Bad Prof’s Top Basketball Books – Second Team

Yesterday, I began presenting the list of my favorite basketball books with my First Team All-Bad Prof selections.  Today I move on to the second team (presented alphabetically by title), using the same criteria:  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.

 

All-Bad Prof Book List – Second Team

Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism

by Walter LaFeber (Originally published 1999; new and expanded edition published in New York by Norton, 2002; 220 pp)

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“The history of basketball, especially in the era of Michael Jordan, helps us understand this era known as ‘the American Century.'”

There are of course so many books on Jordan, and so many good ones. Lay readers might wonder why I haven’t included The Jordan Rules or Playing For Keeps, while sports studies scholars might wonder about Michael Jordan, Inc. (it will appear in my Honorable Mention post). All three of these are indeed excellent books well worth a reader’s time. However, LaFeber, one of our country’s most distinguished historians, makes the list with a slim, readable volume that pays tribute to the greatness of Jordan on the floor, while laying out the contextual forces in the global economy and culture which made Jordan a cultural icon.  By comparison with the first two Jordan books I mentioned above, LeFeber doesn’t give you much behind the scenes dirt or even much insight into Jordan’s personality.  But I for one believe that these elements are of secondary importance in understanding the myth of Michael Jordan. Instead, LaFeber succinctly and lucidly weaves together descriptions of the confluence of new communications technology and new economic practices and strategies in manufacturing and marketing with a history of basketball and of Jordan’s career. The result is a readable narrative portrait of Jordan that, without minimizing his stature as a basketball player, makes clear that his legacy is inseparable from global cultural and economic developments.

 

The National Basketball League: A History, 1935-1949

by Murry R. Nelson (Originally published in Jefferson, NC by McFarland, 2009; 284 pp.)

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“teams were often integral parts of the community’s identities and the owners were, more often than not, local business and civic leaders.”

Among the books detailing the early history of professional basketball in the United States, I consider this the most important, even though—or actually because—its focus is not the NBA, but rather the National Basketball League (NBL). Nelson, who taught education and American studies at Penn State for many years, nevertheless illuminates a vital facet of early pro (and NBA) history in this meticulously research, detailed and entertaining history of the NBL.  His narrative restores the indispensable contributions of the NBL in establishing professional basketball as an attractive career and entertainment option and, especially, in cultivating and showcasing the talented players who—once they merged with the Basketball Association of America to form the NBA in 1949—would carry the NBA through its rocky early years, only to be marginalized from the NBA’s subsequent official history of itself. More importantly still, to mind, Nelson’s portrait of the league, its players, owners and fans, reminds us that the economic and administrative structure characterizing the NBA today neither was nor is the only possible model for professional basketball. In this, Nelson exemplifies the great German writer Walter Benjamin’s proposition that those who would understand the past must brush history “against the grain,” looking in unpromising places to tell the story of the forgotten.

 

Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool

by Walt Frazier with Ira Berko (Originally published in 1974; reprinted in Chicago by Triumph Books, 2010; 144 pp.)

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“I can remember how prideful I felt to wear the sneakers, and how I dug looking down and watching me walk in them.”Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool

Unique among player autobiographies for originality, Rockin’ Steady is next to impossible to summarize. The book is divided into six chapters whose titles (“Defense,” “Offense” and “Statistics” among them) offer a deceptive image of conventional coherence. Sure the book lets readers in on Frazier’s strategies and provides a portrait of the game in the late 60s and early 70s. But it also teaches you how to dry off after a shower and how to catch flies. What it lacks in narrative coherence and factual detail, it more than makes up for in beauty of design and in its ability to convey the importance of style, on and off the court, to the game of basketball. In this respect, it is ahead of its time. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the University of Michigan library shelves this book in the children’s literature section, which is fitting, for the book is a guide though, like all the great classic guides in world literature, one that guides less by the information it imparts than by what it does to you.

 

Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball

by Jeffrey Lane (Originally published in Lincoln, NE by University of Nebraska Press, 2007; 256 pp.)

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“the NBA . . . chastises players for looking or acting ‘too street’ while it manipulates and sells their street-bred swagger for all its worth.”Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball

Race is a prominent theme in a number of superb books on the history of basketball, particularly those that deal with the era from the early 1990s through the present when the so-called “hip hop generation” rose to preeminence in the sport.  Most of these usefully focus on the intersection of racial dynamics in basketball with those in American society and culture at large. Among the latter, Under the Boards distinguishes itself in my mind for its accessibility, detail and nuance and for Lane’s ability to integrate research into the history of the game and American society—he is an “urban ethnographer” at Rutgers—during the period with an honest and vulnerable account of his own experiences of the phenomena he studies.  Intertwining the stories of the rise of hip hop, racial politics in Reagan-Bush era America, and on and off-court trends in basketball during the period, Lane’s chapters provides detailed and stimulating narrative analyses of Allen Iverson, Ron Artest and Latrell Sprewell, Larry Bird, Bobby Knight, and the rise of foreign-born players in the NBA.  But each of these topics also becomes the occasion for wide-ranging, well-grounded accounts of the historical contexts—from housing discrimination in Boston to the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana—necessary to grasping more fully their cultural significance.

 

Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era

by Gary M. Pomerantz (Originally published in New York by Three Rivers Press, 2005; 267 pp)

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“He reduced to rubble the white-defined ideas of fair play and sportsmanship, which he knew as lies. Whites didn’t want fair play; they feared it.”Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era

Pomerantz is a journalist with a great deal of experience writing about race in America and brings this sensitivity to his thrilling story of the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game. But if changing racial dynamics in America and in basketball in the early 60s are important to this book, they are so as a subtext.  What gets foregrounded in Wilt, 1962 is storytelling, as Pomerantz draws together the reports of numerous witnesses to the “night of 100 points” and composes them into a single fluid portrait of the game itself.  Pomerantz, a superb narrator, provides exciting recaps of each quarter.  But details of game action become occasions for digressive stories (going backward and forward in time) of the principal and marginal characters (among these, the story of the game ball alone is worth the price of the book and the portrait of Chamberlain as human being and player is the best I’ve read).  It’s through the rich and complex subtlety of these nonetheless readable stories, that the book comes to serve as a lens through which the larger social dynamics at work in the game, Wilt’s performance, and its legend become visible.

 

Looking over this group, I notice that the incorporation of the first person perspective is common in basketball books I appreciate. Perhaps when an author vulnerably involves him or herself in the subject of the writing (like all the authors on my First Team, and a few of them today), it becomes harder—especially with politically charged issues like race—for them to rely upon detached intellectualism or dogma. Even LaFeber’s history of Jordan and the context for his global stardom is infused by the mix of the author’s admiration for Jordan and his outrage at the human cost—not least to Jordan himself—of marketing his ability. What emerges then feels closer to me like the messy complexity of these issues as I experience them in my daily life.

Stay tuned for the Third Team, coming soon.

