Alphabet Soup, or, Not "Fab," Not "Fresh," but Just "Five"

Alphabet-soup

When Jimmy King visited class last week, one of the things he advised the students was to treat negative publicity  “like alphabet soup.”  I won’t directly reproduce his salty metaphor, but the gist of it was that you take the negativity, digest it as fuel, eliminate the waste product, and move on.  He’s really, really, really good at that.  I don’t know how many times some outrageous, negative thing has been said about Jimmy or his teammates or about some of the current Michigan players that I’ve taught over the past two years, and I begin to blow my stack about it and Jimmy always comes back to calm me down with some version of “alphabet soup.  It’s not that I don’t understand it.  I do.  And if I were the target of the negativity I think I would find it easier to follow Jimmy’s advice.

But when my friends or my students are targeted by the negativity, I’m unable to tolerate it. Read more

Teen Beat, or, How I Love the College Game

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Everything that stirs us and causes us to cringe during the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament every year can be explained in this way:  adolescents using adolescence to try to overcome adolescence. Read more

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.

What's Goin' On? Some thoughts on my town.

“Cricket had plunged me into politics long before I was aware. When I turned to politics I did not have too much to learn.”- C. L. R. James, Beyond a Boundary

This was never meant to be just a basketball blog. Read more

Where is 1968?

The University of Michigan Campus, 1968

Today, in their home game against Penn State, the Michigan Men’s Basketball Team busted out throwback uniforms (tweaked with long shorts, for modern sensibilities) from the 1968 season.  The occasion was the rededication of the newly refurbished Crisler Center which had first been dedicated 45 years ago, in February of 1968.  As part of the festivities, the Athletic Department held a  “Return to Crisler” panel discussion “open to basketball season ticket holders, former Wolverine basketball players and other invited guests.”  The Michigan Basketball Facebook page exhorted fans to give a “big Go Blue” to “the over 100 former players returning for the game.”

Among them was Cazzie Russell, a mural of whom adorns the new building.  That’s appropriate since Crisler has for years been known as “the House that Cazzie Built.”  Russell led the Wolverines to three consecutive Big Ten Championships and two final four appearances between 1964 and 1966, and was a two time consensus All-American, leading the nation in scoring with a 30.8 ppg average in 1966, his senior season, when he was named College Player of the Year.  He went on to become the first pick in that year’s NBA draft.  In 1993 Russell’s # 33 jersey was retired, one of only five Michigan players to be so honored.  One of the others is # 45, belonging to Rudy Tomjonavich, who led the squad from 1967 to 1970, earning All-American honors in his senior season.  It is his era’s team’s jerseys the players will be wearing today.

Today’s events have been promoted as part of an effort to build, or rather, rebuild, the links between UM’s basketball past and its present.

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The ABA is Dead, Long Live the ABA

IMG_0097I first wrote this post in December, 2010, before I even had a syllabus for the first version of my Cultures of Basketball course at Michigan, let alone the experience of teaching it.  This coming Monday, in my fourth version of that course, we will be doing our lesson on the old ABA.  Between that, and the NBA All-Star Game Insanaganza (which in today’s form is a direct genetic descendant of its disgracefully unacknowledged, mocked parent: the old ABA), it seemed fitting this morning to reprise this, which was my first stab at coming to terms with my crazy sick love of the ABA.  I’ve kept it in the present tense, though I wrote it more than two years ago, because even the ways in which it is now obsolete (noted here and there throughout, and in a Postscript at the end of the piece), are part of what I love about the ABA.

“Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.” – William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

December 11, 2010

What I remember best about it is the blur as I lay on my back in bed, shooting it straight up into the air with perfect back spin: red, white, and blue giving way to the vaguely perceived promise of purple, even lavender. I was not yet ten, and my dad had brought it back from a business trip to Texas: a genuine ABA basketball autographed by the San Antonio Spurs.

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Uncoachable, A Fantasy (and a Hoops Heresy)

images-3There is an oft-related apocryphal story of an exchange in the Fall of 1906 between James Naismith, inventor of basketball and at the time Chapel Director and Head of the Department of Physical Education at the University of Kansas, and rising sophomore Forrest C. (“Phog”) Allen, star of the Kansas basketball team.  Naismith had received a letter from administrators at Baker University inviting Allen to coach Baker’s basketball team in the upcoming season.

