The Culture of Moving Dots

Today I listened to a very well crafted, informative lecture by Rajiv Maheswaran on how basketball teams are using movement tracking devices and computing power to inform the decisions they make about roster composition, strategy and tactics.  Not only was the lecture itself admirable (something that, as a teacher, I care about a lot), but the human scientific intelligence and the technological power described in it leave me awestruck.  Moreover, the potential for the insights generated by this work to cut through certain persistent myths in basketball culture—myths that often harbor and purvey harmful social attitudes, especially about race—seems exciting to me.

Of course, as someone who has spent a lot of time analyzing the often irrational (if unconscious) attitudes embedded in the language and stories used to talk about basketball and basketball players from the game’s invention to the present day, the facts offered up by quantitative reasoning can be one useful instrument for countering these myths. And I can certainly see this presentation as a demonstration of the brilliant complexity of the physical and cognitive abilities of individual basketball players.  But still, quantitative reasoning and the technology and facts to which they lead remain just that—useful instruments—and ones whose utility depends, like that of any instrument, on the intentions of the user and the context of the use.  They are not, in my view any way, some sort of final horizon of human knowledge about basketball and its culture.  That’s why, despite these positive feelings, a reservation popped into my head almost from the outset, kept nagging at me throughout, and remained when I finished watching. 

At a linguistic and conceptual level, as I’ve expressed elsewhere on this blog, I’m concerned with the abstracting tendencies in basketball culture that lead us to see players as something other than human beings like ourselves.  So I get worried when Maheswaran boasts that in sports, through the “instrumenting of stadiums,” “we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.”

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we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.

There better be, in my view, some extremely compelling reason, some significant value delivered that outweighs for me the ethical cost of viewing (let alone “turning”) athletes—or any human being, for that matter—into a moving dots.  After all, psychologists have told us that seeing other people as moving dots, say on a radar screen, seems to make it easier to kill them.

But Maheswaran’s work seems driven by an assumption that the ability to track and quantify human movement is a desirable thing.  He asserts this more or less directly a few times in the course of his lecture, apparently to remind his audience of the practical value of the scientific research involved.  

So, he introduces his work with the relatively simple rhetorical assertion of value:

And wouldn’t it be great if we could understand all this movement? If we could find patterns and meaning and insight in it.

Then, after a detailed and informative explanation of how machines deliver NBA franchises information about shot selection and shooting ability, he explains that

it’s really important to know if the 47 [meaning the 47% shooter] that you’re considering giving 100 million dollars to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots.

Finally, in concluding he offers a touching glimpse of the personal value we might derive from non-sporting applications of this technology:

Perhaps, instead of identifying pick-and-rolls, a machine can identify the moment and let me know when my daughter takes her first steps. Which could literally be happening any second now.

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Think very carefully about this: are you prepared to live with what what you create?

Finally, he lands on a firmly optimistic and time honored Enlightenment era affirmation of the blissful marriage of science and progress in the quality of human lives:

Perhaps we can learn to better use our buildings, better plan our cities. I believe that with the development of the science of moving dots, we will move better, we will move smarter, we will move forward.

To some degree, I am with him on most of this.  However, I must say it’s no more important to me to know if the player that an NBA owner is considering giving $100 million to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots than it is to know whether my friend Johnny is moving his body in the most productive way during his shift as a stocker at the local Walmart. Beyond this, with regard to his final assertion, a great deal depends for me on what he means by better and smarter and even forward.

I am no scientist, but I am also no Luddite.  I recognize and depend upon the value of quantitative and scientific reasoning and its many technological applications countless times in the course of my daily life.  For example, at this very moment, I tap my fingers on a wireless computer keyboard that sends signals to my CPU that in turn transforms those movements into letters and words appearing on my screen in the post composition screen of a page on the internet. I may not understand the process in detail, but I know enough to know that my own work depends, directly or indirectly, on the work of people like Maheswaran.  And so I want to be clear that I am not adopting some sort of polarizing anti-technology stance whereby I’d advocate a world law banning the use of quantitative reasoning, science or technology in sport or elsewhere.

I am, however, advocating for a place at the table where decisions concerning the development and use of such instruments get made.  

I don’t mean a place for me personally (though I can think of worse candidates), but for people like me (but smarter and better informed—in other words, I can also think of better candidates) who have devoted much of their lives to studying the history of the relationship between human technologies and human values.  People, I mean, willing to attend to the annoying complexity of concepts like better, smarter, and forward.

Our technological power, as Maheswaran so ably demonstrates, is growing in leaps and bounds and the demonstrations, like his lecture, we have of it—themselves reliant upon new technologies—grow increasingly enticing and compelling to more and more people. Meanwhile, despite a shrinking budgets for higher education around the country, corporations and university administrators continue to prioritize spending for the development of facilities, faculty and resources in science, technology, engineering and math.

