Disbelieveland

Moments after the final buzzer signaled the improbable triumph of the Cleveland Cavaliers over the Golden State Warriors in this year’s NBA Finals, Cavs star LeBron James fell away from a celebratory team embrace and collapsed to the floor, wracked with sobs. Encircled by teammates, cameramen, and others, some of whom set hands on his shoulders or rubbed his head or back, LeBron lifted his head slightly, only to let it fall back against his forearm, his hand covering his eyes.

 

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Earlier this year I wrote an essay describing what I hated about the Warriors. In it, I lamented what I took to be the eclipsing of uncertainty and surprise by their efficient domination of the game.  Friends, including friends who are analytics enthusiasts, tried to get me to relax. For all that analytics may aspire to “tame chance,” they rightly argued, the game of basketball and its players are too complex to ever eliminate uncertainty and surprise. I was grimly unswayed throughout the season.

Even in the Finals, my assessment of Golden State’s first two victories took this form: “Every Golden State basket looks effortless and expected. Every Cleveland basket looks ugly and lucky.”  That’s when I posted on the Facebook wall of a friend who was a Golden State fan on his birthday, “I hope someone bought you a broom because you’re gonna need it when the Dubs sweep.”  The prognosticating website 538 was more generous, giving the Cavs an 11 % chance of winning the title at that point. When Cleveland fell behind three games to one after dropping game four at home, the already absolute certainty with which I knew that Golden State would win the series became, somehow, improbably, even greater. At that point, 538 had the Cavs chances at 5 %.

Cleveland won Game 5 to make the series three games to two. But because Draymond Green of the Warriors had been suspended, I didn’t count that victory.  All I considered was the stupid shit the talking heads were repeating endlessly: no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA finals, the Warriors had not lost three straight in two years, the Warriors had only lost two games at home in the whole regular season.

So sure, the Cavs got Game 5 in Oakland (with Draymond out), but neither Curry nor Klay Thompson had really gotten on track yet and still Cleveland was struggling to win games and to keep Golden State from scoring, so even if somehow, the Cavs managed to draw inspiration from the home crowd and win Game 6, they had no chance at all of winning Game 7 in Oakland. 538 agreed with me: Cavs had only a 20% percent chance of winning the title (even if they had a 59 % chance of winning Game 6).

Then they won Game 6. I was happy for them. I was delighted by the sight of Steph Curry whipping his pacifier mouthguard into the crowd in a petulant tantrum. But it didn’t change any of my calculations and only modestly bumped up 538’s estimate of the Cavs’ chances of winning to 35 %.  Would you bet on a 35 % free throw shooter to make the next shot? Me neither.

In the first quarter of Game 7 I was dispirited. Though the Cavs held a slim one point lead, I felt like I was watching the first two games again. Every Cavs’ bucket looked hard, unlikely, while Golden State’s baskets were the predictable swished threes and wide-open dunks. Who do you think is gonna win that game?

The second quarter confirmed my impression. Golden State built a seven point lead by halftime as Cleveland’s defense fell apart, leaving Draymond Green to assume the role of the Splash Brothers’ new baby sibling, while their own offense continued to creak and sputter and smoke. To wit: more than one fifth of Cleveland’s offensive production in the second quarter came on a single four point play by Iman Shumpert. Iman Shumpert: you know what Iman Shumpert shot from behind the three point line in the series? 26.7 % (21.4 % if you take away that three in the second quarter of Game 7)  We gonna ride Iman Shumpert four-point plays to the ‘ship? Yeah, I don’t think so either.

The second half was, as many have noted, a game of brief runs filled with both brilliant plays and tragic blunders on both sides. Cleveland closes the gap, Golden State pulls away, Cleveland comes back and pulls ahead, Golden State answers with a run to take a one point lead into the fourth. The fourth quarter is even tighter, with neither team able to generate more than a four point lead, which Golden State managed to do with 5:37 left in the game on a Draymond Green jump shot that gave them an 87-83 lead.  What, I am asking myself at this point, are the chances that Cleveland outscores the Golden State Warriors by five points in the final five minutes of Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the Warriors’ home floor? At that point, I guess, I probably figured that the first team to 95 would probably win it. What’s more likely? That Golden State scores eight points in the next five minutes, or that Cleveland scores twelve? Nate Silver, what do you think?

