Integrating Academics and Athletics in the American College and University

Last week I spoke at Oberlin College, where the Athletics Department had invited me to share some of my ideas on this topic.

The turnout was impressive, the audience engaged and responsive, and the questions important and intelligent. I really had a blast exchanging ideas with this wonderful community.

And, they taped it, so I can share it with you as well. I hope you’ll check it out and let me know what you think.

(FYI: My friend, Oberlin’s Associate Men’s Basketball Coach Tim McCrory does a short funny intro first, then I go for about 35 minutes, followed by the QA).

I really enjoyed trying to create a quasi-documentary experience for the audience (ever experimenting to try to improve my lecturing technique).  And I learned a lot preparing for it, and thinking about the differences, and some surprising similarities, between the issues facing a DI FBS school like Michigan and those facing a DIII school like Oberlin.

Screenshot 2016-04-29 05.59.50

Image from, explaining the difference between Division I and Division III.

Screenshot 2016-04-29 06.00.45

Time Demands Comparison DI vs. DIII

One Shining Moment: Yago’s A-Town Throwdown Edition

Probably anyone reading this knows by now that my Cultures of Basketball course ends with a student organized intra-class 3 on 3 tournament.  What started as an off-hand comment by a UM basketball player in 2011 has become, over the several years I’ve now taught the course, into an integral, culminating experience of the course in which students take responsibility for their own desires, incorporate an embodied, hands-on component to the academic study of basketball culture, and bond strongly with one another, softening a variety of barriers that can make it hard for them to recognize and respect each other as peers—not least the one separating varsity athletes from students who are not varsity athletes.

Over the years, the organizational process has evolved in the wake of the preceding year’s experiences. This year, students formed themselves into a number of committees charged with locking down the various aspects of the event (Jersey Committee, Logo Committee, Naming Committee, Program Committee, Venue Committee, Bracket Committee, Draft Day Committee and Documentation Committee).  Drawing upon their own specialized talents and the feedback I’d given them about what had worked well and not so well in previous tournaments, each committee executed its responsibilities superbly, often informed in doing so by some of the cultural artifacts and issues we’d been talking about in the course.  I want to share with you just one bit of special awesomeness that emerged from this process.

In 2011, the first year of the tournament, there were no committees and documentation was limited to some photos that my wife and one of the students who couldn’t play took with cell phones.  In 2012 we had a lot of wonderful still photos and the first-ever video documentation of the event: a couple of shaky clips taken by a student’s friend on the sideline.  Last year, a member of the first-ever Documentation Committee recorded a few, higher quality clips, to go along with superb photos.  This year, in addition to all these elements, one Documentation Committee member brought a GoPro to the tournament and she and some other students filmed the whole tournament.  I’m not sure who had the idea in the first place, but the student decided to edit the raw footage into our very own One Shining Moment montage and, even though the class over, and the grades in, she followed through and shared the results with us last night.

I’m so grateful to and proud of these students for coming together in the way that they did over the course of the semester.  I hope you enjoy the video as much as I think they enjoyed not only the course and the tournament, but the experiences of autonomy, responsibility, and friendship they thereby created for themselves.

That’s a Bad Prof Right There

A couple of clips from last night’s Yago’s A-Town Throwdown, the 2015 Cultures of Basketball intra-class 3 on 3 tournament, without further commentary.

What 'Sheed Says When He Says "Ball Don't Lie!"

“Pistons Sheed”
(Nathan McKee, 2014, Giclee Print, 13 x 19)

In my post yesterday, I analyzed the structure of a foul call in an NBA game to show that a foul doesn’t cause the whistle to blow (as the rules prescribe); the whistle blowing causes a foul to come into being.  But neither the rules of the game nor basketball common sense acknowledge the real nature of the foul call or the quasi-divine power NBA refs enjoy to actually constitute (not just identify) illegality.  And, if this power isn’t acknowledged, it cannot be challenged.  This is where ‘Sheed and “Ball Don’t Lie!” come in.

