“Demigods” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 5)

Having defined the key terms of his investigation, “praise,” “beauty,” and “athletics,” Hans Gumbrecht proceeds, in the “Discontinuities” section of his In Praise of Athletic Beauty, to provide an outline history of sports in the West.  But he wishes, he states from the outset, to disrupt what he calls the “romantic view” of this history which sees it as a continuous line from the ancient Olympics to the mega-events of today’s sports world (p. 85).

Instead, he argues, if you look at the history of sport from the vantage point of the variables he has already defined, “present-day sports are no longer the endpoint of one of htose long sagas of progress or decay that we have all read so many times” and this, he claims, is important because it “allows us to ask how it was possible—historically possible, I mean—that sports became so expansive and so important in our own time” (p. 88).

To that end, he will provide “brief sketches” of seven moments, each summed up with a one-word title.  Thus, “Demigods” refers to Ancient Greece, “Gladiators” to Ancient Rome, “Knights” to the middle ages, “Ruffians” to the Renaissance, “Sportsmen” to the 19th century, “Olympians” to the 20th century, and “Customers” to our own era. I’ll be covering all of these, but for today’s post, I’m gonna stick to just the first of these: “Demigods.”

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Olympia around 325 BCE

Gumbrecht begins by evoking an image of the arduous journey of days and even weeks undertaken by hundreds of athletes and tens of thousands of spectators to the village of Olympia every four years between 776 BCE and 394 BCE in order to ask the question that’s been driving most of his reflections thus far: ‘what the specific attraction of those five days spent at Zeus’ most famous sanctuary could have been? (p. 91). After briefly describing the lush, remote valley setting of Olympia, and the religious rituals and athletic contests unfolding over the five days of the games, Gumbrecht turns to the Odes of Pindar to get some answers to his question.

[For those whose knowledge of classical literature is sketchy, a little background information might be helpful here. Pindar of Thebes was a poet who lived from 518 BCE to probably 443 BCE. In the words of my colleague David Potter, in his work The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium, “Pindar was a poet who became famous because he wrote poems about the famous. His subjects were people who won at one or another of the four great athletic festivals of his time” (The Victor’s Crown, p. 37). And, according to Donald Kyle in Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, Pindar was “the greatest writer of victory (epinikian) odes,” having “composed 45 poems for victors from 16 states” in which he articulated “an aristorcratic ideology of athletic preparation, competition, and victory.” (Sport and Spectacle, p. 203) Pindar’s Odes, then, are widely used by scholars trying to convey a sense of athletics in Greece during this period.]

Gumbrecht sees in Pindar an “obsessive focus on the joy and pride that came with athletic triumphs” (p. 96) and so draws from this the conclusion that for spectators must have been drawn to the experience of “being in the presence—in the physical presence—of the athletes’ shining bodies at the moment of their highest performance” (p. 96).  And he goes on to emphasize that this pleasure would be heightened by the “winner-take-all” emphasis at the games and, according to Gumbrecht, “in many nonathletic institutions in ancient Greece” (p. 96).

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It’s all about the W.

I understand that Gumbrecht’s emphasis on the appeal of physical presence echoes the importance he has already sought to bodies and presence in his more theoretical, definitional meditations. And, though I am no expert in classical literature and culture, what little I have read of Pindar’s Odes seem to support his conjecture.  I was, however, surprised to find Gumbrecht emphasize the central importance of winning (and so of competition) to the fascination of the games for spectators given that in his definition of athletics he argued that competition (agon) is secondary to excellence (arete) in athletics.  But perhaps for Gumbrecht this exemplifies the sort of “discontinuity” that he wants to highlight.  However, since I don’t really accept, theoretically or practically, his hierarchization (and occasional separation) of “excellence” and “competition”, his description here strikes me as quite familiar: “Winning and being remembered at Olympia gave athletes, their families, and their towns bragging rights that they used with a shamelessness” (p. 97). GoBlue.

The continuity between the ancient and the contemporary is even more evident when Gumbrecht turns to what was it in for the athletes: a springboard to success in other careers, fame, and fortune.  As he rightly concludes, in the ancient Olympic games “a particular version of professionalism had emerged long before the ideal of the ‘amateur’ in the modern Olympic tradition” (p. 98).  There’s an irony there involving, to put it bluntly, the hypocritical and ahistorical nonsense involved in deploying the category of the “amateur” as a moralizing bludgeon in the contemporary sporting universe, especially in the United States.

“But above all,” Gumbrecht comes to his conclusion, the games were appealing because “being in the presence of athletic greatness at Olympia meant being close to the gods.”  He reminds us that unlike in the monotheistic traditions, the line dividing the divide from the mundane was porous.  Rather than a transcendent deity perched on an immaterial throne, Greek gods roamed the earth and messed with human beings.

This, Gumbrecht argues, would dispose the Greek imagination to experience the athletic contests and achievements they witnessed as on a continuum with the divine attributes and battles with which they were familiar.

Because the boundaries that separated Greek gods from humans were so permeable, to aim for the highest level of physical perfection and to win an Olympic competition indeed elevated the victor to the status of a demigod (the ancient meaning of ‘hero’ is ‘demigod’). (p. 99)

To be in the immediate presence of such figures would understandably become an ecstatic experience, one that would make them feel “not just well but boundlessly well—about themselves, about the athletes, and about the divinely-infused world of which they were so intimately a part” (p. 99).  Again, I’m not expert enough to gainsay this explanation.  It seems plausible to me, if perhaps overly general and somewhat simplified.

But here again, I’m struck that Gumbrecht doesn’t seem, given his avowed dedication to establishing discontinuity, to recognize the continuity here between the classical and the contemporary.  Pretty much every experience and value he attributes to the ancient Greek spectator (or athlete, for that matter), I think we could find in contemporary athletics. This doesn’t of course mean that there is an unbroken line connecting them, some transhistorical essential experience of athletics that simply incarnates itself continuously in every society at every moment in time over 2,500 years.  But it does suggest that seeing some continuities might be more than just a romantic tic.  What’s more, it suggests that seeing continuities might as important to understanding the scope and nature of modern sport in the West as recognizing discontinuities.

I’ll leave you with this astonishing and hilarious exhibition of how, for us as well, at least for some—for many—of us, “religious ecstasy and athletic ecstasy became one.”

Reasons #47-49 to support @theallrounderco

47. Because David Roth at The Classical thinks you should and he knows what’s what in the world of online sportswriting.  I know because he interviewed me yesterday for his own Kickstarted website for smart sports fans (a bit more journalistic and poetic than ours may turn out to be) and said some great things about us.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

48.

DR: What are the challenges of writing about this sort of thing within academia, and what about that experience made you want to take to the web?

