Our Myth of Creation

This is the text of a presentation I gave this past weekend at the American Comparative Literature Association annual conference at New York University.  It’s also an abbreviated version of Chapter One of my book manuscript.  I know it’s a scholarly work, and long for a blog post, but I trust the intelligence, curiosity, and attention span of my readers.  Feedback welcome as always!

From its beginnings in 1891 and over the course of basketball’s subsequent history, changes in society and in the sport have sparked sometimes contentious discussion over the putative essential nature of basketball as well as over the techniques and tactics that ostensibly best convey that nature. Investigating these discussions, I have identified clusters of recurrent stories, metaphors, and images, arising around key events and personalities. I call these clusters “myths” not to suggest that they are untrue, but rather to emphasize my interest in their narrative character and cultural function. These myths give narrative shape to a collective struggle with changes—particularly related to race—taking place in basketball and in society. In general, they fabricate an idealized, timeless essence of the game and project it onto a succession of moments, individual players, coaches, and teams or conversely, fantasize that a contrasting succession poses a destructive threat to that essence.  Sometimes, the same myth simultaneously hails an embodiment of basketball’s essence and decries an imagined threat to that essence.

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What I learned About Hoops and Invention from Julio Cortazar

“The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.”

– Werner Heisenberg[1]

            “The world,” Julio Cortázar once wrote, “is a badly resolved problem if it does not contain, in some part of its diversity, the encounter of each thing with all the others.”[2]  The poet, he continued, “if she cannot connect them by intrinsic features, does what everyone does when looking at the stars: she invents the constellation, the lines linking the solitary stars.”  This little passage shoots my mind off in the direction of a half-dozen different solitary stars at one time:  the interconnectedness of all beings in Buddhism and in deep ecology and in the rhizome of French thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the relation between looking at stars and reading and between reading and writing [Ù33]. The word “invents”.  I think I’ll go there.

            “She invents the constellation.”  Invent and its derivatives appear frequently in Julio’s works, at every stage of his career.  That was an early example, from around 1950.  Here he is again, over thirty years later, hoping of the chronicle of life on the road that he would write with his wife Carol Dunlop just before his death: “that our experience will have opened for you some doors too, and that in you germinates already the project of some parallel freeway of your own invention [Ù13, 16, 19, 66, 72].”[3]  Invention, throughout Julio’s writing, comes to mean the process by which we can make something new – a word, an experience, a world, a self – by rearranging the elements, and the relationships among them, that constitute a particular, received situation [Ù4].

            Think of a word as a situation made up of elements called letters that are configured in a given way according to certain rules.  Now how can you make something new of that word?  Consider the difference between a palindrome and anagram. “The problem with palindromes,” says Lozano, the protagonist of Cortázar’s late short story “Tara,” is that “you are left the way you started.”  A palindrome, which offers you a mirror image of a word, “has no strength because it doesn’t teach you anything new.”[4]  But anagrams are a different story.  The young girl from the story “The Distances” makes an anagram of her name – “Alina Reyes es la reina y  . . . ” – and notes in her diary that it is beautiful because it “opens a path.”  She’ll follow it until she’s invented a new self for her self.[5]  Anagrams make something new.  The inventor of an anagram takes the hard fast frozen relations between letters that make up the given word and softens and melts them until the letters can dance around experimentally before plopping back down in unexpected new relations of proximity and distance.

            Take one more example, just to get the basic idea.  “pages 78, 457, 3, 271, 688, 75, and 456 of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy have all that is needed for the writing of a hendecasyllable by Garcílaso.”[6]  That is to say that the poem by Garcílaso lies immanently within the particular, received situation of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy, just as “es la reina y . . .” lies immanently in “Alina Reyes.”  It takes an inventor, however, to discover (and etymologically “invention” refers to the process of discovery, of “coming upon”) the poem by rearranging the elements (in this case the pages of the dictionary, and the words on them) in a new way.  From these examples, you can see one of the fundamental aspects of invention: it always works immanently.  Nothing gets added from outside the given situation, and the original, given situation remains, now embedded, within the new one.

