Being Measured

I stood in my socks in our unfinished basement.   My body tingled with anticipation.   But from my heels to my head, I tried to make my body as straight and flat as the poured concrete it was pressed against.  I looked straight ahead, as levelly as possible. My father held a metal ruler flat against the top of my head, its sharp edged pressed perpendicular to the wall.  “Ahora, ¡quédate quieto!” he commanded.

I froze myself, not just my bones and muscles and face, but all the way to my cells and the blood in my beating heart, I froze. It was important to keep perfectly still or everything would be inaccurate and ruined.

My father ran the freshly sharpened point of a pencil along the edge of the ruler against the wall, making a clean, straight line. I could hear the even steady scratch of the lead.

I didn’t need to be told to step out from under the ruler and get out of the way.  With one hand my Dad held the flat metal tab at the end of his heavy duty tape measure against the floor where my heels had been a moment before.  Pushing its right angle securely into the corner, he then jammed it still more firmly, just for good measure.   “Pón tu dedo aquí, y mantenlo fijo.”  Nervously, I obeyed, getting down on the cool floor and putting my finger against the tab, careful not to let it move.  I felt him push his own finger against mine, as if to nail it to the right spot.  Then, one end anchored, he slowly raised himself up, unspooling the tape measure up the wall toward the freshly drawn black line.

Watching silently, I saw the numbers appear from inside the metal housing, first inches, then the larger, bold “1” in red: the first foot.  “2.”  The second foot.  The inches rolled by and I counted them rapidly in my mind—“32,” “33,” “34,” “35,” “36”—then the big red “3”: the third foot.  But I already knew I was more than three feet tall.  I couldn’t even remember ever being less than three feet tall.  “37,” “38,” “39.”

Anyway, I was good at math.  I knew there were twelve inches in a foot, and so I knew that the key number was 47; that after 47 the next inch would be 48 and 48 was 4 feet: my goal.  As my father’s hand crept steadily up the wall toward the pencil mark on the wall, I watched more closely as the inches crept upward into the mid-forties.  It slowed down, I could see the tall, half-inch and even the shorter, quarter-inch hash marks march by.  “45,” “46,” “46 1/2.”  It slowed to a crawl.  “47,” “47 1/4,” “47 1/2.”  Almost there. “47 3/4.”  Focused intently on the parade of numbers, I’d lost sight of where the housing was in relation to the mark on the wall. I was surprised when my gaze came to an abrupt halt.  The tape measure had stopped.  The numbers held still, the red number “4” remained inside the housing, waiting implacably.

I had failed to become four feet tall.

Suéltalo hijo”: my father’s voice broke through the stupor of disappointed disbelief into which I’d had fallen.  My end of the tape measure obediently snapped back up to my father’s hand.

I was disappointed, but all was not lost.  I’d been through this before.  I knew that the absolute measure was only the first part, and not even the most important one.  What mattered more than my height was how tall I was compared to other boys my age.

I followed my father, past the engraved plaque—“Dr. Antonio E. Colás, M.D., Ph.D.”—by the doorway to his den, into the dense, comforting aroma of pipe tobacco mixed with old papers and books.  There, in its place on the metal shelving, was the thick, red, hard bound volume with the words “CIBA-GEIGY Scientific Tables” embossed on the spine.  I did not know what those words meant.  But I knew that inside the book, and (because I’d sneaked in here many times to look at it) precisely where inside the book, there was a page on which two groups of lines gracefully snaked their way from the lower left to the upper right of a graph.  The lower group was for weight, which I did not care about it. The upper group was for height.  At the top of the page was the chart title: “2-20 years: Boys” and below that “Stature-for-age and Weight-for-age percentiles.”

I’d learned what this meant two years before, just before my 5thth birthday.  Having measured me, my father showed me the graph, and carefully put a small plus sign at the point where my age intersected with my height.  The plus sign was just above the lowest line of the upper group.

