On Steph Curry: A Reply and a Clarification

Yesterday, Robert Silverman examined why retired NBA legends have emerged recently to make claims in the media that Stephen Curry (and the Warriors) wouldn’t have been able to torch the league back in their own era.  Silverman, who interviewed me for the piece, wasn’t trying to adjudicate these claims so much as try to understand what underlying feelings or forces be driving them to the surface of basketball culture right now.

This morning, pioneering basketball writer Bethlehem Shoals (a friend and a strong influence on my own thinking about the game to whom I owe a great debt), voiced first bafflement about what he took to be the central position of Silverman’s essay:

before offering a criticism by way of an analogy:

Shoals did not direct these comments at me personally, but I nonetheless, justifiably or not, felt interpellated by them; particularly having been one of Silverman’s sources for the view that Curry, to use my own words as quoted in the essay, “embodies what I see as a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.” And, thus interpellated and, frankly, hurt, I feel compelled to respond to what I feel is a mischaracterization both of my views (and of Silverman’s own position—but I’ll let him speak for himself) in the essay.

Shoals’ analogy characterizes the position as “going at Curry as the face of analytics-driven ball” and then compares that to “blaming Jesus for the Inquisition.”  Though colorful and clever, I feel this analogy mischaracterizations the positions that I (and Silverman) expressed in the essay.

First, it’s not clear what Shoals means by “going at” but I wouldn’t say that either Silverman or myself went at Curry. Silverman did accurately quote me as saying that I found Curry’s play “predictable” (which I do) and Shoals is right if he surmises that this is for me a mark against Curry.  But it hardly seems to me to constitute “going at,” particularly when in the very same sentence I said that “I marvel at his ability” (and Silverman too devoted considerable space and lexical imagination to evoking Curry’s wondrous play).

Second, Shoals analogy conflates this “going at [X] as the face of [Y]” with “blaming [X] for [Y].  Blaming involves an attribution of causality and therefore the analogy implies that those who “going at Curry as the face of analytics-driven ball” believe he has caused “analytics-driven ball” (just as “blaming Jesus for the Inquisition” would be assert that Jesus somehow was a, or the, cause of the Inquisition).  I never said that (nor did Silverman) and I don’t believe it (and I don’t think Silverman does).

Third, the analogy implies that “analytics-driven ball” is equivalent to “the Inquisition.”  That may or may not be the case in Shoals’ eyes, but it is not the case in mine, and not only because of the obvious differences in scale and magnitude, which I’m sure Shoals did not mean by his analogy to gloss over.  It’s not the case in my eyes because while the Inquisition is unequivocally bad in my eyes, basketball analytics is not. I don’t think analytics is bad for basketball in the way that I think the Inquisition was bad for, well, humanity.

So let me try, once more, to clarify what I actually believe (and believe I actually said in Silverman’s piece or elsewhere).

First, I marvel at Curry’s ability. I’m saying this because nobody who references anything I’ve ever written or said in interviews about Curry (or the Warriors) seems to notice.  One more time: I marvel at Curry’s ability.

Second, I find Curry’s play predictable.  Others may not and that is fine. I do. I can’t help that I am not surprised by what he does.  While this diminishes my desire to watch him it does not prevent me from—as I said—marveling at his abilities.

Third, “Curry embodies what I see as a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.”  This voices my concern about Steph embodying what I would characterize as a cultural phenomenon.  Apparently, I have not been clear. And I need to spell out what I mean by this more carefully so that it will not be mistaken or caricatured. To “embody” something is very different than “causing it” (I’m gonna trust y’all to look that up on your own if you’re not convinced). Moreover, the problematic cultural phenomenon I feel Curry “embodies” is not “basketball-analytics” per se, but rather “a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.”

Are those two things—”basketball analytics” and a “fetish with efficiency”—related? Sure. Are they the same thing? No. Is one responsible for the other? No. It’s not that simple. Yes, basketball analytics is responsible for devising statistical tools for measuring efficiency in basketball play and for producing arguments that may be used to support the claim that efficient basketball is the best basketball.  And yes, I believe the persuasiveness of this argument has led to an increased emphasis in the discourse around the game on “efficiency” an emphasis I would still characterize as a “fetish,” by which I mean an over-prioritization.

I don’t actually think that basketball analytics, understood specifically as a way of using quantitative reasoning to investigate questions about basketball play, is bad for basketball. On the contrary, I think it’s good.  I think what’s bad for basketball (or bad for me anyway) is when any one way of approaching and understanding the game comes to be seen as the only, or the best, way of approaching and understanding the game. And I do fear, and I acknowledge I may be wrong, that this may be happening today. It’s up to all of us to prevent that from happening.

