Day 3: Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

When I first saw that UM players were signing up for the course, back toward the end of the Fall semester, I was mostly just excited. Then I started to feel a little anxious, which, as previously reported, bore gruesome fruit on Day 1. But I also a felt a more realistic, pedagogical concern: if I had 8 or 9 players in a class of 20, what would happen when they all had to miss a day (or more) because of travel for a game? And what would happen when they all came back the next day? At the time, I brushed this question off and didn’t really think through a good response since it was a bridge I hadn’t come to yet and I was still mostly just excited. But this particular repressed reared its ugly head earlier this week and I had to start worrying about it again. 

The e-mail came on Monday, as I was prepping for Tuesday’s class, from an Academic Counselor in the Academic Success Program at the University.   The subject line named all the players enrolled in my class. I was excited. Probably they’re writing because want me to get more involved with the team because the players reported to their coach what a phenomenal asset they were sure I’d be. As it turns, the message very politely, but pleasantly informally, let me know that players would miss class on Tuesday because they’d be traveling to their game against Northwestern and asked me about any assignments “the guys” (I did dig that the sender referred to the players as “the guys” to me; made me feel like part of the gang) would need to make up from not being in class on Tuesday.  My heart sank:  I’m nine and my older brother says he has to go to work and doesn’t have time to play me one-on-one.

But the message in itself was neither a problem nor a surprise. Only last week, a member of the track team who is also in the class had handed me a copy of the track schedule covered by a letter from the Provost and Vice-president for Academic Affairs, endorsed by the Chair of the Faculty Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs. I also enjoyed that letter because while I talk a good game,  I’m also craven enough to be gratified to be contacted by Power, even when it’s just telling me what to do.

The Provost informed me that “the student bearing this letter” would find it “necessary to miss a portion” of my class in order “for him/her to represent the University of Michigan.” It went on to explain that the student was not relieved of responsibility for completing course requirements and that the Provost expected the student and me to make alternative arrangements that did not “unduly inconvenience” me or the student. Alright, this seems like a reasonable approach to the issue.

After all, students miss class for much stupider reasons. Like, say, being drunk at 9 am on St. Patrick’s Day. I’m not kidding – I’ve passed them on my way to class and they call out to me with a surprising lack of sheepishness:  “Yo! Professsssssor CO-las!”

On Tuesday, it was great to have more space in our tiny overheated classroom.  The remaining students had dispersed throughout the available space like gas molecules in a drawing.  I noted with relief that I wasn’t worried about what I was wearing. But the absences made me a little down.  And, they present a practical problem in my class for reasons that have something to do, in a way, with the topics we covered in class yesterday. First, for those of you keeping track at home, the required reading assignment was pp. 16-19 of FreeDarko’s Undisputed Guide to the History of Pro Basketball. That’s the section, called “Go Forth and Dribble: Basketball’s First Great Age of Expansion,” covering professional basketball leagues in this country from 1898 up to the creation of the NBA from two existing leagues in 1949.

Though a short selection, it contains a wealth of material ingenously presented by Jacob Weinstein in four sections, one per page: “Micro Leagues: 1898-1909”, “Regional Leagues: 1910-1924”, “Big Leagues: 1925-1937”, and “Major Leagues: 1938-1950”. Each section includes a map showing the number of teams from different cities in each league and then provides short descriptions of the “Structure,” “Venues,” “Style” and “Innovations” characteristic of each of the four types of league. It struck me as a quite brilliantly economical way to present a great deal of information on the “pre-history” of the NBA to an audience that’s really mostly interested in the NBA. In a way, it read to me like a combination of summary and interpretation of the much more detailed book From Cages to Jump Shots, by Robert Peterson, which is a terrific resource in its own right.  This is a great section but because of its structure (which is not exactly narrative), it’s a little harder for me to feel at home there, like playing on a court without lines, or with different lines.