But this expansion has often come at the expense of investments in the humanities disciplines that have been the traditional home (in universities, at any rate) of critical conversation about the ethical costs and benefits of the developments we find so enthralling.  0When we contemplate, individually or collectively, using a new tool (which is how I see the technological application of scientific research), we must ask ourselves, informed by historical knowledge and by a deep interest in the causal web that extends around the globe, into the earth itself, and forward into the future, what we stand to gain and to lose by its use.  As you might imagine, the conversation that follows that initial query is likely to be complicated and messy and, dare I say it, inefficient.  But it is no less—and perhaps more—urgent that we have it on that account.

We need, in other words, to think very carefully and to talk about what we’ll gain and lose by moving “forward” into a “better” and “smarter” world in which we may all transform one another into moving dots.

America’s Game

Independence Day always leaves me feeling a little bit out of place. Some of it is just an aversion to noise and explosions. But it goes deeper.  On July 4th, my social mediasphere splits pretty evenly between, to be it briefly: “Yay freedom! Go America!” and “Boo oppression! Down with America!” and I find myself on a slow motion fall into the abyss stretched open up by these polarizing tendencies.

It’s not that I don’t feel either of the sentiments.  On the contrary, It’s that I feel both, and strongly. I could intellectualize this and give you reasoned arguments justifying both of these sets of feelings.  But, whatever the more refined, reflective sources of this today, I’m more attuned to the tangled roots of this feeling in an upbringing in which I was simultaneously extremely proud to be American and extremely ashamed.  Basketball, then and now, I just can’t extricate from those experiences, or these feelings.

My parents immigrated from Spain to the United States in the 1962 via a brief detour in Cali, Colombia.  My parents and my oldest brother (then 15 months old) landed in Cali in May, 1957 right smack into a local manifestation of Cold War violence—a period actually known as “la Violencia“— that would make Game of Thrones look like Disney and that gave my father, though (or because) he grew up during the Spanish Civil War, cause to reconsider his decision.

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A few days later another brother would be born and about two years later, my sister.  I’ve seen pictures of this.  Crisp black and whites with the five of them under exotic foliage by a swimming pool, or perched near the peak of a mountain in the Andes.  My father was a scientist who, disheartened by the research conditions in Franco’s Spain, accepted a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation to found a department of biochemistry at the University of Cali.

A few years later, it seems the opportunities for professional advancement were not my father had hoped and he began to look for new positions.  As the story was told to me, he came to be offered two positions: one at the University of El Salvador and one at the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland. He preferred El Salvador, but my mother put her foot down: “If we move again, it will be to the United States or nowhere.”  And so they did, in 1962, to Portland, where I was born in 1965.

My father learned English in school and improved it while doing his Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh in the late 50s. My mother learned what English she knew (heavily accented until the time of her death last year) from a friend in Portland and from her avid reading. Their accents were always a source of embarrassment to me growing up.

My siblings learned it the hard way, on the playground of the elementary school they were thrown into upon arrival in the United States, not knowing a word of the language. But English was my native tongue.  My father fought hard to make our home an island of Spanish, protected against the forces of peers and popular culture. To this end, we had a penny bank shaped like a soldier on the dinner table every night into which, every night, we had to deposit a penalty for speaking English.

 

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I remember sometime during the Miami Dolphins undefeated season hitting upon a terrific idea for eliminating the mockery and subsequent embarrassment my strange name—Yago, Yoga, Yogurt, San Diego—caused me at school. I would change it! I knew that my full name, Santiago, meant Saint James in English, and that the short form, Yago, could be translated as James.  The Dolphins that year had a running back named Jim Kiick. His last name struck me as some kind of stroke of cosmic genius: a football player named Kiick! How perfect that his first name was mine! My proposal to change my name officially to Jim Kiick fell flat. In fact, it launched my Dad into a tirade about how his gringo son was betraying la patria. The lament, voiced in Spanish at top volume, that “these kids are forgetting Spanish” rings in my ears to this day.

Language was thus the beginning of my sense of strangeness and unbelonging at home and in my world outside the home, but it was only the beginning. There was the fact, oft-repeated, with pride, by my father, that I was by virtue of my birth the only Colás who could become President of the United States. But given his disdain for so many of the things that to me, influenced by my friends and their families, defined America—baseball, Hee Haw, the Brady Bunch—it was hard for me to know whether to internalize his pride or his disdain at this Americanness.

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Our national identity was, anyway, more declared than anything else.  After all, we didn’t eat American food (and when we tried to it felt weird), we didn’t do American things like going to rural Wisconsin town to visit grandma and grandpa or our cousins.  We had Thanksgiving turkey and on the 4th of July I was taken to fireworks, but, perhaps because there was no history of doing so, no existing family version of these traditions, the experiences—even if I couldn’t have articulated it in these terms at the time, even to myself—always felt performed, as though we were the foreign factory workers that Henry Ford used force to wear outlandish versions of their native garb as they climbed into a 20 foot “melting pot” only to emerge Americanized. Only we never got out of the pot since in so many ways my experience showed me all the ways we—and I, despite my claims on the White House—were not American.

