Last week, as part of Oberlin College’s celebration of Black History Month, I had the honor of hosting and moderating a panel discussion on Black Athletes, Activism, and the Media.
The panelists included Kevin Blackistone (@ProfBlackistone), Louis Moore (@LouMoore12), Sarah Jackson (@sjjphd), and Jimmy King (@jimmyking24). As you’ll see, in exploring the issue, our guests complicated our ways of thinking about this issue by drawing our attention to its deep and complex history, the cultural, technological, and economic forces that both fuel and constrain the phenomenon, and the important forces for change that we often lose sight of by allowing the conversation to remain focused too narrowly on those statements and actions undertaken by the most celebrated Black male athletes and so reported by the media. But they also complicated by our thinking by showing us that this issue is not primarily about understanding injustice and thinking our way to action: it’s about allowing ourselves to feel and to trust so to be moved to action, in small and large ways.
As I said in my opening remarks, these are difficult financial times at the College and I find it heartening that even so we continue to invest in the kind of programming that liberal arts colleges are uniquely suited to offer their students: adventurous discussion on pressing and controversial issues—informed by the thoughtful work of scholars from different disciplines and the perspectives of participants and public intellectuals; all intentionally aimed at engaging and challenging our students and colleagues to expand the realm of truth, freedom and equality in this world and to imagine a better future for all. These panelists, and the students, faculty, staff, and community members who showed up to listen to and engage with them, far exceeded even these high expectations for what this event could be. Certainly, I found the event intellectually informative and stimulating. But more importantly, because of the emotional vulnerability and authenticity of those present, I most of experienced this event as an opening and stirring of my heart.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks absorbed in my new job teaching sports studies out of the English Department at Oberlin College. I’ve also agreed to serve on the General Faculty Athletics Committee and as a Faculty Athletics Representative.While there are some similarities between my experiences at Michigan and Oberlin, the differences are far more striking. The whole Oberlin campus would probably come close to fitting inside Michigan’s football stadium, and would easily rest within the general complex of which the famed Big House is a part. Last Saturday I went to Oberlin’s season opening football game, along with 430 other people, including our new President, who stood in the stands among students and colleagues, as the players, whom you would never recognize as such off the season because they are the same size as you or me, slogged through a downpour to their first win since 2015. This is the beginning of my D3 life. And I want occasionally to post here some snapshots of that experience.
Besides my paid duties, I’ve also agreed to serve as a volunteer on the coaching staff for the men’s basketball team. I haven’t coached in decades, but I always loved it and I’m very excited to be part of it. So far I’ve just been part of a few meetings, some with the players and some with just the other coaches. But, among other things, I’ve already been impressed by how much work this underpaid D3 staff does behind the scenes to create a positive experience for the athletes. My colleagues have used their time with the players thus far to emphasize the importance of off court behaviors and habits that will help these young people develop into responsible, caring teammates, students, and members of their community.
These coaches will never be pulling in even 1/10th or 1/50th of the salaries of their D1 counterparts. They have no contracts with Nike or Amex or even local used car dealerships, and they never will. Coaching at Oberlin College probably isn’t the ideal stepping stone if what you’re after is a plum D1 coaching job. They have a contract with Nike: it gets them a discount on their uniforms. You’ll never know their players names or see them on TV. Their locker room isn’t paneled in expensive wood, their lockers are not personalized. It is smaller and in worse condition than the one I used at my small Catholic high school in the early 1980s. Like we did, the players buy their own shoes. They travel to road games in tiny Midwestern towns in beat up vans. They carve time to improve their game out of schedules already crammed with demanding academic courses of study, social justice work, and other extra curricular activities on campus and in town. And they play their games in a gym that would be small at many high schools, before not thousands, nor even hundreds, but dozens of fans. But if you watched the game on the floor, and saw the sweat on their faces, you wouldn’t know these things. So far, it appears to me, all involved invest their time and energy because they love to do it despite the fact that the market, in its infinite blindness, has determined that the efforts of my colleagues and students are of zero value. I am inspired by this demonstration of unvalued passion.
That said, it takes money to keep these programs afloat, more money than the institution can afford to invest in them. After all, unvalued passion doesn’t fill gas tanks, or replace broken equipment.
So, in a throwback to my Catholic school upbringing, we are holding a raffle to help raise money for the team. I know that there are larger and more urgent needs around the world these days and that everybody’s resources are scarce and in high demand. But please consider purchasing a raffle ticket and (or) please share this with others you know who you believe may be willing and able to do so.
