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:

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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.

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)

 

Nothing, Everything, and Something: On Watching Association Football

In my Global Sports Cultures course this fall, we’ll devote two weeks to association football.  The first, early on, will focus on the issues at stake in the 2006 Men’s World Cup Final between Italy and France, in which French star and captain Zinedine Zidane head butted Italian defender Mateo Materazzi (who, it appears, had made some inflammatory comments to Zidane). Zidane was ejected and Italy won the match on penalty kicks.  The second unit, later in the term, will be on what you might call the Legend of Diego Maradona. In other words, we’ll look at how Maradona is perceived and, in fact, constructed by the media, fans (and haters), and artists. Some excellent, thoughtful material has been produced on both these topics. And these materials will anchor our discussions.  But I wanted to share some of what I’ll offer my students by way of orientation to the world’s most popular sport.

First thing, we’re gonna call it “football” or “association football.” Yes, I know we’re in America and if I don’t like it I can just, blah blah blah.  No, duh, I’m not going to make you call “elevators” “lifts” or make you raise your hand for permission to go the “lou.” Yes, I recognize the confusion since, as Michigan students but above all as Americans, football means something else to you, something much closer to your heart.  And no, finally, it’s not that big a deal whether you call it “football” or soccer.”  It’s more like a small deal that’s connected to bigger deals.  So let’s call this little exercise practice for the bigger deals.

Naming matters. They may in some ways be arbitrary, but they matter because we care about the things named and we care about the things because we’ve got something of ourselves bound up in them.  Through names we come to express and shape who we are as individuals and as members of groups and through names we exercise our power to shape our place in the world and the paths of our lives.  That’s what the rest of the world (except Americans and those who speak Afrikaans) are doing when they call the sport they love and devote themselves to “football” (or something that sounds like it).

What are we doing—in relation to them—by insisting on calling it “soccer”?

Let that question percolate in the back of your mind this week as you participate in this awkward linguistic experiment and learn more about the sport, its history, and its relationship to world politics.  I’m not saying we have to be absolutists or purists about it.  I’m not going to correct you everytime you make the mistake.  And I’m going to make the mistake myself.  But just while we’re working in this class let’s try the exercise and the experiment of adopting the language of the rest of the world and see if that doesn’t start to help us feel a little bit what the rest of the world feels and understand a bit of what the rest of the world understands.

Now, I’m imagining that few of you make watching football a regular part of your sporting diet.  I’m guessing that if I asked most of you why this is you’d say something like it’s kind of boring, you don’t like the dives players take, and it’s stupid to have ties broken by penalty kicks.  You might grudgingly admit that the players are impressive athletes, and you probably will know someone who (or you yourself will have) played as a kid, and, finally, you probably follow the fortunes of the US men’s and women’s national teams—USA! USA! (who in the world doesn’t love that?!)—every four years during the World Cup organized by FIFA (the International Football Federation).

All of this is the product of a combination of factors (involving corporate media, American popular culture, the structure of sports, and so on) that have, in effect, caused you to develop certain habits, expectations, and attentional rhythms in relation to watching sports.  I’m not thinking that two units on football is going to undo all that.  But I am hoping that by  being exposed to the ways, both painful and inspiring, that the rest of the world cares passionately about the sport—and in tandem with having to call it football—you can begin if not to care about the sport yourself, then at least to have recognized that there is nothing natural or objective or necessary about your disinterest or aversion.

That said, in the spirit of walking that path with you in solidarity, let me just share with you some feelings that I have when watching football.  I played it from the time I was a kid through high school, and was a pretty good player.  But it is not my favorite sport to watch.  In fact, my favorite sport to watch—basketball—is in at least one way about as far from football as you can get.  In the average 48 minute NBA game last year, 200 points were scored.  That’s more points than were scored by all the teams in any single World Cup tournament in history put together.  Now, I must say that the heroic individual goal scored against all odds is pretty stirring.

But that doesn’t happen all that often.  So football would seem to hold little promise for a hoops junkie like myself, accustomed to a basket being scored a couple of times a minute.

