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

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

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

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

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

That’s a Bad Prof Right There

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


The Voice of my Dad

The Voice of My Dad

IMG_0040 (1)I wrote most of this a few years ago. It seems much more important now (because of events I describe in my postscripts below), but I’m glad he could read it and appreciate it while he was still alive. 

What is my father’s voice? What does it sound and feel like? What does it say? What difference does it make? I’ve written about how radio broadcasts would help me mute the sound of his voice as he and my mother argued and how, at a metaphorical level, my father’s desires and voice loomed as large in my childhood as Wilt Chamberlain loomed in the Philadelphia Warriors offense. But in fishing out the memories of those feelings, I’ve also snagged some other memories, other stories, and other feelings. They don’t all literally involve his voice, but the most important one does. Read more

At the Top of the Wheel

IMG_1823I just finished a lunch at the Oberlin Inn with Dr. George Korkos of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and his grandson Nick, a freshman on the Oberlin College football team.  I had a BLT and some coffee.   They both had French onion soup and a sandwich.  The first big snowfall of the year swirled wildly outside.  It is not a distinguished restaurant.  In fact, to be honest, it’s about the last place in town that I’d choose to eat.

We met at noon.  Tired from a week that included three round-trip commutes from Oberlin to my job in Ann Arbor, I had only just woken up an hour before to see the text from my friend, Oberlin football coach Jeff Ramsey, that Dr. Korkos wanted to meet me at noon.  I treasure my morning routine and was somewhat put out that this lunch was on my schedule.  But Jeff had gone out of his way to arrange this and so, much as I wanted to just stay warm in my pajamas and robe, enjoying my coffee and breakfast with my wife, I hustled to get dressed and shuffle out into the snow and wind.

You see, Dr. George Korkos, together with his friend Wesley Pavalon, raised the funds through an IPO to found the expansion Milwaukee Bucks in 1968.  The Bucks – I  have told the story more than once – figured enormously in my early childhood, stimulating and populating my imagination as I learned the game in my driveway, playing alone, against my siblings and father, or neighborhood friends. Read more

‘Money!’ A Story of a Passage Toward Greater Perfection

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“Humility is a sadness born of the fact that a man considers his own lack of power, or weakness.”

“Humility is not a virtue.”

~ Baruch Spinoza, The Ethics (Book III, Def. XXXVI and Book IV, Prop. 53)

Among the many joyful moments brought me by my recent collaboration and friendship with former Michigan Fab Five stand-out Jimmy King is a recent one in which, as we shared memories of our respective on-court moments, so vastly different and yet somehow strangely similar, he said, “We should ball, Yago.”  Nope, that wasn’t the great moment, though that was pretty good.  The great joy came a few moments later when I found myself trash talking him and — here it comes — he trash talked me back.  I told him he wouldn’t be able to stop me and he told me back that I wouldn’t be able to stop him.  The joy and beauty of that exchange lies in its perfect mixture of  sheer absurdity and absolute truth.  Of course, I can’t stop Jimmy King.  He’s 6-5 (I’m 5-9, maybe), he’s 39 and I’m 47, he’s a former McDonald’s All-American and I was second-team All-City in Madison, Wisconsin, he’s been to two NCAA finals and I’ve been to one Wisconsin state quarter final, he’s played in the NBA and I’ve been to an NBA game.  And, well, he’s Jimmy Fucking King.  So of course what he said was true and what I said was absurd.  But what I said was true too.   He can’t stop me.   And the best thing is, he knows that’s true, he understands exactly in what way it is true, and he will acknowledge that it is true, even as he will resolutely affirm the opposite.  Respect. Read more

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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In the Beginning Was the Handle: A Story of Dribbling in Heavy Traffic

Which came first, the comforting feel of the ball in my hands or my ability to keep it in my hands?  I don’t know. But I know I don’t remember ever feeling bad with a basketball in my hand.  To this day, there is some mysterious connection that occurs when I pick up the ball, a current that begins to flow.  It is the life in basketball. Read more