Bad Prof’s Top Basketball Books

Over the past four years, to develop my course on the Cultures of Basketball and to research my forthcoming book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, I’ve had the opportunity to read a great deal about the game.  I’ve read academic and popular histories and biographies, autobiographies, scholarly articles, manuals and instructional guides, rule books, constitutions, bylaws, and, of course, articles in popular magazines, newspapers, and on line venues.

A generous tweet by my new collaborator Seth Partnow about his favorite basketball books inspired me to offer my own favorites, with a brief annotation explaining the selection. Of course, such lists necessarily exclude much that is worthwhile and mine will be no different.  Nevertheless, to try to honor the quality and variety of the library of basketball, I’ve decided to split my list over four posts, in which I’ll share, respectively, my First, Second, and Third team selections, and, finally, my Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically by title within each division).

For those looking to deepen and widen their understanding of the history of the game and its culture, I certainly think you can do worse than the following, which stand out in my mind for 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. Each of the twenty books I’ll be listing in these four posts are marked up, broken-spined, dog-eared and worn from repeated and profitable use, but none more so than these five.

All-Bad Prof Basketball Book List – First Team Selection

 

Basketball: Its Origin and Development

by James Naismith (Originally published 1941; Current edition published in Lincoln by University of Nebraska Press, 1996; 204 pp.)

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“I can still recall how I snapped my fingers and shouted, ‘I’ve got it!'”

The inventor of basketball began to compose this volume toward the end of his life and it was published after his death. Sometimes dry, but very clearly written, after early chapters on his background, Naismith tells the exciting story of the game’s invention and the first game, before moving on to recount and offer opinions on subsequent changes in rules, techniques and tactics as well as on the demographic and geographic spread of the game. This is essential reading not only to comprehend the facts and contexts of the game’s invention, but to fully grasp how deeply the game has been intertwined—from the beginning—with social issues, philosophical ideas, and moral agendas

 

The Essence of the Game is Deception: Thinking About Basketball  by Leonard Koppett (Originally published in 1973; currently out of print but available used; 274 pp.) 

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“Any knowledgeable crowd will cheer louder for a fancy pass . . . that doesn’t lead to a score than it will for a routine basket.”

A longtime newspaper columnist in New York (including during the heyday of the Knicks in the early 70s), Koppett makes a thoughtful, extended argument in favor of the proposition offered in the book’s title.  Clearly and at times beautifully written, Koppett divides his subject into three parts: “The Game,” “The People” and “Things to Think About.” Filtering such topics as “Teamwork,” “Bosses and Workers,” and “Statistics Lie” (to name just three of the book’s 23 chapter titles) through the conceptual lens of deception, Koppett’s analysis of the sport, though sometimes dated, mostly holds up very well and at times sheds provocative new light on today’s game.  Moreover, at certain moments, he transforms deception into style and style into beauty and beauty into truth in ways that articulate for me something inchoate in my own strong response to the unfolding kaleidoscope of the sport.

 

FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History

(Originally published in New York by Bloomsbury, 2010; 223 pp.)

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“This book . . . is a project preoccupied with memory.”

As most of my readers will know, “FreeDarko” is the name of both a pioneering basketball blog and the collective of writers who contributed material to it. This volume (their second: the first made my third team) offers readers a comprehensive history of the pro game that is unparalleled in its accessibility, originality, and interest. Divided into parts arranged chronologically (more or less by decade and beginning with the game’s invention) and then subdivided into chapters that provide close-up portraits of the key players, teams and issues comprising the decade, the volume can be consulted as a reference guide, read as a kind of fascinating fiction, or pondered for its accessible but provocative cultural analysis of the sport.  As a bonus, you get the beautiful and breathtakingly eloquent visual arguments provided by Jacob Weinstein’s illustrations.  For all that I’ve added to my basketball course over the years, this “textbook” still provides the spine of the course.

 

Give and Go: Basketball as a Cultural Practice

by Thomas McLaughlin (Originally published in Albany by the State University Press of New York, 2008; 250 pp).

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“The closer you look at it the more you can see it as an instance of how ordinary people quietly create the fabric of our cultural life.”

McLaughlin, an English professor at Appalachian State University, skillfully weaves together personal experience with thoughtful use of philosophy and cultural theory to explore the cultural significance of basketball play, especially informal pickup ball, which he sees as the most distilled version of the sport. Though that particular assertion may be debated, not much of the value of this book hinges on it (and McLaughlin holds it lightly).  Regardless, McLaughlin provides intelligent, flexible, and balanced accounting of the different facets of the game (relevant to all its forms), with chapters exploring the ethics of basketball play, its physical culture (especially in relation to masculinity), its mental dispositions or cognitive practices, its communities, its racial dynamics, and, in the final two chapters, media representations of the sport in television and film.  Despite McLaughlin’s reliance on sometimes technical works of cultural theory, he consistently manages to keep these relevant and understandable to non-academics.

 

King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution

by Aram Goudsouzian (Originally published in Berkeley by the University of California Press, in 2010; 423 pp.)

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“The game’s most respected figure was also its public intellectual.”

Nothing less than the gold standard for basketball biographies (maybe for biographies of figures from any sport, though I’m not expert enough in others to argue this).  Goudsouzian is a historian at the University of Memphis who specializes in the history of race in the United States, and this book integrates that depth of knowledge and scholarly self-discipline, with the author’s evident love for and understanding of the sport and its culture. At every point in this detailed chronicle of Bill Russell’s life, Goudsouzian carefully draws together the threads of personal development, sport, and social history. The result is much more than the best portrait of a basketball player that I’ve ever read. It is also rich resource for understanding several pivotal decades in the history of basketball and, for that matter, the United States.  But it is also, for those embarking upon their own research projects into the history of the game, an inspiring model to emulate.

 

Together these five works will provide readers with a superb and stylistically varied overview of the history of the sport, informed by cultural intelligence and social awareness, and sensitive to the nuanced materiality of the game as played.

Stay tuned for The All-Bad Prof Basketball Book List – Second Team Selection

The Culture of Moving Dots

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

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

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

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we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America’s Game

Independence Day always leaves me feeling a little bit out of place. Some of it is just an aversion to noise and explosions. But it goes deeper.  On July 4th, my social mediasphere splits pretty evenly between, to be it briefly: “Yay freedom! Go America!” and “Boo oppression! Down with America!” and I find myself on a slow motion fall into the abyss stretched open up by these polarizing tendencies.

It’s not that I don’t feel either of the sentiments.  On the contrary, It’s that I feel both, and strongly. I could intellectualize this and give you reasoned arguments justifying both of these sets of feelings.  But, whatever the more refined, reflective sources of this today, I’m more attuned to the tangled roots of this feeling in an upbringing in which I was simultaneously extremely proud to be American and extremely ashamed.  Basketball, then and now, I just can’t extricate from those experiences, or these feelings.