But we did watch and play basketball.  And, though few of my friends families seemed very interested in it (by comparison with football, baseball or even hockey), I think I wound up depositing all of these fraught investments—like generations of second-generation immigrants before me—into the sport and the sense of belonging I believed it promised. Promised, and mostly delivered. Though playing with my Dad sometimes only served for me to emphasize his foreignness by comparison with other fathers, enjoying games together in front of the TV or at the arena helped me forget that he, and by extension I, was not American.  And the skills I developed first in our driveway in competition with he and my siblings landed me a spot on school teams and—despite the shame I’d feel when my name was announced over the PA system during starting lineups—helped attenuate the sense I always had of being different from the other jocks, and so somehow alone.

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All these childhood feelings come rushing forth on Independence Day, when everyone around me is either innocently or aggressively parading a prideful American belonging that I’ve never quite felt.  Everyone, that is, except those whose experience or education has led them to an acute sensitivity to all the ways in which the nation, from the time of its very foundation on ideals of liberty and equality, has fallen so short of realizing those ideals.  My education and my experiences (if only second-hand) have taught me to see this as well. But I can’t shake a possibly naive, perhaps even childish, desire for it to be true: for America to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, and for me to fully belong to it and it to me.

It occurred to me yesterday that in some sense—despite baseball’s longstanding and football’s more recent claims to the contrary—basketball is America’s game.  But upon a talking with my wife, who shares some of these feelings on the 4th, I realized it’s not that it is so more than any other game, not in a generalizable way. Basketball is, however, the game of Americanness for me.  And it is more than just that.  For there are ways in which basketball in this country harbors (again, not necessarily more so than any other sport) within itself the otherwise polarized opposing tendencies that cause she and I to feel so strange and alone on Independence Day.

That is to say that the world of basketball—I realize now the previously unnoticed importance of my having structured my forthcoming book around the metaphor of basketball as a republic, a state, and an empire and of my own participation in it as akin to a kind of dissenting citicenzship—offers all of the best and worst that America itself offers.  Basketball offers insane corporate profits, tasteless mass spectacle centered on glorified individualism, economic exploitation, racism, discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality, authoritarian ideologies, and empty dreams.  But basketball also offers the ongoing attempt to address social injustice, the exhibition of individual initiative and creativity working smoothly in the interests of a collective, the demonstration that effort, persistence and dedication can level the social playing field.

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It’s so hard to hold all this together in my heart and mind.  I write the last sentence and I immediately want to qualify it, hearing the voices of others (inside me) pointing out all the ways in which these positive things are either not so positive or not the whole story.  I’ve written this kind of thing myself plenty of times.  But then I want to resist that, and argue back, but do you not see and feel the exhilarating freedom unfolding unpredictably with every movement of a basketball player on the floor? That, I want to say back, perhaps childishly, that is America.  And I’ve written that kind of thing plenty of times.  But, and here we go again, that is not all that is America.  And so I come to feel that the sport, no less than the country I think it embodies, will always leave me falling between two polarized extremes.

And then I think to myself: maybe the problem arises because of the myriad ways in which our current discursive fora in this country encourage the expression of extreme, one-sided views of things. I know, I’m not the first to point this out.  But what I feel that I hear less often than this complaint is the attempt to address it by offering, in public spheres like this one, more complex perspectives on the phenomenon in question; perspectives marked not only by reason (or rationalization), but by feeling and, along with feeling, by contradiction and paradox and a budding sense that one’s word is not the last word.  That the thing we’re arguing about isn’t really anything in the sense that it’s not one thing and that it’s not a done thing.  That we’re contributing, with every word we write, to the further elaboration of that thing.  It’s all unfinished, a work in progress.  America is unfinished.  Basketball is unfinished. And, if that could be the meaning of those things—America and basketball—then I feel pretty much at home because I, too, am unfinished.

 

What is a Foul Anyway? (Excerpt from Ball Don't Lie! Intro, Pt 1)

I knew I wanted to call my book “Ball Don’t Lie!” before I knew why I wanted to call it that.  Some of you might already know that the phrase comes from retired NBA player Rasheed Wallace.  He used to shout the words out when an opposing player missed a free throw awarded after a foul had been called on ‘Sheed or one of his teammates; at least if Wallace thought the call had been unjust.  Sheed was whistled for over 300 technical fouls for personal misconduct during his NBA career, a record.  Once he was even called for a technical foul (and ejected) for saying “Ball Don’t Lie!” after an opponent missed the free throw he’d been awarded for a technical foul ‘Sheed had been assessed just a moment before.  The usual way to see this (if you aren’t clucking disapprovingly) is as 1) Sheed evoking the work of the basketball gods who, the phrase implies, caused the missed free throw as a way of righting the injustice of the erroneous call; and 2) as perhaps the iconic example of ‘Sheed’s more general outrageous, but likable, outlaw persona.

I can feel all this, even get excited about it. But my excitement runs into a limit for I am agnostic when it comes to the existence of basketball gods and pragmatic when it comes to issues of truth and justice. And “Ball don’t lie,” at least when interpreted in this way, seems to appeal to those transcendent basketball gods and fixed ideals of truth and justice, which I just can’t believe in. No matter how exciting it may be to me whenever Rasheed invoked them, I think that things like transcendent gods and fixed ideals are too powerful and I worry about them falling into less judicious hands than ‘Sheed’s.   So I wrote an Introduction to the book in order to understand at least some of the deeper reasons for my affinities with this statement.  To begin with, I did the Bad Professorial thing of actually trying to understand the true nature of the thing ‘Sheed had been complaining about all these years : in other words — What the hell is a foul anyway? It turns out that when you think about it, it’s more complex than you might think.