            This sense of invention makes Julio himself a star in a constellation that includes the late Italian novelist Italo Calvino, who can help direct that sense of invention to the heart of the world in which we live.  In a lecture written just before his death, Calvino noted that the Roman poet Lucretius (c. 100 – c. 55 B.C.) saw letters as “atoms in continual motion, creating the most diverse words and sounds by means of their permutations” so that “in the combinatoria of the alphabet” Lucretius “saw a model of the impalpable atomic structure of matter.”[7]  Lucretius – already influential upon such prominent and otherwise dissimilar cultural figures as the literary critic Harold Bloom and the philosopher Gilles Deleuze[8] – shines now all the more brightly in this constellation for he has of late become a kind of hero to scientists interested in the behavior of systems, such as living systems, that exist far from equilibrium.

            Nobel Prize winning physicist Ilya Prigogine and philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers summarize the pertinent Lucretian view: “Sometimes, wrote Lucretius, at uncertain times and places, the eternal, universal fall of the atoms is disturbed by a very slight deviation – the ‘clinamen.’  The resulting vortex gives rise to the world, to all natural things.”  This Lucretian hypothesis of a generative swerve closely resembles current beliefs among theorists of living systems concerning the disturbance or “disorder” out of which living things arise: “If the vertical fall were not disturbed ‘without reason’ by the clinamen, which leads to encounters and associations between uniformly falling atoms, no nature could be created; all that would be reproduced would be the repetitive connection between equivalent causes and effects governed by the laws of fate (foedera fati).”[9]

            Thinkers like stars.  She invents the constellation.  Atoms like letters.  Atoms swerve out of barren, conventional flows into unpredictable encounters with each other.  From these kinds of encounters spring all that is new.  Letters like atoms.  Julio begins with letters too and knocks them just slightly out of line in order to produce new words.  “It is the ability of different organisms to exchange ‘genetic information’ with each other, the process the geneticist calls recombination, more popularly known as sex.”[10]  Or making love.  With atoms, like letters, like thinkers, everything depends on what you can make of them.

            Invention is the name that Julio gives to the process of creating something new by a rearrangement of the relations comprising something old.  Its versatile applicability to generative processes ranging from physics to biology to philosophy to literature partly explains the vital urgency with which Horacio Oliveira, at the beginning of Julio’s most famous novel Hopscotch, announces that in “an age in which we run toward deception through infallible equations and conformity machines,” “our possible truth must be invention” [“nuestra verdad posible tiene que ser invención.]”[11]

[1]Quoted in Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (New York: Anchor, 1996), p. 30.

[2]Julio Cortázar, Imagen de John Keats [1950-1951] (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1996), p. 301, my translation.  Thus far, Latin Americanists have paid little attention to this posthumously published volume.  For a general introductory approach, however, see Steven Boldy, “Mise en perspective de Imagen de John Keats” in Cortázar de tous les côtés, Ed. Joaquín Manzi (Poitiers : UFR Langues Littératures Poitiers, Maison des sciences de l’homme et de la société, 2002), pp. 13-26.  Less surprisingly given that the work remains untranslated to English, it appears that Cortázar’s early work of scholarship on Keats has not entered the conversation of scholars who specialize in the work of that poet.

[3]Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop, Los autonautas de la cosmopista [1983] (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1996), p. 44, my translation. This text has received little critical attention, but see Jacques Leenhardt’s short review essay “Los autonautas de la cosmopista: Una vía de conocimiento,” Nuevo Texto Crítico 4.8 (1991): pp. 15-21 for a connection between traveling and knowing.  For other, more general and biographical, perspectives on this trip and the resulting book see Karine Berriot, Julio Cortázar: L’enchanteur (Paris: Presses de la Renaissance, 1988), pp. 257-290 and Jaime Alazraki, Hacia Cortázar: aproximaciones a su obra (Barcelona: Anthropos, 1994), pp. 281-297.  See also any of the four relatively new biographically oriented studies:  Eduardo Montes-Bradley, Cortázar sin barba (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2004), Claudio Eduardo Martyniuk, Imagen de Julio Cortázar (Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros, 2004), Enzo Maqueira, Cortázar, de cronopios y compromises (Buenos Aires: Longseller, 2002), and Miguel Herráez, Julio Cortázar: el otro lado de las cosas (Valencia: Institució Alfons el Magnanim, 2001.

