Disbelieveland

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

 

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Desire Named Steph Curry

Besides being the name of a phenomenally exciting and innovative basketball player, “Steph Curry” is the name for a desire about the future of the NBA; a desire we express through consumption, which the media then chronicles and reflects back to and justifies for us. Around the time of the NBA All-Star game this past season, NPR’s Tom Goldman asked me for my thoughts about a couple of articles that had appeared noting Curry’s rising popularity among fans and marketers; a popularity, it was noted, was on the verge of eclipsing that of LeBron James.  As it turns out, Curry won the regular season MVP award and now, with his Warriors leading beaten LeBron’s injury-riddled Cavaliers 3-2 in the best of seven NBA Finals series, he may well be poised to win the Finals MVP.

Let me get a couple things out of the way.  First, Curry’s play thrills me.  The smooth speed with which he moves himself and the ball on the court, and then the ball alone into the bottom of the net is pure fluid beauty.  And, speaking now as a Cavs fan, the terror he inspires in me every time he gets the ball, even in the backcourt, is sublime.

Second, though I think LeBron is more valuable to his team that Steph is to his team and should therefore have won the MVP award and should therefore win the Finals MVP award, I don’t think it’s insane to give it to Curry and, anyway, I’m not here going to make an argument about that.

Because this isn’t about Steph Curry the basketball player.  It’s about “Steph Curry” the desire and I’m just here to explore the conditions of possibility and implications of that desire.  Where does it come from? What nourishes it? Just what exactly are we wanting when we want “Steph Curry” so badly? Excellence and excitement no doubt, but if that were all there’d be no explanation for why collectively we want Curry so much more than other NBA superstars.

By temperament and professional habit, I find it useful to look at how we articulate our desire.  What are the words and stories within which we cast our love for Steph. When I look at these more closely I’m struck by certain recurring themes, some of which have little to do with Steph Curry, the actual player and human being. And these begin to offer a clue into the deeper feelings that might drive our desire for the future we’ve made him represent.

To see these things—or rather more precisely to consider my argument plausible—requires first a brief reminder about the history of basketball, especially pro basketball, in this country.  It’s no secret that pro basketball’s history is vexed by racial problematics.  In a nutshell, for more than half a century, most pro basketball players and most of the best pro basketball players have been black.  Meanwhile, most of the administrators, coaches, owners and fans are white.

In my research, I’ve looked at the stories that basketball culture has generated to avoid dealing forthrightly with this problematic, not to mention with the broader societal racism with which it overlaps.  These stories tend to conflate the unrelated issues of style, tactics, and morality in order to promote players or teams that seem to embody the essence of the game as it emerged, developed and was played prior to racial integration.  Conversely, players and teams that seem to depart from that essence tend, in these stories, to be villainized.

PHILADELPHIA - FEBRUARY 4

In all cases, whatever is perceived as threatening blackness is either suppressed out of the story or demonized.

When I look at how the media reports the appeal of Steph Curry I encounter terms that are familiar to me from my research.  You all have seen the stories.  Curry is an underdog, underrated and under-recruited, partly because of what tends to be characterized as his small size and slight build.  Already here, we find elements that have historically been appealing to the collective white basketball unconscious, which reacts to black domination of the sport and its own irrepressible desire for black basketball players by fabricating a fantasy that someone—”nature” perhaps?—has stacked the deck against white players and, by metonymy, white people more generally.  Then add to this our attention to Curry’s personality: humble, down-to-earth, approachable, genuine…human.  Emphasizing these obviously laudable and desirable traits help cement the identification with Curry.  And of course, it doesn’t hurt, from this point of view, that Curry is blue-eyed (okay, hazel, but whatever) and light skinned. Let’s not even talk about his adorable daughter.

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Finally, there is the matter of Curry’s style of play, especially the two hallmarks of his innovative game: amazing ball-handling ability and an unprecedented ability to make three point shots.  We are treated repeatedly to clips of Curry tirelessly practicing these skills, subtly reminding us that they have been honed through solitary practice and effort, the result therefore neither of  superior size or natural talent nor of resources or mentorship.  We may not have chosen to put in that effort, but we can all imagine that if we had, we too could be breaking Matthew Delledova’s ankles and draining step-back threes from just across the half-court line.  That his particular skill set dovetails with the ascending league obsessions with efficiency (as measured by advanced statistical methods) helps as well.  However dazzling Curry may be, his efficiency is indispensable to his appeal here given a longstanding association basketball culture has made between inefficient flair and black basketball. Indeed, his efficiency and other elements of his style of play, as my friend Eric Freeman notes, may be emphasized as a way of minimizing markers of what may be perceived as threatening blackness.

