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

Day 6: Style and the Nature of the Universe

I suppose there’s all kind of funny things I could pull out today if I really felt like dipping into the subterranean spring of neurotic patter. And I kind of wish I did feel like it because maybe that’s really why you’re reading, maybe that’s the style with which I’ve become identified. But I really don’t feel like it because the reading for Thursday’s class and the discussion we had of it just sprang too many interesting ideas that I wanted and want to pursue. I’m thinking about the emergence of the “individual” as a notion in hoops history; about the connection between this and style and between style of play and style of thought,  and all of that with atoms and the nature of the self.   The superb short essay by Bethlehem Shoals on George Mikan in FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed History of Pro Basketball dropped my jaw and prompted these avenues of inquiry and many more before, during, and after Thursday’s class. We didn’t resolve them, nobody could, but I think we had some interesting and illuminating thoughts – and a good time – in the course of discussing them.

Let me start with the facts, because part of the excitement that the Mikan chapter generated for me stemmed from Shoals’ creativity in combining bare facts with a few abstract notions in order to make a speculative, but very convincing, and grounded, historical argument. The point here isn’t just to ladle praise on the essay. It’s also to suggest a parallel between the art of an argument and the art, say, of a pass or of a jumper, of a drive, a rebound, or a finish, and even of a defensive sequence.

I’ll come back to that. But this is how I proceeded in class: by telling them that we were going to begin by pulling facts from the text, then reconstructing the logic of Shoals’ argument, and then opening up some questions for discussion. Parts 1 and 2 might only have been fun for me, but I only cared a little bit that they might have been bored, because I love looking under the hood to see what makes it roar and because I am determined that over the course of the semester they come to see that every story about the game is created, from raw materials and with certain ends in mind. And what is true about stories about the game will also be true about stories about themselves and the world they live in.

So the facts that Shoals draws upon in his chapter are pretty much as follows:

  1. Prior to 1949, professional basketball games often varied in length and were played on courts of varying dimensions;
  2. In 1949, when the NBL and the BAA merged to form the NBA, uniformity of court dimensions and game and quarter lengths was established;
  3. George Mikan, the NBA’s first highly skilled big man at 6-10, led the NBA in scoring in its first two seasons (1949-1950; 1950-1951) while playing for the Minneapolis Lakers, who won 4 of the first 5 NBA championships;
  4. 1950: Racial integration begins in NBA;
  5. 1951: the league widened the foul-lane (to which the 3 second rule is attached);
  6. the tactic of offensive stalling (e.g. Fort Wayne defeated Minneapolis 19-18 in November of 1950) grew more widespread;
  7. the NBA introduced the 24 second shot clock in the 1954-1955 season;
  8. in 1954 6-9 Bob Pettit, star center at LSU, entered the NBA, and became a superstar, high scoring, high rebounding forward for the Hawks (Milwaukee, then St. Louis), one of only two teams other than Boston to win an NBA title between 1956 and 1969, until his retirement, while still among the league’s top scorers and rebounders, in 1965.

The students pretty competently pulled these facts from the chapter. And I think it was pretty clear to them that the facts made up a sort of Wikipedia timeline of the first few years of NBA history.

But what I found so thrilling in Shoals’ essay was not that he preserves these facts and links them into a historical narrative, which is the least you can expect from a competent history book. What sets this apart and – in my view sets Free Darko’s history apart form other NBA histories out there – is that even as Shoals weaves these facts into a historical narrative he adds meaning to them by simultaneously recasting that narrative in terms of certain fundamental philosophical terms — in this case, time, space, individuality or subjectivity, and modernity—which carry relevance, obviously, well beyond the game.

Now maybe nobody cares about this but academic dweebs like me, but everyone should care about it because, in the first place, it’s the sort of thinking that makes it possible, say, to even conceive of a course like “cultures of basketball”, to try to understand ourselves and our world a little better by way of the game. And in the second place, because what Shoals is thereby able to lay bare and to mobilize is exactly that which allows for fans to invest in the game as strongly as they do; allows, in other words, for the sort of enjoyable class poll I wrote about earlier in the week.

