Basketball Analytics: Reflections and Reservations

Okay, here’s the short version for those require maximum efficiency (n=”the point”/number of words) in their reading environment:

At the heart of my reservations is my sense that value can be defined in many ways: economically, aesthetically, morally, to name just a few.  And that economic definitions of value in terms of efficiency productivity may be beginning to eclipse and drive out of the public conversation considerations of aesthetic and moral and other values, particularly when these appear to be at odds with economic value.  In short: some very beautiful (aesthetically valuable) things are not economically efficient.  I am worried that once we have allowed certain kinds of things that we value to be eclipsed, we could find ourselves in the position of having lost those kinds of things forever.

The rest of you, who enjoy the backroads of an intellectual journey, please carry on with my sincere thanks.

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Why I Hate “the Warriors”

I’m annoyed.  Here’s the thing:  I thought I was gonna write a quick explanation of why I hate the Warriors, hot take click bait for contrarians.

Because: I do, I hate them!  See, it’s easy for me to feel that, it’s always right there, seething under the surface, clamoring to be voiced. I hate the Warriors. That part is like falling off a log. But an explanation is a different kind of thing. For an explanation I have to think, and when that happens, at least for me, things get complicated.

Why do I hate the Warriors? What about them do I hate?  People ask me this. It’s fair. What’s to hate about a superb team made up of apparently likable players playing well individually and together? What’s to hate about ball movement or great shooting or winning or appearing to have fun? What’s to hate about Oakland having a great team?  What am I even talking about?! People ask me these very difficult questions. And I keep repeating, confirming the stereotype of the egghead academic, that it’s complicated.

Let’s start with what I don’t hate. I don’t hate Steph Curry. His skills are peerless, the precise, but seemingly effortless creativity with which he deploys them is joyful and awe striking, not to mention at times hilarious, and it  manifests at least as much dedication and hours of effort as I’ve ever admired in any other player.  I don’t hate Draymond Green and the ability to adapt to his environment by growing new capacities in leaps and bounds that he’s demonstrated as part of this team. Nor do I hate his brash, trash talking confidence. I don’t even hate the Warriors for beating the heroic LeBron James and the closest thing I have to a hometown club in the finals last year. I don’t hate their crisp pace, or their spacing, or their ball movement. I don’t hate three pointers in particular or great shooting in general. I love all these things. And yet…

And yet, basketball doesn’t just exist within the lines of the court. Basketball is also, for me anyway (and I would argue for anyone, whether they are aware of it or not), a set of stories, stories that convey (and influence) attitudes and beliefs and values. And basketball also is a set of broader societal forces and practices that find their way into the game, moving the minds and hearts and bodies of owners, general managers, coaches, players, fans, and the media. So that while I can watch and admire all that I described above, it’s simply not possible for me to do so without also experiencing feelings provoked by all the other things I can’t help but notice are in play when the Warriors take the floor. (By the way, that, in case you wondered, is why “the Warriors” is in scare quotes in my title.)

I’ve written about this before, so I won’t belabor the point at length, but I can’t help, I’m sorry, but be disturbed by what lurks between the lines of the collective adoration of Steph Curry. It’s not that his skills don’t deserve our admiration. They do, and I believe he is rightly considered the best basketball player alive at this moment.  It’s the way that many (I know: not all) in the media, in the corporate world, and in fandom convey their delight in his success (particularly when it involves licking a saber’s edge over the slain body of the last player they made into an object of worship, LeBron James).

I’m repelled, heretical though it may seem in our country, by the celebration of his Christianity, as though believing in Jesus were a talent or an accomplishment, or evidence of moral virtue, or, um, at all relevant to being a basketball player. And I wonder why in Jesus’s name we, as a culture, give a shit about what Steph believes. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate Christians or that Steph Curry is one. I hate that this fact ever appears to his credit in a story about basketball.  Ditto for his having an adorable child and loving her: happy for him that he has one, happy for her that he loves her. Stop talking about it (or start talking about all the NBA players, especially those who didn’t come from two parent households, who are also devoted to their kids).

I’m irritated (not repelled, I’m trying to be precise here) by the open-mouthed marveling at his physical stature, as though with every floater he drops in heavy traffic he were preschooler spelling a difficult word or moonwalking on his parents coffee table, as though he has somehow overcome greater obstacles than other great NBA players.  He’s not, and he has not.  Yes, he is not as tall as the average NBA player, nor as strong, but he’s neither the shortest nor the weakest of his peers. He’s 6-3, was raised amidst material privilege by both his parents (one a former NBA player and three-point specialist), and spent his childhood at NBA practices and games, surrounded and tutored by NBA players. That doesn’t make him a lock to become the greatest player alive (far from it, as I’ve already acknowledged: he’s clearly worked his ass off), but it also doesn’t make him a miraculously prodigious tiny street urchin who wandered in grubby off the street corner and began launching step back threes with unprecedented accuracy.

Lastly, I’m repelled (yes, repelled again), by what I view as a pernicious racist subtext in the cult of Steph Curry. Let me emphasize: I am not referring to conscious attitudes held by individuals who adore Steph Curry. I’m talking, as I have tried to demonstrate in my book, about the workings of collective, unconscious dispositions and desires that we have all inherited by American society and the history of basketball.  Unless we actively and explicitly combat these, then it becomes too easy for the celebration of a light-skinned, blue eyed, average-sized guard to come at the expense of dark-skinned, brown-eyed, over-sized black men.

Is any of this Steph’s fault? Mostly, I would say no, it’s not. But it is to the degree that he deliberately reinforces (or capitalizes upon) any of these elements of the narrative that has risen up around his brilliant on-court performances.  I leave it to others to judge whether he has or not, and with that, enough about the Church of Steph Curry.

Next up, I can’t watch the Warriors peerless team play and lights out three point shooting without seeing it as the most advanced current manifestation of a tide that has been slowly swelling in basketball over the last 10 years or so that prizes productive efficiency above all else. This feeling has spurred me to a more extensive research project into all the elements, conceptual, technological and otherwise that have driven this development; which is to say, I’m still learning a lot about it. But in my currently oversimplified understanding of the story it goes like this.

Inspired by the advances in the statistical analysis of baseball, some fans with statistical proficiency began to think about the game of basketball and how to quantify what looked to the rest of us more or less like pure, unquantifiable material flow. In doing so, they isolated “the possession” as the fundamental unit of basketball play and to begin to experiment with methods for calculating the productivity of teams (and individuals) in terms of how the various basketball actions they undertake affect the ability to generate points per possession.

Here let me say: of course they did! Because, I say as someone who is just trying these lenses on for size, it’s cool as hell to see the game through them! (I’m the guy, I’d like you to know, who kept stats of the imaginary NBA Finals series he played against his best friend in the driveway and I’m the guy whose Dad kept stats at everyone of his games and then printed out reams of analysis generated by his IBM XT.) I don’t hate numbers. I love numbers and wish I understood them better. So I don’t fault these individuals. I don’t attribute to them soulless, malign intentions. I turn the game into stories and appreciate it with words, they turn it into formulas and appreciate it through numbers. Live and let live, right?

