On Ball Don’t Lie! (live radio interview)

This morning I did the first of what I hope will be one billion interviews about my new book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball.

As a native of Madison, Wisconsin, I was especially happy that this first one was a) with legendary Madison rocker Jonathan Zarov; b) on legendary Madison independent community radio station WORT-FM; c) a part of their pledge drive (in which, unbelievably to me, copies of my book were deemed donation-attracting premiums).

Here we go:

Bad Prof’s Top Basketball Books

Over the past four years, to develop my course on the Cultures of Basketball and to research my forthcoming book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, I’ve had the opportunity to read a great deal about the game.  I’ve read academic and popular histories and biographies, autobiographies, scholarly articles, manuals and instructional guides, rule books, constitutions, bylaws, and, of course, articles in popular magazines, newspapers, and on line venues.

A generous tweet by my new collaborator Seth Partnow about his favorite basketball books inspired me to offer my own favorites, with a brief annotation explaining the selection. Of course, such lists necessarily exclude much that is worthwhile and mine will be no different.  Nevertheless, to try to honor the quality and variety of the library of basketball, I’ve decided to split my list over four posts, in which I’ll share, respectively, my First, Second, and Third team selections, and, finally, my Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically by title within each division).

For those looking to deepen and widen their understanding of the history of the game and its culture, I certainly think you can do worse than the following, which stand out in my mind for their originality and accessibility, the depth they bring to their subjects and, perhaps most of all, their reliable avoidance of the cliches, dogmas and harmful myths of basketball culture. Each of the twenty books I’ll be listing in these four posts are marked up, broken-spined, dog-eared and worn from repeated and profitable use, but none more so than these five.

All-Bad Prof Basketball Book List – First Team Selection


Basketball: Its Origin and Development

by James Naismith (Originally published 1941; Current edition published in Lincoln by University of Nebraska Press, 1996; 204 pp.)


“I can still recall how I snapped my fingers and shouted, ‘I’ve got it!'”

The inventor of basketball began to compose this volume toward the end of his life and it was published after his death. Sometimes dry, but very clearly written, after early chapters on his background, Naismith tells the exciting story of the game’s invention and the first game, before moving on to recount and offer opinions on subsequent changes in rules, techniques and tactics as well as on the demographic and geographic spread of the game. This is essential reading not only to comprehend the facts and contexts of the game’s invention, but to fully grasp how deeply the game has been intertwined—from the beginning—with social issues, philosophical ideas, and moral agendas


The Essence of the Game is Deception: Thinking About Basketball  by Leonard Koppett (Originally published in 1973; currently out of print but available used; 274 pp.) 


“Any knowledgeable crowd will cheer louder for a fancy pass . . . that doesn’t lead to a score than it will for a routine basket.”

A longtime newspaper columnist in New York (including during the heyday of the Knicks in the early 70s), Koppett makes a thoughtful, extended argument in favor of the proposition offered in the book’s title.  Clearly and at times beautifully written, Koppett divides his subject into three parts: “The Game,” “The People” and “Things to Think About.” Filtering such topics as “Teamwork,” “Bosses and Workers,” and “Statistics Lie” (to name just three of the book’s 23 chapter titles) through the conceptual lens of deception, Koppett’s analysis of the sport, though sometimes dated, mostly holds up very well and at times sheds provocative new light on today’s game.  Moreover, at certain moments, he transforms deception into style and style into beauty and beauty into truth in ways that articulate for me something inchoate in my own strong response to the unfolding kaleidoscope of the sport.


FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History

(Originally published in New York by Bloomsbury, 2010; 223 pp.)


“This book . . . is a project preoccupied with memory.”

As most of my readers will know, “FreeDarko” is the name of both a pioneering basketball blog and the collective of writers who contributed material to it. This volume (their second: the first made my third team) offers readers a comprehensive history of the pro game that is unparalleled in its accessibility, originality, and interest. Divided into parts arranged chronologically (more or less by decade and beginning with the game’s invention) and then subdivided into chapters that provide close-up portraits of the key players, teams and issues comprising the decade, the volume can be consulted as a reference guide, read as a kind of fascinating fiction, or pondered for its accessible but provocative cultural analysis of the sport.  As a bonus, you get the beautiful and breathtakingly eloquent visual arguments provided by Jacob Weinstein’s illustrations.  For all that I’ve added to my basketball course over the years, this “textbook” still provides the spine of the course.