[4]Julio Cortázar, “Tara,” Unreasonable Hours, Trans. Alberto Manguel (Toronto: Coach House, 1995), pp. 27-46.  In Spanish: “Satarsa,” Deshoras [1982] Cuentos Completos/2 (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994), pp. 443-453.

[5]Julio Cortázar, “The Distances,” Blow-Up and Other Stories, Trans. Paul Blackburn (New York: Collier, 1968), pp. 15-24.  In Spanish: “Lejana (Diario de Alina Reyes),” Bestiario [1951] Cuentos Completos/1 (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994), pp. 119-125. See Vilma Arrieta-Vargas, “Presencia satánica en el río Danubio: Anagramas en ‘Lejana” de Julio Cortázar,” Letras 32 (2000): pp. 45-64.

[6]Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch, Trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Pantheon, 1966), Ch. 71, p. 379. In Spanish, Rayuela [1963] (Barcelona, Edhasa, 1984), Ch. 71, p. 435.

[7]Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium, Trans. Patrick Creagh (New York: Vintage, 1993), p. 26 and pp. 44-45.

[8]In the early 1970s, Harold Bloom made Lucretius’ clinamen central to his theory of literary influence in the controversial work The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).  Before this, Gilles Deleuze argued in the late 1960s that “Lucretius established for a long time to come the implications of naturalism: the positivity of Nature; Naturalism as the philosophy of affirmation; pluralism linked with multiple affirmation; sensualism connected with the joy of the diverse; and the practical critique of all mystifications.”  The Logic of Sense, Trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 279.

[9]Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengears, Order out of Chaos (New York: Bantam, 1984), p. 141 and p. 303.  Prigogine, in turn, owes his reading of Lucretius to the attentive and inspired, but somewhat less accessible, account given by Michel Serres, for example, in “Lucretius: Science and Religion,” Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), pp. 98-124.

[10]Ernst Mayr, “The Evolution of Living Systems,” Evolution and the Diversity of Life (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 18.

[11]Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch, Trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Pantheon, 1966), Ch. 73, pp. 383-384, translation modified.  In Spanish, Rayuela [1963] (Barcelona: Edhasa, 1984), Ch. 71, pp. 438-439.

There Is Only One Creativity

600full-julio-cortazarI called this blog “between the lines” in order to evoke an intersection of two domains that have been dear to me  for most of my life: reading and basketball, though for most of my life they’ve been kept — at least consciously — separate from one another.  In the past couple of years, I’ve undertaken a conscious effort to integrate them and so, to integrate those dimensions of my nature and my desire.

So “Between the Lines’ is meant in part to suggest the lines of a basketball court and so to point to my efforts to deepen my understanding of what goes on between those lines.  But also, “Between the Lines” is also meant — as part of the phrase “Reading between the lines” — to suggest reading in general, and a way of reading deeply and practically that seeks to establish a relationship with writers and their writing as equipment for living.

“Between the Lines” means approaching both basketball and the written word with a close, critical attention to the concrete, formal details that comprise those things so as to open up pathways connecting each of those domains to the worlds beyond them (including the worlds within myself) and, from there, to practical insights that help me (and my students or those who read me) get along a little better in life. Read more

Day 2: We Are All Witnesses

This may not be so funny or dramatic. My fiancée, Claire, who’s also a university teacher, once observed with a perfect mixture of relief and wry disappointment how that hideous flower of anxiety seems to wilt and wither into something like dry routine, or even boredom, after the first day. Day 2 certainly wasn’t boring, but it didn’t pack quite the terrifying emotional punch of Opening Day.

That’s no doubt because of the change of clothes I carefully planned:  no hat, sweats, and a Nike track jacket. Or maybe because I spent much of Tuesday afternoon and evening blubbering in Claire’s arms and giving vent to the massive gold mine of insecurities that teaching this course tapped. Or maybe because in class we were actually going to be reading a text and that gave me a kind of home court advantage. Probably all of the above. But whatever the reason, Day 2 turned out to be less dramatic and more unambiguously positive and exciting than Day 1. And we actually got some interesting intellectual work done, even if it did entail partially misreading the main reading assignment.