For $20 you have a chance at winning the $500 grand prize, or one of two $250 prizes. But it’s not about the prizes. Your $20 will help defray the costs of travel, upkeep of facilities, and equipment for the team. But most of all, for $20 you can have the satisfaction of knowing you are contributing to the survival of sport at a level where it truly embodies the best things that sport can provide our young people. You can click on this link to buy one.
The Fab Five first set foot on Michigan’s campus 25 years ago. The first group of freshman ever to start for a major college program, they led their teams to consecutive NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship games in 1992 and 1993, and sparked a cultural revolution in the sport and beyond. In time, a scandal led to sanctions imposed by both the University and the NCAA. The Final Four banners came down and were tucked away in the Bentley Library and a shroud of silence settled over the players and their era.
In honor this group of teenage black men whose messages of brotherhood, community, joy, and freedom has never been more resonant, here are 5 links to things I’ve written on the Fab 5 shared in celebration of the 25 year anniversary of their arrival at Michigan.
Still today, the most viewed thing I’ve ever written, my open letter to Chris Webber asking him to join his former teammates in the stands at the 2013 NCAA Championship game to support Michigan, and five of my freshman students, in the game against Louisville.
I have mixed feelings about reposting this because I don’t feel exactly the same way I did when I first wrote and posted it three and a half years ago. Chris showed up at the game, but never responded to my letter and, more painfully, elected not to sit with his teammates. Recently, I once again invited Chris to join his former teammates, and brothers, at a public event—Fab 5 @ 25—and once more he has not responded. So I thought about not reposting this, and even about taking it off my site—after all, the University came through by sponsoring, and paying for, this discussion. That means they would’ve bought Chris a plane ticket to get him to campus. If it he’d been willing to appear.
But so much about this conversation is about how we look at history, memory, and our own past. And so much of what is painful in this derives from people trying to erase or ignore or deny the past. I understand why this is tempting. But I think it is deadly.
The turnout was impressive, the audience engaged and responsive, and the questions important and intelligent. I really had a blast exchanging ideas with this wonderful community.
And, they taped it, so I can share it with you as well. I hope you’ll check it out and let me know what you think.
(FYI: My friend, Oberlin’s Associate Men’s Basketball Coach Tim McCrory does a short funny intro first, then I go for about 35 minutes, followed by the QA).
I really enjoyed trying to create a quasi-documentary experience for the audience (ever experimenting to try to improve my lecturing technique). And I learned a lot preparing for it, and thinking about the differences, and some surprising similarities, between the issues facing a DI FBS school like Michigan and those facing a DIII school like Oberlin.
Image from NCAA.org, explaining the difference between Division I and Division III.
It is the final section of Chapter 7, “The Myth of Blackness, March 12, 1997.” Readers might recognize the date: that’s the night Iverson famously crossed-over Michael Jordan. The first part of the chapter analyzes media coverage of the game, which portrayed Iverson’s performance in racialized stereotypes with a long history in basketball culture and in American society. The second part of the chapter examines the factors, in and out of basketball, that shaped such perceptions of Iverson and other black players of his generation. And in this final section, I offer my own interpretation of this famous play as way to disrupt these perceptions and the myths they give rise to.
“I saw Iverson cross Jordan on television when it first happened, and I have viewed it again since then to prepare for classes. But in drafting this chapter, I wanted to see it again. I found it mesmerizing and could not stop watching—again and again, clicking on different links to see the different angles and replays and commentaries and contexts. The whole play is so quick: from the time Iverson gets the ball to the time the shot drops through the net takes no more than twelve seconds, the actual cross no more than about four seconds. So my interest partly stems from cognitive thirst, as though I were watching a magician at work, replaying frame by frame to see how Iverson did it, to isolate the moment that sealed Jordan’s fate. But I can see there’s something more than detached intellectual curiosity about technique driving me there. There’s also an affective investment at work, an emotional response—admiration? gratitude? even love?—that keeps me glued to the play.