Definitely.  But I worry that the beautiful curiosity, wild imagination, unorthodox vision, and intellectual energy driving their efforts came also to be recognized for its potential value to owners and general managers seeking to maximize and stabilize the return on their financial investment in players.  How, in essence, these individuals might be asking themselves, do I get the most points per possession for the fewest dollars? Now we’ve gone from a few teams hiring some statistically minded kids to analyze their box scores to a half-dozen cameras perched in every arena in the league surveilling the every movement of players and delivering a torrent of big data to small armies of analysts to crunch and transform into actionable information for executives, coaches, and yes, even players.

Of course, I don’t expect that capitalist owners (or their paid underlings) would prioritize questions other than those related to maximizing their ROI.  And, if you’re comfortable with having the unencumbered freight train of free market logic trundle along, you’re probably thinking I’m naive.  After all, this is just the nature of things in our world. Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or its effects.

The Warriors, it seems to me, who lead the league in offensive efficiency, seem not only to be the incarnation of this tendency, but, by their success, seem also to be spurring other franchises to try to figure out how to do what they’ve done—as evidenced by Steph and others telling teams not to try.  This may be fine for many fans, whose favorite team either is the Warriors or is trying to become them. But for me it threatens to turn the NBA, which I have long loved to the degree that it presented me with an alternative to the corporatization of daily life in America, into the advance guard for ever more invasive attempts to make economic efficiency the mother of all values, to maximize productivity, and to create more reliable predictive models.

I don’t mind efficiency, I don’t mind productivity, and I don’t mind predictions. God knows I like to get my work done and to know what shit storm is coming around the bend so that I can prepare for it or avoid it.  But these are strong tides in which we are blithely romping in America today and if we don’t watch out, we may find that they’ve swept out to sea some other things that we used to like to have around: beauty, surprise, chance, and nonsense, to name just a few.

Which brings me to my final point, the relationship between the Warriors increasingly predictable domination of all competition and the annihilation of uncertainty and of the emotional complex (and marvelous, wondering stories) to which it gives rise.  Last week, the Warriors demolished the Cavaliers by 34, the Bulls by 31, and the Spurs by 30. Two of those teams (the Cavs and Spurs) were supposed to represent the only significant challenge to the inevitability of the Warriors winning a second consecutive title this year. So much for that. Even if Nate Silver at 538 only puts their chances of winning the title at 46 % (still 20 percentage points higher than the Spurs), I don’t know anybody who really thinks that the Warriors won’t repeat.  Unless, of course, they get hurt. But even I don’t wish for that.

But that’s kind of the point for me. I don’t want to have to wish for great athletes to get hurt so that uncertainty will be restored to the game. And, in basketball, unlike in my life, I like not knowing what will happen next, or how the story will end. I like the tension in my stomach and shoulders, the quickening of my pulse this uncertainty brings, and I like the emotions of fear, hope, elation, relief, despair associated with these physical signs.  I think of basketball as a story-generating machine, but really, it’s the uncertainty that basketball creates and the emotions that uncertainty provokes that are, I think, the source from which the basketball stories I love have always come from.

The Warriors are on pace to tie the 1996 Bulls record setting 72-10 regular season won-loss record. I’d have hated watching those Bulls teams if it weren’t for the utter unpredictability of Dennis Rodman and the sense his existence allowed that I didn’t know what was happen next, or, to put it another way, what the story would be tomorrow. Hell the very presence of Rodman’s brightly colored, pogo-stick body alongside MJ’s in a Bulls uniform was itself a kind of ceaseless source of nourishment for the imagination delighting in the fragile, fleeting materialization of the improbable

I think I know what the story will be tomorrow, and the day after, and in June, when the Warriors finish off their thoroughly probable title run.

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What The Answer Taught me About the Dismissal of David Blatt

As the Internet caught fire with reactions to the news, clever kids tripped over themselves to photoshop images of Tyronn Lue, who was once famously stepped over by Allen Iverson after a made jumper, stepping over David Blatt.  Okay, why not.  But in the midst of the mass euphoria/hysteria, there was Allen Iverson himself, stepping into the Twitterverse, as he rarely does, with this:

Screenshot 2016-01-23 13.05.23

Was it a joke? Was he being ironic? Maybe. I don’t know Allen Iverson personally so I couldn’t really tell you for sure.  But actually, I think that’s sort of the point.

To me, this Tweet, whatever Iverson may have intended, tells me that there is something deep and intimate shared by NBA players that we, who are not them, often fail to recognize. To us, Lue is mockable roadkill left in the wake of the speeding rebel genius Iverson (he was for me too until I saw this tweet). But Iverson seems to step in here to say that we don’t understand anything, or rather, that we and our views—to the degree that we fail to see their limitations—are rrelevant.

That’s why he addresses Lue directly.  “Love you” he says to Tyronn Lue in the presence of 980,000 followers.  He may have delighted in making that shot, and in stepping over Lue, but that delight, I believe I understand, was not at the expense of the loving bond they share, but rather a function of it.  I think it can be hard to understand that from the outside; hard to understand, I mean, what it must be to be among a group of a few hundred young black males suddenly experiencing riches and fame and adoration and pressure in a world that otherwise mostly seems to fear and despise them, at least if mass incarceration and police violence is any indication; hard to really grasp the solidarity that experience, those experiences, engender.

So what? Well, I’m not an NBA player, or a young black man, so I’m sure I can’t presume to say with any kind of certainty.  But from the vantage point that Iverson seemed to me to have pointed to here, and which I can at least intellectually comprehend, here’s how the whole thing with the Cavs, Blatt, and LeBron looks.

It’s probably fair to say that the expectations for, and pressure on, David Blatt changed after he accepted the job. He thought he’d be coaching a young team and trying to shape them into contenders.  Then LeBron came back, management traded the young players to create a Big 3 out of James, Kyrie Irving, and  Kevin Love, and merely contending was no longer enough.  The job description changed: the Cavs had to win a championship. Racking up wins in the woeful Eastern Conference and making it through to the Finals wouldn’t cut it if the now-full-strength Cavs were still—as was appearing to be the case—likely to go down in the Finals.  So, while that may have been tough for Blatt to adapt to, it remains the case that he was still collecting paychecks and that the change in expectations were not unreasonable.  That is why it is totally irrelevant, if not disingenuous, for critics of the decision to wring their hands over the fact that Blatt had the best won-loss record of any fired coach in history, or that the team, depleted by injuries, made the finals last season.  Who cares? And who says that was because of Blatt anyway? Why do you say that was because of Blatt?

Those upset that so seemingly successful a coach as Blatt should have been fired explain what otherwise seems inexplicable by presuming that LeBron James had something to do with it, even if he was not, as the Cavs maintain, explicitly consulted.  We might ask why we presume this when there is no evidence. But my gut response to the speculation is, nonetheless: ya think?  Of course he had something to do with it! I should hope so!  He might not be the best player in the league this year (though, as I’ve argued before, we should think hard about our delight in his having been surpassed by Steph Curry).  But he’s been the best player on the planet for a decade and, contrary to some wayward speculation, he’s far more crucial to the Cavs hopes of winning a title anytime soon than was David Blatt. More important than whether LeBron had a role in this or not, is the question of why those not on the team are so invested in maintaining a putative hierarchy in which players don’t express their dissatisfaction about their coaches publicly or in any way that might cause management to fire the coach.  So, why? Why are you so invested in that hierarchy?