But I do not believe, nor have I said, that Steph Curry or basketball analytics are either equivalent to or the cause of this fetish of efficiency. I think the cause is much simpler: capitalism.

When I say that Curry embodies this fetish, I mean that his success and likable persona can be taken as a demonstration of the superiority and desirability of a narrow emphasis on efficiency.

Read with care, please, so as to be sure you understand what this does not mean:

  • It does not mean that this is Curry’s fault or his responsibility to prevent.
  • It does not mean that Curry is the only player (or the Warriors the only team) that could be said to embody this fetish.  I don’t think that. I only think that because of their extraordinary success they can serve as a more persuasive example.
  • It does not mean that Curry’s play (or Curry himself as a cultural figure) can only mean that. That is obviously false, as I have written about elsewhere by now ad nauseum. “Curry” means, among many other things: talent, hard work, Christian faith, accessibility, family, fatherhood, creativity, daring, confidence, overachievement, youth.

It can be difficult, as Shoals knows better than I, to sustain thoughtful, informed, sensitive, and intelligent discourse about basketball in the sports media sphere.  Long standing attitudes among fans, economic pressures, and the forms of social media themselves often seem to demand and to reward facile oversimplifications and polarizing dichotomies so long as they are cleverly phrased.

For those of us (I take the liberty of including both Shoals and Silverman) in this, who love the sport as a complex form of athletic ability, cultural expression, embodied thought, aesthetic experience and social condensor, it seems especially vital to take care that our public contributions to discourse about the game are adequate to its depth and complexity.

Basketball Analytics: Reflections and Reservations

Okay, here’s the short version for those require maximum efficiency (n=”the point”/number of words) in their reading environment:

At the heart of my reservations is my sense that value can be defined in many ways: economically, aesthetically, morally, to name just a few.  And that economic definitions of value in terms of efficiency productivity may be beginning to eclipse and drive out of the public conversation considerations of aesthetic and moral and other values, particularly when these appear to be at odds with economic value.  In short: some very beautiful (aesthetically valuable) things are not economically efficient.  I am worried that once we have allowed certain kinds of things that we value to be eclipsed, we could find ourselves in the position of having lost those kinds of things forever.

The rest of you, who enjoy the backroads of an intellectual journey, please carry on with my sincere thanks.

Read more

Why I Hate “the Warriors”

I’m annoyed.  Here’s the thing:  I thought I was gonna write a quick explanation of why I hate the Warriors, hot take click bait for contrarians.

Because: I do, I hate them!  See, it’s easy for me to feel that, it’s always right there, seething under the surface, clamoring to be voiced. I hate the Warriors. That part is like falling off a log. But an explanation is a different kind of thing. For an explanation I have to think, and when that happens, at least for me, things get complicated.

Why do I hate the Warriors? What about them do I hate?  People ask me this. It’s fair. What’s to hate about a superb team made up of apparently likable players playing well individually and together? What’s to hate about ball movement or great shooting or winning or appearing to have fun? What’s to hate about Oakland having a great team?  What am I even talking about?! People ask me these very difficult questions. And I keep repeating, confirming the stereotype of the egghead academic, that it’s complicated.

Let’s start with what I don’t hate. I don’t hate Steph Curry. His skills are peerless, the precise, but seemingly effortless creativity with which he deploys them is joyful and awe striking, not to mention at times hilarious, and it  manifests at least as much dedication and hours of effort as I’ve ever admired in any other player.  I don’t hate Draymond Green and the ability to adapt to his environment by growing new capacities in leaps and bounds that he’s demonstrated as part of this team. Nor do I hate his brash, trash talking confidence. I don’t even hate the Warriors for beating the heroic LeBron James and the closest thing I have to a hometown club in the finals last year. I don’t hate their crisp pace, or their spacing, or their ball movement. I don’t hate three pointers in particular or great shooting in general. I love all these things. And yet…

And yet, basketball doesn’t just exist within the lines of the court. Basketball is also, for me anyway (and I would argue for anyone, whether they are aware of it or not), a set of stories, stories that convey (and influence) attitudes and beliefs and values. And basketball also is a set of broader societal forces and practices that find their way into the game, moving the minds and hearts and bodies of owners, general managers, coaches, players, fans, and the media. So that while I can watch and admire all that I described above, it’s simply not possible for me to do so without also experiencing feelings provoked by all the other things I can’t help but notice are in play when the Warriors take the floor. (By the way, that, in case you wondered, is why “the Warriors” is in scare quotes in my title.)