YC: I’ve already mentioned that this sort of publicly accessible writing tends to be undervalued at many institutions. Moreover, among many academics, especially in the humanities (the case I know best), sports are viewed with disdain, as a kind of brutish populist phenomenon unworthy of scholarly examination. But it’s also the case that most of us teaching and conducting research in the field of sports studies can find ourselves somewhat isolated within our institutions, even when our work is supported and taken seriously. There are still very few departments of sports studies around the world.

This means that most of us have to venture outside our disciplinary home to find interlocutors. This can happen, sometimes, in our institutions as well as through the organization of panels at conferences. But the possibilities that an online, publicly accessible forum offers for collaboration and for informing ourselves and our readers about the great depth and range of work that others like us around the world are doing simply can’t be reproduced within the structure of the university and its publishing apparatus. And speaking for myself, a relative newcomer to the field of sports studies by comparison with many involved in the project, already in this early stage, the Allrounder has given me the opportunity to discover work I hadn’t realized existed.  

In this sense, the Allrounder is a resource. It’s like a big, awesome room someone can walk into to find that these great conversations among smart people on issues that I care about, not just as a fan, or as a sports studies scholar, but as someone who lives and cares about our world and the role of sports in it; who knows that sports isn’t just escapist entertainment but a critical experience through which billions of human beings around the world shape their images of themselves and their place in local, national, and global communities. At the Allrounder, we know this about sports because we count ourselves among those billions; and we address the sporting experience with respect and with a desire to understand—and to help others understand—it more deeply, ultimately with the hope that this understanding will empower us to shape our experience of sports more actively.

49.

DR: What do you envision as the thing that will make the Allrounder stand out from various other sports-y sites out there, and the thing that it will contribute to the conversation that other sites can’t? How will the money raised through the Kickstarter go to make that happen?

YC: Our contributors, mostly academics, dedicate enormous amounts of time to actual research and serious critical reflection on sports and that really makes a difference. But there’s more, because typically the time it takes to craft academic work and to publish it in traditional venues means that the work of scholars falls behind the curve of the topical.

At the Allrounder, the size of our pool of regular, rotating contributors counters this by allowing that same caliber of thought and writing to speak accessibly to issues in the world of sports that are happening right now, in real time. Then, the geographical and disciplinary diversity of that pool will make the Allrounder the only place where you can get a global perspective on sport from a variety of angles. Economists, historians, sociologists, literary and cultural critics, anthropologists, kinesiologists and others all see a different sporting universe. Their specific ways of seeing help bring different territories in the world of sport into sharper relief. No other site does this.

Typically, the kind of writing our contributors will be doing will not be recognized as legitimate by their institutions for the purposes of promotion and merit pay increases. In many institutions, there is still a prejudice that views with suspicion academic writing that is publicly accessible and unvetted by other academics. For our first year, while we get off the ground and transition to ad revenues, the money we are looking to raise through Kickstarter—besides supporting the infrastructure of the site—helps to make all this cool think-y stuff happen in much the same way that the money in medicine, law, and business helps attract academics in those fields to venture outside the university: by giving academics a tangible reward for the time and energy they will be dedicating to generating high quality content for the site.

So if you weren’t sold already, surely you now are aware that if you care about sports, or really just about our world at all, then The Allrounder is something you want to back.  Go to our Kickstarter page and do so now.

Reason #46 to Support @theallrounderco

46. Because if you do, you’ll be giving yours truly, Bad Prof, a sweet assist, just like Jimmy King of the University of Michigan’s legendary Fab Five!

So drop a dime today and then (because we’ve still got a long way to go) make sure that you spread the word so that your friends do too.

And while you’re thinking about us:

  1. check out our preview site
  2. follow us on Twitter
  3. Like our Facebook page

45 Reasons to Support The Allrounder

By now, most of you must know that I’m co-founding and co-editing a new online forum for thoughtful observers of sport: The Allrounder. If so, you also know that to raise funds for our launch and first year of operation, we’re in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign that will run until May 20. We are asking for $55,000 in donations. As usual for Kickstarter, if we don’t get it all, we get nothing. And if we get nothing, the world doesn’t get The Allrounder. So the stakes are high. Over the next month I’ll be using Between the Lines to hector, harass, badger, cajole, coax, persuade, boss, plead, beg, wheedle, entice, sweet-talk and otherwise try to force my readers and friends to kick in a few bucks to help us go live. If everybody does just a little bit, we can make it.

In case you’re already convinced: go to our Kickstarter page now.

Today, I offer a visual indicator of the caliber of content we’ll be running: a virtual library of selected works written by those who’ve already signed on to contribute their thoughtful, accessible perspectives, from a broad range of disciplinary angles, on the whole world of sport and its attendant culture. They are not just intelligent and informed thinkers, but superb storytellers eager to share their work with other scholars and, especially with a broader audience. How great would it be to have a single, free place online where you could go to read brief, accessible essays on topical issues in sports culture around the globe by the world’s leading sports culture intellectuals?  So peep this dazzling array and, if you care about sport and its role in shaping our world, you will surely feel as I do, that this is an exciting venture worthy of your support as well as that of your friends.

To make things easier, as you peruse the titles below, clicking on any of the book cover images will take you to our Kickstarter page.

Andrews Sports Stars

1
David L. Andrews
Sports Stars:
The Cultural Politics of Sporting Celebrity

Leonard After Artest

2
David J. Leonard
After Artest:
The NBA and the Assault on Blackness

David Andrews Michael Jordan, Inc. Corporate Sport, Media Culture and Late Modern America