How Basketball Helped Me Realize I’m Not White

“There needs to be discussion among people who think of themselves as white. They need to unpack that language, that history, that social position and see what it really offers them, and what it takes away from them. As James Baldwin said, ‘As long as you think that you are white, there is no hope for you.’” – Steve Locke, “Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race”

A little over a year ago, I rediscovered my basketball joy on the outdoor courts at Heman Park in University City, Missouri (a suburb adjacent to the city of St. Louis). Over the course of the past year, I played pick-up at Heman as often as my hectic work commute, injuries to my ankle and hand, and weather would permit. When only weather stood in the way, I played ball on the courts in the park’s indoor gymnasium. Even when I couldn’t play at all because of injury, I’d go just to be around the game, and the guys who were playing it. Read more

Between Jesus and Wilt Chamberlain: A Story of Fandom

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I saw Wilt Chamberlain in person one time, saw him play I mean. Probably a fair number of people my age who lived in Philadelphia or Los Angeles or even other NBA cities can say the same thing. But I didn’t grow up there. I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and, to this day, I’m the only person I know besides my Dad, who took me to the game, who ever saw Wilt play in person. Read more

Day 21: Finals

Feelings shoot like sparks across time and place. The last time I’d felt this way about a basketball game was on Friday, March 4, 1983. I was lacing up a pair of Converse All-Stars (This was a few years before the Choose Your Weapon ad campaign, but if I’d had the choice, I’d have chosen Magic) in the lockerroom at the Milwaukee Arena, also known as The Mecca. In a few minutes, I’d proudly lead my maroon and gold clad (short shorted) team out onto the court for warm-ups prior to our quarterfinal matchup in the (now-defunct) 54th Annual Wisconsin Independent Schools Association Class A State Tournament against favored Oshkosh Lourdes and their 6-8 Indiana-bound star Todd Meier.

Lourdes had lost only four games all year and came into the tournament (for the second year in a row) riding a 15 game winning streak, including a waltz through their regional tournament. For our part, the Madison Edgewood Crusaders were 13-8, and had lost four of our last six games before putting together two decent ball games to win our own regional. The only other team in the tournament that we’d played during the season, Whitefish Bay Dominican, wound up posting a 9-13 record, but they beat us by 20 on our home floor. Despite this, we were an overachieving team that had made the State tournament against predictions; and where bigger, more talented representatives of our small school over the previous four years had failed. Our biggest player was a 6-6 sophomore who, though he would go on to set scoring records at Harvard, was at the time skinny, inexperienced, and under confident. As our coach had told me prior to the season, “let’s face it, your class is a great bunch of guys, but it’s only Flint and Mark (two bad-boy transfers to our school who started alongside me senior year) that have made you even respectable as an athletic class.” Or something like that.

Still, there I was, with my teammates, getting dressed in the same lockerroom that had been used by Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and others only a few years before, getting ready to tread the same floor, shoot at the same basket, with more fans in attendance than I, for one, had ever played for. I’m not sure the knot I felt in my stomach that day was any worse than it ever was before a game. I was used to it, I mean. And I knew enough to know that it only meant that I cared about the game – not, for example, that I was unprepared or overmatched. I knew, though I couldn’t have articulated it then, that it was a sign that the game hadn’t started yet. With the opening tip, there would be no more nerves. I guess, in that sense, it’s a sign of consciousness and of the way it grasps for a purchase on the slippery surface of an anticipated experience. My body would know what to do for the most part, but sitting in that lockerroom, it wasn’t time yet, wasn’t time for my body to do what it had done hundreds and hundreds of times since I was a small boy in my driveway: dribble, pass, shoot, defend, rebound.

We lost that game. We played hard defense though, and intelligently executed our patient offense. I was the pass first point guard on that team, a co-captain, the coach on the floor. But the last 2:04 of regulation provided me with memories that will last me forever when, down six, I hit 3 consecutive 18 ft jumpers over their zone to send the game into overtime (an opportunity to hit a fourth went awry when a cross-court pass sailed over my head). But in overtime, Meier was just too much. He scored the final points of my career on a frightening two handed dunk. I’d never played in a real game in which someone had dunked before.