Give and Go: Basketball as a Cultural Practice

by Thomas McLaughlin (Originally published in Albany by the State University Press of New York, 2008; 250 pp).


“The closer you look at it the more you can see it as an instance of how ordinary people quietly create the fabric of our cultural life.”

McLaughlin, an English professor at Appalachian State University, skillfully weaves together personal experience with thoughtful use of philosophy and cultural theory to explore the cultural significance of basketball play, especially informal pickup ball, which he sees as the most distilled version of the sport. Though that particular assertion may be debated, not much of the value of this book hinges on it (and McLaughlin holds it lightly).  Regardless, McLaughlin provides intelligent, flexible, and balanced accounting of the different facets of the game (relevant to all its forms), with chapters exploring the ethics of basketball play, its physical culture (especially in relation to masculinity), its mental dispositions or cognitive practices, its communities, its racial dynamics, and, in the final two chapters, media representations of the sport in television and film.  Despite McLaughlin’s reliance on sometimes technical works of cultural theory, he consistently manages to keep these relevant and understandable to non-academics.


King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution

by Aram Goudsouzian (Originally published in Berkeley by the University of California Press, in 2010; 423 pp.)


“The game’s most respected figure was also its public intellectual.”

Nothing less than the gold standard for basketball biographies (maybe for biographies of figures from any sport, though I’m not expert enough in others to argue this).  Goudsouzian is a historian at the University of Memphis who specializes in the history of race in the United States, and this book integrates that depth of knowledge and scholarly self-discipline, with the author’s evident love for and understanding of the sport and its culture. At every point in this detailed chronicle of Bill Russell’s life, Goudsouzian carefully draws together the threads of personal development, sport, and social history. The result is much more than the best portrait of a basketball player that I’ve ever read. It is also rich resource for understanding several pivotal decades in the history of basketball and, for that matter, the United States.  But it is also, for those embarking upon their own research projects into the history of the game, an inspiring model to emulate.


Together these five works will provide readers with a superb and stylistically varied overview of the history of the sport, informed by cultural intelligence and social awareness, and sensitive to the nuanced materiality of the game as played.

Stay tuned for The All-Bad Prof Basketball Book List – Second Team Selection

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.

The Goal is to Forget the Goal

30JOURNEYS1_SPAN-popup-1On New Year’s Day, my brother sent me this photo, attached to an e-mail that read, “you don’t need a rim, only the space it surrounds.” It ran in the Travel Section of the New York Times a few days before with the caption “Novice Monks at the Lhagang Monastery play a version of basketball.” In the article it accompanied, free-lance reporter Kit Gillet, touring the Lhagang Monastery high on the Tibetan plateau in the Sichuan Province of Northern China, described the scene more fully:

Later in the afternoon I spotted a group of young monks playing basketball using a hoopless telephone pylon as a net on a grassy field across the town’s river, their robes billowing around them. There was no bridge in sight, but I removed my shoes to cross the ice-cold, knee-deep water. On the other bank I was quickly invited to join the game.

“We try to play basketball every day before our 6 p.m. studies,” said Laozang Tsere, a gregarious 18-year-old novice born in a nearby village.

On the face of it, it’s obvious and accurate that what the monks are playing is, as the original caption stated, only “a version of basketball” – obvious if only because their telephone pylon is “hoopless.”  On the face of it, indeed, it seems generous even to call hoopless basketball “a version of basketball.”  It wouldn’t seem to be basketball at all.  After all, though James Naismith’s original 13 rules only imply the existence of a “basket” as goal, it’s also clear that he considered the horizontal, elevated goal one of the five fundamental principles constituting basketball.  But seeing a picture like this — maybe just because it has monks in it, or maybe because there is something artfully provocative about the photo — I also feel invited to look more deeply for what is not obvious in the image and its description.

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