In fact, I consider his 317 career technical fouls a rough index of his ability to convey to referees his intent to expose and challenge their power. It may seem at first glance that, like basketball common sense, “Ball Don’t Lie” also mistakes the referee’s speech act as a descriptive statement, one with which ‘Sheed (or, actually, “Ball”) merely disagrees. But I believe the outraging power of “Ball don’t lie!” goes beyond simply countering one description of reality with another. It may do that. But its power and danger lies in drawing attention to the power of the referee to create a reality within which the players must play and which they must accept without question.

“Ball Don’t Lie” does this by offering us the possibility—however fanciful it may seem—that other powers, greater even than that of the referee, are weighing in as well. And this implicitly reminds us of the referee’s powers. Indeed, the very absurdity of the “ball” making a call draws our attention to the fact that the referee was not actually objectively describing a play but exercising what are within the universe of basketball quasi-divine powers to bring a foul into being.

‘Sheed isn’t just disagreeing with the call, he’s exposing these powers and in exposing these powers he is also calling into question the hierarchical structure of the sport whereby a referee is uniquely endowed with the powers to define reality. Indeed, I think ‘Sheed’s 2012 ejection from a Knicks-Suns game  occurred not because ‘Sheed applied “Ball don’t lie!” to an ordinary personal foul call whistled against him, but because he applied it to a technical foul call: in other words, he challenged the referee’s authority to enforce conformity with his decisions.

So Rasheed Wallace lays bare and challenges the power dynamics of the NBA, but he also affirms a positive alternative.  The phrase “Ball don’t lie!” comes from the culture of recreational or “pickup” basketball played on urban playgrounds. In such settings, without referees, players referee themselves, calling their own fouls and violations. Of course, just as in any formal game, disagreements may arise. One way these are often settled is by one of the disputants taking an uncontested shot from the top of the key. If the ball goes in, his or her claim is upheld, if it doesn’t go in, his or her claim is rejected. Though some grumbling may continue, the dispute is definitively settled because, well, as everyone knows and accepts: “Ball Don’t Lie!”

By introducing a phrase from this setting into the NBA, ‘Sheed reminds us that players can and do play basketball without refs and their transcendent powers. Viewed from this angle, “Ball Don’t Lie!” doesn’t so much invoke a transcendent power higher than that of the referees. It rejects the very idea of transcendent power. Instead, it invokes a lower power—or, more accurately, a power that circulates horizontally among equals rather than vertically from the top of a hierarchy to its bottom: that is, the immanent, self-organizing autonomous power of basketball players. I share with Rasheed this belief in the crucial importance of the self-organizing autonomous power of players. In fact, I’ve tried to let this power guide my my approach to basketball history in my teaching and in writing Ball Don’t Lie!

But the urban playground is more than just the site of “informal” play outside the sanction and control of hierarchically organized institutions. It also signifies within basketball culture the big city and, via an associative chain, impoverished urban neighborhoods and the residents of those neighborhoods, who early in the 20th century were already playing pickup ball because, with its relative simple requirements where space and equipment were concerned, basketball lent itself to cramped and crowded spaces and limited resources. Over the course of the middle of the 20th century, as ethnic immigrants migrated out of America’s urban core and African-Americans migrated in, and especially in the second half of the 20th century, urban pickup basketball came to be associated with African-Americans in the American cultural imagination.

When ‘Sheed yells “Ball don’t lie!” then, we should imagine the phrase as a kind of kite pulled onto the center of the NBA’s stage.  Attached to that kite is a string of associated phenomena: not only player autonomy, but also both the stereotypes and the real material conditions that link urban Black males with basketball. Beginning with its integration in the 1950s, but in a more marked way since the mid-1980s the NBA, as Todd Boyd, David Leonard and others have shown, has sought to profit from the black bodies of its players (and from some of the stereotypical images of black male urban culture) while simultaneously maintaining a “safe” distance from the less broadly marketable images associated with Black urban males. The NBA treats “Blackness” and its stereotypical signifiers as a kind of fluid cultural currency: it wants that currency to flow into the NBA in the form of talent and marketable cool, but it wants to control the flow.