So, with that in mind, here is a skeletal presentation of the main assertions in Shoals’ argument, as best I could extract them from the fluid prose and with the “bare fact” words in bold:

  1. Time and space were unstable in early pro history
  2. The NBA (i.e. strong institutional culture) stabilized them through rules standardization
  3. Mikan’s size and ability destabilized space and (indirectly via the tactical stalling that he provoked) distorted time, both of which facts implicitly acknowledge Mikan as an individual, the first in NBA history.
  4. The unpopularity of stalling and competition with the college (then rocked on its heels by gambling scandals) leads to the introduction of the shot clock.
  5. The shot clock speeds time and opens space and increases the opportunity for, and indeed places a premium on, contingent individual decision-making, which reinforces, in other words, the notion of the player as unique individual ushered in by Mikan’s uniqueness as a player.
  6. “What made basketball modern was the notion that players and play itself were anything but uniform. This assertion of subjectivity opened up a host of possibilities; the parameters of action could now be manipulated and not merely accepted.”
  7. This scenario is exploited or let us say emblematized by Bob Pettit who, in shifting positions from center to forward, changes space (big man moves outside and faces basket) and changes time (big man away from the basket moves more quickly). But also, with a greater and more diversified skill set than Mikan, Pettit increases the range of individual decisions available to him.
  8. Pettit – a threat as rebounder, scorer, and ball-handler — was the forerunner of, and superceded by, a heterogeneous series of African-American players who will begin to enter the league in the wake of integration (e.g. Bill Russell 1956, Elgin Baylor 1958, Wilt Chamberlain 1959, Oscar Robertson 1960 and, I might add, Connie Hawkins, who would have entered in 1962, had he not been unjustly blackballed).

Please notice that you can see the original list of facts, still laid out, with one exception, in the correct chronological order in Shoals argument. But also notice that the facts have been embedded in the setting of a philosophically rich reflection on the variable and subjective experience of time and space and how that experience generates the category of the “individual ball player”; a category, it should be obvious enough, around which nearly all contemporary basketball culture turns (and before you tell me that it’s only the pro game’s culture that turns on the individual, let me just say this to you: Jimmer Fredette, Maya Moore, Austin Rivers).

So here is the first point to emphasize: that these notions of style and individuality are historical. They weren’t with us since forever – not in basketball and not in the world outside of basketball. They came into being, invented in a way to designate and also to hasten an as yet unnamed experience that human beings were beginning to have and to reflect upon: which is that they were not simply cogs in some institutional machine (be that machine the Roman Catholic church in the middle ages or the Game of Basketball). And this is one of the hallmarks of modern culture, whenever it has declared itself: a sense of individuality and with it an accompanying sense of freedom and possibility.

But wait, there’s more: Shoals’ essay can be seen as subtly – perhaps unintentionally self-referential. In other words, Shoals’ argument about the emergence of the notion of the individual in pro basketball history itself partakes of the very elements that allowed for that emergence in the first place. What? Bear with me. It may be kind of loosy-goosey, but I think it’s kinda cool.

Any given fact is analogous to a fundamental of the game such as a pass, shot, dribble, rebound, or defensive maneuver. Facts strung together into a historical chronology are like an ordinary play: rebound leads to pass leads to dribble leads to defense leads to pass leads to lay up. And facts strung together into a historical chronology and imbued with philosophical meaning are like a play suffused with functionally unnecessary uniqueness and individuality, which is to say, with style.