Trailing closely in the wake of the collective garment-rending and breast-beating for David Blatt is the head-shaking and finger-wagging at LeBron James for what these observers take to be his egomaniacal savior complex.  LeBron may or may not have such a complex.  I don’t know him.  What I do know is that before he returned to Cleveland, before he left Cleveland, before he called himself King, or tattooed himself with the word “Chosen,” these same people now complaining about him had already called him “the Chosen One.”  Incidentally, many of these people who rip what they see as James’ narcissistic selfishness will also have criticized him, in effect, for being too unselfish on the court. Nor does this criticism seem to capture that the main advantage that Lue seems to have over Blatt, as far as Cavs players goes, is that he will actually criticize them, even LeBron.  Whose fault is it that David Blatt wouldn’t do that? But let’s not get bogged down in these details.  Here’s the bottom line, don’t get it twisted: we wrote the script for the new gospel and cast LeBron as the messiah.  That’s on us and it’s our problem, not his, when he doesn’t conform to the plot we’ve laid out.  

That’s the reminder and the lesson of Iverson’s tweet:  we are ever placing these human beings into our doll houses, playing out dramas with them, and them tossing them under the sofa when one “malfunctions” or a “better one” comes along…all the while acting as though our playroom theatrics were reality. We’re just playing. But they’re not: not Iverson, not Lue, not James, not even Blatt. We can play and enjoy our games.  But they’re not reality, at least not all of it, and definitely not the most important part of reality.

Now, we may not have access to the reality.  That’s not our fault.  And it makes our—my—mythmaking understandable.  I get that.  But getting that also carries with it a responsibility to acknolwedge that we are just playing, and that our play is not a source of any kind of knowledge, unless it is knowledge about the kind of games we like to play.  Morever, it requires us to refrain from passing moralizing judgments and pretending them that they are grounded in anything other than our fantasies and the deep desires shaping them.

“Ball Don’t Lie!” Is Coming Soon (Here’s a discount code!)

I’m very excited!

Here’s the flyer for my book, Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, which comes out in March.

There’s a code at the bottom for a discount on orders prior to 3/1/16.

Also, if you or someone you know is interested in an advance review copy of the galleys, there’s contact information for that.

I’ll be very grateful if you could share this widely via e-mail and on your social networks.

If you have any questions, please write me at yagocolas@gmail.com.

Thanks,

Bad Prof

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Pre-order “Ball Don’t Lie!” Today!

I’m really excited to say that you can now pre-order Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball from Amazon starting today.

The book is part of the exceptional Temple University Press series “Sporting” edited by the accomplished sports historian, Professor Amy Bass. And I’m truly honored to be in the company of the other authors in that series.

If you don’t know about the book, you can learn more about it here.

I’ve put all I have into this book, and, in some ways, I’ve been working on it all my life. But more importantly, I really believe that I’ve come up with some important ways of looking at the history of the game and that it’s an enjoyable read, whether you are a basketball fan, or just interested in sports, American culture, or race.

I hope that you’ll check it out and, while you’re at it, order a copy for the thinking fan (or thinking non-fan) in your life.

Thanks

Yago

Troubleshooting the Sports Machine (Global Sports Cultures, 1st Lecture)

Yesterday I gave my first lecture in Global Sports Cultures (Comparative Literature 100).  After teaching the course for the first time last year, I retooled the syllabus both to make the material more concrete by prioritizing certain figures and moments as primary focal points for each week’s studies and also to facilitate my making my lectures more accessible, and more interactive.  I also put lots of time into creating an interactive online course concept map as a resource for students looking to find more about particular facts, ideas, or personalities or to explore comparative connections from week to week.  It’s still in progress, but I’m including it here below because I think it could a very valuable tool, and I certainly have been learning a lot putting it together. The image below gives you an idea of what that looks like (each of those “Thought” boxes is clickable and contains more specific thoughts), but feel free click here if you want to explore the course concepts for yourself.

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The fact is, I vastly prefer small groups and open-ended discussion.  But, as I told the students yesterday, we are at the University of Michigan and our administration wants us to have a certain ratio of student credit hours per faculty position: so here we are, 172 of them and me.  I’m not there yet, but I’m trying to find ways to flip this beast.

My goal for the first week’s lecture was pretty simple: to get them to use their own experiences and feelings about sport together with the readings they’d already done in order to get to three ideas: 1) that sports may be understood as a machine for delivering certain positive effects; 2) that it may not be running as well as it could; 3) that this class was about developing certain diagnostic skills and tools to begin to troubleshoot and fix the sports machine.  To aid me in this process, I prepared a power point presentation (I know, I usually hate them to, especially giving them) with some video clips and images that I thought would provide more concrete and so impactful ways for them to think about the positive and the negative effects of the sports machine.

I’m always nervous on the first day, but was even more so yesterday because: 1) 172 adolescent students in a big auditoriums; 2) technology; 3) trying to persuade sports fans that thinking critically about sports won’t ruin their love of sports.  But I donned my professorial uniform of khaki chinos and a navy blazer, laced up my pink Chuck Taylors and bravely stepped into the arena.

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The sound didn’t work on the powerpoint videos, which in one case was truly disappointing to me, but I think I rebounded from that pretty well.  By 9 pm on the day of lecture, students are required to post to a course website one quote from their lecture notes and then to explain why they selected it.  These went up pretty quickly yesterday afternoon and I was very heartened to see that many, if not most, of the students had chosen the sports is a machine metaphor and explained the choice by confessing they’d never really thought about it that way (or even really thought negatively about sports—one of them reported that this was the first time taking a sports-related course at Michigan that he’d heard a professor refer to a negative side to sports) and expressing their excitement to roll up their sleeves, pick up their tools, and get under the hood.

You can see for yourself what you think here.  A couple of technical notes, I’m sorry that, as I said, the sound on some of the videos didn’t work.  I’ll figure that out before next week.  And I’m sorry also that the only images are of the power point slide (if anyone care about that).  I’m going to try to change that setting as well so we get both the slides and the classroom.  Lastly, I’m sharing this in part because I welcome feedback, whether from students or other individuals who might, if they were at Michigan, take a course like this or from other teachers.  If you have suggestions that aren’t too terrifying and don’t make me feel defensive, I will most definitely consider them.  So, please click the link below, and enjoy!

Trouble Shooting the Sports Machine (Lecture 1, Global Sports Cultures, September 14, 2015)

 

Why We Need Better Basketball History—for Darryl Dawkins

I did see Darryl Dawkins play, a lot.  Not in person but on television.  He loomed large in the imaginary series my best friend Robb and I would play out in my driveway or at the park.  He’s dear to my heart, as the pictured tee-shirt demonstrates. I like wearing it to teach my hoops class and drop knowledge of Darryl on the young ballers and scholars.  Now, already others—Rodger Sherman’s and David Roth’s are among my favorites—have written fine elegies to Dawkins.  And, for my part, I’m going to be talking about Dawkins this evening on the Over and Back podcast.  To prepare, I went into my hoops library to see how Dawkins is remembered in the annals of basketball history as they now stand.

Now, admittedly this was a cursory examination.  I obviously didn’t reread every work to see what they had to say.  I either reread the chapters that I expected or knew would cover Dawkins’ period in the NBA or else scanned the index in those works that had one. For the most part, I was merely somewhat surprised—perhaps disappointed—that this giant of my memory should be shoved into so tiny a space in the basketball history.