Students were to have read the first section of “Chapter Zero” of our course textbook, FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, in which Bethlehem Shoals tells the story of James Naismith’s invention of the game in 1891. It’s a fluid six page read.  I certainly like it a lot, but in putting it on the syllabus, I had no clear idea in mind of what I wanted the class to get other than the fact that a man named James Naismith invented the game of basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891.

Now, I sometimes I unpleasantly fantasize that students project onto their college classes and professors the K-12 educational model of the lesson plan,

where every date and assignment on the syllabus and every minute within every day of every class is minutely orchestrated for minimum rowdiness and maximum pedagogical efficiency. But that’s not how I roll. The reading assignments that appear on my syllabuses are more like the food I bring to a potluck, or an item at the buffet. Hopefully they’ll try it. I have some ideas of what I think is worthwhile about it, and I certainly want to share these ideas, but at least as much I want them to learn to develop and to articulate their own ideas.  Or better yet, I’d rather them spontaneously voice my ideas. 

So the beginning of a typical meeting of one of my classes goes like this:  “So for today I asked you to read ‘x’. I have some ideas about what I find interesting and important about ‘x.’ But I’m going to keep those on the back burner and first hear your own impressions. Then, I’ll work my own ideas in when they seem relevant. So, what were your impressions?” Then, as they begin to say things, I take notes on the board, furiously scrawling everything that is said, trying to organize it spatially on the board into categories that make sense to me and mightily trying to make it seem that there’s no such thing as a stupid or irrelevant comment, which in a way turns out to be the case in the end, but it doesn’t always feel that way at first.

This works pretty well, except when some uptight, overachieving, structure-loving punk torpedoes the whole operation by asking where this is all going or what’s the point. But paradoxically it puts a lot more pressure on me than preparing a highly structured plan of what needs to be said about a given reading assignment. I have to think rapidly on my feet, do a lot of “translating” and at the same time weave together the disparate textures and weights of numerous threads into something coherent enough that the students can walk away feeling like they have either a) learned some “thing” or b) have some “thing” to think about.

So, already terrified of this hoops class and of my own feelings about it, there was no way in hell I was going to start off Day 2 – especially after Day 1 – by just asking these students to tell me what they thought of Shoals’ essay “Down By Law: James Naismith, the Peach-Basket Patriarch.” No way.

Instead, I did the pedagogical and intellectual equivalent of firmly belting my pants well up and above my waist to be absolutely certain they wouldn’t come down on me. (Interestingly, in terms of my actual clothes, as I said, I went in the other direction – feeling much more confident and comfortable in sweats than in jeans and a sweater that seemed, on Tuesday anyway, to just grow tighter and smaller with every passing moment.)

I carefully read and reread the assignment from FD’s history. As I read and thought I let myself just jot down what was striking me as important about it, which is how I realized that what was most interesting to me was the way that Shoals tells the story, by self-consciously drawing it into a narrative web with other stories, create a network (Moses – Martin Luther – James Naismith) that is at once ridiculous and sublime. But I didn’t want to say that to the students because then, well, that would take about 45 seconds and then there’d still be 1 hour, 19 minutes, and 15 seconds left of class. Also I didn’t think they’d have any idea what I was talking about, not on Day 2.

So I backed up. I don’t just mean I got simpler or more basic in my thoughts. I mean I backed up to how I felt. I realized that I really only cared about the invention of basketball as a story. I mean to say that as a fact, as something that happened, I didn’t really care much about the invention of basketball. Obviously I feel it’s a good thing since without it there’d be no basketball. But as mere fact, it’s not very interesting.

In a way, as mere fact it doesn’t really exist for any practical purpose. From a certain point of view, it doesn’t exist at all (since it is in the past and so is no longer) outside of the stories that are told about it. To my academic colleagues, this might seem like an obvious acknowledgment of the mediated nature of the past, but it’s still exciting to me when I rediscover it (in a “Whoa! Look! I invented a wheel!” kind of way).  Besides, in my experience, it is by no means obvious to undergraduates, especially Freshmen, which is mostly what I have in the class. Also, it seemed nicely connected to what I’d already promised the students I wanted the course to be about: not just the game on the floor but the power of the stories we tell about it.

