“Beauty” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 3)

What are we saying when we say that an athletic play is “beautiful”? This is the question to which Hans Gumbrecht turns in the second subsection of the “Definitions” chapter of In Praise of Athletic Beauty. You might recall that in the preceding section he defined “praise” as speech or writing, motivated by gratitude, that lays bare the complexity of forms exhibited in athletic performance and relates these to their function and effect.  How, he’s now asking, should we understand “beauty” in the context of athletics?

Gumbrecht begins by observing that, at least among intellectuals or those he calls “cultivated people,” use of the word “beauty” tends to be reserved for canonical objects of high culture such as poems and novels, paintings and sculptures, musical compositions and dramatic performances.  Aesthetic experience, he considers, is thereby reserved for an intellectual elite and divorced from everyday life experiences.

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Immanuel Kant, Sporty Dude

This leads him into the first of the two major parts of this chapter, in which he turns to the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who authored a highly influential treatise on aesthetics.  For those who have tangled with Kant’s famously difficult prose, this might seem like a strange resource to bring into a battle to make a common vocabulary for describing aesthetic experience available to sports fans.  But Gumbrecht contends, correctly I think, that Kant’s treatise, called Critique of Judgment, was undertaken as “an attempt to understand the implications of the everyday use of the word ‘beautiful'” (p. 39).

Though, I must say that I think Gumbrecht offers one of the most lucid summaries of Kant’s work that I have encountered, one that even my group of undergraduates with next to no experience in the humanities seemed to be able to grasp, I think there are more promising sources in the history of aesthetic philosophy for this task.  John Dewey’s Art as Experience comes to mind as a more contemporary (it was written in the 1930s), more accessible, and more persuasive attempt to redress the same cultivated aversion to the beautiful the experiences of daily life.  And, indeed, Dewey’s work has inspired some contemporary philosophers (to name just a few: Joseph Kupfer, Drew Hyland, Randolph Feezell, and indirectly Richard Shusterman) who have undertaken to understand the aesthetic dimensions of sporting experience.  That said, I do think Gumbrecht pulls off the use of Kant quite effectively.

To do so, Gumbrecht attributes to Kant four defining qualities of what we call beautiful, or, to put it slightly different, of aesthetic experience. First, it is “disinterested,” meaning not that we don’t care about what we find beautiful, but rather that in experiencing and valuing something as beautiful we are not motivated by instrumental concerns such as making money, or finding a better job, or even winning a game.  That doesn’t mean that those concerns may not play a role in creating something beautiful (Steph Curry is trying to get paid, after all, as he should be), but rather that success or failure in that regard have no impact on our judgment of the thing as beautiful (pp 40-41).

Second, aesthetic experience is felt (“an inner pleasure or displeasure”), rather than grounded in or aiming at conceptualization.  This speaks to the material basis for aesthetic experience (the very word “aesthetics” derives from the Greek word meaning simply “sensation”; so that “anesthesia” is a substance that deprives us of sensation).  Before we can think about it, we call beautiful that to which we are drawn (and “ugly” that by which we are repelled) (p. 42).

Third, aesthetic experience partakes of what Kant calls “subjective universality.”  It is an irreducibly subjective, even private or intimate, experience, but one that invites others to share in them. In Gumbrecht’s words, “our individual acts of aesthetic judgment always imply the expectation, perhaps even then invitation, for everybody to agree” (pp. 42-43).

Lastly, those objects (or activities or experiences) we tend to call “beautiful” exhibit what is usually summarized by the formula: “purposiveness without purpose” (p. 44).  It need not have a purpose, let alone the purpose to be considered beautiful, but it appears to have had a purpose or design to it.  You can think of ocean wave or an oak tree in full autumn colors.  And, indeed both Kant and Gumbrecht stress the kinship between the properties of what we call beautiful in, say, art (or sport) and what we consider beautiful in nature (p. 45).

Before moving on from Kant, Gumbrecht devotes a few, mostly dismissive words, to what Kant called “the sublime,” distinguishing it from “the beautiful.”  The sublime refers to objects or experiences that, in contrast to the formally limited nature of the beautiful, generates an experience of limitlessness, of “that which is absolutely great…in comparison with which everything else is small” and that which may threaten to overwhelm us.  Here, following Kant directly, you can think of “nature in its chaos and in its wildest and most unruly disorder and devastation.”  Gumbrecht considers that, despite the interest of many sports lovers in records which would seem to suggest an investment in quantitative greatness, the “sublime has less of an affinity with sports than does the concept of beauty.”

