Day 6: Style and the Nature of the Universe

I suppose there’s all kind of funny things I could pull out today if I really felt like dipping into the subterranean spring of neurotic patter. And I kind of wish I did feel like it because maybe that’s really why you’re reading, maybe that’s the style with which I’ve become identified. But I really don’t feel like it because the reading for Thursday’s class and the discussion we had of it just sprang too many interesting ideas that I wanted and want to pursue. I’m thinking about the emergence of the “individual” as a notion in hoops history; about the connection between this and style and between style of play and style of thought,  and all of that with atoms and the nature of the self.   The superb short essay by Bethlehem Shoals on George Mikan in FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed History of Pro Basketball dropped my jaw and prompted these avenues of inquiry and many more before, during, and after Thursday’s class. We didn’t resolve them, nobody could, but I think we had some interesting and illuminating thoughts – and a good time – in the course of discussing them.

Let me start with the facts, because part of the excitement that the Mikan chapter generated for me stemmed from Shoals’ creativity in combining bare facts with a few abstract notions in order to make a speculative, but very convincing, and grounded, historical argument. The point here isn’t just to ladle praise on the essay. It’s also to suggest a parallel between the art of an argument and the art, say, of a pass or of a jumper, of a drive, a rebound, or a finish, and even of a defensive sequence.

I’ll come back to that. But this is how I proceeded in class: by telling them that we were going to begin by pulling facts from the text, then reconstructing the logic of Shoals’ argument, and then opening up some questions for discussion. Parts 1 and 2 might only have been fun for me, but I only cared a little bit that they might have been bored, because I love looking under the hood to see what makes it roar and because I am determined that over the course of the semester they come to see that every story about the game is created, from raw materials and with certain ends in mind. And what is true about stories about the game will also be true about stories about themselves and the world they live in.

So the facts that Shoals draws upon in his chapter are pretty much as follows:

  1. Prior to 1949, professional basketball games often varied in length and were played on courts of varying dimensions;
  2. In 1949, when the NBL and the BAA merged to form the NBA, uniformity of court dimensions and game and quarter lengths was established;
  3. George Mikan, the NBA’s first highly skilled big man at 6-10, led the NBA in scoring in its first two seasons (1949-1950; 1950-1951) while playing for the Minneapolis Lakers, who won 4 of the first 5 NBA championships;
  4. 1950: Racial integration begins in NBA;
  5. 1951: the league widened the foul-lane (to which the 3 second rule is attached);
  6. the tactic of offensive stalling (e.g. Fort Wayne defeated Minneapolis 19-18 in November of 1950) grew more widespread;
  7. the NBA introduced the 24 second shot clock in the 1954-1955 season;
  8. in 1954 6-9 Bob Pettit, star center at LSU, entered the NBA, and became a superstar, high scoring, high rebounding forward for the Hawks (Milwaukee, then St. Louis), one of only two teams other than Boston to win an NBA title between 1956 and 1969, until his retirement, while still among the league’s top scorers and rebounders, in 1965.

The students pretty competently pulled these facts from the chapter. And I think it was pretty clear to them that the facts made up a sort of Wikipedia timeline of the first few years of NBA history.

But what I found so thrilling in Shoals’ essay was not that he preserves these facts and links them into a historical narrative, which is the least you can expect from a competent history book. What sets this apart and – in my view sets Free Darko’s history apart form other NBA histories out there – is that even as Shoals weaves these facts into a historical narrative he adds meaning to them by simultaneously recasting that narrative in terms of certain fundamental philosophical terms — in this case, time, space, individuality or subjectivity, and modernity—which carry relevance, obviously, well beyond the game.

Now maybe nobody cares about this but academic dweebs like me, but everyone should care about it because, in the first place, it’s the sort of thinking that makes it possible, say, to even conceive of a course like “cultures of basketball”, to try to understand ourselves and our world a little better by way of the game. And in the second place, because what Shoals is thereby able to lay bare and to mobilize is exactly that which allows for fans to invest in the game as strongly as they do; allows, in other words, for the sort of enjoyable class poll I wrote about earlier in the week.