Shoals’ comparison got me thinking about the story of the invention of basketball as a story of origins, a story about where something came from.

I realized the way I wanted to start was by asking my students to think about the stories they consume and create about where they came from.  How have those stories changed over time?  How do they vary in the present depending on who they are talking to:  an academic advisor, a childhood friend, a stranger at a frat party? How are those changes driven at least partly by the conscious and unconscious purposes they – the students, I mean – bring and have brought to each of these different situations. Maybe getting them to think about the practical variability of their own origin stories would make it easier to think more generally about origin stories as pragmatic instruments (rather than as objective or value-neutral, transparent descriptions of fact, or as shackling structures with the authority to determine what we do in the future).

But I still felt like something was missing. The two things I am afraid of as a teacher – hold up, the two things I most afraid of as a teacher are: 1) talking too much and boring the students and 2) running out of things to say — it’s a vexing combination, I know, which I suppose is why it works so well as a fear.  Probably my worst teaching-nightmare has me speaking animatedly on a topic, offering illumination after blinding illumination in a kind of improvised escalating spiral of profundity and originality and then I look up ready to say “see you next time” only to find that only five minutes have passed and half the class is jerking itself back onto the road like sleepy motorists.  The only thing that makes it worse is when my pants fall down.  I felt I needed more belting, figuratively speaking.

Luckily, and by luckily I mean through an unconscious survival instinct, I had tossed Naismith’s book into my satchel on Monday just before leaving St. Louis to catch my flight up to Michigan. I hadn’t read it yet (embarrassing admission for the professor of “Cultures of Basketball”; like a religious studies prof not having read Genesis or something).   On the plane up on Monday I started reading it and found that it was actually really fascinating reading. I mean, some of it was boring and I skipped pages here and there, but the story of the actual invention of the game as Naismith tells it I found pretty gripping.  Now that I think of it, it was like listening to my father recount his invention of the game of basketball, except that I could control it better.

Naismith came to mind as I prepared for Day 2 thinking about origin stories and how we shape them.   I figured that if Shoals was self-consciously shaping the story, it would be interesting for students to compare his story to another version of the same event.  What could be better, more authentic, and more apparently unshaped than Naismith’s own first-hand account? Here I imagined deliberately leading my students down the alley of comparing FD’s “disorted” version to the “true” version of Naismith and then, suddenly, flinging open a secret, hidden door in which, with great rhetorical flourish, I asked them: “but is Naismith’s account really ‘true’? Is it not distorted as well, only differently? What do we mean by true?” Ha-ha!  So all I needed to do was to photocopy the relevant pages from Naismith and bring them into class. This I did on Thursday morning before class. For good measure, I made 24 copies of the entire 17 page syllabus to distribute in class so that anytime I referred to it they’d have it in front of them and then I would avoid the dizzying experience I’d had the first day.

I had my plan: 1) find out whether and why they care about the invention of basketball, just as an icebreaker; 2) use the more “useful” responses as a way to turn the discussion to our fascination with stories of origin in general; 3) “thoughtfully” raise the question of how we know whether stories of origin are really true or not; 4) gracefully pivot from their earnest responses to this rhetorical question into making the point about the textually and narratively mediated nature of our access to the past; 5) reassure them that this need not be a bad thing, but can actually be an empowering thing; do a comparative reading of Naismith and Shoals in which the students talked about the shape of the respective stories and the purposes to which those stories might be put; 6) be prepared to talk about last night’s game — including Michigan’s closely fought loss to second-ranked Ohio State — in case numbers 1-5 above only take up  5 minutes of class.

Decked out in my sweats and Nike Chevron track jacket, I strode purposefully into class on Thursday. Just about everyone was already seated by the time I got there, but curiously, that felt better to me than having arrived so pathetically early on Day 1. I felt more confident: they were the pathetic ones! They couldn’t even start class without me! They needed me more than I needed them! “King Kong ain’t got nothin’ on me!” I roared in my head.