All of this, taken together, may be usefully contrasted with how we have tended to approach Curry’s foil in this season’s narrative: LeBron James.  In nearly every respect—body type, personality, skill set and style of play, and, of course, skin tone—LeBron appears as Curry’s diametrical opposite.

Obviously blessed with size, LeBron’s strength, speed and athletic ability appear as natural gifts.  Far from under-recruited, LeBron has been basketball’s “Chosen One” since his junior year in high school, a seemingly privileged status that, we all know, went to his head, most notoriously in The Decision to take his talents to South Beach. And the hallmark of LeBron game?  Powerful locomotive drives to the basket punctuated by tomahawk dunks that we could never hope to replicate, not if we devoted 10 million hours to it.

When I survey all this, it suggests to me that insofar as “Steph Curry” is the name of a desire for basketball future, we haven’t come very far from the days when John McPhee was writing in praise of Bill Bradley because tall players like Wilt Chamberlain had ruined the sport. Or rather we have come forward to the past, to a sport played by humble, hard-working, underdog, light-skinned jump shooters with solid fundamentals.

And, as always in the history of basketball, what we want for the game tells us something—not everything, just something—about what we want for the society more broadly. Perhaps it tells us that we’d prefer a society in which privileged, upper-class, college-attending kids from stable, two-parent families (preferably without ink) took the place of dark-skinned, heavily tattooed kids raised in poor neighborhoods by single-mothers.chosen-tattoo

I’m not arguing that everyone who admires or even loves Stephen Curry subscribes, consciously or even unconsciously, to these attitudes.  I’m simply wanting to caution those who do thrill to Curry’s considerable abilities on the court to carefully examine the narrative package in which their love for Curry is being reported back to them.  If we’re not careful, consuming these narratives can be, as my wife said, a propos of a different (but related) news item, “like joining the Empire because the Death Star has a gym.”  And uncritically purveying them, well, that takes your membership to a whole other level.

The good news is that these stories are ours: we make them and we can tell them differently if want to; we can uncouple the unholy complex of style, tactics, morality and race through which historically our hoops culture has masked its complicity with racism in our society more broadly.  And we can simply love all the many different manifestations of excellence and creativity and excitement that hard-working, talented pro basketball players provide us on a nightly basis.

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

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Headband

LeBron James

A poetic experiment, with apologies to Wallace Stevens

I

The cotton, nylon and spandex are blended

to provide superior softness, stretchy comfort

and to keep sweat out of your eyes,

so all you have to worry about is your game.

II

For eight dollars

you can own

your own NBA Logoman Headband®

that cost ten cents to produce.

III

Taut atop the 7’ frame

of the Big Dipper

the headband heightened

the threatened menace

of Goliath.

IV

Slick Watts first

used duct tape

as a headband.

V

Big Ben was benched and fined

for wearing his headband

in defiance of his coach’s prohibition.

VI

The rim,

the center circle,

and the headband are one

VII

A laurel wreath,

a tiara,

and a headband are also one.

VIII

Caught in the hand of a young fan

a headband is a treasured relic,

cast-off effluvium

preciously captured and made holy.

IX

Stretched

the headband prevents

awareness of our own effort

from blinding us.

X

Absorbing the

sweat of your brow

the headband buys you time in Eden

XI

Slipping ever higher, we conceal

the signs of time’s receding

with a headband.

XII

On King James’ dunk,

the headband left him of its own accord,

knowing it was a redundant crown,

and that time could flow again.

XIII

#noheadband

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Lebron

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My title promises the story of a reason.  Of reason.  But there will be no reasons here, and less Reason.  Consider it more a chronicle of an evening adrift on a roiling sea of inclinations, of aversions and attachments, of affections and affinities.