So, with that in mind, here is a skeletal presentation of the main assertions in Shoals’ argument, as best I could extract them from the fluid prose and with the “bare fact” words in bold:

  1. Time and space were unstable in early pro history
  2. The NBA (i.e. strong institutional culture) stabilized them through rules standardization
  3. Mikan’s size and ability destabilized space and (indirectly via the tactical stalling that he provoked) distorted time, both of which facts implicitly acknowledge Mikan as an individual, the first in NBA history.
  4. The unpopularity of stalling and competition with the college (then rocked on its heels by gambling scandals) leads to the introduction of the shot clock.
  5. The shot clock speeds time and opens space and increases the opportunity for, and indeed places a premium on, contingent individual decision-making, which reinforces, in other words, the notion of the player as unique individual ushered in by Mikan’s uniqueness as a player.
  6. “What made basketball modern was the notion that players and play itself were anything but uniform. This assertion of subjectivity opened up a host of possibilities; the parameters of action could now be manipulated and not merely accepted.”
  7. This scenario is exploited or let us say emblematized by Bob Pettit who, in shifting positions from center to forward, changes space (big man moves outside and faces basket) and changes time (big man away from the basket moves more quickly). But also, with a greater and more diversified skill set than Mikan, Pettit increases the range of individual decisions available to him.
  8. Pettit – a threat as rebounder, scorer, and ball-handler — was the forerunner of, and superceded by, a heterogeneous series of African-American players who will begin to enter the league in the wake of integration (e.g. Bill Russell 1956, Elgin Baylor 1958, Wilt Chamberlain 1959, Oscar Robertson 1960 and, I might add, Connie Hawkins, who would have entered in 1962, had he not been unjustly blackballed).

Please notice that you can see the original list of facts, still laid out, with one exception, in the correct chronological order in Shoals argument. But also notice that the facts have been embedded in the setting of a philosophically rich reflection on the variable and subjective experience of time and space and how that experience generates the category of the “individual ball player”; a category, it should be obvious enough, around which nearly all contemporary basketball culture turns (and before you tell me that it’s only the pro game’s culture that turns on the individual, let me just say this to you: Jimmer Fredette, Maya Moore, Austin Rivers).

So here is the first point to emphasize: that these notions of style and individuality are historical. They weren’t with us since forever – not in basketball and not in the world outside of basketball. They came into being, invented in a way to designate and also to hasten an as yet unnamed experience that human beings were beginning to have and to reflect upon: which is that they were not simply cogs in some institutional machine (be that machine the Roman Catholic church in the middle ages or the Game of Basketball). And this is one of the hallmarks of modern culture, whenever it has declared itself: a sense of individuality and with it an accompanying sense of freedom and possibility.

But wait, there’s more: Shoals’ essay can be seen as subtly – perhaps unintentionally self-referential. In other words, Shoals’ argument about the emergence of the notion of the individual in pro basketball history itself partakes of the very elements that allowed for that emergence in the first place. What? Bear with me. It may be kind of loosy-goosey, but I think it’s kinda cool.

Any given fact is analogous to a fundamental of the game such as a pass, shot, dribble, rebound, or defensive maneuver. Facts strung together into a historical chronology are like an ordinary play: rebound leads to pass leads to dribble leads to defense leads to pass leads to lay up. And facts strung together into a historical chronology and imbued with philosophical meaning are like a play suffused with functionally unnecessary uniqueness and individuality, which is to say, with style.

Please indulge the anachronisms in the following fantasy: Connie Hawkins snatches a defensive rebound in one hand, sweeps the defense aside with a menacing swing of his elbow, and fires a one-handed outlet pass to Magic Johnson just before mid-court. Magic gathers the pass with his right hand and turns forward in one motion, only to confront crafty Larry Bird who is waiting to take a charge, but Magic pulls the ball behind his back and puts it on the floor with his left hand, just turning and edging past Bird. Magic dribbles once more with his left, and looks at Julius Erving racing ahead of him on the left. This look momentarily freezes defender Bruce Bowen who had begun to approach Magic near the top of the circle and Ben Wallace under the basket who hedges slightly toward Erving. Magic alone spots a trailing Blake Griffin streaking in from the right, throws a left-handed bounce pass behind his back that catches Blake in stride as he lifts off the floor. Bowen meanwhile surreptitiously grabs Magic’s jersey and pulls him into him, flopping backward with Magic on top of him, hoping to draw the late charging call. Griffin pulls his arm back to throw down a vicious tomahawk slam even as Ben Wallace leaps to meet him and even gets a hand on it. But Blake’s momentum is too much even for Ben and Griffin powers the ball through the net.