3
David Andrews
Michael Jordan, Inc.
Corporate Sport, Media Culture and Late Modern America

bass not the triumph

4
Amy Bass
Not the Triumph but the Struggle
The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete

Coy Hoop Genius

5
John Coy
Hoop Genius:
How a Desperate Teacher and Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball

Aaron Baker Contesting Identities

6
Aaron Baker
Contesting Identities:
Sports in American Film

Boykoff Celebration Capitalism

7
Jules Boykoff
Celebration Capitalism
and the Olympic Games

Duru Advancing the Ball

8
N. Jeremi Duru
Advancing the Ball:
Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL

Collins Sport in Capitalist Society

9
Tony Collins
Sport in Capitalist Society:
A Short HIstory

Andrews Sport and Neoliberalism

10
David L. Andrews
Sport and Neoliberalism

Farred In Motion At Rest

11
Grant Farred
In Motion, At Rest:
The Event of the Athletic Body

Farred What's My Name

12
Grant Farred
What’s My Name?:
Black Vernacular Intellectuals

Alegi South Africa

13
Peter Alegi
South Africa and the Global Game

Pablo Alabarces Fútbol y patria

14
Pablo Alabarces
Fútbol y patria

Farred Long Distance Love

15
Grant Farred
Long Distance Love:
A Passion for Football

Goff Gold Medal Physics

16
John Eric Goff
Gold Medal Physics:
The Science of Sports

Goudsouzian King of the Court

17
Aram Goudsouzian
King of the Court:
Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution

Krasnoff Making Les Bleus

18
Lindsay Krasnoff
The Making of Les Bleus:
Sport in France, 1958-2010

Little The Sports Show

19
David Little
The Sports Show:
Athletics as Image and Spectacle

Holman Canada's Game

20
Andrew C. Holman
Canada’s Game:
Hockey and Identity

Millward Global Football League

21
Peter Millward
The Global Football League:
Transnational Networks, Social Movements and Sport in the New Media Age

Morrow Sport in Canada

22
Don Morrow
Sport in Canada:
A History

Nadel Futbol

23
Joshua Nadel
Fútbol!:
Why Soccer Matters in Latin America

Raab The Global Game

24
Alon Raab
The Global Game:
Writers on Soccer

Martin Sport Italia

25
Simon Martin
Sport Italia:
The Italian Love Affair With Sport

Rowe Sport Culture and the Media

26
David Rowe
Sport, Culture and the Media

Bloom There You Have It

27
John Bloom
There You Have It:
The Life, Legacy and Legend of Howard Cosell

Simons Secret Lives of Sports Fans

28
Eric Simons
The Secret Lives of Sports Fans:
The Science of Sports Obsession

Blake Canadian Hockey Literature

29
Jason Blake
Canadian Hockey Literature

Bebber Violence and Racism in Football

30
Brett Bebber
Violence and Racism in Football

David L. AndrewsSport-Commerce-CultureEssays on Sport in Late Capitalist America

31
David L. Andrews
Sport-Commerce-Culture:
Essays on Sport in Late Capitalist America

Elsey Citizens and Sportsmen

32
Brenda Elsey
Citizens and Sportsmen:
Fútbol and Politics in Twentieth Century Chile

Gaffney Temples of the Earthbound Gods

33
Christopher Gaffney
Temples of the Earthbound Gods:
Stadiums in the Cultural Landscapes of Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires

Nichols You Only Get One Innings

34
Barry Nicholls
You Only Get One Innings:
Family, Mates and the Wisdom of Cricket

Trimbur Come Out Swinging

35
Lucía Trimbur
Come Out Swinging:
The Changing World of Boxing at Gleason’s Gym

Alegi Africas World Cup

36
Peter Alegi
Africa’s World Cup

Erdozain The Problem of Pleasure

37
Dominic Erdozain
The Problem of Pleasure:
Sport, Recreation and the Crisis of Victorian Religion

Hutchins Sport Beyond Television

38
Brett Hutchins
Sport Beyond Television:
The Internet, Digital Media and the Rise of Networked Media Sport

Ryall Philosophy of Play

39
Emily Ryall
The Philosophy of Play

Boddy Boxing

40
Kasia Boddy
Boxing:
A Cultural History

Vogan Keepers of the Flame

41
Travis Vogan
Keepers of the Flame:
NFL Films, Pro Football, and the Rise of Sports Media in America

Waterhouse Watson Athletes

42
Deb Waterhouse-Watson
Athletes, Sexual Assault and ‘Trial by Media’

Smith Sons of Westwood

43
Johnny Smith
Sons of Westwood:
John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball

Szymanski Soccernomics

44
Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper
Soccernomics

Young 1972 Munich Olympics

45
Christopher Young
The 1972 Munich Olympics
and the Making of Modern Germany

New UM Course: Comp Lit 100: Global Sports Cultures

Today I received the good news that the new course I designed — Global Sports Culture — was approved so that I will be able to offer it as Comparative Literature 100 in the Fall semester of 2014.  This gives me a chance to devote more of my teaching time to the topic of sports, to broaden my teaching repertoire beyond the culture of basketball, and it offers students who have been interested in, but unable to enroll in my Hoops Culture course, a chance to take a different sports-related course with me.  So please share this with anyone you think might be interested. Read more

Day 7: The Age of Wonder

I can hardly believe — let alone comprehend — what is happening, my good fortune and bliss. I’m teaching classes I love, more people are reading this than have read everything I’ve written in academia over the last twenty years combined (not saying a lot, I know, but still), I’m making new friends, learning new things. Life is opening. There’s a book for kids I have really loved for a long time, called His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. In it the protagonist, young Lyra on the cusp of puberty, has an idea and she is so excited by it that she tries not to think of it, as though, we are told, it were a soap bubble that has landed in her unexpecting palm. She wants to grasp it and preserve it but she’s afraid to break it and it is so beautiful. This is the day, as the snow falls thickly, the wind whips up a veil, and the temperature plummets, for contemplating mysteries and being at rest.

It didn’t start out this way. It started out with me trying with my right hand to foil a young gun’s hard cross, on the hard court in the Lou, hearing a loud crack, and lamely trying to stay on the floor before realizing that something was wrong with my right hand. It was broken. I am right handed. I shoot right handed, but I can work on my left. I use it to type, but I can peck away decently even with the splint. But I think exclusively with my right hand: as in, my right hand, a pen and a piece of paper. It’s always the same kind of battle, one whose outcome is preordained but it plays out anyway as though it weren’t. My right hand starts out writing down words in an orderly, outline fashion. But disorder makes some initial incursions and pretty soon that controlling right hand quickly gives way: scratching things out, writing new words in different sizes, some all caps, arrows in several directions that connect boxes and circles I’ve drawn around other words.

Don’t get me wrong: I love and aspire to orderly thought. I’m not one of those loopy, whimsical humanists who fetishize messiness, absent-mindedness and other equally morally suspect forms of lassitude and indolence. And I like to imagine that I get there my share of the time as a teacher, thinker and writer. But I confess I rarely get there via the straight road. So I regularly console myself for this by recalling and aggressively reminding others of William Blake’s line (cast as a “Proverb from Hell”, of which he is a partisan): “improvement makes straight roads, but crooked roads without improvement are the roads of genius.” I don’t know about that. I do know I’m no genius. But it makes me feel better about my thought process.

Now, without my right hand I have to think and prep class with a computer keyboard and it just doesn’t work so well. I feel pushed into lines and outlines and boundary lines and I get anxious about what bubbles I might be squashing without knowing it, about the paths I’ve left behind. All of which left me prepared for class in the sense that I had a printed out, orderly outline and unprepared for class in the sense that I had a printed out, orderly outline.

On the other and, as a kid I always felt jealous of the bratty stupid narcissists who floated through a school day with a cast on some foolishly incurred injury, beaming as the entire school neglected me in order to sign their arms or legs or whatever. I don’t have a real cast (curse the reasonable orthopedist – if I’m gonna live in this insane country with its insane health care system I at least want my share of insurance-covered, unnecessary medical procedures). Still, I prayed that my injury, suffered playing crafty man-to-man defense in a pick-up game would score me sympathy with the players and hasten our bonding process. Just for good measure, I posted on our class Facebook page an announcement of the injury together with a plea for sympathy.