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The Voice of my Dad

The Voice of My Dad

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

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

Our Myth of Creation

This is the text of a presentation I gave this past weekend at the American Comparative Literature Association annual conference at New York University.  It’s also an abbreviated version of Chapter One of my book manuscript.  I know it’s a scholarly work, and long for a blog post, but I trust the intelligence, curiosity, and attention span of my readers.  Feedback welcome as always!

From its beginnings in 1891 and over the course of basketball’s subsequent history, changes in society and in the sport have sparked sometimes contentious discussion over the putative essential nature of basketball as well as over the techniques and tactics that ostensibly best convey that nature. Investigating these discussions, I have identified clusters of recurrent stories, metaphors, and images, arising around key events and personalities. I call these clusters “myths” not to suggest that they are untrue, but rather to emphasize my interest in their narrative character and cultural function. These myths give narrative shape to a collective struggle with changes—particularly related to race—taking place in basketball and in society. In general, they fabricate an idealized, timeless essence of the game and project it onto a succession of moments, individual players, coaches, and teams or conversely, fantasize that a contrasting succession poses a destructive threat to that essence.  Sometimes, the same myth simultaneously hails an embodiment of basketball’s essence and decries an imagined threat to that essence.

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New UM Course: Comp Lit 100: Global Sports Cultures

Today I received the good news that the new course I designed — Global Sports Culture — was approved so that I will be able to offer it as Comparative Literature 100 in the Fall semester of 2014.  This gives me a chance to devote more of my teaching time to the topic of sports, to broaden my teaching repertoire beyond the culture of basketball, and it offers students who have been interested in, but unable to enroll in my Hoops Culture course, a chance to take a different sports-related course with me.  So please share this with anyone you think might be interested. Read more

What I learned About Hoops and Invention from Julio Cortazar

“The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.”

– Werner Heisenberg[1]

            “The world,” Julio Cortázar once wrote, “is a badly resolved problem if it does not contain, in some part of its diversity, the encounter of each thing with all the others.”[2]  The poet, he continued, “if she cannot connect them by intrinsic features, does what everyone does when looking at the stars: she invents the constellation, the lines linking the solitary stars.”  This little passage shoots my mind off in the direction of a half-dozen different solitary stars at one time:  the interconnectedness of all beings in Buddhism and in deep ecology and in the rhizome of French thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the relation between looking at stars and reading and between reading and writing [Ù33]. The word “invents”.  I think I’ll go there.

            “She invents the constellation.”  Invent and its derivatives appear frequently in Julio’s works, at every stage of his career.  That was an early example, from around 1950.  Here he is again, over thirty years later, hoping of the chronicle of life on the road that he would write with his wife Carol Dunlop just before his death: “that our experience will have opened for you some doors too, and that in you germinates already the project of some parallel freeway of your own invention [Ù13, 16, 19, 66, 72].”[3]  Invention, throughout Julio’s writing, comes to mean the process by which we can make something new – a word, an experience, a world, a self – by rearranging the elements, and the relationships among them, that constitute a particular, received situation [Ù4].

            Think of a word as a situation made up of elements called letters that are configured in a given way according to certain rules.  Now how can you make something new of that word?  Consider the difference between a palindrome and anagram. “The problem with palindromes,” says Lozano, the protagonist of Cortázar’s late short story “Tara,” is that “you are left the way you started.”  A palindrome, which offers you a mirror image of a word, “has no strength because it doesn’t teach you anything new.”[4]  But anagrams are a different story.  The young girl from the story “The Distances” makes an anagram of her name – “Alina Reyes es la reina y  . . . ” – and notes in her diary that it is beautiful because it “opens a path.”  She’ll follow it until she’s invented a new self for her self.[5]  Anagrams make something new.  The inventor of an anagram takes the hard fast frozen relations between letters that make up the given word and softens and melts them until the letters can dance around experimentally before plopping back down in unexpected new relations of proximity and distance.

            Take one more example, just to get the basic idea.  “pages 78, 457, 3, 271, 688, 75, and 456 of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy have all that is needed for the writing of a hendecasyllable by Garcílaso.”[6]  That is to say that the poem by Garcílaso lies immanently within the particular, received situation of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy, just as “es la reina y . . .” lies immanently in “Alina Reyes.”  It takes an inventor, however, to discover (and etymologically “invention” refers to the process of discovery, of “coming upon”) the poem by rearranging the elements (in this case the pages of the dictionary, and the words on them) in a new way.  From these examples, you can see one of the fundamental aspects of invention: it always works immanently.  Nothing gets added from outside the given situation, and the original, given situation remains, now embedded, within the new one.

