The Culture of Moving Dots

Today I listened to a very well crafted, informative lecture by Rajiv Maheswaran on how basketball teams are using movement tracking devices and computing power to inform the decisions they make about roster composition, strategy and tactics.  Not only was the lecture itself admirable (something that, as a teacher, I care about a lot), but the human scientific intelligence and the technological power described in it leave me awestruck.  Moreover, the potential for the insights generated by this work to cut through certain persistent myths in basketball culture—myths that often harbor and purvey harmful social attitudes, especially about race—seems exciting to me.

Of course, as someone who has spent a lot of time analyzing the often irrational (if unconscious) attitudes embedded in the language and stories used to talk about basketball and basketball players from the game’s invention to the present day, the facts offered up by quantitative reasoning can be one useful instrument for countering these myths. And I can certainly see this presentation as a demonstration of the brilliant complexity of the physical and cognitive abilities of individual basketball players.  But still, quantitative reasoning and the technology and facts to which they lead remain just that—useful instruments—and ones whose utility depends, like that of any instrument, on the intentions of the user and the context of the use.  They are not, in my view any way, some sort of final horizon of human knowledge about basketball and its culture.  That’s why, despite these positive feelings, a reservation popped into my head almost from the outset, kept nagging at me throughout, and remained when I finished watching. 

At a linguistic and conceptual level, as I’ve expressed elsewhere on this blog, I’m concerned with the abstracting tendencies in basketball culture that lead us to see players as something other than human beings like ourselves.  So I get worried when Maheswaran boasts that in sports, through the “instrumenting of stadiums,” “we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.”

moving dots

we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.

There better be, in my view, some extremely compelling reason, some significant value delivered that outweighs for me the ethical cost of viewing (let alone “turning”) athletes—or any human being, for that matter—into a moving dots.  After all, psychologists have told us that seeing other people as moving dots, say on a radar screen, seems to make it easier to kill them.

But Maheswaran’s work seems driven by an assumption that the ability to track and quantify human movement is a desirable thing.  He asserts this more or less directly a few times in the course of his lecture, apparently to remind his audience of the practical value of the scientific research involved.  

So, he introduces his work with the relatively simple rhetorical assertion of value:

And wouldn’t it be great if we could understand all this movement? If we could find patterns and meaning and insight in it.

Then, after a detailed and informative explanation of how machines deliver NBA franchises information about shot selection and shooting ability, he explains that

it’s really important to know if the 47 [meaning the 47% shooter] that you’re considering giving 100 million dollars to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots.

Finally, in concluding he offers a touching glimpse of the personal value we might derive from non-sporting applications of this technology:

Perhaps, instead of identifying pick-and-rolls, a machine can identify the moment and let me know when my daughter takes her first steps. Which could literally be happening any second now.

Studying-Gothic-4

Think very carefully about this: are you prepared to live with what what you create?

Finally, he lands on a firmly optimistic and time honored Enlightenment era affirmation of the blissful marriage of science and progress in the quality of human lives:

Perhaps we can learn to better use our buildings, better plan our cities. I believe that with the development of the science of moving dots, we will move better, we will move smarter, we will move forward.

To some degree, I am with him on most of this.  However, I must say it’s no more important to me to know if the player that an NBA owner is considering giving $100 million to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots than it is to know whether my friend Johnny is moving his body in the most productive way during his shift as a stocker at the local Walmart. Beyond this, with regard to his final assertion, a great deal depends for me on what he means by better and smarter and even forward.

I am no scientist, but I am also no Luddite.  I recognize and depend upon the value of quantitative and scientific reasoning and its many technological applications countless times in the course of my daily life.  For example, at this very moment, I tap my fingers on a wireless computer keyboard that sends signals to my CPU that in turn transforms those movements into letters and words appearing on my screen in the post composition screen of a page on the internet. I may not understand the process in detail, but I know enough to know that my own work depends, directly or indirectly, on the work of people like Maheswaran.  And so I want to be clear that I am not adopting some sort of polarizing anti-technology stance whereby I’d advocate a world law banning the use of quantitative reasoning, science or technology in sport or elsewhere.

I am, however, advocating for a place at the table where decisions concerning the development and use of such instruments get made.  

I don’t mean a place for me personally (though I can think of worse candidates), but for people like me (but smarter and better informed—in other words, I can also think of better candidates) who have devoted much of their lives to studying the history of the relationship between human technologies and human values.  People, I mean, willing to attend to the annoying complexity of concepts like better, smarter, and forward.

Our technological power, as Maheswaran so ably demonstrates, is growing in leaps and bounds and the demonstrations, like his lecture, we have of it—themselves reliant upon new technologies—grow increasingly enticing and compelling to more and more people. Meanwhile, despite a shrinking budgets for higher education around the country, corporations and university administrators continue to prioritize spending for the development of facilities, faculty and resources in science, technology, engineering and math.

But this expansion has often come at the expense of investments in the humanities disciplines that have been the traditional home (in universities, at any rate) of critical conversation about the ethical costs and benefits of the developments we find so enthralling.  0When we contemplate, individually or collectively, using a new tool (which is how I see the technological application of scientific research), we must ask ourselves, informed by historical knowledge and by a deep interest in the causal web that extends around the globe, into the earth itself, and forward into the future, what we stand to gain and to lose by its use.  As you might imagine, the conversation that follows that initial query is likely to be complicated and messy and, dare I say it, inefficient.  But it is no less—and perhaps more—urgent that we have it on that account.

We need, in other words, to think very carefully and to talk about what we’ll gain and lose by moving “forward” into a “better” and “smarter” world in which we may all transform one another into moving dots.