Sometimes, I think that the whole teeming, cacophonous universe of basketball culture lives all inside me as in a lane tightly packed with jostling big men –  arguing with itself, voicing feelings it finds reprehensible, formulating analyses it finds arcane and over thought, impressed with its own subtlety, appalled at its own ignorance. Read more

Meanings of Manu: The White Basketball Unconscious, Style, and Viveza Criolla

On September 4, 2002 a watershed event in the history of basketball took place. After 58 consecutive wins, a United States team composed entirely of professional stars lost a game for the first time. The score was 87-80. Their victorious opponent was Argentina. And the star of that Argentine national team was Manu Ginobili. In one symbolically significant play, Ginobili, a 6’-6” guard sped down the court with the ball. 6’-11” American defender Jermaine O’Neal angled toward the basket, aiming to cut off Ginobili’s path. Ginobili came at the basket from the left side, as though oblivious to O’Neal’s approach. As Manu elevated toward the hoop, O’Neal, seemingly in perfect defensive position, rose with him anticipating an easy block. But then, Ginobili switched the ball to his right hand, hanging in the air as O’Neal flew by, and then floated under the basket to score on a reverse layup.

Since that time, Manu has won three NBA championships, one Olympic Gold Medal, and the NBA 6th Man of the Year award for the best reserve player. He has made the NBA All-Star team twice (including this year, where he is widely acknowledged as the most important player on one of the NBA’s best teams, the San Antonio Spurs) and he has earned close to 70 million dollars in salary in his 8 year NBA career. But in September 2002, he had yet to play an NBA game. In fact, the Spurs picked 2nd to last of the 58 players selected in the 1999 NBA draft. Though he was well-known in Argentina and among fans of European professional basketball, in some real and important senses, Manu debuted on September 4, 2002.

In his 2005 book Crashing the Borders, Harvey Araton, a New York Times sportswriter, interpreted the significance of that 2002 US-Argentina game and, specifically, of Manu’s spectacular basket over Jermaine O’Neal. Araton writes “From that moment on, the prototypical foreign player was no longer a mobility-challenged white boy in a crew cut. The story was no longer Hoosiers with subtitles.” Araton succinctly identifies a cultural context important for understanding the way meaning gets constructed in basketball: namely, the racialization of different facets of the game and different styles of individual and team play.

With the phrase “mobility challenged white boy in a crew cut,” Araton evokes a stereotypical basketball image – as in a black and white still photograph: the rural, probably Midwestern, probably Indiana, white farm boy. Maybe it is dusk. Maybe, having just finished chores, he is in dungarees and a flannel shirt. Maybe he is frozen in mid-jump shot, the ball paused in its inevitable arc toward the makeshift basket nailed to the side of the barn.

In the racialized cultural discourse of basketball this stereotypical image might be set into the motion of narrative (and thus associated further with other qualities, not specific to basketball): thus, the white hero overcomes his lack of “natural” athletic ability through some combination of the following: 1) the tireless, orthodox repetition of the game’s fundamental skills, 2) humility and subordination of his ego to the collective identity of the team (as represented by the sternly benevolent figure of the Coach), 3) persistent effort and desire, and, of course, 4) intelligence.

The “other” of this figure and narrative trope is the stereotyped African-American player: he is blessed with “natural” athletic abilities – speed, strength, leaping ability — perfectly suited to the game of basketball; and though often untutored, he develops on his urban playground an unorthodox skill set that he uses – with a creativity viewed as instinctive, flamboyant, and selfish — to assert his individuality.

Never mind for the moment the myriad problems, some disturbing, that attend what I’ve just sketched out. This binary racialized discourse has framed the history of basketball in the United States, as it has drawn from and contributed to racial discourse in the country beyond the basketball court. Though the intention is not always explicitly to malign or even to limit, and whether the player being discussed is black or white, in most gyms and playgrounds in America today you might well overhear a conversation in which the phrases “white” or “black” are earnestly and apparently meaningfully invoked to describe a player’s style of play. Of course, in most of the game’s history, this racialization has not been innocent but rather has informed and supported harmful, sometimes even violent, expressions of hatred and resentment toward African-Americans.

This discourse, in turn, exists alongside a racially segregated institutional structure whereby today’s NBA consists mostly of African-American athletes playing mostly under the direction of white coaches, for franchises owned mostly by white businessmen, before a mostly white paying public, and covered by a mostly white media. The tensions – to put it mildly – created by this structure have been described, analyzed, and critiqued in detail by a number of authors. Here I want only to identify only one effect: the stimulation of white American fans’ desire for the “Great White Hope.”