Please indulge the anachronisms in the following fantasy: Connie Hawkins snatches a defensive rebound in one hand, sweeps the defense aside with a menacing swing of his elbow, and fires a one-handed outlet pass to Magic Johnson just before mid-court. Magic gathers the pass with his right hand and turns forward in one motion, only to confront crafty Larry Bird who is waiting to take a charge, but Magic pulls the ball behind his back and puts it on the floor with his left hand, just turning and edging past Bird. Magic dribbles once more with his left, and looks at Julius Erving racing ahead of him on the left. This look momentarily freezes defender Bruce Bowen who had begun to approach Magic near the top of the circle and Ben Wallace under the basket who hedges slightly toward Erving. Magic alone spots a trailing Blake Griffin streaking in from the right, throws a left-handed bounce pass behind his back that catches Blake in stride as he lifts off the floor. Bowen meanwhile surreptitiously grabs Magic’s jersey and pulls him into him, flopping backward with Magic on top of him, hoping to draw the late charging call. Griffin pulls his arm back to throw down a vicious tomahawk slam even as Ben Wallace leaps to meet him and even gets a hand on it. But Blake’s momentum is too much even for Ben and Griffin powers the ball through the net.

See what I mean? That play still had a rebound – a pass – a dribble – some defense – another pass – and a shot. But this play was, well, amazing! In other words, this is what makes us care, makes us come up with lists of most loved and most hated. And, by the way, if you hate this sort of play, then know that you are really just expressing a preference for a different style: one that is plain and unadorned. I don’t dig that so much, but it’s okay if you do. You can tell your own story with a rebound, pass, dribble, defense, pass, and shot. It might come out different. Just don’t come telling me that you hate style and that you don’t watch the game for style. My students themselves made that point.

But then, that is also the case for facts and narratives. In other words a “bare fact” is just an interpretation of reality that conforms so completely to our conventional standards of plausibility and presentation that we don’t see the interpretation. So, “the NBA was formed in 1949.” Seems like a bare fact. But in stating it we have already selected from the inchoate material of pure experience several points of emphasis: “NBA” “formation” “1949”. And that selection process entails assignment of value and meaningfulness. No problem, nothing to get alarmed about. There are still facts and there is still truth and falsehood. It’s just that they can’t be separated from interpretation and therefore from particular individuals doing the interpreting and therefore from their agendas. This was the second point I wanted to emphasize.

What we explored next, in a stumbling, sleepy groping in the dark for the bathroom doorknob sort of way (through no fault of theirs), was how it is that we infer personality from the individual style with which a player executes the fundamentals on the court. In class, we spent some time talking about the kinds of things that players do off the court, or between plays, from which we draw some sense of their personalities, like Shaq winking to the camera after a basket.

But as I kept pushing, one student – who grew up in Indiana admiring Reggie Miller – said he felt that Reggie Miller’s playing style indicated he was “hyper” as a person. Now, nowhere has this kind of stylistic analysis been done better than in FreeDarko’s first offering: the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. But we did our own poor man’s version in class by comparing the kinetic chaos of Reggie’s three point jumper with the fluid economy of Ray Allen’s. Both deadly three point shooters, but they look different shooting them and from this we might infer a hyper, expressive personality for Reggie Miller and a kind of quiet humility to Ray Allen. At some point, of course, we encounter some sliver of their personalities in other settings and these we weave into our interpretations of their game, or vice-versa. As I say, get the Almanac if you want to see the pros do this right.

But the really important thing is that in inferring a personality from a style we are mistaking cause and effect. We think that Reggie’s hyper personality causes or is expressed through the style of his jump shot. But in fact there is first the style that we see and then the ex post facto construction of something we call his personality, which we then posit as a cause or source of the style.

For my money, beyond the amusement and illumination, the true philosophical profundity (which is to say basketball wisdom) of the Almanac is that FreeDarko intentionally or not — seems to express this in the epithets for each individual pkayer that form the subtitles for the chapters. Tim Duncan isn’t important as a name or as an individual with a personality. He’s important as the site of convergence and combination for a number of discrete stylistic components that can be viewed together as comprising something called “mechanical gothic.” The proper name is just a convenient shorthand that we are used to using, but it doesn’t designate the source of anything.