Why I Can’t Get Excited About NBA Transactions

This is the biggest week in pro basketball’s off-season.  Over the past week, avid interest in the big news and minute details of both the NBA draft and free agency has swept up citizens of the basketball world.  I consider myself a hoops citizen in good standing and, as such, I’ve tried to follow the speculation and the breaking news stories, but I’ve found my heart’s really not in it and I’ve started to wonder why.  The draft’s big news that Jahlil Okafor dropped to the three spot or that the Knicks’ Phil Jackson drafted Kristaps Porzingis left me cold.  How about today’s free agent signings? Is DeMarre Carroll going to make the Raptors better? Was he worth the money they paid him? I don’t care.

UCOR-Billboard4To begin with, with few exceptions, I’m not all that invested in the year-to-year vicissitudes of the different teams.  I do understand that some people are and perhaps this just says something about the nature of my fandom, which primarily skirts identification with particular teams.  I lived in Ann Arbor for about 15 years and was on and off again a fan of the Pistons, but only when they were good and even then, I found myself easily thrilled by a great individual performance by another player, even when it came at the Pistons’ expense. Now for the last few years, I’ve lived near Cleveland. I tried to get into the Cavs, but found that I only could do so when LeBron James returned to the team.  So to the degree that draft and free agency excitement is driven by fans’ investments in the fortunes of their teams, I’m just not built to thrill to the changes this moment brings.

Don’t get me wrong, I love basketball, and not just great individual performances.  I love great team performances as well.  In each of the last two finals, though I was hoping for LeBron’s Heat and then Cavs to win the championship, I found myself enthralled, in spite of myself, at the beautiful, varied shapes and movements that San Antonio and Golden State generated on the floor. But I don’t care about those franchises or those cities as such, any more than I care about the Cavaliers or the city of Cleveland as such. I don’t care how they do next year.  I think such entities, perhaps, are too abstract to stir my emotional and aesthetic sensibilities.  I’m more likely to be thrilled by particulars, by concrete moments, by events, by actual people than by institutions (like franchises) or abstractions (like “the city of ‘x'”).

And this might illuminate another source of my aversion (which some friends have pointed out to me): that these two events—the draft and free agency—mark the apex of the basketball world’s commodification of its players; or rather, the apex of their explicit, unabashed commodification and therefore a moment in which we may be most likely to lose sight of their humanity. I’m no economist and it may be controversial but I think commodification can be understood as

The subordination of both private and public realms to the logic of capitalism. In this logic, such things as friendship, knowledge, women, etc. are understood only in terms of their monetary value. In this way, they are no longer treated as things with intrinsic worth but as commodities. (They are valued, that is, only extrinsically in terms of money.) By this logic, a factory worker can be reconceptualized not as a human being with specific needs that, as humans, we are obliged to provide but as a mere wage debit in a businessman’s ledger. (From Dino Felluga)

Players are most obviously fungible bodies during this period, in which their rich individuality as human beings and athletes is reductively quantified to a particular potential value added and/or a dollar amount. That is to say, I guess, that in a sense this is the moment when a life is turned into a abstraction.

it-is-simply-a-cartel-the-story-behind-mls-winning-the-labor-wars-against-players-1425396738.pngOf course, given the context of the NBA as a capitalist cartel, I am certainly pleased to see players get paid, pleased to see each of them exercise what leverage they’ve acquired through their excellence in order to take advantage of the rare opportunities they get to cash in. And I have been excited to see former students of mine from the University of Michigan men’s basketball team enter the draft.  But that’s mostly because I know them, know their dreams, and am happy to see them live them; just as I am happy to see the student whose dream is to live in Paris, pick up and move there after graduation. But these exceptions just highlight for me that  the way in which this process gets talked about among fans and media observers for the most part disheartening, even embarrassing in the same way that when occasionally a non-sports fan friend of mine will ask some seemingly naive question about sports, it tends to jar open a defamiliarizing abyss in my own investment in sports so that—having no ready answer—I’m suddenly launched into an existential crisis about why I spend so much time in sports.

Sure, I always come around: the heart wants what the heart wants and “the heart,” as Pascal said, “has its reasons which reason can’t understand.”  But still, the trading of flesh—regardless of the price—bums my heart out.  I know, of course, the commodification of human beings is not just a problem in sports and I think it’s unfair for others to single sports out as some sort of egregious exception to how the rest of the world works.  Every for-profit enterprise entails the reductive transformation of concrete labor and of labor’s concrete creations into fungible quantities to be measured against one another: manufacturing, journalism, and of course, higher education.  In that sense, sport is no different, no worse perhaps and perhaps no better.

the-garden-of-earthly-delights-1515-7

But perhaps because I care about the language of sport and in the ideas and values this language reflects, conveys, and reinforces, because, in other words, I am a citizen of basketball, I find myself wanting a space in which, even in the midst of breathlessly reporting the slide of some prospect down the draft board or some surprise free agent pick up, we could pause to also talk about the bigger processes with which we’re complicit.

Here I imagine some readers—the few still with me after I defined commodification, I mean—shaking their head at my naivete.  Or others, resentfully pointing out my hypocrisy (I enjoy the fruits of this system even as I criticize it) as a means of protecting their pleasure against a critique. I want to say that I really don’t want to appear judgmental of anyone’s fun here.  Comparisons are odious, including comparisons of relative exploitation.  But I get that the exploitative commodification of NBA players probably isn’t and shouldn’t be tops on the list of the world’s injustices.  And I’m certainly not claiming that making space for this would change anything about how those processes work. So on those scores at least, such readers can relax.

But it certainly couldn’t make the world worse if we had more room to talk about how it felt to be—or even to watch others be—commodified, reduced to some quantitative measurement, traded.  Maybe even, if we talked about those feelings, we’d be more in touch with them, and more in touch with the unpleasant aspect of them.  And maybe then, if enough of us were more in touch with them, we’d start to look for another way to organize ourselves and our varied, concrete capacities to make new things in this world, whether those things are books, basketball shoes, or basketball plays.