My parents immigrated from Spain to the United States in the 1962 via a brief detour in Cali, Colombia.  My parents and my oldest brother (then 15 months old) landed in Cali in May, 1957 right smack into a local manifestation of Cold War violence—a period actually known as “la Violencia“— that would make Game of Thrones look like Disney and that gave my father, though (or because) he grew up during the Spanish Civil War, cause to reconsider his decision.

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A few days later another brother would be born and about two years later, my sister.  I’ve seen pictures of this.  Crisp black and whites with the five of them under exotic foliage by a swimming pool, or perched near the peak of a mountain in the Andes.  My father was a scientist who, disheartened by the research conditions in Franco’s Spain, accepted a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation to found a department of biochemistry at the University of Cali.

A few years later, it seems the opportunities for professional advancement were not my father had hoped and he began to look for new positions.  As the story was told to me, he came to be offered two positions: one at the University of El Salvador and one at the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland. He preferred El Salvador, but my mother put her foot down: “If we move again, it will be to the United States or nowhere.”  And so they did, in 1962, to Portland, where I was born in 1965.

My father learned English in school and improved it while doing his Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh in the late 50s. My mother learned what English she knew (heavily accented until the time of her death last year) from a friend in Portland and from her avid reading. Their accents were always a source of embarrassment to me growing up.

My siblings learned it the hard way, on the playground of the elementary school they were thrown into upon arrival in the United States, not knowing a word of the language. But English was my native tongue.  My father fought hard to make our home an island of Spanish, protected against the forces of peers and popular culture. To this end, we had a penny bank shaped like a soldier on the dinner table every night into which, every night, we had to deposit a penalty for speaking English.

 

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I remember sometime during the Miami Dolphins undefeated season hitting upon a terrific idea for eliminating the mockery and subsequent embarrassment my strange name—Yago, Yoga, Yogurt, San Diego—caused me at school. I would change it! I knew that my full name, Santiago, meant Saint James in English, and that the short form, Yago, could be translated as James.  The Dolphins that year had a running back named Jim Kiick. His last name struck me as some kind of stroke of cosmic genius: a football player named Kiick! How perfect that his first name was mine! My proposal to change my name officially to Jim Kiick fell flat. In fact, it launched my Dad into a tirade about how his gringo son was betraying la patria. The lament, voiced in Spanish at top volume, that “these kids are forgetting Spanish” rings in my ears to this day.

Language was thus the beginning of my sense of strangeness and unbelonging at home and in my world outside the home, but it was only the beginning. There was the fact, oft-repeated, with pride, by my father, that I was by virtue of my birth the only Colás who could become President of the United States. But given his disdain for so many of the things that to me, influenced by my friends and their families, defined America—baseball, Hee Haw, the Brady Bunch—it was hard for me to know whether to internalize his pride or his disdain at this Americanness.

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Our national identity was, anyway, more declared than anything else.  After all, we didn’t eat American food (and when we tried to it felt weird), we didn’t do American things like going to rural Wisconsin town to visit grandma and grandpa or our cousins.  We had Thanksgiving turkey and on the 4th of July I was taken to fireworks, but, perhaps because there was no history of doing so, no existing family version of these traditions, the experiences—even if I couldn’t have articulated it in these terms at the time, even to myself—always felt performed, as though we were the foreign factory workers that Henry Ford used force to wear outlandish versions of their native garb as they climbed into a 20 foot “melting pot” only to emerge Americanized. Only we never got out of the pot since in so many ways my experience showed me all the ways we—and I, despite my claims on the White House—were not American.

But we did watch and play basketball.  And, though few of my friends families seemed very interested in it (by comparison with football, baseball or even hockey), I think I wound up depositing all of these fraught investments—like generations of second-generation immigrants before me—into the sport and the sense of belonging I believed it promised. Promised, and mostly delivered. Though playing with my Dad sometimes only served for me to emphasize his foreignness by comparison with other fathers, enjoying games together in front of the TV or at the arena helped me forget that he, and by extension I, was not American.  And the skills I developed first in our driveway in competition with he and my siblings landed me a spot on school teams and—despite the shame I’d feel when my name was announced over the PA system during starting lineups—helped attenuate the sense I always had of being different from the other jocks, and so somehow alone.

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All these childhood feelings come rushing forth on Independence Day, when everyone around me is either innocently or aggressively parading a prideful American belonging that I’ve never quite felt.  Everyone, that is, except those whose experience or education has led them to an acute sensitivity to all the ways in which the nation, from the time of its very foundation on ideals of liberty and equality, has fallen so short of realizing those ideals.  My education and my experiences (if only second-hand) have taught me to see this as well. But I can’t shake a possibly naive, perhaps even childish, desire for it to be true: for America to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, and for me to fully belong to it and it to me.

It occurred to me yesterday that in some sense—despite baseball’s longstanding and football’s more recent claims to the contrary—basketball is America’s game.  But upon a talking with my wife, who shares some of these feelings on the 4th, I realized it’s not that it is so more than any other game, not in a generalizable way. Basketball is, however, the game of Americanness for me.  And it is more than just that.  For there are ways in which basketball in this country harbors (again, not necessarily more so than any other sport) within itself the otherwise polarized opposing tendencies that cause she and I to feel so strange and alone on Independence Day.

That is to say that the world of basketball—I realize now the previously unnoticed importance of my having structured my forthcoming book around the metaphor of basketball as a republic, a state, and an empire and of my own participation in it as akin to a kind of dissenting citicenzship—offers all of the best and worst that America itself offers.  Basketball offers insane corporate profits, tasteless mass spectacle centered on glorified individualism, economic exploitation, racism, discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality, authoritarian ideologies, and empty dreams.  But basketball also offers the ongoing attempt to address social injustice, the exhibition of individual initiative and creativity working smoothly in the interests of a collective, the demonstration that effort, persistence and dedication can level the social playing field.

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It’s so hard to hold all this together in my heart and mind.  I write the last sentence and I immediately want to qualify it, hearing the voices of others (inside me) pointing out all the ways in which these positive things are either not so positive or not the whole story.  I’ve written this kind of thing myself plenty of times.  But then I want to resist that, and argue back, but do you not see and feel the exhilarating freedom unfolding unpredictably with every movement of a basketball player on the floor? That, I want to say back, perhaps childishly, that is America.  And I’ve written that kind of thing plenty of times.  But, and here we go again, that is not all that is America.  And so I come to feel that the sport, no less than the country I think it embodies, will always leave me falling between two polarized extremes.

And then I think to myself: maybe the problem arises because of the myriad ways in which our current discursive fora in this country encourage the expression of extreme, one-sided views of things. I know, I’m not the first to point this out.  But what I feel that I hear less often than this complaint is the attempt to address it by offering, in public spheres like this one, more complex perspectives on the phenomenon in question; perspectives marked not only by reason (or rationalization), but by feeling and, along with feeling, by contradiction and paradox and a budding sense that one’s word is not the last word.  That the thing we’re arguing about isn’t really anything in the sense that it’s not one thing and that it’s not a done thing.  That we’re contributing, with every word we write, to the further elaboration of that thing.  It’s all unfinished, a work in progress.  America is unfinished.  Basketball is unfinished. And, if that could be the meaning of those things—America and basketball—then I feel pretty much at home because I, too, am unfinished.

