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Inside Man: Some Thoughts on Spike Lee's "He Got Game" (1998)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Considering that I am going to be teaching this stuff, it was about time that I finally filled the gap and saw Spike Lee’s 1998 “He Got Game.” While I was occasionally bored or disappointed, I did care enough to watch the whole thing through (not a given for me), and (after a helpful conversation with Claire) I ultimately felt like I expect I might have had I stumbled upon a Brecht play: good message if somewhat heavy handed, cleverly aware of its own medium, and certain moments of aesthetic genius.

If you're looking for ambiguity, this is not the film for you. "He Got Game" unambiguously states the case that in the ever-increasingly high stakes game of finding the second-coming of the transcendent superstar who will win games, fill seats, and sell shoes, the gifted urban adolescent athlete is pure of heart, clear of head and surrounded by scummy parasitic schemers and criminals offering cash, gifts, and women in exchange for a commitment that the young star, will turn pro or sign with their college program. In "He Got Game," Jesus Shuttlesworth, the nation's number one prospect (played pretty convincingly by a young Ray Allen) turns it all down, except for one bizarre lapse where he hooks-up with a couple of pretty gross white prostitutes procured for him by the staff at "Tech U."

I applaud Lee for painting the scene in this way. Though both the goodness of Jesus and the badness of the coaches, agents, and hangers-on feel exaggerated to the point of inexplicable implausibility, this is an appropriate corrective to the somehow still prevailing myth that the young (usually African-American) superstar athlete is morally confused at best (on account of a perilous upbringing) and the (usually white) fixers, scouts, middle-men, agents, and coaches who surround him -- apart from a few opportunistic bad apples -- are just trying "to do what's best for the kids and the game goshdarnit."

Lee reminds us -- and we seem to require it no matter how many books like George Dohrman's Play their Hearts Out or Darcy Frey's The Last Shot, or documentaries like "Hoop Dreams" (and Lee offers a nod to the latter, whose two stars Arthur Agee and William Gates make cameos in the opening credits), come out -- that if you love the game, and Spike definitely loves the game, these are some of the conditions of possibility for what you love. It goes with the territory. Sort of the way that Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me" reminded me of what goes into my Big Mac. If I have to choose my basketball propaganda film: I'll take this vision over "Hoosiers"'s nostalgic fantasy of the time we scrappy little white folks pulled it together and through effort and the superior evolutionary leap called teamwork beat that team of frighteningly athletic but hopelessly individualistic Blacks.

Anyway, propaganda aside, "Super Size Me" made me hungry for McDonald's. And He Got Game made me hungry for more game, especially Ray Allen's work-of-art jump shot. But I think for subtly different reasons that have to do with what makes Spike Lee more than a superb (and much needed) propagandist. Super Size me didn't make me want McDonald's because it's images of the food were enticing, or because Spurlock told a narrative that I could relate to. I think it made me want the food because the food is made to be addictive and so almost any mention of it reminds my body that I want it. He Got Game made me want more basketball because when Lee wasn't talking with his voice, but just with his eyes and camera he created tableaus and fragments of narrative into which I could project myself.

So this is genius:

Aaron Copland's score connotes nothing more than the innocent expansive landscape of rural America where individuals with pluck and determination carve each their own modest path and the sum of all those modest paths, the sum of those small triumphs is the greatness of the country as a whole, registered in the crescendos. Lee gives us what the music leads us to expect -- the farm boy playing ball in the dirt driveway a stone's throw from golden fields -- but then gives us more to boot: the middle-aged black men shooting and hanging around an urban playground, two girls executing a perfect give-and-go, a young African-American boy working on his cross in an abandoned lot. All of it tied together with the fabric of Copland's score: do you get the picture yet? he's painting you a portrait of America.

Lee also gets the beauty of the ball in motion, say, on its arc toward the basket: he understands and communicates with his camera far better than I ever could in words the possibility, perfection, and power in that path. He gets and transmits effectively the combination of grace, beauty and force in the basketball player in improvisational motion.

When he shows me, in the clip above, or in the opening credits, just a fragment of a shot in the air, or the beginnings of a move toward the hoop, I can fill in the rest with the memories and fantasies of my own lifetime.

Lee also taps into a particular narrative that, while obviously not strictly speaking universal, certainly works for me: the story of the love and hatred, the collaboration and rivalry that is the relationship between father and son. My dad never pushed me the way that Jake pushes young Jesus in the film's flashbacks, relentlessly baiting him with trash-talk, swatting his every shot attempt, and even knocking him to the ground. But I still felt pushed to tears and desperate rage and moments of excellence by something that I attributed to my father. And so also the fantasy of Jesus, now grown, dominating his father and turning the physical and psychological tables in a final game of one on one, appeals in equal measure.

My own relationship with my dad has certainly evolved over the decades. I now deeply appreciate what he has taught me. I love what he is that I am, for better and for worse, and what he is that, for better and for worse, I will never be. But whatever is unresolved in my relationship to my dad, I am certain, would be resolved once and for all if we could play one game of one on one, under the floodlights. But it would have to have these three elements: 1) me swatting his shot and saying "get that shit outta here" 2) me saying "What you want? Jump shot, dunk?" and, most of all, 3) him relentlessly talking trash -- "I think I'l go around again", "I'm teaching, like I always been teaching" -- even in the face of the overwhelmingly obvious reality that I'm now the better player.


Possibility is dead! Long live possibility!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

What I remember best about it is the blur as I lay on my back in bed, shooting it straight up into the air with perfect back spin: red, white, and blue giving way to the vaguely perceived promise of purple, even lavendar. I was not yet ten, and my dad had brought it back from a business trip to Texas: a genuine ABA basketball autographed by the San Antonio Spurs.

I was thinking about that ball this morning because no sooner had I submitted to the Facebook status gods my wish that there be a pro hoops franchise in Saint Louis (less for the games than for the gear) than I discovered that there is one: the St. Louis Pioneers. All life should be so easy. But wait, there's more. Not only is there a pro team in St. Louis, but they play in -- wait for it -- the American Basketball Association. That's right the ABA. It's not your daddy's ABA, but it wants badly to be. It even licensed the name from the NBA which apparently owns it (of course, it owns everything related to basketball).

What David Stern Sees
On the Pioneers web page, the first image you see is the towering afro of Julius Erving, decked out in his Nets uniform and a thin, gold choker. Then the image morphs to side by side images of players that actually have something to do with St. Louis: Marvin Barnes of the old ABA Spirits of St. Louis and Bob Pettit of the old NBA St. Louis Hawks, and then finally Barnes shifts over to the left hand side of the image and Moses Malone takes over the right hand side, dressed in his Spirits of St. Louis # 13 jersey. It's a chaotic little montage, historically speaking, tying together three icons of the scintillating blackness of the 70s ABA with Pettit, the icon of an era when St. Louis resisted the innovations in the game represented by Erving, Barnes, Malone and the whole ABA, not to mention stubbornly refused to integrate its roster and was the worst place in the NBA for visiting African-American players.