Hans Gumbrecht rightly observes that “what we enjoy in the great moments of a ballgame is not just the goal, the touchdown, the home run, or the slam dunk” but “the beautiful individual play that takes form prior to the score.” A “beautiful play,” Gumbrecht writes, “is produced by the sudden, surprising convergence of several athletes’ bodies in time and space.” Indeed, Leonard Koppett, decades earlier, had already noted the way in which, because baskets themselves are relatively routine, basketball draws attention to the play unfolding before the score and, in particular, to its style. Perhaps obviously, this applies to the Iverson crossover. The pick and the flip pass prompt a switch in defensive assignments that suddenly put Jordan (the league’s top player) on Iverson (the league’s top rookie).
Even set plays, Gumbrecht continues, become surprising because they are achieved “against the unpredictable resistance of the other team’s defense.” Ideally, a ball screen for the point guard that results in a defensive switch creates an advantage for the offensive team in that a larger and presumably slower player is now left alone to defend the smaller, quicker point guard (and at the same time, the smaller defensive guard is left alone to defend the larger offensive player who set the original screen and who may roll toward the basket where he can better exploit his height advantage). But in this case, although the expected size differentials did occur—the six-foot-six Jordan was left alone to defend Iverson, who was perhaps six feet tall, in the center of the floor—they do not lead to any obvious advantage for Philadelphia because Jordan was also quick and widely considered the best defensive player in the game at the time. So as Gumbrecht describes it, “The team in possession of the ball tries to create a play and avoid chaos, its opposing team in the defensive position tries to destroy the emerging form and precipitate chaos.”
In addition to this complex and unpredictable convergence of bodies, Gumbrecht argues, part of the fascination of plays as epiphanies lies in their temporality—that is, in the fact that they begin to end the moment they start. “No still photograph,” Gumbrecht writes, “can ever capture the beauty of this temporalized reality.” Indeed, my own repeated replays of even the video of the play testify to the elusive—because temporally finite—quality of the beautiful play. Moreover, considering the temporal aspect of the play suggests also another fascinating aspect of the crossover: good timing, which Gumbrecht defines as “perfect fusion between a perception of space and the initiation of movement . . . the intuitive capacity to bring one’s body to a specific place at the very moment when it matters to be there.”
Violence for Gumbrecht is “the act of occupying spaces or blocking their occupation by others through the resistance of one’s body.” Timing, then, relates to violence because “the player will be in the right place” at the right time “either because the spot in question will not be occupied (not covered) by the body of another player at that moment, or precisely because the body of another player will occupy it.” The latter describes good defensive timing whereas the former describes good timing from the perspective of the offensive player trying to get free. Jordan tries to anticipate where Iverson will be in the next instant so he can be there instead, while Iverson, of course, tries to—and does—get to the spot where Jordan will not be.
Koppett, again, seems to have presaged the central point of Gumbrecht’s comments on timing when he described the central task of the basketball player as “getting free,” although he centered on deception and fakery (rather than timing) as the means by which basketball players do this. Good timing, however, may also simply be a component of effective deception. At least, it is with Iverson’s crossover, in which it is not simply a matter of leaning explosively in one direction to throw the defender off balance (the fake) but of intuitively grasping the perfect moment to yank the ball quickly back in the other direction (the cross) to get free. That precise moment might be thought of as the kairos, which, you may recall from the preceding chapter, was what the Greeks called the opportune moment for invention and, indeed, as the instant in which an opportunity presents itself to crack open the still tomb of the end of history.
Beautifully ephemeral and deceptively magical, Iverson’s cross evokes the image of a jagged flash of lightning splitting the night sky. An epiphany of form, to be sure, the play reminds me of the position described by T. S. Eliot in the poem “The Dry Salvages”: “we had the experience but missed the meaning, and approach to the meaning restores the experience.” Eliot might have had in mind something like a beautiful play, the illuminating arc that emerges and vanishes before you know it. Something’s happened; it was beautiful and elevating and thrilling and it somehow left itself in you. But what was it? Eliot suggests that approaching the meaning (trying to read the play, to understand what it meant) can restore the experience. That restored experience may be in a different form, but it may still, like the original, deliver an illuminating affective shine that eludes confining meanings.
As an individual tactic, a crossover dribble means the attempt, via precisely timed deception, by a player to get free from a defender. As we saw at the end of Chapter 1, however, the dribble itself stands within the history of basketball as a kind of outlaw or rogue maneuver that simultaneously violates the putative timeless spirit of the sport and thereby embodies perfectly a fluid, antiessentialist view of the game. The dribble, as Koppett puts it, is at once the sport’s “most identifying characteristic” and “one of the worst ailments of otherwise healthy basketball offenses.” Perhaps no particular form of the dribble exemplifies this better than the crossover.