Then improbability—no, impossibility (from my vantage point, anyway) happened. Golden State, the most devastatingly efficient offense in NBA history, scored two more points in the rest of the game (and none in the final four). Cleveland, of course, scored 10. But still I didn’t believe. The Kyrie three? I was elated, but I didn’t think they would win. LeBron’s free throw? There’s still ten seconds left: you think the Warriors can’t put up four points in 10 seconds? You haven’t watched the Warriors.

But I was wrong. The Warriors didn’t score another point. The buzzer sounded. LeBron fell into the group hug and then to his knees and then into convulsive weeping.

Here’s the thing:  I still didn’t believe it happened.  I really couldn’t take it in, couldn’t accept that everything I knew for sure would happen did not happen. In the past few days I’ve been walking around my patch of Northeast Ohio, of Believeland, wearing Cavs gear. People stop me. We say different things, but the thing we say most often is: “I still can’t believe it.”

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So what is wrong with me besides the apparent fact for all my understanding of how the cultural narratives of basketball work, I have next to no ability to predict the outcome of basketball games? Of course I don’t: basketball games are unpredictable.

But that was my whole point to begin with. So what is wrong with me, I mean, that  despite my well-documented, vitriolic protestations against certainty, I clung so stubbornly to my own certainty. I suppose I was, in a long tradition of idiotic sports fandom, hedging against disappointment: if I could maintain my certain disbelief in the possibility of a Cavs victory, I wouldn’t feel let down when Golden State did what they were supposed to do.

But there was more to it than that. There was also a semi-conscious, pathetic stab at shaping the outcome: if I could (with apologies to the President) keep hope dead, I wouldn’t jinx the Cavs. That’s a tricky balancing act, as anyone who has tried it knows, because the moment you become conscious of what you’re doing, you ruin it and have to start all over again. Pretty soon you’re spending the whole game rapping your knuckles against your stupid wooden head to prevent who knows what horrible thing you have no control over from happening.

That’s lame, I know. But I think that it also points to something in me that is not lame. It tells me that for my all my intellectual abilities, for all my scholarly detachment, I cared. That’s not lame. I really, really, really wanted the Cavs to win.  Even more, I desperately wanted LeBron to win.

After all, I’m the guy who this year published a book whose last page looks like this:

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I wanted what I came to believe LeBron stood for to win: the indestructible autonomous power of those marginalized and despised and written off and undervalued in this world to win. I wanted that freedom to win.

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But the thing about freedom is that it is, well, free.  You can’t control the vicissitudes of its exercise, particularly by others. You don’t know whether they’ll use it or how it will go if they try. It seems obvious that you can’t do this, as it seems obvious that all my mental machinations will not affect even a tiny bit what LeBron does with his freedom on or off the court, or how the game will come out.

But I think, seemingly paradoxically, that’s what makes these machinations so appealing to me.  They become a kind of playhouse in which I can act out—precisely without risk or consequence—my own daily struggles to be free and to help others be free.

Think of daily life as a Cavs possession and the task of carving out and renewing my own freedom as trying to get a bucket. You—or at least I—rarely get the LeBron breakaway dunk thrown like a thunderbolt from the sky, or the string of JR Smith step back threes raining in like meteorites, or Kyrie crafting some bank shot while lying on his back in the corner with four people on top of him. Mostly, daily life ends in turnovers, ill-advised, contested step-back threes and Matthew Dellevedova air-balled floaters. Then you need a time out and you brace yourself for Klay to put up 40 on you or Steph to bank in an underhanded scoop from half-court, on which you also fouled him. Perhaps I am not alone in not being astute enough to have figured out how to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

Under these conditions, I guess it’s easier for me to speculate about probabilities and to pretend that by doing so I am affecting the outcome of events I do not control (especially when I’ve already forged an association between those events and freedom). After all, because I don’t control them and because it’s all in my head, it can go on forever, frictionlessly skating along on the surface of reality, which never gets traction on it.

But here’s the thing.  The Cavs did win, LeBron really did dominate, and he really did collapse on the floor in sobs. These things happened. independently of the probability of their happening.  They were not destined to happen. They were not miracles. They just happened. Perhaps in some important way they happened because neither LeBron nor anyone else intimately involved in making them happened devoted much energy to speculating about the likelihood they would succeed.

I think that’s how freedom, in tiny and massive ways, probably happens: when it happens; I mean, when people—me, you, LeBron—go ahead exercise freedom, put freedom into the world even when Nate Silver puts the chances of success at, like, 5 %.