My plan for the day was to recap our discussion of Naismith and the invention of the game in ways that might link it to the reading about the early pro leagues, then to pull student impressions of the reading, and then to steer the discussion in the direction of the two most interesting topics that the Free Darko reading raised for me: first, how we tell “pre-history” of something (in this case the NBA), and what happens to our view of things that didn’t themselves know they were part of the pre-history of anything when they were happening; and second, how tensions between spontaneity and calculation, horizontal (or non-hierarchical, decentralized) organization and vertical (or hierarchical and centralized) organization, informal versus formal business models, and local vs. national scales were present and manifested themselves in these early leagues. That was the plan, but as always I wasn’t sure how – or if — we’d get from A to B to C.

I reminded them that we’d spoken of stories of how things come into being or how they come to have the form they have, and I pointed out that we can, in telling those stories, tilt the narrative to stress the chance or coincidental nature of the emergence of the thing or, conversely, to stress the inevitability of its emergence. Or, as philosophers might put it, we can, for reasons of temperament and agenda, stress contingency or necessity.  I’m not a philosopher, so I might have that not quite right.

In the case of Naismith, I cited the height of the goal, which didn’t “have to be” (necessity, inevitability) 10 feet, but “happened to be” (contingency, chance) because that was the height of the balcony in the Springfield Y to which he nailed the peach baskets. We also talked about how this plays out in other stories and had a good laugh imagining “Hoosiers” (a story narrated as destiny if there ever was one, but that really becomes a story worth telling only because a player hit a literally improbably, game-winning last-second shot) as a comedy. Maybe Chevy Chase could play the Gene Hackman role and a baffling series of wacky accidents and zany hijinks could brings tiny Hickory to the Indiana state title.Of course, I’m not the first to point out that the “Hoosiers”-as-destiny narrative is powerfully racially coded so that it’s unlikely that remake is gonna happen anytime soon.

For some, a stress on the contingency of history leads naturally to wonder: well, if it didn’t have to happen this way, what if it had happened another way? And these counterfactuals, as they are called, can provide for an amusing pastime, as exemplified for some in the “what ifs” section of Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball: speculating as to how the course of history might have changed if you alter one chance variable in the past (what if Jason Williams hadn’t crashed his motorcycle, what if Memphis had won the Lebron draft lottery instead of Cleveland). In fact, it’s a whole subdiscipline in the field of history. But I wasn’t interested, not in class anyway, in actually debating these what-ifs. I said this with as much weary disdain as I could muster so as to discourage what I envisioned would be a disintegration of the classroom into a kind of amateur “Around the Horn” (or, for 30 Rock fans: Sports Shouting). I just wanted the students to learn to spot these sorts of elective emphases when they are present (as they must be) in any story about the coming into being of something new.

But with that recap in mind to orient our discussion, I let go of the reins and stepped into the abyss, asking the students what had struck them in the reading. Several hands went up, catastrophe averted. I don’t care so much whether they say anything smart, so long as they say something. For better and for worse I can make just about anything sound smart, at least to 19 year-olds. In this case, fortunately, the students picked up on things that I think really were at least potentially interesting aspects of the early history of the game.  One student was struck by the violence of the early leagues. Another student was struck by the mobility of the contract-less players in the regional leagues. We laughed imagining a league in which Melo could play for NY, NJ, and Denver. Then another student described being struck by the ability to “see the evolution of the game.” He talked about how bit-by-bit, as he read the four pages, the game he is familiar with started to emerge and take shape.


Good feeling.  Scintillating.  I liked the image and seized on the term evolution.  Here is possibility.  Here is the pebbled surface of the ball in my hands.  I pointed out, parenthetically acknowledging that he surely used the word evolution deliberately, that often times we use that term with a teleological (look it up) connotation, as though we knew all along where something that was evolving was evolving to. And then I pointed out that at the heart of the theory of evolution and its mechanisms of natural selection and genetic drift is the phenomenon of random variation generated by mutation.  Only after these random variations have manifested and proved advantageous do they begin to get “selected,” … “naturally.” That’s a bit too much chance for some storytellers though, I said, just because it sounded good, and so some want to assign a motivating, necessary cause to “random variations.” An example of such a cause would be God. I’m not a biologist (I know, I fake it a lot), so I might have that evolution stuff wrong, but if I do, it’s the way it ought to be.