            This sense of invention makes Julio himself a star in a constellation that includes the late Italian novelist Italo Calvino, who can help direct that sense of invention to the heart of the world in which we live.  In a lecture written just before his death, Calvino noted that the Roman poet Lucretius (c. 100 – c. 55 B.C.) saw letters as “atoms in continual motion, creating the most diverse words and sounds by means of their permutations” so that “in the combinatoria of the alphabet” Lucretius “saw a model of the impalpable atomic structure of matter.”[7]  Lucretius – already influential upon such prominent and otherwise dissimilar cultural figures as the literary critic Harold Bloom and the philosopher Gilles Deleuze[8] – shines now all the more brightly in this constellation for he has of late become a kind of hero to scientists interested in the behavior of systems, such as living systems, that exist far from equilibrium.

            Nobel Prize winning physicist Ilya Prigogine and philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers summarize the pertinent Lucretian view: “Sometimes, wrote Lucretius, at uncertain times and places, the eternal, universal fall of the atoms is disturbed by a very slight deviation – the ‘clinamen.’  The resulting vortex gives rise to the world, to all natural things.”  This Lucretian hypothesis of a generative swerve closely resembles current beliefs among theorists of living systems concerning the disturbance or “disorder” out of which living things arise: “If the vertical fall were not disturbed ‘without reason’ by the clinamen, which leads to encounters and associations between uniformly falling atoms, no nature could be created; all that would be reproduced would be the repetitive connection between equivalent causes and effects governed by the laws of fate (foedera fati).”[9]

            Thinkers like stars.  She invents the constellation.  Atoms like letters.  Atoms swerve out of barren, conventional flows into unpredictable encounters with each other.  From these kinds of encounters spring all that is new.  Letters like atoms.  Julio begins with letters too and knocks them just slightly out of line in order to produce new words.  “It is the ability of different organisms to exchange ‘genetic information’ with each other, the process the geneticist calls recombination, more popularly known as sex.”[10]  Or making love.  With atoms, like letters, like thinkers, everything depends on what you can make of them.

            Invention is the name that Julio gives to the process of creating something new by a rearrangement of the relations comprising something old.  Its versatile applicability to generative processes ranging from physics to biology to philosophy to literature partly explains the vital urgency with which Horacio Oliveira, at the beginning of Julio’s most famous novel Hopscotch, announces that in “an age in which we run toward deception through infallible equations and conformity machines,” “our possible truth must be invention” [“nuestra verdad posible tiene que ser invención.]”[11]


[1]Quoted in Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (New York: Anchor, 1996), p. 30.

[2]Julio Cortázar, Imagen de John Keats [1950-1951] (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1996), p. 301, my translation.  Thus far, Latin Americanists have paid little attention to this posthumously published volume.  For a general introductory approach, however, see Steven Boldy, “Mise en perspective de Imagen de John Keats” in Cortázar de tous les côtés, Ed. Joaquín Manzi (Poitiers : UFR Langues Littératures Poitiers, Maison des sciences de l’homme et de la société, 2002), pp. 13-26.  Less surprisingly given that the work remains untranslated to English, it appears that Cortázar’s early work of scholarship on Keats has not entered the conversation of scholars who specialize in the work of that poet.

[3]Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop, Los autonautas de la cosmopista [1983] (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1996), p. 44, my translation. This text has received little critical attention, but see Jacques Leenhardt’s short review essay “Los autonautas de la cosmopista: Una vía de conocimiento,” Nuevo Texto Crítico 4.8 (1991): pp. 15-21 for a connection between traveling and knowing.  For other, more general and biographical, perspectives on this trip and the resulting book see Karine Berriot, Julio Cortázar: L’enchanteur (Paris: Presses de la Renaissance, 1988), pp. 257-290 and Jaime Alazraki, Hacia Cortázar: aproximaciones a su obra (Barcelona: Anthropos, 1994), pp. 281-297.  See also any of the four relatively new biographically oriented studies:  Eduardo Montes-Bradley, Cortázar sin barba (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2004), Claudio Eduardo Martyniuk, Imagen de Julio Cortázar (Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros, 2004), Enzo Maqueira, Cortázar, de cronopios y compromises (Buenos Aires: Longseller, 2002), and Miguel Herráez, Julio Cortázar: el otro lado de las cosas (Valencia: Institució Alfons el Magnanim, 2001.

[4]Julio Cortázar, “Tara,” Unreasonable Hours, Trans. Alberto Manguel (Toronto: Coach House, 1995), pp. 27-46.  In Spanish: “Satarsa,” Deshoras [1982] Cuentos Completos/2 (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994), pp. 443-453.

[5]Julio Cortázar, “The Distances,” Blow-Up and Other Stories, Trans. Paul Blackburn (New York: Collier, 1968), pp. 15-24.  In Spanish: “Lejana (Diario de Alina Reyes),” Bestiario [1951] Cuentos Completos/1 (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994), pp. 119-125. See Vilma Arrieta-Vargas, “Presencia satánica en el río Danubio: Anagramas en ‘Lejana” de Julio Cortázar,” Letras 32 (2000): pp. 45-64.