The dazzling, late Italian novelist Italo Calvino once noted that the Roman poet Lucretius (c. 100 – c. 55 B.C.), in his remarkable The Nature of the Universe 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.” Calvino went on to muse that perhaps what we call a self is nothing but a “combination of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.”

Isn’t this already suggested by the “Periodic Table of Style” with which the almanac begins? I mean isn’t it already clear there that the individuals that follow, rather than being the origins of style, are rather the effects of particular combinations of style elements? Just as we ourselves are, physically and spiritually, the combination of elements that existed long before our selves and will persist long after we have faded into oblivion.

Indeed in “seeing” certain styles, we are ourselves engaged in an invention that is every bit as stylized. My story above about Connie, Magic, and Blake successful fast break (over Larry, Bown, and Ben) says as much about the stylistic elements of which I am composed as it does about any of those actual players (and it would be no different if I were describing a play that actually existed). In fact, the best basketball culture, to my mind, knows that it is itself part of the thing it is describing, and finds the sweet spot between the stupidity of thinking itself to be objectively about the game and the precious narcissism of describing its own image in the mirror. The best of basketball culture knows its own freedom. Or, in other words, has style.

Go to Go Yago! to read these Spring Break reflections on style and basketball writing,

go back to read about the myth and reality of amateurism in basketball

or

Go on to enjoy the baffling greatness of the old Celtics.

Day 4: Why Can’t I Be Chris Paul?

Woke up excited: the players will be back today! I can’t wait! Stop it! You’re not supposed to be a fan. You’re the professor. Plus, you know better than to glorify college athletes. You’ve read the headlines, you’ve read the exposés: these guys have probably been tracked since they were 12, spoiled, pampered, egocentric beyond the usual adolescent norm, entitled. They’re probably jerks.  Who cares if they’re back? It was better when they weren’t there and we had space to spread out and the room wasn’t so hot. I wonder if they’ve read my blog. I wonder if they’ve talked about me. Besides, those exposés are usually written by moralizing old white guys, huffing indignantly about the state of the game, hiding behind a pious claim to really care about the kids, while secretly hating them for their talent. But I really do care about the kids. They fill me with tenderness. Will the beaten up old red and black Clash hoodie I’m planning to wear seem cool to them. Idiots won’t even know the Clash.  Faker: you didn’t even know about the Clash when they were playing.  Does it go with my Nike sweats? The red on the hoodie is faded and doesn’t really match the red of my red and black 25th anniversary Air Jordan Alpha 1’s. Oh, and thank you for the zit on my forehead — what am I, 13?  It’s shining like a beacon in the dim basement light bulb that is the sun in Ann Arbor in midwinter. Now I’ll have to wear my hat for sure, even if it’s too hot. Crap. I’ve only been up for thirty seconds. I thought I had this shit under control. It’s a good thing I have therapy this morning. 

You don’t care about my therapy. If I really take the foot off the brake the whole post could veer drastically over the edge of the cliff, tumble, crash, explode and burn, and then explode once more. So I’ll try to keep it tight. I really, really like my therapist. And I’m pretty sure he really, really likes me. In fact, he once told me (cause I asked) that he thought we could be friends if he wasn’t my therapist and I wasn’t his patient. And that admission probably tells you about as much about my therapy (and my problems) as you need or want to know.   Suffice it to say it’s where I go to enjoy the spectacular parade of disgusting and pathetic poses and pratfalls my mind continually trots out behind the scenes; or while I’m on the bench, sitting next to Scottie and Dennis, just before the house lights darken, the spots start to swirl madly, and the Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” kicks in.

So after getting my due props from the doc for following my bliss with the course and the blog we put on the hipboots and waders and went fishing in the chattering stream of fantasies, fears, and self-judgment that flows pretty much constantly through the mind of a resurgent insecure adolescent wanna-be baller who is posing as a university professor.   That always helps clear the air. I’m settled and relaxed again, perspective restored, reassured that my issues aren’t deep in this case, that I’m not crazy, that it’s probably pretty normal and that I’m probably doing the best I can to manage them by just naming them and being aware of them. It’s like the scene in Maus where Artie, who has already published the first volume to acclaim and fame goes to see his therapist cause he feels guilty and awful and he draws himself child size sitting on the chair in session. But after he talks through it and gets some perspective, he is restored to his adult self.