217540431VTBjsL_fs

In Praise of Inefficiency and the Incalculable

Much has been written in recent days about the Cleveland Cavaliers improbable victories over the Golden State Warriors in Games 2 and 3 of the NBA Finals.  The Warriors, the NBA’s best team during this year’s regular season and, according to several advanced metrics, one of the most dominating and efficient teams ever, were supposed to steamroll the Cavs, especially given injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, two of Cleveland’s big three stars.  And yet, as we’ve seen and then read about, this is not the case.  Observers have noted a number of reasons for this.  Cleveland has slowed the pace of games by running down the shot clock, aggressively pursuing offensive rebounds (which prevents Golden State’s big men from releasing on fast breaks), and pressuring the ball in the back court.  Golden State has thrived on playing a fast paced game and they’ve clearly been confounded by Cleveland’s tactics.  Of course, a big factor in Cleveland’s ability to set the pace has been the play of LeBron James.  Here, we read how James, whose career has been marked by efficient scoring and unselfishness, has reluctantly adapted to the conditions of this series by controlling the ball more on offense and putting up many  more shots than usual.  The story, to boil it down to oversimple terms, is that, contrary to predictions based on statistical analysis of the regular season (and even the longer career trajectories of key participants), inefficiency is beating efficiency.

I find this heartening for many reasons, but I want here to focus on just one. Read more

Values of College Sport Symposium

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sterling and the Foundations of the Modern Basketball State

Somewhat under-examined in the Donald Sterling Shit Show of the past week has been Sterling’s rhetorical question asserting his creative importance as owner: “Do I make the game? Or do they make the game?”  Though Sterling has appropriately been chastised, lampooned, and punished for these and other remarks as well as for past behavior, I believe he has also to some degree been scapegoated by other owners, league executives, the news media and fans availing themselves of the easy opportunity to distance themselves from the kind of extreme and easily quotable form of racism that, too often, is the only form of racism acknowledged to exist in sports and in this country more broadly.  As Tim Marchman has put it, “Sterling isn’t some anomaly; he’s the perfect representative of his class.” Indeed.  In fact, his claim that it is the owners, rather than the players who “make the game” expresses a key component of a myth that runs like a fault line back to the very foundation of the NBA. Read more

What 'Sheed Says When He Says "Ball Don't Lie!"

“Pistons Sheed”
(Nathan McKee, 2014, Giclee Print, 13 x 19)

In my post yesterday, I analyzed the structure of a foul call in an NBA game to show that a foul doesn’t cause the whistle to blow (as the rules prescribe); the whistle blowing causes a foul to come into being.  But neither the rules of the game nor basketball common sense acknowledge the real nature of the foul call or the quasi-divine power NBA refs enjoy to actually constitute (not just identify) illegality.  And, if this power isn’t acknowledged, it cannot be challenged.  This is where ‘Sheed and “Ball Don’t Lie!” come in.

In fact, I consider his 317 career technical fouls a rough index of his ability to convey to referees his intent to expose and challenge their power. It may seem at first glance that, like basketball common sense, “Ball Don’t Lie” also mistakes the referee’s speech act as a descriptive statement, one with which ‘Sheed (or, actually, “Ball”) merely disagrees. But I believe the outraging power of “Ball don’t lie!” goes beyond simply countering one description of reality with another. It may do that. But its power and danger lies in drawing attention to the power of the referee to create a reality within which the players must play and which they must accept without question.

“Ball Don’t Lie” does this by offering us the possibility—however fanciful it may seem—that other powers, greater even than that of the referee, are weighing in as well. And this implicitly reminds us of the referee’s powers. Indeed, the very absurdity of the “ball” making a call draws our attention to the fact that the referee was not actually objectively describing a play but exercising what are within the universe of basketball quasi-divine powers to bring a foul into being.

‘Sheed isn’t just disagreeing with the call, he’s exposing these powers and in exposing these powers he is also calling into question the hierarchical structure of the sport whereby a referee is uniquely endowed with the powers to define reality. Indeed, I think ‘Sheed’s 2012 ejection from a Knicks-Suns game  occurred not because ‘Sheed applied “Ball don’t lie!” to an ordinary personal foul call whistled against him, but because he applied it to a technical foul call: in other words, he challenged the referee’s authority to enforce conformity with his decisions.

So Rasheed Wallace lays bare and challenges the power dynamics of the NBA, but he also affirms a positive alternative.  The phrase “Ball don’t lie!” comes from the culture of recreational or “pickup” basketball played on urban playgrounds. In such settings, without referees, players referee themselves, calling their own fouls and violations. Of course, just as in any formal game, disagreements may arise. One way these are often settled is by one of the disputants taking an uncontested shot from the top of the key. If the ball goes in, his or her claim is upheld, if it doesn’t go in, his or her claim is rejected. Though some grumbling may continue, the dispute is definitively settled because, well, as everyone knows and accepts: “Ball Don’t Lie!”

By introducing a phrase from this setting into the NBA, ‘Sheed reminds us that players can and do play basketball without refs and their transcendent powers. Viewed from this angle, “Ball Don’t Lie!” doesn’t so much invoke a transcendent power higher than that of the referees. It rejects the very idea of transcendent power. Instead, it invokes a lower power—or, more accurately, a power that circulates horizontally among equals rather than vertically from the top of a hierarchy to its bottom: that is, the immanent, self-organizing autonomous power of basketball players. I share with Rasheed this belief in the crucial importance of the self-organizing autonomous power of players. In fact, I’ve tried to let this power guide my my approach to basketball history in my teaching and in writing Ball Don’t Lie!

But the urban playground is more than just the site of “informal” play outside the sanction and control of hierarchically organized institutions. It also signifies within basketball culture the big city and, via an associative chain, impoverished urban neighborhoods and the residents of those neighborhoods, who early in the 20th century were already playing pickup ball because, with its relative simple requirements where space and equipment were concerned, basketball lent itself to cramped and crowded spaces and limited resources. Over the course of the middle of the 20th century, as ethnic immigrants migrated out of America’s urban core and African-Americans migrated in, and especially in the second half of the 20th century, urban pickup basketball came to be associated with African-Americans in the American cultural imagination.