One of the players made, I think, a comment about my track jacket. It might have been derisive or ridiculing, but it might just have been surprise: professors don’t say “shit” and they don’t wear sweats and track jackets to class (a corollary of the solipsistic student axiom about their teachers: the teacher does not exist outside of class).   It might also not have been about me at all.  I wobbled but was undeterred. I tossed my bag on the teacher’s desk and began to take out the materials. I felt a little warm and toyed with the possibility of burning up as I had on Tuesday, but somehow came back from that abyss.

As I faced the class, taking roll and deliberately but subtly showing that I knew who the players were, I noticed that all the UM players (but one) were on one side of the room and all the non-UM players were on the other side. That was a little too close for comfort to a perfect physical manifestation of my own juvenile thoughts about the class. So, as I had the students distribute the various photocopies, I just pulled the curtain back. I remarked on the seating. And I said, “it seems like we’ve got players on the one side and fans on the other, or players on the one side and students on the other.  “But everyone” I said (I meant to “thunder” it, but I don’t think it came out that way), “everyone,” I said again for emphasis imagining John Houseman in the Paper Chase, “in this room is a student at this university, everyone is a fan, and everyone – whatever the level – is a player.” Good, everyone’s nodding.

Qui gon Jinn and Jar Jar Binks zooming around in the little underwater pod popped into my head and I found myself saying “Like me, you might not have ever played at the level these guys are playing, but don’t forget there is always a bigger fish.” I continued, “Oh, you don’t think so? Nobody’s a bigger fish than Lebron James? What about Kobe Bryant? [Kid I know to be from LA and a huge Laker fan nods vigorously]  Nobody’s a bigger fish than Kobe Bryant? What about Lebron James? [Kid looks confused and crestfallen]”

Then a student asked: “Who’s a bigger fish than Jordan?” (I’ve got a number of Chicagoland Jordan babies in my class).   Everyone laughed, it was a good question and it’s fun for everyone when the professor is stumped. Good question I said and laughed, maybe nervously, I’m not sure.  I wanted to be showing that I didn’t mind being stumped, even though I felt frustrated.  Images of Oscar Robertson kept pushing themselves into my mind.  I don’t want to have this argument.  I’ll lose it for sure, because I think probably nobody’s a bigger fish than Jordan but I can’t stand watered down absolutes.  It just doesn’t have the same effect to say “There’s almost always a bigger fish, unless you are the biggest fish, then there’s no bigger fish than you.”

So I replied, “Phil Jackson?” The student – also a player – smiled but shook his head. Perhaps I stirred a streak of rebellion against over-emphasizing the importance of coaching in the game, which is a streak I wholeheartedly sympathize with.  Plus in this setting, student = player and teacher = coach.  So  I felt a little stupid and abashed, as though I’d selfishly sided with Louis XVI during the French revolution.  I thought to myself, but didn’t say, how many titles did Jordan win without Jackson? (Answer = 0) how many titles has Jackson won without Jordan (Answer = 6 and counting). Not that I think that settles the question, but it would have been a good thing to say.

Anyway, the ice was unintentionally broken, and from there we got things underway and had what for me was a fun and interesting discussion that went more or less as planned up to a certain point. A variety of students responded to the questions I put to them about their interest (or lack thereof) in the invention of basketball and about their own stories of origins and how they work in their lives today. And they seemed to be taking it in when I made the point about how context and purpose influence the way we shape stories, even stories that purport to be objectively true (here a student who is also a writer for the school newspaper helped out by corroborating this).

Then we looked at Naismith together, me reading aloud the key passages in which Naismith, mostly flatly, like a human flowchart, reasons his way to the game of basketball. The narrative is mostly a thought experiment, in which he dryly imagines various scenarios sprouting forth from certain premises, rewinds the mental tape, changes the premise and then moves forward again.  The only instant when any trace of emotion appears — or indeed when Naismith himself emerges as a feeling human being (instead of a reasoning machine) — comes, tellingly, when he recalls coming up with the prohibition on traveling: “I can still recall how I snapped my fingers and shouted, ‘I’ve got it!’” “This time,” he continues, “I felt that I really had a new principle for a game.”