I hadn’t planned it, or thought at all ahead of time about evolution in relation to the day’s reading (obvious though it now seems to me). But that’s one of the advantages of having a relatively unstructured class format and bright students willing to participate: they can come up with things I haven’t thought of and I’m free to pursue them. Of course, sometimes those things turn out to be a dead end or I’m not skillful enough as a teacher to make them pay off. You never know for sure. Yesterday, I only knew that evolution was an important word, but I didn’t yet know how and I was both exhilarated and a bit afraid as I grabbed the rebound and pushed the ball up the floor in traffic without numbers:  cool because I didn’t know what’s going to happen next, scary because I didn’t know what going to happen next.  It’s weird because I count on the trailer and even though I’ve been told a million times that I can always pull it back out if there’s nothing there, something inside me just keeps pushing me toward the basket where something magnificent or something catastrophic will happen.  Nothing in between.

And that’s the where the day’s topic of discussion connects back to my concerns about the absence of a third of my class. In this respect, I’m thinking, my course works very much like evolution itself: “random” variations (like a student throwing out a word that happens to catch my fancy) generate a kind of “natural selection” of topics (I take the word and shape the rest of the discussion with it, explicitly or implicitly).  Students who miss class can, and I’m sure will, keep up with all the formal assignments. However, because my class time is not carefully planned out, but relies heavily on impromptu student participation, discussion, and improvisation there is no real way for the absent students to ever “get” what they missed.

I can point them to other students’ notes, or to my own, or even to this blog post – but all of those are not only inevitably going to be partial and distorted representations of the discussion, they are of a completely different nature than discussion. Because class discussion is not only about the content and the points that were raised, not even mainly about that: it’s mainly about the form – the escalating energy and vibe of collaboration as a group tentatively stumbles and gropes its way to discovery.

As a humanities professor, I feel that one of the main things of which I am a steward and which I am responsible for conveying to my students and nurturing in them is just this experience of open-ended, collaborative discovery. In a way, the whole canon of the humanities can be seen as a very long, extended discussion in which one person says, for example, “Hmm, it looks to me like, despite the appearance of change, everything is, deep down, fixed and unchanging?” and then someone else says, “Mehhh, not so much, to me everything looks as though is fluid and mutable.  What makes you think there’s a ‘deep down’?”  I want my students to learn about that history.  More than that I want them to live it and to feel themselves heirs to it and participants in it and in that way to come to be invested in it and in making it better and more useful in addressing the world they live in.

Okay, so that’s a lot. And it’s not like the absence of a third of the class a handful of times (or two handfuls; how many handfuls will it be exactly? I wonder) over the course of the semester is the end of the world, or a problem that can’t be addressed. But it adds a degree of difficulty to any class. And in a class in which there is already some awareness, for better and for worse, of differences, this just adds one more. It’s a loss not only for the players and the journalist who missed out on Tuesday’s class and who have to show up on Thursday, I imagine, with some degree of anxiety or pressure, but also for those who were there on Tuesday and may be wary of participating in ways that refer to Tuesday’s class and so exclude their classmates from fully participating. As I say, I can deal with this, but I also have to deal with this.

On the other hand, as I’m writing, it occurs to me – thinking of the ways in which discussion in my classroom and evolution resemble free-lancing in a pickup game – that it may perhaps be easier to deal with a shifting roster if you don’t have a highly structured, set offense that depends heavily on the skill set of particular players who might be injured or traded and that, moreover, has to be taught to new players that might be acquired.  In this sense, each class meeting is like a single game.  Players are removed and added to playground teams all the time – even the winning team. And that works in part because there are no set plays. Everyone is improvising and so its easier to remain effective even when you’ve lost a player and had to pick up a new one, even if that new player sucks. So maybe even as the unstructured nature of the class makes it harder to “catch people up”, perhaps it will be easier to accommodate the goings and comings of my student-athletes (and of other students for other reasons) because the class is more or less free-lanced.