But nevermind all that: St. Louis basketball is back. That's the story, the narrative arc: there is this thing that is one, it is called St. Louis basketball. Like God, or the Word, it was made flesh. That flesh was called, first, the Hawks (Pettit), then the Spirits (Barnes, Malone) and now the Pioneers (um, Erving? the ABA).

a spirit of saint louis
Right, if it seems a bit thin as a narrative, in my mind that's just part of what stamps its authenticity as the heir of the old ABA. That old ABA, you remember it from Terry Pluto's Loose Balls, the Fish that Saved Pittsburgh or, today's versions, Chapter 3 of Free Darko's new basketball history and Will Farrell's Semi-Pro. The best thing about the old ABA, for me is its resistance to narrative. As FreeDarko asks there in Chapter 3: "What the Hell was the ABA?" Even the canonical history of the ABA -- Pluto's Loose Balls -- is really just a garbage can full of awesome quotations from participants, arranged in chronological order, and prefaced with a dizzying table that chronicles the emergence and disappearance of franchises like so many bubbles on the surface of a pot of boiling water.

A Time Machine
What story can you tell about a pot of boiling water? "It wasn't boiling, I heated it up, it boiled. Now it's boiling."? Not much of A Story there, though lots of stories: like when none other than the Spirits' Marvin Barnes once refused to get on a plane home from Louisville (Eastern Time) because it would arrive in St Louis (Central Time) before it had left: "I ain't goin' on no time machine." Oh yes you are, sooner or later. Now the St. Louis Pioneers have given him a middle seat on theirs. But I'm down with the Pioneers' weird historical montage because it's weird and ultimately contradictory, incoherent, and unpolished (when I friended the Pioneers on Facebook I got a message from them with a dead link).

A More Dangerous Time Machine
When the old ABA merged into the NBA, not only did the NBA get some dazzling players, a handful of viable franchises, and the rights to the name, it exercised its irresistible Story-Making power to fold the ABA's own non-narrative existence into the NBA's larger story of global domination. It's the titanic chapter of the dialectic of the NBA where individual creativity and entertainment was sublimated by the Association into what would become the racial harmony of the Bird-Magic era + the awesome marketing extravaganza that is Michael Jordan. And it's not that that's wrong or untrue. The nine-years of ABA basketball are part of the NBA's history and it's right to tell it that way. But as always happens with time machines of this sort, possibilities get left behind. Possibility gets left behind.
Another kind of history
But a watched pot, they say never boils, and the part of the ABA that is unwatched, roiling craziness, unwitnessed by just about everyone: that's also part of what should be registered of its existence, then and now. I don't know how to tell that: maybe a poem, maybe a Nietzschean aphorism, maybe just a physical spasm. But I know it when I see it: the St. Louis Pioneers, whose home games are played at St. Louis Community College and whose roster includes nobody I have ever heard of. The ABA is dead. Long live the ABA. nbsp;At first I felt like a fool for having not known (or forgotten) about the new ABA (which began in 2000). But then as I clicked around some more I realized that this league takes the old ABA's resistance to narrative and intensifies it exponentially. It's hyperlink madness. The same hyperlink madness that led me to find a photo of a genuine ABA ball signed by the San Antonio Spurs just one year after I got mine. In fact, Claire just discovered the fine print on the bottom of this page, where the publishers of the online sports media outlet oursportscentral.com -- dedicated to "major league coverage of independent and minor league sports" -- throw in the towel: "Our SportsCentral no longer actively covers the American Basketball Association (ABA) as a professional league due in part to its inability to publish and play a schedule and the transitory nature of many of its teams." You can get an ABA franchise for around $10K (AI's mom did, back in 2008) and that will make your squad one of the 50 or so that float and sink in a given ABA season.

George Karl: One Last Time Machine

That ball my dad brought me back from San Antonio was one of two gifts from his business trips that I will never forget. The other was a genuine St. Louis Cardinals football helmet. So everything seems to come together, or at least it does when you begin to tell stories about it. The ball bore the autographs of (in order of recognition by me at the time): 1) Swen Nater; 2) George Gervin; 3) George Karl. I imagine their head coach, Tom Nissalke, also signed it since he was our neighbor who lived up the street from us in Madison, Wisconsin (I don't know, don't ask) and was probably the reason my dad got into the Spurs locker room after the game.

[Addendum from my father via e-mail, demonstrating how every history can be improved through surprising complication: "Sorry to disappoint you. Cannot remember the year of the meeting at San Antonio. I can tell you that it was not Nissalke who was instrumental in getting me the autographed ball but the representative of one of the laboratory companies that had a stand at the scientific meeting and when he learned that I planned to attend a game of the Spurs he said he was going too and he would get me the autographed ball. I shall continue digging into my records and hope to find some document (program, abstract, etc.) which might allow me to identify for certain which year was the meeting." My dad's research proved fruitful, determining that he was attending a conference in San Antonio from March 19 to 21 of 1975. That means he had caught the Spurs playing the Virginia Squires at home on March 21, just back from a road trip to -- you guessed it -- the Spirits of St. Louis.]

For many years that ball remained pristine. I saved it -- now displaying, now storing it in a bedroom closet -- long after the ABA merged into the NBA. When I moved out for college it stayed behind in the bedroom. At some point, I came home -- probably from graduate school, maybe later -- and wanted to shoot some hoops. Usually we kept a ball (a regular orange one) in a box in the garage. But for some reason, there wasn't one this time. So, without a second thought I retrieved the old ABA souvenir and used it to shoot away in the driveway, every meaningless dribble wearing away forever a bit of myth made mine. I still am unsure how I could have done that. The truth is, I think that I probably found it in the equipment box, already worn a bit as though someone else had taken a few shots with it. I'm going home in a week or so and I want to see if that ball is still there. If it is, even if it is flat and ordinary, the markings of ordinary time erasing the markings of legend that it once bore, I'm going to bring it back home with me to St. Louis and protect it. Maybe I'll even take it to a Pioneers game and get some autographs. Better yet: maybe I'll bring it with me to a tryout.

Could Be...


Capsule Reviews (IV): Bios of Pistol Pete and AI, Jabbar on the Reservation

Friday, December 10, 2010

Bios of two of the most culturally unassimilable and phenomenally skilled individual players to ever play the game -- Pistol Pete Maravich and Allen Iverson -- are featured here, along with Kareem Abdul Jabbar's memoir of his mid-life crisis spent as an assistant coach for a high school team on White Mountain Apache reservation.

