Basketball Analytics (Take 2): Winning

I’m realizing from the feedback on my post about basketball analytics that the issues the phenomenon raises are more complex than what I’d thought or allowed for in that post.  In fact, they are too complex to properly examine in any single blog post.

Truthfully, all this has been part of a longer, academic project that has me very excited, very curious, and very impatient to know more. That impatience, led me to cast my “reflections and reservations” about analytics in an aura of understanding and conviction that belied my confusion and uncertainty and concealed the fact that I’m at the beginning of an open-ended process of discovery.

In fact, I have a lot to learn. I don’t at this point have a firm grasp of the methods of basketball analytics at this point, nor of how they are implemented institutionally.  I’m not sure what they might “mean” for the culture of basketball, nor, therefore, do I have a definitive opinion about them.  In all these areas, what I have are glimpses and impressions, partial comprehension, intuitions and half-formed thoughts, strongly felt but as yet poorly understood aversions and attractions, and questions I’m not entirely sure how to formulate.

At this point, I’m not even sure that it’s accurate to say that I have “reservations about analytics.” To be honest, I’m just ravenously curious to better understand analytics (both the reasoning and its institutional implementation) and how it harmonizes with or sits in tension with other facets of the culture of the sport that might be characterized as irreducibly “subjective” or “qualitative”.

Maybe this means I should keep my mouth shut until I figure it out. But—you guessed it—I don’t think so.  For one thing, maybe unfortunately for readers, I learn not only by reading and reflecting in solitude, but also by writing, both by the process of putting thoughts into words and having words shape my thoughts and by the process of considering the feedback of readers.  But also I believe, or at least hope, that my sharing that process with readers can enliven a broader conversation about the various complicated aspects of this issue. So let me make another pass at this, with greater care, humility, transparency, and respect for the complexity of the issues.

Some Premises

First, all my research into the history of basketball and its cultural accompaniments indicates that to grasp any element of the sport requires us to consider its relationship to the broader social context, beyond hoops, in which it has occurred. I’ve seen nothing yet to persuade me that the rise of analytics is any exception. My research has also confirmed what I believe by temperament: that the culture of basketball is just that—a culture. This means that we all contribute to it to varying degrees and in varying ways and that we all bear responsibility for the shape it’s in and the future directions it takes.

Second, here is a partial and inchoate list of issues (or terms or concepts) that I have come to think are in some way or another in play: quantification, statistical reasoning, probability, chance, prediction, beauty, knowledge, fact, Protestantism, aesthetics, emotion, economics, competition, winning, efficiency, discipline, innovation, creativity, order, chaos, big data, play, surveillance, ethics, labor, profit, capitalism, rules, the market, and value.

I view all these terms, considered both in and out of basketball, and each with its own history, as threads woven together into a complicated, dynamic, still unfolding fabric.  That fabric is basketball. That means it’s difficult for me to grasp the end of any particular thread and follow it without running into other threads running alongside or intersecting with it.

Thoughts and Questions on Winning

That said, I’ve got to start somewhere and for the moment I’m interested in winning, by which I mean, winning games as a goal for owners, coaches, players, fans, and other stakeholders in NBA basketball.  It appears that if winning is your goal, basketball analytics provides you with a set of methods for understanding how to do that in general and, if you’re smart, you can learn to adapt the insights provided by analytics to your personnel to achieve more wins given the current rules governing play and the laws and contracts governing the construction of teams.  Moreover, if you’re an owner, analytics also promises to generate those wins, as Daryl Morey put it in 2005, for less money. Winning, it seems, is valuable and valued, and so, like any valuable and valued thing, if you can get it more cheaply, all the better.

I’m not sure yet whether I want to try to question whether winning is a primary goal of everyone with a stake in NBA basketball. I wouldn’t know how to determine that, and anyway it does seem that winning is a primary goal for most of those (like owners and general managers) in a position to influence the way basketball gets played in the NBA, which really is more to the point.  And I’m guessing, though I’m not sure, that winning is their primary goal, among other reasons, because they presume that winning is a primary goal of most fans, who express that by spending money on the sport and so generate revenues for those decision makers.