Sure, there are brief entries in the standard reference works.   And there’s the title nod and a side-bar in Tom Ziller’s fine chapter—”Punch-Dunk Lovelorn: The NBA’s Lost Years Reconsidered” on the 70s from FreeDarko Presents The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History and Dr. J makes a few passing references to Dawkins in his recently published autobiography.  Reliable Nelson George does offer a few of paragraphs of phrase for “one of basketball’s greatest lexicologists” in Elevating the Game, and recognizes that his celebrity “was built on more than just talk.”  But mostly he’s just not there (y’all will surely let me know if I’m missing something).

So, with some reluctance familiar to my readers, I turned to The Book of Basketball.  Surely Bill Simmons’ massive tone, rhetorically positioning itself after all as the bible of the game, would rectify this.  And yet, amidst all the words strewn across the 734 pages of the book, the name Darryl Dawkins appears a grand total of five times (really in just three different contexts).  Still, I imagine, at least there’s that.

So I looked inside.

And then my disappointment turned to rage.

And if could, this is what I’d have done.

But I can’t do that.

So instead, I’ll have to settle for what I can do and hope that it is enough.

Exhibit 1.  p. 15.  In the course of describing the 1981 NBA Eastern Conference Finals between his beloved Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers, Simmons recalls the moment that the relationship between Boston fans and Bird changed:

Leading by one in the final minute, Philly’s Dawkins plowed toward the basket, got leveled by Parish and McHale, and whipped an ugly shot off the backboard as he crashed to the floor.  Bird hauled down the rebound in traffic, dribbled out of an abyss of bodies . . . and pushed the ball down the court, ultimately stopping on a dime and banking a 15-footer that pretty much collapsed the roof.

Dawkins, known for the strength, elevation, force and majesty with which he destroyed backboards, is reduced to a clownish foil, ineptly sprawled on the ground as Bird hits the game winner.  But you know what, that’s okay.  Really. Because in that part of the book, Simmons really isn’t claiming to do history. It’s a Prologue, and an abashedly personal one at that.  So okay.  I’ve got my own versions of that in my basketball autobiography and I won’t begrudge Simmons his.

Exhibit 2. p. 112.  Now we’re into history.  This is the long third chapter of the book that offers a season by season recap of pro basketball history, each season summed up by a specific notable event or theme.  The 1973-74 season, according to the Book of Basketball, is to be remembered for five distinct ways the NBA was suffering, the first of which is that “Bidding wars and swollen contracts damaged the new generation of NBA up-and-comers.”  Hmmm.  To explain, Simmons brings in no less an authority than ex-Celtic player and coach, Tommy Heinsohn who (Simmons dixit), “explained beautifully in his award-winning autobiography” that

Darryl Dawkins is the perfect example.  The guy could have been a monster, should have been a monster, but nobody had the controls. Armed with a long-term contract, Darryl had the security of dollars coming in. . . . Unless you’re talking about athletes who are truly dedicated to the game, the only time these guys bear down is when their security is threatened.

This is simply disgraceful.  Heinsohn’s presumption and prejudice, in itself laced with (hopefully) unconscious racism, may simply be read as an expression of his personality, which, after all, is what an autobiography ought to provide.  That context should signal to most readers than any assessment contained therein are to be taken with a grain of salt or discarded entirely.  But the disgrace comes in that Simmons, as part of a history, actually cites this as an authoritative assessment of the state of the league at the time and, more disturbingly, as an account of the interior life of Darryl Dawkins.

Exhibit 3. p 132. We’re still within the year-by-year history, now up to the 1977-78 season which Simmons calls “The Blown Tire.”  He’s square in my budding adolescence now (I was twelve during that season) so my pique is up.  This, he claims, is the NBA’s “most damaging season” ever.  And among the problems, the “most harmful,” Simmons tells his readers, is “fighting.”  He explains that fighting had always been part of basketball and offers a few famous names.  A page or so later, he will tell the story, so often told, of Kermit Washington leveling Rudy Tomjanovich in December 1978, an incident that devastated both men for some time.  But in between the short introduction and the main event, he remembers an “ugly brawl” in the 1977 NBA finals that, he admits, didn’t appall anyone. It’s not very important, in fact, and yet it is described in some detail.

It started when Darryl Dawkins tried to sucker-punch Bobby Gross (hitting teammate Doug Collins instead), then backpedaled into a flying elbow from [Maurice] Lucas, followed by the two of them squaring off like 1920’s bare-knuckle boxers before everyone jumped in.  After getting ejected, Dawkins ended up destroying a few toilets in the Philly locker room.

Dawkins has now been made into the poster-boy for the second of the two major problems responsible for the NBA’s “problem” decade.  And, as in the first anecdote above, he appears as an inept clown, first failing a dirty punch, he strikes his own teammate, then inadvertently stumbles into another punch and ends by tearing, not rims, but toilets off the wall, and not to the terror and delight of audiences across time and space, but in abject solitude.

Dr. J, incidentally, who was, you know, there, remembers the fight differently.  He describes  Lucas throwing the first punch and connecting with Collins by mistake. But you know, memory can be tricky, so I’m not going to go with Dr. J just because he’s Dr. J and I like his story better.  Here’s the video, for the record.

Here’s what strikes me in the video. It happens before the fight.  It’s Dawkins sprinting like a gazelle—this man is 6-10 and 250 pounds remember—to beat everyone downcourt, alter the Blazers’ attempt to finish their fast break and corral the rebound, tearing it away from Gross.

There’s so much to remember about Darryl Dawkins.  He was huge.  Breaker of backboards, sure, that’s awesome.  But also a talented basketball player and a breaker of codes.  And while his nicknames and quips and his imaginary planet are funky in a way that today we experience as charmingly goofy and harmlessly deracialized, we should perhaps also remember that he was also a giant black teenage boy entering a sport and a profession that at precisely that moment, even as it never stopped drawing them into its maw, was growing ever-more wary and controlling of individuals like Dawkins, ever-more ready to spit them out at the slightest misstep.

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Now, this doesn’t seem to part of the story that Dawkins ever told about his life and perhaps that is to his credit. And, as I said, there are several moving tributes to Dawkins getting lots of clicks right now. If it didn’t bother him, maybe it shouldn’t bother me.  But it does.  After all, whatever else I am, I am a book guy, still.  So the histories that get published matter to me.  And the histories that sell millions of copies matter even more.  And I believe we ought, at the very least, to be able to write a history of the sport that doesn’t feature Darryl Dawkins as an emblem of everything that the white basketball unconscious at some point decided was a problem with basketball (and with America). But awaiting that history, in the meantime—and even if Darryl didn’t care—I still think it’s important to shatter not only backboards, but also the crusted crap that some writers have smeared over some of the cherished glories of the game.

The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent (Basketball) Knowledge

All my life, I have loved ordering my things.  My new Matchbox cars go in one line, and the ones I inherited from my older brothers go in another one, and the ones I found or stole from my friends go in a third.  The beer cans in my collection will be ordered in the shape of a pyramid ranged from most common at the bottom (ordered alphabetically by brand from left to right and bottom to top) to the most rare at the top (with an architecturally-required exemption for 7, 16, 24 and 40 oz cans, which get their own rows).