Naismith:  “I’ve got a good joke for you, you bloody beggar.  They want you to coach basketball down at Baker.”

Allen:  “What so funny about that?”

Naismith: “Why, you can’t coach basketball, you just play it!”

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Free the Banners, Free Discussion

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On Tuesday morning, February 5, 2013, The Michigan Daily reported that former Michigan men’s basketball players and “Fab Five” members Jalen Rose and Jimmy King, participating in the Student Athletic Advisory Committee’s charity fundraising event “Mock Rock,” expressed their hopes that the decade-long rift between their former teammate Chris Webber and University administrators might be healed. Both men called on Webber to approach the University and on the University to be open to a discussion regarding both the legacy of that era and the disposition of the Final Four banners — currently stored in the University’s Bentley Historical Library — earned by the team in 1992 and 1993. I write as a faculty member to endorse their call and urge University administrators to conduct a free, public discussion of the issues involved.

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The Goal is to Forget the Goal

30JOURNEYS1_SPAN-popup-1On New Year’s Day, my brother sent me this photo, attached to an e-mail that read, “you don’t need a rim, only the space it surrounds.” It ran in the Travel Section of the New York Times a few days before with the caption “Novice Monks at the Lhagang Monastery play a version of basketball.” In the article it accompanied, free-lance reporter Kit Gillet, touring the Lhagang Monastery high on the Tibetan plateau in the Sichuan Province of Northern China, described the scene more fully:

Later in the afternoon I spotted a group of young monks playing basketball using a hoopless telephone pylon as a net on a grassy field across the town’s river, their robes billowing around them. There was no bridge in sight, but I removed my shoes to cross the ice-cold, knee-deep water. On the other bank I was quickly invited to join the game.

“We try to play basketball every day before our 6 p.m. studies,” said Laozang Tsere, a gregarious 18-year-old novice born in a nearby village.

On the face of it, it’s obvious and accurate that what the monks are playing is, as the original caption stated, only “a version of basketball” – obvious if only because their telephone pylon is “hoopless.”  On the face of it, indeed, it seems generous even to call hoopless basketball “a version of basketball.”  It wouldn’t seem to be basketball at all.  After all, though James Naismith’s original 13 rules only imply the existence of a “basket” as goal, it’s also clear that he considered the horizontal, elevated goal one of the five fundamental principles constituting basketball.  But seeing a picture like this — maybe just because it has monks in it, or maybe because there is something artfully provocative about the photo — I also feel invited to look more deeply for what is not obvious in the image and its description.

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Day 7: The Age of Wonder

I can hardly believe — let alone comprehend — what is happening, my good fortune and bliss. I’m teaching classes I love, more people are reading this than have read everything I’ve written in academia over the last twenty years combined (not saying a lot, I know, but still), I’m making new friends, learning new things. Life is opening. There’s a book for kids I have really loved for a long time, called His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. In it the protagonist, young Lyra on the cusp of puberty, has an idea and she is so excited by it that she tries not to think of it, as though, we are told, it were a soap bubble that has landed in her unexpecting palm. She wants to grasp it and preserve it but she’s afraid to break it and it is so beautiful. This is the day, as the snow falls thickly, the wind whips up a veil, and the temperature plummets, for contemplating mysteries and being at rest.

It didn’t start out this way. It started out with me trying with my right hand to foil a young gun’s hard cross, on the hard court in the Lou, hearing a loud crack, and lamely trying to stay on the floor before realizing that something was wrong with my right hand. It was broken. I am right handed. I shoot right handed, but I can work on my left. I use it to type, but I can peck away decently even with the splint. But I think exclusively with my right hand: as in, my right hand, a pen and a piece of paper. It’s always the same kind of battle, one whose outcome is preordained but it plays out anyway as though it weren’t. My right hand starts out writing down words in an orderly, outline fashion. But disorder makes some initial incursions and pretty soon that controlling right hand quickly gives way: scratching things out, writing new words in different sizes, some all caps, arrows in several directions that connect boxes and circles I’ve drawn around other words.

Don’t get me wrong: I love and aspire to orderly thought. I’m not one of those loopy, whimsical humanists who fetishize messiness, absent-mindedness and other equally morally suspect forms of lassitude and indolence. And I like to imagine that I get there my share of the time as a teacher, thinker and writer. But I confess I rarely get there via the straight road. So I regularly console myself for this by recalling and aggressively reminding others of William Blake’s line (cast as a “Proverb from Hell”, of which he is a partisan): “improvement makes straight roads, but crooked roads without improvement are the roads of genius.” I don’t know about that. I do know I’m no genius. But it makes me feel better about my thought process.