[6]Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch, Trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Pantheon, 1966), Ch. 71, p. 379. In Spanish, Rayuela [1963] (Barcelona, Edhasa, 1984), Ch. 71, p. 435.

[7]Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium, Trans. Patrick Creagh (New York: Vintage, 1993), p. 26 and pp. 44-45.

[8]In the early 1970s, Harold Bloom made Lucretius’ clinamen central to his theory of literary influence in the controversial work The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).  Before this, Gilles Deleuze argued in the late 1960s that “Lucretius established for a long time to come the implications of naturalism: the positivity of Nature; Naturalism as the philosophy of affirmation; pluralism linked with multiple affirmation; sensualism connected with the joy of the diverse; and the practical critique of all mystifications.”  The Logic of Sense, Trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 279.

[9]Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengears, Order out of Chaos (New York: Bantam, 1984), p. 141 and p. 303.  Prigogine, in turn, owes his reading of Lucretius to the attentive and inspired, but somewhat less accessible, account given by Michel Serres, for example, in “Lucretius: Science and Religion,” Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), pp. 98-124.

[10]Ernst Mayr, “The Evolution of Living Systems,” Evolution and the Diversity of Life (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 18.

[11]Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch, Trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Pantheon, 1966), Ch. 73, pp. 383-384, translation modified.  In Spanish, Rayuela [1963] (Barcelona: Edhasa, 1984), Ch. 71, pp. 438-439.

Read with a Basketball in Your Hands

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

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

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

Dominator Jesus, a Reflection on the Religion of Basketball

993819^-jesus-basketball

A friend put this image on my Facebook wall the other day.  I’m pretty sure she was being ironic.  Maybe she remembered that I’d written before what I imagined would one day be the opening salvo in my basketball autobiography “My Life as a Point Guard” — an introductory rumination called “Between Jesus and Wilt Chamberlain.”  This image comes from what seems to be a Catholic church affiliated website  selling “inspirational gifts, books, and church supplies.”  This particular item, called “Jesus Sports Statue Basketball,” is recommended as “a wonderful way to encourage your young athlete on the court and in their faith as well.”   It “serves as a contemporary reminder that Jesus is with your child in basketball and in all that they do.” Read more

Day 12: What It Is

I didn’t plan it this way when I designed the syllabus, but it seems especially appropriate to be teaching, thinking, and writing about the old ABA during the media-amped spawn of pure skill and utter silliness that is NBA All-Star Weekend. We wrestled no bears, but it was as though the giddy 70s hallucination that the ABA can appear to have been infected my students (and me) so that we had a wacky day worthy of the most surreal of that defunct’s league’s half-time shows.

I undoubtedly set the tone for this, in part, by beginning class with my personal anecdote about watching the Michigan game the night before at Applebee’s next to a couple of puffy, red-faced, slick-haired vulgarians who were ragging endlessly on each and every one of the players that I have in class. I was surprised to find myself offended. The students (players more than anyone) insisted on hearing the criticisms in all their blockheaded, paunchy glory. And with that I seem to have informalized the classroom beyond the point of no return.

From there, after a brief and meaningless introduction, I rolled a 3-minute clip of Julius Erving tearing up the ABA. As Dr J exhibited his assortment of pull-up threes, twisting finger rolls, and, of course, elegant swooping slams to a funky instrumental backbeat, the students got rowdy and loud.

Beating on their little desks, they screamed for more clips: “Where’s the drifting-out-from-behind-the backboard scoop?!!” “That was the NBA,” I tell them, oldly, “against the Lakers.” “We wanna see that!” “Julius in the NBA!” Inside I’m resisting – this isn’t about Julius per se, but about the ABA – but I’m weak. I don’t want to lose them, I don’t want to police them, and most of all, as I’ve said before, I could watch these clips all day. I want to see the Doctor too. “You really wanna see that?” I ask, suggestively, blithely unaware of the doom about to descend. “Yayyyyyyy!!” they shouted, birthday hats akimbo, noisemakers blaring, faces smeared with cake. “Okay!” I say brightly.

With my computer’s desktop projected enormously on the screen in the front of the room, I quickly Google “Dr J in the NBA”, self-conscious about how slow I am in this medium compared to these kids who were all born and raised in the Matrix (even slower than usual since I can’t type normally because of the splint immobilizing my right hand). But I manage to get to a long list of video links. Now I can’t decide. We see one called “NBA Julius Erving Mix”, with a subtitle in Spanish: “dunk de Julius Erving.” That looks like fun. I click and then watch with horror as the first static image appears on my screen (and therefore, I know, 1 billion times larger on the screen over my left shoulder, and probably on a monitor in the Dean’s office): a woman wearing a cut off tank-top with the words “Got dick?” emblazoned across the front. Yeah. Of all the stupid things I’ve done, of all the humiliations I’ve suffered in the classroom since I taught my first class as a graduate student at Duke University in 1988, nothing like this has ever happened. Now we are indeed in a time machine hurtling toward the ABA.