When I got to graduate school, a more experienced student advised me that success in our profession depended on the ability to make bibliographies. I’m not sure what he meant, but what I heard was: “order your book collection,” which was a snap for me because I’d already started…when I was seven and labeled Follow My Leader “Book # 1” in my own personal library.

At first glance, it’s not so mysterious—this drive to classify and order, especially not in the contexts of childhood and graduate school. For both of these situations involved for me much confusion and little sense of power and therefore, a deep feeling of vulnerability.  Of course I would order my beer cans when I couldn’t order my family or my own feelings! Of course I would create a bibliography to throw a net around the leaping beast of my own growing ignorance snarling and snapping at my heels!

The writer Jorge Luis Borges once made fun of me when he included in a story a Chinese Encyclopedia he made up: the “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.”  In its “distant pages,” Borges informs us “animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.”

His point, he claimed, was that “there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and speculative.”  Sure. I get it. But that doesn’t really apply to mine.  Or, at least, there are more and less arbitrary and speculative classifications of the universe.  Aren’t there?  I mean, what does his psychotic example (made up after all) have to do with something so naturally reasonably as putting my underwear, undershirts, and socks in one drawer, my shorts and tee shirts in the next one, and my pants and long sleeve shirts in the next one?

Maybe, from a certain somewhat superficial point of view, I’m justified in my indignation. But Borges is working the depths.  The reason that all such taxonomies are “arbitrary and speculative” is a simple one:  “we do not know what the universe is.”  The rug is starting to slip.  Not only do we not know what it is, Borges shockingly continues, but “there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word.”

Oh shit, I think to myself. I thought there was.  Or maybe, I always felt there was.  In fact, I’ve always harbored the feeling, described by Borges’ compatriot, the writer Julio Cortázar, that the universe must “contain, in some part of its diversity, the encounter of each thing with all the others.”  What is that if not a description of a “universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word”? Each thing connected to every other thing.

I didn’t encounter this quotation until I was grown, but it echoed and articulated an inchoate feeling I’d had since childhood.  Maybe I couldn’t always discern the connections, but I could console myself with the knowledge that they were there nonetheless, and that if I could discern some then perhaps with enough patience and effort I could discern them all.  And trailing in on the coattails of these consolations came the deeper elemental indispensable comfort that if this is how things are, then, regardless of what I know, I was myself connected.  Regardless of how I felt, I was not alone.

But then there is Borges, who I suspect is right, and this renders my organizing impulse—my taxonomania—not only futile, but absurdly delusional.  If there is no universe (and—to cover all the bases—we don’t know what it is), then what is the point of any of it? Why not just leave my Matchbox cars in a heap on the carpet, a miniature model of some grisly aerial shot on the 11 o’clock news? Why even bother collecting beer cans or books? In fact, why bother reading books at all, let alone going to graduate school? In fact, what is the fucking point of doing anything at all if there is no universe, let alone an orderly one, let alone one whose order I can discover and mimic with my classificatory schemas?

Fortunately, Borges himself helps me stop this runaway train of existential despair.  For he goes on to say that “the impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of the universe cannot, however, stop us from planning human schemes, even though it is clear that they are provisional.”  And Cortázar adds an encouraging word: “the poet if she cannot connect them by intrinsic features, does what everyone does when looking at the stars: she invents the constellation, the lines linking the solitary stars.”

He seems to be saying that the creative—making—activity of the poet really resides in a way of seeing; a way of imaginatively reconfiguring the relations among existing things to make new patterns (like a constellation).  Which I suppose is what Borges himself was getting at when emphasized the importance of “planning human schemes”; indeed, what Borges himself was doing when he invented the extravagant human scheme of the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.  None other than James Naismith himself was under the influence of such a view when he responded to his teacher’s assertion that “All so-called new things are simply recombinations of things that are now existing” by recombining elements of familiar games to invent basketball.

So this helps me see that there is more to my drive to organize and classify than merely the  Quixotic impulse to know and control the universe. I can see that in doing so I’m playing, exercising my imaginative and cognitive faculties in recurrent experimentation; I can see that I’m forging connections, maybe not so different from the ones I try to forge with my body and the ball on the basketball court; I can see that I’m making new and at least personally satisfying, possibly beautiful, patterns out of what the existing world has dealt me.

And so it goes: I have loved the discovery of sets in math, Ven diagrams, sentence diagrams, the great book on the shelf next to the one I was looking for in the stacks at the library, the moment when two friends who don’t know each other meet and hit it off, the perfect combination of passes and cuts and passes leading to an easy score in pick up ball, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, kaleidoscopes, and, come to think of it, constellations.

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Which brings me back to books, to books about basketball, to my favorite twenty books about basketball. Here they are, in the order, top to bottom, in which I originally presented them.

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There’s so much more to be done with these “solitary stars” than force them into four, hierarchically ordered, groups of five. Sure, it flowed pretty naturally from the subject matter since this way of ranking things, like basketball players (which—oh—are not things), is familiar to me and my readers. And maybe it was even kind of novel or catchy.  But like other conventions of mainstream sports there’s at least as much that obscures (if not offends) as illuminates in such schemas, especially since, as I realized by the end, I didn’t really believe in mine: they were just twenty really important books about basketball and any schema I might plan for deciding which were more important were, well, as Borges might say, “arbitrary and speculative.”

Considering that, it could be fun or instructive or beautiful to connect these books differently. I’d hoped to build something like a dynamic “recommendation engine” (partly because of  that name), but alas such a device is beyond my capabilities. Instead, I resign myself to static pictorial representations of my taxonomies.  How might that look?  I could, for example draw a simple path connecting only those books that either consider basketball philosophically or consider the philosophical aspects of basketball.

Philosophy Path

 

Or a different path connecting those that portray failure (or tragedy):

Failure

We could combine these two paths together (philosophy now in red, failure in yellow).

failure plus philosophy

Already from this simple, arbitrary and speculative exercise you might, as a prospective reader with an interest in basketball, philosophy, and failure or tragedy, deduce that either FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Basketball History or Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story by David Wolf would be promising places to begin your reading excursion.  And you’d be right. It really works.

Now, you could do the same with paths of your own liking. Interested in money? I’d probably draw paths through LaFeber’s Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, Murry Nelson’s The National Basketball League, Lane’s Under the Boards, Wolf’s Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story, Cohen’s The Game They Played, Leonard’s After Artest, and Andrews, Michael Jordan, Inc.. Let’s add those to the last drawing:

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So now, you might go to LaFeber, Cohen, Leonard and Nelson’s books for a combination of money and failure, and you might throw Foul! in to get your philosophical consideration of the intersection of basketball, money, and failure (or tragedy). In addition to valuably denaturalizing the hierarchical way in which I first presented these books (and which seems so reflexive a way of classifying in sports), these kinds of groupings are a narrowing, a filtering process that can be useful if you want to impart some direction and focus to your reading experience.

But of course, speaking for myself what I make and have made of these books depends heavily on other things I’ve read that are not included in these twenty books. That’s another way of saying that my very selection of these twenty books as well as the way in which choose to define the paths I use to connect them to one another is itself the result of still other lines connecting these books (or subsets of them) to other books I haven’t so far included here, only some of which, by the way, having anything explicit to do with basketball. Here’s what a partial representation of this might look like.