The Radical Free Agency of LeBron James

IMG_2056 (1)I spoke recently to the Department of Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College. I enjoyed reframing and revising the work on LeBron James’s “Decision” and “Return” that I published in Ball Don’t Lie! and also producing what I hope is an engaging visual accompaniment.

I hope you enjoy.

 

 

 

What The Answer Taught me About the Dismissal of David Blatt

As the Internet caught fire with reactions to the news, clever kids tripped over themselves to photoshop images of Tyronn Lue, who was once famously stepped over by Allen Iverson after a made jumper, stepping over David Blatt.  Okay, why not.  But in the midst of the mass euphoria/hysteria, there was Allen Iverson himself, stepping into the Twitterverse, as he rarely does, with this:

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Was it a joke? Was he being ironic? Maybe. I don’t know Allen Iverson personally so I couldn’t really tell you for sure.  But actually, I think that’s sort of the point.

To me, this Tweet, whatever Iverson may have intended, tells me that there is something deep and intimate shared by NBA players that we, who are not them, often fail to recognize. To us, Lue is mockable roadkill left in the wake of the speeding rebel genius Iverson (he was for me too until I saw this tweet). But Iverson seems to step in here to say that we don’t understand anything, or rather, that we and our views—to the degree that we fail to see their limitations—are rrelevant.

That’s why he addresses Lue directly.  “Love you” he says to Tyronn Lue in the presence of 980,000 followers.  He may have delighted in making that shot, and in stepping over Lue, but that delight, I believe I understand, was not at the expense of the loving bond they share, but rather a function of it.  I think it can be hard to understand that from the outside; hard to understand, I mean, what it must be to be among a group of a few hundred young black males suddenly experiencing riches and fame and adoration and pressure in a world that otherwise mostly seems to fear and despise them, at least if mass incarceration and police violence is any indication; hard to really grasp the solidarity that experience, those experiences, engender.

So what? Well, I’m not an NBA player, or a young black man, so I’m sure I can’t presume to say with any kind of certainty.  But from the vantage point that Iverson seemed to me to have pointed to here, and which I can at least intellectually comprehend, here’s how the whole thing with the Cavs, Blatt, and LeBron looks.

It’s probably fair to say that the expectations for, and pressure on, David Blatt changed after he accepted the job. He thought he’d be coaching a young team and trying to shape them into contenders.  Then LeBron came back, management traded the young players to create a Big 3 out of James, Kyrie Irving, and  Kevin Love, and merely contending was no longer enough.  The job description changed: the Cavs had to win a championship. Racking up wins in the woeful Eastern Conference and making it through to the Finals wouldn’t cut it if the now-full-strength Cavs were still—as was appearing to be the case—likely to go down in the Finals.  So, while that may have been tough for Blatt to adapt to, it remains the case that he was still collecting paychecks and that the change in expectations were not unreasonable.  That is why it is totally irrelevant, if not disingenuous, for critics of the decision to wring their hands over the fact that Blatt had the best won-loss record of any fired coach in history, or that the team, depleted by injuries, made the finals last season.  Who cares? And who says that was because of Blatt anyway? Why do you say that was because of Blatt?

Those upset that so seemingly successful a coach as Blatt should have been fired explain what otherwise seems inexplicable by presuming that LeBron James had something to do with it, even if he was not, as the Cavs maintain, explicitly consulted.  We might ask why we presume this when there is no evidence. But my gut response to the speculation is, nonetheless: ya think?  Of course he had something to do with it! I should hope so!  He might not be the best player in the league this year (though, as I’ve argued before, we should think hard about our delight in his having been surpassed by Steph Curry).  But he’s been the best player on the planet for a decade and, contrary to some wayward speculation, he’s far more crucial to the Cavs hopes of winning a title anytime soon than was David Blatt. More important than whether LeBron had a role in this or not, is the question of why those not on the team are so invested in maintaining a putative hierarchy in which players don’t express their dissatisfaction about their coaches publicly or in any way that might cause management to fire the coach.  So, why? Why are you so invested in that hierarchy?

