad they’re not college athletes or I’d write about them too.  I suck.) I put on the headphones and turn on the iPod and head over to hoops class. I don’t like how fast I have to walk to get there in time. It leaves me feeling rushed, sweaty, breathless and unathletic by the time I enter the classroom. I wonder if my music is cool. Claire made me a hip hop mix a few months ago. The her cousin, Li’l Gherkin, made us a couple of different mixes. Then I made one combining the things I liked most from those two. I’m happy and buoyant listening to it; except when I’m stabbed by the certainty that as much as I like it, it must not be the really cool stuff or I wouldn’t even know about it. I pause as I enter the building to switch the song to something that I think they will think is cool if they happen to ask me what I am listening to.

Nobody asks me what I am listening to. They look bemused, as always. Everyone’s there, which is good, but they’re sitting in different places, which is both good (the players are a little more evenly distributed) and bad (early in the semester I remember names best by where people sit, until I begin to associate them with the way they think and speak). Lots to do today: we are scheduled to talk about “Only the Ball was Orange,” the section of FreeDarko’s history in which, in a series of cartoons and short descriptions, Jacob Weinstein introduces some of the best known of the many barnstorming squads that crisscrossed the country from the late teens through the 1940s. But I also have to take care of some logistical matters, like making sure everyone has chosen their elective assignments for Unit 1. And I have to attend to the helpful AV tech who is bringing me the adaptor cable so that I can project youtube clips from my laptop to the large pull down screen. I’m glad we have a lot to do.  I’m businesslike and important. But it also makes me sweat more and feel disorganized because papers are all over the place, including the notes where I wrote down what we have to get done.

So I am shuffling paper, glazed and talking, and some students are straggling in so that I have to start over, and then the AV guy comes in and a player realizes that I’m gonna want to show video and he is sitting directly under the screen so he gets up to move, saying “Oh, are you gonna show video, then I’m gonna move” and I stupidly respond “Oh, uh, yeah, but you don’t hafta move.” And then, realizing my stupidity, I apologize, “Oh sorry, that was stupid I guess you do hafta move if you want to see the video and not get hit on the head by the screen.” Why do I talk so much, why do my sentences always have to go on and on and on? Why do I always have to say everything?

Logistics covered, questions answered – well and with a sprinkle of successful humor, I might add – my self-satisfaction is on the rise.  Then it skyrockets!  We’ve had a fun little exchange about the class and the blog and how famous writers on the internet are following our syllabus. My one student that I’ve had before says, “Yago, you blowin’ up.” And I laugh, tilt my head back and stretch my arms out to the side in my best we are all witnesses pose [LINK}. And then – here is my moment of triumph – I say, “You can’t check me.” Cash. Count it. Game. I win. Go home.

Today I have divided my notebook page into two columns. Left hand side: things I want to say about the barnstorming teams, with a few talking points and some arrows; right hand side: blank with the heading “things they say.” I tell them I have some ideas of what I want them to notice about the reading but I’m gonna keep them on the back-burner (that suddenly seems like a terribly unfashionable expression; I wish I could download urban dictionary directly into my brain like in the Matrix). I want to know what struck them as they read?

I’m impressed by the fact they’ve actually read the assignment (which I should not be since today’s reading – no disrespect to Jacob Weinstein who I think actually did a brilliant job of condensing and making interesting complex and repetitive raw material — was pretty much like reading the comics section of the paper, in terms of length and intellectual complexity). But I’m also impressed by their instincts for what is interesting.

Someone points out the humor in Weinstein’s description, giving the example of the entry on the “Hong Wah Kues,” a Chinese American team from San Francisco who barnstormed for one season in 1939. Weinstein wryly observes that one of their games was publicized with “flyers announcing ‘WAR! Grangeville to be attacked.” It’s funny. Even funnier to me, is his introduction to the Buffalo Germans, an early barnstorming team that mercilessly pounded lesser opponents: “Shrouded in mystery, this team of creepy teenagers from Upstate New York was forced into barnstorming by geographic isolation.” We laugh. I make fun of one of the players who I know is from somewhere in Upstate New York. We all pretend he looks just like the creepy teenagers in Weinstein’s cartoon: goth without realizing it.