Mark Kriegel, Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich (2007) Excellent biography of the hoops prodigy and college wonder whose pro career rarely lived up to its promise. Kriegel is a terrific prose stylist, and is both sensitive and thorough in portraying the powerful and powerfully vexed relationship between the Pistol and the father who formed him in the image of his own fantasies, as well as the social and athletic environment that shaped them both. Maravich emerged for me as a skill wizard whose growth as an all around player was stunted by a combination of his father's unwillingness to let go and his own unwillingness to accept opportunities to break away. By the end, when Pistol is carrying his father, dying of cancer, around his house in his arms, the full force of the story Kriegel had been telling hit me like an anvil. A touching, absorbing, sometimes humorous, informative must read.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, A Season on the Reservation: My Sojourn with the White Mountain Apache (1999) Nearly ten years after his retirement from the NBA as the all-time leading scorer, Kareem's interest in Native American history leads him unexpectedly to a one-season assistant coaching gig on the reservation. The strength of this book lies in the honesty with which Kareem lays out the surprises and difficulties he encountered along the way and in his attempt to connect his historical interests to his contemporary encounter with these teenagers. There's no simple tale of underdog triumph, or even of middle-age enlightenment. It's just a quietly told (perhaps a bit too quietly told), real-feeling story of some people thrown together in many ways by history and chance, who make each others' lives a little bit better by sharing a passion for the game.

Larry Platt, Only the Strong Survive: The Odyssey of Allen Iverson (2003). Nearly a decade old, I turned to this recently because of Iverson's decision to play ball in Turkey when no NBA team would pick him up. Despite his explicit intentions to the contrary, Platt's take veers pretty close to the hagiographical. But that's okay because AI is a saint. No, seriously, the book is at its strongest in helping to see the forces in AI's formative years that would shape not only his style of play on the court, but also his relationship to coaches and other players. AI may not have been a saint, but he is certainly a human being, and Platt does a good job of portraying the fear and the courage that drove one of the most exciting college and NBA players of the past two decades. Anyone who has dismissed AI for anything other than his play on the court needs to read this book and wake up. The book is also strong in its analysis of the cultural and economic meaning of AI as he entered the NBA from Georgetown and in this sense intersects well with Todd Boyd's book and others that I reviewedhere


The Professor is IN

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Some of you know that I'm going to be teaching a course in the upcoming semester called "The Cultures of Basketball." I have a general sense of what I'd like to explore in the course -- the different meanings and stories we create around the game and the ways in which we create them -- and also a general sense of what I'd like the students to learn -- that their enjoyment of an activity that primarily serves as entertaining distraction can be enriched and complicated by thought, or, to put it in other words: that you can think about something you love without ruining it -- you can even love it more. But that's about all I know for sure. So I'm issuing an open invitation for suggestions. The course is for undergraduates. I don't know too much about the particular students I'll have, but from their responses to a querying e-mail I sent out, it appears they vary in experience from casual pick-up players and fans to members of my university's varsity men's team.  I'll welcome suggestions for materials (books, essays, movies, clips, songs, etc.) of course, but also especially ways of structuring the course itself (historically, by level, by topic, by the genre or type of media through which we create these meanings, etc.).


Pat Riley's Pickle: L'il Gherkin on the Heat and Coach Spo

Thursday, December 2, 2010

If you can't, or don't want to, beat 'em, join 'em. Just when everyone outside Miami was feeling that karmic justice had settled in on the basketball universe by making Miami a mediocre team so that we could pay attention to the teams and players who are actually doing something worth talking about this season, the imp of the schedule sends the Heat to Cleveland for Lebron's first return to the city he ditched. Armored vehicles, undercover cops, bans on "vulgar and profane" t-shirts, threats of violence, cats and dogs living together: TNT knows drama! In honor of the event, L'il Gherkin offers Go Yago! his two cents on the Heat's woes and the future of coach Erik Spoelstra.

Why have so many people been crapping all over Lebron? Didn’t he do what true champions do? Go to the team with the best chance of winning. It’s not like he went to NY where he would get the most money from salary as well as advertising and promotions. Or stayed in Cleveland where he wouldn’t win anything because management was never able to surround him with good enough supporting players. Sure he didn’t do what he said he would do (stay in Cleveland till he won a championship there), which explains why Cavalier fans should be upset. And of course they are, but I think New York, and basically the rest of the country except Miami is upset with Lebron.

I often wonder if there was a “correct” choice for Lebron. If he had chosen a different team would the outrage over his decision have been subdued and perhaps his public image saved? The recent struggles of the Heat are the only reason I am currently thinking about this subject again since the decision was made. It’s not like the Heat are playing awful, in fact they are over .500. And while they aren’t blowing any teams away with Wade’s struggles, injuries to key role players, and the drama between Coach Erik Spoelstra and the players it seems that we are at a crucial turning point. If the Heat end the month of December at or below .500 it’s likely Spoelstra will be fired and then the team will start to hit the panic button.

Luckily it’s still very early in the season and, not to the point where there’s any need to worry about missing out on the playoffs. Also; it’s fair to keep in mind how weak the Eastern conference is and, winning 41 games is probably enough for the 8th spot in the playoffs. Now I’m not suggesting that the Heat will only go .500. Realistically a team with such talent, despite the lack of chemistry should easily make the playoffs in the East. Now add to that the fact that the big 3 will eventually learn to play together the right way and that Mike Miller, at least, will return to the line-up, and there’s no reason why this team cannot win 50 games. Talentwise this is a team that could, in future seasons, rival the greats (71-72 Lakers, 85-86 Celtics and of course the 95-96 Bulls) but is Spoelstra capable of leading this team to greatness? After only two coaching seasons we don’t really know enough about him to make that judgment but from what I’ve seen he shows a great understanding for the game. Spoelstra did a fantastic job as the coach of the Heat the last two years but with this added star power it’s a much different situation. Managing the egos of two superstars and a perennial all-star is a job left for the greats. Especially when your team is calling “players only” meetings, it seems that things are starting to get out of control.

So what is Pat Riley to do? Slick his hair back like Gordon Gekko, and take control of this star stacked team? I gotta’ be honest, I’ve always been a huge Pat Riley fan, aside from the hair I loved the intensity he brought to his coaching and let’s be honest he is an elite coach. With 5 rings as a head coach he is clearly the better choice over Spoelstra, but then again he has also affirmed his faith in the Heat head coach. What is the best action at this point? Unfortunately there isn’t much Riley can do for now. You cannot relieve Spoelstra of his duties yet and it would be silly to give him a clear bill of confidence for the remainder of the season. However in a month there will be another Decision to be made. Hopefully for the owner’s sake the team is either playing up to potential or continuing to struggle. Anything in between will prolong the wait and see period for as long as it takes. And of course, the longer it takes to make a decision, the worse. - by L'il Gherkin


Capsule Reviews (III): On Simmons on Basketball, Goudsouzian on Bill Russell, Anderson and Millman on Pick-Up Ball, and Jackson on the 2004 Lakers

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A "broseph"'s biblical Book of Basketball, makes me laugh (a little) and cringe (a lot); a scholar writing an elegant history of one of the game's noblest stars; a couple of journalists publishing their subterranean history of the country's street games with the major press of the British New Left; and perhaps the greatest coach ever offering major revelations that turn out to have been rendered false by the passage of time. It's all here in my latest Capsule Review (remember each book is rated on a scaled of 1 to 5 basketballs).