When ‘Sheed yells “Ball don’t lie!” then, we should imagine the phrase as a kind of kite pulled onto the center of the NBA’s stage.  Attached to that kite is a string of associated phenomena: not only player autonomy, but also both the stereotypes and the real material conditions that link urban Black males with basketball. Beginning with its integration in the 1950s, but in a more marked way since the mid-1980s the NBA, as Todd Boyd, David Leonard and others have shown, has sought to profit from the black bodies of its players (and from some of the stereotypical images of black male urban culture) while simultaneously maintaining a “safe” distance from the less broadly marketable images associated with Black urban males. The NBA treats “Blackness” and its stereotypical signifiers as a kind of fluid cultural currency: it wants that currency to flow into the NBA in the form of talent and marketable cool, but it wants to control the flow.

“Ball don’t lie!” then also brings the playground into the mainstream arena of American culture, but in a way that resists defusing appropriation because it appears as a direct challenge to the authority of that culture as embodied in the referees and the league and its vertical, hierarchical power arrangement. The political importance of “Ball don’t lie!” then, resides, in its affirmation of the autonomous self-governance of intersecting populations (basketball players, the poor, urban dwellers, African-Americans in general and young black males in particular) whose capacity for self-governance public policy and popular culture attempts to hamper and then denies exists.

The Freedom in Dennis Rodman

This was written sometime in the summer of 1996, after the Bulls won the NBA championship, led by the trio of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and, implausibly, their former nemesis and Detroit Piston Bad Boy, Dennis Rodman.

 A former colleague and good friend of mine, Grant Farred, with whom I’d shared numerous conversations about sports, invited me to write it for a collection he was putting together.  Grant went on to a very successful academic career in the field of sports studies, but this particular collection never got published and I thought my contribution was lost forever. But I recently found the typescript in a drawer at my parents’ house and thought I’d share it here.  Some of the writing and formulations are out-of-date, embarrassing, or just wrong.  But I haven’t changed anything in it. 

 You have to turn your imagination back to the 1995-1996 season and especially the finals (or fire up some youtube clips from the period).  And if you can, then this piece might have some historical or archival value – as a way of seeing the Dennis Rodman of that time. ~ yc

I.

Dennis Rodman looks out of place on a basketball court.  His body doesn’t seem to belong, not to him and not on the court.  First, there’s the way he runs the floor.  For all his athletic ability, maybe even because of his athletic ability, Rodman runs like that guy in middle school: the one the coach pulled out from behind the school where he was smoking cigarettes with the other dirtballs, switched his leather jacket for a pair of gym shorts, and put him at center because he’d hit puberty before anyone else.  He could run the floor faster and longer than any of us who had been doing it all our young lives, but purely as a physiological act.  His body seemed to do it in spite of himself, in spite of his mind, which surely was elsewhere.  Knees picked up too high, landing almost on the tips of his toes, arms doing nothing but helping him run.  He could run alright, he was a natural runner, but not a basketball player who was running.  He could jump too, but the same way, as a natural jumper.

Our resentment surely began there, covetous of squandered gifts we knew already we would never enjoy, we turned our timid pre-pubescent wit at everything else about him:  his skills first, but also his grades, his appalling and shameful delinquency, and above all, his nonchalance, which we, true to the formula of athletics, recast as “lack of intensity,” egotism, or when it related to the coach, “insubordination.”  The “head case” was born of our envious juvenile imaginations.  This is Rodman, and you see it everytime he pulls down a defensive rebound.  He seems almost afraid to move his feet because of the disaster that will ensue if he tries to do that which he does so well when he’s just moving in a straight line down the flow while he has to think think of something else, like how to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. Read more

Where Anything Happens: The Dreams of Moneyball and the Beauty in the Unreasonable

Moneyball tells the apparently simple story of how a failed ex-major leaguer finds redemption and the underfunded team of which he was the general manager finds success by surfing the implacable wave of advanced statistical methods.

As such, it’s an underdog story that’s easy to follow.  Both the general manager, Billy Beane, and his team, the Oakland Athletics, are easy to identify with and support.   Most of us struggle, like the A’s, to make our lives without the privilege of vast wealth or superior natural talent.   Read more

Day 18: The Answer and the Dreams of David Stern

Sometime just before 1800, the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya completed a self-portrait. An etching, Goya shows himself sitting facing the viewer, but asleep with his head resting on his arms, which are folded on the table next to him. Behind him, owls and bats rise, and flutter, and hover, perhaps departing perhaps poised for attack. On the floor, at the lower right, a cat observes with wide eyes. A banner hanging from the front of the table reads, in Spanish, “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos.” Though the Spanish word “sueño” can mean either “sleep” or “dream,” the most conventional rendering of the phrase is “the dream of reason produces monsters.”

Imagine NBA Commissioner David Stern asleep. What do you see rising menacingly above his slumbering head? I imagine it would be Allen Iverson. At least, that’s what I thought after our recent class discussion on AI, aka The Answer. I’m going to come back to the sleeping Stern and the Goya print, but first let me tell you what the students did.  We watched the clip:

And then, as usual, I asked them to tell me what they saw. Someone said “steals”. “Steals, okay, what about the steals?” Someone else says, “The anticipation and the speed, they look so easy, so clean.” “Okay, what else did you see?” “Handle.” “Handle, okay, what about it?” “The crossover, he’s got that left to right down, that’s hard to do.” I’m writing all these things down on the board. “Okay, what else?” “Fearless, someone says.” “Fearless in relation to what?” I ask. “Like on that tip slam on the free throw, he’s fearless going after offensive rebounds.” “Would you be afraid to do that?” I ask. “No, but I’m 6’9″. What was he, 6’0? To throw himself in with all those bigs, that takes fearlessness.”