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If this is sublime…

Maybe or maybe not.  But my students and I found ourselves thinking that Gumbrecht underestimates the role of the sublime in our aesthetic experience of sports.  We considered that action sports offer superb opportunities for spectators to experience the sublime.  And moreover, that certain exhibitions of unparalleled domination (Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game, for example) or of simply superlative performance under severe duress (Michael Jordan’s “flu game,” Isaiah Thomas scoring 25 points in a quarter in a playoff game on a badly injured ankle, Curt Schilling pitching with a torn achilles tendon) can also stimulate this experience: a deep sense of awe at the overwhelming magnitude of the play or performance we’ve just witnessed.

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isn’t this?

But regardless of that minor difference, the point of what Gumbrecht has done with Kant was to convince readers that “watching sports may be a case of what philosophers call aesthetic experience” (p. 48).  And in this I believe he succeeds.  But he worries that Kant may be too dry—ya think?!—and so he moves to what I find the most inventive part of this chapter.

122fffdc20137d7ba2a92016abef1310Recalling an autobiographical account by Olympic swimmer Pablo Morales of his experience as a spectator watching Evelyn Ashford running the anchor leg of the women’s 400 meter relay in the 1988 Olympics, Gumbrecht seizes on Morales description of what he saw in Ashford.  She was, the swimmer said, the “lost in focused intensity” and the power of that brought Morales back, despite reservations about the sacrifices involved, into competition after a four year layoff.  Gumbrecht breaks this phase down, riffing off each of its component terms, as a way, he hopes, to get a little closer “to an understanding of the specific beauty of sports among all other varieties of aesthetic experience” (49).

“Lost” Gumbrecht understands to be the equivalent of Kant’s “disinterestedness,” the athlete “alone with herself, lost to the world, disconnected from all the goals that made up her everyday life, even from the goals that—extrinsically or intrinsically—belong to the athletic event in which she participated” (p. 52).

“Intensity,” in the first place, refers what Morales believes describes Ashford’s feelings, “both her emotions and the perception of her own body” (p. 52).  Gumbrecht interprets this term to suggest an intensification or “heightening of qualities and impressions that always already exist for us” and concludes that “athletic experience—and aesthetic experience in general—is not qualitatively different from our experience in other less marked situations” only that in this case “our physical and emotional capacities are operating close to their maximum” (p. 52).

That’s nice, and I agree wholeheartedly.  But I (nerdily) kept wanting to say “John Dewey! John Dewey!” for this is the entire point of Dewey’s own aesthetic treatise, Art as Experience, which takes as its points of departure and as the core of all aesthetic experience “the live creature” in its environment, citing as examples of the aesthetic in daily life:

“the fire-engine rushing by; the machines excavating enormous holes in the earth; the human-fly climbing the steeple-side; the men perched high in air on girders. . . . the tense grace of the ball-player.”

But okay, that’s enough of my riding for Dewey. For whatever reason, Gumbrecht prefers Kant.

Lastly, the “focused” part of Morales’ formula suggests to Gumbrecht the stance that Drew Hyland has called “responsive openness” in the chapter on “Sport, Art, and the Aesthetic” in his 1991 work, Philosophy of Sport.  Here, though, Gumbrecht adds something useful (and likely to be recognizable to anyone with athletic experience) by pointing out the seemingly paradoxical combination by which an athlete both excludes potential distractions and remains open to the unexpected.  There is here a hint of what Gumbrecht will dwell on in the next section defining athletics as “presence.”  But that grounded presence in the here (space) and now (time) makes the athlete available to respond gracefully to what may arise unexpectedly from elsewhere (space) in the next unfolding moment (time). A bit later, he’ll sum this up by saying “great athletes make things happen by letting things happen to themselves” (p. 56).

I find Gumbrecht at his most compelling here in his way of describing what Andrew Cooper, following athletes themselves, describes as “playing in the zone” (linking it to spiritual practices) and the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called “flow.”  But we’re talking about watching sports, not playing them, remember.  So Gumbrecht brings us back to that by simply recalling his own experiences as a spectator in which that feeling of being “lost in focused intensity” have taken over: “moments when my attention grows sharper and my emotions become overwhelming” but that are ‘always accompanied by a feeling of composure” (p. 55).  He’s capturing an experience of spectatorship that encompasses partisanship (wanting your team to succeed) but goes well beyond it to include an absorption in the unfolding action that allows Gumbrecht at least to “feel I can let go and let come (or not) the things that I desire to come. I am open to the next experience, whatever it may be (p. 56).