But I do want to challenge the assumption that winning should be the primary goal and its frequently voiced corollary that it is natural for winning to be the primary goal where professional (or any other) sporting events are concerned. At the very least, I’d to make room in the conversation to ask some questions.

  • Is the drive to win really natural?
  • If not, how and by what forces did winning became the primary goal?
  • According to what criteria of rightness or goodness do we assert that winning should be the primary goal?
  • How were those criteria determined? And by who?
  • What impact, if any, does the primacy of winning have on the way professional basketball gets played?
  • What other aims do stakeholders bring to their engagement with NBA hoops?
  • What elements of play do these aims lead these stakeholders to value?
  • How are these aims and elements of play impacted, if at all, by the primacy of winning and the elements and styles of play valued by the drive to win?
  • Let’s say that I have a friend who worries that the drive to win, harnessed to the drive to make a profit, and capacitated by the powerful tools of basketball analytics, is tending toward a homogenization of the game by a process of “capitalist selection,” what should I tell my friend to do?

I have some thoughts about these questions, but I don’t want to take up too much time.  I realize there’s nothing terribly groundbreaking or provocative here.  But I’m hoping by taking it slow to invite reasoned conversation and to lay the groundwork for actually generating insight.  In any event, in my next post on the topic, I’ll to begin to explore these questions. . . . unless, of course, the questions change in the meantime.

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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)

 

Bad Prof’s Top Basketball Books – Honorable Mention

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

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

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

 

After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness

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

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

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

 

Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball

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

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

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

 

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

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“In professional basketball, however, art wins.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

One Shining Moment: Yago’s A-Town Throwdown Edition

Probably anyone reading this knows by now that my Cultures of Basketball course ends with a student organized intra-class 3 on 3 tournament.  What started as an off-hand comment by a UM basketball player in 2011 has become, over the several years I’ve now taught the course, into an integral, culminating experience of the course in which students take responsibility for their own desires, incorporate an embodied, hands-on component to the academic study of basketball culture, and bond strongly with one another, softening a variety of barriers that can make it hard for them to recognize and respect each other as peers—not least the one separating varsity athletes from students who are not varsity athletes.

Over the years, the organizational process has evolved in the wake of the preceding year’s experiences. This year, students formed themselves into a number of committees charged with locking down the various aspects of the event (Jersey Committee, Logo Committee, Naming Committee, Program Committee, Venue Committee, Bracket Committee, Draft Day Committee and Documentation Committee).  Drawing upon their own specialized talents and the feedback I’d given them about what had worked well and not so well in previous tournaments, each committee executed its responsibilities superbly, often informed in doing so by some of the cultural artifacts and issues we’d been talking about in the course.  I want to share with you just one bit of special awesomeness that emerged from this process.

In 2011, the first year of the tournament, there were no committees and documentation was limited to some photos that my wife and one of the students who couldn’t play took with cell phones.  In 2012 we had a lot of wonderful still photos and the first-ever video documentation of the event: a couple of shaky clips taken by a student’s friend on the sideline.  Last year, a member of the first-ever Documentation Committee recorded a few, higher quality clips, to go along with superb photos.  This year, in addition to all these elements, one Documentation Committee member brought a GoPro to the tournament and she and some other students filmed the whole tournament.  I’m not sure who had the idea in the first place, but the student decided to edit the raw footage into our very own One Shining Moment montage and, even though the class over, and the grades in, she followed through and shared the results with us last night.

I’m so grateful to and proud of these students for coming together in the way that they did over the course of the semester.  I hope you enjoy the video as much as I think they enjoyed not only the course and the tournament, but the experiences of autonomy, responsibility, and friendship they thereby created for themselves.

That’s a Bad Prof Right There

A couple of clips from last night’s Yago’s A-Town Throwdown, the 2015 Cultures of Basketball intra-class 3 on 3 tournament, without further commentary.