Trailing closely in the wake of the collective garment-rending and breast-beating for David Blatt is the head-shaking and finger-wagging at LeBron James for what these observers take to be his egomaniacal savior complex.  LeBron may or may not have such a complex.  I don’t know him.  What I do know is that before he returned to Cleveland, before he left Cleveland, before he called himself King, or tattooed himself with the word “Chosen,” these same people now complaining about him had already called him “the Chosen One.”  Incidentally, many of these people who rip what they see as James’ narcissistic selfishness will also have criticized him, in effect, for being too unselfish on the court. Nor does this criticism seem to capture that the main advantage that Lue seems to have over Blatt, as far as Cavs players goes, is that he will actually criticize them, even LeBron.  Whose fault is it that David Blatt wouldn’t do that? But let’s not get bogged down in these details.  Here’s the bottom line, don’t get it twisted: we wrote the script for the new gospel and cast LeBron as the messiah.  That’s on us and it’s our problem, not his, when he doesn’t conform to the plot we’ve laid out.  

That’s the reminder and the lesson of Iverson’s tweet:  we are ever placing these human beings into our doll houses, playing out dramas with them, and them tossing them under the sofa when one “malfunctions” or a “better one” comes along…all the while acting as though our playroom theatrics were reality. We’re just playing. But they’re not: not Iverson, not Lue, not James, not even Blatt. We can play and enjoy our games.  But they’re not reality, at least not all of it, and definitely not the most important part of reality.

Now, we may not have access to the reality.  That’s not our fault.  And it makes our—my—mythmaking understandable.  I get that.  But getting that also carries with it a responsibility to acknolwedge that we are just playing, and that our play is not a source of any kind of knowledge, unless it is knowledge about the kind of games we like to play.  Morever, it requires us to refrain from passing moralizing judgments and pretending them that they are grounded in anything other than our fantasies and the deep desires shaping them.

Why I Can’t Get Excited About NBA Transactions

This is the biggest week in pro basketball’s off-season.  Over the past week, avid interest in the big news and minute details of both the NBA draft and free agency has swept up citizens of the basketball world.  I consider myself a hoops citizen in good standing and, as such, I’ve tried to follow the speculation and the breaking news stories, but I’ve found my heart’s really not in it and I’ve started to wonder why.  The draft’s big news that Jahlil Okafor dropped to the three spot or that the Knicks’ Phil Jackson drafted Kristaps Porzingis left me cold.  How about today’s free agent signings? Is DeMarre Carroll going to make the Raptors better? Was he worth the money they paid him? I don’t care.

UCOR-Billboard4To begin with, with few exceptions, I’m not all that invested in the year-to-year vicissitudes of the different teams.  I do understand that some people are and perhaps this just says something about the nature of my fandom, which primarily skirts identification with particular teams.  I lived in Ann Arbor for about 15 years and was on and off again a fan of the Pistons, but only when they were good and even then, I found myself easily thrilled by a great individual performance by another player, even when it came at the Pistons’ expense. Now for the last few years, I’ve lived near Cleveland. I tried to get into the Cavs, but found that I only could do so when LeBron James returned to the team.  So to the degree that draft and free agency excitement is driven by fans’ investments in the fortunes of their teams, I’m just not built to thrill to the changes this moment brings.

Don’t get me wrong, I love basketball, and not just great individual performances.  I love great team performances as well.  In each of the last two finals, though I was hoping for LeBron’s Heat and then Cavs to win the championship, I found myself enthralled, in spite of myself, at the beautiful, varied shapes and movements that San Antonio and Golden State generated on the floor. But I don’t care about those franchises or those cities as such, any more than I care about the Cavaliers or the city of Cleveland as such. I don’t care how they do next year.  I think such entities, perhaps, are too abstract to stir my emotional and aesthetic sensibilities.  I’m more likely to be thrilled by particulars, by concrete moments, by events, by actual people than by institutions (like franchises) or abstractions (like “the city of ‘x'”).

And this might illuminate another source of my aversion (which some friends have pointed out to me): that these two events—the draft and free agency—mark the apex of the basketball world’s commodification of its players; or rather, the apex of their explicit, unabashed commodification and therefore a moment in which we may be most likely to lose sight of their humanity. I’m no economist and it may be controversial but I think commodification can be understood as

The subordination of both private and public realms to the logic of capitalism. In this logic, such things as friendship, knowledge, women, etc. are understood only in terms of their monetary value. In this way, they are no longer treated as things with intrinsic worth but as commodities. (They are valued, that is, only extrinsically in terms of money.) By this logic, a factory worker can be reconceptualized not as a human being with specific needs that, as humans, we are obliged to provide but as a mere wage debit in a businessman’s ledger. (From Dino Felluga)