The Great White Hope is the Caucasian player who will be able to rival his African-American counterparts on the hardwood, redeem whiteness and the attributes putatively associated with it, and, for that white fan, exorcise the complex emotional demons of racial injustice. Since the early 1960s, when the game at its highest level was definitively dominated by African-American superstars (and politically outspoken ones at that), every few years white fans and the media have identified a new, promising, white collegiate talent and anointed him the new messiah: Bill Bradley for the 60s, Pete Maravich for the 70s, Larry Bird for the 80s. While among the most talented and effective players ever, these players all received an outsized portion of media attention and white fan adulation on account of their whiteness.

Over the course of the 1990s, more and more white European players entered the ranks of an NBA more and more powerfully marked by the hip-hop culture of inner-city African-American youth. And white fans came to cast these players all the more desperately as Great White Hopes. In the process, fans stripped the European players’ games of their specificity and ignored their geographical and social origins. Many of these players had come to basketball from impoverished surroundings in war-torn Eastern European ghettos much more like American inner-cities than Indiana farm town. Not for nothing did Detroit Pistons veteran Rasheed Wallace refer to his rookie teammate Darko Milicic as a “Serbian Gangster.” It is then precisely the racist and reductive view of the white European player as incarnation of the stereotypical American white game that Araton, to his credit, attempts to nullify by declaring that, after Manu’s basket on Jermaine O’Neal, “The story was no longer Hoosiers with subtitles.”

Fair enough. But if that is no longer the story, what then is the story? In Araton’s book, the story seems to be that players like Manu Ginobili embody a kind of dialectical synthesis of the racialized stylistic antithesis between white and black. Like the stereotypical white player, they are heady, skilled, and work hard. Like the stereotypical black player, they are athletic, creative, and exciting. It certainly is the case that Manu combines a highly developed set of fundamental skills with athletic ability. But this doesn’t set him apart from a number of other NBA players, past and present. One thing that does set him apart from that particular group of players is that he skin is relatively light in tone.

And this fact leads me to feel that Araton’s interpretation runs unfortunately close to the grooves of a logic I doubt he intended. First the American game is divided into a white game and a black game and these set against each other as incomplete halves of a whole. Then the American game is opposed to the International game — represented by Manu. This international game at one and the same time heals the ills of basketball and the racial conflicts of American society. But it does so via incarnation in the white body of Manu Ginobili. And in this way, Manu becomes (secretly) the Greatest of the Great White Hopes because he is the Great White Hope who ends once and for all the need for a Great White Hope because he transcends the very antagonism – white game vs black game — that historically provoked White feelings of inferiority and engendered the desire for a Great White Hope in the first place.

There are, as you can imagine, a number of problems with the story. I’m here most interested in what the story seems to leave out about Manu’s game, and about what that game – read closely — might say about class, the global economy, and politics. Let’s begin with his game.  Watching even a short clip of Manu will leave you with the impression that, perhaps even more than the skill and the athletic ability, what makes Manu remarkable and exciting is his deceptive, improvisational creativity: his ability to make a play where there doesn’t appear to be one.

Manu appears to throw himself headlong into a crowd of defenders; he uses deceptive dribbling and passing techniques such as moving the ball behind his back or between his legs (or the legs of the defense); his awkward-seeming footwork presents defenders with unfamiliar shapes and possibilities, and he uses his body and the basket to protect the ball. Manu seems almost to look for trouble only to always get out of it. He breaks many of the time-honored tenets of sound (read: safe) basketball on the court: throwing one-handed passes, leaving his feet without having a clear path to shoot or pass, exposing the ball to the defender while dribbling, shooting without facing the basket. But he gets to the basket and finishes (or makes the right pass) with such maddening effectiveness that you begin to realize that perhaps it only looked like trouble to us; that he knew all along what he was going to do, or at least what it was possible for him to do, and perhaps even that the appearing to be in trouble was an integral part of the success. That is part of why one NBA observer has singled him out as among the five most deceptive players in the league. Manu transforms what appears as inevitable constraint in the world around him – an opponent’s dunk on a breakaway or a blocked path on offense – into the viral unstoppability of his own invention.