All of this combined with the anticipated blizzard and the beginning of our new course unit – dealing with the long decade of the 60s and which I had named, with deliberate irony, “The Golden Era” – to have me especially wired as I entered the classroom. Adopting FreeDarko‘s periodizing schema, the four days of the unit would cover the period from 1957-1969.  FreeDarko’s history calls its chapter on the period, written by Bethlehem Shoals and illustrated by Jacob Weinstein, “They Walked This Earth.”  And that title is where I wanted to begin.  But it’s not where I did begin.

Instead, an image got stuck in my mind.  I was remembering that Cynthia Bailey, the chronic runaway bride on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, gets married under a dinosaur skeleton in a natural history museum in the season finale.  As I watched, my mind didn’t know where to go: will she runaway again? the disgusting Kim snarks and snarls from the sidelines, the event seems tacky, the dinosaur is so so so enormous, dwarfing her groom who waits nervously until he sees Cynthia appear at the top of the spiral staircase and says, tears in his eyes, “oh my god”.   And with that, they sparklike shoot the gap between the petty petty pettiness of the human and the mythical grandeur of the dinosaurs.  Maybe that’s where we are in class in this unit: dwarfed by grandeur and trying to find a way to reach.  But I can’t talk about that in class, not at the beginning of class, and yet my mind is utterly trapped in the image, tires spinning on ice, burning themselves out.

I abruptly switch to show them a series of clips. It’s important to me to do this, but not for the right reasons. I’m hot again, I mean sweaty, and I haven’t gotten this computer projector hookup to work in two previous attempts and it’s weighing on me. Preformance anxiety. I desperately want to watch clips with them. I am sure that I will be cool if I can make this work and we can all munch popcorn and laugh knowingly – all insiders, all initiates – at the moving images, and the short shorts, and the dramatic voice-over narrations I have to get over this.

So before anything else happens I have hooked things up (having already cleared by Desktop and my Chrome of anything that I can antasize might be embarrassing to me) and behold! It works. So we watch Cousy, and the Celtics dynasty, and Russell in college. It’s good because the clips stir them up: goofy shorts sure, but damn Cousy had a handle (though what’s with the no left running out the clock in the finals) and Russ put up the first no fly zone. And then, drunk with success, we watch the Mikan videos I tried and failed to show last week. Uh oh, I forgot, one of them is set to “I can’t make you love me.” They are laughing – at me? with me?  I don’t know. “I can’t make you love me” I think to myself pathetically, “Exactly!”  The way of those thoughts lies middle school angst. So I just burrow into the flickering pictures, and I am happy in the cocoon of darkness and basketball images. I could do this all day.The pictures end. Lights snap back on. I squint and stifle a groan. The spell is broken. Awkward transition, how do I steer this ship back? It occurs to me: I am in this moment navigating another passage among the fjords that run between myth and history; the obscurity of aesthetic enjoyment, silently mesmerized by black and white video clips and the glaring bright lights of the classroom where learning and, yes, illumination should occur.  I don’t know how to make this move gracefully so I just blast the ship toward the light of learning, dreading the silence, loathing teaching and the way I teach.“They walked this earth” I drone, turning my back to clumsily write on the board. “Who?” I asked, turning back dramatically.  Or rather, “Of whom do we say ‘they walked this earth’? What is the meaning of this?” One student says: “They were unreal, not human.” “Like aliens?” I ask, cleverly being funny while trying to get provoke him to be more specific in elaborating his thoughts. “No,” he says, rejecting my obvious ploy, “I’m not saying they were aliens,” “Okay, what then?” “Dinosaurs,” someone calls out. “Okay,” I say and scrawl “dinosaurs” furiously on the whiteboard.–(We interrupt this program for an unscheduled rant: Why whiteboards?! What was wrong with blackboards and chalk?! What is this place, Trump Tower or a university classroom? There are rarely markers, when there are they rarely work, and the palimpsistic traces of the previous idiots who wrote on it with a Sharpie are always visible and distracting so that the whole board starts to look like the taped up floor of a middle school gymnasium. That concludes our rant. We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming.)–“Or Greek gods,” someone else shouts out. Yes! Titans? Yes! And with dinosaurs or, especially, gods or titans (or Monstars as another student says) in mind, I point out, we are in a special zone of story telling.

It’s not exactly history anymore, not by our modern scientific standards. Myths are the histories we invent, I remind them, to explain how something works that is mysterious, or how something came into being whose origin we cannot fathom.  In that way, myth is a rope bridge spanning the gap between our finite capacities for knowledge and the infinite scope of the cosmos.  Where we cannot know with certainty, I think, we can at least invent and narrate with wonder.  FD, I suggest, may be telling us — in the midst of the undisputed guide to pro basketball history, indeed just a couple of pages after the appearance of Mikan prompted the declaration “let history begin in earnest” – that we are approximating the realm of the mythical.  Really, I’m still watching the wedding under the dinosaur, but now somehow it makes sense to me and so that banal image can coexist peacefully cozied up to the discussion that I can feel is going to be good.  I am dizzied by how often this whole process seems to work itself out.

Another abrupt transition.  I don’t want to lose them by belaboring the point with my desperate desire to be understood.  “What jumped out at you as you read about the Celtics and Russell?”  They’re ready, in a rush ideas tumble out (I’m so proud of them, momentarily projecting into them my own difficulty speaking out in class and feeling grateful and satisfied that in my class they seem unrestrained). These are just a few of the things they noticed:

  1. how many future Hall of Famers they had
  2. the fast break as an invention
  3. how dominating they were
  4. specialization of roles and the pride of players in their roles
  5. how many of their players were also great all around athletes
  6. Auerbach’s selective berating of Heinshohn out of a sensitivity to both racial issues and the personalities of his players

My mind races pushed from behind by their ideas, pushed toward the thinking I can do when my hand isn’t broken and I can use my pen and paper, I write on the stupid white board with the marker I inadvertently stole from Webster University during my stint as an adjunct last year (because the Michigan marker really doesn’t work).  My wrist cramps (I should have had one of them be my secretary – a player – they would’ve loved that as I loved as a child when one of the nuns called me to the board, or let me turn the film strip, or clap the erasers after school), but I write on. I don’t know where this will go, but I let go, I trust. This is mystery.

Those last two points they made are actually drawn from the margins of the text.  Readers of the Undisputed Guide will know that the authors have sprinkled marginalia throughout the book.  Most often, these marginal comments offer specific anecdotes or seemingly trivial facts related to the main subject of the chapter (though I would argue that part of what this book aims to accomplish is to challenge the traditional, hierarchical distinction between significant and trivial).  This is the first time in class that I can remember a student drawing upon the marginalia.