Bill Simmons, The Book of Basketball (2009). Hmmm. This book was a major event for sports fans when it came out as Simmons writes one of the most popular fan sites on the web. I had a mixed experience with it, due primarily to Simmons’ style. Simmons shtick is that he is the regular sports fan, just like you, who finally gets his voice heard in the media. As you might expect, hearing the voice of the regular sports fan amplified by the media is both refreshing and unpleasant, reminding me that journalism is actually a skilled profession. Simmons’ unwieldy tome (697 pp.) is, I must admit, surprisingly coherent considering the variety (and varying lengths) of the chapters: it really just consists of variations on the very simple theme that basketball is a team game and so the players that most thorough understood and consistently embodied that truth are the ones most worthy of celebrating and remembering.

The Prologue and First three chapters are especially tight, moving from Simmons recollections of the birth of his passion for the game to an assertion of the importance of chemistry, teamwork, and a passion for winning as the secret to hoops success, to a reassessment of the most storied rivalry in the game’s history (between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain – spoiler: Chamberlain comes off really badly), to a more general history of the NBA – all from the vantage point of deeply ingrained lessons in the importance of unselfishness and teamwork. After this we get, well, the kind of things that obsessive sports fans obsessively argue about such as who should be in the Hall of Fame and what would make it a cooler place to visit (taking up more than half the book), a discussion of MVP voting, what’s wrong with it, and how it should have played out, and the “What-If Game” where Simmons imagines the fall-out from any number of NBA road-not-taken scenarios (my favorite: what if the Pistons had not taken Carmelo Anthony instead of Darko Milicic with the # 2 pick in the 2003 NBA draft?)

In this course of this, Simmons seems never to have met a feeling or thought of his own that he does not consider worth writing down. His hampered editorial faculty leads both to comic gems and to cringetastic turds. Simmons is more informed than the average Buffalo Wildwings Broseph, and funnier too (in fact, he’s most of all a comedian whose material revolves around sports). But he seems also to have an almost hysterical compulsion to say “the thing he thinks we think he wouldn’t dare say”, as though he’s forever trying to get us to say “Oh no you didn’t!” And he then covers his embarrassment by trumpeting that “Hey, at least I’m honest.” I should say that there’s nothing I found truly offensive in here. But I bet Michael Kors would "question his taste level.” Funny sometimes, unpleasant sometimes, insightful on rare occasion, but as a compulsion, Simmons need to say everything finally grows tiresome and spreads like a oil spill through what could be a very well informed, more intelligent than average, and humorous take on the history and culture of the NBA.

Lars Anderson and Chad Millman, Pickup Artists: Street Basketball in America (1998) I found this a fascinating, and mostly entertaining, reading. Anderson and Millman cover a surprisingly broad range of forms of pickup ball from the 1940s to the present, from the well-known like Rucker Park to the (to me) less well known like prison and reservation leagues. Along the way, they show a socially informed sensitivity to the issues that have prevented great pickup players (men and women) from making it in organized professional leagues like the NBA and WNBA. Vivid, but understated, descriptions of the various streetball venues, with profiles of individuals supported by interviews with them (or, if they have passed away, with players who know them), as well as smartly paced narratives of particular games keep the book moving along nicely. One of the striking things about these tales is how they weave in and out of, approaching and then veering away from the better-known histories of mainstream organized basketball. A bonus is Anderson and Millman’s awareness of the way in which streetball is as much about the stories that get told about legendary players, moves, and games as it is about those players, moves, and games themselves. I'd call this an essential addition to any basketball library. 

Aram Goudsouzian, King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution (2010) Excellent biography of Russell, weaving together what he did that was new on the court, with what he did that was new as an African-American in the league, with what he did that was new as an athlete involved in politics. Goudsouzian is a historian and a good one and he sticks to what he does well. There's not much depth or subtlety on the motivation and psychology of Russell, but it doesn't feel like a deficiency. On the contrary, it comes off as an appropriate cautiousness. He's writing about what he feels he knows for sure, in order to illuminate and inform, not to be exploit drama.

Goudsouzian manages to combine a highly readable style with complex, interlocking portraits of an individual, a profession and its surrounding culture, and a society. Like all the best sportswriting, King of the Court is unafraid of the contradiction, complexity, and ambiguity that must inevitably arise when one looks thoughtfully at professional athletes in this country (thus we see Russell, wealthy, famous and celebrated, facing discrimination when trying to buy a house in the city he entertained and inspired); indeed when one looks thoughtfully at any single human life (we learn that Russell was insecure and fiercely proud, intensely self-disciplined and wildly self-indulgent, principled and pragmatic). This is the sort of thoughtful, compassionate, and honest treatment that all remarkable figures, really, that all of us deserve. Anyone with an interest in the NBA, the Celtics or Russell in particular, post-World War II US history, especially as regards race, will profit from and enjoy this work.

Phil Jackson, The Last Season: A Team in Search of its Soul (2004). This is an odd book, in part just because I read it six years after it was published, when the course of history not only belied its title (Jackson didn’t retire, but rather went on to preside over the Lakers rebuilding process culminating in back to back NBA titles in the last two years) but also its central drama (Jackson and star Kobe Bryant’s relationship, in this book apparently deteriorated beyond repair, seems now to be stronger than ever). In this sense, the book was like a time-capsule, or perhaps more like an old yearbook – “look at Dad’s hair!” “Mom, you actually wore that?!”. If I’d bought and read this in 2004, when it came out, I no doubt would have felt – as I believe most who reviewed the book did at the time – that I was getting an illuminating behind the scenes look at the implosion of one of the more stunning under-achievements in recent NBA history (Jackson’s heavily favored Lakers, featuring four future Hall of Fame players, was dismantled 4 games to 1 in the NBA finals by a Detroit Pistons team with no star). Reading it now, in the wake of subsequent events, it seems like it doesn’t tell me as much about that Lakers team as it does about Phil Jackson’s mind at work.

Certainly, there is something interesting about Jackson’s thinking about particular basketball issues that came up during the season, how to contend with certain match-ups and so forth. But the book is mostly about how Jackson plots a narrative and that, finally, isn’t all that interesting, perhaps even less so on account of the diary form of the book, which somehow rings false. Jackson’s a coach, a very good one, maybe the best ever, and at times we catch a glimpse of what makes that so (although I feel that Sacred Hoops did that better). But he’s not much of a story teller, doesn’t really even seem to like telling stories. And so the kick of this book for me, mostly came from measuring the difference between how things looked then and how they turned out. Fun, and probably worth the minimal time and effort that it takes to get through this one. 


In the Beginning was The Handle

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"Hi! Can Yago play?"