I ought to have slowed down here. In fact, my main teaching point from today’s class is that I ought to slow down in general in class. Breathe more. Listen better to what they say. Slow down in my response. Usually I’m good at abiding silence in class. I haven’t been so good here. Then, I would be better able to push them more deeply into the presuppositions, implications, and associations of what they say. Because in this case, the humor of the section – while in some ways an incidental stylistic feature – can also be an avenue into what is most substantively relevant about the barnstormers.

Some of what now is funny – like the Hong Wah Kues poster, or the quotation from Paul Gallico’s 1920’s New York Daily News column that noted, of the SPHAS, Jewish barnstormers from Philadephia: “The reason that basketball appeals to the Hebrew is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness” – wouldn’t have been funny then and is only funny because of the ironic distance, which is to say because we would never hold such attitudes today. Except that, maybe just a teensy weensy bit, we do.  Weinstein says in the next line:  “Though Jews soon faded from the courts as players, these traits continued to serve them well as they moved into coaching and managerial positions in later years.”

Good time to tell my students about irony. Not just as a trope or an attitude, but as a way of knowing  in which we can simultaneously (1) know things and (2) understand (2a) how we have known them, (2b) that our knowledge is partial, and (2c) that things could actually be different than what we feel we know them to be. Irony can be a valuable component of the stories we tell. In this case, the deadpan paraphrasing or direct quoting of racist statements, framed by the comic genre, sheds a critical spotlight on that kind of statement, but without defensively over-distancing itself from the attitudes, so that we know the author doesn’t think he’s absolutely purified all such offensive discourse.  What this does is let us safely acknowledge our own participation in racism, which is of course indispensable to beginning to transform it.   The brilliant caricatures, some based on real photos, help – again ironically – to stress what the section’s introductory text has already told us: as funny as these teams will be, they were struggling against real issues, real issues that still exist today.

I certainly didn’t say any of this though maybe over the course of the day I described it or evoked it without actually calling it irony. And someone, it might have been me, did build off the observation about the humor in this section to notice that just about every team was distinguished either by race, ethnicity, or gender. Weinstein puts it quite succinctly when he notes that, while for some teams barnstorming was the best financial option among several, “for other teams, generally those made up of minorities, nomadism was the only option available. Like much of America’s society in the early twentieth century, these teams fell along ethnic and religious fault lines.” So, it seems, the barnstormers, in many cases, are the marginalized flip side of the early pro leagues that we had discussed on Day 3.

But as it turns out the early pro leagues were themselves the marginalized flip side of early 20th century American capital (just then flexing its post-pubescent muscle and beginning to go global) under the auspices of the WASPish ethos that held, among other things, that the “gentleman sportsman” wouldn’t deign to sully vigorous physical activity and healthy competition with an exchange of cash (see Robert Peterson’s Cages to Jump Shots for some good passages on this). That is to say that even the pros who were not minorities were often in the game in order to supplement arduous, underpaid working class jobs or to escape dead-end lives in some ethnic ghetto.

That’s why, to answer the question begged by a student observation, they’d put themselves through what might seem to us like the terrible physical and emotional punishment of traveling around the country’s nascent road network, packed into uncomfortable cars, in order to play a couple of hundred games a year. Beckley Mason, who has been a great friend to the course and to this blog, had an excellent post on John Wall maybe hitting a wall here at mid-season.  Mason compassionately observed that it’s a big adjustment to play as much as the pros play, and to travel, and to be at least a little hurt all the time, and to still have to play. And that is true, but at least Wall has a crack medical staff to look after him and try to mitigate some of that. Who looked after the Rens, or even the Original Celtics when they sprained an ankle?

Someone in class says that they’re impressed that the Globetrotters beat the Minneapolis Lakers in 1948 and 1949. This is perfect for me because I wanted to show them a clip of the Globetrotters. I emphasize that the Globetrotters weren’t always primarily entertainers and they didn’t always play fixed competition. I try to get across that, in fact, up until right around the formation of the NBA (notice, I say,  hierarchy, centralization) they played pretty much straight basketball. It was only after the NBA was formed and began to grow in popularity that they became what we think of them as today.

I go to set up my AV cable and the projector and to pull up the clip on my computer. Disaster, I have the wrong cable. Hold up, I tell them, just sit tight for a couple of minutes. I run down to the main office to explain. The secretary makes a call. Hopefully the tech dude will be up in a few minutes to bring me the right cable. I’m so flustered that I dash out of the office and back up to my classroom without waiting to see if she even got hold of him and if he was in fact coming. So back in the classroom I stall for time: “while we’re waiting for the right cable, let’s talk a little about the Globetrotters.”