And that dunk, as much as anything, marks the crossroads from which he and I would go in very different directions. He’d go on to a significant supporting role on Indiana’s 1987 NCAA Championship Team (as well as some mention in Feinstein’s Season on the Brink – the downside: he had to meet Reagan and give him a hat and sweater). Meanwhile, I’d go on, after a successful intramural and city league career, to become a college literature professor teaching a course on basketball culture. His career-ending dunk marks too, in that sense, the psychic spot from which my course developed: for it to go a different way, to see what a different road might have looked like, the wish for one more chance. And that has been the energy and the pitfall of the course all season – I mean, all semester – its emotional strength and its intellectual weakness.

I knew this already, well before lacing up my sneakers in the Intramural Building at Michigan last Wednesday night. But there’s a way in which the knot that I felt as I did so viscerally emblematized the fact that I was approaching this tournament as that second chance; as it emblematized also all that has been inseparably great and weak about the course. Once again, I’d be suiting up for a tournament. Once again, Big Ten basketball players would be playing on the opposing team. History repeats itself, Marx famously wrote, the first time as tragedy the second as farce. I think this particular repetition was probably neither, but if I had to choose, it was much closer to farce.

My team, Saline Sickness (pictured above from left: Big Will Campbell, Ryan Rain Drop Feeley, Light Skin Jesus, and Jordan The Technician Dumars), did not win the First Annual Free Yago Cultures of Basketball JAMboreee. We didn’t finish first, second, or third. We didn’t finish fourth, fifth, or sixth. We finished seventh. Out of eight. In our defense, we did not have a UM basketball player on our squad. Our player-owner, Jordan Dumars, rehabbing a torn meniscus, wisely decided not to play in the game. In his stead, he recruited Big Will Campbell, a 6-5, 333 pound defensive tackle from the UM football team. Will was a remarkably quick, skilled baller, and a really nice guy (he even addressed me as “Professor”… in the middle of a game, as in, “Professor, I’m open!”). But he’s no D-1 player. In fact, the only team that finished worse, the team we beat in the final game to avoid the ignominy of last place, also was missing its player-owner, 6-10 Evan Manatee Smotrycz who might otherwise have led his S.W.A.T. team (comprised of 6-3 Sam The Garbage Man Klein and 6-2 Matt the Hebrew Hammer Gordon) to a respectable finish. As it was, Evan, unlike everyone in the class, unlike everyone who has been reading the blog or following me on Twitter, somehow managed NOT to realize that the tournament was Wednesday night at 8:30 (not Wednesday morning) and so by tip-off was already back eating his mom’s home-cooked meals in Reading, Massachusetts. S.W.A.T. team thus had to make do with the kindness of strangers – a different UM player rotated in to hoop with them in each game – and so they were never able to gel as a team.

Tournament MVP went to Corey Bing Bing Person, a 6-3 UM walkon from Kalamazoo, who led his team, The Dream Killazzz (6-0 Elliott Darvy Darvish and 6-4 Nick Sizzle Pagano) through a difficult preliminary group round and then to a championship game victory over Los Tres Amigos! (featuring 6-11 Blake Bird McClimans, 6-2 Mack Bronco Ladd, and 5-8 Tim Soy Sauce Yeh). Other highlights included a devasting posterizing of 5-10 Ron The Professor Beach by Colton Chevy Christian, a Tim Pop Pop Hardaway dunk over the game but ineffectual challenge of my teammate Rain Drop (nice outward facing bookends to my career: Meier’s dunk and Hardaway’s dunk), the lights out three point shooting of Matt Wisconsin Lunchbox Vogrich and Stuart Dr Funk Douglass, the unrepentant and often effective long range gunning of Chantel Blue Steel Jennings, the 40 inch vertical leap of Sean Nugget Fletcher, and the 3rd place game clinching triple from unexpected hero Rajesh Shake n Bake Kumar.

But even those participants I’m not singling out here had, I hope, like me: their one shining moment: a swished jumper, a sweet no-look pass, a tough put back on an offensive rebound, a steal or blocked shot, no injury. I didn’t, of course, get to see every game, but I did see every team play at least one game, and in every game I saw each player on the team contributed something, and I saw teams working pretty well together. More importantly, everyone seemed to me, at least to be having a good time, to be competing joyfully, forming small rivalries and camaraderies, trying hard, talking a little trash, and developing running gags.