The Voice of my Dad

The Voice of My Dad

IMG_0040 (1)I wrote most of this a few years ago. It seems much more important now (because of events I describe in my postscripts below), but I’m glad he could read it and appreciate it while he was still alive. 

What is my father’s voice? What does it sound and feel like? What does it say? What difference does it make? I’ve written about how radio broadcasts would help me mute the sound of his voice as he and my mother argued and how, at a metaphorical level, my father’s desires and voice loomed as large in my childhood as Wilt Chamberlain loomed in the Philadelphia Warriors offense. But in fishing out the memories of those feelings, I’ve also snagged some other memories, other stories, and other feelings. They don’t all literally involve his voice, but the most important one does. Read more

What is Hoops Culture Class For? Unleashing Humanity

In my research and teaching on the culture of sports, I’ve oriented the intellectual tools of my discipline toward helping my readers and students understand and reflect critically upon how the language and stories that prevail in the culture of sports have taken shape, how and why we consume and purvey them, and, above all, how we may empower ourselves to become, as Nietzsche put it, the poets of our lives; how, I mean, to take a more active and creative role in shaping the language and stories, including those pertaining to sport, that circulate around and through us.

“Cultures of Basketball,” which was my first effort in this regard, is an advanced undergraduate humanities course with a typical enrollment of around twenty five. Because demand for the course is high, and given the way registration operates at Michigan with athletes and more advanced students having priority in course selection, the course usually has a high percentage of seniors from a variety of disciplines and varsity athletes including members of the men’s varsity basketball team.

The Problem

Here’s what I see when I walk into Cultures of Basketball on the first day:  a certain number of “basketball players,” whose names I usually already know, and a certain number of “students” or “non-players,” whose names I don’t. I’m certainly not proud of this, but I think it’s worth reflecting upon. To begin with, it’s clear to me that I’m not alone. The students who aren’t basketball players (including many who are athletes in other sports) appear star-struck to varying degrees, somewhat disoriented by the flesh and blood presence of these young men who until now, as fans, they’ve primarily seen on a television screen or from the stands in the Crisler Center. The basketball players, meanwhile, tend to sit together, as do the athletes from other sports. But unlike those other athletes, the basketball players seem shy and almost suspicious, or at least cautious. Perhaps they are aware of their status in the eyes of other students, aware that they are—on this campus anyway—public figures, who must weigh their words and actions carefully. Perhaps they have internalized or are at least sensitive to the common public view that they are somehow not “real students.”

All in all, that first day feels tense to me, fraught with division and a kind of defensive, mutual wariness that strikes me as emblematic, if not symptomatic, of the strain that our model of intercollegiate athletics and the social values it expresses can place on education. For it’s not just a matter of a simple, superficial impression. Rather, undergirding that superficial impression, a number of other dichotomous categories are at work. I’m thinking, for example, of how those “students,” as fans of the players, are consumers in the entertainment industry and thus relatively passive, whereas the players, in that same industry, are producers and so relatively active. I’m thinking, too, of the presumption that the students at the University are primarily there to do something with their minds, and the basketball players to do something with their bodies. Finally, it’s difficult and probably undesirable, not to notice that the majority of the basketball players are African-American (and, moreover, that the majority of the African-Americans in the class are basketball players), and that the vast majority of the rest of the students are white.

The Conceptual Toolbox

In a lecture first delivered in 1909, when basketball was really taking off, the American philosopher William James warned against what he called “vicious intellectualism” or “the abuse of naming.” He defined this as “the treating of a name as excluding from the fact named what the name’s definition fails positively to include.” Offering an example of how it works, he said you might as well argue that “a person whom you have once called an ‘equestrian’ is thereby forever made unable to walk on his own feet.” James is describing how we turn partial impressions of things and people into confining pseudo-definitions. So, we might as well argue that a person whom we have once seen as a ‘non basketball player’ is thereby forever made unable to shoot a ball at a hoop. Or we might as well argue that a person whom we have once seen as a basketball player is thereby forever made unable to write an academic paper or formulate an argument in a class discussion.