 

Why I Can’t Get Excited About NBA Transactions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Teaching Values: Coaching the Right Way

In the wake of my posts last week exploring some of the history, assumptions and implications underlying various aspects of coaching, I had a great conversation with Nick Houseman at BBallBreakdown.  Nick is a coach, clearly an intelligent and caring one and so one who is looking to make coaches and coaching better. Perhaps in that spirit, he asked me the following question yesterday: “is there a debate about coaches using sports to teach overarching themes about life?”

I take it that Nick is asking not whether such a debate exists (for the record, there is quite a bit of scholarly discussion of this in the sport psychology, sport sociology and sport philosophy literature–contact me for some references), but rather, rhetorically, whether I believe that it is appropriate for coaches to use sports to teach overarching themes about life? My short answer is yes.  There’s no question that sports can provide numerous opportunities to learn, either through experience or instruction, about life; and a coach can be the individual who helps teach those lessons.  Moreover, as historians such as Dominick Cavallo and Clifford Putney (to name just two among many) have shown, sports have and probably will continue to be—for better and for worse—impactful arenas for imparting these lessons. In the case of basketball, for example, the game was in part designed to do so.  And individuals like James Naismith, John Wooden, Walt Frazier, Bill Russell, Bill Bradley, Mike Krysewski, and Phil Jackson, among many others, have authored volumes elaborating their ideas about what basketball can teach and how; even as scholars have complicated our understanding of how this might work best.

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But in specific circumstances (and leaving aside the kind of coaching behaviors that have left too many young people with a horrible impression of sports culture) , I might qualify my response depending on the answers to certain questions: what is the age of the athletes? What are the themes being taught and how are these being taught? And what is the social context outside of the sporting arena that might support (or undermine) the ability of individual athletes to incorporate these (presumably positive) lessons into their daily lives.  Each of these questions reflects underlying issues that complicate my answer.

Basketball for BoysThis may seem obvious, but generally speaking, I think it’s most appropriate and practical for coaches to impart life lessons to younger players. This isn’t because I think we can’t stop learning about life as we get older.  Life is complicated and challenging in ways that change as we age.  And none of us are ever too old to benefit from the experiences, perspectives, and wisdom of others.  However, in a professional context such as the NBA, where (depending on your definition) most or all of the players are adults, there is a danger that coaches seeking to impart life lessons may fail to respect or appreciate the life wisdom players already have and therefore take on a patronizing attitude.  That is, a situation can arise in which one grown adult is treating another grown adult as though he were less than adult. Because of the racial dynamic whereby most coaches are still white and most players still black and the history of race relations in the US, this such an attitude can become especially problematic.

Moreover, the NBA is a business in which coaches and players alike are employed to maximize, through their success on the court, the profit line of owners. It may not be practical in that context to prioritize life lessons.  And, in addition, the business aspect of the NBA means that coaches and players may not have the opportunity to develop the kinds of intimate personal relationships (knowledge of each other’s experiences and lives, trust, etc.) that should be the bedrock for any such instruction. However, in explicitly educational contexts (such as colleges and schools) and elsewhere that younger athletes are involved, I think using the sporting experience to impart life lessons can be appropriate and desirable, depending, as I said at the outset, on what the themes are, how they are being taught, and on the broader social context in which this is occurring.

It’s probably pretty common to consider, again taking basketball as an example, that certain qualities of character likely to lead to individual and team success are also valuable in life outside of basketball.  Hard work, self-discipline, physical health, enjoyment, graciousness, adaptability, individual initiative, cooperation, unselfishness, intelligence, self-respect and respect for others, and an appreciation of individual differences in personality and ability might comprise a non-exhaustive list of such qualities. I’ve certainly found in my life in and out of basketball that cultivating and exhibiting such qualities tends to contribute to more positive outcomes more often than not.  And most would agree in principle (even if some waver or fall short in actual practice) that these qualities should be prioritized over other values (such as winning) if and when they conflict.

I’m not claiming that these are universal values.  Some arguably are, some definitely are not.  Sometimes, the objection that they are not is voiced to prevent the specific experiences of certain socially marginalized group from being erased. Such erasure is a valid and serious concern.  But I wonder if it might be constructively addressed with careful attention to the conditions under which they are transmitted.  Perhaps this is naive on my part, but if it were the case, we could then avoid resigning ourselves to the position—which admittedly I find tempting, but ultimately counter to my experience, my reasoning, and my desire—that it is hopeless, or worse harmful, to attempt to use sports to impart life lessons to athletes we care about.

Some sociologists rightly observe that there can be in sport an excessive emphasis on defining well-being and development in individual terms. The concern behind this critical observation is that such an emphasis fails to take into account the role—both for better and worse—of society (and of other collectives) in the well-being and development of individuals. Because basketball is a team sport, and as the list of qualities I offered above suggests, this may be less of a problem when it comes to the actual values some coaches seek to impart to their young players. It’s hard for me at least to imagine a basketball coach sternly instructing his or her players to go after their own individual success on the floor at all costs and that this will stand them in good stead in life after basketball.  Even so, it may be the case that some coaches fail to recognize (for any number of reasons) the broader social context in which their players must operate; a context which might make some of these qualities less practicable or practically useful than would be the case on the team or in other social scenarios with which a coach might be familiar or, indeed, in some ideal society.

But I don’t think this means that coaches should refrain from attempting to instill the values they genuinely believe will be useful to their players on and off the court.  It does, however, mean that how a coach teaches and—equally importantly—embodies these values becomes very important.  And it does mean that we should all (coaches included, or especially) be invested in the broader conditions, both of youth sport and of the social and community contexts surrounding young athletes outside of the sporting context, that might make the difference between life lessons learned through sport becoming empowering tools for individuals and communities and such lessons becoming little more than cynically deployed empty promises leading to bitterness and mistrust.

Coach-Gray-Sports-Coach-Tip-No-18-Coach-John-Burns-1024x1024Take care of your body might be the most fundamental tenet of all coaches and the athletic principle with the most obvious relevance to daily life.  The habits of physical self-care that a young athlete might cultivate in the context of their sporting experience may well become a life-long habit with clear benefits.  But, in imparting that lesson, are we taking adequate account of the situations that athlete may be facing in their home or community that might undermine their efforts at attending to their physical well being? Do they have adequate nutrition, for example, or the opportunity to cultivate proper sleep hygiene?

Respect yourself and others: another fundamental lesson to be learned through sports.  But self-respect and respect for others are not cultivated in a vacuum, through sheer force of individual will (even if such a will is a necessary condition for their cultivation). So when we teach young athletes to respect themselves and others (teammates, coaches, officials, opponents) are we considering whether or not the conditions exist in their lives outside of sport in which such a lesson might take root and grow?  Are they respected by their teachers? By law enforcement? By their peers? What about the coach? Is the coach, in his or her interaction with players, showing respect? Or, indeed, exemplifying the other lessons of life and of character he or she seeks to instill in them?