It was over too quickly, like my dream of winning the title and so righting the course of history that had gone so tragically wrong 28 years before on the floor of the Mecca. We took some team photos. Claire, bless her heart, gamely snapped hundreds of action shots with my phone. And then one by one, with fist bumps or handshakes or hugs, I said goodbye to them as they filed out of the gym, on their way to study for exams, on their way to the rest of their lives. That’s fine, of course, and it is as it should be. As a teacher I know that and to some degree I experience it at the end of every semester. Just not so much. It doesn’t always hurt in this way.

And I guess that is what made this class, for better and for worse, what it was. It was made from my heart, and my memory, and my desire, relentless, to keep making life new. From the afternoon I spent crying in a bathtub in the Red Roof after the first day, trying to understand and to explain to Claire what it was all about, to the nerves and eager joy of the big game, and all points in between — Bethlehem Shoals‘ visit, a bit of internets attention for me (thanks Beckley and the True Hoop gang) and Matt Gordon, a stirring tournament run by the UM team, and a visit from Coach John Beilein — this class was infused with my feelings for the game, past and present and future. Sometimes, that probably got out of hand. Sometimes, it might have led me to attach too strongly to the players and perhaps to short shrift some of the other students, at least on occasion. I’m sorry for that if I did. I couldn’t help it this time, but I’ll learn from it. But even with whatever pitfalls might have ensued, I’m not sorry for the vulnerability I showed in teaching a class not only with my my mind, but with my heart; in modeling for students the attempt (leave aside success or failure) to do my job and fulfill my vocation as an integrated adult.

In the end, I’m heartened by three things. I won’t pretend these are really rational things, they are just things that have touched me and that, when I think of them, hearten me. I want to share these with you, but before I do I want to say, now this course is over, and so is the course diary. But it has opened up for me the possibility of bringing what tools I have to writing about basketball and I intend to keep doing that, even without the twice weekly inspiration and structure of my class to motivate my posts. I’ll keep writing. I hope you’ll keep reading.

So, my three heartening things:

1) After everyone was at the gym, shooting around and warming up at different baskets, we all started gravitating toward a single basket where we were just shooting around randomly. And then, like a flock of migratory birds, to my mind out of nowhere, we formed two lines leading away from that hoop: one line shooting layups and the other rebounding. So lovely, all the colors of our jerseys, somehow that common idea forming and materializing, the joking and kidding as people tried different crazy shots. I was so excited that when my turn came to shoot my lay up, I laid it up off the glass too hard and didn’t even draw iron. I swear I’m not a terrible basketball player, but I’m pretty sure that was the most terrible shot of the day.

2) After the tournament, there was a flurry of mutual Facebook friending among members of the class. I won’t pretend to know what that really means to this generation. But to me in the moment it felt that these people were at once reaching out and letting each other in; these people who perhaps started things off in January more aware of differences than similarities had studied together, argued sometimes, thought together, cheered for one another, organized a basketball tournament together, and played ball together and so were now, well, friends… at least on Facebook. And I don’t want snarkily trivialize the fact that it was on Facebook. Because I also felt happy to friend and be friended by them. I don’t mean to rationalize my failures as a professor in this class or any other – lord knows I’m aware of them – but I consider it one part of my job to teach and to model for younger human beings how to reach out and how to let in – how to be friends in and with the world.

3) Todd Meier, remember him? He did indeed end my high school career. He did go on to play Big Ten ball and even to win a National Championship and go to the White House. Today, Todd, having gotten his degree in Business from Indiana, is back home in Oshkosh working as the Director of Market Development for Mercury Marine. I hope this makes him happy. I have no reason to think it doesn’t. But I have to say, with no disrespect at all intended, that after all this, and because a life is a whole thing, I wouldn’t trade a single step of the path I began to walk in 1983, tears stinging mingled with sweat in my eyes after Todd’s dunk in Mecca, for a single step of his.

Now you can go back and see how it all started on the first day of school.

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