“Globetrotters,” I say, “good or bad from the point of view of racial progress?”  I think of the SNL parody of “The McLaughlin Group.”  Wrong!!  Sometimes I like to pose discussion points to my students in terms of either-or starkly opposed terms. My hope is that they will feel the constraint of the such binary categories; and to exercise their own powers of intellectual subtlety and nuance against those constraints and, like an angry Bill Bixby, bursting through the outworn clothes of dualistic thinking.

I’m pretty sure we didn’t really get there, exactly. Although maybe, on second thought, collectively we did. Students offered several different perspectives on the question, sometimes contradicting themselves so that I felt like they had a handle on what might be seen as problematic about the Globetrotters, but also why it might not be so simple as “the Globetrotters were and are bad for racial progress because they feed directly off tropes of black minstrelsy that in turn feed off the attitudes of slave holders.”  I wished I’d been able to show them this video, which presents the Globetrotters as the precursors of contemporary cool.

I pointed out that for some who have played or written about the game, the Globetrotters are often set in opposition to the NBA. I asked them what they thought of that, or rather, I provoked them by asking “are they really so different?” Of course, they are quite different in many ways that are important. But it’s also worth noting one major similarity: in both cases primarily African-American men are employed by primarily white men to entertain by exhibiting their athletic ability to a primarily white paying public.  And in both cases, each individual owner gets a bigger cut of the take than any individual players.

Just to push things a little further I brought up The Decision. I didn’t want to jump the gun too much because we’ll certainly talk about Lebron later in the semester, but the video cable wasn’t coming and we still had about twenty minutes of class left. I asked them why everyone was so mad about Lebron’s decision to leave Cleveland. Someone pointed out that it wasn’t the decision so much as The Decision.  Sure, I say, so he’s a little immature, a little high on himself. So what? Does that really – I mean really – hurt the millions of people who have heaped scorn and worse on him?

Another student points out that in Cleveland people acted like they owned Lebron and that this was fucked up because it sounded like slavery. I agreed and then added that it wasn’t only in Cleveland. Enter the Q ratings discussion from a few months ago, wherein it was observed that Lebron’s negative Q ratings skyrocketed (from 24 to 44 %) among Caucasians, while basically holding steady among African-Americans.  So white people hate Lebron for the decision or The Decision or both, but black people don’t. What is that about?

“This country’s racist,” a student said. I agree. And I agreed. But I also told them that the point of my raising these issues in class was not only to reach that pretty obvious conclusion. In fact, more important to me than what sort of judgment the students were to come to about the Globetrotters or the decision or The Decision or the Backlash to The Decision was the fact that we were able to take a step back – SLOW! IRONY WORKING – and to begin to make visible the invisible definitions of race, racism, and racial progress that were secretly driving our various contributions to the discussion, just as they suffuse most of the cultures of the game.

And what is true of race is also true of gender, though not only in the obvious ways such as that the women’s game doesn’t get nearly the coverage the men’s game does. It does so also in that one line of criticism of Lebron’s decision was that “he would never be The Man” in Miami. Several of my male students are practice players for the UM women’s team. We talked about that briefly. I think it’s a minor act of gender courage for a young man – who has probably grown up veering clear of the possibility of being told he plays like a girl – to assume the role of practice player for a women’s team. That is a young man who loves to play the game and who gives me hope that the next generation will have fewer hangups around gender issues than my own does.

Almost out of time, I shifted into motivational summary mode.  “All our stories about basketball are informed, if only implicitly, by attitudes about race, gender, class, ethnicity, and nationality. These racialized, gendered, etc stories have been around so long, are so common, and repeated so often, that they start to seem natural to us.  I  want to break that, to fracture that sense of naturalness and to make those aspects of the stories seem strange.  I don’t want to tell you what to think or what you can and can’t say.  But I want to make you look at the way you think and talk with a critical eye so that you can make a freer decision about how you want to think and talk.”

To give an example, I told them how at the playground or gym in my neighborhood in St. Louis, where I am frequently the only Caucasian playing pickup, if I have a bad day I am ignored. But if I have a good game I will be regaled with shouts of “Steve Nash! Manu Ginobili!” or, among the older fellas, “Vinny del Negro!” or even “Ernie di Gregorio!”