Players are most obviously fungible bodies during this period, in which their rich individuality as human beings and athletes is reductively quantified to a particular potential value added and/or a dollar amount. That is to say, I guess, that in a sense this is the moment when a life is turned into a abstraction.

it-is-simply-a-cartel-the-story-behind-mls-winning-the-labor-wars-against-players-1425396738.pngOf course, given the context of the NBA as a capitalist cartel, I am certainly pleased to see players get paid, pleased to see each of them exercise what leverage they’ve acquired through their excellence in order to take advantage of the rare opportunities they get to cash in. And I have been excited to see former students of mine from the University of Michigan men’s basketball team enter the draft.  But that’s mostly because I know them, know their dreams, and am happy to see them live them; just as I am happy to see the student whose dream is to live in Paris, pick up and move there after graduation. But these exceptions just highlight for me that  the way in which this process gets talked about among fans and media observers for the most part disheartening, even embarrassing in the same way that when occasionally a non-sports fan friend of mine will ask some seemingly naive question about sports, it tends to jar open a defamiliarizing abyss in my own investment in sports so that—having no ready answer—I’m suddenly launched into an existential crisis about why I spend so much time in sports.

Sure, I always come around: the heart wants what the heart wants and “the heart,” as Pascal said, “has its reasons which reason can’t understand.”  But still, the trading of flesh—regardless of the price—bums my heart out.  I know, of course, the commodification of human beings is not just a problem in sports and I think it’s unfair for others to single sports out as some sort of egregious exception to how the rest of the world works.  Every for-profit enterprise entails the reductive transformation of concrete labor and of labor’s concrete creations into fungible quantities to be measured against one another: manufacturing, journalism, and of course, higher education.  In that sense, sport is no different, no worse perhaps and perhaps no better.

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But perhaps because I care about the language of sport and in the ideas and values this language reflects, conveys, and reinforces, because, in other words, I am a citizen of basketball, I find myself wanting a space in which, even in the midst of breathlessly reporting the slide of some prospect down the draft board or some surprise free agent pick up, we could pause to also talk about the bigger processes with which we’re complicit.

Here I imagine some readers—the few still with me after I defined commodification, I mean—shaking their head at my naivete.  Or others, resentfully pointing out my hypocrisy (I enjoy the fruits of this system even as I criticize it) as a means of protecting their pleasure against a critique. I want to say that I really don’t want to appear judgmental of anyone’s fun here.  Comparisons are odious, including comparisons of relative exploitation.  But I get that the exploitative commodification of NBA players probably isn’t and shouldn’t be tops on the list of the world’s injustices.  And I’m certainly not claiming that making space for this would change anything about how those processes work. So on those scores at least, such readers can relax.

But it certainly couldn’t make the world worse if we had more room to talk about how it felt to be—or even to watch others be—commodified, reduced to some quantitative measurement, traded.  Maybe even, if we talked about those feelings, we’d be more in touch with them, and more in touch with the unpleasant aspect of them.  And maybe then, if enough of us were more in touch with them, we’d start to look for another way to organize ourselves and our varied, concrete capacities to make new things in this world, whether those things are books, basketball shoes, or basketball plays.

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Phil Jackson and the Essence of Basketball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On LeBron James and Coaching

Today, ESPN senior writer Marc Stein wrote a piece lambasting LeBron James for behavior Stein described as “unbecoming” and “unflattering.”  Apparently, Stein witnessed

LeBron essentially calling timeouts and making substitutions. LeBron openly barking at Blatt after decisions he didn’t like. LeBron huddling frequently with Lue and so often looking at anyone other than Blatt.

Stein went on to contrast this “unpalatable behavior” to Spurs’ star Tim Duncan’s support for Gregg Popovich, even before the coach was “POP.” I think this is the worst kind of moralizing, patronizing, unconsciously racist reprimand, resting on a tower of unstated and unsavory assumptions with a long history in the culture of basketball. Please read carefully: those adjectives in the last sentence do not refer to Stein himself, but rather to his reprimand, to the assumptions it makes, and to the history of basketball.

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Let me tell you a story to clarify why I think this and why I feel so incensed.  Back in the Fall of 1981, Magic Johnson told reporters that he wasn’t “having any fun” and that he wanted to leave the Lakers.  Less than twenty-fours later, Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss fired Lakers Coach Paul Westhead, replacing him with assistant coach Pat Riley. The next night, as the Lakers took the floor in Los Angeles, perhaps for the first time in his life, Magic Johnson’s own fans loudly booed him.