See what I mean? That play still had a rebound – a pass – a dribble – some defense – another pass – and a shot. But this play was, well, amazing! In other words, this is what makes us care, makes us come up with lists of most loved and most hated. And, by the way, if you hate this sort of play, then know that you are really just expressing a preference for a different style: one that is plain and unadorned. I don’t dig that so much, but it’s okay if you do. You can tell your own story with a rebound, pass, dribble, defense, pass, and shot. It might come out different. Just don’t come telling me that you hate style and that you don’t watch the game for style. My students themselves made that point.

But then, that is also the case for facts and narratives. In other words a “bare fact” is just an interpretation of reality that conforms so completely to our conventional standards of plausibility and presentation that we don’t see the interpretation. So, “the NBA was formed in 1949.” Seems like a bare fact. But in stating it we have already selected from the inchoate material of pure experience several points of emphasis: “NBA” “formation” “1949”. And that selection process entails assignment of value and meaningfulness. No problem, nothing to get alarmed about. There are still facts and there is still truth and falsehood. It’s just that they can’t be separated from interpretation and therefore from particular individuals doing the interpreting and therefore from their agendas. This was the second point I wanted to emphasize.

What we explored next, in a stumbling, sleepy groping in the dark for the bathroom doorknob sort of way (through no fault of theirs), was how it is that we infer personality from the individual style with which a player executes the fundamentals on the court. In class, we spent some time talking about the kinds of things that players do off the court, or between plays, from which we draw some sense of their personalities, like Shaq winking to the camera after a basket.

But as I kept pushing, one student – who grew up in Indiana admiring Reggie Miller – said he felt that Reggie Miller’s playing style indicated he was “hyper” as a person. Now, nowhere has this kind of stylistic analysis been done better than in FreeDarko’s first offering: the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. But we did our own poor man’s version in class by comparing the kinetic chaos of Reggie’s three point jumper with the fluid economy of Ray Allen’s. Both deadly three point shooters, but they look different shooting them and from this we might infer a hyper, expressive personality for Reggie Miller and a kind of quiet humility to Ray Allen. At some point, of course, we encounter some sliver of their personalities in other settings and these we weave into our interpretations of their game, or vice-versa. As I say, get the Almanac if you want to see the pros do this right.

But the really important thing is that in inferring a personality from a style we are mistaking cause and effect. We think that Reggie’s hyper personality causes or is expressed through the style of his jump shot. But in fact there is first the style that we see and then the ex post facto construction of something we call his personality, which we then posit as a cause or source of the style.

For my money, beyond the amusement and illumination, the true philosophical profundity (which is to say basketball wisdom) of the Almanac is that FreeDarko intentionally or not — seems to express this in the epithets for each individual pkayer that form the subtitles for the chapters. Tim Duncan isn’t important as a name or as an individual with a personality. He’s important as the site of convergence and combination for a number of discrete stylistic components that can be viewed together as comprising something called “mechanical gothic.” The proper name is just a convenient shorthand that we are used to using, but it doesn’t designate the source of anything.

The dazzling, late Italian novelist Italo Calvino once noted that the Roman poet Lucretius (c. 100 – c. 55 B.C.), in his remarkable The Nature of the Universe 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.” Calvino went on to muse that perhaps what we call a self is nothing but a “combination of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.”

Isn’t this already suggested by the “Periodic Table of Style” with which the almanac begins? I mean isn’t it already clear there that the individuals that follow, rather than being the origins of style, are rather the effects of particular combinations of style elements? Just as we ourselves are, physically and spiritually, the combination of elements that existed long before our selves and will persist long after we have faded into oblivion.

Indeed in “seeing” certain styles, we are ourselves engaged in an invention that is every bit as stylized. My story above about Connie, Magic, and Blake successful fast break (over Larry, Bown, and Ben) says as much about the stylistic elements of which I am composed as it does about any of those actual players (and it would be no different if I were describing a play that actually existed). In fact, the best basketball culture, to my mind, knows that it is itself part of the thing it is describing, and finds the sweet spot between the stupidity of thinking itself to be objectively about the game and the precious narcissism of describing its own image in the mirror. The best of basketball culture knows its own freedom. Or, in other words, has style.

Go to Go Yago! to read these Spring Break reflections on style and basketball writing,

go back to read about the myth and reality of amateurism in basketball


Go on to enjoy the baffling greatness of the old Celtics.

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