This leads someone else to say something about his attitude, confidence, swag, which turns then, to commitment. Everyone seems to agree that Iverson lays it all out every second that he’s on the court. “He just doesn’t care…” somebody says, meaning to affirm what everyone else is saying about commitment. Here I pause for a second. Because it’s interesting to me that somewhere along the line in relation to AI, “not caring” can be synonymous with commitment, that is, with caring. I don’t mean to make too big a mystery out of it. I think the student meant simply that Iverson didn’t care about risking his body, didn’t care about being injured, didn’t really care about anything but going 100 % in the pursuit of victory. So Iverson didn’t care about anything but caring. And this leads students to comment on his independent streak–as in, he didn’t care what others thought of him–and the way it goes hand and hand with taking risk.

So we start talking about how much of his game involves a delicately balanced dance of vulnerability and risk and courage. Obviously, going for steals involves risk and danger and exposure. You might get beat and look the fool. The apparent vulnerability of Iverson’s small body as he leaves his feet to meet two or three much larger defenders. He can and did get crushed at times. But at other times, more often than not, in fact, it all worked out and he sped or glided or twisted of fell away or spun and turned the risk of block or injury into success. But the back and forth that leads to the cross over. The ball exposed, the whole point being to expose the ball, but not as much as the defender thinks it is exposed, and then to take it away, exploiting the miscalculated risk and so the vulnerability of the opponent. In a certain sense, his hallmark one-man offensive repertoire itself flirts with danger and risk and transformed it, even if for just one season, into glorious against all the odds, rules, conventions, and mores, into success. This flirtation with danger, perhaps, carried out on his own terms is both what made Iverson thrilling and adored and also what made him anathema to Commissioner Stern.

Which led to the commercial in which the camera circles Allen Iverson as he sits on a training table, listening to music through headphones, before wordlessly getting up off the table.

There’s so much going on in this ad. But to begin with, at the simplest level, it echoes what the students had seen in the clip and what they had perhaps, already in their memories. Iverson was a warrior. Average sized, fearlessly aggressive with the basketball, Iverson was often risking and suffering injury. And just as often, Iverson was playing injured or coming back from injury, as the ad concludes: “stronger than ever.” But there’s more, as I pointed out in class. There’s the simple division of the narrative time of the ad between the time of preparation and the time of work. When it is time to work, the ad seems to say, despite what he has suffered, Allen Iverson will be there, on time, ready to work. But before it is time to work, the ad also seems to say, he will be alone, with his music, eyes closed, in his own world–a world of solitude, the ad perhaps subtly argues, he has earned through his fearless effort and the sacrifice of his body. He will show up for work, in other words, but that is all he owes you. The rest is his.

Except, and I didn’t say this in class, that the rest isn’t exactly his either, even if he’s right that it should be. Consider the noteworthy combination of discourses, scriptures strictly speaking, converging on Iverson’s body. The tattoos, of course, which mark his body with memories, beliefs, alliances, psychological pain and the way these are paired with the more antiseptic medical scripture marking his body with a different kind of history: bursitis, fracture, contusion, bruises, dislocations. In a way, both kinds of writing do the same: they make visible the marks that history has left on Allen Iverson’s body and soul. The scanning wavy grid lines suggest, to me anyway, both flashes of recurrent pain, but also a kind of constant surveillance or scanning. And the latter is echoed both by the camera’s intrusive circling, panning, and zooming on Iverson during a “private” “solitary” moment and by the incessant gab of the announcer’s voices played over and for a time drowning out, the quieter music that is perhaps the same music Allen is listening to. The ad, read this way, says, Iverson has never been alone.

And, perhaps because I am predisposed to sympathize with him, I feel that I understand better and want to support his desire to draw a sharp line between his game on the court (which, let us say, as a paid pro, he does owe and–be fair–he more than paid up) and everything else (which he should just be allowed, as much as he can, to live in whatever combination of company and solitude pleases him). Iverson in this ad is an innocent, by which I don’t mean to say without experience or history. But innocent in the sense of guileless and without malice. An average man engaged in battles against the above average: giant centers, horrific social conditions, history has marked him with injuries of every sort, physical and spiritual, and he has responded with integrity, resolve and quiet determination.

I might not have said this in class in such detail, but that might be because I feel like the students were already there. Iverson was their hero, wherever they were from, whatever the color of their skin, their gender, their position, their sport, whatever their background, whatever their style of ball: Iverson was their hero because he was the hero of being yourself. Which may also be why their strongest and most articulate impressions came in relation to what they saw as David Stern’s foolish and clumsy war on all things Iverson.

We’re talking about the “Dress Code” of course, and hanging perhaps too large a hat on it. But then again, I don’t know [NOTE: since I first wrote this, David Leonard published the definitive treatment of the dress code as part of the NBA’s assault on blackness.  You should read that.]. The code, announced just before Opening Day in 2005, was also accompanied by NBA Cares, a public service initiative. As for the code itself, here it is as reported in The New York Times on October 19, 1995:

Players must adhere to the following requirements at all team or league functions: collared dress shirts or turtlenecks; dress slacks, khaki pants or dress jeans; and dress shoes or boots or “other presentable shoes” with socks, and no sneakers, sandals, flip-flops or work boots. Players are prohibited from wearing headgear, T-shirts, team jerseys, chains, pendants or medallions. Sunglasses while indoors and headphones, except on the team bus, plane or in the locker room, are also banned. Players who are on the bench during a game but not in uniform must wear a sports coat. Both the player and his team will be fined for violating the rules, and repeat offenders could be suspended.