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. I do remember sometimes feeling bad when thinking about basketball, especially in high school, especially junior and sometimes, more rarely, senior year. I might feel bad in a game when the ball was knocked out of my hands, but never, ever when the ball was in my hands. When the ball was in my hands, and even just when I stepped on the court, all was right: I always felt good, confident, hopeful, optimistic, relaxed, and at ease.
Don't Think Too Much

If I wasn’t playing I was looking forward to playing. When I finished playing I felt a bit of sadness, loss. Sometimes I’d feel disappointed in how I’d played. Sometimes I’d feel frustrated about the play of teammates or the breaks that hadn’t gone our way. Sometimes (usually) I’d feel nervous looking ahead to a game. But those feelings never grew to the point where I dreaded playing, or was afraid to play. On the contrary, they were always swaddled in eager anticipation of the next game, the next time the ball would be in my hands. Usually, just lying back in my bed, picking up my ball, move it around in my hands, just feeling it was enough to comfort me.

Near the beginning of his basketball memoir My Losing Season, the novelist Pat Conroy talks about the staccato rhythms of the ball on the floor:

Where did all those games go, the ones I threw myself headlong into as a boy, a rawboned kid who fell in love with the smell and shape of a basketball, who longed for its smooth skin on the nerve endings of my fingers and hands, who lived for the sound of its unmistakable heartbeat, its staccato rhythms, as I bounced it along the pavement throughout the ten thousand days of my boyhood.
I know well the comfort of that feel and of that sound. The sense of absolute easy, effortless control dribbling the basketball. It was on a string, a part of my hand. Casually dribbling, then springing into motion, intensifying the rhythm of the ball, which followed me a like a cheerfully obedient pet. And there was a kind of pleasure I felt and indulged in varying and controlling the rhythm of the ball hitting the pavement on the floor. I can’t consciously keep a beat to save my life, but with the ball in my hands, I was a percussionist -- the ball and pavement my instruments -- and more than once I dribbled around the driveway laying down the track of the bouncing ball over the rhythms of Earth, Wind and Fire blaring out of my father’s boom box (which he’d allowed me to take out to the garage).

I don't know. But I know I developed and refined my handle playing against my older brothers and my father in the driveway, probably starting around the summer I turned 5. They were bigger, stronger, and faster than me. Tony was the best athlete and most skilled, my Dad was the toughest and most physical, and Juan was the one would wear me down psychologically. But the truth is, I couldn’t shoot over any of them and I couldn’t back any of them down, and they were all three aggressive defenders who got up in my chest, suffocating me, and they all three got under my skin. If they took it easy on me on account of our age and size differences, they were masters at disguising it. My game was protecting the ball, and using its motion as I protected it to create an opening, a passage, a line of flight through which I could burst on my way to the hoop. Post moves, jumpers, fade-aways, they came later (in response to different defenders and different defenses).

This primal ability to protect the ball stayed with me and served me well, even years later, in high school. Our coach installed the North Carolina four-corners offense for the first time in my junior year when I joined the varsity as the starting point guard.
It's all about me
It might have been my favorite part of the game. We would lead by a point or two in the final couple of minutes, coach would signal for the four corners, and I would be back in my driveway, dribbling and dribbling, beating my man, dishing off to one of my teammates in the corner, keeping alive an endless possession, the feel of the ball in my hands - an opportunity to be selfish in a system that mostly had me thinking about others.

Those possessions in high school might end with a teammate’s easy lay-up; more often with me shooting free-throws, which I made, especially at the end of games. I loved being at the line at the end of close games with the ball in my hand. But at the beginning, when I was a kid, it was all lay-ups, earned lay-ups crafted in traffic, under duress. They never gave up, even when I’d created my half-step margin, they rode on the back of my hip, the steel bar of a man’s arm across my chest, a sharp knee in my thigh as I pushed past, knowing in my bones and muscles that the path to the hoop was mine, a thing I had made and that I had a right to.

Tony was the best athlete and the most skilled of my first three opponents. And so even as I got my step on him (earned when I was older, granted perhaps by him sometimes when I was younger, either because he wanted to keep it interesting or he wanted to teach me wordlessly), I know it wasn’t done. He might block my shot from behind and so I developed the knowledge of using my body and the hoop to protect the shot, to protect my space.

I learned that I could go under the basket to shoot the reverse, I learned to change my shot in mid-air, I learned to stop on a dime, fake, and when he had committed and gone up or by me I would toss it up softly off the board. So if my handle and my quickness were my first game, finishing strongly and creatively near the hoop were the second, and a corollary of the first, and like my handle forged by the conditions of the games and especially the opponents I had at hand.

(Here is a hoops axiom: You develop what your toughest competition forces you develop, or, You become what you cannot yet beat. It is true at the improvisational level of a single one-on-one play and it is true at the level of teams and organizations from season to season.)

My ball handling skills could also have been built upon the foundation of drills I would only learn later, and they were certainly eventually enhanced by those drills. But the fundamentals and their principled, systematic and orderly, development by rote came much later. First there was this pragmatic academy founded on the chaotic urgency of my small body and my desire to keep up, my will to be grown, and equal at least to the best around me. Somehow, there was no intimidation, no fear. I was anger and determination, I was that ball on a string in the beginning and that crazy, intuitively calculated prayer I would toss up off the glass at the end.


An End to Innocence, or How I Learned to Shoot a Jump Shot

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

My brother, Tony, through my childhood eyes
Tony is nine years older than I, my oldest sibling. As a boy, I idolized him completely. It wasn’t one thing in particular about him that I idolized, it was just his way of being in the world: energetic, confident, attractive, imaginative and spectacular in both success and failure. There’s a lot that I didn’t know about Tony’s life when I was young, a lot about his struggles that I didn’t really discover, let alone understand, until much later.

When Tony graduated high school, I was not quite nine years old. After one year of college (where he studied agronomy, trying to nourish into reality a long held dream of being a farmer), he moved out of my parents house and embarked on the first in a series of jobs in construction. At this point, the daily reality of him begins to fade from my memory, yielding to a simple, vague image of Tony as the embodiment of misunderstood strength, a strength that masked a tenderness and sensitivity that I fantasized he only revealed to me, his baby brother. He called me “Bean.”

But the concrete focal point of my admiration had already been established years before. Tony was a naturally gifted athlete with a special gift for basketball. He played ball as he lived: with an intensity that veered into recklessness, with intelligence, and with grace. He was also played out of position. An even 6 feet tall, with great quickness, strength and leaping ability, not to mention a fine jump shot and good ballhandling skills, he ought to have played guard. But on his high school team, he played center. He excelled, and maybe enjoyed himself. I don’t know. But I’ve often imagined that playing center confined the expression of his skill and athleticism and that somehow that stands for other hard luck constraints he would face in life. But I didn’t know any of that then. I just remember that on Friday or Saturday nights my parents would take me to his games and then for the rest of the weekend I would replay those games by myself in the driveway.