I think James nicely captures the deforming impact of the way my students and I see at the start of class. We basically strip away from all the students all the capacities and potentials that are not positively included in the labels we’ve placed on them. I sometimes think of these names or labels as filtering lenses. And whatever change I need as a teacher to make in myself is a change I need to make also for them, one that entails getting my own deforming, reducing lenses off so that I can do all the other things I’m supposed to do as a humanities professor: get them to see that they have lenses too, get them to see where the lenses come from, get them to see the goodness that is obscured by those lenses, and then help them to cultivate and draw forth—through the layers of fear, the inhibition, the shyness—all those abilities, capacities, potentials, and desires that the lenses kept me (and to various degrees each of them) from seeing, knowing, and activating.

A kind of philosophical teammate of James, John Dewey (who, incidentally, was teaching philosophy at Michigan around the time that James Naismith was inventing basketball), argued for the need to come up with a better way of modeling how we know things. The problem, as he saw it, was with what he called—so aptly in this context—“the spectator notion of knowledge.” In that way of defining knowing, we would-be knowers imagine ourselves standing outside the world, passively observing the stuff we would like to know about; the way we might watch and analyze a basketball game on television. That stuff becomes a fixed object to us and we figure that by analyzing it deeply enough, perhaps by running it through some experiments to see how it behaves under different conditions, we will come to know it.

Let me return to my class: player versus student, producer versus consumer, active versus passive, bodies versus minds, black versus white: I think it’s fair to say that these make a good start on a list of troublesome dichotomies defining intercollegiate athletics; certainly, but perhaps not only, the revenue-generating sports.  At least, that’s how economist Roger Noll seemed to see it when he wrote that big time college athletics were a system whereby “poor, primarily black students are used to finance the educational and athletic activities of wealthy white students.” I see overcoming these dichotomies as they operate in all of us in the classroom as one of my primary educational responsibilities in the course.

To do so, I find useful Dewey’s description of the alternative he proposed to the spectator theory of knowledge: “the self becomes a knower . . . in virtue of a distinctive way of partaking in the course of events. The significant distinction is no longer between the knower and the world; it is between different ways of being in and of the movement of things.” In other words, Dewey proposed valuing knowledge as a hands-on process of getting mixed-up in the things we want to know about, and recognizing and reflecting upon the different ways we have of doing so. In that sense, the significant distinctions to be explored in Cultures of Basketball lie not between so-called players and so-called students, but among the two dozen or so different ways of being in and of the movement of the culture of basketball as it unfolds in real time before our eyes in our classroom.

Fixing the problem: the classroom

It seems obvious to me that facilitating this process of becoming knowers ought to begin with me. That means, first of all, sharing my initial perception with my class, as well as sharing why I believe that perception is something to struggle to overcome I’m talking about calling this out in an informal way: “I can’t help but notice that I’ve already divided you up mentally into ballers and fans. And I assume you see yourselves the same way from the way you’ve segregated yourselves in the classroom. I hope that through this course we can figure out why we’ve done that, what’s wrong with it, and how not to do it in the future.” In doing so, I’m trying to model for them the kind of openness and desire for integrity that I hope they’ll be able to achieve in their own class participation. Of course, I’m also beginning to draw attention to the fact that in this particular course, our own attitudes and experiences are inseparable from the ostensible subject matter of the class and that this is a good thing, not a problem.

Meanwhile, I try to create conditions in which all students themselves can practice fixing what might be wrong with their way of seeing. This entails some of the practices that most people probably think of as at least reasonably appropriate for a college classroom in the humanities. In other words, students read scholarly perspectives, listen to lectures, and participate in discussions about the history of the culture of basketball and the ways in which it has put lenses in front of our eyes that lead us to see what we see when we walk through the classroom door for the first time. They also select from a menu of individual and collaborative assignments, including both traditional papers and more unconventional tasks, to begin to practice doing for themselves what they, hopefully, are noticing that I am modeling for them: the effort to take the lenses off, exchange them for others, or at least polish them up a bit.