When Iverson executed the crossover early in his career, he was sometimes whistled for a violation as it appeared to officials that he was actually carrying the ball to gain an advantage. But in addition, the crossover dribble is a product of urban playground experimentation and its culture of joyful individual one-upmanship. Alexander Wolff approvingly describes it as “of a piece with hip-hop culture” with its “rat-tat-tat rhythm, the badinage and braggadocio, and the distinctly big-city yearning to break-free of the crowd by making one’s mark.”
In this way, like the dunk before it—but perhaps even more dangerous because, as Wolff puts it, the crossover is more “democratic” (since you do not have to be tall or an exceptional leaper to execute it; you just have to practice)—the crossover dribble may bring the white basketball unconscious a little closer than it would like to come to the urban raw materials off which it secretly feeds but whose contextual realities it prefers in sensationalized, fantasy form.
Wolff’s comparison of the dunk and the crossover as different forms of individual self-expression, moreover, frames what might be the most evident and important symbolism of this particular crossover: Iverson (playground practitioner of the crossover par excellence) tries to get free of Jordan (the game’s most renowned dunker). In addition, this crossover echoes—through a kind of wordplay reminiscent of free-style rap—Iverson’s insistence on eluding Jordan’s ability to execute a crossover of a different sort (racially, I mean, as a commercial pitchman). When he turned pro, Iverson famously rejected a shoe deal with Nike because he felt the company would require him to follow in Jordan’s crossover footsteps. Instead, Iverson signed with Reebok, making the sole demand that “the company not try to change him.”
In this sense, in using the crossover to get free of Jordan, Iverson affirmed his independence and autonomy from the commercially tried-and-true, racial crossover model Jordan had established and, moreover, demonstrated the viability of his own path. Finally, this particular crossover, as an instance of perfect timing, evokes the kairos that reveals that—despite the myth of the greatest of all time—time has not stopped and that basketball (and other) history continues to march forward, as always, driven by the creativity of those with nothing to lose, for whom necessity is truly the mother of invention.
Now remember that Iverson scored on the play—two of the thirty-seven very efficient points he would put up on the defending champs that night. Recalling that the crossover is a means by which a point guard, usually the smallest man on the floor, can become a scoring threat draws Iverson’s crossover dribble into yet another framework of meaning: Bethlehem Shoals’s concept of a “positional revolution,” which I described in Chapter 5.
[. . .]
Iverson and his crossover present a revolution at the other end of the positional spectrum: the emergence of the scoring point guard. Iverson led the league in scoring four times from the point guard position and, moreover, in a body deemed relatively small by NBA point guard standards. Iverson may nowadays be criticized for inefficiency by some on the basis of (a misuse of) advanced statistical analysis of his play (more on this in Chapter 8), but it is also true that he paved the way for the style of play that characterizes the best point guards in the league today, such as Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, and Russell Westbrook, who create more opportunities for teammates by having established themselves as viable scoring threats capable of getting free for scores by use of, among other weapons, the crossover dribble.
Although fans may view the positional revolution as a tactical advance, even as such it carries a broader cultural significance, for as a tactical advance it was initiated by the successful experimentation of players who refused to be chained to a limited set of functions by conventional wisdom and the authority of coaches. These new physical moves and forms and new tactics emerged first experimentally in informal play before being presented in their more refined form to coaches—sheer unstoppability providing a kind of irrefutable argument.
Considering that the myth of blackness projects essentializing stereotypes concerning black Americans (especially black men) onto African American basketball players and so inhibits “their individuality, agency, and works toward curtailing any conception of black self-determination,” the positional revolution restores the thrill of witnessing black self-determination on the court.
In this sense, an emotionally expressive black player who effectively takes the game into his own hand by revolutionizing the point guard position appears as anathema to the conventional wisdom of the white basketball unconscious. The fact that even the most established of today’s coaches embrace the positional revolution should not obscure the fact that the positional revolution, like the dribble itself, began as a creative bid for autonomy and self-determination by players and one inaugurated precisely by a generation stereotyped as undisciplined dangers to the game, even as the game at its highest levels, as it always has, happily absorbed and exploited the entertainment and commercial value of their inventions.