Then, standing next to my father, who was seated at his desk, I watched as he drew a row of ten, faceless stick-figure boys on a blank sheet of paper.  Each boy was a little taller than the boy to his right, my left as I looked at them.  Next he drew another boy, all the way to the left of the page, who was a little shorter than the shortest boy.  Above that boy’s head he wrote my name: “Yago.”  Then he explained to me that “percentile” allowed me to see how I measure up against all the other boys my age: how many were taller than me, and how many were shorter. He was careful to note that even though his drawing made me look like the shortest boy of all, there were actually four boys shorter than me (out of 100), whom he had not drawn. That meant I was in the 5th percentile.

There were also other plus signs on the page, all marked above or very near to the upper-most line.  They were for my oldest brother.  He was nine years older than me, played basketball and already had two gold trophies: a basketball player standing tall, reaching high above his head with a tiny golden basketball cradled in his palm.  My goal was to have my plus signs bound up the page so they’d be next to his—that, and to get trophies of my own.

Already last year, at 6, having shot up 6 1/2 inches from the year before, I’d tasted the thrill of passing half the boys in the row.  Now at age 7, what mattered to me even more than being four feet tall, which I was not, was how high my plus sign would climb on that ladder of lines, where I would stand in that row of stick-figure boys.

My father opened the book to the percentile tables and laid it flat on a work table.  He hovered the fine-point pen he’d removed from his plastic pocket protector just above the page, following the line up from the number “7” printed above the word “Age” on the x-axis, while his left index finger moved to meet it from the left-hand side of the page, along an imaginary line just below the number “48.”  Before he even marked the spot with the little plus-sign, I could see where they’d meet: just below the middle one of the group of lines.  Not only had I not moved up any lines, I’d actually moved down, from just above the middle line last year to just below it this year.

One of the stick-figure boys had shouldered confident past me, dropping me from 5th place to 6th.  I had not grown fast enough. I did not measure up.  What was wrong with me?

 

 

To Those Opposing the NFL Players’ Protests

This picture is of Kansas City Chiefs star linebacker Justin Houston.  While the national anthem played before his team’s game, he turned to face his fans, and kneeled.

I doubt anyone who thinks differently will even see this, or be swayed by it, and others with a bigger platform have already made these and other points more eloquently or forcefully.  But I still want to make three points about the NFL player protests that I wish those opposing them would really consider seriously.

1) Please stop crowing that “spoiled, millionaire players should stop protesting.”

They are not protesting because they feel themselves to be personally or individually oppressed necessarily (though some of them probably have been at one point or another). They are protesting in solidarity with, and to amplify the voices of, many others who have been oppressed, and have been protesting, but whose names we won’t know because they aren’t celebrities and we as a country stupidly only get hyped up when celebrities do or say shit.

2) Please stop characterizing it as a protest against the flag or the national anthem.

It is a protest against structural racism and police violence exercised disproportionately against people of color, both of which are counter to what are supposed to be the ideals and values of the country; ideals and values that the anthem and the flag symbolize. The protest means something like: “hold up, y’all, before we stand up and congratulate ourselves for how awesome we are at our values, let’s take a knee to remember those suffering for our shortcomings; let’s call our country to do better, to come closer to realizing those ideals of freedom and equality for all.”

3) Please stop saying “stick to sports” or that “sports should not be political.”

Sorry, but that is a counter-factual delusion. Sports are now and have always been political: political decisions finance arenas and stadiums with public dollars or tax breaks, political decisions determine who gets to play and who doesn’t, political decisions confer anti-trust law exemptions on teams, leagues, and organizations. All that is happening now (which has also happened in the past) is that athletes, mostly of color, are participating openly in this political process. If you didn’t insist that sports and politics be separate when your city council voted to finance a new stadium, or your state legislature and governor passed a law declaring that athletes at public universities are not employees and may not unionize, I don’t think insisting on the separation of sports and politics now is a very good look.