In this way, students, who are also fans, transform themselves into active producers, rather than merely passive consumers, of the culture of basketball and, in the process, perceive the celebrity athlete in their midst as a peer, a student, a human being, a vulnerable adolescent in transition like themselves. Meanwhile, those “basketball players” become the students they always have been, challenged to reflect intellectually on what they do and the broader social and cultural context in which they do it and to articulate their positions in discussion with classmates or in papers for me. Everyone learns to craft their own story and to respect the story of others. But, as indispensable and valuable as these activities are, they aren’t in my view the most important way that we in the class become active knowers.

Fixing the problem: the court

I’m pretty sure that probably nothing we do in Cultures of Basketball looks less academically rigorous or important than the intra-class 3 on 3 tournament we hold at the end of each semester. That’s right.  And yet if we take seriously Johan Huyzinga’s argument that play, which he saw as the substrate of all human civilization, is, essentially, freedom, you might begin to see why I feel that our little tournament embodies, culminates and, eventually, supersedes all the “traditional looking” academic work that has come before. So that I’ve come to believe also that perhaps nothing I do as a teacher does more towards realizing my educational goals as a humanities professor.

For the sake of brevity, let me quickly summarize how the tournament works: first, the idea comes from the students and is not a course requirement; second, the students organize the tournament entirely, forming themselves into committees in charge of creating teams and brackets, selecting nicknames, securing a venue, designing logos, printing jerseys, documenting the event, and creating and distributing awards; third, I play in the tournament; fourth, the UM basketball players and other, especially large elite athletes who volunteer, are distributed evenly among the 3 member teams; and finally, the tournament is played during our free time after the semester has ended.

The tournament takes what we’ve been doing in the classroom all semester and shows students that this same thing can happen on a basketball court, with our bodies and with fewer words. In that sense, it is, as I sometimes jokingly call it, the laboratory or workshop component of the course. But that’s not really right. It’s really just an extension of the classroom: we sit at desks, we read books, we write and talk with words, we set picks, we catch bounce passes, we shoot jumpers, we help on defense, and we talk with dunks. We think and act, we cooperate and compete. And then it expresses our overcoming of deficiencies in our perception, our thought, and our practice. It becomes a celebration of humanity, growth, connection, and friendship.

I’d like to conclude by sharing three brief anecdotes that I hope will convey what this experience can mean.

Fixing the problem: three stories

A couple of years ago, for the 2013 version of the tournament which the student naming committee had dubbed “CoB 2.0: Unleashed,” I walked into the Central Campus Recreation Building with my teammate, nicknamed “Jam” and also known as Jimmy King, member of the famed University of Michigan freshman class of 1991 known as the Fab Five. Jimmy, who had visited the class as a guest lecturer a few weeks before, shook his head and said something along the lines, of “Damn! I haven’t been in here like twenty years! We used to have some great games in here.”

Of course, the two teams Jimmy played on that reached the NCAA championship game have received from the University no official acknowledgement or recognition for their achievements. On the contrary, the banners remain tucked away, a reminder, former President Coleman said, of a shameful period in Michigan history. But walking on campus with Jimmy, its obvious to me that he is moved in complex ways by this visceral reminder of his college experience.

And official disregard notwithstanding, it’s also obvious that Jimmy and his teams still mean a great deal to people at the University. At our tournament, he was asked to sign countless autographs: by other students in the CCRB, by parents of my students who were attending the tournament, and even by CCRB staff members. He did so not only patiently but with enthusiasm, posing for pictures and engaging everyone in conversation. Here’s Jimmy signing one of I don’t know how many autographs he was asked to sign by current UM students, parents, staff members who recognized him instantly.