With this passage, Gumbrecht gets at something I’ve experienced myself and that the philosopher Steven Mumford has analyzed thoroughly in his book Watching Sport: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Emotion.  Though Mumford, to his credit, attempts to make room for a question raised by one of my students:  can we still call a play beautiful if the athlete making it is, off the field or court or ice, ethically repulsive (say, like Schilling)?  What is or should be, in other words, the relationship between ethics and aesthetics.  As I explained in my earlier posts on Gumbrecht, he’s so averse to what he dismisses as socio-cultural interpretations of sport that he really leaves no room to consider this question, which I consider a perfectly valid one.

To pivot, finally, to the next section of the book, Gumbrecht reminds us that all of this has really been about the “subjective conditions” under which “we call sports beautiful.”  But we also need to discover “whether there is anything intrinsically specific about athletic performance as an object of aesthetic experience”; anything, he wonders, “that could ‘objectively’ account for its irresistible appeal and for its so often overwhelming impact.”  But I’ll leave my account of his response to that line of questioning for my next post.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an image of the classroom whiteboard diagram reflecting my Writing the Sporting Body students’ discussion of this reading:

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Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty

Once again I’m teaching Writing the Sporting Body and once again the core text for the course is Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty.  I’ve made reference to this work in some other writing on here.  But it’s a dense book, one that I consider in equal measures important and limited.  And so I’d like to use the occasion of teaching it and this space to work through some thoughts and develop my understanding of it.

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:

  1. Everyfan
  2. Definitions (theoretical reflections on the key terms involved)
    1. Praise
    2. Beauty
    3. Athletics
  3. Discontinuities (capsule histories of key periods in the history of Western sports, from classical antiquity to the present)
    1. Demigods
    2. Gladiators
    3. Knights
    4. Ruffians
    5. Sportsmen
    6. Olympians
    7. Customers
  4. Fascinations (descriptions, illuminated by examples, of some of what he believes we are drawn to in sports)
    1. Bodies
    2. Suffering
    3. Grace
    4. Tools
    5. Forms
    6. Plays
    7. Timing
  5. Gratitude (a kind of existential meditation on some of the deeper life issues that the aesthetic experience of sports can lead us to encounter)
    1. Watching
    2. Waste

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.

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.

 

Phil Jackson and the Essence of Basketball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Write the Sporting Body: A Report from the Classroom

How do you write what is taking place in the picture above?  Or, what sorts of challenges does athletic performance present to those who would try to capture or convey it in writing?   Read more

Writing the Sporting Body

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

The Genesis of The Corner Three

14zonesIn an original and stimulating post yesterday, Curtis Harris at Pro Hoops History speculated on the idea of genre in basketball.  Specifically, he was prompted by former English professor turned director of the Stanford “Literary Lab” Franco Moretti’s book Graphs, Maps, Trees to think about particular basketball “genres” as emergent phenomena of what might be called the basketball system.  Moretti’s groundbreaking and controversial (among literary scholars) work rewrites literary history by looking at it from the point of view of quantitative history (“graphs”), geography (“maps”), and evolutionary theory (“trees”).  Or, as the books summary tells us, Moretti wants literary scholars to stop “reading books and start counting, graphing, and mapping them instead.”  Another way of putting this would be to say that Moretti sees world literature as a complex system and wants to apply advanced statistical methods to understand how it changes over time and space.

Curtis draws upon the parallels between emerging, rising, falling, and disappearing literary forms and plays or ways of playing in basketball and concludes with the following

Could the same thing happen in the NBA and with basketball?

It doesn’t seem that far-fetched that new events, technologies, fads, and social forces could force out one way (genre, if you will) of playing in favor of something new. Few people take hook shots these days. No one does two-handed set shots anymore. Corner three-pointers didn’t exist back in 1945. Without doing the full research now, my gut feeling is that basketball genres do exist.  Now to only figure out what events cause the genre changes. Read more

In The Beginning There Was No Beginning

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Did basketball begin the night Naismith finished writing up the thirteen rules or did it begin the next day, when his class of unruly students played the game for the first time? Read more

In the Beginning Was the Handle: A Story of Dribbling in Heavy Traffic

Which came first, the comforting feel of the ball in my hands or my ability to keep it in my hands?  I don’t know. But I know I don’t remember ever feeling bad with a basketball in my hand.  To this day, there is some mysterious connection that occurs when I pick up the ball, a current that begins to flow.  It is the life in basketball. Read more

Where Anything Happens: The Dreams of Moneyball and the Beauty in the Unreasonable

Moneyball tells the apparently simple story of how a failed ex-major leaguer finds redemption and the underfunded team of which he was the general manager finds success by surfing the implacable wave of advanced statistical methods.

As such, it’s an underdog story that’s easy to follow.  Both the general manager, Billy Beane, and his team, the Oakland Athletics, are easy to identify with and support.   Most of us struggle, like the A’s, to make our lives without the privilege of vast wealth or superior natural talent.   Read more