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I think one could go down the list of qualities that I mentioned above and ask of each of them: is the coach exemplifying them? Is their adequate social support for the cultivation of these lessons in a wholistic manner? If not, is the coach (and others claiming to care about the well being of the young athlete) working to ensure that the conditions exist outside the sport—in the family, neighborhood, community and country—in which these qualities can be both practicable and practically useful?

Obviously, as literal questions, the answer will be sometimes yes and sometimes no, depending on the coach.  But I mean them more as rhetorical questions designed to illuminate the more challenging areas that I fear are obscured by the broad popular consensus that sports are a good arena in which to learn life lessons and, therefore, that coaches are the appropriate instructors for such lessons.  I mean to be, in other words, pointing out some of the conditions that I think we need to meet if the potential of sport (and coaches) to work in this positive way is to be fulfilled.

The Triangle Myth

In thinking about basketball culture, I’ve found it useful to think about certain recurrent themes, images, metaphors and topics of discussion as myths.  I don’t mean “myths” in the sense of falsehoods. Instead, I mean myth in the definition given by scholar Robert Segal as a story that conveys a belief that, whether it is true or false, is tenaciously held by its adherents.  Another scholar once referred to myths as “cultural dreams.” If you accept that dreams can shed light on our deeper feelings and attitudes, wishes and fears, then it can be useful to explore the shame of these cultural dreams called myths, for they can help us to better understand the things we feel collectively as a culture but perhaps are not in touch with enough to articulate directly.  Better understanding these things, in turn, can help empower us to change those things that we discover may need changing, just as better understanding our individual fears and wishes can lead us to improve our lives.

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Nicholas Dawidoff published an elegantly produced, honest and informative inquiry into the Triangle in yesterday’s New York Times. The piece inspired this post and I’ll be using examples from it to illustrate just what I’m talking about. Discussion of the Triangle doesn’t always take on the form of a story, thought it almost always includes stories (such as the story of Tex Winter, who originally devised it, or the story of Phil Jackson’s implementation of it when he was coaching the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan to multiple championships). But, regardless of the prominence of narrative in discussions of the Triangle, I think it’s still useful to probe them for those tenaciously held beliefs; useful, in other words, to speak of something we might call “The Triangle Myth.”

So what are the defining element of the Triangle Myth? In no particular order, the Triangle Myth consistently affirms several beliefs: 1) the complexity of the Triangle; 2) a strong association of the Triangle with the success of Jackson-coached teams in Chicago and Los Angeles; 3) the beauty of the Triangle; and 4) the qualities, especially moral qualities, required of players in order to run the Triangle effectively.

All these elements are visible in Dawidoff’s article. Indeed, the complexity of the offense appears as one of his motivations in writing the story.  He writes,

The system is basketball’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, renowned for being highbrow and difficult to understand. Yet trying to get through an abstruse book about the essence of cognition is one thing; that basketball could be over our heads is somehow harder to take.

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I found the idea of Triangle particularly intriguing. An offensive system that had won all those championships in full public view yet remained off-limits to others — that seemed provocative, a sports riddle.

This leads him to embark upon a quest he describes (albeit ironically) in a quasi-mythological terms:

Was Triangle the golden basketball mean? Was it a mirage? Mine would be a quest of sorts, deep into the heart of Winter.

In the course of this quest, he interviews a number of college and professional coaches and players.  The result is a veritable compendium of variations on the Triangle Myth.  So, we hear former player and current analyst Jay Williams testifying to its complexity:

You hand me a piece of paper and say, ‘Jay, define the triangle for me,’ it’s kind of like a kid with Magic Markers drawing a cartoon. It’s all over the page. So many series of actions, I get lost trying to explain it.

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The whole article revolves around the enormous success Jackson enjoyed using the Triangle, the challenges he has faced in implementing in New York, and the vicissitudes of other coaches and players efforts to work with the offense.  We find, moreover, none other than Kobe Bryant extolling the its beauty:

We were successful because we played in such a beautiful system.

Meanwhile, Stanford University women’s coach Tara VanDerveer compared it to improvisational jazz:

“The ball movement is beautiful!” she said, sounding the way people do when they are discussing the source of deep significance in their lives.

Meanwhile, both Jackson and his acolyte, Steve Kerr (first year coach of this seasons NBA champion Golden State Warriors) lament the difficulty of finding players with the requisite qualities for understanding, accepting and implementing the Triangle.  Thus, Jackson, speaking of his challenges as President of the Knicks:

Identifying players who can be good at it is our chore.

And Kerr elaborates the complaint:

Players grow up with the pick-and-roll, so they don’t naturally play without the ball. So many one-and-done guys are incredibly gifted,but they’re not seasoned fundamentally. In Triangle, they’d be completely lost.

Ultimately, in addition to fundamental skills and intelligence, players are required to possess the moral qualities of unselfishness, self-discipline, and trust.  They must be willing, first of all, to place the team’s interests over their own individual interests or rather more precisely: they must identify their individual interests with the team’s interests.  But also, they must be willing to trust their teammates to do the same and, moreover, the offense to produce positive outcomes for the collective.

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Former Bulls’ player Horace Grant brings all the elements together:

You need intelligence to run Triangle. We have great one-on-one athletes out there in the N.B.A., but to be as one, you need to know your role in Triangle. It was a smooth operating machine. Baryshnikov in action! Picasso painting! A beautiful thing!

What Bethlehem Shoals once called the “NBA bildungsroman” of Michael Jordan laboring selfishly and unsucessfully year after year in a Sisyphian task of rolling the Chicago Bulls up the hill of the NBA playoffs only to fall back down again before coming under the firm but benign and quasi-mystical guidance of Phil Jackson and the Triangle serves as the exemplary moral tale here, sisyphus-1549which Dawidoff dutifully recounts, in the form of a quotation from then-Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause:

Michael’s smart as hell. It took him a few months, but then he realized what he could do in Triangle. He went back to Carolina, and all he did all summer was work on post stuff. For the next eight or 10 years, he scored more points in the post than most centers did.

So all the elements are here: the Triangle is a bafflingly complex system, associated with some of the most unparalleled team successes in basketball history, but its complexity, together with the individual skills and moral traits required to implement it are beyond the reach of most of today’s players. So having reviewed these examples of the constitutive elements of the Triangle Myth, let me look a little more critically and deeply.

The first thing to note is the logic whereby an offensive system (or “rubric” as Dawidoff nicely terms it) that has been successfully implemented in specific circumstances is viewed as a kind of tactical, moral, and aesthetic ideal to which coaches and teams should aspire.  This is important because it only through this elevation of the contingent into the necessary that it makes any sense for coaches to complain that they don’t have the right circumstances (read: “players”) in which to implement the Triangle.  