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Remember these pathways just represent three, rather broad, categories of similarity: philosophy, failure, and money. And I’ve only added, more or less off the top of my head, fifteen books not on my original list of twenty top basketball books. At this point, the classification process still narrows by selecting just some of the the original set of twenty books, but it also expand by adding a few others to the reading list.  So you might now have a list that includes Kafka, Agassi, and Spinoza alongside, from the original list of my top twenty basketball books, Leonard, Nelson, LaFeber, Wolf, FreeDarko’s history, Melander, Frey, and Cohen.

But finally, books aren’t the only thing, not even when we’re reading.  In fact, books aren’t even the most important thing, even when we’re reading.  For we are always—like it or not and more or less consciously—drawing lines between the book we are reading and something else that is not the book we are reading, and not a book at all.  Obviously this is a probably infinitely complex network of conscious and unconscious associations anchored in words, sounds, memories, fantasies, world events past and present and imagined, films, paintings, photographs, songs, TV shows, affects, sensations, thoughts, ideas, experiences, instances, and other people.

We could start filling in those empty shelves on the bookcase above with scraps of paper on which I might write down some of these non-book entities.  Imagine how vast that network of informing anchor points would be, just for one person.  Now imagine red, green, and yellow lines extending from those anchor points through the books that are not the top twenty basketball books and then converging at the various books in the top twenty.  Now add pathways in new colors to represent things like humor, race, technique, scholars, authors named David, books that are blue, imaginary books, amateur basketball, the early history of the game, gender, the perspectives of players themselves.

Now we have something so vast that I can no longer draw it.

Maybe it would look like this, but moving and enormous.

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It’s harder to imagine the books and the other nodes and the categories and associations that connect them.  And I know it’s no longer useful as a filter to provide direction to my reading.  But it does do something else for me. For one thing, I simply find the images beautiful.  I also find them a valuable visual reminder of the vast, complex network of life that springs to life every time your or I open a book.

This network may not be the universe, and so I may not find myself securely connected to every other point in the universe, as I might have obscurely desired as a child.  Indeed, there may not be, as Borges speculated, any universe at all. But this is okay because there is something else I’ve discovered in the process.  Borges’ “human schemes,” Cortázar’s “poet” drawing “lines connecting the solitary stars,” and my own less elegant attempts to convey networks of connection appear to me now as a kind of exercise or practice or maybe training.  But for what?

Sometimes, especially as I get older, especially as I work through the deaths of people that I have loved, I find myself wondering about the purpose of it all, which is to say, the meaning.  But maybe “life,” as Stephen Batchelor says, is “neither meaningful nor meaningless.  Meaning and its absence are given to life by language and imagination. We are,” he adds, “linguistic beings who inhabit a reality in which it makes sense to make sense.” If he’s right, then what I’ve been doing and calling exercise or practice or training is also the performance itself; the performance of living purposefully, of actively creating a meaningful universe, aware that in doing so we may contribute to the efforts others are making to do the same.

It seems I’ve wandered too far from books, and collections of books, and reading lists, let alone from basketball, which is why I’m guessing most readers even bother with this blog. And I’m feeling a bit sheepish.  But I’m hoping that’s okay, hoping even that for some readers the pathways back to these things—to hoops and books and reading—suddenly gleam, illuminating like the lights in the aisle of a plane, taking us where we need to go. Or else, maybe you can help me find my way back. Or not, I remind myself, since it’s okay sometimes to wander, to not have it all figured out, and to get nowhere.

 

Bad Prof’s Top Basketball Books – Honorable Mention

Perhaps by now you’ve seen my First Team, Second Team, and Third Team All-Bad Prof Basketball Book List selections. They were the fifteen books, grouped into three tiers of five, that I’ve returned to again and again for teaching, research, and enjoyment because of their originality and accessibility, the depth they bring to their subjects and, perhaps most of all, their reliable avoidance of the cliches, dogmas and harmful myths of basketball culture.

These final five books (listed alphabetically by title), my Honorable Mention selections, are further down this list not because of any objective deficiency, not even because of any defect I would identify.  They are rounding out my top twenty simply because I’ve relied on the books on the Third, Second and especially First teams even more often than these.  Nevertheless, these five works easily satisfy the criteria I set out initially. Indeed, as you’ll come to see, they might just as easily have been the first team.

I’ve read each of these at least twice, used at least parts of each of them in my teaching and cited each of them regularly in my research. And a contrarian basketball fan (after my own heart) could certainly forego my ridiculous three-team system and start right here with these five books and he or she would certainly deepen his or her understanding of the sport, its promise and problems and its important figures and events.

 

After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness

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“As basketball is more than a game, the policies, representations, and narratives articulated through and about the NBA (and its black players) have a larger place, meaning, and significance in our society.”

by David J. Leonard (Originally published in Albany by State University of New York Press, 2012; 262 pp.)

After Artest is at the forefront of interdisciplinary scholarly work in sports studies that identifies and critiques new forms of so-called “colorblind” racism. In this book, Leonard, who teaches at Washington State University, examines the cultural and administrative “assault on blackness” among NBA fans and executives as well as some in the media in the wake of the melee that broke out during a Detroit Pistons home game against the Indiana Pacers in 2004.  Leonard’s persuasive chapter-length studies of the racial politics of the so-called “Palace melee,” NBA age limits, dress codes, and the representation of violence in the NBA more generally amply document instances of the kinds of racialized popular discourse in question and clearly explain the theories of race, sport and culture being used as lenses to frame these popular discourses.

 

Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball

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“This Black aesthetic has not only changed basketball but . . . has been the catalytic force behind the sport’s extraordinary growth in popularity and profitability.”

by Nelson George (Originally published in 1992; reprinted in Lincoln, NE by University of Nebraska Press, 1999; currently out of print but available used; 261 pp.)

Nelson George’s history of “black men and basketball” is one the most important histories of basketball out there. Colloquial and readable and style, this well-informed volume tracks the participation of black men in basketball from the earliest years shortly after Naismith’s invention of the sport in 1891, through the changes wrought by the Great Migration before concluding with the ascendance of Michael Jordan.  Some of the material (on Russell, Chamberlain and other NBA superstars) can be found in greater detail elsewhere. But what makes George’s treatment of these figures especially illuminating and interesting is that their stories are here set alongside those of far lesser known figures from all-black pro teams and leagues, historically black colleges and universities, and even black high schools.  Throughout the history, George gracefully weaves developments in basketball (black and otherwise) into a a more comprehensive narrative that incorporates other forms of black popular culture and the broader social and political history of the United States in the 20th century.

 

“The Heresy of Zone Defense” from Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy

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“In professional basketball, however, art wins.”

by Dave Hickey (Originally published in Los Angeles by Art Issues, 1997; pp. 155-162)

The only article to crack the list of my top twenty books, “The Heresy of Zone Defense” is a short meditation by the maverick art critic Dave Hickey on basketball as an exhibition of freedom that Hickey finds exemplary for both arts and civic life in the United States.  Hickey’s point of departure is Julius Erving’s incredible behind the scoop layups against Lakers in the NBA playoffs.

But his genius lies in recognizing that Kareem’s defense is integral to Erving’s improvisational brilliance.  And this becomes the occasion for a brief and funny, but profound and very sharp, argument about the relationship between constraint and freedom in sport, art, politics, and life.  This essays is floating around on the web, but Hickey is a genius and you should have to buy the book.