Still, despite all this, I enjoy watching football from time to time.  What do I enjoy?  Well, for one thing I like what appears to me like calm.  It seems not uncommon for players at times to jog or even walk up the field.  I like that. It reminds me that even in the midst of some important tasks it’s important to pace myself, which is to say, it reminds me of the importance of breadth in perspective.

In fact, I see in those islands of calm a demonstration of perspective in relation to some pretty fundamental life categories: time (I’m walking because I’m aware there will be another moment in which all my energy is required), space (I’m walking because I’m aware that the action is elsewhere right now), purpose (I’m walking because I’m aware that the needs of my team require me to conserve my energy), and self (I’m walking because I’m aware of my role in the unfolding action of this match).  These are pretty important life lessons.  I sometimes lose track of them.  And so I find it helpful, and refreshing and reassuring to encounter them in the midst of a football game.

The next thing may sound like  it contradicts the first.  I like the rhythm, in a football match, of long stretches of what seems like nothing, punctuated by instants of what seem like everything.  Because isn’t that a bit like life as well?  Let me explain with an anecdote.

Close to twenty years ago I took a class in Zen Buddhist Meditation at the temple on Packard Street here in Ann Arbor.  When I arrived for my first class, one of the assistants greeted me at the door and asked me to take my shoes off.  I wasn’t expecting it, but it didn’t surprise me since it fit with my preconceptions.  But, as I begin to sort of wrestle off my left shoe with the sole of my right foot, he gently stopped me, invited me to sit down on a nearby bench, and to pay attention as I took my shoes off, first one, unlacing, using both hands, and then the other, unlacing, using both hands.  And to pay attention as I placed them, carefully side by side, laces now tucked unobtrusively into the tops of the shoes, in the place reserved for them.  Now I was surprised, and a bit perplexed.  I also felt a bit ashamed, as if some longstanding clumsy oafishness on my part had suddenly been exposed to me and to the world.

By way of explanation, the assistant explained that 99 % of life is made up of things like taking your shoes off, mundane things—we see them as necessities, or transitions, or delays, or interruptions—that we do on the way to the “important” things that actually only make up 1 % of our lives.  We expect ourselves to perform at top capacity for those important moments and activities: to be fully present and prepared to think, feel and act in graceful concert.

But we haven’t given ourselves a very good chance to do so if we haven’t trained ourselves in presence, if we haven’t cultivated in ourselves the ability to be fully absorbed by and responsive to the needs of every present moment.  Paying attention during the 99 % of our lives that seem unimportant is, among other things, a way to prepare ourselves for those things that happen less frequently and carry greater emotional impact:  the career-changing professional opportunity, the wedding, the birth, the death of loved ones, our own aging, illness and imminent death.  Seems like football players get this.  Or at least, when I watch, I’m reminded of it.  And it seems I can never get enough reminders of or practice in that.

Now, as a spectator, it can be harder to maintain that focus that football players have throughout the match.  But, when I can manage to absorb myself in the long stretches of what looks—to my basketball eye—like nothing, I find, well, something.  Maybe not everything.  But something. And, moreover, I find the ways in which that something that previously looked like nothing is actually seamlessly connected to the parts that seem like everything.  Suddenly, the continuity of action that used to just get in the way of me getting more nachos or going to the bathroom for fear I’d miss something—everything!—becomes a riveting lesson in the dynamic, complex web of cause and effect that makes up life.

Who is to say, in that flowing river of action, where exactly the beginning and the end lie? Do you suppose that something has ended when a goal is scored? Do you think the players on the pitch feel that way?  Who is to say what was important and what was not important in the combination?  And who is to say what was necessary and what was accidental? For, it’s not that it suddenly appears that every thing led perfectly and inevitably to that outcome.  I can see all kinds of little chance wobbles and bounces and deviations as destiny runs its course.  At any moment, it seems, it could have gone a different way. But there it is. It went this way, and who is to say?