While the rhetoric of the dress code, and the NBA cares initiative was of encouraging increased professionalism, the racialization of the categories professional/unprofesssional; appopriate/inappropriate was lost on pretty much nobody, including the New York Times reporter who, in the same article, summarized the changes as Stern’s latest push to get the players to “look a little less gangsta and a little more genteel.”

We talked in class about what David Stern wants and what he doesn’t want. In the David Stern plus column we had popularity, global markets, money, commercial sponsorship, exciting, creative basketball, marketable individual superstars. In the David Stern minus column we had: thugs, drugs, violence, badness, selfishness. And then, finally, someone said it: blackness.

But it was more complicated than that, of course. Because David Stern actually does seem to want a certain kind of blackness. He wants, it seemed to us in class, a blackness that has overcome itself and renounced its origins in poverty and desperation, in struggle against social and economic injustice. He wants the creativity, authenticity, the game and the credibility that for a long time have come from urban, primarily African-American neighborhoods. But he wants it without any of the “rough edges,” sanitized, whitewashed. He doesn’t just not want guns and drugs in NBA lockerrooms. Probably nobody wants that. He also doesn’t want any of the sartorial markers of the hood: no drawers showing, no baggy jeans, no head gear, no bling. I don’t think, though, that Stern banned these things just because they signified a blackness that might make the average 50-something corporate white fan/sponsor uncomfortable.

Or rather, I think that if he did, it is because this blackness and the cultural expressions and social conditions it is metonymically associated with reveals the failure (for America’s inner cities, as for much of the third world) of the very political and economic tendencies towards unfettered, neo-liberal capitalist globalization that Stern and the NBA have ridden to explosive international popularity.

In a sense, to dream the dream of expanding global capital, to dream David Stern’s dream is, necessarily to dream also of decimated inner cities without adequate housing, education, medical care or social services; it is to dream of the numerous killings that Iverson witness or mourned as a young man growing up in Virginia; it is to dream of the very cultural and economic improvisations that necessity urges on African-American youth; improvisations that Stern simultaneously exploits in sanitized form and despises when asserted with a little too much independence.

We talked in class about how bad it must feel, if you are a feeling human being (which we all assumed Allen Iverson to be), and no matter how much money you are getting paid, to be told quite directly that only a part of you is welcome. Moreover, that parts of you that you find to be inextricably tied together — the courage of a warrior on the court and the life of an urban warrior off it — must be severed. We want only the warrior on the court, please leave the other guy out and when you won’t, we will airbrush him from our magazines (as happened to Iverson’s tattoos) and we will take away his clothes.

I think that Goya’s reason might dream of frightening, dark things in many senses. In the sense that when reason is dormant these nocturnal, irrational wildnesses can emerge to play; in the sense that these are the things that secretly threaten the domination of reason; and, finally, in the sense that the realized dream of reason for total domination would be terrifying.

It is as though Stern wanted the edge, the creativity, the intensity, the heroism that Iverson could give him, but he didn’t want to know where Iverson had gotten it, doesn’t want to know the suffering that has given rise to it and so aggressively represses any signs of it. And that is why I feel that Allen Iverson could be the poster boy for the neo-liberal global capitalist dreams of David Stern, which is to say: the poster-boy for what he desperately needs and equally desperately fears and despises.

Go back to read about the beauty of the Heat Knicks rivalry of the late 90s

or

forward to read about the ethics of fan culture

Day 14: The Serpent's Tale

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 is a hallowed day. They asked me to play. They actually asked me to play. Okay, well it wasn’t exactly that they asked me to play, but pretty much. Walking across campus to class from my previous class, the fantasy image flashed into the slide projector of my mind: an intra-class pickup game. The still image sprang into motion: all of us going up and down the court at Crisler Arena. I tried to push it aside, tried to stop it. No way I’m going to propose this in class and have the players break into uncontrollable sneering laughter. But then, I walk into class and I’ve barely put my stuff down on the desk when one of the players, having very courteously asked me how my broken hand was doing, said, “We should have a class game.” Moments later, another player walked into class and said the same thing.

I feel I shall burst with joy and excitement. If God himself, donning sweats, had parted the gray Ann Arbor skies, and entered the class on a Golden Litter, born by Clyde, the Hawk, Dr. J, and Wilt, and said, “you know what, that tree of knowledge thing, I was j/k!”, I could have been no happier. A weight of decades has been lifted from my shoulders. It was an auspicious way to begin the home stretch of Cultures of Basketball, after a two week hiatus, and leading in to the much-anticipated visit of none other than Bethlehem Shoals himself to our Ivory Tower next week.

We all began to babble excitedly about the match-up. “Players against the rest of us!” someone shouted. Oh no, I thought to myself, I didn’t wait nearly thirty years to play Division I ball in order to get clowned by a bunch of college kids. If you wanna go players and teacher against the rest of the class, I’m down, but otherwise we’re splitting the players up. Buoyed by my sudden surge of popularity among the players, and the riotous atmosphere of the room, I took a wild risk. I explained that I’d just been thinking the same thing on the way over to class and added, “But in my fantasy of this game, we’re playing at Crisler. So I want to give the players a special group assignment: make that happen.” I’m thinking that’s an impossibility, but that just saying it will curry even more favor. But lo, another player speaks up and says he thinks that shouldn’t be a problem. What! Verily, yea, I will tread the same hardwood as my forefathers CWebb and Jalen, and their forefather, Cazzie, did before them.

An evening of feverish tweeting and e-mailing ensued in which yet another player and I worked out the details of 1) a class lottery, presided over by David Stern, in which the eight players would draw names to round out the rosters for each of their teams and 2) the field of eight three-player teams would be seeded and compete in an April-Madness extravaganza culminating in the crowning of the first ever Cultures of Basketball national champion. My fiancée then tops it all off by suggesting we have the game on a weekend so that she can come up from St. Louis to witness, testify, and oversee the national media hordes that will certainly converge on Ann Arbor for the Blessed Event. So y’all can just get in touch with her about securing your media passes. I’m pretty sure that Ernie and the TNT gang already have their hotel reservations, Dicky V. called to make sure he wouldn’t be excluded, and the Goodyear Blimp, flown by Captain Jon Conrad and crew, has already secured airspace.