Me, in the driveway
I wasn’t in the driveway trying to do the particular things that I’d seen Tony do, nor was I practicing the things that he had shown me that I might want to learn first. I was just playing basketball by myself. Dribbling that perfectly beautiful orange rubber ball with the mysterious lines whose pattern I could never quite grasp around the driveway and then trying to heave it through the hoop. Just playing basketball. The patch of grass around the basketball pole grew bare so that when it rained mud puddles formed. My dad (or one of my brothers – I don’t remember which) put a couple of small pieces of scrap plywood there so that I could use that space without the ball thudding in a puddle, dead. Someone – I was so ignorant of the many little things that the grown-ups did to make my life easier -- also rigged a couple of extra workshop lights to the gutter of the garage to illuminate the driveway so that I could play after dark. In the winter, we shoveled away the snow, put salt on the patches of ice, and wore gloves. Year round, I played nearly every day.

When I got to middle school I made my school team and began to learn about plays and defenses and teamwork. But in terms of individual skills, I still just did what I had always done in the driveway. I dribbled, passed, and shot the ball, just as I had naturally grown to do them. Even the drills we did in practice to reinforce those skills were pretty much the same as what I did in the driveway, except that there were other people around doing them too. I got along just fine, an above average guard with good ball-handling, passing, and shooting skills and a growing intellectual and intuitive sense of the ways of the game. And I loved the game.

Most kids, when they shoot a basketball, will just push it up toward the basket from around their chest with two hands. They might leave their feet to do so, but it is more that the momentum created by their upper bodies pull their feet up off the ground in a kind of half-hearted, uncontrolled jump after the fact of the shot. And for most kids, including me, if you do it enough times, it starts to work pretty well. But around eighth grade, some of the kids suddenly grow, not just taller, but facial hair and defined muscles. If you happen to be defended by one of these kids when you are trying to push that ball up to the basket from your chest, you are very likely, as they used to say, to wind up with “Spalding” imprinted on your forehead. You’ll get your shot blocked.
This sucks

Enter what is called a “jump shot.” Enter my first teacher. Enter my first lesson in the art and value and pain of discipline, practice, and the cultivation of a second nature. Or, in another words, enter the trying rewards of being banished from The Garden. One day in eighth grade, before our season had started, as we were all just shooting around before practice, or maybe it was after practice, Coach drew me away from the group and toward a side hoop. “Yago,” he said, “I expect you to do more scoring this year. But you are doing to have to develop a jump shot.”

Now, I was a pretty conformist kid, afraid enough of getting in trouble and eager enough to please that I rarely questioned or rebelled against authority. And I didn’t this time either. But I did feel a kind of dread and inner resistance upon hearing Coach’s words. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn to shoot a jump shot, or didn’t want to score more points, or help the team. I think it was mainly that I didn’t want to change what had always worked just fine for me, and then maybe partly also that I was a little afraid that I wouldn’t be able to learn to shoot a jump shot. It’s still that way for me sometimes, for example when someone has read a draft of something I’ve written and tells me they have some suggestions.

But as I say I was a pretty obedient kid and I did respect my Coach. So that day I learned the mechanics of the jump shot. In almost every way, it ran absolutely counter to everything my body and mind had been doing with a basketball for the last nearly ten years. To begin with, there were the physical changes in my shot. Now, I had to shift the ball from my chest to just above my forehead, my right arm cocked at a ninety angle below the ball. Plus I had to push with just my right hand, positioned in the center of the ball, halfway between the bottom and the middle, while my left hand was relegated to a spot alongside the ball, merely guiding its path. And then, of course, I had to jump. But I had to jump, while beginning to push the ball, and releasing it only at the top of my jump. You might be surprised at how hard it is just to execute the motion – let alone putting the ball in the hoop -- if you’ve never done it before. It was incredibly awkward. My first attempts looked much more like the seizures of an epileptic frog than like the graceful jumpers I’d seen my older brother drain hundreds of times.

But the very hardest change was the mental one. Or rather, more precisely, the hardest change was the fact that now there was a mental aspect. For the first time, I had to think about what I was doing with a basketball in my hands. The physical motions of the jump shot certainly were awkward. But I felt absolutely out of my element thinking at the same time, trying to coordinate the rapid fire list of instructions I had internalized with the still unfamiliar and uncomfortable motions of my body. I felt intensely self-conscious and judgmental. Before this I felt myself one with my body and the ball. I dribbled. I passed. I shot. It went in or it didn’t. I don’t even remember thinking I was good or bad or that I’d done something well or poorly.

But a separation now grew within me. My mind knew what it was supposed to do and what my body was supposed to. And my body would gamely, but highly erratically try to follow along. Running alongside this was an annoying mosquito buzz of self-assessment, usually negative and rarely constructively so. This split weighed on me. It introduced a dimension of experience and tragedy into what had been for me a completely innocent and joyful activity. Of course, I didn’t think in these terms at that age. I just felt for the first time in my life ill-at-ease with a basketball in my hands. And so also for the first time in my life I felt unhappiness on a basketball court.

Not only that, but my accuracy plummeted. I could barely hit the court with my new jump shot, let alone put it through the hoop. And I wasn’t even doing it with one of those big, muscly, hairy guys with body odor in my face. Coach encouraged me, told me not to worry about it, that this happens to everyone when they learn a jump shot and that soon, if I kept at it, I’d be more accurate than I had been before and in a greater variety of game situations. But I had almost no faith that this jump shot thing had been a good idea.

Almost no faith. But a lot of some other things that wound up working much the way that faith is supposed to work. Whether it was the desire to please someone I respected, a prideful aversion to looking like an idiot, or some kind of stubbornness within me, I don’t know. I know it wasn’t some sort of Rocky-esque heroic determination to succeed, grounded in a solid belief in what I was doing. Whatever it was, semi-depressed,

This feels weird

I stuck with the jump shot. I shot hundreds a day. I took extra time in the gym after practice. Then after dinner, go out to the garage, retrieve my ball out of the big wooden box my dad had built for our sports equipment, switch on the lights, and shoot jump shots. I no longer just dribbled aimlessly around the driveway, heaving set shots at the hoop. I no longer played out the last seconds of a championship game culminating in my hitting the winning bucket at the buzzer (or, if I missed, in getting fouled and sinking the winning free throws or, if I missed those, getting another chance because my opponent had stepped in the lane prematurely).

I wasn’t just playing any more. I was practicing. Five spots: baseline on either side of the hoop, each wing (a forty-five degree angle from the baseline), and right in front of the hoop. I did what Coach told me to do. I shot from those spots, beginning just five feet or so away. I tried to shoot one hundred shots from each spot. Sometimes I made it to 100. More often, I’d yield to despair and discouragement and pack it in after about fifty, angrily slam the ball into the wooden box and storm upstairs to my room (having sullenly grabbed a handful of chocolate chip cookies), where I’d eat and rage silently in self-pity at the injustice of having to change my shot.