A disapproving chorus of journalists echoed the fans’ boos. They pointed to the new contract—$25 million over 25 years, unprecedented in NBA history at the time—Johnson had signed during the off-season as evidence that Johnson had grown narcissistic, arrogant and, perhaps worst of all, cynically professional. Johnson was vilified as a “spoiled brat” and a “spoiled punk,” “an infidel,” and a “traitor,” “un-American” and a “Bolshevik,” a “monster,” a “villain” and a “pariah.” But beyond the name-calling, what emerged in the firestorm of criticism was that Johnson had ruined the story, part of which was that Magic played ball for the fun of it and his mega-watt smile proved it.

The ideology of amateurism originated in England where it was a ““product of the nineteenth-century leisure class, whose ideal of the patrician sportsman . . . was part of their pursuit of consicuous leisure.” Referring to the athlete who plays for the love of the sport, the concept came to imply a number of corollary qualities including that the amateur derives pleasure from the contest, participation is freely chosen, the process of competition is as important as its outcome, the amateur is motivated by rewards intrinsic to the sport, rather than by extrinsic rewards such as fame or money and, finally, sportsmanship—a valuation of the sport itself above all else—is paramount. This effectively kept working class athletes, who had neither the resources nor the leisure time, from challenging upper-class domination of sport so that, in effect, amateurism “established a system of ‘sports apartheid’ with white males from the upper classes enjoying the advantages.” Allen Guttman puts it more bluntly: “The amateur rule was an instrument of class warfare.

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Within the culture of basketball, amateur ideals have been applied selectively toward similar ends. Over the first half of the twentieth century, during the period of the consolidation of the modern basketball state, it was amateur basketball, particularly intercollegiate competition, that established a national market for the game and affirmed the core values that, from the time of its creation, basketball was supposed to convey: unselfishness, cooperation, sportsmanship, effort. At the same time, the growth of the college game and the institutionalization of coaching as a profession forced the amateur ideal to accommodate two additional values: respect for the authority of the coach (as an expression of humility and unselfishness) and competitive intensity (not winning for its own sake, of course, which was seen as unseemly, but the desire to win as a mechanism for spurring the passion and excellence that would reflect positively on the larger body—such as a college—one represented).

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Because the amateur ideal took root in basketball culture while the sport was still segregated, the values came unconsciously to be associated with whiteness.

Returning to Johnson, media and fan criticism betrays a rage that he violated these ideals first by failing to respect his coach and second, by both getting paid and insisting that he have fun playing the game. Red Auerbach, Bill Russell’s former coach, was marshaled to explain the perils awaiting franchises “when a player is bigger than the organization.” Apparently, a black superstar, like Russell, Magic, or LeBron, can only assume the mantle of coaching authority when a white overlord deems it appropriate (as Auerbach did when he named Russell player-coach).

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Coach Larry Brown of New Jersey (later inducted into the Hall of Fame) criticized Johnson for a selfish unwillingness to make sacrifices for the good of the team and therefore violating the moral tenets of Brown’s “play the right way” mantra. Perhaps it’s no accident that the relatively common employment of player coaches in the NBA disappeared precisely during the decade (the 1970s) when the sport was perceived as “too black” and its black players as undisciplined, selfish, incorrigible miscreants.

Another column reminded readers that even as a college player, Johnson had led a group of Michigan State players who confronted Coach Jud Heathcote, insisting that he allow them to implement a more up-tempo style of play. As Johnson was judged to have violated the (amateur) ideals of the sport, sportswriters and fans alike—in perhaps the most telling trope of the backlash—determined that “Magic” was no longer magic (or “Magic”), but rather now just “Earvin.” Thus one Los Angeles Times columnist—under the headline “Just Call Him Earvin Johnson; Magic is Gone”—quoted another:

For the rest of his days, he won’t be Magic anymore. He will be the spoiled brat who couldn’t wait until he owned a team of his own to show his power, the infidel who had to have a coach’s scalp to go with his millions, the traitor who hid behind a false, happy face, and he was someone we loved. That’s the frightening thing.

Johnson’s popularity among writers and fans depended more on his ebullient on and off-court personality than on his exceptional individual talents or his contributions to his team’s successes. Johnson could be “loved”—and recall the importance of love to the amateur ideal—insofar as he joyfully brought amateur ideals into the professional game. By mixing the professional (through the power of his long-term contract and relationship with owner Jerry Buss) with the amateur (his insistence on having fun), Johnson had unwittingly exposed the myth of the amateurs as a ruse and betrayed fans’ love for him. The purveyors of this myth disciplined him accordingly.