“Ball don’t lie!” then also brings the playground into the mainstream arena of American culture, but in a way that resists defusing appropriation because it appears as a direct challenge to the authority of that culture as embodied in the referees and the league and its vertical, hierarchical power arrangement. The political importance of “Ball don’t lie!” then, resides, in its affirmation of the autonomous self-governance of intersecting populations (basketball players, the poor, urban dwellers, African-Americans in general and young black males in particular) whose capacity for self-governance public policy and popular culture attempts to hamper and then denies exists.

A Last Bit of Hoops Culture Awesomeness

Screenshot 2015-06-15 15.20.05And then this happened:

What is Hoops Culture Class For? Unleashing Humanity

In my research and teaching on the culture of sports, I’ve oriented the intellectual tools of my discipline toward helping my readers and students understand and reflect critically upon how the language and stories that prevail in the culture of sports have taken shape, how and why we consume and purvey them, and, above all, how we may empower ourselves to become, as Nietzsche put it, the poets of our lives; how, I mean, to take a more active and creative role in shaping the language and stories, including those pertaining to sport, that circulate around and through us.

“Cultures of Basketball,” which was my first effort in this regard, is an advanced undergraduate humanities course with a typical enrollment of around twenty five. Because demand for the course is high, and given the way registration operates at Michigan with athletes and more advanced students having priority in course selection, the course usually has a high percentage of seniors from a variety of disciplines and varsity athletes including members of the men’s varsity basketball team.

The Problem

Here’s what I see when I walk into Cultures of Basketball on the first day:  a certain number of “basketball players,” whose names I usually already know, and a certain number of “students” or “non-players,” whose names I don’t. I’m certainly not proud of this, but I think it’s worth reflecting upon. To begin with, it’s clear to me that I’m not alone. The students who aren’t basketball players (including many who are athletes in other sports) appear star-struck to varying degrees, somewhat disoriented by the flesh and blood presence of these young men who until now, as fans, they’ve primarily seen on a television screen or from the stands in the Crisler Center. The basketball players, meanwhile, tend to sit together, as do the athletes from other sports. But unlike those other athletes, the basketball players seem shy and almost suspicious, or at least cautious. Perhaps they are aware of their status in the eyes of other students, aware that they are—on this campus anyway—public figures, who must weigh their words and actions carefully. Perhaps they have internalized or are at least sensitive to the common public view that they are somehow not “real students.”

All in all, that first day feels tense to me, fraught with division and a kind of defensive, mutual wariness that strikes me as emblematic, if not symptomatic, of the strain that our model of intercollegiate athletics and the social values it expresses can place on education. For it’s not just a matter of a simple, superficial impression. Rather, undergirding that superficial impression, a number of other dichotomous categories are at work. I’m thinking, for example, of how those “students,” as fans of the players, are consumers in the entertainment industry and thus relatively passive, whereas the players, in that same industry, are producers and so relatively active. I’m thinking, too, of the presumption that the students at the University are primarily there to do something with their minds, and the basketball players to do something with their bodies. Finally, it’s difficult and probably undesirable, not to notice that the majority of the basketball players are African-American (and, moreover, that the majority of the African-Americans in the class are basketball players), and that the vast majority of the rest of the students are white.

The Conceptual Toolbox

In a lecture first delivered in 1909, when basketball was really taking off, the American philosopher William James warned against what he called “vicious intellectualism” or “the abuse of naming.” He defined this as “the treating of a name as excluding from the fact named what the name’s definition fails positively to include.” Offering an example of how it works, he said you might as well argue that “a person whom you have once called an ‘equestrian’ is thereby forever made unable to walk on his own feet.” James is describing how we turn partial impressions of things and people into confining pseudo-definitions. So, we might as well argue that a person whom we have once seen as a ‘non basketball player’ is thereby forever made unable to shoot a ball at a hoop. Or we might as well argue that a person whom we have once seen as a basketball player is thereby forever made unable to write an academic paper or formulate an argument in a class discussion.