The tacit idea here is that running the Triangle is the best of all possible basketball worlds, the Eden every coach and team would blissfully inhabit if only those players—unschooled in the fundamentals, lacking the intelligence, or unwilling to sacrifice their own interests for the good of the team—weren’t mucking it up.

The Triangle may well have been enormously successful, perhaps more successful than any offensive system in basketball history, and many may consider the patterns of ball and body movement it generates to be beautiful.  It may even exemplify certain moral traits reasonable people would consider desirable such as unselfishness, self-discipline, and trust.  I don’t have any problem with assenting to any of this.  My problem comes when in idealizing the Triangle through the Triangle Myth it becomes yet another bludgeon with which to hammer players (past and especially present) for what they appear—through the lens of this mythto lack.

The deficiencies of today’s players seem to me to be enumerated so frequently that I fear people will come to really believe that NBA players lack fundamental skills, or intelligence, or moral qualities like unselfishness, self-discipline, or trust.  When the list of deficiencies is harnessed to the cart of a powerfully compelling story like the Triangle Myth, I think such distortions become all the more likely to be accepted as truths.

Anybody’s who has been reading me ever, but especially lately, probably knows that this is the moment to remind you that most NBA players are black and most NBA coaches are white and that it’s troubling to me to see basketball culture repeat, as though in a social vacuum, any number of criticisms of black men that have been a staple of racist discourse in this country for centuries.  That Michael Jordan (who is obviously black) is trotted out as a counter-example is itself another staple of such discourse: the exhibition of an African-American who through determination and individual virtue manages to hoist himself above his culture and so to fulfill the expectations of the dominant, white culture.

Instead of this, we might remove the distorting lenses furnished by myths like that of the Triangle.  In doing so, we might appreciate that in every NBA game we witness dazzling exhibitions of fundamental skills honed through long hours of solitary practice, of moral virtue cultivated in, often times, the least nourishing of soils, and of a kind of embodied intelligence that—because we fall prey to the longstanding assumption that minds and bodies are two separate facets of the human being and that the mind is the sole residence of intelligence—we’re likely to overlook because it is not expressed in the forms—such as speech—we expect.

As a teacher (a kind of coach if you will) I try—when I am at what I think of as my best, which is certainly not always—to approach my classes as though the students already possess the basic skills and dispositions required to make the course a success.  I assume they are all intelligent, curious, and open to learn from and teach one another.  But I recognize that intelligence, curiosity and openness take different forms.  And I spend a fair amount of time over the first few weeks of each semester getting to know the specific individual and collective gifts a given group of students will be bringing to the table.  Only then, having established that I respect and value them, have I earned in turn th respect that allows them to accept and meet the challenges I offer them to go further and to stretch themselves.

Phil Jackson and the Essence of Basketball

phil-jackson-joins-knicksYesterday, Howard Beck published a fine profile of New York Knicks President Phil Jackson. Jackson, a former player (on the championship teams of the Knicks in 1970 and 1973) and coach (of 11 championship teams in Chicago and Los Angeles), is at least as well known for the string of popular books popular books blending autobiography, basketball strategy and tactics, and a mix of fundamentalist Christianity, Lakota Sioux religion, and Zen Buddhism; nuggets of wisdom from which he occasionally releases in interviews with the media.  All this makes Jackson an extremely interesting figure to me combining as he does, in his approach to the game, a love of basketball, an interest in the nuts and bolts of the game, and an awareness of wider social, philosophical and psychological issues shaping and shaped by basketball.

These days, Beck and others are especially interested in the decisions Jackson plans to make to improve the Knicks during this NBA off season and in the principles guiding those decisions. I’m not so interested in what he will do with the Knicks, but Beck’s profile from yesterday offered a nicely distilled version of the philosophy Jackson has always espoused and that I am very much interested in.  Given the misunderstandings that some of my recent writing has engendered, I want to say up front that I’m not taking issue with Jackson’s abilities as a coach.  But I am interested in the limitations and implications of some of the underpinnings of his views of the game and the world. So let me start with what Jackson said and then try to explain my reservations. In his interview, Jackson offered both a critique of today’s game and a few basic principles he’d like to see the NBA, and his Knicks in particular, get back to.  So what has Jackson seen that bothers him?

When I watch some of these playoff games, and I look at what’s being run out there, as what people call an offense, it’s really quite remarkable to see how far our game has fallen from a team game. Four guys stand around watching one guy dribble a basketball.

He seems to  be thinking especially of how the Cavaliers responded to injuries to key players by emphasizing an isolation-style offense in which LeBron James dominated the ball, ran down the shot clock and then looked either to score, get to the free throw line, or, if he was double-teamed, find an open teammate.  Of course, LeBron himself, well-known for his unselfishness and efficiency as a player, was not happy with the tactic.  But, as many observers noted, with a severely depleted roster, Cleveland really didn’t have too many options. Yet Jackson had criticism for James:

I watch LeBron James, for example, He might [travel] every other time he catches the basketball if he’s off the ball. He catches the ball, moves both his feet. You see it happen all the time.

Jackson is not alone in this criticism of James, though the criticism might be leveled with equal validity at many other NBA players.  For Jackson, though, this particular problem bespeaks a larger malaise:

There’s no structure, there’s no discipline, there’s no ‘How do we play this game’ type of attitude. And it goes all the way through the game. To the point where now guys don’t screen—they push guys off with their hands.

And here already is where Jackson starts to become interesting to me, when he invokes values such as “structure” and “discipline” from outside of basketball to explain why he has a problem with the game as he sees it today.  He goes on:

The game actually has some beauty to it, and we’ve kind of taken some of that out of it to make it individualized. It’s a lot of who we are as a country, individualized stuff.

It seems to me as though Jackson means to connect the “structure” and “discipline” he sees as missing in the game (as exemplified by LeBron’s play in the finals) to other values “beauty” and (implicitly) “cooperation”.  Indeed, Jackson says as much—while adding one more, very important, time-honored value—in elaborating upon what was missing with a musical analogy:

It struck me: How can we get so far away from the real truth of what we’re trying to do? And if you give people structure, just like a jazz musician—he’s gotta learn melody, and he’s gotta learn the basic parts of music—and then he can learn how to improvise. And that’s basically what team play is all about.

“Structure,” “discipline,” “beauty,” “cooperation,” “truth.”  I have no quarrel that these are part of basketball.  On the contrary, part of what draws me to Phil Jackson is that in steadfastly invoking such values over the course of his career he implicitly and sometimes explicitly affirms the connections between basketball and things that are not basketball and thereby the importance of basketball as a cultural form to be taken seriously.  In this particular case, these terms connect the sport to art (“beauty” and “structure”), to morality (“structure,” “discipline,” and “cooperation”) and to politics (“cooperation” invoked, by contrast, to how we do things in American society).  