Talking to a student later during office hours, he shook his head with dread: “Maybe the players just wanted to play us so they could destroy us.” “Who cares?,” I said to him, “I just wanna play. It’s like when you’re little,” I explained, “you just want your big brother to play with you, you don’t care that he’s gonna beat your ass. It’s just about the attention.” My student smiled and said, “I was the big brother.” Well, okay, but you get the idea. I know I’ll actually be shitting myself on the day of the game, and I’ll probably dribble off my foot, shoot a couple of air balls, and – horror of horrors – be single-handedly responsible for decimating the ranks of next year’s Michigan basketball team by somehow injuring each and every one of the eight players through some clumsy display of aged overreaching. But really, who cares? It’s the sort of moment when it all comes together and several lifetimes’ worth of minor slights and trivial but embittering disappointments are swept away by a deluge that leaves your soul as brand spanking new and clean and naked as Adam and Eve in the Garden.

Speaking of paradise, today’s class was devoted to the section of FreeDarko’s history on Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the first segment of Chapter 4: “The Gold Standard: 1980-1990.” But before we got to Magic and Larry Legend, and after we’d settled down, we had one more bit of topical business to address: the controversy over the Heat “allegedly” crying in the locker room after their 1 point loss to the Bulls the other day, at the time their fourth straight loss. I asked them what they thought and they told me, but then I realized that I didn’t so much want to know what they thought as tell them what I thought they should think, or at least what I thought they should bear in mind as they formed their own judgments of the event.

So we briefly discussed the possible meanings of tears and of emotions in general, the role that emotion plays in sport and in human life more generally, and the way that culture and upbringing, especially as coded by gender, shape the way we judge – and that we feel entitled to judge – public displays of emotion by other human beings.

One of the more interesting points was raised by a student, who pointed out that the gender double-standard also works against female athletes who show anger or swag in the course of competition. In both cases, culturally set parameters of appropriately “masculine” or “feminine” relationships to particular expressions of emotion wind up underwriting thoughtless critical judgments of particular athletes for crossing the boundaries of emotional expression.

It’s sad, really, that young men and women, athletes or not, should be subject to such constraints. And sadder, still, perhaps, that other young men and women should participate in limiting the scope of what it is possible to be and to feel and to show you feel as a young man or young woman. Nothing was resolved, of course, but I think that students by the end of our little conversation were equipped to do more than just accept the terms of the discussion as provided by ESPN or the guy next to them at Buffalo Wild Wings.

Having completed my pontification on the topic of emotion, gender, and athletics, we rode the FD time machine back to Bliss, the Gold Standard, the Paradise of the NBA in the 1980s. The religious, specifically Edenic, lexicon that I’ve been trying to weave into this post is neither accidental, nor really of my own invention. The illustration that fronts the Magic Bird chapter shows the two players, in iconic poses, emerging from a garden lush with sunflowers, ferns, daffodils and tropical foliage.

An unpaid student query about the significance of the image gave me the opportunity to say a few words about the myth of Eden and the kind of cultural work it can do in Judeo-Christian societies. I don’t want to go biblical on your ass, or be too dweebishly unsubtle about it (especially, in view of the compact subtlety of Jacob Weinstein’s visual argument), but it’s worth acknowledging, at least, the force and pervasiveness of that myth in the way that we lace often overly simplistic judgements of good and evil into narratives of memory and history. It’s not that Eden is always invoked explicitly, but rather that it doesn’t have to be because by now it is almost second nature (a distinctly un-Edenic concept, or maybe it is Edenic). Everytime you hear someone talk about the good old days, nostalgia, you know the routine, once upon a time – always, there Eden is at work.

In the case of Magic, and Bird, and the 1980s, it’s certainly understandable, and close to my own heart’s experience, that the myth of Eden should appeal. As FD writes in the brief Introduction to the chapter, the decade saw a truly awesome influx of talent into the game: not just Magic and Larry, but Isiah, Worthy, Jordan, Barkley, Akeem, Stockton, Malone, Ewing and others entered the league in the period. Moreover, unlike, say, in the 1960s, that talent was properly showcased by the rise of ESPN and other forms of media exposure and endorsement deals, all carefully overseen by the – whatever else you want to say about him – far-sighted and shrewd PR vision of Commissioner David Stern. The play on the floor was brilliant and more people than ever were getting to see it. FANtastic was born.

But there’s more to it than that. In Magic and Bird, of course, you had two players with a ready-made rivalry established in the 1979 NCAA title game (itself a watershed moment in most accounts of the college game), and a rivalry amped up by the storied history of the Lakers and Celtics, the franchises they joined. Moreover, as we discussed in class after watching clips of the two players, Magic and Larry truly showcased a remarkably complete (and remarkably similar – a fact I think that is often undernoticed) set of basketball skills.

Though neither was an exceptional athlete by NBA standards, each had the intelligence and put in the work to maximize the gifts they did have and so to turn themselves into astonishingly creative passers and effective rebounders, ball handlers and shooters (more Magic than Larry for the handle, more Larry than Magic for the shot). Both were capable of scoring from unpromising angles and traffic situations, both capable of unselfishly raising the game of their teammates, both clutch and both winners, and both driven to lead by example in squeezing every last drop out of seemingly every play on the floor.

In their styles of play, both players, as Brown Recluse, Esq. (BRE) notes, embodied the happy marriage of ABA creativity with NBA stability. BRE even concludes by correctly observing that Magic and Larry left us as a legacy the freedom that would evolve into positional revolution with oversize point guards, and bigs who can hurt you inside or step out and hit the three. And finally, of course, one was black and one was white. Put it all together and that’s hard to top if you’re looking for Paradise in the history of the NBA.