The students are like teenagers – well, most of them are teenagers – at their first keg party. Howling, laughing, shouting clever comments to the person sitting two inches away from them, hysterical with embarrassment and excitement at having blasted through a taboo. Jumping over a car seems like nothing when you’ve just seen that in your college class. My crippled fingers stab at the keyboard trying to make it go away, my clumsiness magnified exponentially as I try to restore a semblance of calm to what has become a roomful of very large, coked-up 6th graders. I find a new clip and, as always, the graceful moving images of baller excellence gradually bring them back to their senses, or, at least, make them quiet down a bit. But, as the last image fades, along with the last bellowed note of Whitney’s “Greatest Love of All,” I sense the loopy energy bubble back up to a boil.

I try to channel it: “what do you see in the clips of Erving? “ Some of the answers: “grace, dunks, the range on his finger-roll, his athleticism.” Great, I tell them. And then I remind them that much of what we saw in the Dr J clips was occurring at the same time as what we had seen two days before in clips of the Knicks. But it looks like a different game, like a different era, like our era. And, in fact, it’s true, they see it too, today’s NBA game – driving athletic layups, rim rattling dunks, three-pointers – owes much more to Erving and the ABA than it does to Red Holzman and the Knicks. Unfortunately, scintillating and promising though that postulation may be, they’ve lost interest and begin to bombard me with irrelevant questions about Dr J’s career. That happens a lot: class disintegrating into a streetball version of Jeopardy.

I countered by putting a concrete focal object in front of them. “Take out your books,” I droned, “and open to this picture, on p. 86.” At least they are obedient, even if glumly so. We look at Jacob Weinstein’s trippy ABA artwork, a two-page visual explosion, in magenta, yellow, and the palest of pale blues, of elevating players, towering stylized afros, skyrocketing shapes and stripes, squiggles and loops, and bears and dancing girls. It’s really a brilliant piece of work, like mainlining Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls (the canonical documentary account of ABA zaniness). “Let’s look at this,” I say, “like a work of art, what jumps out at you?”

First answer: “the 70s.” I press for a little elaboration. They do pretty well, pointing to the color palette and the explosive lines and forms just barely ordered. They smartly contrast this with the art work we’ve already examined in the class: the neat lines and subdued colors of the Celtics trophy machine, the slightly more individualized and fantastic but still by no means chaotic image of the Knicks plying their trade against a skyline of newspaper headlines and box scores. What do the 70s mean to you? I ask.

One kid’s answer: “I don’t exist.” By which, it turns out, he meant neither to roll out a slip-n-slide of Cartesian doubt, nor to transport us into a paradoxical first-person consciousness prior to his conception, but rather just to state the obvious: it’s before his time and so doesn’t mean much. It’s the flipside of the Trivial Pursuit version of historical interest: none. I choke back the rising gorge of self-righteous indignation so as to glide past that worrisome – and all too common — ignorance and lack of curiosity about any frame of reference outside the first person singular in the present tense. Fortunately, someone else says, “It’s the 70s, it just looks like, like, anything could happen. You tell me something crazy happened in the 70s and I’d believe it, because anything could happen in the 70s.” A couple of students echo that, as though the first one hadn’t even spoken, like academics in a committee meeting.

Bingo. I can work with that. “The 70s,” I say, “I’m hearing means possibility to you, an expanded field of possibilities.” I hear a sound. Everybody laughs. I look confused. I hear the sound again. Not sure if it is a fart or a snore. Everyone laughs again. “Please,” I think I begged, “can y’all stay with me here.” A hand goes up: “Who is the guy holding the McDonald’s bag in the fur coat?” I look more closely at the illustration. I can’t remember and I’m so irritated by their unrepressed fascination with the marginal detail. Then I come up with it: Marvin Barnes. I tell them the story about Barnes refusing to board a St Louis bound plane in Louisville because it would arrive “before” it departed: “I’m not getting on no time machine,” said the player some felt could’ve been the greatest ever. No hand, but a voice calls out, “Who is the guy with the gun in the Condors uniform?” I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t fucking know. Their fucking attention spans are like the 2005-6 Phoenix offense: 7 seconds or less. I say none of this. Instead I laugh: “you can look it up if you want, y’all are so much faster on your devices than I am.” (it was John Brisker, for the record).

I try again: “Possibility,” I say richly, trying to make the word sound like an open door rather than a lead balloon. I really want to bring home the point that this marginalized insanity of the ABA, the league that apparently folded, had actually migrated into the NBA and taken over, viz. All-Star Weekend. But I also want them to get not only that historical point about the game, but to glimpse that there’s a way of thinking about possibility and growth, about marginality and centrality here. I fantasize about them going out in the world and scrambling social hierarchies because of Culture of Basketball class.

“Wendell Berry,” I tell them, “is an American poet and essayist, who is also a farmer in Kentucky.” (Snickers). “He’s interested in questions of land use, farming, productivity, and ecology,” I say. Back in the late 70s, just after the ABA folded, he took a trip to Peru to study the farming practices of Andean peasants there. I remember almost nothing of this essay except the following (which I may in fact be misremembering): Berry was struck by the fact that the Peruvian farmers would leave a wild margin all around their cultivated plots. Accustomed to the US practice of tilling and planting every possible square inch of arable land, Berry was puzzled. The farmers explained that the margin was sort of like a research laboratory. If some sort of pest, for example, destroyed their crop one year, they could look to the margins and see what had survived and in that way begin to develop hybrids that would resist that blight the next time.