Now, without my right hand I have to think and prep class with a computer keyboard and it just doesn’t work so well. I feel pushed into lines and outlines and boundary lines and I get anxious about what bubbles I might be squashing without knowing it, about the paths I’ve left behind. All of which left me prepared for class in the sense that I had a printed out, orderly outline and unprepared for class in the sense that I had a printed out, orderly outline.

On the other and, as a kid I always felt jealous of the bratty stupid narcissists who floated through a school day with a cast on some foolishly incurred injury, beaming as the entire school neglected me in order to sign their arms or legs or whatever. I don’t have a real cast (curse the reasonable orthopedist – if I’m gonna live in this insane country with its insane health care system I at least want my share of insurance-covered, unnecessary medical procedures). Still, I prayed that my injury, suffered playing crafty man-to-man defense in a pick-up game would score me sympathy with the players and hasten our bonding process. Just for good measure, I posted on our class Facebook page an announcement of the injury together with a plea for sympathy.

All of this combined with the anticipated blizzard and the beginning of our new course unit – dealing with the long decade of the 60s and which I had named, with deliberate irony, “The Golden Era” – to have me especially wired as I entered the classroom. Adopting FreeDarko‘s periodizing schema, the four days of the unit would cover the period from 1957-1969.  FreeDarko’s history calls its chapter on the period, written by Bethlehem Shoals and illustrated by Jacob Weinstein, “They Walked This Earth.”  And that title is where I wanted to begin.  But it’s not where I did begin.

Instead, an image got stuck in my mind.  I was remembering that Cynthia Bailey, the chronic runaway bride on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, gets married under a dinosaur skeleton in a natural history museum in the season finale.  As I watched, my mind didn’t know where to go: will she runaway again? the disgusting Kim snarks and snarls from the sidelines, the event seems tacky, the dinosaur is so so so enormous, dwarfing her groom who waits nervously until he sees Cynthia appear at the top of the spiral staircase and says, tears in his eyes, “oh my god”.   And with that, they sparklike shoot the gap between the petty petty pettiness of the human and the mythical grandeur of the dinosaurs.  Maybe that’s where we are in class in this unit: dwarfed by grandeur and trying to find a way to reach.  But I can’t talk about that in class, not at the beginning of class, and yet my mind is utterly trapped in the image, tires spinning on ice, burning themselves out.

I abruptly switch to show them a series of clips. It’s important to me to do this, but not for the right reasons. I’m hot again, I mean sweaty, and I haven’t gotten this computer projector hookup to work in two previous attempts and it’s weighing on me. Preformance anxiety. I desperately want to watch clips with them. I am sure that I will be cool if I can make this work and we can all munch popcorn and laugh knowingly – all insiders, all initiates – at the moving images, and the short shorts, and the dramatic voice-over narrations I have to get over this.

So before anything else happens I have hooked things up (having already cleared by Desktop and my Chrome of anything that I can antasize might be embarrassing to me) and behold! It works. So we watch Cousy, and the Celtics dynasty, and Russell in college. It’s good because the clips stir them up: goofy shorts sure, but damn Cousy had a handle (though what’s with the no left running out the clock in the finals) and Russ put up the first no fly zone. And then, drunk with success, we watch the Mikan videos I tried and failed to show last week. Uh oh, I forgot, one of them is set to “I can’t make you love me.” They are laughing – at me? with me?  I don’t know. “I can’t make you love me” I think to myself pathetically, “Exactly!”  The way of those thoughts lies middle school angst. So I just burrow into the flickering pictures, and I am happy in the cocoon of darkness and basketball images. I could do this all day.The pictures end. Lights snap back on. I squint and stifle a groan. The spell is broken. Awkward transition, how do I steer this ship back? It occurs to me: I am in this moment navigating another passage among the fjords that run between myth and history; the obscurity of aesthetic enjoyment, silently mesmerized by black and white video clips and the glaring bright lights of the classroom where learning and, yes, illumination should occur.  I don’t know how to make this move gracefully so I just blast the ship toward the light of learning, dreading the silence, loathing teaching and the way I teach.“They walked this earth” I drone, turning my back to clumsily write on the board. “Who?” I asked, turning back dramatically.  Or rather, “Of whom do we say ‘they walked this earth’? What is the meaning of this?” One student says: “They were unreal, not human.” “Like aliens?” I ask, cleverly being funny while trying to get provoke him to be more specific in elaborating his thoughts. “No,” he says, rejecting my obvious ploy, “I’m not saying they were aliens,” “Okay, what then?” “Dinosaurs,” someone calls out. “Okay,” I say and scrawl “dinosaurs” furiously on the whiteboard.–(We interrupt this program for an unscheduled rant: Why whiteboards?! What was wrong with blackboards and chalk?! What is this place, Trump Tower or a university classroom? There are rarely markers, when there are they rarely work, and the palimpsistic traces of the previous idiots who wrote on it with a Sharpie are always visible and distracting so that the whole board starts to look like the taped up floor of a middle school gymnasium. That concludes our rant. We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming.)–“Or Greek gods,” someone else shouts out. Yes! Titans? Yes! And with dinosaurs or, especially, gods or titans (or Monstars as another student says) in mind, I point out, we are in a special zone of story telling.