At the same time, it’s also true that playing even a couple of games in a row with the same players can lead you to familiarize yourself with your teammates’ tendencies, strengths, and limitations and make you more effective.  So I think part of my job is going to be to step up and assert myself enough to communicate to returning students the valuable tendencies (things like an emerging class “vocabulary” or even a vibe) that the class developed in their absence. That sort of thing happens all the time on the playground. You join a team that’s been playing or where a couple of players already know each other and they pull you aside and in a few seconds bring you up to speed. And I think I can do this successfully while encouraging returning students to make their own improvisational contributions without fear that this is somehow going to jeopardize or destroy what is already in place.

And this issue of how to harmonize the interests and abilities of the individual with those of the group also echoes something we already talked about in class, though we were talking about it in the guise of the tension between “one-on-one” style and “team” style that is highlighted in Weinstein’s account, particularly, of the “Regional Leagues” that predominated between 1910 and 1924.  Weinstein makes the point that at this time, pro players were still permitted to double-dribble so that games were dominated by one-on-one play, “with the dribbler acting like a football running back and bowling over defenders by head-butting them.”   In other words, because players could double-dribble they did double dribble as a means of advancing the ball toward the basket.  At the same time, as he also points out, “while teams might barely last a season intact [because of player mobility], pairs and groups of players often stuck together for years, and their familiarity with each other led to the development of the pick and roll, or, as it was known at the time, the buddy system.”

So in the very same league two different tendencies are in effect; tendencies that, taken to their logical extreme, are incompatible with one another and so, in that sense, are vying for ascendancy in the game.  Will pro basketball come to be about one-on-one play and physical strength or will it be about collaboration, ingenuity, and finesse (the pick, after all, works only because it’s illegal for the defensive man physically to blast through a screener)? And what decides this?

In class (I feel obliged to point this out because some of the students at least will be reading this) none of this emerged with great clarity and we spent most of the time talking about the way the relative emphasis on one-on-one vs. team styles changes depending on the level of play, the skill of the players, the culture of the institution, and the power dynamics between players and coaches – all of which was very worthwhile in its own right. But here I want to stress what I only mentioned incoherently in passing on Tuesday: namely that “fitness” in the evolutionary sense of the term, as far as the history of pro basketball is concerned, has to some degree come down to commercial viability.

The double-dribble was eliminated from most pro leagues following its ban from the American Basketball League in the 1920s. The ABL, in turn, banned it in part because it had already been banned by the much more popular amateur circuits such as the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in 1908-1909. “Henceforth,” as Robert Peterson puts it, “the professional game would gradually become faster and depend less on bulk and strength and more on speed, agility, and cleverness,” like its more popular college and amateur counterpart.

Now, once the ABL banned the double-dribble, players were forced to make a different decision once they’d picked up their dribble. They had to shoot or pass. And it’s at this point that certain “team” features – like the pick and roll — that had originally emerged as an almost accidental function of small groups of players growing accustomed to one another in an era of no contracts and great player mobility became dominant strategies.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the market “decided” ahead of time how the pro game evolved, then or now. Part of the beauty of basketball is that technical innovations born of informal, horizontally organized, extra-institutional venues make their way into the formal game because they are strategically more effective (indeed, the dribble itself began as an accident:  someone knocked the ball out of an early player’s hands and it rolled and as he raced to retrieve it he realized he’d succeeded in advancing the ball up the court without running with it, which was disallowed; eventually this became deliberate). But strategically more effective is only one of the variables that makes those innovations stick. By itself it might not be enough. Think, for example, of the anxiety that gets generated when those innovations appear to be too effective: Mikan camping in the lane, Russell’s offensive goaltending, Wilt or Kareem’s dunks.