Now it all started coming together for me. I began to see the students’ wildness today as an expression of, a way of responding to, by reflecting, the wildness of the ABA. “What the hell was the ABA?” asks the subtitle of Bethlehem Shoals’s chapter (entitled Notes from the Underground) on the league in FreeDarko’s history of the pro game. Indeed, what the hell was that? The question we ask after something absurd occurs. Or, even more pertinently, after we come to our senses having participated in something absurd and inexplicable, or maybe even embarrassing. The question we ask having seen a UFO shoot across the evening sky, a quick trailing flash in our peripheral vision. It’s the question that might be asked of anything that grows in the unpoliced, uncultivated, untended margins of our attention. What the hell was that?

Indeed, that’s why I’ve allowed myself (why I always allow myself), against my judgment, to ramble about the seemingly unproductive, distracted and distracting occurrences and comments in class. The students seemed to me to be pestering for the identities of players on the margins of the picture, but they were really asking what the hell was that on the periphery of their egocentric, adolescent vision? What was that in a cowboy hat and six shooter? In a fur coat clutching a McDonald’s bag? Is Will Ferrell true? What was that world before I was born? (Indeed, the viral metaphor helps me understand how I kept getting carried away on the tide of their appetite for the decontextualized marginal detail; they were bitten by the ABA and I was bitten by them). What the hell was that?

And the answer, just like when someone hauls out the baby pictures (or better yet, the ultrasound images), is: it’s you, silly! Your game, your day and age. Saturday night Claire and I watched – riveted, bored, and embarrassed all at once — a high-heeled, dolled up Heather Cox (I know its obvious, but really, why is a woman wearing heels to a basketball game?) escort Clippers guard Eric Gordon to a green screen, where he bashfully donned a Spartan helmet, grabbed a fake sword, and stood awkwardly before Jon Barry, ESPN commentator, who himself was also holding a sword and wearing a gladiator mask. They proceeded to mumble a few lines from the movie “Gladiator” and half-heartedly to knock their swords together like two embarrassed six year olds who are friends only because their parents are. “Thanks for the giggles, Eric” said Heather. He wandered off probably wondering “What the hell was that?” That was just before Justin Bieber nailed a three pointer in the celebrity game; which was just before he claimed his MVP trophy shouting props to “my boy Magic Johnson.” Did Justin Bieber really say “my boy Magic Johnson”? Did Magic really not only let him, but slap palms with him as he did? What the hell was that? The ABA –oops, the NBA – Its FANtastic! Have we really come so far from wrestling bears and playboy bunnies?

It’s true, the ABA may primarily be a mine of retro cache for a few urban hipsters, or a nostalgia trip for some middle-aged ballers like myself, but in some very real ways the ABA didn’t fold at all, it just implanted itself parasitically into the NBA and mutated (Shoals himself offers the viral metaphor in passing, and refers to the league as a “workshop or laboratory”). Add it’s not just the shamelessly, insatiable appetite for attention in the global media marketplace or the brazen techniques for securing it that the farmers of the NBA found and hybridized in the margins that were the ABA. It’s also, as I pointed out to the students, the game itself, the product on the floor.

If LeBron idolized Michael Jordan, well, it’s well-known that Michael idolized North Carolina State, then ABA, high-flyer David Thompson. Thompson may have burned out, but Dr. J didn’t, becoming instead a dominant gene in the host body of his new league. Where clips of the 70s Knicks offer an endless series of sober layups and mid-range jumpers (their regularity only emphasized by the oddity of an Earl Monroe scoop shot), the typical NBA game today presents itself as a series of 3 pointers, twisting layups in traffic, and mighty jams: in short, as a Dr J ABA highlight reel. And never is that more evident than during All-Star weekend, when the game turns itself inside out: parading as spectacular exhibition what in fact it is all the time.

There is a beautiful coda I would like to add, though it didn’t occur to me in class, lest I sound too disdainful. I’m only a little disdainful. After all, I’m of original ABA vintage and my authentic ABA game ball (autographed by the 1975 Spurs) sits proudly on our mantle. It’s in my DNA. But if I nonetheless seem less than caught up in the spectacle let me offer this by way of gratitude to the progenitors of Amazing.

The students, in responding to the artwork, mentioned the word “psychedelic.” In the feverish haze of my own ABA acid trip, I neglected to tell them that etymologically, “psychedelic” means “soul manifesting.” But it strikes me now that the phrase is a perfect response to the question: what the hell was the ABA? It was soul, manifesting. And while it may well have been an economically futile, exploitative, drug driven ride for a few martini-soaked businessmen, it also implanted some much needed soul (and style) into the genetic material of the mother ship that would first absorb and then be possessed by it.

go backward to read the previous day’s explanation for why the early 70s Knicks didn’t dunk and why it matters

or

Go on to read Day 13 and another version of soul

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