It’s not exactly history anymore, not by our modern scientific standards. Myths are the histories we invent, I remind them, to explain how something works that is mysterious, or how something came into being whose origin we cannot fathom.  In that way, myth is a rope bridge spanning the gap between our finite capacities for knowledge and the infinite scope of the cosmos.  Where we cannot know with certainty, I think, we can at least invent and narrate with wonder.  FD, I suggest, may be telling us — in the midst of the undisputed guide to pro basketball history, indeed just a couple of pages after the appearance of Mikan prompted the declaration “let history begin in earnest” – that we are approximating the realm of the mythical.  Really, I’m still watching the wedding under the dinosaur, but now somehow it makes sense to me and so that banal image can coexist peacefully cozied up to the discussion that I can feel is going to be good.  I am dizzied by how often this whole process seems to work itself out.

Another abrupt transition.  I don’t want to lose them by belaboring the point with my desperate desire to be understood.  “What jumped out at you as you read about the Celtics and Russell?”  They’re ready, in a rush ideas tumble out (I’m so proud of them, momentarily projecting into them my own difficulty speaking out in class and feeling grateful and satisfied that in my class they seem unrestrained). These are just a few of the things they noticed:

  1. how many future Hall of Famers they had
  2. the fast break as an invention
  3. how dominating they were
  4. specialization of roles and the pride of players in their roles
  5. how many of their players were also great all around athletes
  6. Auerbach’s selective berating of Heinshohn out of a sensitivity to both racial issues and the personalities of his players

My mind races pushed from behind by their ideas, pushed toward the thinking I can do when my hand isn’t broken and I can use my pen and paper, I write on the stupid white board with the marker I inadvertently stole from Webster University during my stint as an adjunct last year (because the Michigan marker really doesn’t work).  My wrist cramps (I should have had one of them be my secretary – a player – they would’ve loved that as I loved as a child when one of the nuns called me to the board, or let me turn the film strip, or clap the erasers after school), but I write on. I don’t know where this will go, but I let go, I trust. This is mystery.

Those last two points they made are actually drawn from the margins of the text.  Readers of the Undisputed Guide will know that the authors have sprinkled marginalia throughout the book.  Most often, these marginal comments offer specific anecdotes or seemingly trivial facts related to the main subject of the chapter (though I would argue that part of what this book aims to accomplish is to challenge the traditional, hierarchical distinction between significant and trivial).  This is the first time in class that I can remember a student drawing upon the marginalia.

So it puts me in mind of one of the general points I want to drive home about FreeDarko’s history and why I picked it. I tell them that I chose the book as much for how it tells the story as for the facts of the story it tells. And part of that, I say, involves layout and the multi-dimensional nature of the text, with its marginalia, its charts, and its illustrations. For example, I say, look at the picture here of the Celtics (click on the image of the book’s cover to get to the full excerpt, then click on the thumbnail image at the bottom center to get to the two page illustration).