Chuckling compassionately at my adolescent self, patting him on the shoulder with a hint of condescension, I well-nigh bound out of there, and go to teach my first class. (Great students, by the way, we’re reading dizzying Jorge Luis Borges short stories — for example, this one — and they are rocking it in our discussions: too bad they’re not college athletes or I’d write about them too.  I suck.) I put on the headphones and turn on the iPod and head over to hoops class. I don’t like how fast I have to walk to get there in time. It leaves me feeling rushed, sweaty, breathless and unathletic by the time I enter the classroom. I wonder if my music is cool. Claire made me a hip hop mix a few months ago. The her cousin, Li’l Gherkin, made us a couple of different mixes. Then I made one combining the things I liked most from those two. I’m happy and buoyant listening to it; except when I’m stabbed by the certainty that as much as I like it, it must not be the really cool stuff or I wouldn’t even know about it. I pause as I enter the building to switch the song to something that I think they will think is cool if they happen to ask me what I am listening to.

Nobody asks me what I am listening to. They look bemused, as always. Everyone’s there, which is good, but they’re sitting in different places, which is both good (the players are a little more evenly distributed) and bad (early in the semester I remember names best by where people sit, until I begin to associate them with the way they think and speak). Lots to do today: we are scheduled to talk about “Only the Ball was Orange,” the section of FreeDarko’s history in which, in a series of cartoons and short descriptions, Jacob Weinstein introduces some of the best known of the many barnstorming squads that crisscrossed the country from the late teens through the 1940s. But I also have to take care of some logistical matters, like making sure everyone has chosen their elective assignments for Unit 1. And I have to attend to the helpful AV tech who is bringing me the adaptor cable so that I can project youtube clips from my laptop to the large pull down screen. I’m glad we have a lot to do.  I’m businesslike and important. But it also makes me sweat more and feel disorganized because papers are all over the place, including the notes where I wrote down what we have to get done.

So I am shuffling paper, glazed and talking, and some students are straggling in so that I have to start over, and then the AV guy comes in and a player realizes that I’m gonna want to show video and he is sitting directly under the screen so he gets up to move, saying “Oh, are you gonna show video, then I’m gonna move” and I stupidly respond “Oh, uh, yeah, but you don’t hafta move.” And then, realizing my stupidity, I apologize, “Oh sorry, that was stupid I guess you do hafta move if you want to see the video and not get hit on the head by the screen.” Why do I talk so much, why do my sentences always have to go on and on and on? Why do I always have to say everything?

Logistics covered, questions answered – well and with a sprinkle of successful humor, I might add – my self-satisfaction is on the rise.  Then it skyrockets!  We’ve had a fun little exchange about the class and the blog and how famous writers on the internet are following our syllabus. My one student that I’ve had before says, “Yago, you blowin’ up.” And I laugh, tilt my head back and stretch my arms out to the side in my best we are all witnesses pose [LINK}. And then – here is my moment of triumph – I say, “You can’t check me.” Cash. Count it. Game. I win. Go home.

Today I have divided my notebook page into two columns. Left hand side: things I want to say about the barnstorming teams, with a few talking points and some arrows; right hand side: blank with the heading “things they say.” I tell them I have some ideas of what I want them to notice about the reading but I’m gonna keep them on the back-burner (that suddenly seems like a terribly unfashionable expression; I wish I could download urban dictionary directly into my brain like in the Matrix). I want to know what struck them as they read?

I’m impressed by the fact they’ve actually read the assignment (which I should not be since today’s reading – no disrespect to Jacob Weinstein who I think actually did a brilliant job of condensing and making interesting complex and repetitive raw material — was pretty much like reading the comics section of the paper, in terms of length and intellectual complexity). But I’m also impressed by their instincts for what is interesting.