 

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

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“This anthology brings together a selection of chapters that use Michael Jordan as a vehicle for developing progressive understandings of the broader social, economic, political, and technological concerns that frame contemporary culture.”

Edited by David L. Andrews (Originally published in Albany by State University of New York Press, 2001; 301 pp.

The existence of this book was nothing short of a revelation for me, a kind of discovery of academic heaven on earth: a collection of scholars from different academic disciplines demonstrating at one and the same time their unabashed love for the basketball play of Michael Jordan and their intelligent, well-informed, and well-argued critiques of the corporate-media-sports complex that transforms this beautiful art into commodified celebrity and profit. Andrews, who edits the volume, may be the most important and wide-ranging sociologist writing about sport in the world today and in this volume he has brought together other luminaries from the world of academic sports studies who approach Jordan from more (and more inventive) angles than you could probably imagine possible.  Jordan and the celebrity economy, Jordan and corporate culture, Jordan and identity politics, Jordan and the global marketplace, Jordan and critical pedagogy: these are the unit headings within which the book’s ten chapters are distributed.  Every one of them is worthwhile, as is Andrews introductory essay “Michael Jordan Matters.”  It’s not only an indispensable pathbreaking work for academics like me, it should be required reading for every basketball fan that has every participated in a debate about whether Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time without pausing to reflect on the fact that Michael Jordan, the player, is also “Michael Jordan”—this … I dunno… thing we have collectively conspired to create and consume.  Because this book will help that fan understand why he is even having that argument.

 

Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man

41oLRpibyHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_By Bill Russell and Taylor Branch (Originally published in New York by Random House, 1979; currently out of print but available used; 265 pp.)

This one is tough for me to write about. Its value as a hoops book, let’s just say, was secured the other day by none other than Bethlehem Shoals, co-founder and key conspirator in the FreeDarko collective who said it was his favorite book ever. And if that’s not good enough for you, then add the enthusiastic endorsement of Aram Goudsouzian, author of the definitive Russell biography, King of the Court.  That’s two writers from my first team telling you this book is important.  What else do you need? Okay, how about a Hall of Fame center with eleven championship rings, who was also an outspoken political activist involved in the most important struggles of his time.  Now put him together with a MacArthur genius grant winning independent journalist and scholar who wrote perhaps the most detailed biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. that is also an astonishingly wide-ranging history of the period in American history in which Russell was formed and in which he acted. Okay?

It’s not the book’s claims to being on my list that make it hard to write about. It’s that I cannot separate it from some of the crucial experiences my own life.  The book came out in 1979, according to the frontispiece of the first edition I am holding in my hand. On June 13, 1980, my father received it as a gift for his saint’s day from my mother.  He inscribed it with the date, his initials and last name, and his city, state, and zip code.  They were separated at the time.  I would turn 15 a month later. In the front flap is a card from my mother who wrote, in their native Spanish, “a remembrance of all the games that we’ve seen together and of the ones we haven’t seen together.”  She was a simple hearted person, but she had a subtle, sharp gift with language.

I was there for a lot of those games:  some were my oldest brother’s that I, adoring, attended with my parents, some were Wisconsin Badger games at the old Field House long after and long before they were good, some were Milwaukee Bucks games, played occasionally at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison or at the Mecca in Milwaukee.  I went to most of those too.  And of course, many (perhaps most) were my own games, from junior high through high school, when I got to play on the floor at Mecca myself.  In my childish memory, my father vastly preferred Russell to Chamberlain on political grounds (Chamberlain briefly campaigned for Richard Nixon, whom my father despised).  He corrected that later, saying simply that he didn’t really have a preference, but simply the commonplace opinion that Russell harmonized his abilities with his teammates better than Chamberlain.

I read Second Wind that summer that my mom gave it to my dad, that summer (one of several) that they were separated during my formative years, that summer that I was aspiring to become a basketball player, a man, and a human adult.  I remember what most stood out in my mind at that time were Russell’s recollections of how he used his imagination to visualize his basketball inventions before executing them.  He wrote: “When the imitation worked and the ball went in, I could barely contain myself. . . . Now for the first time I had transferred something from my head to my body. It seemed so easy.”  Indeed it did.  And what an intoxicating possibility not only for an athlete but for an adolescent: to transfer something from my head to my body! I tried, but it didn’t work for me.

Years later, rereading the book during college, I was drawn to Russell’s strong anti-racist, non-conformist political opinions.  “Most of us today are like cows,” he wrote, “we will quietly stand in any line or fill out any form if there’s a sign telling us that’s what we should do.  As a result, the country is filled with people who either paint signs or stand in line. I don’t like doing either one.” Me neither.  But when, like Russ copying the basketball moves in his own mind, I tried to mimic his opinions before my father, thinking he’d be proud, he only argued with me, rejecting my new found political convictions as inadequately founded.  It hurt, but he was right. But it hurt.

In the past 15 months, both my parents died.  First my dad, on April 9, 2014, then my mom, almost exactly one year later, on April 16, 2015. He died quickly of cancer. She died slowly from Alzheimer’s. My dad was aware, and proud I think, of the turn my career had taken into basketball studies—at least he was proud that I was finally fucking productive again!  I don’t have any idea what my mom knew or didn’t know about what I did.  But she was always, always proud.  But by the time they were each dying, their pride didn’t matter so much to me as just getting to look into their eyes and getting to see them laugh.

Somewhere around halfway between the day my dad died and the day my mom died, I shared a stage with Taylor Branch, the co-author of Second Wind.  He was in Ann Arbor appearing as one of two keynote speakers for a conference on values in college sport that some colleagues of mine and I had co-organized. It was my job to introduce him, which I did very proudly; beginning by recalling this book and its importance in my family’s life and thanking for it.  He was gracious and inscribed and signed it for me: November 14th, 2014.

This book is a treasure, most deserving of a genuinely honorable mention, which I hope I have given it.  And I hope too that by doing so, I scramble a bit the stupid conventional sports logic by which I have ranked twenty books into four categories, as though they have not all been priceless treasures for me.

Politics and society and race, media and the market, art and philosophy, freedom and injustice, the scholarly analysis of institutions and discourses, the informed but colloquially styled reflection on past events, the acute sensitivity and intelligence shining through a player speaking for himself—in this way these books offer an exemplary sampling of the range of genres of basketball writing that I most enjoy and that I find most informative and stimulating to my own thinking and really, that characterize my whole list.

In fact, I think what make the books on this list of mine so incredible, so worthy of your time, is that each one of them is a like a hologram of all the wisdom of basketball culture.  If you read only one of them, you could pick any one of them and you would, in a certain sense, know all you needed to know, and feel all you needed to feel, about the culture of the game.  That’s obviously false in another sense.  But that it feels true to me perhaps can tell you a lot about these twenty books.

If it doesn’t, here’s one more thing to recommend them: if my book is 1/10 as impactful on just one reader as every one of these has been on me (and, I know, on many others), I’ll consider it an unqualified success beyond my wildest imagination.

 

Bad Prof’s Top Basketball Books – Third Team

Having selected my First Team and Second Team All-Bad Prof Books, I’m moving out of the top ten today.  However, it’s important to say that these books are classics, that I personally love them, and that I think they are important reading for anyone who wants to understand the past and present of the sport and its relation to the world beyond the court.