I think James nicely captures the deforming impact of the way my students and I see at the start of class. We basically strip away from all the students all the capacities and potentials that are not positively included in the labels we’ve placed on them. I sometimes think of these names or labels as filtering lenses. And whatever change I need as a teacher to make in myself is a change I need to make also for them, one that entails getting my own deforming, reducing lenses off so that I can do all the other things I’m supposed to do as a humanities professor: get them to see that they have lenses too, get them to see where the lenses come from, get them to see the goodness that is obscured by those lenses, and then help them to cultivate and draw forth—through the layers of fear, the inhibition, the shyness—all those abilities, capacities, potentials, and desires that the lenses kept me (and to various degrees each of them) from seeing, knowing, and activating.

A kind of philosophical teammate of James, John Dewey (who, incidentally, was teaching philosophy at Michigan around the time that James Naismith was inventing basketball), argued for the need to come up with a better way of modeling how we know things. The problem, as he saw it, was with what he called—so aptly in this context—“the spectator notion of knowledge.” In that way of defining knowing, we would-be knowers imagine ourselves standing outside the world, passively observing the stuff we would like to know about; the way we might watch and analyze a basketball game on television. That stuff becomes a fixed object to us and we figure that by analyzing it deeply enough, perhaps by running it through some experiments to see how it behaves under different conditions, we will come to know it.

Let me return to my class: player versus student, producer versus consumer, active versus passive, bodies versus minds, black versus white: I think it’s fair to say that these make a good start on a list of troublesome dichotomies defining intercollegiate athletics; certainly, but perhaps not only, the revenue-generating sports.  At least, that’s how economist Roger Noll seemed to see it when he wrote that big time college athletics were a system whereby “poor, primarily black students are used to finance the educational and athletic activities of wealthy white students.” I see overcoming these dichotomies as they operate in all of us in the classroom as one of my primary educational responsibilities in the course.

To do so, I find useful Dewey’s description of the alternative he proposed to the spectator theory of knowledge: “the self becomes a knower . . . in virtue of a distinctive way of partaking in the course of events. The significant distinction is no longer between the knower and the world; it is between different ways of being in and of the movement of things.” In other words, Dewey proposed valuing knowledge as a hands-on process of getting mixed-up in the things we want to know about, and recognizing and reflecting upon the different ways we have of doing so. In that sense, the significant distinctions to be explored in Cultures of Basketball lie not between so-called players and so-called students, but among the two dozen or so different ways of being in and of the movement of the culture of basketball as it unfolds in real time before our eyes in our classroom.

Fixing the problem: the classroom

It seems obvious to me that facilitating this process of becoming knowers ought to begin with me. That means, first of all, sharing my initial perception with my class, as well as sharing why I believe that perception is something to struggle to overcome I’m talking about calling this out in an informal way: “I can’t help but notice that I’ve already divided you up mentally into ballers and fans. And I assume you see yourselves the same way from the way you’ve segregated yourselves in the classroom. I hope that through this course we can figure out why we’ve done that, what’s wrong with it, and how not to do it in the future.” In doing so, I’m trying to model for them the kind of openness and desire for integrity that I hope they’ll be able to achieve in their own class participation. Of course, I’m also beginning to draw attention to the fact that in this particular course, our own attitudes and experiences are inseparable from the ostensible subject matter of the class and that this is a good thing, not a problem.

Meanwhile, I try to create conditions in which all students themselves can practice fixing what might be wrong with their way of seeing. This entails some of the practices that most people probably think of as at least reasonably appropriate for a college classroom in the humanities. In other words, students read scholarly perspectives, listen to lectures, and participate in discussions about the history of the culture of basketball and the ways in which it has put lenses in front of our eyes that lead us to see what we see when we walk through the classroom door for the first time. They also select from a menu of individual and collaborative assignments, including both traditional papers and more unconventional tasks, to begin to practice doing for themselves what they, hopefully, are noticing that I am modeling for them: the effort to take the lenses off, exchange them for others, or at least polish them up a bit.