Then, when I stop looking at what is in fact something as if it were just a barren nothing between rare and precious everythings, then that something reveals beauties and charms of its own.  These may or may not have value I can perceive in terms of their relationship to, say, the scoring of goals.  But, in this absorbed state of attention, they possess an intrinsic value.  The arc traced by this player as he loops behind a teammate, while another teammate charges, straight, down the far sideline, the tap tap of two short passes, the ball tumbling along carelessly, before rocketing off the foot of a midfielder to sail, sail, sail—as bodies rearrange themselves in anticipation—before landing, corralled by the foot of a striker, who manages this even while keeping an eye on a defender closing in fast and hard.

This is something.  There is something in this.  Something that is valuable in itself.  And something that is valuable because of the way it is also nothing and everything and so temporarily collapses the hierarchical structure I’ve made of the world.  Sometimes, don’t get me wrong, this makes me anxious and stressed out and annoyed at the sport. Like I said, it’s not my favorite sport to watch.  But sometimes, the result is not the chaotic rubbled heap of ruined projects and plans (or at least not only that), but also serenity and the enjoyment of seeing possibilities playfully popping up at every turn.  That it can provoke this effect at all, in the face of the combined force of corporate media interests, American imperialism and, not least, the inclinations and aversions marking my own personality, is a testament to its power.

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.

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.

annual rate of men killed by police

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.

A Desire Named Steph Curry

Besides being the name of a phenomenally exciting and innovative basketball player, “Steph Curry” is the name for a desire about the future of the NBA; a desire we express through consumption, which the media then chronicles and reflects back to and justifies for us. Around the time of the NBA All-Star game this past season, NPR’s Tom Goldman asked me for my thoughts about a couple of articles that had appeared noting Curry’s rising popularity among fans and marketers; a popularity, it was noted, was on the verge of eclipsing that of LeBron James.  As it turns out, Curry won the regular season MVP award and now, with his Warriors leading beaten LeBron’s injury-riddled Cavaliers 3-2 in the best of seven NBA Finals series, he may well be poised to win the Finals MVP.

Let me get a couple things out of the way.  First, Curry’s play thrills me.  The smooth speed with which he moves himself and the ball on the court, and then the ball alone into the bottom of the net is pure fluid beauty.  And, speaking now as a Cavs fan, the terror he inspires in me every time he gets the ball, even in the backcourt, is sublime.

Second, though I think LeBron is more valuable to his team that Steph is to his team and should therefore have won the MVP award and should therefore win the Finals MVP award, I don’t think it’s insane to give it to Curry and, anyway, I’m not here going to make an argument about that.

Because this isn’t about Steph Curry the basketball player.  It’s about “Steph Curry” the desire and I’m just here to explore the conditions of possibility and implications of that desire.  Where does it come from? What nourishes it? Just what exactly are we wanting when we want “Steph Curry” so badly? Excellence and excitement no doubt, but if that were all there’d be no explanation for why collectively we want Curry so much more than other NBA superstars.

By temperament and professional habit, I find it useful to look at how we articulate our desire.  What are the words and stories within which we cast our love for Steph. When I look at these more closely I’m struck by certain recurring themes, some of which have little to do with Steph Curry, the actual player and human being. And these begin to offer a clue into the deeper feelings that might drive our desire for the future we’ve made him represent.

To see these things—or rather more precisely to consider my argument plausible—requires first a brief reminder about the history of basketball, especially pro basketball, in this country.  It’s no secret that pro basketball’s history is vexed by racial problematics.  In a nutshell, for more than half a century, most pro basketball players and most of the best pro basketball players have been black.  Meanwhile, most of the administrators, coaches, owners and fans are white.

In my research, I’ve looked at the stories that basketball culture has generated to avoid dealing forthrightly with this problematic, not to mention with the broader societal racism with which it overlaps.  These stories tend to conflate the unrelated issues of style, tactics, and morality in order to promote players or teams that seem to embody the essence of the game as it emerged, developed and was played prior to racial integration.  Conversely, players and teams that seem to depart from that essence tend, in these stories, to be villainized.

