Bill Simmons is Wrong! (But also…) On Russell and Chamberlain’s Supporting Casts

I just can’t let this go. My distaste for Bill Simmons’ smug pseudo-argumentation has led me on a four-day journey down a rabbit hole of advanced statistics and I feel compelled to share my report of the trip. Read more

Day 7: The Age of Wonder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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