“Why,” I pleaded to my students, with mock and real desperation in my voice, “Why can’t I be Chris Paul?” I mean, seriously, I don’t really play like any of those players and those players don’t really play like each other. So what’s really being noted with the names is that I’m a white player who has surprised. And that is true. But it is only part of what I am. I don’t mind it. In fact, I kinda love it when they call me Nash. But that might be because there’s not any threat to my political, economic, or civic freedom attached to the reduction of my being to race and basketball performance. But what if it was? And what if it were repeated again and again? Only not just when I’m on the court, and not to praise me, but to criticize, humiliate, and to limit me in the expression of my being; and to try to cause me to doubt the worth of my being? And not just in words, but in deeds and practices and whole legal and economic structures?

Even without all that, it bothers me a little bit, maybe almost on aesthetic grounds because it shows a lack of imagination: exactly the kind of imagination I want my students to learn to exhibit and deploy. C’mon, I sometimes want to say back, we can do better than that, we can think more creatively than that.  I imagine crossing someone over and hitting a step back jumper and someone shouting out “AI!”  I’d about fall down:  “You are an artist!”  Because why, if you’re gonna call me by the name of a player who is a million times better than me and whose signature repertoire of skills I could not possibly begin to match, why, in that case, can’t I be Chris Paul?
I wanna be Chris Paul.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment (catch Day 5’s lively and frank discussion of amateurism here) when I might actually bust out my Sheed Pistons jersey for class. In the meantime, check out these sites where Cultures of Basketball is also being followed or discussed:

Hoopspeak, where Beckley Mason has recruited some of the fine journalists and bloggers from the TrueHoop network to “take” the class, beginning with Bret Lagree on George Mikan.
Hoopism, where one of my students, Matt Gordon, will be blogging about his experiences in the course.
FreeDarko, where Bethlehem Shoals, founder and co-author of our class textbook, responds to my accounts of our class discussions on Day 2 and Days 3 and 4.

Or work your way back by looking at my lament for the leagues and possibilities devoured by the seeming inevitability of the NBA

Day 3: Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

When I first saw that UM players were signing up for the course, back toward the end of the Fall semester, I was mostly just excited. Then I started to feel a little anxious, which, as previously reported, bore gruesome fruit on Day 1. But I also a felt a more realistic, pedagogical concern: if I had 8 or 9 players in a class of 20, what would happen when they all had to miss a day (or more) because of travel for a game? And what would happen when they all came back the next day? At the time, I brushed this question off and didn’t really think through a good response since it was a bridge I hadn’t come to yet and I was still mostly just excited. But this particular repressed reared its ugly head earlier this week and I had to start worrying about it again. 

The e-mail came on Monday, as I was prepping for Tuesday’s class, from an Academic Counselor in the Academic Success Program at the University.   The subject line named all the players enrolled in my class. I was excited. Probably they’re writing because want me to get more involved with the team because the players reported to their coach what a phenomenal asset they were sure I’d be. As it turns, the message very politely, but pleasantly informally, let me know that players would miss class on Tuesday because they’d be traveling to their game against Northwestern and asked me about any assignments “the guys” (I did dig that the sender referred to the players as “the guys” to me; made me feel like part of the gang) would need to make up from not being in class on Tuesday.  My heart sank:  I’m nine and my older brother says he has to go to work and doesn’t have time to play me one-on-one.

But the message in itself was neither a problem nor a surprise. Only last week, a member of the track team who is also in the class had handed me a copy of the track schedule covered by a letter from the Provost and Vice-president for Academic Affairs, endorsed by the Chair of the Faculty Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs. I also enjoyed that letter because while I talk a good game,  I’m also craven enough to be gratified to be contacted by Power, even when it’s just telling me what to do.

The Provost informed me that “the student bearing this letter” would find it “necessary to miss a portion” of my class in order “for him/her to represent the University of Michigan.” It went on to explain that the student was not relieved of responsibility for completing course requirements and that the Provost expected the student and me to make alternative arrangements that did not “unduly inconvenience” me or the student. Alright, this seems like a reasonable approach to the issue.

After all, students miss class for much stupider reasons. Like, say, being drunk at 9 am on St. Patrick’s Day. I’m not kidding – I’ve passed them on my way to class and they call out to me with a surprising lack of sheepishness:  “Yo! Professsssssor CO-las!”