 

Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story

by David Wolf (Originally published 1971; currently out of print but available used; 511 pp.)

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“I try to do things that are artistic with my body and my moves. I get pride being able to do things nobody else can do. It gives me confidence about myself when I can be special.”

Foul is, first of all, a biography of Hawkins centering on the events leading up to and from the high school and playground legend’s unjust implication in a gambling scandal.  But as such, it provides unblinking descriptions of the conditions that made this tragic story possible: from poverty and substandard education induced by systemic racism, to the exploitation of college athletes by colleges, the NCAA and gamblers, to unethical practices by law enforcement agencies, to the single-minded pursuit of profit by the NBA. All these threads converge impersonally to form a kind of spider’s web ensnaring Hawkins.

This would be heartbreaking enough it weren’t that countless others whose names we do not know are snagged alongside Hawkins in this same web.  That Hawkins emerges from the tale not as a hapless victim, but as a thoughtful, sensitive talented athlete, unbittered and determined to pursue his dream of playing against the best only heightens the sense of injustice and tragedy permeating his tale.

 

FreeDarko Presents the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac

(Originally published in New York by Bloomsbury; 2008)

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“We embrace their Foibles, even those that prevent them from Winning. We exalt their Particularities and intriguing Backstories, and endorse a League in which these Virtues are fostered.”

The first work from the blogging collective known as FreeDarko is in some ways more original and fascinating than the second (their history of pro basketball which I selected for my first team). The book opens with a tongue-in-cheek but nonetheless inspiring manifesto to liberated fandom and appreciation of individual players “personal Styles, both during and outside of Play,” and then offers a jaw dropping visual “periodic table of style,” revealed as a “mix of the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual.”The book profiles eighteen significant players of the late 2000s, organized into six groups (“Master Builders,” “Lost Souls,” and “People’s Champs” among them).  While today’s fans might already find some of these profiles outdated, the unique perspective, deep insights, humor, and extraordinary illustrations will also leave you longing for a revised and expanded edition accounting for today’s stars.  Though less straightforwardly informative than their subsequently published history (and so in a certain sense less useful to students), this work more brilliantly showcases the idiosyncratic approach to the game that FreeDarko pioneered and that has inspired a generation of thinking fans (myself among them).

 

Heaven is a Playground

by Rick Telander (Originally published in 1976; Reprinted in a 4th edition in New York by Sports Publishing; 2014; 272 pp.)

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“I walk up and down the courts, but only after intense scrutiny do I realize why they are empty: there are no rims on any of the backboards.”

Telander, then a 24 year old photojournalist, spent part of the summer of 1973 and all of 1974 living alongside and playing pickup ball with some of the residents of a community in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. The book is justly celebrated as a classic of journalistic memoir and partly remembered for its profiles of legendary players Fly Williams and Albert King.  But if it were only a story about pickup basketball it would not make my list. What distinguished it for me and many other readers, I suspect, is that Telander does not isolate his story of playground basketball from the stories of the lives of those playing alongside him, nor indeed, from his own life. He develops strong personal relationships with his teammates, opponents and neighbors.  But, though these are at times close bonds, they are not facile or sentimentalized.  Telander and his “subjects” clearly like each other, but are also confused and at times angered by one another. What is particularly striking—especially when read alongside Foul! and The Last Shot—is the sense of the enduring importance of basketball—for better and for worse—in communities limited, to say the least, by racial and socio-economic injustice.  Consider that as Telander’s games unfold at Foster Park in the early 70s, a 30 year-old, broken-kneed Connie Hawkins has only just finally made it—14 years after his own legendary exploits on the City’s playgrounds—to the NBA for what would be an abbreviated career, even as elsewhere in Brooklyn, a new generation is appearing—among them Stephon Marbury and the other youngsters featured in The Last Shot—that will soon pursue its own hoop dreams.

 

The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams

by Darcy Frey (Originally published 1994; Reprinted in New York by Mariner Books, 2004; 230 pp.)

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“Avoiding pickup games, he gets down to work: an hour of three-point shooting, then wind sprints up the fourteen flights in his project stairwell, then back to this court where, much to his friends’ amusement, he shoots one-handers ten feet from the basket while sitting in a chair.”

A superbly narrated, and so moving story of players on Coney Island’s Lincoln High basketball players (among them future NBA star, then high school freshman Stephon Marbury) who hope to parlay hard work, talent, and team success into college scholarships and, eventually, pro careers. The players are not only sympathetic in Frey’s portrait, they are embodiments of adolescence, navigating the treacherous passage from the innocence of childhood dreams and the experience of adult realities.  That their particular passage includes poverty, institutional racism, a broken public education system, rapacious college recruiters and coaches only makes their story more poignant and outraging, especially if one encounters (outside the text) the devastating follow-up on one of the players in Frey’s profile. It’s important to note here that the book has been the subject of some controversy (spoiler alert).  Even within the book, Marbury’s father challenges Frey to do more than profit off other people’s stories and demands compensation.  After initially resisting (ostensibly on ethical grounds) Frey attempted to set up a contract so that the player’s can share in the profits of the book upon publication but apparently was blocked from doing so by the NCAA. After the book’s publication, some residents argued that it was unbalanced and sensational in depicting conditions in the neighborhood. All this can and should be taken into account, but it should not, in my view, prevent readers from engaging with the stories of these young men, their community, and the issues these stories raise.

 

The Game They Played

by Stanley Cohen (Originally published 1977; Reprinted in New York by DaCapo, 2001; 256 pp.)

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“Five street kids from the City of New York—three Jews and two blacks—were about to whale the shit out of middle America.”

 

Before Stephon Marbury, before Fly Williams,  before Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and the rest of the Old School Knicks, before Connie Hawkins, basketball in New York centered on the Beavers of City College, the only team in history to win both the NCAA tournament and the NIT in the same season.  Stanley Cohen, an aspiring player and young fan of the team at the time, tells the story of that season, and of the events leading up to and from the shocking revelation, shortly after the celebrations, that several players had been fixing the outcome of games.  There are more efficient ways to get accurate information about the scandal and its impact, but I can think of few that are more moving or wide-ranging in perspective. Because Cohen invests himself in the story of the multiracial team’s rise to success against the basketball powers of the heartland, we are able to feel what lovers of New York basketball lost when, in the wake of the scandal, big time college basketball stayed away from the city. I assure you, I can be as irritated with the provincialism and basketball narcissism of New Yorkers as anyone, but caught in the power of this narrative, I actually begin to sympathize with those who look back nostalgically at this period in the City Game’s history or at its subsequent avatar in the early 1970s, when the Knicks played and won with a style pioneered at the city’s colleges in the 1940s.

I notice looking over these that there is a distinctly New York axis running through four of the five titles and that these four all concern hopes and failures amidst promises and betrayals, of different sorts.  They remind me of the distinct, singular human lives that the vast athletic, institutional and economic machinery that is basketball draws into its maw, and so also of the humanity of what that machine spits out as so much waste. And perhaps that is what ties these together with the non-Big Apple member of the team. For the authors of the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac have always found the beauty, interest and redemptive gleam in what conventional sporting wisdom has judged unworthy detritus.

Tomorrow, I round out this list of my top twenty basketball books with five Honorable Mention selections.

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