If you really understand these things, and still believe they should just shut up, stand up, and play football, then we have very fundamentally different views of how to be in the world. I can live and let live to a point, and I think I’m generally a pretty conciliatory guy. But in this case, your views are actually in the way of the freedom and equality I want for everyone. So I have a problem with your views.

Why Fab 5 at 25?

This is the text of my opening remarks for the Fab 5 @ 25 round table symposium.  The University video taped the event and will be making that available to the public, hopefully before too long.

screenshot-2016-10-10-06-44-48The impact of the Fab Five on basketball and our cultural landscape was immeasurable.  As we’ve just heard it was felt even by a young Hoosier attending a small liberal arts college who would grow up to become a quantitative political scientist and our Dean.  He was not alone, of course. Their superb and electrifying play, their exuberant and authentic self-expression, and their courageous outspokenness transformed not only college basketball, but, in some ways, all of sport, and sparked challenging and increasingly urgent conversations about race, money, and education in big time college sports.  But you know all that.  You know, too, that their legacy was left in limbo as a result of investigations uncovering the loans that one member of the team accepted.

We are here, as Dean Martin explained, to address these topics openly, in an academic setting, in keeping with the mission, and best traditions, of the great community of students and scholars that comprise the University of Michigan.  We have here an opportunity to lead by continuing and deepening the challenging and urgent conversations these players and their teammates helped amplify:  how can universities like Michigan preserve their educational mission and safeguard the well-being of their students in the context of the rapidly expanding commercialization of college sports? What sort of opportunities do college sports provide us for addressing and overcoming social inequalities and cultural stereotypes? What is the legacy of the Fab Five in Michigan’s own history, and what is the most appropriate way for the University to mark that legacy?

But, even as we take up these questions today, I know from experience that our event offers another, deeper opportunity for all of us.  I met Jimmy King in March of 2012, when he accepted my invitation to speak to students in my undergraduate Cultures of Basketball class.  He has come every time I’ve taught the course since then and has even played in the intra class 3 on 3 tournament the students organize at the end of each semester.  Now, I pride myself on being an effective teacher. But I know they feel that the hour and a half they spend with Jimmy is the unforgettable highlight of the semester and that the challenging and inspiring lessons he imparts will stay with them forever.

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I understand why they feel that way.  I feel that way too.  It’s because Jimmy is, among many other things, a superb teacher.  In fact, though I don’t know Ray as well, nor Jalen or Juwan at all, I believe that all four of these men are, and were when they were students here, superb teachers. In fact, I view them as one of the University great treasures: a trove of unique life experiences which they transform into accessible lessons. These are lessons not only about basketball, or college sports.  Not even only about race or class or exploitation.  They are deeper life lessons about joy, creativity, and integrity, about solidarity, trust, and loyalty and, perhaps above all, about freedom.  We should consider ourselves fortunate that we have here today something life doesn’t often provide: a second chance; a second chance not only to hear their voices, but to listen to them and so to learn what we may have missed when they first offered it 25 years ago. I for one, plan to make the most of it.

As the fellas used to say before stepping into the arena: let ‘em hang.

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5 for the Fab 5 @ 25

The Fab Five first set foot on Michigan’s campus 25 years ago.  The first group of freshman ever to start for a major college program, they led their teams to consecutive NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship games in 1992 and 1993, and sparked a cultural revolution in the sport and beyond.  In time, a scandal led to sanctions imposed by both the University and the NCAA.  The Final Four banners came down and were tucked away in the Bentley Library and a shroud of silence settled over the players and their era.

Until now.

The Fab Five are returning to campus on at 2 pm, October 8th to discuss their experiences in Hill Auditorium.

In honor this group of teenage black men whose messages of brotherhood, community, joy, and freedom has never been more resonant, here are 5 links to things I’ve written on the Fab 5 shared in celebration of the 25 year anniversary of their arrival at Michigan.