“Truth” seems, as it often does in culture, to serve as a kind of overarching trump value, governing and tying together all the rest.  “Truth” here seems to mean  “how things should be” according to some fixed essential identity to basketball that involves prominently exhibiting the other values he invokes.  So that Jackson seems to be saying that it’s not basketball, in his view, if it doesn’t revolve around “structure,” “discipline,” “beauty,” and “cooperation.”

I think things—LeBron’s performance, the state of today’s NBA, and basketball in general—are more complex than what Jackson allows.  It’s hard, for example, for me to see James’ performance in the final as lacking in structure or discipline given that James systematically and with almost relentless consistency employed an offensive tactic that ran counter to his own sense of how basketball should be played and, indeed, counter to his team played for most of the season.

As for the NBA more generally, I’m not sure why Jackson doesn’t find in the Warriors (or the Spurs last season—okay he did praise them). But why not the Heat in the two seasons previous to that, or the Mavericks in 2011—all NBA champions) exactly the “structure,” “discipline,” “beauty” and “cooperation” he claims are missing in the sport today.  Plenty of people have written about this over the past few years and, moreover, reported on how various less successful teams seek to model themselves after these winning teams. It’s odd to me that someone as experienced with and involved in pro basketball should make the general claims about the sport today that Jackson makes.

But what about the sport itself? Is there a “true” way to play basketball? Some approach that best exhibits a core essence to the sport, without which what is going on is basketball in name only?  Here’s where it gets tricky. On the one hand, the answer must obviously be “yes” because otherwise how would we know that what we are watching or playing or talking about is basketball and not, say, football or chess or cooking.  For many, that might settle it.  But it gets more complicated if we take a second to ask what is that thing that makes it basketball and not any of those other things.  A ball? A hoop? Players? Those all seem like minimum requirements.screen-shot-2015-03-29-at-4-36-39-pm

But Jackson is adding in other requirements.  Leaving aside that there is probably reasonable disagreement, in and out of basketball, on just what “beauty” or “structure” or “discipline” or “cooperation” mean, do we really want to say that it’s not “true” basketball or that we’ve strayed from the “truth” of basketball if those things aren’t present? All of this might seem like the kind of esoteric overthinking that people who do my job are often accused of.  After all, there is vast unspoken consensus on what basketball is, Phil doesn’t really mean that what LeBron is doing isn’t actually basketball but something else, and, perhaps most importantly, there seems to be nothing at stake: nothing anybody cares about and deserves gets taken away from them because of the way in which we define basketball.  Except that, historically, this is exactly what has happened in basketball.

Historians of the sport know that almost since the time of its invention, controversies and debates have played out over what is and isn’t basketball.  Is it basketball if you dribble the ball? What if you play physically? Is it basketball if you shoot it off the backboard or play in (or not in) a cage? Is it basketball without a center jump after each made basket? How about the dunk? Is that basketball? In my research, I’ve discovered that over the years self-appointed custodians of basketball have argued, like Jackson, for the exclusion, of certain elements of the game on the basis of a sometimes implicit sometimes explicit claim about what the essence of the game might be.

I fear that at this point, in the wake of my posts last week on Lebron and coaching, on Steph Curry, on coaching and on racism, that I may lose some readers.  But be that as it may, it is a demonstrable fact that over the course of the history of the sport, some of those claims and the resulting exclusions have been made if not with the intention of then certainly with the effect of excluding certain kinds of plays or styles of play and the players most commonly associated with it.  It’s a sad, but unavoidable and—given the history of the United States over the same time period—unsurprising fact that the players most often excluded or, if included, derided and criticized in the name of some supposed essence of basketball have been African-American.

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It would be absurd to argue that with these comments Phil Jackson was expressing a desire to exclude black players from basketball. And if we all agree that he’s not, why then bother with all of what many reading this might consider to be irrelevant, because ancient, history?

My answer is it doesn’t, unless you believe that language and culture matters because it carries forward our assumptions, attitudes and habits of thought. And, more specifically, that the language and culture of the past, if we use it in ignorance of its past uses, shapes our present, making certain kinds of change possible and other kinds of change impossible. It would be nice, maybe, if we could each of get to start all over again every time we used language. Speak and write with a blank slate and so feel somehow sure that we were conveying only our intended meanings and nothing more. But that is not how language works and so I believe that it be hooves us to be attentive of the social history of the language we use and inventive in coming with ways of talking about the things we care about that minimize the danger of inadvertently repeating harmful ideas and patterns of thought from the past.

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So what about the essence of basketball? My own view is that it’s best to keep our list of essential requirements minimal and responsive to changes in the game initiated by those intimately involved in play, above all: the players.  This allows a variety of styles of play to flourish and provides the requisite diversity for the game to thrive and for new forms, styles, tactics, maneuvers. It’s best too, in this regard, to beware of an understandable tendency to cling too tightly to forms of the past, especially those with which we identify with particular successes or with a particularly enjoyable basketball moment. It’s this last that I suspect Phil Jackson might be having a problem with, but perhaps not.

I think that, guided by these ideas, Phil Jackson might have said something like this: keep-calm-and-love-basketball-35a“I think it’s too bad, and I suspect LeBron also feels this way, that the imperative of competition and the constraints of the roster, required he and his teammates to play a style of ball that focused so heavily on his actions and left his teammates uninvolved or passive so much of the time, for the simple reason that basketball is a game of numbers and of using movement of ball and bodies and the space of the floor to create advantages in numbers. I recognize that most of the successful teams throughout history have done this, right up to the present day.  And I’m heartened to see that among today’s players there are so many who can dribble, pass and shoot and make plays for others, becoming functionally interchangeable while retaining their distinctive individual abilities. This balance of distinctive individuality expressed in harmony with that of others gives us a kind of liberty, a license, one that it would be good to see more of in our society.”  That’s a commentary, candid but informed by a critical sense of history and a nuanced appreciation of the present and free of any appeal to some fixed essence of the sport, that I could get behind.

What Racism Means to Me

This is probably hopeless, but the teacher in me won’t seem to allow me to let it go or write it off.  In the wake of my posts over the last week on Steph Curry, LeBron James and coaching, and coaching more generally, I’ve gotten some comments and responses that, in various ways, accuse me of injecting racial dynamics into issues where none are in fact in play.  Rather than try to respond to each of those individually, I thought it might be helpful if I explained what I mean when I talk about the racism.

First, a few points qualifying what follows.  Racism, obviously, takes many, many different forms.  I do not consider myself an expert in the history of race in this country or elsewhere.  I’m not a sociologist or an anthropologist or a historian.  These are all real scholarly disciplines with real methods that require years to master.  The study of race, undertaken from whatever disciplinary foundation, requires even more work on top of that.  I’ve done some of this work, to be sure, but I want to be careful to make clear that I am here just explaining what racism means to me, with my interdisciplinary training in literary and cultural studies and philosophy.  I don’t think of this as the last word, but genuinely as an attempt to clarify my own positions and, perhaps, to move the conversation forward a bit. In other words, I’m still learning and eager to continue to do so.  Finally, I’m confining myself to what I feel qualified to talk about: how racism gets sedimented in our language and culture, even or especially when its expression is not overt, and independently of the avowed views on race espoused by a given individual who is using language or adding to our culture.