In this way, students, who are also fans, transform themselves into active producers, rather than merely passive consumers, of the culture of basketball and, in the process, perceive the celebrity athlete in their midst as a peer, a student, a human being, a vulnerable adolescent in transition like themselves. Meanwhile, those “basketball players” become the students they always have been, challenged to reflect intellectually on what they do and the broader social and cultural context in which they do it and to articulate their positions in discussion with classmates or in papers for me. Everyone learns to craft their own story and to respect the story of others. But, as indispensable and valuable as these activities are, they aren’t in my view the most important way that we in the class become active knowers.

Fixing the problem: the court

I’m pretty sure that probably nothing we do in Cultures of Basketball looks less academically rigorous or important than the intra-class 3 on 3 tournament we hold at the end of each semester. That’s right.  And yet if we take seriously Johan Huyzinga’s argument that play, which he saw as the substrate of all human civilization, is, essentially, freedom, you might begin to see why I feel that our little tournament embodies, culminates and, eventually, supersedes all the “traditional looking” academic work that has come before. So that I’ve come to believe also that perhaps nothing I do as a teacher does more towards realizing my educational goals as a humanities professor.

For the sake of brevity, let me quickly summarize how the tournament works: first, the idea comes from the students and is not a course requirement; second, the students organize the tournament entirely, forming themselves into committees in charge of creating teams and brackets, selecting nicknames, securing a venue, designing logos, printing jerseys, documenting the event, and creating and distributing awards; third, I play in the tournament; fourth, the UM basketball players and other, especially large elite athletes who volunteer, are distributed evenly among the 3 member teams; and finally, the tournament is played during our free time after the semester has ended.

The tournament takes what we’ve been doing in the classroom all semester and shows students that this same thing can happen on a basketball court, with our bodies and with fewer words. In that sense, it is, as I sometimes jokingly call it, the laboratory or workshop component of the course. But that’s not really right. It’s really just an extension of the classroom: we sit at desks, we read books, we write and talk with words, we set picks, we catch bounce passes, we shoot jumpers, we help on defense, and we talk with dunks. We think and act, we cooperate and compete. And then it expresses our overcoming of deficiencies in our perception, our thought, and our practice. It becomes a celebration of humanity, growth, connection, and friendship.

I’d like to conclude by sharing three brief anecdotes that I hope will convey what this experience can mean.

Fixing the problem: three stories

A couple of years ago, for the 2013 version of the tournament which the student naming committee had dubbed “CoB 2.0: Unleashed,” I walked into the Central Campus Recreation Building with my teammate, nicknamed “Jam” and also known as Jimmy King, member of the famed University of Michigan freshman class of 1991 known as the Fab Five. Jimmy, who had visited the class as a guest lecturer a few weeks before, shook his head and said something along the lines, of “Damn! I haven’t been in here like twenty years! We used to have some great games in here.”

Of course, the two teams Jimmy played on that reached the NCAA championship game have received from the University no official acknowledgement or recognition for their achievements. On the contrary, the banners remain tucked away, a reminder, former President Coleman said, of a shameful period in Michigan history. But walking on campus with Jimmy, its obvious to me that he is moved in complex ways by this visceral reminder of his college experience.

And official disregard notwithstanding, it’s also obvious that Jimmy and his teams still mean a great deal to people at the University. At our tournament, he was asked to sign countless autographs: by other students in the CCRB, by parents of my students who were attending the tournament, and even by CCRB staff members. He did so not only patiently but with enthusiasm, posing for pictures and engaging everyone in conversation. Here’s Jimmy signing one of I don’t know how many autographs he was asked to sign by current UM students, parents, staff members who recognized him instantly.


Our team, Old Skool Ballers (Gil aka G-Baby Naamani, and fourth man and Cultures of Basketball alumnus Ron “The Professor” Beach joined Jimmy and me), made a solid run. We went into the semi-finals having won our first three games. In the semi’s we faced WTF Are You Ewing? also undefeated, consisting of Lauren Brandt, Mitch McGary, and Evan King. But we were stiff, tired and really our bodies just couldn’t keep it up.