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Though none of his critics explicitly invoked race, their invective nonetheless reveals a racializing subtext since criticism of the NBA at the time yoked complaints about player apathy and excessive salaries with the perception that the league was too black. In this sense, perhaps, fans and media observers were unconsciously enraged because Magic “robbed” them of something they desperately needed: the image of an entertaining black basketball player who played just for the fun of it and loved everyone while doing so. Or, to put it another way, it was as though Magic betrayed fans by turning out to be “black” after all.

Stein’s piece disturbingly echoes these (over) reactions to Johnson and broadcasts the nasty attitudes that motivated them.  Remember, by Stein’s own account, all LeBron did was “essentially” call a few plays or ignore some that Blatt called.  It’s not like LeBron said he’d go back to Miami, or burn the Terminal Tower if they didn’t fire Blatt and hire the coach of his choice.  So I think it’s disingenuous when Stein opens his piece by asking:

I have a question for LeBron James that I really hope he’ll field someday.

A question that can be asked a variety of ways.

What kind of coach do you want? 

Who out there is a coach you’d actually like to play for? 

Who could ‎the Cleveland Cavaliers hire that you’d give some meaningful backing?

These are rhetorical questions veiling Stein’s command that LeBron shut his mouth and do like Timmy Duncan.

Perhaps in this, as in so many ways already during his career, LeBron is offending by refusing to be a character in a fantasy scripted by someone else.  In this case, he is tacitly rejecting the very terms of Stein’s question, which assumes he must want some coach, right, because, we have to have coaches, right, or everything will be chaos. birthplace-of-basketball-teamAfter all, it is part of the hallowed myth of the invention of basketball that James Naismith’s students were called “the incorrigibles.” 

Perhaps, when confronted with such questions, LeBron rightly takes it as a disingenuous power move on the part of critics seeking to preserve a power structure in which white owners buy and sell black bodies, white coaches command black bodies, and black bodies go where, and do what, they’re told and keep their mouths shut unless it is to express gratitude for being #blessed to make with their talents a tiny fraction of what is made off them.  “You can’t build your own team! That’s for the owners to do!” “You can’t call plays, that’s for the coaches to do”!

Maybe LeBron wants to be the coach; or maybe LeBron would like a more fluid, horizontal (as opposed to hierarchical and authoritarian) approach to strategic and tactical decision making, or maybe out there is a coach he wishes he had, or maybe he’s just fine with the way things are.  I really don’t know.  But Stein’s “unbecoming” kind of moralizing, authoritarian, crypto-racist reproaches make me wish that what he calls a “charade” would end, and that LeBron would become the first player coach since Lenny Wilkens and then, after that, the first player-coach-owner since ever.

And If you feel that I’m “injecting” race into this discussion in a way that is unwarranted or unfair, I’d ask you to take a minute to read my post briefly explaining what race means to me. Thanks.

In Praise of Inefficiency and the Incalculable

Much has been written in recent days about the Cleveland Cavaliers improbable victories over the Golden State Warriors in Games 2 and 3 of the NBA Finals.  The Warriors, the NBA’s best team during this year’s regular season and, according to several advanced metrics, one of the most dominating and efficient teams ever, were supposed to steamroll the Cavs, especially given injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, two of Cleveland’s big three stars.  And yet, as we’ve seen and then read about, this is not the case.  Observers have noted a number of reasons for this.  Cleveland has slowed the pace of games by running down the shot clock, aggressively pursuing offensive rebounds (which prevents Golden State’s big men from releasing on fast breaks), and pressuring the ball in the back court.  Golden State has thrived on playing a fast paced game and they’ve clearly been confounded by Cleveland’s tactics.  Of course, a big factor in Cleveland’s ability to set the pace has been the play of LeBron James.  Here, we read how James, whose career has been marked by efficient scoring and unselfishness, has reluctantly adapted to the conditions of this series by controlling the ball more on offense and putting up many  more shots than usual.  The story, to boil it down to oversimple terms, is that, contrary to predictions based on statistical analysis of the regular season (and even the longer career trajectories of key participants), inefficiency is beating efficiency.

I find this heartening for many reasons, but I want here to focus on just one. Read more