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Our team, Old Skool Ballers (Gil aka G-Baby Naamani, and fourth man and Cultures of Basketball alumnus Ron “The Professor” Beach joined Jimmy and me), made a solid run. We went into the semi-finals having won our first three games. In the semi’s we faced WTF Are You Ewing? also undefeated, consisting of Lauren Brandt, Mitch McGary, and Evan King. But we were stiff, tired and really our bodies just couldn’t keep it up.

Now, at a certain point in one of our games that year, Mitch McGary, at that time a freshman on the UM team whose breakout performance during the NCAA tournament put him in a position to make a decision about whether to turn pro or not during our last week of classes, inbounded the ball to his teammate Lauren Brandt who began the semester as a non-player in my eyes and whom I was guarding. Mitch, guarded by Jimmy, cut around Lauren, who dropped off a little bounce pass to him as he passed her. Jimmy followed Mitch, but was partially screened by Lauren. I remained rooted by age and infirmity to my spot on the floor, thus failing to provide help defense. Mitch saw that he’d gained a step on Jimmy along the baseline went under the basket and then up for a reverse dunk. Mitch, who had been idolized by his classmates, in turn idolized Jimmy King, proudly telling me later that Jimmy was following him on Twitter. Mitch, Lauren and their teammate, tennis player Evan King went on to win our tournament championship and the awards committee named Mitch Most Valuable Player.


But it wasn’t just Mitch’s time. One of his teammates, Lauren, also known as Sweet n LoLo, wrote me that she’s always loved basketball but for most of her life she’s been a spectator and when she does get to play it’s shooting games like horse or around the world. Here is Mitch placing the Championship medal around her neck:

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She told me:

I loved that I didn’t feel like I was letting anyone down in this tournament. I could shoot and miss and that was okay. I tried. We were in it together. The last game, Mitch told me I was “clutch”. That’s right! He also kept saying that it was the team and not him (which I am not so sure that is true…like at all, but he really made me at least feel like the three of us did it together).
After the tournament the first thing she did was call her dad, who called her Champ and Sweet n LoLo (her official nickname) for three days. That weekend, after the tournament was over, she went home and she and her dad went down to the park on the corner to shoot hoops.

At the end of the tournament, after the awards have been handed out, after everyone has friended each other on Facebook, we all pose for a class picture.

 

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I’m proud that when I look at that picture, all of us squeezed together, sweating and smiling, in our brightly colored jerseys with the tournament logo printed on the front, I really have to try hard to pick out the basketball players in the group. I just see “Speedy” and “Ratboy Genius,” “Wild Bill” and “Chicago,” “C-Love” and “Cage” and, well, you get the idea.

Why We Watch: Ray Allen, A Life

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1.

The Zeitgeist gallery is located on Michigan Avenue in Detroit, maybe a half mile from a baseball diamond where Tiger Stadium used to be, and a long, long, long home run from the Michigan Central Railroad depot, the hulking ruin abandoned by the city fathers to pigeons, the homeless, graffiti artists, decay tourists and the assorted bricoleurs who would pilfer its high-end, mid-century building materials for a black market in construction materials to make new buildings, I suppose, out in the suburbs somewhere. It is fitting, given the bitter satire that inheres just in its geographic location, that Zeitgeist specializes in art brut, or outsider art.

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It was at an opening there some years ago that I found myself standing between two men, all of us facing a work of uncommonly brut-ish art brut.

The piece was executed with what appeared to be a ball point pen on a sheet of notebook paper and presented in the sort of cheap frame you might find at CVS. It was more or less a doodle: a human figure standing alone amidst other chaotic, sparsely scattered doodles. After a few minutes, the man to my left said, “What the hell? How is this art? I could do that.” I didn’t say anything. The man to my right, after a brief pause, replied, “Yeah. But you didn’t.

 

2.