I’ll come back to the picture again in detail, but for now just notice that the book is aware and subtly communicates its awareness that it is a telling a story, a version of history.   We see this already in the title of the book itself with its ironically overstated claim to authority, simultaneously tacitly admitting the possibility of dispute.  And we have seen it, as I tried on Day 2 to draw out, in the multiple narrative models through which the story of Naismith’s invention is narrated.  FD knows, in other words, that in the dialectic of enlightenment (look it up): the line between myth and history is nowhere near as fast and bold as we who believe ourselves to be beyond myth would like to believe.

Now I want to pick up on the link between points 1, 3, and 5.  In other words, I’m interested in what at first glance what appears to be an equation; a formula for sucess: Hall of Fame talent + athletic ability + specialization of roles = Celtic domination (or, parenthetically, a similar equation that would have perhaps generated a different route to similar conclusions: Mikan + shot clock + racial integration = Celtic domination).  Shoals, I say, reading aloud, tells us that “Red’s way speaks directly to the sphinxlike riddle of basketball: How do individual and team coexist in a way that makes the most of both?  Auerbach’s intermingling of player and team identity is perhaps his greatest insight.”

I stop there.  This is perfect.  Not because that is Shoals’ final thought, but because it is not his final thought and yet he lets it stand — a full sentence — as a complete thought in itself.  And it’s perfect because as a complete thought it appears to echo the formulaic assertion I offered above.  The Celtics dominated because great individual talent was specialized and skillfully blended into a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s gonna get more complicated in a minute, but for now, as in class let’s just look at that.

How, I ask them, does Auerbach actually solve this riddle?  For the moment, in class, I deliberately ignore that Shoals never said he solves it (only that he “speaks directly to it” and that this was his “greatest insight”) because I feel that part of the beautiful subtlety of the argument here lies in that the rhythm of Shoals’ argument, the word riddle, the image of the Sphinx and the historical facts of Celtics domination conspire to allow us to believe for just a split second that the riddle has been solved, and this heightens the effect when, a moment later, Shoals then asserts that it’s not the case, or at least not the case in any way that could be explained.  But I’ll come back to that point and elaborate it in a moment, as I did in class.

Returning to the question I asked — how did Auerbach solve the riddle of basketball — we muddled around and got lost quite a bit (crooked roads and all that).  I don’t think I can reconstruct that muddle nor, especially the energy that it somehow managed to generate in the room.  But, briefly and in all its inchoate glory:

  • broad initial agreement that it can’t be done today because of money and the marketing of individual players;
  • Why not?
  • A whole generation grown up thinking the point is to get to the NBA and get your own.
  • But what about today’s Celtics someone says, or the Spurs? some people ask?
  • Well, they have accepted their roles.
  • Okay, but what makes someone accept and even feel pride, as Shoals emphasizes of the Celtics of yore, in their specialized and therefore necessarily limited role, especially when that someone, at some previous level of competition was used to being the star?
  • players get convinced that it will be worth it to them to accept a role
  • but how exactly? what convinces them, especially given all the reasons you’ve given for why it’s not in their interests?
  • Winning
Perfect!  There it is:  a student, who is also a role player, says that it’s a lot easier to accept a role when the team is winning,  But wait a minute, I say, didn’t we start out by saying that the Celtics were dominant because players accepted their roles?   A paradox: the dream teaching moment for a humanities professor with my inclinations! Y’all told me the Celtics won because people accepted their roles and you’re telling me they accepted their roles because they won. What?!
But in this case, I let the momentum of the discussion roll along a bit more, even though we weren’t, of course, going to solve that paradox because it can’t be solved and that is the point I wanted to get to, and the point, I think, that Shoals drives at when he follows up his assertion about Red and the Sphinx with the statement:  “And, at the same time, it’s a nonanswer.  That might explain why, to this day, no team has managed to replicate either Red’s methods or the run of success they yielded.” I think this justly characterized “nonanswer” to what is properly a paradoxical riddle is in some way conveyed by Jacob Weinstein’s arresting image of the Celtics as a trophy machine.
Now ordinarily a machine is the very emblem of rational interconnection of parts and forces for maximum efficiency.  And Weinstein’s image at first glance conveys that perfectly.  Recognizable players are shown in poses reminiscent of or evocative of the specialized roles we associated with them and out the bottom right a steady stream of trophies parades past the cigar-smoking Red Auerbach.  At first glance it seems to reinforce the idea that Red solved a riddle and that if we analyzed it sufficiently we could make a similar machine and even reproduce the results.  At first glance.
Now, I’m neither artist nor engineer so I might be badly misreading the image (if I am, please don’t tell me and ruin the mystery), but when I look at the image more closely I start to feel some confusion about how the individual players and their actions are causally related in such a way as to lead to the trophies.   Like I say, I could be missing something, but look at it closely and try to map out the relational chain of causes and effects for each player’s action within the works of the machine.  When I do that, I quickly wind up with a non-linear mess.  So I choose to see in this image an echo of the point I think Shoals arrives at in his essay, and that we arrived at in our clumsy — mysterious way — in class discussion.
Namely, isn’t “the Celtics mystique,” for all that it can appear through knowing eyes as a banal cliche in sports history, really a phrase that mutely points toward a deeper truth?  The truth, I mean, that there is mystery and that perhaps some mysteries cannot be unraveled by the science of history and so are better approached through the art of myth, which makes of their unapproachability an object of beauty and enjoyment and quickening wonder that, in turn, becomes our way to bring the mystery closer and even to commune with it.
I’m no expert in these things, but I believe that the words mystique and mystery, as words, both trace their derivations back to ancient Greek mystery cults, which were secret religious rites (not to be spoken of) that permitted the initiated (which is what the original Greek root actually refers to) more emotional religious experiences than the more common acts of public propitiation.  Mystery and mystique, this leads me to think, are the names for what makes us feel that we are in on something special, something affecting and spiritually deepening but which it is hard — if not prohibited — to speak of.  Or maybe we can speak of it, but we have to stop short of talking about it as if we knew for certain what we were taking about (because then, of course, it stops being a mystery).