On Tuesday, it was great to have more space in our tiny overheated classroom.  The remaining students had dispersed throughout the available space like gas molecules in a drawing.  I noted with relief that I wasn’t worried about what I was wearing. But the absences made me a little down.  And, they present a practical problem in my class for reasons that have something to do, in a way, with the topics we covered in class yesterday. First, for those of you keeping track at home, the required reading assignment was pp. 16-19 of FreeDarko’s Undisputed Guide to the History of Pro Basketball. That’s the section, called “Go Forth and Dribble: Basketball’s First Great Age of Expansion,” covering professional basketball leagues in this country from 1898 up to the creation of the NBA from two existing leagues in 1949.

Though a short selection, it contains a wealth of material ingenously presented by Jacob Weinstein in four sections, one per page: “Micro Leagues: 1898-1909”, “Regional Leagues: 1910-1924”, “Big Leagues: 1925-1937”, and “Major Leagues: 1938-1950”. Each section includes a map showing the number of teams from different cities in each league and then provides short descriptions of the “Structure,” “Venues,” “Style” and “Innovations” characteristic of each of the four types of league. It struck me as a quite brilliantly economical way to present a great deal of information on the “pre-history” of the NBA to an audience that’s really mostly interested in the NBA. In a way, it read to me like a combination of summary and interpretation of the much more detailed book From Cages to Jump Shots, by Robert Peterson, which is a terrific resource in its own right.  This is a great section but because of its structure (which is not exactly narrative), it’s a little harder for me to feel at home there, like playing on a court without lines, or with different lines.

My plan for the day was to recap our discussion of Naismith and the invention of the game in ways that might link it to the reading about the early pro leagues, then to pull student impressions of the reading, and then to steer the discussion in the direction of the two most interesting topics that the Free Darko reading raised for me: first, how we tell “pre-history” of something (in this case the NBA), and what happens to our view of things that didn’t themselves know they were part of the pre-history of anything when they were happening; and second, how tensions between spontaneity and calculation, horizontal (or non-hierarchical, decentralized) organization and vertical (or hierarchical and centralized) organization, informal versus formal business models, and local vs. national scales were present and manifested themselves in these early leagues. That was the plan, but as always I wasn’t sure how – or if — we’d get from A to B to C.

I reminded them that we’d spoken of stories of how things come into being or how they come to have the form they have, and I pointed out that we can, in telling those stories, tilt the narrative to stress the chance or coincidental nature of the emergence of the thing or, conversely, to stress the inevitability of its emergence. Or, as philosophers might put it, we can, for reasons of temperament and agenda, stress contingency or necessity.  I’m not a philosopher, so I might have that not quite right.

In the case of Naismith, I cited the height of the goal, which didn’t “have to be” (necessity, inevitability) 10 feet, but “happened to be” (contingency, chance) because that was the height of the balcony in the Springfield Y to which he nailed the peach baskets. We also talked about how this plays out in other stories and had a good laugh imagining “Hoosiers” (a story narrated as destiny if there ever was one, but that really becomes a story worth telling only because a player hit a literally improbably, game-winning last-second shot) as a comedy. Maybe Chevy Chase could play the Gene Hackman role and a baffling series of wacky accidents and zany hijinks could brings tiny Hickory to the Indiana state title.Of course, I’m not the first to point out that the “Hoosiers”-as-destiny narrative is powerfully racially coded so that it’s unlikely that remake is gonna happen anytime soon.

For some, a stress on the contingency of history leads naturally to wonder: well, if it didn’t have to happen this way, what if it had happened another way? And these counterfactuals, as they are called, can provide for an amusing pastime, as exemplified for some in the “what ifs” section of Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball: speculating as to how the course of history might have changed if you alter one chance variable in the past (what if Jason Williams hadn’t crashed his motorcycle, what if Memphis had won the Lebron draft lottery instead of Cleveland). In fact, it’s a whole subdiscipline in the field of history. But I wasn’t interested, not in class anyway, in actually debating these what-ifs. I said this with as much weary disdain as I could muster so as to discourage what I envisioned would be a disintegration of the classroom into a kind of amateur “Around the Horn” (or, for 30 Rock fans: Sports Shouting). I just wanted the students to learn to spot these sorts of elective emphases when they are present (as they must be) in any story about the coming into being of something new.