Ray Allen has enjoyed, by pretty much any measure, a remarkable career. I don’t think anybody has missed it, but it’s worth recapitulating some of the basic facts. As a collegiate star at the University of Connecticut he was a first team All-American, set the school’s single season scoring record, and was subsequently named honorary captain of the Huskies’ All-Century Team. Drafted fifth and traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, Allen went on to help lead the Bucks to the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2000-2001 season, when he averaged 22 points per game. Moved in a trade to Seattle, Allen upped his production, averaging between 23 and, in 2006-2007, 26.4 points per game. He was, during that period, probably the premier perimeter scorer in the NBA.

Allen’s scoring numbers dropped off after the trade that sent him to Boston and helped create the team’s championship-winning Big Three, but nobody would argue that his performance was anything but critical in the Celtics remarkable 42-game turnaround. In his first year in Boston, the Celtics compiled a 66-16 regular season record en route to the franchise’s first championship since 1986. Allen’s seven three-pointers in the clinching Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals set a record for the Finals.

Allen and the Celtics would make it back to the Finals in 2010, but this time lost to the Lakers in the tight seventh game of a hard-fought series. By this time, Allen’s scoring average had dropped to 16.3 points per game, and, by the end of the 2012 season, it would drop still further, to just 14.2. Despite the evident decline in Allen’s scoring production and so his centrality to his team’s fortunes, Allen nonetheless put up the best three point shooting percentages of his career in his last two seasons in Boston, connecting on 44% and 45% of his attempts from beyond the arc and becoming the league’s all time leader in three-point field goals made. It was not all that, though: there were assists and rebounds and points, especially, on slashing fluid layups and pull up jumpers, and some free throw and all those three pointers; individual accolades and records, and championships. A full and varied basketball life, well-lived and not over just yet.

As a 36 year-old free agent, apparently frustrated with his role on the Celtics, Allen joined the defending champion Miami Heat. Now a 37-year-old role player, Allen averages just 26 minutes and around 10 points a game for a Heat team with other, more powerful weapons. Allen now only puts up around four three-pointers per game now, the lowest figure since his third season in the league; during his two best seasons in Seattle, he averaged twice as many attempts from distance.

This is not a surprise: Allen was hired to support LeBron James, who is after all the greatest player alive and playing the best basketball of his life. If there’s a single reason to watch the Heat, it’s James. There are another two good ones rounding out Miami’s own Big Three, and then there’s Allen down the depth chart. As a whole, the Heat are thrillingly great; individually, there is James and the inspirational and indomitable Dwyane Wade. These are all good reasons to watch, but not the reason why I watch the Heat. Even now, even given that Allen now orbits other, brighter stars, I watch and wait for Ray Allen to take a three-pointer.

I’ll watch to see one of the four jump shots that Ray Allen might attempt in any given game. Just jump shots, just four of them.

 

3.

There’s a kind of distillation of self that comes with aging. This sounds more dramatic than it is; in reality, it’s more a simple process of shedding the facets of our personalities developed in response to various external imperatives: get through school, make friends and families, succeed in our work lives. As these imperatives fall away, our primary purpose is winnowed down to simply persisting, continuing to be with dignity. We retain only what is essential to our being.

Nietzsche described himself as “well-disposed toward those moralities that impel me to do something again and again, from morning ’til evening, and to dream of it at night, and to think of nothing else but doing this well, as well as Ialone can! When one lives that way, one thing after another that does not belong to such a life drops off: without hate or reluctance, one sees this take its leave today and that tomorrow, like the yellow leaves that every faint wisp of wind carries off a tree.”

Ray Allen’s once diverse and spectacular game as a scorer has been distilled to what perhaps was always its essence: that beautifully smooth, remarkably consistent, three-point shot, the residue and object of a lifetime spent in dedicated repetition. And in so enduring, or embracing, this distillation, Allen stands for me also for a distillation of the game itself to its simplest individual play: an individual tossing the ball into the hoop. It doesn’t look so hard or complicated, it doesn’t seem to depend on some transcendent combination of athletic power and complex skills. It’s just a jump shot, and we might be tempted to look away, thinking, like the would-be art appreciator at Zeitgeist, “What the hell? I could do that.”