This is a tricky position for a professor to take, especially one who likes to talk as much as I do, but I have found myself in all areas of my teaching and writing about literature and philosophy drawn to the places where knowing and the kind of talk that supports and expresses it fall short, or crack and in through that fissue rushes a different sort of relationship in which feeling — perhaps especially feelings of wonder, but also of love — predominates.

A pretty obscure writer named Felisberto Hernandez began one of his early works of fiction saying “I’ll also have to write many things I know very little about; it even strikes me that impenetrability is intrinsic to them. Perhaps when we think we know them we stop knowing that we don’t know them, because their existence is inevitably obscure, and that must be one of their qualities. But I don’t believe I have to write only what I know, but also the other.”

Credit Shoals and Weinstein for understanding this and for getting it across in a — paradoxically — accessible way; which is to say, credit them for the acceptance of mystery and the paradox or nonsense into which it shoves us like a hard crossover when we try to defend against it.  The chapter title tells us that everything that follows is myth (they walked this earth), then analyzes and explains the Celtic dynasty (knowledge), then tells us in a single breath that Red solves (knowledge) the riddle of the Sphinx (more myth) and that solving it is not to solve it (mu).  If you’re intellectual ankles aren’t broken by this move, then you aren’t really in the game in my opinion.  Can we just – and I hate the fucking Celtics – just pause and wonder?! How could this happen? How were they so good, so dominant? Why does every clip look like they are playing the Washington Generals?

Bigger question: is it a legitimate function of the humanities to lead its students to the “conclusion” that, sometimes, wisdom is 1) knowing only that we don’t know and 2) learning to feel a rush of joy at that knowledge? Maybe that — as Claire suggested to me the other night — is what my broken right, “thinking”, hand symbolizes for me: a challenge to let go of the control I believe it gives me; control, among other things, by acting like I know things I don’t know. And maybe in that partial surrender is a secret to the mystery. Maybe,

{Postscript because even – especially –in the face of mystery there is always more to say.  I was extremely gratified to receive a thoughtful, well-written e-mail from a student, who is also a role player a few hours after class, apparently composed on the team bus en route to Columbus Ohio for Thursday nights game, elaborating his thoughts on role players.  It launched me into another eddy of giddiness and prompted me to reply with a meaningful, heartfelt message explaining how today’s class had held the key to why UM could beat # 1 ranked OSU.  I did so partly because last week I’d told another player why I believed they could beat Michigan State, which they did, obviously because of my message,  And that, I now realize, is my role on the team – offering my unsolicited opinions to role players about why and how they can win games they aren’t supposed to win.  This is what I dreamed of when I was a child in the driveway, holding a coke bottle and pretending to hand it to Mean Joe Greene.}

Go back to learn how basketball at the atomic level is exactly like life in the universe

Go on to read Day 8’s meditation on greatness and not winning.

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