1.“Free the Banners, Free Discussion” – (2013)
Op-Ed piece I wrote for The Michigan Daily in which I called for the kind of public discussion we will finally be holding this Saturday.
2.“Uphold the Heart” – (2012)
A reflection on Jimmy King’s first visit to my Cultures of Basketball course, and on the impact of the Fab Five.
3.“Where is 1968?” – (2013)
On some of the lessons about race and social activism we can draw from the Fab Five. Never more urgent than now.
4.“Alphabet Soup” – (2013)
On hype, names, and numbers.
5. “_______________” – (2013)

Still today, the most viewed thing I’ve ever written, my open letter to Chris Webber asking him to join his former teammates in the stands at the 2013 NCAA Championship game to support Michigan, and five of my freshman students, in the game against Louisville.

I have mixed feelings about reposting this because I don’t feel exactly the same way I did when I first wrote and posted it three and a half years ago. Chris showed up at the game, but never responded to my letter and, more painfully, elected not to sit with his teammates.  Recently, I once again invited Chris to join his former teammates, and brothers, at a public event—Fab 5 @ 25—and once more he has not responded. So I thought about not reposting this, and even about taking it off my site—after all, the University came through by sponsoring, and paying for, this discussion. That means they would’ve bought Chris a plane ticket to get him to campus. If it he’d been willing to appear.

But so much about this conversation is about how we look at history, memory, and our own past.  And so much of what is painful in this derives from people trying to erase or ignore or deny the past.  I understand why this is tempting. But I think it is deadly.

There has been enough erasure and denial.

“An Open Letter to Chris Webber”

What I Did in 2015

This felt like a productive, and pivotal, year for me.  So I thought I’d gather together the links to some of my professional activities during 2015…because, well, I feel proud.

In my teaching, I continued to refine Cultures of Basketball, developed an entirely new course called “Writing the Sporting Body,” and completely revamped my large lecture course “Global Sports Cultures.”

Over the summer, I had a few successful blog posts, two of which seemed especially to strike a chord: my thoughts on the deeper cultural forces that might drive the collective love affair with Steph Curry and my commentary on LeBron James and coaching.

These led to some fun media appearances: one at Over and Back on the meanings of the late Darryl Dawkinsone discussing NBA narratives with Seth Partnow, another on coaching with Nick Hauselman, and what can only be described as a cameo in Tom Goldman’s NPR story on Steph Curry.

I published a couple of academic articles, one, related to my book, on the meaning of the phrase “Ball Don’t Lie” and another, long-coming, on the cultural and political significance of Manu Ginobili’s style of play. Another article, on the myths surrounding the invention of basketball, will be published in the Journal of Sport History in Spring, 2016. I also was honored to accept a position, alongside some scholars I’ve long admired, on the editorial board of the Journal of Sports and Social Issues.

Most exciting to me was finishing up my end of the production process for my forthcoming book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, which will hit bookstores in the spring and is already available for pre-order on Amazon.

I also began new administrative appointments at Michigan related to college athletics, which brought me new perspectives on some controversial issues such as athlete compensation and faculty involvement, both matters that I plan to get more involved in, both as a researcher and administrator.

Now, as for the pivotal part, I’m excited to announce that, with the support of Deans Andrew Martin and Angela Dillard of the Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, Jimmy King and I began to plan a public symposium dedicated to examining the legacy of the Fab Five to mark the 25th anniversary of their 1991 arrival on campus. We’re still figuring out the dates and details, but it will happen sometime in 2016 and I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted.

Lastly, I’ve kicked off two new essay-length research projects.  The first, in response to a call for papers on the topic of doing sport history in the digital era, is a history, contextualization, and cultural review of the rise of basketball analytics and its impact on various issues pertaining to basketball history.  The second will be something like a map of the hoops historical imagination of ESPN’s 30 for 30 basketball documentaries.

It’s been a lot of work, but the most rewarding work of my life, and I’m grateful to everyone who has played a part in this.  Thank you.

I hope you all have a prosperous, peaceful, and joyful 2016.