PHILADELPHIA - FEBRUARY 4

In all cases, whatever is perceived as threatening blackness is either suppressed out of the story or demonized.

When I look at how the media reports the appeal of Steph Curry I encounter terms that are familiar to me from my research.  You all have seen the stories.  Curry is an underdog, underrated and under-recruited, partly because of what tends to be characterized as his small size and slight build.  Already here, we find elements that have historically been appealing to the collective white basketball unconscious, which reacts to black domination of the sport and its own irrepressible desire for black basketball players by fabricating a fantasy that someone—”nature” perhaps?—has stacked the deck against white players and, by metonymy, white people more generally.  Then add to this our attention to Curry’s personality: humble, down-to-earth, approachable, genuine…human.  Emphasizing these obviously laudable and desirable traits help cement the identification with Curry.  And of course, it doesn’t hurt, from this point of view, that Curry is blue-eyed (okay, hazel, but whatever) and light skinned. Let’s not even talk about his adorable daughter.

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Finally, there is the matter of Curry’s style of play, especially the two hallmarks of his innovative game: amazing ball-handling ability and an unprecedented ability to make three point shots.  We are treated repeatedly to clips of Curry tirelessly practicing these skills, subtly reminding us that they have been honed through solitary practice and effort, the result therefore neither of  superior size or natural talent nor of resources or mentorship.  We may not have chosen to put in that effort, but we can all imagine that if we had, we too could be breaking Matthew Delledova’s ankles and draining step-back threes from just across the half-court line.  That his particular skill set dovetails with the ascending league obsessions with efficiency (as measured by advanced statistical methods) helps as well.  However dazzling Curry may be, his efficiency is indispensable to his appeal here given a longstanding association basketball culture has made between inefficient flair and black basketball. Indeed, his efficiency and other elements of his style of play, as my friend Eric Freeman notes, may be emphasized as a way of minimizing markers of what may be perceived as threatening blackness.

All of this, taken together, may be usefully contrasted with how we have tended to approach Curry’s foil in this season’s narrative: LeBron James.  In nearly every respect—body type, personality, skill set and style of play, and, of course, skin tone—LeBron appears as Curry’s diametrical opposite.

Obviously blessed with size, LeBron’s strength, speed and athletic ability appear as natural gifts.  Far from under-recruited, LeBron has been basketball’s “Chosen One” since his junior year in high school, a seemingly privileged status that, we all know, went to his head, most notoriously in The Decision to take his talents to South Beach. And the hallmark of LeBron game?  Powerful locomotive drives to the basket punctuated by tomahawk dunks that we could never hope to replicate, not if we devoted 10 million hours to it.

When I survey all this, it suggests to me that insofar as “Steph Curry” is the name of a desire for basketball future, we haven’t come very far from the days when John McPhee was writing in praise of Bill Bradley because tall players like Wilt Chamberlain had ruined the sport. Or rather we have come forward to the past, to a sport played by humble, hard-working, underdog, light-skinned jump shooters with solid fundamentals.

And, as always in the history of basketball, what we want for the game tells us something—not everything, just something—about what we want for the society more broadly. Perhaps it tells us that we’d prefer a society in which privileged, upper-class, college-attending kids from stable, two-parent families (preferably without ink) took the place of dark-skinned, heavily tattooed kids raised in poor neighborhoods by single-mothers.chosen-tattoo

I’m not arguing that everyone who admires or even loves Stephen Curry subscribes, consciously or even unconsciously, to these attitudes.  I’m simply wanting to caution those who do thrill to Curry’s considerable abilities on the court to carefully examine the narrative package in which their love for Curry is being reported back to them.  If we’re not careful, consuming these narratives can be, as my wife said, a propos of a different (but related) news item, “like joining the Empire because the Death Star has a gym.”  And uncritically purveying them, well, that takes your membership to a whole other level.

The good news is that these stories are ours: we make them and we can tell them differently if want to; we can uncouple the unholy complex of style, tactics, morality and race through which historically our hoops culture has masked its complicity with racism in our society more broadly.  And we can simply love all the many different manifestations of excellence and creativity and excitement that hard-working, talented pro basketball players provide us on a nightly basis.