But then, after a few minutes of sulking I would take my other basketball, and just lay there in bed, practicing the arm motions of the shot, practicing my follow through, the ball just rising with backspin in a straight line for a few feet before descending back into the open palm of my right hand. I still don’t know how that works. What made me pick up the ball and do that. It could have been – it could be – so many different things. Just contingencies of the moment I guess.

All the while, I was growing physically stronger and little by little I didn’t have to think so much about the motions. I still practiced constantly. But I made up little games for myself. Make three in a row from a spot and then move to the next spot. Make three in a row from all five spots and then back up a couple of steps and do it again. Then as a treat I would let myself take a few dribbles to one side or the other and then pull up to shoot the jump shot. Or I’d toss the ball, with back spin (so that it would bounce back toward me), step to it and catch it like a pass and then square up to shoot. It felt like an eternity at the time (imagine how time felt to Adam and Eve after they got in trouble with God), but looking it back it probably wasn’t more than a month or so before the bulk of my time spent in the driveway looked a lot like it always had. Sure there was some structured practice at the beginning. But mostly I’d dribble around the driveway, counting down the final seconds in my mind, evade an imaginary defender and then pull up, rising over his helpless teammate, and effortlessly swish a jump shot to win the championship game.

The striking thing to me is that it is still with me. I love to get into pickup games, especially full court. But sometimes, when I can’t find a game, or just because, I take my ball and go to the gym or the playground and I practice my jump shot. I’m not 13 anymore trying to get better to as to impress a coach, or make a team, or get to the next level. I have no hopes of that sort.
Same, but different
I’m 45 and my knees often hurt and there is no next level for me. But I still start on the baseline, five feet away, and take a five jumpers. I still check and correct my mechanics when shots go awry. I still work my way around the perimeter, gradually increasing the distance until I’m working my way around the three point line. A hundred, two hundred, three hundred shots. I don’t really find myself imagining game winning shots anymore. I think I'm probably a better shooter than I ever have been, but I don't think that even matters to me too much. But I find that take a deep, comforting pleasure in the feel of the ball, the sight of the rim above me, the breaking of a sweat, the entering into a rhythm and, above all, the sound of the ball rustling the net. I love this practice that has no purpose other than itself, this practice that has become play.

I only wish that I could play a game of one on one with my brother.


A Three-Pointer for AnarchoHoops: 101 Words

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Who do we need?
Once, watching Sheed and the Pistons with me, Claire indignantly asked, “why do they need refs?!”

From Alexander Wolff’s forward to Pickup Artists: “Some folks – the kind who take any exuberant young talent and try to truss it up in a blazer – sneer at basketball in its freest form. Those people would not have an ally in the inventor of the game. . . . The original Doctor J also said, ‘Basketball is a game that cannot be coached. It can only be played.”

Did William Gates, one of the exuberant young talents in Hoop Dreams need Gene Pingatore?


Capsule Reviews (II): On Davis, Araton, Boyd and Wetzel and Yaeger

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The four books that I'm including in this second "capsule review" all revolve around basketball culture (NBA, NCAA, AAU, and HS) over the last three decades. They also all share the perspective that something changed dramatically during that time. But each configures the basic components of the story -- the game, race, money, the media, players, coaches, organizing institutions, apparel -- in slightly different ways. These books left me with the impression of four different sound boards, where the components I just listed are the "channels." The volume of each channel and the combination of channels made for sometimes strikingly different outputs; so much so that it was hard to believe at times that they were looking at the same game.

Seth Davis, author of When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball (2009), seems like the happiest of our campers. "The Game" of the title refers to the 1979 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship Game, held in Salt Lake City, Utah. That year's title game featured the Michigan State Spartans and their sophomore point guard Earvin "Magic" Johnson and the Indiana State Sycamores, led by their senior forward Larry Bird. It was the highest rated basketball game, of any level, ever televised: nearly one quarter of all television sets in America tuned into it. By the Fall of 1979, Magic and Bird were preparing for their first NBA training camps and the start of careers that would help to transform that league, ESPN would be broadcasting from Bristol, Connecticut, and the NCAA tournament committee was contemplating another expansion of the men's tournament field (to 48). The money involved is perhaps most astonishing. The 1979 tournament grossed $5.2 million in TV revenues. Twenty years later, CBS paid the NCAA $6 billion dollars for an eleven year deal. Last year, the NCAA opted out of the final three years of that earlier deal and inked a new one that will expand the tournament field to 68 teams and net the NCAA $771 million per year for fourteen years.

I've noted before how silly I think it is to trace discernible historical changes back to a single event. And this is no exception. The very fact that 24.1 percent of American television sets were tuned into the 1979 championship game already indicates that some things had already changed before that game: the game was being broadcast live in prime time, the viewing public already knew the players, having had the opportunity to see them each at least once on national television. Among basketball fans, even young ones like myself, broadcasters Al McGuire, Dick Enberg, and Billy Packer were already household names, personalities you loved to hate and celebrities in their own right. So it's not as though this one game transformed basketball. But it was a great story, it does serve as an acceptable symbolic watershed, and since the power brokers in the media seem to think, according to this book, in the oversimplified terms of the single epoch-making event then, in a certain sense, it does also gain some substantive weight.

Davis's story, however, focuses more than anything on the stories behind the two teams. There's a lot of detail here and that very detail, in chronicling the personalities of the players, the conflicts in the locker rooms, and the ups and downs of MSU and ISU's respective seasons, complicates the narrative tapestry that unfolds toward and from the pivotal championship game. This increasing complexity both diminishes and augments the importance of the game itself. After all, I asked myself, reading Davis's account, is the title game more important than Magic's decision to attend MSU (by no means a foregone conclusion)? More important than Bird's to enroll in ISU after having dropped out of Indiana? More important than the coaching changes that occurred at each school? Than the numerous last second shots that kept Indiana State's won-loss record pristine up until their loss to MSU in the championship game? On the other hand, immersed in the myriad contingent factors that happened to converge to produce this particular game and to lend it narrative richness (not to mention with the retrospective knowledge that Magic and Bird would become great rivals and friends in the NBA -- or was that an effect of this game as well?), it's easy to begin to feel, irrational as that may be, that this game was somehow meant to be, the crowning convergence of a number of factors that could have -- that maybe even should have -- gone a different way.

I liked thinking about this, but I feel that this had more to do with me and the basic structure of the "x that changed y" school of sports history. Perhaps Davis knew what he was doing with that and I am undercrediting him. But it didn't feel that way as I read it. The prose tends to be bland, and most of the fascinating social and culture dimensions of the game are barely grazed. Think about it the prevailing attitude among the typical white male fan toward game at that moment: NBA (black, drug infested, overpaid, unpopular) vs. NCAA (white, clean, spirited, popular). Into this come Michigan State University (less glamorous than Michigan, and led by a black star, but one who is charming and charismatic and comes from a solid working class family) and Indiana State (whoever they are, they are not powerhouse Indiana, and they are led by a white star, but who is surly, dirt poor, and from a broken family -- Bird's parents were divorced, his father had killed himself, and Bird himself had fathered a child out of wedlock). The ironic twists and turns of this can get to be dizzying, but Davis barely registers these dimensions.