So it puts me in mind of one of the general points I want to drive home about FreeDarko’s history and why I picked it. I tell them that I chose the book as much for how it tells the story as for the facts of the story it tells. And part of that, I say, involves layout and the multi-dimensional nature of the text, with its marginalia, its charts, and its illustrations. For example, I say, look at the picture here of the Celtics (click on the image of the book’s cover to get to the full excerpt, then click on the thumbnail image at the bottom center to get to the two page illustration).

I’ll come back to the picture again in detail, but for now just notice that the book is aware and subtly communicates its awareness that it is a telling a story, a version of history.   We see this already in the title of the book itself with its ironically overstated claim to authority, simultaneously tacitly admitting the possibility of dispute.  And we have seen it, as I tried on Day 2 to draw out, in the multiple narrative models through which the story of Naismith’s invention is narrated.  FD knows, in other words, that in the dialectic of enlightenment (look it up): the line between myth and history is nowhere near as fast and bold as we who believe ourselves to be beyond myth would like to believe.

Now I want to pick up on the link between points 1, 3, and 5.  In other words, I’m interested in what at first glance what appears to be an equation; a formula for sucess: Hall of Fame talent + athletic ability + specialization of roles = Celtic domination (or, parenthetically, a similar equation that would have perhaps generated a different route to similar conclusions: Mikan + shot clock + racial integration = Celtic domination).  Shoals, I say, reading aloud, tells us that “Red’s way speaks directly to the sphinxlike riddle of basketball: How do individual and team coexist in a way that makes the most of both?  Auerbach’s intermingling of player and team identity is perhaps his greatest insight.”

I stop there.  This is perfect.  Not because that is Shoals’ final thought, but because it is not his final thought and yet he lets it stand — a full sentence — as a complete thought in itself.  And it’s perfect because as a complete thought it appears to echo the formulaic assertion I offered above.  The Celtics dominated because great individual talent was specialized and skillfully blended into a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s gonna get more complicated in a minute, but for now, as in class let’s just look at that.

How, I ask them, does Auerbach actually solve this riddle?  For the moment, in class, I deliberately ignore that Shoals never said he solves it (only that he “speaks directly to it” and that this was his “greatest insight”) because I feel that part of the beautiful subtlety of the argument here lies in that the rhythm of Shoals’ argument, the word riddle, the image of the Sphinx and the historical facts of Celtics domination conspire to allow us to believe for just a split second that the riddle has been solved, and this heightens the effect when, a moment later, Shoals then asserts that it’s not the case, or at least not the case in any way that could be explained.  But I’ll come back to that point and elaborate it in a moment, as I did in class.

Returning to the question I asked — how did Auerbach solve the riddle of basketball — we muddled around and got lost quite a bit (crooked roads and all that).  I don’t think I can reconstruct that muddle nor, especially the energy that it somehow managed to generate in the room.  But, briefly and in all its inchoate glory:

  • broad initial agreement that it can’t be done today because of money and the marketing of individual players;
  • Why not?
  • A whole generation grown up thinking the point is to get to the NBA and get your own.
  • But what about today’s Celtics someone says, or the Spurs? some people ask?
  • Well, they have accepted their roles.
  • Okay, but what makes someone accept and even feel pride, as Shoals emphasizes of the Celtics of yore, in their specialized and therefore necessarily limited role, especially when that someone, at some previous level of competition was used to being the star?
  • players get convinced that it will be worth it to them to accept a role
  • but how exactly? what convinces them, especially given all the reasons you’ve given for why it’s not in their interests?
  • Winning
Perfect!  There it is:  a student, who is also a role player, says that it’s a lot easier to accept a role when the team is winning,  But wait a minute, I say, didn’t we start out by saying that the Celtics were dominant because players accepted their roles?   A paradox: the dream teaching moment for a humanities professor with my inclinations! Y’all told me the Celtics won because people accepted their roles and you’re telling me they accepted their roles because they won. What?!
But in this case, I let the momentum of the discussion roll along a bit more, even though we weren’t, of course, going to solve that paradox because it can’t be solved and that is the point I wanted to get to, and the point, I think, that Shoals drives at when he follows up his assertion about Red and the Sphinx with the statement:  “And, at the same time, it’s a nonanswer.  That might explain why, to this day, no team has managed to replicate either Red’s methods or the run of success they yielded.” I think this justly characterized “nonanswer” to what is properly a paradoxical riddle is in some way conveyed by Jacob Weinstein’s arresting image of the Celtics as a trophy machine.
Now ordinarily a machine is the very emblem of rational interconnection of parts and forces for maximum efficiency.  And Weinstein’s image at first glance conveys that perfectly.  Recognizable players are shown in poses reminiscent of or evocative of the specialized roles we associated with them and out the bottom right a steady stream of trophies parades past the cigar-smoking Red Auerbach.  At first glance it seems to reinforce the idea that Red solved a riddle and that if we analyzed it sufficiently we could make a similar machine and even reproduce the results.  At first glance.
Now, I’m neither artist nor engineer so I might be badly misreading the image (if I am, please don’t tell me and ruin the mystery), but when I look at the image more closely I start to feel some confusion about how the individual players and their actions are causally related in such a way as to lead to the trophies.   Like I say, I could be missing something, but look at it closely and try to map out the relational chain of causes and effects for each player’s action within the works of the machine.  When I do that, I quickly wind up with a non-linear mess.  So I choose to see in this image an echo of the point I think Shoals arrives at in his essay, and that we arrived at in our clumsy — mysterious way — in class discussion.
Namely, isn’t “the Celtics mystique,” for all that it can appear through knowing eyes as a banal cliche in sports history, really a phrase that mutely points toward a deeper truth?  The truth, I mean, that there is mystery and that perhaps some mysteries cannot be unraveled by the science of history and so are better approached through the art of myth, which makes of their unapproachability an object of beauty and enjoyment and quickening wonder that, in turn, becomes our way to bring the mystery closer and even to commune with it.
I’m no expert in these things, but I believe that the words mystique and mystery, as words, both trace their derivations back to ancient Greek mystery cults, which were secret religious rites (not to be spoken of) that permitted the initiated (which is what the original Greek root actually refers to) more emotional religious experiences than the more common acts of public propitiation.  Mystery and mystique, this leads me to think, are the names for what makes us feel that we are in on something special, something affecting and spiritually deepening but which it is hard — if not prohibited — to speak of.  Or maybe we can speak of it, but we have to stop short of talking about it as if we knew for certain what we were taking about (because then, of course, it stops being a mystery).

This is a tricky position for a professor to take, especially one who likes to talk as much as I do, but I have found myself in all areas of my teaching and writing about literature and philosophy drawn to the places where knowing and the kind of talk that supports and expresses it fall short, or crack and in through that fissue rushes a different sort of relationship in which feeling — perhaps especially feelings of wonder, but also of love — predominates.