Steph Curry and the Three-Ball: My Star Turn on NPR

Around the time of the NBA All-Star game, NPR’s sports reporter Tom Goldman wrote me to see if I’d be interested in doing an interview on the relationship between Steph Curry’s rising popularity and the advancing importance of the three-point shot in the NBA.  As a related question, I was to consider whether these signify the passing of the torch from LeBron James to Curry.  Tom passed on a couple of articles  by Darren Rovell and Brian Windhorst that had prompted his thinking.

We talked for about an hour at the time and I shared my perspectives, including my admiration for Curry’s play on the court, which is not only effective but beautiful.  But I focused on the deeper factors in the history and culture of basketball that might lead pundits to desire Curry (and the three ball) over LeBron as an emblem for the game and the league, including race and a growing obsession, in all areas of American society, with efficiency.  Unfortunately, most of those reflections were left on the cutting room floor due to time constraints.  I may share those views in a later post.  But for now I wanted to share the interview as it aired this morning on NPR’s morning edition.

You can also see the transcript here.

Sportsmanship? We talkin’ ’bout sportsmanship? On Harrison and Ryan

Over the weekend, the embers of America’s self-righteous disapprobation for Kentucky basketball, tempered briefly by their newly found love-affair with victorious Wisconsin, burst anew into joyful flames of fresh indignation by a couple of post-game incidents.  First, a few Kentucky players forgot to shake hands with their opponents after their semi-final loss.   But then, and far more thrillingly, Kentucky’s sophomore guard Andrew Harrison unwittingly muttered “Fuck that n***a” under his breath into a hot mic when his teammate was asked a question about Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, the national college player of the year.   A couple of days later,  the current incarnation of nostalgic amateur sports fantasy, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, was interviewed after his team lost to Duke for the title.  Ryan complained that officiating was unfair to Wisconsin and later referred indirectly to Duke and Kentucky as “rent-a-player” schools.  When I heard Bo last night, I wondered rhetorically what fans who’d lambasted  Harrison would say about Bo.  One of my followers quickly complained “totally different.  how can you compare?” I actually agree, though not for the reasons he might have imagined and since I compare for a living, I’ll bite. Read more

Writing the Sporting Body

This semester, I’m excited to be teaching two sports-related courses in the same semester for the first time.  First, I’ll once again be teaching “Cultures of Basketball.”  I taught it for the first time in Winter 2011, with few qualifications other than that I loved basketball and stories and had some tools for thinking about both of them.  That course sparked my interest and prompted me to learn more about the work of others who were thinking about basketball and culture within the academy.  Since then, in light of what I’ve learned, I’ve continued to teach and refine Cultures of Basketball every year.  Doing so has both informed and been informed by essays on the topic I’ve begun to publish in scholarly journals.  For this semester’s version, I’m reorganizing the course to follow more closely by book manuscript, Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, which I should complete—it’s about 75 % done right now—by the end of the semester. In addition, my experience with Cultures of Basketball and people I’ve met in the broader field led me to want to broaden my range, at least, for now, as a teacher.  So, last fall, I rolled out a new, large-lecture format course at Michigan called “Global Sports Cultures” and, this semester, I’m inaugurating another new undergraduate course in Comparative Literature.  Under the general, preexisting course rubric “Literature and the Body,” I will be teaching “Writing the Sporting Body.”  I want to walk you through the idea behind the course and what we’ll be doing in it. Read more

For More, and Better, Sports Narratives

Is the sports media sphere being overrun by narratives? Are they getting in the way of facts and the truth?  A couple of recently published essays (one by Phil Daniels, writing in The Cauldron, and the other by Zach Lowe, writing for Grantland) lamenting the dangers of sports narratives might lead readers to just this conclusion.  And, while I share their dismay over the proliferation of bad narratives (I’ll come back to what I mean by “bad”), I can’t get on board with the idea that narrative itself is the problem, somehow by nature an obstacle to or at odds with the truth. Read more

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