When I asked followers on Twitter to talk about Manu’s significance, inviting them specifically to comment on whether or not his game had a “race,” one replied with the following, illuminating remark: “I always thought his game had a class more than a race. Scrambly, improvisational but w/ a very limited lexicon.” Intrigued, I pressed him to specify the class. He responded: “I have in mind ‘street, the ‘common man’ of de Certeau…urban, not (necessarily) underclass.” He then agreed with me that “lumpenproletariat” would work as the classical formulation.

Classical, that is, as in “Classical Marxism.” Marx had some famously unflattering words for the lumpenproletariat. In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx referred to them as the “refuse of all classes”, including “swindlers, confidence tricksters, brothel keepers, rag-and-bone merchants, and beggars.” Unlike the virtuous, hard-working and productive members of the industrial working class, the cast-off rags of the lumpenproletariat were shifty and unproductive, lazy, trying to get something for nothing, politically unreliable and deceitful.

My Twitter friend’s comment in turn reminded me of a description that serves as well as any to describe, quite concretely, Manu Ginobili’s work on the basketball court: “it operates in the ‘cramped quarters’ and ‘impossible positions’ of the ‘small peoples’ and ‘minorities’ who lack or refuse coherent identity.” These are the terms used by Deleuze and Guattari to describe what they call “minor politics.” I invoke them directly here for two reasons. First to suggest how a basketball maneuver – when read in close detail – may be seen as an artistic performance and a philosophical proposition. But second, because I think Deleuze and Guattari’s words describe the kind of political activity that was especially important in Argentina around the time of Manu’s debut.

Let me emphasize the where and when of that debut: first, the FIBA championships in Indianapolis, Indiana – the symbolic heartland of white American basketball and second, the NBA, athletic emblem of untrammeled American corporate globalization at the dawn of 21st century. And then, the when: 2002, just months after the most devastating economic crisis in Argentina’s history and in the midst of the massive, subsequent political upheaval it provoked. That crisis, of course, was partly precipitated by the Argentine government’s complicity with neo-liberal economic policies originating in the United States; policies that, ironically, had facilitated the globalization of basketball and the NBA brand, leading, in turn, to the development of the game abroad. In a very real way, the late 2001 crisis converted vast numbers of middle and working class Argentines into a contemporary lumpenproletariat.

At the same time, many of these individuals spontaneously organized themselves, not only to protest and not only to disrupt attempts to carry on business as usual, but also to form communities and networks of communities charged with providing education, health care, food, clothing, and social services. If the upstanding Marx missed the political potential of the lumpenproletariat, Bakunin did not: he saw them as the “flower of the proletariat” and believed, like Deleuze and Guattari after him, that those who were most alienated from the structures and values of power were in the best position to embody an alternative to the status quo; in much the same way that Manu relies upon the appearance of trouble to elude his defender, the way he uses the apparent inevitability of his own failure as a condition for his success.

There’s a tradition of this in Argentina. A tradition, I mean, of radical, horizontal, self-organizing that eludes wherever possible and by whatever means the apparatus of the state and I mean the supposedly benevolent paternalist state as much as the nakedly repressive authoritarian state. But there’s a tradition, also, I mean to point out, of crafty creativity in cramped spaces, of making something out of what seems like nothing. Hearing me talk about Manu’s game, Claire connected it to “viveza criolla.” Jason Wilson in his Buenos Aires: A Cultural and Literary History speaks of it in terms of “artful lying and cheating” and of the “vivo,” its practitioner, as “the improviser, the quick-fixer, the street-wise survivor.” Sometimes, these two traditions – the anarchist self-organizer and the crafty vivo — seem, as in the fiction of Roberto Arlt, to wind together. Even what fans who don’t like Manu don’t like about his game – his “flopping”, where he falls to ground as if he’s been fouled in order to deceive the referee into calling a foul on his opponent – expresses this quality of his game.

In light of all this, Manu’s game might best be read as Argentine and, more specifically, Argentine in the spirit of radical, improvisational, immigrant anarchism, viveza criolla, and unbeautifully styled inventions of Roberto Arlt. If so, it is disappointing at best, telling at worst, that the specificity of Manu’s game is drained from even the most intelligent mainstream US commentary on his emergence. In part, this may simply involve ignorance of the local traditions embedded in Manu’s style. But it may also express, I am arguing, the persistent force of the desire on the part of the American white fan to somehow, finally and for once and for all, overcome the inevitable, overpowering blackness of basketball.