A pretty obscure writer named Felisberto Hernandez began one of his early works of fiction saying “I’ll also have to write many things I know very little about; it even strikes me that impenetrability is intrinsic to them. Perhaps when we think we know them we stop knowing that we don’t know them, because their existence is inevitably obscure, and that must be one of their qualities. But I don’t believe I have to write only what I know, but also the other.”

Credit Shoals and Weinstein for understanding this and for getting it across in a — paradoxically — accessible way; which is to say, credit them for the acceptance of mystery and the paradox or nonsense into which it shoves us like a hard crossover when we try to defend against it.  The chapter title tells us that everything that follows is myth (they walked this earth), then analyzes and explains the Celtic dynasty (knowledge), then tells us in a single breath that Red solves (knowledge) the riddle of the Sphinx (more myth) and that solving it is not to solve it (mu).  If you’re intellectual ankles aren’t broken by this move, then you aren’t really in the game in my opinion.  Can we just – and I hate the fucking Celtics – just pause and wonder?! How could this happen? How were they so good, so dominant? Why does every clip look like they are playing the Washington Generals?

Bigger question: is it a legitimate function of the humanities to lead its students to the “conclusion” that, sometimes, wisdom is 1) knowing only that we don’t know and 2) learning to feel a rush of joy at that knowledge? Maybe that — as Claire suggested to me the other night — is what my broken right, “thinking”, hand symbolizes for me: a challenge to let go of the control I believe it gives me; control, among other things, by acting like I know things I don’t know. And maybe in that partial surrender is a secret to the mystery. Maybe,

{Postscript because even – especially –in the face of mystery there is always more to say.  I was extremely gratified to receive a thoughtful, well-written e-mail from a student, who is also a role player a few hours after class, apparently composed on the team bus en route to Columbus Ohio for Thursday nights game, elaborating his thoughts on role players.  It launched me into another eddy of giddiness and prompted me to reply with a meaningful, heartfelt message explaining how today’s class had held the key to why UM could beat # 1 ranked OSU.  I did so partly because last week I’d told another player why I believed they could beat Michigan State, which they did, obviously because of my message,  And that, I now realize, is my role on the team – offering my unsolicited opinions to role players about why and how they can win games they aren’t supposed to win.  This is what I dreamed of when I was a child in the driveway, holding a coke bottle and pretending to hand it to Mean Joe Greene.}

Go back to learn how basketball at the atomic level is exactly like life in the universe

Go on to read Day 8’s meditation on greatness and not winning.

Day 2: We Are All Witnesses

This may not be so funny or dramatic. My fiancée, Claire, who’s also a university teacher, once observed with a perfect mixture of relief and wry disappointment how that hideous flower of anxiety seems to wilt and wither into something like dry routine, or even boredom, after the first day. Day 2 certainly wasn’t boring, but it didn’t pack quite the terrifying emotional punch of Opening Day.

That’s no doubt because of the change of clothes I carefully planned:  no hat, sweats, and a Nike track jacket. Or maybe because I spent much of Tuesday afternoon and evening blubbering in Claire’s arms and giving vent to the massive gold mine of insecurities that teaching this course tapped. Or maybe because in class we were actually going to be reading a text and that gave me a kind of home court advantage. Probably all of the above. But whatever the reason, Day 2 turned out to be less dramatic and more unambiguously positive and exciting than Day 1. And we actually got some interesting intellectual work done, even if it did entail partially misreading the main reading assignment.

Students were to have read the first section of “Chapter Zero” of our course textbook, FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, in which Bethlehem Shoals tells the story of James Naismith’s invention of the game in 1891. It’s a fluid six page read.  I certainly like it a lot, but in putting it on the syllabus, I had no clear idea in mind of what I wanted the class to get other than the fact that a man named James Naismith invented the game of basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891.

Now, I sometimes I unpleasantly fantasize that students project onto their college classes and professors the K-12 educational model of the lesson plan,

where every date and assignment on the syllabus and every minute within every day of every class is minutely orchestrated for minimum rowdiness and maximum pedagogical efficiency. But that’s not how I roll. The reading assignments that appear on my syllabuses are more like the food I bring to a potluck, or an item at the buffet. Hopefully they’ll try it. I have some ideas of what I think is worthwhile about it, and I certainly want to share these ideas, but at least as much I want them to learn to develop and to articulate their own ideas.  Or better yet, I’d rather them spontaneously voice my ideas. 


So the beginning of a typical meeting of one of my classes goes like this:  “So for today I asked you to read ‘x’. I have some ideas about what I find interesting and important about ‘x.’ But I’m going to keep those on the back burner and first hear your own impressions. Then, I’ll work my own ideas in when they seem relevant. So, what were your impressions?” Then, as they begin to say things, I take notes on the board, furiously scrawling everything that is said, trying to organize it spatially on the board into categories that make sense to me and mightily trying to make it seem that there’s no such thing as a stupid or irrelevant comment, which in a way turns out to be the case in the end, but it doesn’t always feel that way at first.

This works pretty well, except when some uptight, overachieving, structure-loving punk torpedoes the whole operation by asking where this is all going or what’s the point. But paradoxically it puts a lot more pressure on me than preparing a highly structured plan of what needs to be said about a given reading assignment. I have to think rapidly on my feet, do a lot of “translating” and at the same time weave together the disparate textures and weights of numerous threads into something coherent enough that the students can walk away feeling like they have either a) learned some “thing” or b) have some “thing” to think about.

So, already terrified of this hoops class and of my own feelings about it, there was no way in hell I was going to start off Day 2 – especially after Day 1 – by just asking these students to tell me what they thought of Shoals’ essay “Down By Law: James Naismith, the Peach-Basket Patriarch.” No way.

Instead, I did the pedagogical and intellectual equivalent of firmly belting my pants well up and above my waist to be absolutely certain they wouldn’t come down on me. (Interestingly, in terms of my actual clothes, as I said, I went in the other direction – feeling much more confident and comfortable in sweats than in jeans and a sweater that seemed, on Tuesday anyway, to just grow tighter and smaller with every passing moment.)

I carefully read and reread the assignment from FD’s history. As I read and thought I let myself just jot down what was striking me as important about it, which is how I realized that what was most interesting to me was the way that Shoals tells the story, by self-consciously drawing it into a narrative web with other stories, create a network (Moses – Martin Luther – James Naismith) that is at once ridiculous and sublime. But I didn’t want to say that to the students because then, well, that would take about 45 seconds and then there’d still be 1 hour, 19 minutes, and 15 seconds left of class. Also I didn’t think they’d have any idea what I was talking about, not on Day 2.

So I backed up. I don’t just mean I got simpler or more basic in my thoughts. I mean I backed up to how I felt. I realized that I really only cared about the invention of basketball as a story. I mean to say that as a fact, as something that happened, I didn’t really care much about the invention of basketball. Obviously I feel it’s a good thing since without it there’d be no basketball. But as mere fact, it’s not very interesting.