Now, at a certain point in one of our games that year, Mitch McGary, at that time a freshman on the UM team whose breakout performance during the NCAA tournament put him in a position to make a decision about whether to turn pro or not during our last week of classes, inbounded the ball to his teammate Lauren Brandt who began the semester as a non-player in my eyes and whom I was guarding. Mitch, guarded by Jimmy, cut around Lauren, who dropped off a little bounce pass to him as he passed her. Jimmy followed Mitch, but was partially screened by Lauren. I remained rooted by age and infirmity to my spot on the floor, thus failing to provide help defense. Mitch saw that he’d gained a step on Jimmy along the baseline went under the basket and then up for a reverse dunk. Mitch, who had been idolized by his classmates, in turn idolized Jimmy King, proudly telling me later that Jimmy was following him on Twitter. Mitch, Lauren and their teammate, tennis player Evan King went on to win our tournament championship and the awards committee named Mitch Most Valuable Player.

But it wasn’t just Mitch’s time. One of his teammates, Lauren, also known as Sweet n LoLo, wrote me that she’s always loved basketball but for most of her life she’s been a spectator and when she does get to play it’s shooting games like horse or around the world. Here is Mitch placing the Championship medal around her neck:


She told me:

I loved that I didn’t feel like I was letting anyone down in this tournament. I could shoot and miss and that was okay. I tried. We were in it together. The last game, Mitch told me I was “clutch”. That’s right! He also kept saying that it was the team and not him (which I am not so sure that is true…like at all, but he really made me at least feel like the three of us did it together).
After the tournament the first thing she did was call her dad, who called her Champ and Sweet n LoLo (her official nickname) for three days. That weekend, after the tournament was over, she went home and she and her dad went down to the park on the corner to shoot hoops.

At the end of the tournament, after the awards have been handed out, after everyone has friended each other on Facebook, we all pose for a class picture.



I’m proud that when I look at that picture, all of us squeezed together, sweating and smiling, in our brightly colored jerseys with the tournament logo printed on the front, I really have to try hard to pick out the basketball players in the group. I just see “Speedy” and “Ratboy Genius,” “Wild Bill” and “Chicago,” “C-Love” and “Cage” and, well, you get the idea.

There is No GOAT and Why that "truth" Will Set You Free


I approach teaching Cultures of Basketball with the hope I can make the course and each class meeting more than just a forum for the kind of discussion a fan might have in a dorm room or sports bar with Bill Simmons. On the one hand, I want the passionate energy that kind of discussion contains and, after all, I am a fan too. But then I also want that kind of discussion to be something that students can step out of, and look at with a critical eye; I want them to come to see what sort of broader cultural purposes – often collective and unconscious — are served by particular positions in that discussion and even by the topic itself. Because this is when actual learning, self-understanding, and growth occur.

Yesterday was “LeBron Day” in class and it generated a great opportunity for this sort of thing. For, inevitably, within minutes the topic was raised: Is LeBron James the Greatest of All Time (the common acronym for non-hoops-nerds is GOAT). This question quickly narrowed to a single comparison: “LeBron vs Michael” (as in Jordan), which is when things got really animated. Read more

Now what? Reflections on My Final Four


Today is Tuesday. But it doesn’t feel like any Tuesday. I’ve been through something, though I’m not yet sure what it is. I’ve been through it with my wife and family and friends, with my students and colleagues, and — through this blog and social media — thousands of strangers. Read more

An Open Letter to Chris Webber: You Are Loved


Dear Mr. Webber,

You don’t know me. And I don’t know you, though I know some of your close friends. So let me first introduce myself. In 1993, when your heart was broken in front of a national television audience, I was 27 years old and near the end of my first year as a professor at the University of Michigan. Read more

Day 12: What It Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Go on to read Day 13 and another version of soul

1 2