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

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
Isaiah
Bad Boys
Artest
Grosse Pointe, MI
Jordan
Celtics
Kobe
Washington, D.C.
None
Nets
T Parker
Bronx, NY
Kobe
Bulls
Lakers
Big Baby
Chicago, IL (South Side)
Jordan
Lakers
Big Baby
Saginaw and Kalamazoo, MI
James
Pistons
Michigan
Duke
JR Smith
Troy, MI
Kobe
Magic
MJ
Perkins
Reggie
Lakers
Clips
Hornets
OKC

UCLAUM

Pierce
James
Beverly Hills, CA
Durant
Celtics
Varejao
Reading, MA
Noah
Jordan
Durant
Rose
Bulls
Garnett
Highland Park, IL
Lindsay Whalen
None
Scoop Jardine
“Small town north of Twin Cities”
Scottie
OKC
Marquise Daniels
Seattle, WA
Maravich
Celtics
Ginobili
Novi, MI
Kidd
Nets
Raptors
Noah
Rye, NY
Jordan
DRose
Noah
Bulls
2004-05 Illinois team
Harangody
Lake Forest, IL
Jordan
UM Men’s
Lakers
Rondo
“NJ b/w Philly and NY”
Nash
Warriors
N Robinson
Kalamazoo, MI
TMac
Pistons
Szczerbiak
Bloomfield, MI
Dirk
Whoever Dirk is playing for
Pau
Buffalo, NY
Lebron
Miami
Pierce
Miami, FL
No fav
MSU
Duncan
Okemus, MI
D Williams
Pistons
Lebron
Troy, MI
Howard
Bulls
Pierce
Chicago, IL (North Side)
Reggie
Nash
Pacers
Bulls
KG
Carmel, IN
Kukoc
Bulls
Rondo
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

or

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, FreeDarko.com 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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