But with that recap in mind to orient our discussion, I let go of the reins and stepped into the abyss, asking the students what had struck them in the reading. Several hands went up, catastrophe averted. I don’t care so much whether they say anything smart, so long as they say something. For better and for worse I can make just about anything sound smart, at least to 19 year-olds. In this case, fortunately, the students picked up on things that I think really were at least potentially interesting aspects of the early history of the game.  One student was struck by the violence of the early leagues. Another student was struck by the mobility of the contract-less players in the regional leagues. We laughed imagining a league in which Melo could play for NY, NJ, and Denver. Then another student described being struck by the ability to “see the evolution of the game.” He talked about how bit-by-bit, as he read the four pages, the game he is familiar with started to emerge and take shape.

Good feeling.  Scintillating.  I liked the image and seized on the term evolution.  Here is possibility.  Here is the pebbled surface of the ball in my hands.  I pointed out, parenthetically acknowledging that he surely used the word evolution deliberately, that often times we use that term with a teleological (look it up) connotation, as though we knew all along where something that was evolving was evolving to. And then I pointed out that at the heart of the theory of evolution and its mechanisms of natural selection and genetic drift is the phenomenon of random variation generated by mutation.  Only after these random variations have manifested and proved advantageous do they begin to get “selected,” … “naturally.” That’s a bit too much chance for some storytellers though, I said, just because it sounded good, and so some want to assign a motivating, necessary cause to “random variations.” An example of such a cause would be God. I’m not a biologist (I know, I fake it a lot), so I might have that evolution stuff wrong, but if I do, it’s the way it ought to be.

I hadn’t planned it, or thought at all ahead of time about evolution in relation to the day’s reading (obvious though it now seems to me). But that’s one of the advantages of having a relatively unstructured class format and bright students willing to participate: they can come up with things I haven’t thought of and I’m free to pursue them. Of course, sometimes those things turn out to be a dead end or I’m not skillful enough as a teacher to make them pay off. You never know for sure. Yesterday, I only knew that evolution was an important word, but I didn’t yet know how and I was both exhilarated and a bit afraid as I grabbed the rebound and pushed the ball up the floor in traffic without numbers:  cool because I didn’t know what’s going to happen next, scary because I didn’t know what going to happen next.  It’s weird because I count on the trailer and even though I’ve been told a million times that I can always pull it back out if there’s nothing there, something inside me just keeps pushing me toward the basket where something magnificent or something catastrophic will happen.  Nothing in between.

And that’s the where the day’s topic of discussion connects back to my concerns about the absence of a third of my class. In this respect, I’m thinking, my course works very much like evolution itself: “random” variations (like a student throwing out a word that happens to catch my fancy) generate a kind of “natural selection” of topics (I take the word and shape the rest of the discussion with it, explicitly or implicitly).  Students who miss class can, and I’m sure will, keep up with all the formal assignments. However, because my class time is not carefully planned out, but relies heavily on impromptu student participation, discussion, and improvisation there is no real way for the absent students to ever “get” what they missed.

I can point them to other students’ notes, or to my own, or even to this blog post – but all of those are not only inevitably going to be partial and distorted representations of the discussion, they are of a completely different nature than discussion. Because class discussion is not only about the content and the points that were raised, not even mainly about that: it’s mainly about the form – the escalating energy and vibe of collaboration as a group tentatively stumbles and gropes its way to discovery.

As a humanities professor, I feel that one of the main things of which I am a steward and which I am responsible for conveying to my students and nurturing in them is just this experience of open-ended, collaborative discovery. In a way, the whole canon of the humanities can be seen as a very long, extended discussion in which one person says, for example, “Hmm, it looks to me like, despite the appearance of change, everything is, deep down, fixed and unchanging?” and then someone else says, “Mehhh, not so much, to me everything looks as though is fluid and mutable.  What makes you think there’s a ‘deep down’?”  I want my students to learn about that history.  More than that I want them to live it and to feel themselves heirs to it and participants in it and in that way to come to be invested in it and in making it better and more useful in addressing the world they live in.

Okay, so that’s a lot. And it’s not like the absence of a third of the class a handful of times (or two handfuls; how many handfuls will it be exactly? I wonder) over the course of the semester is the end of the world, or a problem that can’t be addressed. But it adds a degree of difficulty to any class. And in a class in which there is already some awareness, for better and for worse, of differences, this just adds one more. It’s a loss not only for the players and the journalist who missed out on Tuesday’s class and who have to show up on Thursday, I imagine, with some degree of anxiety or pressure, but also for those who were there on Tuesday and may be wary of participating in ways that refer to Tuesday’s class and so exclude their classmates from fully participating. As I say, I can deal with this, but I also have to deal with this.

