Perhaps by now you’ve seen my First Team, Second Team, and Third Team All-Bad Prof Basketball Book List selections. They were the fifteen books, grouped into three tiers of five, that I’ve returned to again and again for teaching, research, and enjoyment because of their originality and accessibility, the depth they bring to their subjects and, perhaps most of all, their reliable avoidance of the cliches, dogmas and harmful myths of basketball culture.
These final five books (listed alphabetically by title), my Honorable Mention selections, are further down this list not because of any objective deficiency, not even because of any defect I would identify. They are rounding out my top twenty simply because I’ve relied on the books on the Third, Second and especially First teams even more often than these. Nevertheless, these five works easily satisfy the criteria I set out initially. Indeed, as you’ll come to see, they might just as easily have been the first team.
I’ve read each of these at least twice, used at least parts of each of them in my teaching and cited each of them regularly in my research. And a contrarian basketball fan (after my own heart) could certainly forego my ridiculous three-team system and start right here with these five books and he or she would certainly deepen his or her understanding of the sport, its promise and problems and its important figures and events.
After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness
“As basketball is more than a game, the policies, representations, and narratives articulated through and about the NBA (and its black players) have a larger place, meaning, and significance in our society.”
by David J. Leonard (Originally published in Albany by State University of New York Press, 2012; 262 pp.)
After Artest is at the forefront of interdisciplinary scholarly work in sports studies that identifies and critiques new forms of so-called “colorblind” racism. In this book, Leonard, who teaches at Washington State University, examines the cultural and administrative “assault on blackness” among NBA fans and executives as well as some in the media in the wake of the melee that broke out during a Detroit Pistons home game against the Indiana Pacers in 2004. Leonard’s persuasive chapter-length studies of the racial politics of the so-called “Palace melee,” NBA age limits, dress codes, and the representation of violence in the NBA more generally amply document instances of the kinds of racialized popular discourse in question and clearly explain the theories of race, sport and culture being used as lenses to frame these popular discourses.
Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball
“This Black aesthetic has not only changed basketball but . . . has been the catalytic force behind the sport’s extraordinary growth in popularity and profitability.”
by Nelson George (Originally published in 1992; reprinted in Lincoln, NE by University of Nebraska Press, 1999; currently out of print but available used; 261 pp.)
Nelson George’s history of “black men and basketball” is one the most important histories of basketball out there. Colloquial and readable and style, this well-informed volume tracks the participation of black men in basketball from the earliest years shortly after Naismith’s invention of the sport in 1891, through the changes wrought by the Great Migration before concluding with the ascendance of Michael Jordan. Some of the material (on Russell, Chamberlain and other NBA superstars) can be found in greater detail elsewhere. But what makes George’s treatment of these figures especially illuminating and interesting is that their stories are here set alongside those of far lesser known figures from all-black pro teams and leagues, historically black colleges and universities, and even black high schools. Throughout the history, George gracefully weaves developments in basketball (black and otherwise) into a a more comprehensive narrative that incorporates other forms of black popular culture and the broader social and political history of the United States in the 20th century.
“The Heresy of Zone Defense” from Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy
“In professional basketball, however, art wins.”
by Dave Hickey (Originally published in Los Angeles by Art Issues, 1997; pp. 155-162)
The only article to crack the list of my top twenty books, “The Heresy of Zone Defense” is a short meditation by the maverick art critic Dave Hickey on basketball as an exhibition of freedom that Hickey finds exemplary for both arts and civic life in the United States. Hickey’s point of departure is Julius Erving’s incredible behind the scoop layups against Lakers in the NBA playoffs.
But his genius lies in recognizing that Kareem’s defense is integral to Erving’s improvisational brilliance. And this becomes the occasion for a brief and funny, but profound and very sharp, argument about the relationship between constraint and freedom in sport, art, politics, and life. This essays is floating around on the web, but Hickey is a genius and you should have to buy the book.
Michael Jordan, Inc.: Corporate Sport, Media Culture, and Late Modern America
“This anthology brings together a selection of chapters that use Michael Jordan as a vehicle for developing progressive understandings of the broader social, economic, political, and technological concerns that frame contemporary culture.”
Edited by David L. Andrews (Originally published in Albany by State University of New York Press, 2001; 301 pp.
The existence of this book was nothing short of a revelation for me, a kind of discovery of academic heaven on earth: a collection of scholars from different academic disciplines demonstrating at one and the same time their unabashed love for the basketball play of Michael Jordan and their intelligent, well-informed, and well-argued critiques of the corporate-media-sports complex that transforms this beautiful art into commodified celebrity and profit. Andrews, who edits the volume, may be the most important and wide-ranging sociologist writing about sport in the world today and in this volume he has brought together other luminaries from the world of academic sports studies who approach Jordan from more (and more inventive) angles than you could probably imagine possible. Jordan and the celebrity economy, Jordan and corporate culture, Jordan and identity politics, Jordan and the global marketplace, Jordan and critical pedagogy: these are the unit headings within which the book’s ten chapters are distributed. Every one of them is worthwhile, as is Andrews introductory essay “Michael Jordan Matters.” It’s not only an indispensable pathbreaking work for academics like me, it should be required reading for every basketball fan that has every participated in a debate about whether Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time without pausing to reflect on the fact that Michael Jordan, the player, is also “Michael Jordan”—this … I dunno… thing we have collectively conspired to create and consume. Because this book will help that fan understand why he is even having that argument.
Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man
By Bill Russell and Taylor Branch (Originally published in New York by Random House, 1979; currently out of print but available used; 265 pp.)
This one is tough for me to write about. Its value as a hoops book, let’s just say, was secured the other day by none other than Bethlehem Shoals, co-founder and key conspirator in the FreeDarko collective who said it was his favorite book ever. And if that’s not good enough for you, then add the enthusiastic endorsement of Aram Goudsouzian, author of the definitive Russell biography, King of the Court. That’s two writers from my first team telling you this book is important. What else do you need? Okay, how about a Hall of Fame center with eleven championship rings, who was also an outspoken political activist involved in the most important struggles of his time. Now put him together with a MacArthur genius grant winning independent journalist and scholar who wrote perhaps the most detailed biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. that is also an astonishingly wide-ranging history of the period in American history in which Russell was formed and in which he acted. Okay?
It’s not the book’s claims to being on my list that make it hard to write about. It’s that I cannot separate it from some of the crucial experiences my own life. The book came out in 1979, according to the frontispiece of the first edition I am holding in my hand. On June 13, 1980, my father received it as a gift for his saint’s day from my mother. He inscribed it with the date, his initials and last name, and his city, state, and zip code. They were separated at the time. I would turn 15 a month later. In the front flap is a card from my mother who wrote, in their native Spanish, “a remembrance of all the games that we’ve seen together and of the ones we haven’t seen together.” She was a simple hearted person, but she had a subtle, sharp gift with language.
I was there for a lot of those games: some were my oldest brother’s that I, adoring, attended with my parents, some were Wisconsin Badger games at the old Field House long after and long before they were good, some were Milwaukee Bucks games, played occasionally at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison or at the Mecca in Milwaukee. I went to most of those too. And of course, many (perhaps most) were my own games, from junior high through high school, when I got to play on the floor at Mecca myself. In my childish memory, my father vastly preferred Russell to Chamberlain on political grounds (Chamberlain briefly campaigned for Richard Nixon, whom my father despised). He corrected that later, saying simply that he didn’t really have a preference, but simply the commonplace opinion that Russell harmonized his abilities with his teammates better than Chamberlain.
I read Second Wind that summer that my mom gave it to my dad, that summer (one of several) that they were separated during my formative years, that summer that I was aspiring to become a basketball player, a man, and a human adult. I remember what most stood out in my mind at that time were Russell’s recollections of how he used his imagination to visualize his basketball inventions before executing them. He wrote: “When the imitation worked and the ball went in, I could barely contain myself. . . . Now for the first time I had transferred something from my head to my body. It seemed so easy.” Indeed it did. And what an intoxicating possibility not only for an athlete but for an adolescent: to transfer something from my head to my body! I tried, but it didn’t work for me.
Years later, rereading the book during college, I was drawn to Russell’s strong anti-racist, non-conformist political opinions. “Most of us today are like cows,” he wrote, “we will quietly stand in any line or fill out any form if there’s a sign telling us that’s what we should do. As a result, the country is filled with people who either paint signs or stand in line. I don’t like doing either one.” Me neither. But when, like Russ copying the basketball moves in his own mind, I tried to mimic his opinions before my father, thinking he’d be proud, he only argued with me, rejecting my new found political convictions as inadequately founded. It hurt, but he was right. But it hurt.
In the past 15 months, both my parents died. First my dad, on April 9, 2014, then my mom, almost exactly one year later, on April 16, 2015. He died quickly of cancer. She died slowly from Alzheimer’s. My dad was aware, and proud I think, of the turn my career had taken into basketball studies—at least he was proud that I was finally fucking productive again! I don’t have any idea what my mom knew or didn’t know about what I did. But she was always, always proud. But by the time they were each dying, their pride didn’t matter so much to me as just getting to look into their eyes and getting to see them laugh.
Somewhere around halfway between the day my dad died and the day my mom died, I shared a stage with Taylor Branch, the co-author of Second Wind. He was in Ann Arbor appearing as one of two keynote speakers for a conference on values in college sport that some colleagues of mine and I had co-organized. It was my job to introduce him, which I did very proudly; beginning by recalling this book and its importance in my family’s life and thanking for it. He was gracious and inscribed and signed it for me: November 14th, 2014.
This book is a treasure, most deserving of a genuinely honorable mention, which I hope I have given it. And I hope too that by doing so, I scramble a bit the stupid conventional sports logic by which I have ranked twenty books into four categories, as though they have not all been priceless treasures for me.
Politics and society and race, media and the market, art and philosophy, freedom and injustice, the scholarly analysis of institutions and discourses, the informed but colloquially styled reflection on past events, the acute sensitivity and intelligence shining through a player speaking for himself—in this way these books offer an exemplary sampling of the range of genres of basketball writing that I most enjoy and that I find most informative and stimulating to my own thinking and really, that characterize my whole list.
In fact, I think what make the books on this list of mine so incredible, so worthy of your time, is that each one of them is a like a hologram of all the wisdom of basketball culture. If you read only one of them, you could pick any one of them and you would, in a certain sense, know all you needed to know, and feel all you needed to feel, about the culture of the game. That’s obviously false in another sense. But that it feels true to me perhaps can tell you a lot about these twenty books.
If it doesn’t, here’s one more thing to recommend them: if my book is 1/10 as impactful on just one reader as every one of these has been on me (and, I know, on many others), I’ll consider it an unqualified success beyond my wildest imagination.