I’ve written about this before, so I won’t belabor the point at length, but I can’t help, I’m sorry, but be disturbed by what lurks between the lines of the collective adoration of Steph Curry. It’s not that his skills don’t deserve our admiration. They do, and I believe he is rightly considered the best basketball player alive at this moment.  It’s the way that many (I know: not all) in the media, in the corporate world, and in fandom convey their delight in his success (particularly when it involves licking a saber’s edge over the slain body of the last player they made into an object of worship, LeBron James).

I’m repelled, heretical though it may seem in our country, by the celebration of his Christianity, as though believing in Jesus were a talent or an accomplishment, or evidence of moral virtue, or, um, at all relevant to being a basketball player. And I wonder why in Jesus’s name we, as a culture, give a shit about what Steph believes. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate Christians or that Steph Curry is one. I hate that this fact ever appears to his credit in a story about basketball.  Ditto for his having an adorable child and loving her: happy for him that he has one, happy for her that he loves her. Stop talking about it (or start talking about all the NBA players, especially those who didn’t come from two parent households, who are also devoted to their kids).

I’m irritated (not repelled, I’m trying to be precise here) by the open-mouthed marveling at his physical stature, as though with every floater he drops in heavy traffic he were preschooler spelling a difficult word or moonwalking on his parents coffee table, as though he has somehow overcome greater obstacles than other great NBA players.  He’s not, and he has not.  Yes, he is not as tall as the average NBA player, nor as strong, but he’s neither the shortest nor the weakest of his peers. He’s 6-3, was raised amidst material privilege by both his parents (one a former NBA player and three-point specialist), and spent his childhood at NBA practices and games, surrounded and tutored by NBA players. That doesn’t make him a lock to become the greatest player alive (far from it, as I’ve already acknowledged: he’s clearly worked his ass off), but it also doesn’t make him a miraculously prodigious tiny street urchin who wandered in grubby off the street corner and began launching step back threes with unprecedented accuracy.

Lastly, I’m repelled (yes, repelled again), by what I view as a pernicious racist subtext in the cult of Steph Curry. Let me emphasize: I am not referring to conscious attitudes held by individuals who adore Steph Curry. I’m talking, as I have tried to demonstrate in my book, about the workings of collective, unconscious dispositions and desires that we have all inherited by American society and the history of basketball.  Unless we actively and explicitly combat these, then it becomes too easy for the celebration of a light-skinned, blue eyed, average-sized guard to come at the expense of dark-skinned, brown-eyed, over-sized black men.

Is any of this Steph’s fault? Mostly, I would say no, it’s not. But it is to the degree that he deliberately reinforces (or capitalizes upon) any of these elements of the narrative that has risen up around his brilliant on-court performances.  I leave it to others to judge whether he has or not, and with that, enough about the Church of Steph Curry.

Next up, I can’t watch the Warriors peerless team play and lights out three point shooting without seeing it as the most advanced current manifestation of a tide that has been slowly swelling in basketball over the last 10 years or so that prizes productive efficiency above all else. This feeling has spurred me to a more extensive research project into all the elements, conceptual, technological and otherwise that have driven this development; which is to say, I’m still learning a lot about it. But in my currently oversimplified understanding of the story it goes like this.

Inspired by the advances in the statistical analysis of baseball, some fans with statistical proficiency began to think about the game of basketball and how to quantify what looked to the rest of us more or less like pure, unquantifiable material flow. In doing so, they isolated “the possession” as the fundamental unit of basketball play and to begin to experiment with methods for calculating the productivity of teams (and individuals) in terms of how the various basketball actions they undertake affect the ability to generate points per possession.

Here let me say: of course they did! Because, I say as someone who is just trying these lenses on for size, it’s cool as hell to see the game through them! (I’m the guy, I’d like you to know, who kept stats of the imaginary NBA Finals series he played against his best friend in the driveway and I’m the guy whose Dad kept stats at everyone of his games and then printed out reams of analysis generated by his IBM XT.) I don’t hate numbers. I love numbers and wish I understood them better. So I don’t fault these individuals. I don’t attribute to them soulless, malign intentions. I turn the game into stories and appreciate it with words, they turn it into formulas and appreciate it through numbers. Live and let live, right?