In a way, as mere fact it doesn’t really exist for any practical purpose. From a certain point of view, it doesn’t exist at all (since it is in the past and so is no longer) outside of the stories that are told about it. To my academic colleagues, this might seem like an obvious acknowledgment of the mediated nature of the past, but it’s still exciting to me when I rediscover it (in a “Whoa! Look! I invented a wheel!” kind of way).  Besides, in my experience, it is by no means obvious to undergraduates, especially Freshmen, which is mostly what I have in the class. Also, it seemed nicely connected to what I’d already promised the students I wanted the course to be about: not just the game on the floor but the power of the stories we tell about it.

Shoals’ comparison got me thinking about the story of the invention of basketball as a story of origins, a story about where something came from.

I realized the way I wanted to start was by asking my students to think about the stories they consume and create about where they came from.  How have those stories changed over time?  How do they vary in the present depending on who they are talking to:  an academic advisor, a childhood friend, a stranger at a frat party? How are those changes driven at least partly by the conscious and unconscious purposes they – the students, I mean – bring and have brought to each of these different situations. Maybe getting them to think about the practical variability of their own origin stories would make it easier to think more generally about origin stories as pragmatic instruments (rather than as objective or value-neutral, transparent descriptions of fact, or as shackling structures with the authority to determine what we do in the future).

But I still felt like something was missing. The two things I am afraid of as a teacher – hold up, the two things I most afraid of as a teacher are: 1) talking too much and boring the students and 2) running out of things to say — it’s a vexing combination, I know, which I suppose is why it works so well as a fear.  Probably my worst teaching-nightmare has me speaking animatedly on a topic, offering illumination after blinding illumination in a kind of improvised escalating spiral of profundity and originality and then I look up ready to say “see you next time” only to find that only five minutes have passed and half the class is jerking itself back onto the road like sleepy motorists.  The only thing that makes it worse is when my pants fall down.  I felt I needed more belting, figuratively speaking.

Luckily, and by luckily I mean through an unconscious survival instinct, I had tossed Naismith’s book into my satchel on Monday just before leaving St. Louis to catch my flight up to Michigan. I hadn’t read it yet (embarrassing admission for the professor of “Cultures of Basketball”; like a religious studies prof not having read Genesis or something).   On the plane up on Monday I started reading it and found that it was actually really fascinating reading. I mean, some of it was boring and I skipped pages here and there, but the story of the actual invention of the game as Naismith tells it I found pretty gripping.  Now that I think of it, it was like listening to my father recount his invention of the game of basketball, except that I could control it better.

Naismith came to mind as I prepared for Day 2 thinking about origin stories and how we shape them.   I figured that if Shoals was self-consciously shaping the story, it would be interesting for students to compare his story to another version of the same event.  What could be better, more authentic, and more apparently unshaped than Naismith’s own first-hand account? Here I imagined deliberately leading my students down the alley of comparing FD’s “disorted” version to the “true” version of Naismith and then, suddenly, flinging open a secret, hidden door in which, with great rhetorical flourish, I asked them: “but is Naismith’s account really ‘true’? Is it not distorted as well, only differently? What do we mean by true?” Ha-ha!  So all I needed to do was to photocopy the relevant pages from Naismith and bring them into class. This I did on Thursday morning before class. For good measure, I made 24 copies of the entire 17 page syllabus to distribute in class so that anytime I referred to it they’d have it in front of them and then I would avoid the dizzying experience I’d had the first day.

I had my plan: 1) find out whether and why they care about the invention of basketball, just as an icebreaker; 2) use the more “useful” responses as a way to turn the discussion to our fascination with stories of origin in general; 3) “thoughtfully” raise the question of how we know whether stories of origin are really true or not; 4) gracefully pivot from their earnest responses to this rhetorical question into making the point about the textually and narratively mediated nature of our access to the past; 5) reassure them that this need not be a bad thing, but can actually be an empowering thing; do a comparative reading of Naismith and Shoals in which the students talked about the shape of the respective stories and the purposes to which those stories might be put; 6) be prepared to talk about last night’s game — including Michigan’s closely fought loss to second-ranked Ohio State — in case numbers 1-5 above only take up  5 minutes of class.

Decked out in my sweats and Nike Chevron track jacket, I strode purposefully into class on Thursday. Just about everyone was already seated by the time I got there, but curiously, that felt better to me than having arrived so pathetically early on Day 1. I felt more confident: they were the pathetic ones! They couldn’t even start class without me! They needed me more than I needed them! “King Kong ain’t got nothin’ on me!” I roared in my head.

One of the players made, I think, a comment about my track jacket. It might have been derisive or ridiculing, but it might just have been surprise: professors don’t say “shit” and they don’t wear sweats and track jackets to class (a corollary of the solipsistic student axiom about their teachers: the teacher does not exist outside of class).   It might also not have been about me at all.  I wobbled but was undeterred. I tossed my bag on the teacher’s desk and began to take out the materials. I felt a little warm and toyed with the possibility of burning up as I had on Tuesday, but somehow came back from that abyss.

As I faced the class, taking roll and deliberately but subtly showing that I knew who the players were, I noticed that all the UM players (but one) were on one side of the room and all the non-UM players were on the other side. That was a little too close for comfort to a perfect physical manifestation of my own juvenile thoughts about the class. So, as I had the students distribute the various photocopies, I just pulled the curtain back. I remarked on the seating. And I said, “it seems like we’ve got players on the one side and fans on the other, or players on the one side and students on the other.  “But everyone” I said (I meant to “thunder” it, but I don’t think it came out that way), “everyone,” I said again for emphasis imagining John Houseman in the Paper Chase, “in this room is a student at this university, everyone is a fan, and everyone – whatever the level – is a player.” Good, everyone’s nodding.

Qui gon Jinn and Jar Jar Binks zooming around in the little underwater pod popped into my head and I found myself saying “Like me, you might not have ever played at the level these guys are playing, but don’t forget there is always a bigger fish.” I continued, “Oh, you don’t think so? Nobody’s a bigger fish than Lebron James? What about Kobe Bryant? [Kid I know to be from LA and a huge Laker fan nods vigorously]  Nobody’s a bigger fish than Kobe Bryant? What about Lebron James? [Kid looks confused and crestfallen]”

Then a student asked: “Who’s a bigger fish than Jordan?” (I’ve got a number of Chicagoland Jordan babies in my class).   Everyone laughed, it was a good question and it’s fun for everyone when the professor is stumped. Good question I said and laughed, maybe nervously, I’m not sure.  I wanted to be showing that I didn’t mind being stumped, even though I felt frustrated.  Images of Oscar Robertson kept pushing themselves into my mind.  I don’t want to have this argument.  I’ll lose it for sure, because I think probably nobody’s a bigger fish than Jordan but I can’t stand watered down absolutes.  It just doesn’t have the same effect to say “There’s almost always a bigger fish, unless you are the biggest fish, then there’s no bigger fish than you.”