In class, I tried to emphasize how this whole issue is heavily moralized and racialized so that one-on-one play is thought to be selfish and ostentatious and black while team play is though to be selfless and humble and white. I felt that this moral and racial coding of a properly technical, strategic issue is so prevalent and seemingly natural that it had to be named and not only named, but ridiculed, which I did by overstating the case that in no other game do technical and strategic choices get fraught with moral and racial meanings.   Of course, that’s not true, but it worked it seemed to get the students to really stop and see how weird it is that we make my decision about whether or not to pass the ball at a given moment in a fast-moving game into a morally and racially significant one.

Moreover, I stressed (or at least I wish now I had stressed), the history of the game can be told in ways that make it appear that the “essence” of the game is team play and has been from the very start. Whether or not it’s true that team play is critical to success at the highest level of basketball is beside the point. I want my students to understand how stories get told that associate the essence of something desirable with certain classes, races or ethnicities, and genders and thus position individuals of other classes, races or ethnicities, and genders as potentially dangerous interlopers, marauders. The snake in the garden.

But with all this in mind, the market, too, sooner or later plays a role in determining the “fitness” of certain innovations, sometimes in ways that dovetail with these moralizing and racializing narratives and sometimes in ways which run against them.  Part of what is exciting about the early history of the NBA is the decentralization that served as a kind of dispersed laboratory in which experiments with the game could thrive. That laboratory still exists today of course: on playgrounds, the And-1 circuit, minor leagues like the new ABA, and so forth. But the NBA, very obviously, exerts a much more powerful, constraining gravitational pull than any institution did in the first half of the 20th century.

I love the NBA game: not only the game on the floor, but also the accompanying personalities and even the consumer culture associated with it. I love, of course, the athletic ability and skill of the players. I love the variety of styles that teams play. I don’t think the game is worse now than it used to be, nor do I think it’s necessarily better than it will be. It’s just different and, well, amazing (sorry). So in that sense, I can’t really complain about how evolution has treated the pro game.

But I also couldn’t help but feel a little sad as we read about and discussed the early pros, who were riotously experimenting with a brand-spanking new game rife with possibilities and didn’t know that they were simply participating in someone else’s pre-history.  I can’t help but be irritated that when I search for early NBA history videos on line what I get are actually videos of a BAA game from 1946 that the NBA has colonized as its own, as though it were inevitable that the BAA would, after its merger with the more talent-laden NBL, evolve into the NBA.   And so I couldn’t and can’t help but pull for what I think of as some anarchic impulse that challenges the naturalized, hierarchized, centralizing force of the NBA, even if the expression of that impulse seems to come – temporarily — at the expense of the “quality” of the game on the court.

I love the NBA, but I also love the things that put the NBA in crisis in various ways.  Think of Rodman and Artest (maddening combination of effective and unruly on the court).  Think Iverson and Arenas (maddening combination of effective on and unruly off the court).  Think Russell and Chamberlain (maddeningly unstoppable).  Think Cousy and Robertson (maddeningly confrontational in the boardroom).  Think Rasheed (maddening combination of extraordinary individual talent, modest individual ambition, and extraordinary outspokenness).  I know the NBA probably isn’t really threatened by these figures.  Maybe even they learn to capitalize on them.  But when they first surface there’s a least a shudder in the powers that be.

I’m not sure, but I think that in a very roundabout way I just set myself up to be David Stern and my students to be the early pros. The point is that I want my class to have the room to evolve. I want there to be enough flexibility that random heretical comments – the classroom equivalent of a crossover dribble flying in the face of the conventional wisdom that the ball handler should keep his body between the ball and the defender; the kind of innovation a ref blows the whistle on because he’s never seen it before — have a chance to prove their fitness. And so that students have the opportunity to practice being part of a genuine intellectual dialogue. But part of that practice also entails I think developing with them some criteria of fitness in the form of an emerging common vocabulary and set of shared interests that we can return to when our actual or figurative wandering has left us feeling lost, which seems like an appropriate place to end since Thursdays class will be devoted to the itinerant barnstormers.

Go back to read about how basketball is like a religion or a nation

Go on to read about why I should be but am not identified as Chris Paul on the playground

1 2 3 4