I say tellingly because Naismith’s story – apart from this little oasis or plateau – is like a desert of affect, dry and flat. But that is often the way with invention stories – the desert-like, rational surroundings help both to emphasize the calm intelligence of the inventor (thus de-emphasizing the role of chance and circumstance in the invention) and, of course, shed a spotlight on the actual moment of the invention.
I’m not sure I got this across so clearly in class, but we certainly did pause to observe and enjoy how much of what we take as divinely-ordained necessity in the basics of basketball is really due to chance and contingency in the circumstances of its invention. And how that chaotic element of chance seems to be corralled within the implacable rationality of Naismith’s storytelling style.

Then we turned to Shoals and the students slowly began to construct the “compare-and-contrast” paradigm.  I wasn’t thrilled with the points, but I was happy that I was getting a fairly well distributed level of participation.  Clearly, the students had read the assignment.   Finally, someone voiced what to me was the whole point of Shoals’ story: he compares Naismith to Moses and Martin Luther and so basketball to a religion (nevermind, for the moment, that this is not really the whole point of Shoals’ story).  At this point, I somehow forgot all about Naismith and the point of this whole comparative exercise, and, caught up in the testimony, just blurted out: “in what ways is basketball like or unlike a religion for you?”  Here’s where I should acknowledge that Shoals’ argument really goes from the mythico-religious (Moses) to the historico-religious (Martin Luther) to the secular (the Founding Fathers) and concludes that Naismith bears more of a resemblance to a founding father.  So really the question should have been: “in what ways is basketball like a country to you?”  But maybe that doesn’t matter and maybe, after all,  they’re not such different questions: religion and nation? Anyway, they responded so enthusiastically to the question about religion that I forgot the rest of the lesson plan and I forgot to point out this elementary fact about our primary text.

They came out with all kinds of great stuff: basketball involves ritual, basketball is a haven from earthly troubles, basketball involves superstition and the appeasing of higher powers, basketball awakens passions of love and hatred, basketball inspires devotion. Basketball, a couple of people collectively figured out, could even be seen as just one of the great religions alongside other sports like baseball, football or soccer as others. Ultimately, they decided, just as with “real” religions one can get caught up on the differences and become antagonistic and hostile or one can focus on the basic underlying commonalities. They talked about how you create value-systems through basketball. They talked about their own experiences as players and fans. We made fun of Lakers’ fans.  (Even the Lakers’ Kid admitted Lakers’ fans were insane, explaining that in a recent fan forum thread Lakers’ fans said that if they had one player with which to start a franchise they’d choose Andrew Bynum over Blake Griffin.)   We felt bad for Cleveland fans: how would you feel if the Messiah abandoned you cause you were cold and a loser? We enjoyed making the obvious observation, with verbal winks at each other, about the Nike “Witness” campaign and about Lebron’s “Chosen One” SI cover.

We also talked about whether there was any drawback to seeing basketball as a religion or, more precisely, to experiencing it as a religion. This led to a discussion of perspective, with some students feeling that it was important not to lose sight of the fact that basketball is, after all, a game and not as encompassing or important as religion.  While in some ways this is obviously so (and I said so), I also wanted to resist the point. I think partly I felt a peevish resentment at being brought back down to earth, as though I was being told that it was time to get serious. But I also felt that there was an intellectual point — at least a matter of rigor – at stake.

In virtue of what unstated assumptions and prejudices does religion feel more encompassing and important than basketball? How do we use the word “game” to dismiss basketball as diversion and so limit our potential to live the “game” creatively with all our human potential? Don’t at least some people divorce their zealous profession of religious belief from their  behavior in daily life and in that sense lose perspective as well? Is that any better or more desirable than living in the world of basketball as though it had no connection to daily life?

The point I meant to stress (and which I am almost 100 % sure that I did not get across) is that the more significant danger might not be taking basketball too seriously, but rather not taking basketball seriously enough.

Go back to read my spine-tingling account of the nearly catastrophic first day of Cultures of Basketball

Go on to read Day 3’s recollection of the leagues and teams now all but lost to memory