The myth of the Garden of Eden, though, is more than just an emblem of unadulterated bliss. It describes a tricky pseudo-contract in which submissive ignorance is the price exacted for that bliss. Moreover, it tells us that pain, labor, and sexuality are punishments for the violation of that contract. You remember, right? Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, aspiring in the process to have their blind eyes opened and to see as God sees and, as a result, are cast out of the Garden. Ultimately, the narrative carries for me a dark side by which we are commanded to remain in a childish state — lacking knowledge, desire, experience, and agency — if we are to be happy.

I’m not the first to point this out, of course. John Milton in Paradise Lost (perhaps in spite of himself) and William Blake (very much not in spite of himself) long ago suggested or argued outright that it’s not so clear who might be the good guys and the bad guys in the story of our “Fall.” More recently, the British author Philip Pullman rewrote the whole story in his remarkable trilogy His Dark Materials. There Pullman conceives that our “Fall” was really a kind of elevation, a growing-up of the species if you will, prompted by angels rebelling against a God who was really just the first angel, but had usurped authority, styling himself the Creator of the rest, and establishing a tyrannical Kingdom of Heaven in place of the immanent Republic of Heaven.

In Pullman’s reading, the rebel angels did us a favor and every time we think for ourselves, enjoy our existence as beings with minds and bodies, and make independent decisions, every time we assert the right to determine the course of our own futures, we are embodying the empowering legacy that the Judeo-Christian myth of the Fall would have us lament and repent for unto eternity.

Offering this counter-vision doesn’t mean that I think the myth of a fall from grace, or innocence, is useless or bad. Just that it’s a more complicated tool for organizing our understanding of ourselves than might appear at first glance. In my own case, the bliss ushered in by Magic and Bird’s appearance in the NBA (which was indeed a paradise for me: my room was plastered with Magic posters, and I still have a scrapbook I started keeping in 1979 with Magic clippings from the local papers and Sports Illustrated) coincided with my exit from the innocence of childhood via a number of doors simultaneously: I learned to shoot a jump shot, my parents separated, and I entered puberty.

So it was a complicated Eden for me, that: one that sends my mind and my emotional memories snapping back and forth wildly like a standard in a strong wind. But I wouldn’t trade that complicated and painful time – and all that grew from it – for the relatively less complicated, ignorant bliss of pretending to be Clyde in the driveway at age 7.

By now you might be imagining that I am of the Devil’s party, as Blake once said of Milton. Maybe that’s true in some sense. It is certainly true that the serpent is for me the most interesting character in the story. And, in relation to this Golden Era of NBA history, I certainly wonder where (or who or what) the serpent is.

About fifteen years ago, in a first futile stab at doing this kind of writing, during a leave year in which I received tenure at the University, I became fascinated with Dennis Rodman. Around this time Terry Pluto published a book called Falling from Grace (1995). Its subtitle was “Can the NBA Be Saved?” In it, if I remember correctly, Pluto characterized the then-current crop of young players as brawling, trash-talking thugs whose basketball fundamentals were decidedly underwhelming. I’m pretty sure Dennis was singled out in that book, along with a few other players as symptomatic of all that had gone wrong with the game.

At the time, I wrote an essay – now long lost – on the joy of being Dennis Rodman. I wasn’t interested so much in defending Dennis’ style choices (or behavior), so much as pointing out that in his play on the court (tenacious defense, hard-nosed intelligent rebounding, good passing), Rodman embodied many of the values that Pluto himself was nostalgically associating with a different, now bygone era (not to mention race, I remember feeling upon reading the book).

I’m not sure what I’d think of Pluto’s book or of my own argument now. Maybe I wouldn’t stand by it any longer. But I definitely do stand by the impulse I acted on to complicate simple notions of human history that characterize it as either a steady progress toward something good or a steady (or precipitious) fall from something good. That much, perhaps, is the serpent in me.

In fact, maybe the serpent isn’t so much a character in the story, or not only a character in the story, but a role we all step into whenever we question the story and read it against the grain; whenever we take the childish dichotomies we are offered – and which, make no mistake, can be quite useful in limited cases – and begin to poke at the boundaries separating them.

So when I think of the NBA since Magic and Bird’s time, back, when, as they recently wrote, “the game was ours,” I think as much of Bird’s legendary trash-talking, I think of the image of Magic posterizing some chump with a tomahawk jam and then pointing to him as he lay splayed on the floor along the baseline. He wasn’t beaming. Sure I think of and marvel at their amazing array of skills and their run of titles. And I’m genuinely moved by the way their rivalry evolved into friendship and love. But I also think of their personal lives, seriously troubled at times like those of any human being. I think as well, as Brown Recluse, Esq. advises, of the marvelous players that have come after them in a more or less continuous stream since that time, patterning their unusual combination of skills and size and styles of play on some permutation of Magic and Bird.

And when I think that way, the gate at the Eastern end of the Garden of Eden, the one guarded by the angel with the flaming sword, the one that Adam and Eve left through, and that supposedly clearly marks the line between paradise and our own sorry existence starts to blur and fade.

I like that moment because the alternative offered by subscribing to the Eden story is to spend all of existence trying to make up for something I didn’t do and that I don’t think was wrong in the first place. It is to hate actual existence in the name of a time that has long since ceased to exist and that I don’t think ever existed in the first place.

So when the gates swing open, and I can acknowledge the splendor of Magic and Larry Legend in all its complex shadings, then the present and the future open back up and I am once again in a position, as one of Phillip Pullman’s characters urges: “to build the Republic of Heaven right here, because for us there is nowhere else” and to appreciate those in the game and the world today who are laboring to build it too.

go back to read my account of Walton and Jabbar and the politics of the late 70s NBA

or

Go on to read about our discussion of the Young Michael Jordan here

1 2 3