Someone points out the humor in Weinstein’s description, giving the example of the entry on the “Hong Wah Kues,” a Chinese American team from San Francisco who barnstormed for one season in 1939. Weinstein wryly observes that one of their games was publicized with “flyers announcing ‘WAR! Grangeville to be attacked.” It’s funny. Even funnier to me, is his introduction to the Buffalo Germans, an early barnstorming team that mercilessly pounded lesser opponents: “Shrouded in mystery, this team of creepy teenagers from Upstate New York was forced into barnstorming by geographic isolation.” We laugh. I make fun of one of the players who I know is from somewhere in Upstate New York. We all pretend he looks just like the creepy teenagers in Weinstein’s cartoon: goth without realizing it.

I ought to have slowed down here. In fact, my main teaching point from today’s class is that I ought to slow down in general in class. Breathe more. Listen better to what they say. Slow down in my response. Usually I’m good at abiding silence in class. I haven’t been so good here. Then, I would be better able to push them more deeply into the presuppositions, implications, and associations of what they say. Because in this case, the humor of the section – while in some ways an incidental stylistic feature – can also be an avenue into what is most substantively relevant about the barnstormers.

Some of what now is funny – like the Hong Wah Kues poster, or the quotation from Paul Gallico’s 1920’s New York Daily News column that noted, of the SPHAS, Jewish barnstormers from Philadephia: “The reason that basketball appeals to the Hebrew is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness” – wouldn’t have been funny then and is only funny because of the ironic distance, which is to say because we would never hold such attitudes today. Except that, maybe just a teensy weensy bit, we do.  Weinstein says in the next line:  “Though Jews soon faded from the courts as players, these traits continued to serve them well as they moved into coaching and managerial positions in later years.”

Good time to tell my students about irony. Not just as a trope or an attitude, but as a way of knowing  in which we can simultaneously (1) know things and (2) understand (2a) how we have known them, (2b) that our knowledge is partial, and (2c) that things could actually be different than what we feel we know them to be. Irony can be a valuable component of the stories we tell. In this case, the deadpan paraphrasing or direct quoting of racist statements, framed by the comic genre, sheds a critical spotlight on that kind of statement, but without defensively over-distancing itself from the attitudes, so that we know the author doesn’t think he’s absolutely purified all such offensive discourse.  What this does is let us safely acknowledge our own participation in racism, which is of course indispensable to beginning to transform it.   The brilliant caricatures, some based on real photos, help – again ironically – to stress what the section’s introductory text has already told us: as funny as these teams will be, they were struggling against real issues, real issues that still exist today.

I certainly didn’t say any of this though maybe over the course of the day I described it or evoked it without actually calling it irony. And someone, it might have been me, did build off the observation about the humor in this section to notice that just about every team was distinguished either by race, ethnicity, or gender. Weinstein puts it quite succinctly when he notes that, while for some teams barnstorming was the best financial option among several, “for other teams, generally those made up of minorities, nomadism was the only option available. Like much of America’s society in the early twentieth century, these teams fell along ethnic and religious fault lines.” So, it seems, the barnstormers, in many cases, are the marginalized flip side of the early pro leagues that we had discussed on Day 3.

But as it turns out the early pro leagues were themselves the marginalized flip side of early 20th century American capital (just then flexing its post-pubescent muscle and beginning to go global) under the auspices of the WASPish ethos that held, among other things, that the “gentleman sportsman” wouldn’t deign to sully vigorous physical activity and healthy competition with an exchange of cash (see Robert Peterson’s Cages to Jump Shots for some good passages on this). That is to say that even the pros who were not minorities were often in the game in order to supplement arduous, underpaid working class jobs or to escape dead-end lives in some ethnic ghetto.