On the other hand, as I’m writing, it occurs to me – thinking of the ways in which discussion in my classroom and evolution resemble free-lancing in a pickup game – that it may perhaps be easier to deal with a shifting roster if you don’t have a highly structured, set offense that depends heavily on the skill set of particular players who might be injured or traded and that, moreover, has to be taught to new players that might be acquired.  In this sense, each class meeting is like a single game.  Players are removed and added to playground teams all the time – even the winning team. And that works in part because there are no set plays. Everyone is improvising and so its easier to remain effective even when you’ve lost a player and had to pick up a new one, even if that new player sucks. So maybe even as the unstructured nature of the class makes it harder to “catch people up”, perhaps it will be easier to accommodate the goings and comings of my student-athletes (and of other students for other reasons) because the class is more or less free-lanced.

At the same time, it’s also true that playing even a couple of games in a row with the same players can lead you to familiarize yourself with your teammates’ tendencies, strengths, and limitations and make you more effective.  So I think part of my job is going to be to step up and assert myself enough to communicate to returning students the valuable tendencies (things like an emerging class “vocabulary” or even a vibe) that the class developed in their absence. That sort of thing happens all the time on the playground. You join a team that’s been playing or where a couple of players already know each other and they pull you aside and in a few seconds bring you up to speed. And I think I can do this successfully while encouraging returning students to make their own improvisational contributions without fear that this is somehow going to jeopardize or destroy what is already in place.

And this issue of how to harmonize the interests and abilities of the individual with those of the group also echoes something we already talked about in class, though we were talking about it in the guise of the tension between “one-on-one” style and “team” style that is highlighted in Weinstein’s account, particularly, of the “Regional Leagues” that predominated between 1910 and 1924.  Weinstein makes the point that at this time, pro players were still permitted to double-dribble so that games were dominated by one-on-one play, “with the dribbler acting like a football running back and bowling over defenders by head-butting them.”   In other words, because players could double-dribble they did double dribble as a means of advancing the ball toward the basket.  At the same time, as he also points out, “while teams might barely last a season intact [because of player mobility], pairs and groups of players often stuck together for years, and their familiarity with each other led to the development of the pick and roll, or, as it was known at the time, the buddy system.”

So in the very same league two different tendencies are in effect; tendencies that, taken to their logical extreme, are incompatible with one another and so, in that sense, are vying for ascendancy in the game.  Will pro basketball come to be about one-on-one play and physical strength or will it be about collaboration, ingenuity, and finesse (the pick, after all, works only because it’s illegal for the defensive man physically to blast through a screener)? And what decides this?

In class (I feel obliged to point this out because some of the students at least will be reading this) none of this emerged with great clarity and we spent most of the time talking about the way the relative emphasis on one-on-one vs. team styles changes depending on the level of play, the skill of the players, the culture of the institution, and the power dynamics between players and coaches – all of which was very worthwhile in its own right. But here I want to stress what I only mentioned incoherently in passing on Tuesday: namely that “fitness” in the evolutionary sense of the term, as far as the history of pro basketball is concerned, has to some degree come down to commercial viability.

The double-dribble was eliminated from most pro leagues following its ban from the American Basketball League in the 1920s. The ABL, in turn, banned it in part because it had already been banned by the much more popular amateur circuits such as the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in 1908-1909. “Henceforth,” as Robert Peterson puts it, “the professional game would gradually become faster and depend less on bulk and strength and more on speed, agility, and cleverness,” like its more popular college and amateur counterpart.

Now, once the ABL banned the double-dribble, players were forced to make a different decision once they’d picked up their dribble. They had to shoot or pass. And it’s at this point that certain “team” features – like the pick and roll — that had originally emerged as an almost accidental function of small groups of players growing accustomed to one another in an era of no contracts and great player mobility became dominant strategies.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the market “decided” ahead of time how the pro game evolved, then or now. Part of the beauty of basketball is that technical innovations born of informal, horizontally organized, extra-institutional venues make their way into the formal game because they are strategically more effective (indeed, the dribble itself began as an accident:  someone knocked the ball out of an early player’s hands and it rolled and as he raced to retrieve it he realized he’d succeeded in advancing the ball up the court without running with it, which was disallowed; eventually this became deliberate). But strategically more effective is only one of the variables that makes those innovations stick. By itself it might not be enough. Think, for example, of the anxiety that gets generated when those innovations appear to be too effective: Mikan camping in the lane, Russell’s offensive goaltending, Wilt or Kareem’s dunks.