So I replied, “Phil Jackson?” The student – also a player – smiled but shook his head. Perhaps I stirred a streak of rebellion against over-emphasizing the importance of coaching in the game, which is a streak I wholeheartedly sympathize with.  Plus in this setting, student = player and teacher = coach.  So  I felt a little stupid and abashed, as though I’d selfishly sided with Louis XVI during the French revolution.  I thought to myself, but didn’t say, how many titles did Jordan win without Jackson? (Answer = 0) how many titles has Jackson won without Jordan (Answer = 6 and counting). Not that I think that settles the question, but it would have been a good thing to say.

Anyway, the ice was unintentionally broken, and from there we got things underway and had what for me was a fun and interesting discussion that went more or less as planned up to a certain point. A variety of students responded to the questions I put to them about their interest (or lack thereof) in the invention of basketball and about their own stories of origins and how they work in their lives today. And they seemed to be taking it in when I made the point about how context and purpose influence the way we shape stories, even stories that purport to be objectively true (here a student who is also a writer for the school newspaper helped out by corroborating this).

Then we looked at Naismith together, me reading aloud the key passages in which Naismith, mostly flatly, like a human flowchart, reasons his way to the game of basketball. The narrative is mostly a thought experiment, in which he dryly imagines various scenarios sprouting forth from certain premises, rewinds the mental tape, changes the premise and then moves forward again.  The only instant when any trace of emotion appears — or indeed when Naismith himself emerges as a feeling human being (instead of a reasoning machine) — comes, tellingly, when he recalls coming up with the prohibition on traveling: “I can still recall how I snapped my fingers and shouted, ‘I’ve got it!’” “This time,” he continues, “I felt that I really had a new principle for a game.”

I say tellingly because Naismith’s story – apart from this little oasis or plateau – is like a desert of affect, dry and flat. But that is often the way with invention stories – the desert-like, rational surroundings help both to emphasize the calm intelligence of the inventor (thus de-emphasizing the role of chance and circumstance in the invention) and, of course, shed a spotlight on the actual moment of the invention.
I’m not sure I got this across so clearly in class, but we certainly did pause to observe and enjoy how much of what we take as divinely-ordained necessity in the basics of basketball is really due to chance and contingency in the circumstances of its invention. And how that chaotic element of chance seems to be corralled within the implacable rationality of Naismith’s storytelling style.

Then we turned to Shoals and the students slowly began to construct the “compare-and-contrast” paradigm.  I wasn’t thrilled with the points, but I was happy that I was getting a fairly well distributed level of participation.  Clearly, the students had read the assignment.   Finally, someone voiced what to me was the whole point of Shoals’ story: he compares Naismith to Moses and Martin Luther and so basketball to a religion (nevermind, for the moment, that this is not really the whole point of Shoals’ story).  At this point, I somehow forgot all about Naismith and the point of this whole comparative exercise, and, caught up in the testimony, just blurted out: “in what ways is basketball like or unlike a religion for you?”  Here’s where I should acknowledge that Shoals’ argument really goes from the mythico-religious (Moses) to the historico-religious (Martin Luther) to the secular (the Founding Fathers) and concludes that Naismith bears more of a resemblance to a founding father.  So really the question should have been: “in what ways is basketball like a country to you?”  But maybe that doesn’t matter and maybe, after all,  they’re not such different questions: religion and nation? Anyway, they responded so enthusiastically to the question about religion that I forgot the rest of the lesson plan and I forgot to point out this elementary fact about our primary text.

They came out with all kinds of great stuff: basketball involves ritual, basketball is a haven from earthly troubles, basketball involves superstition and the appeasing of higher powers, basketball awakens passions of love and hatred, basketball inspires devotion. Basketball, a couple of people collectively figured out, could even be seen as just one of the great religions alongside other sports like baseball, football or soccer as others. Ultimately, they decided, just as with “real” religions one can get caught up on the differences and become antagonistic and hostile or one can focus on the basic underlying commonalities. They talked about how you create value-systems through basketball. They talked about their own experiences as players and fans. We made fun of Lakers’ fans.  (Even the Lakers’ Kid admitted Lakers’ fans were insane, explaining that in a recent fan forum thread Lakers’ fans said that if they had one player with which to start a franchise they’d choose Andrew Bynum over Blake Griffin.)   We felt bad for Cleveland fans: how would you feel if the Messiah abandoned you cause you were cold and a loser? We enjoyed making the obvious observation, with verbal winks at each other, about the Nike “Witness” campaign and about Lebron’s “Chosen One” SI cover.

We also talked about whether there was any drawback to seeing basketball as a religion or, more precisely, to experiencing it as a religion. This led to a discussion of perspective, with some students feeling that it was important not to lose sight of the fact that basketball is, after all, a game and not as encompassing or important as religion.  While in some ways this is obviously so (and I said so), I also wanted to resist the point. I think partly I felt a peevish resentment at being brought back down to earth, as though I was being told that it was time to get serious. But I also felt that there was an intellectual point — at least a matter of rigor – at stake.

In virtue of what unstated assumptions and prejudices does religion feel more encompassing and important than basketball? How do we use the word “game” to dismiss basketball as diversion and so limit our potential to live the “game” creatively with all our human potential? Don’t at least some people divorce their zealous profession of religious belief from their  behavior in daily life and in that sense lose perspective as well? Is that any better or more desirable than living in the world of basketball as though it had no connection to daily life?

The point I meant to stress (and which I am almost 100 % sure that I did not get across) is that the more significant danger might not be taking basketball too seriously, but rather not taking basketball seriously enough.

Go back to read my spine-tingling account of the nearly catastrophic first day of Cultures of Basketball

Go on to read Day 3’s recollection of the leagues and teams now all but lost to memory

The Birth of the 20th Century: On Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1914 (Harvard, 2003)

When I was in graduate school in Duke University’s Literature Program from 1987-1991, discussion and study of postmodernism was all the rage. It helped that the Program’s director, Fredric Jameson, was then in the process of composing his own magnum opus on the topic, Postmodernity, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. This focus on postmodernism necessarily entailed study and discussion of modernism, modernization, and modernity as well. One of the books, actually originally published in 1983, that I remember a number of grabbing up and reading at the time was Stephen Kern’s, The Culture of Time and Space, essentially a study of the transformation of the experiences of time and space among Europeans and Americans (from the US) in the period from 1880 to 1918, traced through developments in science, technology, philosophy, the social sciences, and the arts.  Unlike many works that circulated in the heyday of the postmodernism debate of the late 80s, I suspect, Kern’s book has aged well. Kern, a historian now at Ohio State University, tells a compelling, readable, and originally and lucidly organized history of a sea change in conceptions of time and space that affected the material and cultural environment as well as everyday consciousness. Read more