I believe all that. But lest I appear to be dribbling foolishly into the troublesome traffic of triumphant Argentine nationalism, let me emulate the subject of my talk and slip out of it by pointing out that if the essence of Manu’s game is deception, and though that deception in some way derives from Argentine culture and even from the Argentine political response to the crisis, then in the view of one respected philosopher of the basketball, Manu’s game is also nothing more and nothing less than the essence of basketball itself.

I’m referring to Leonard Koppett, who in 1974 published a volume of meditations on the game entitled The Essence of the Game is Deception. Koppett acknowledges that the theoretical goal of the game is to throw the ball in the hoop, but goes on to argue that “on the real world, physical level, you must ‘deceive’ your opponent in order to get a decent shot, and so basketball is a game in which various types of fakes and feints, with head, hands, body, legs, eyes, are proportionately more important than in other games.” The game, he argues, “boils down to getting good shots, and getting good shots boils down to deceiving the defense.”

Koppett then goes on to introduce the implications of his insight. The first of these is that the game is likely to attract, at its highest levels, a psychologically “devious” type; or, to put it in less dramatic terms, individuals who enjoy deception, who are, as Koppett puts it, “poker” rather than “bridge minded.” Of course, he’s not arguing that this sums up the totality of every basketball player’s psyche. He’s just drawing out the point that just as certain physical gifts draw on to and are in turn reinforced by the particularities of a given sport, so that is also true of psychological propensities. In the case of basketball, it is a kind of delighted and delightful deception, a delight in deception – a “viveza criolla” — that basketball cultivates, attracts, and rewards.

The second implication of his hypothesis that the essence of the game is deception is that “style attracts more attention in basketball than in other games.” Because, Koppett, argues, a basket is always worth the same amount, and because there are so many in the course of a game, “The peaks and valleys of spectator delight, therefore are reached as easily by awesome maneuver as by the mere fact of scoring: the dunk or ‘stuff,’ the high speed fast break, the blocked shot, a sequence of passes, fancy dribbling – all transcend sheer efficiency.” That is why, as he puts it, “Any knowledgeable crowd will cheer louder for a fancy pass, behind the back, or through the legs, that doesn’t lead to a score than it will for a routine basket. And an acrobatic shot that goes in is best of all.” While Koppett acknowledges that ultimately winning matters, he also argues that it matters to a proportionally smaller degree than in other serious team games. Because, as he puts it, “in basketball, flair and style are less separable from result, and closer to the essence of the action, and the underlying logic of this attitude folds back over the subject of deception: style is deception, made visible.”

Manu doesn’t have to pass the ball behind his back or through an opponent’s legs every time he does it. He does that because doing that makes visible, in Koppett’s words, or draws attention to what he is more subtly doing all the time: deceiving his opponents. In this sense, the functionally unnecessary flourish on the deceptive play announces itself as deception. And what could be a more joyful, exuberant declaration of resilient unstoppability than to deceive someone while announcing to them that you are deceiving them? That is basketball and that is Manu’s game.

With his title – The Essence of the Game is Deception — Koppett makes me think of Nietzsche’s subtle view of essence, appearance, and truth and his – dare I say deceptive – style to match. For Nietzsche the supposition that there is some hidden essence veiled by a deceptive appearance and accessible only to philosophical reason was a harmful proposition that expresses nothing so much as an aversion to the ever-shifting reality of existence, a hatred for life. Accordingly, Nietzsche harshly criticized philosophies that maintained that view and tried to develop in his own, highly poetic and suggestive style of writing, a philosophy that would emphasize the life-affirming joy of appearance. And nowhere did Nietzsche see this affirmed more strongly than in art, which he saw, in the words of one contemporary commentator, as “the highest power of falsehood” and the “sanctification of the lie,” and as endowed with the power to invent new possibilities of life.” It is the art of viveza criolla; the art of rhetoric, the art of turning the inevitability of sadness and death into the unstoppability of joy and life. It is the art of Manu and it is the art of basketball.