That’s why, to answer the question begged by a student observation, they’d put themselves through what might seem to us like the terrible physical and emotional punishment of traveling around the country’s nascent road network, packed into uncomfortable cars, in order to play a couple of hundred games a year. Beckley Mason, who has been a great friend to the course and to this blog, had an excellent post on John Wall maybe hitting a wall here at mid-season.  Mason compassionately observed that it’s a big adjustment to play as much as the pros play, and to travel, and to be at least a little hurt all the time, and to still have to play. And that is true, but at least Wall has a crack medical staff to look after him and try to mitigate some of that. Who looked after the Rens, or even the Original Celtics when they sprained an ankle?

Someone in class says that they’re impressed that the Globetrotters beat the Minneapolis Lakers in 1948 and 1949. This is perfect for me because I wanted to show them a clip of the Globetrotters. I emphasize that the Globetrotters weren’t always primarily entertainers and they didn’t always play fixed competition. I try to get across that, in fact, up until right around the formation of the NBA (notice, I say,  hierarchy, centralization) they played pretty much straight basketball. It was only after the NBA was formed and began to grow in popularity that they became what we think of them as today.

I go to set up my AV cable and the projector and to pull up the clip on my computer. Disaster, I have the wrong cable. Hold up, I tell them, just sit tight for a couple of minutes. I run down to the main office to explain. The secretary makes a call. Hopefully the tech dude will be up in a few minutes to bring me the right cable. I’m so flustered that I dash out of the office and back up to my classroom without waiting to see if she even got hold of him and if he was in fact coming. So back in the classroom I stall for time: “while we’re waiting for the right cable, let’s talk a little about the Globetrotters.”

“Globetrotters,” I say, “good or bad from the point of view of racial progress?”  I think of the SNL parody of “The McLaughlin Group.”  Wrong!!  Sometimes I like to pose discussion points to my students in terms of either-or starkly opposed terms. My hope is that they will feel the constraint of the such binary categories; and to exercise their own powers of intellectual subtlety and nuance against those constraints and, like an angry Bill Bixby, bursting through the outworn clothes of dualistic thinking.

I’m pretty sure we didn’t really get there, exactly. Although maybe, on second thought, collectively we did. Students offered several different perspectives on the question, sometimes contradicting themselves so that I felt like they had a handle on what might be seen as problematic about the Globetrotters, but also why it might not be so simple as “the Globetrotters were and are bad for racial progress because they feed directly off tropes of black minstrelsy that in turn feed off the attitudes of slave holders.”  I wished I’d been able to show them this video, which presents the Globetrotters as the precursors of contemporary cool.

I pointed out that for some who have played or written about the game, the Globetrotters are often set in opposition to the NBA. I asked them what they thought of that, or rather, I provoked them by asking “are they really so different?” Of course, they are quite different in many ways that are important. But it’s also worth noting one major similarity: in both cases primarily African-American men are employed by primarily white men to entertain by exhibiting their athletic ability to a primarily white paying public.  And in both cases, each individual owner gets a bigger cut of the take than any individual players.

Just to push things a little further I brought up The Decision. I didn’t want to jump the gun too much because we’ll certainly talk about Lebron later in the semester, but the video cable wasn’t coming and we still had about twenty minutes of class left. I asked them why everyone was so mad about Lebron’s decision to leave Cleveland. Someone pointed out that it wasn’t the decision so much as The Decision.  Sure, I say, so he’s a little immature, a little high on himself. So what? Does that really – I mean really – hurt the millions of people who have heaped scorn and worse on him?

Another student points out that in Cleveland people acted like they owned Lebron and that this was fucked up because it sounded like slavery. I agreed and then added that it wasn’t only in Cleveland. Enter the Q ratings discussion from a few months ago, wherein it was observed that Lebron’s negative Q ratings skyrocketed (from 24 to 44 %) among Caucasians, while basically holding steady among African-Americans.  So white people hate Lebron for the decision or The Decision or both, but black people don’t. What is that about?