Jorge Luis Borges once used the fiction of Franz Kafka as a lens through which to reconstruct a literary history of his “precursors.” Likewise, from the present vantage point, a player like Allen Iverson may serve as a lens through which we may retrospectively liberate other players—Jordan, Magic, Dr. J, Russell, and Chamberlain, to name just a few—from the hoops mausoleum in which the sport’s dominant culture has immured them. To see them through the lens of Iverson is to see them as constituting a renegade tradition of creative, self-determining hoops inventors that stretches back to both James Naismith and the game’s “incorrigible” first dribbler.”
This morning I did the first of what I hope will be one billion interviews about my new book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball.
As a native of Madison, Wisconsin, I was especially happy that this first one was a) with legendary Madison rocker Jonathan Zarov; b) on legendary Madison independent community radio station WORT-FM; c) a part of their pledge drive (in which, unbelievably to me, copies of my book were deemed donation-attracting premiums).
For today, I’d like to just work out a kind of overview of the text by summarizing what seem to be aims and giving you an outline of its structure. After that, I just plan to offer my readings, which is to say my understanding, interpretation, and questions concerning, the different sections of the book, in order, over the course of a number of posts.
The Book and Its Author
The book actually first appeared in a German-language edition under the title Lob des Sports in 20015. An English edition appeared in 2006, published by Harvard University Press. I haven’t seen the German and so I can’t speak to whether the English is a translation or substantially different book.
As for the author, Gumbrecht is a German-born (1948) Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. In this capacity, he writes about national literatures in the Romance Languages and about European philosophy, especially French and German and especially of the 19th century. I’m not familiar with most of Gumbrecht’s work, but what I have encountered has been very impressive to me for its erudition, its breadth and scope, the quality of its writing, and the focused attention on the relationship between everyday experience and cultural artifacts and events. His book on sports seems primarily to grow out of his experience as sports fan, an experience that is informed by his familiarity with European philosophies of art and aesthetic experience.
What is the book about?
If you look at the book jacket, it will tell you that Gumbrecht’s book proposes “a powerful and provocative” argument that “the fascination with watching sports is probably the most popular and potent contemporary form of aesthetic experience.” Where we fans might simply call certain athletic moves or plays “beautiful,” Gumbrecht’s book is supposed to provide “the means to explore, understand, and enjoy even more acutely the untamed aesthetic experience that our words-in-passing barely suggest.” I’m not certain who wrote this prose. But my own experience with academic publishing leads me to guess that Gumbrecht himself at least provided its main lines.
(I haven’t decided yet, but it may also be important that the blurbs for the book come from Walt Harris [at the time Stanford’s football coach], Myles Brand [then President of the NCAA], and Diana Nyad [marathon swimmer and journalist].)
How is the book structured?
The book has four main parts, preceded by a short introduction. In outline form, it looks like this:
Fascinations (descriptions, illuminated by examples, of some of what he believes we are drawn to in sports)
Gratitude (a kind of existential meditation on some of the deeper life issues that the aesthetic experience of sports can lead us to encounter)
I’ve organized the first seven weeks of my course around sections 1, 2, 4, and 5 (omitting “Discontinuities” from the syllabus because we’ll be getting our history in other forms). But I’m interested in the book for reasons that go beyond this course. So here I’m planning to share my experience of reading through all twenty sections of text, section by section, in however polished or rough a form my notes, reflections and questions may appear. I hope it will be of some use to some readers and, as always, I welcome responses and dialogue.
I also began new administrative appointments at Michigan related to college athletics, which brought me new perspectives on some controversial issues such as athlete compensation and faculty involvement, both matters that I plan to get more involved in, both as a researcher and administrator.
Now, as for the pivotal part, I’m excited to announce that, with the support of Deans Andrew Martin and Angela Dillard of the Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, Jimmy King and I began to plan a public symposium dedicated to examining the legacy of the Fab Five to mark the 25th anniversary of their 1991 arrival on campus. We’re still figuring out the dates and details, but it will happen sometime in 2016 and I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted.
Lastly, I’ve kicked off two new essay-length research projects. The first, in response to a call for papers on the topic of doing sport history in the digital era, is a history, contextualization, and cultural review of the rise of basketball analytics and its impact on various issues pertaining to basketball history. The second will be something like a map of the hoops historical imagination of ESPN’s 30 for 30 basketball documentaries.
It’s been a lot of work, but the most rewarding work of my life, and I’m grateful to everyone who has played a part in this. Thank you.
I hope you all have a prosperous, peaceful, and joyful 2016.