In class, I tried to emphasize how this whole issue is heavily moralized and racialized so that one-on-one play is thought to be selfish and ostentatious and black while team play is though to be selfless and humble and white. I felt that this moral and racial coding of a properly technical, strategic issue is so prevalent and seemingly natural that it had to be named and not only named, but ridiculed, which I did by overstating the case that in no other game do technical and strategic choices get fraught with moral and racial meanings.   Of course, that’s not true, but it worked it seemed to get the students to really stop and see how weird it is that we make my decision about whether or not to pass the ball at a given moment in a fast-moving game into a morally and racially significant one.

Moreover, I stressed (or at least I wish now I had stressed), the history of the game can be told in ways that make it appear that the “essence” of the game is team play and has been from the very start. Whether or not it’s true that team play is critical to success at the highest level of basketball is beside the point. I want my students to understand how stories get told that associate the essence of something desirable with certain classes, races or ethnicities, and genders and thus position individuals of other classes, races or ethnicities, and genders as potentially dangerous interlopers, marauders. The snake in the garden.

But with all this in mind, the market, too, sooner or later plays a role in determining the “fitness” of certain innovations, sometimes in ways that dovetail with these moralizing and racializing narratives and sometimes in ways which run against them.  Part of what is exciting about the early history of the NBA is the decentralization that served as a kind of dispersed laboratory in which experiments with the game could thrive. That laboratory still exists today of course: on playgrounds, the And-1 circuit, minor leagues like the new ABA, and so forth. But the NBA, very obviously, exerts a much more powerful, constraining gravitational pull than any institution did in the first half of the 20th century.

I love the NBA game: not only the game on the floor, but also the accompanying personalities and even the consumer culture associated with it. I love, of course, the athletic ability and skill of the players. I love the variety of styles that teams play. I don’t think the game is worse now than it used to be, nor do I think it’s necessarily better than it will be. It’s just different and, well, amazing (sorry). So in that sense, I can’t really complain about how evolution has treated the pro game.

But I also couldn’t help but feel a little sad as we read about and discussed the early pros, who were riotously experimenting with a brand-spanking new game rife with possibilities and didn’t know that they were simply participating in someone else’s pre-history.  I can’t help but be irritated that when I search for early NBA history videos on line what I get are actually videos of a BAA game from 1946 that the NBA has colonized as its own, as though it were inevitable that the BAA would, after its merger with the more talent-laden NBL, evolve into the NBA.   And so I couldn’t and can’t help but pull for what I think of as some anarchic impulse that challenges the naturalized, hierarchized, centralizing force of the NBA, even if the expression of that impulse seems to come – temporarily — at the expense of the “quality” of the game on the court.

I love the NBA, but I also love the things that put the NBA in crisis in various ways.  Think of Rodman and Artest (maddening combination of effective and unruly on the court).  Think Iverson and Arenas (maddening combination of effective on and unruly off the court).  Think Russell and Chamberlain (maddeningly unstoppable).  Think Cousy and Robertson (maddeningly confrontational in the boardroom).  Think Rasheed (maddening combination of extraordinary individual talent, modest individual ambition, and extraordinary outspokenness).  I know the NBA probably isn’t really threatened by these figures.  Maybe even they learn to capitalize on them.  But when they first surface there’s a least a shudder in the powers that be.

I’m not sure, but I think that in a very roundabout way I just set myself up to be David Stern and my students to be the early pros. The point is that I want my class to have the room to evolve. I want there to be enough flexibility that random heretical comments – the classroom equivalent of a crossover dribble flying in the face of the conventional wisdom that the ball handler should keep his body between the ball and the defender; the kind of innovation a ref blows the whistle on because he’s never seen it before — have a chance to prove their fitness. And so that students have the opportunity to practice being part of a genuine intellectual dialogue. But part of that practice also entails I think developing with them some criteria of fitness in the form of an emerging common vocabulary and set of shared interests that we can return to when our actual or figurative wandering has left us feeling lost, which seems like an appropriate place to end since Thursdays class will be devoted to the itinerant barnstormers.

Go back to read about how basketball is like a religion or a nation

Go on to read about why I should be but am not identified as Chris Paul on the playground

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