The answer, here is the same:

you didn’t, we didn’t, even those of us who have taken a great many jumpshots over the course of our lives didn’t make developing the perfect jump shot into a pursuit at the very core of our beings. We didn’t shoot tens of thousands of them over the course of tens of thousands of hours with the certainty—unvoiced, perhaps even unconscious—that each and every one of those shots had value in and of itself. And maybe Ray Allen didn’t, either; I don’t know him. But when he gets open and a teammate finds him, when he shoots up quick and in one motion the ball is gone on its long graceful arc towards where it wants to be, I feel certain that Ray Allen did do that. And I didn’t. And you didn’t.

 

4.

Remarking that “every day we slaughter our finest impulses,” Henry Miller, once explained that “that is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers.” That is the heartbreak to be found in watching the distilled simplicity of each Ray Allen jump shot, each one unmistakably written by the hand of a master, each one a testament to his belief in his powers, each one a reminder of the myriad moments of self-doubt that trampled the tender shoots of my own possibilities and maybe yours. We were probably never going to be Ray Allen, of course. But he is Ray Allen, and we’re not.

Ray’s shots are not only reminders—in their haunting combination of proximity and impossible distance to what I myself have done thousands of time—of what I have failed to accomplish, or even to attempt, for lack of faith. They are also, from another vantage point, utterly simple expressions of the extraordinary beauty lurking in the mundane.

When I teach my students the fragment of William Carlos Williams poem “Spring and All” that is known as “The Red Wheelbarrow,” their first response is bewilderment: “What the hell? How is that literature? I could’ve written that.” You know the poem:

so much depends

upon

 

 

a red wheel

barrow

 

 

glazed with rain

water

 

 

beside the white

chickens.

You could’ve written that. I could’ve written that. But I didn’t and you didn’t. But if Williams’ poem—like the art at Zeitgeist, like Miller’s lines written by the hand of a master, like Ray Allen’s jumper—seems like just another occasion for self-punishing regret, it is not, or not only or primarily that. Because there’s something else in Williams’ poem, and in all of it: a celebration, and an invitation, and then another celebration.

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It is to be sure a celebration of the beauty and importance of the simple and the mundane. But it is also an invitation to see—to see the red wheel barrow, to see the glaze of rain, to see the white chickens and to see that so much, all of existence, depends on them and, crucially, depends upon our seeing them. And when we pause long enough to focus and to see with these ordinary words these ordinary things and all that depends on them we may celebrate with Williams not just these things, but our own ever-present powers to see them and, by seeing them, to participate in them by bringing them forth again and again.

Every Ray Allen jump shot for me is that. Every one is ordinary, every one extraordinary. And every one is an invitation to watch and so to participate in bringing forth what is life. For every one—like the items in Williams’ poem—contains all of a life; all of a trajectory that each and every shot mimics in its powerful emergence, in its hopeful rising and its graceful falling, finally, towards home.

Originally published at The Classical.

Read with a Basketball in Your Hands

Basketball for BoysIn 1960, Coach Chuck Orsborn of Bradley University collaborated with Marshall K. McClelland to write the instructional volume Basketball for Boys as part of the Follett Publishing Company’s “All-Star Sports Series”.

The book is divided into “Four Quarters”:  “All About Shooting,” “Moving the Ball,” “They Shall Not Pass or Score” and “Wrapping it Up”.  And each of these is further subdivided into several sections called “points” – 23 in all.  So “Point 2” (under “All About Shooting”) is “The One Handed Set Shot”; “Point 20” (under “Wrapping it Up”) is “You and Your Mind.”  There are also “time-outs” in each quarter.

Both the writing and illustrative photos in this book merit more detailed commentary than I have time to provide right now.  For now, let me just say that it’s an easy book to make fun of (and I may yet do just that), but it also conveys some hoops truths that I would guess most NBA players today would go along with, even if they might put it differently.  And it’s more than just the hoops wisdom: there’s a literary elegance to the book, and a pedagogical soundness that I can’t help — despite the square and dated overall ideology — but find completely charming. Read more

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