Let me take the example of Marc Stein’s piece on LeBron James, which more than the others has occasioned the sort of objection to which I want to respond.  I should begin by saying (as I did explicitly in my post) that I’m not concerned with whether or not Marc Stein is, as an individual human being, a racist.  I’m not concerned, I mean, with whether or not he harbors prejudicial attitudes or feelings towards racial minorities.  For one thing, I don’t know him personally.  If pressed, I’d guess he probably doesn’t.  But I was never talking about Marc Stein.  I was talking about the language he was using, the assumptions he was relying upon in making his argument, and the history of that language and assumptions.  So that’s the first thing: when I talk about racism as I have this past week (and most of the time), I’m separating out the language and culture an individual is using from the individual him or herself.

I believe that when we speak or write the language we use inevitably means more than what we intend it to mean.  Of course, we may be more or less skilled at conveying our intended meaning clearly in language.  But even the most crystal clear bit of language always carries an excess of meaning.  This is first of all because language (and culture more broadly) has a history and second of all because it is social.  We like to think of language as a neutral instrument that we can employ to achieve only our intended effects, without concern for its past or where it came from and so without regard for the unintended effects it might have.  But I think, to put this directly, that this is naive at best and misguided and potentially dangerous at worst.

In Philip Pullman’s marvelous trilogy His Dark Materials, there is an instrument called the subtle knife.  subtle_knife_by_j_westOne edge of the knife is so sharp it can cut through any material. The other edge is sharper still, capable of slashing the molecules separating one universe from another.  At a crucial moment in the plot, this powerful tool, in the hands of our heroes, Will and Lyra, shatters, threatening to leave them forever stranded in a world that is not there own.  Fortunately, they have a friend who is a master blacksmith, capable of repairing the knife.  Only, he is not sure he wants to.  When they ask him why, he explains that the point of the knife is so fine that he cannot see it.  Though he trusts their good intentions in using the knife, the invisibility of its point tells him that the knife may have intentions and so effects unknown to any of them.  The heroes protest that regardless of the knife’s intentions, their intentions, the blacksmith knows, are pure and that, anyway, they have to do something important and they can’t do it without the knife.  The blacksmith agrees, reluctantly, but only after receiving assurances that Will and Lyra will be exceptionally mindful in their use of the tool, careful to monitor their own intentions as well as to be aware of the unintended effects of the knife.

Language and culture are like that knife. And the historical and social nature of language is like that very, very fine, potentially dangerous point, harboring meanings and effects possibly unknown to us, and possibly counter to what we might intend. Of course, as the blacksmith would acknowledge, we have no choice but to use the powerful tool of language.

Definition of language in dictionary

Language and culture are like that knife.

But we have, as he also insists, a serious responsibility to understand the history and social character deposited in the language we use and then to use that language responsibly.  I sound preachy.  I’m not always so informed or so careful, but I’m almost always regretful when I’m not.  And I certainly try to learn from my mistakes in language and culture by studying more about where the language I use comes from and where it is going.

In the case of how the media portrays Steph Curry, or how Marc Stein cast his criticism of LeBron James, I think there has been a lack of care about the history, within the culture of basketball and in our society more broadly, of certain seemingly innocent terms and apparently natural assumptions.8371413_orig  Basketball, as probably anyone reading this knows, was once segregated, separate and unequal.  Even after integration, quotas remained in place limiting the access of black players to teams, leagues, and playing time.   Even after the quotas faded, black players were subject to criticism for their style of play, their clothing and their behavior.

In that history, if admittedly probably not in the heart of Marc Stein or other writers today, these certain seemingly innocent terms and an apparently natural assumptions about how things ought to be in the game have been used directly to discriminate against, to demean, to control and to punish African-American players or else indirectly to justify such practices.black_fives_caro_page-bg_22944 This is real history, which I am not making up or “reading into” my objects of study. Anybody can read the newspapers of the past, the histories and biographies and autobiographies that I have read and discover the very same thing, plain as day.

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The system is called white supremacy and it is supported by racism.

What’s more, these very real practices are themselves linked (much as we sports fans would like to think that the entertaining games we love exist in isolation from the societies in which we enjoy them) to other very real practices in the world whereby, as my friend put it in a recent short essay, “people who are not white die sooner than those who are.”  This happens systematically, even though many white people naturally protest that they don’t want any part of it.  The system is called white supremacy and it is supported by racism.  The system is embedded in social behaviors, public policy, and the acts of individuals.  Language and culture may not be the most direct tools in the arsenal by which this system achieves its effects, but both language and culture are nonetheless indispensable to its existence and durability.

We may not have been responsible for using language and culture in this way in the first place, but we are certainly responsible for tossing the same ideas and words out into the world as though, just because we are ourselves have only innocent intentions, they can cause no further harm.  I can understand from experience how painful it can feel to realize that one has inadvertently stepped into it, contrary to one’s intentions, but I think we should try to keep that pain from driving us to close our minds to the possibility of growing, let alone our hearts to the pain of others.

And that is why, in my own little corner of the world, filled with basketball players, coaches, owners, fans, and journalists, I care about the language, the images, and the metaphors we use to talk about the game we love.  It is why I care about the assumptions that we too often carelessly wield in building arguments.  It is why I insist, and will continue to insist, that we can do better by our sports and better by ourselves.  We can’t stop using language and we don’t need to become control freaks or language cops.  We just need to reflect a bit more deeply on our feelings and intentions before we speak and write and create more culture.  We just need to inform ourselves a little better about the history of that language, that culture, and those assumptions.  It’s hard for me to understand why, understood in this way, anybody would object to the project of trying (whether by critique or by the creation of new versions of old stories) to use the powerful tool that is language more carefully, so that, as best as we can manage, it doesn’t aid in the perpetuation of a system whereby other human beings die sooner than others.

What is "coach"? Do we need it?

In a post yesterday, I appeared to strike a chord (and for some a nerve) when I supplied the history of the attitudes manifest in Marc Stein’s scolding LeBron James for his “unbecoming” behavior in “emasculating” Coach David Blatt. I concluded with a fantasy of my own: that LeBron would indeed become the coach of the Cavs.

This morning, Mike Foss of USA Today weighed in granting that LeBron may be good enough to LeBron “to call his shots, to draw up plays, maybe even draft a team. But he does lack one necessary ability required of a coach, and that’s managing personalities. Do you think LeBron wants to be the guy who tells Mike Miller he isn’t setting foot on the floor in Game 6 of the NBA Finals because he’s an old and tired shell of himself?” Foss concluded that Blatt plays a “thankless and necessary role.” It may be thankless, but I’m not so sure it’s necessary and I think it’s important not to assume that it is. And I don’t mean Blatt specifically, I mean the conventional way of thinking about what a coach does and, on that basis, what a “coach” should look like. Read more

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