“This country’s racist,” a student said. I agree. And I agreed. But I also told them that the point of my raising these issues in class was not only to reach that pretty obvious conclusion. In fact, more important to me than what sort of judgment the students were to come to about the Globetrotters or the decision or The Decision or the Backlash to The Decision was the fact that we were able to take a step back – SLOW! IRONY WORKING – and to begin to make visible the invisible definitions of race, racism, and racial progress that were secretly driving our various contributions to the discussion, just as they suffuse most of the cultures of the game.

And what is true of race is also true of gender, though not only in the obvious ways such as that the women’s game doesn’t get nearly the coverage the men’s game does. It does so also in that one line of criticism of Lebron’s decision was that “he would never be The Man” in Miami. Several of my male students are practice players for the UM women’s team. We talked about that briefly. I think it’s a minor act of gender courage for a young man – who has probably grown up veering clear of the possibility of being told he plays like a girl – to assume the role of practice player for a women’s team. That is a young man who loves to play the game and who gives me hope that the next generation will have fewer hangups around gender issues than my own does.

Almost out of time, I shifted into motivational summary mode.  “All our stories about basketball are informed, if only implicitly, by attitudes about race, gender, class, ethnicity, and nationality. These racialized, gendered, etc stories have been around so long, are so common, and repeated so often, that they start to seem natural to us.  I  want to break that, to fracture that sense of naturalness and to make those aspects of the stories seem strange.  I don’t want to tell you what to think or what you can and can’t say.  But I want to make you look at the way you think and talk with a critical eye so that you can make a freer decision about how you want to think and talk.”

To give an example, I told them how at the playground or gym in my neighborhood in St. Louis, where I am frequently the only Caucasian playing pickup, if I have a bad day I am ignored. But if I have a good game I will be regaled with shouts of “Steve Nash! Manu Ginobili!” or, among the older fellas, “Vinny del Negro!” or even “Ernie di Gregorio!”

“Why,” I pleaded to my students, with mock and real desperation in my voice, “Why can’t I be Chris Paul?” I mean, seriously, I don’t really play like any of those players and those players don’t really play like each other. So what’s really being noted with the names is that I’m a white player who has surprised. And that is true. But it is only part of what I am. I don’t mind it. In fact, I kinda love it when they call me Nash. But that might be because there’s not any threat to my political, economic, or civic freedom attached to the reduction of my being to race and basketball performance. But what if it was? And what if it were repeated again and again? Only not just when I’m on the court, and not to praise me, but to criticize, humiliate, and to limit me in the expression of my being; and to try to cause me to doubt the worth of my being? And not just in words, but in deeds and practices and whole legal and economic structures?

Even without all that, it bothers me a little bit, maybe almost on aesthetic grounds because it shows a lack of imagination: exactly the kind of imagination I want my students to learn to exhibit and deploy. C’mon, I sometimes want to say back, we can do better than that, we can think more creatively than that.  I imagine crossing someone over and hitting a step back jumper and someone shouting out “AI!”  I’d about fall down:  “You are an artist!”  Because why, if you’re gonna call me by the name of a player who is a million times better than me and whose signature repertoire of skills I could not possibly begin to match, why, in that case, can’t I be Chris Paul?
I wanna be Chris Paul.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment (catch Day 5’s lively and frank discussion of amateurism here) when I might actually bust out my Sheed Pistons jersey for class. In the meantime, check out these sites where Cultures of Basketball is also being followed or discussed:

Hoopspeak, where Beckley Mason has recruited some of the fine journalists and bloggers from the TrueHoop network to “take” the class, beginning with Bret Lagree on George Mikan.
Hoopism, where one of my students, Matt Gordon, will be blogging about his experiences in the course.
FreeDarko, where Bethlehem Shoals, FreeDarko.com founder and co-author of our class textbook, responds to my accounts of our class discussions on Day 2 and Days 3 and 4.

Or work your way back by looking at my lament for the leagues and possibilities devoured by the seeming inevitability of the NBA

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