Definitely.  But I worry that the beautiful curiosity, wild imagination, unorthodox vision, and intellectual energy driving their efforts came also to be recognized for its potential value to owners and general managers seeking to maximize and stabilize the return on their financial investment in players.  How, in essence, these individuals might be asking themselves, do I get the most points per possession for the fewest dollars? Now we’ve gone from a few teams hiring some statistically minded kids to analyze their box scores to a half-dozen cameras perched in every arena in the league surveilling the every movement of players and delivering a torrent of big data to small armies of analysts to crunch and transform into actionable information for executives, coaches, and yes, even players.

Of course, I don’t expect that capitalist owners (or their paid underlings) would prioritize questions other than those related to maximizing their ROI.  And, if you’re comfortable with having the unencumbered freight train of free market logic trundle along, you’re probably thinking I’m naive.  After all, this is just the nature of things in our world. Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or its effects.

The Warriors, it seems to me, who lead the league in offensive efficiency, seem not only to be the incarnation of this tendency, but, by their success, seem also to be spurring other franchises to try to figure out how to do what they’ve done—as evidenced by Steph and others telling teams not to try.  This may be fine for many fans, whose favorite team either is the Warriors or is trying to become them. But for me it threatens to turn the NBA, which I have long loved to the degree that it presented me with an alternative to the corporatization of daily life in America, into the advance guard for ever more invasive attempts to make economic efficiency the mother of all values, to maximize productivity, and to create more reliable predictive models.

I don’t mind efficiency, I don’t mind productivity, and I don’t mind predictions. God knows I like to get my work done and to know what shit storm is coming around the bend so that I can prepare for it or avoid it.  But these are strong tides in which we are blithely romping in America today and if we don’t watch out, we may find that they’ve swept out to sea some other things that we used to like to have around: beauty, surprise, chance, and nonsense, to name just a few.

Which brings me to my final point, the relationship between the Warriors increasingly predictable domination of all competition and the annihilation of uncertainty and of the emotional complex (and marvelous, wondering stories) to which it gives rise.  Last week, the Warriors demolished the Cavaliers by 34, the Bulls by 31, and the Spurs by 30. Two of those teams (the Cavs and Spurs) were supposed to represent the only significant challenge to the inevitability of the Warriors winning a second consecutive title this year. So much for that. Even if Nate Silver at 538 only puts their chances of winning the title at 46 % (still 20 percentage points higher than the Spurs), I don’t know anybody who really thinks that the Warriors won’t repeat.  Unless, of course, they get hurt. But even I don’t wish for that.

But that’s kind of the point for me. I don’t want to have to wish for great athletes to get hurt so that uncertainty will be restored to the game. And, in basketball, unlike in my life, I like not knowing what will happen next, or how the story will end. I like the tension in my stomach and shoulders, the quickening of my pulse this uncertainty brings, and I like the emotions of fear, hope, elation, relief, despair associated with these physical signs.  I think of basketball as a story-generating machine, but really, it’s the uncertainty that basketball creates and the emotions that uncertainty provokes that are, I think, the source from which the basketball stories I love have always come from.

The Warriors are on pace to tie the 1996 Bulls record setting 72-10 regular season won-loss record. I’d have hated watching those Bulls teams if it weren’t for the utter unpredictability of Dennis Rodman and the sense his existence allowed that I didn’t know what was happen next, or, to put it another way, what the story would be tomorrow. Hell the very presence of Rodman’s brightly colored, pogo-stick body alongside MJ’s in a Bulls uniform was itself a kind of ceaseless source of nourishment for the imagination delighting in the fragile, fleeting materialization of the improbable

I think I know what the story will be tomorrow, and the day after, and in June, when the Warriors finish off their thoroughly probable title run.

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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

Steph Curry and the Three-Ball: My Star Turn on NPR

Around the time of the NBA All-Star game, NPR’s sports reporter Tom Goldman wrote me to see if I’d be interested in doing an interview on the relationship between Steph Curry’s rising popularity and the advancing importance of the three-point shot in the NBA.  As a related question, I was to consider whether these signify the passing of the torch from LeBron James to Curry.  Tom passed on a couple of articles  by Darren Rovell and Brian Windhorst that had prompted his thinking.

We talked for about an hour at the time and I shared my perspectives, including my admiration for Curry’s play on the court, which is not only effective but beautiful.  But I focused on the deeper factors in the history and culture of basketball that might lead pundits to desire Curry (and the three ball) over LeBron as an emblem for the game and the league, including race and a growing obsession, in all areas of American society, with efficiency.  Unfortunately, most of those reflections were left on the cutting room floor due to time constraints.  I may share those views in a later post.  But for now I wanted to share the interview as it aired this morning on NPR’s morning edition.

You can also see the transcript here.

Day 7: The Age of Wonder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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