Finally, a "game that transformed basketball", and featured two of the greatest players who ever played, deserves a more poetic treatment than it gets here. No doubt my own memories of the beauty and enchantment of that game are intensified by the fact that I was not yet 14 at the time. Still, the miraculous perfection, both fragile and inevitable, of a Magic to Special K (Greg Kelser, Spartans forward) alley-oop jam or of Bird's effortless, economical motion on impossibly long range jumpers; both deserve more "french pastry" -- as Al McGuire used to refer to decorative embellishment -- than Davis gives it. Davis's writing reminded me, most of all, of very good young adult sports fiction.

The cover of the book is mesmerizing to me, mimicking a faded handbill publicizing the game. The image is brilliant, giving the multiple sense of a game that perhaps, then, still needed publicizing and in a media (the handbill) that has long-since been rendered irrelevant, perhaps by the very forces that game set in motion, or, at least, accelerated. The image also effectively activates a perfect nostalgia in the sense that it makes me fondly remember something that never happened. And I guess, ultimately, my disappointment stems not from my intellectual critique of the over-simplified history, but from the fact that, for me, this game did transform basketball and I wanted the book that told its story to rise -- like a Magic alley-oop pass, like a Bird long jumper -- to assume the full social, cultural, and athletic dimensions of that memory. It didn't.

Whether or not this one game was responsible, it is clear that the game and its culture, as described in the other books I've recently read, has indeed undergone a transformation since 1979. In a certain sense, these books pick up where Davis leaves off. In Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America's Youth (2000), journalists Dan Wetzel and Don Yaeger reveal the yucky crap stuck to the soles of my beloved Air Jordans. This is not primarily the story of exploited third world labor, but rather of the weird culture of those who comb America's playgrounds and schools in search of the next Michael Jordan. In the wake of the massive increase in their sales (and the expansion of the sports apparel market more generally) thanks first of all to Michael Jordan, Nike sparked a kind of advanced competition among shoe manufacturers to identify, equip, and secure the future services of young players who might one day rise to superstardom in the NBA and, like Mike, be skillful pitchmen with crossover appeal. In the course of this competition, "stage" parents, ambitious high school, college, and AAU coaches, sychopantic adult groupies who worship teenage boys, pedophiles, drug dealers, and, of course, the barely adolescent young phenoms themselves all have a part to play.

Wetzel and Yaeger provide excellent reporting, good storytelling, and a clear sense of moral outrage. As the title suggests, this for them is primarily the story of multinational corporations obsessed with adding a dollar to the profit margin and more than willing to ignore the harm they do to the pure souls of America's youth in the process. In this respect, at first glance, they give me sort of the same feeling as watching Michael Moore's Roger and Me: namely, isn't corporate greed redundant? Or, in other words, is this really shocking to you? And it even resonates oddly with nostalgic tales about the old days in the NBA. We might remember, then, team play and hard nosed competition for the love of the game and clean-cut, fair, profit-taking in business as both signs of how things were better back in the day.

That's easy to ridicule, but the devil of that story really is in the details. And as I read the numerous particular stories that Wetzel and Yaeger track down and then weave into this overall narrative of unfettered greed and corruption, I find myself persuaded. For each of the few hundred players that actually make it into the NBA and get rich playing ball, there are many, many more who are drawn into a web that distorts their lives and leaves them with an even more restricted set of opportunities than the meager set they were probably born with. This web, the book makes clear, may sometimes expoit the fantasies and desperation of the kids and their families, but it is unmistakably designed by shoe company executives and spun by a decidedly unsavory and selfish cast of hangers-on. The whole thing is then fueled by a vortex of marketing and consumption facilitated by a proliferation of media exposure.

For Wetzel and Yaeger, the game itself has been a main casualty of the shoe wars, to wit:
"The quality of play the NBA is putting out each night is not up to the aesthetic levels of the past few decades. The level of boorish player behavior, however, is at a record high. The league's newest generation of players, the ones weaned on a steady diet of free gear and AAU ball, is generally regarded as pushing the game to new depths. The worst are vocal defenders of their individual rights. They are shocked when informed marijuana is illegal, hustle is demanded, off season workouts are expected. They talk on the cell phones a lot. They don't dive on the floor very often."
Maybe. Though as I've absorbing massive amounts of basketball narrative in recent months, I'm amazed at how widespread is the feeling, in each generation, that the game is worse than it used to be, and worse in a strange moral sense of the word. In their final chapter, Wetzel and Yaeger make a stab at transforming the growing sense of sad helplessness their own narrative has generated into a call to action. But unfortunately, that call can only, I think because of the moralizing overarching structure of the book, be a Peter Parkeresque insistence that with great power (or, they put it, "rights") come responsibilities. Maybe. But even if we subscribe to that same principle, the call itself forgets the larger social and cultural forces that keep that moral from sticking, forces that the authors themselves have painstakingly exposed.

The last two books offer two distinct takes on what Wetzel and Yaeger see as the injury to the game. Harvey Araton seems to share that sense of the NBA as having experienced a recent dip in beauty and moral quality, though he sees hope in the infusion of international players. Meanwhile, Todd Boyd takes issue with the very characterization of the NBA's recent past as a distortion fueled by cultural misunderstanding and racial fear and resentment.

In Crashing the Borders: How Basketball Won the World and Lost Its Soul at Home (2005), Araton, a New York Times columnist, tells the history of the NBA from around the time of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics to the November 2004 brawl between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers, and between the Pacers and the Pistons' fans. The arc of that history, for Araton, is obviously a fall from grace (the losing of its soul). However, Araton also seems to see hope for the game in that the very success it enjoyed abroad (as a result of the 1992 Barcelona dream team's popularity) generated an influx of international players who, as Araton sees it, are revitalizing the game and deprioritizing some of those dimensions of the game (one-on-one play, the slam dunk) that Araton feels have hurt it. I'd say that this is just one more middle-aged white man's lament for the loss of the game of his boyhood when the game itself was more horizontal and the players, regardless of race, more -- as they say today -- "relatable".

But I must give Araton some credit here. While I do feel that nostalgia is the overarching narrative governor in this book, he is more than capable of airing a different, and critical perspective on that way of telling the story, and he is able to accommodate and articulate his own mixed feelings about the game today. And, Araton's sensibilities are capacious enough to deal with the social and political forces running through the game. Above all, I appreciate Araton's willingness to air both this ambivalence and honest uncertainty about how to move forward. This allows me to feel included in the conversation as a conversation (as opposed to just a PTI style sports-guys-shouting dialogue of the deaf).

Professor Todd Boyd, of USC, offers a different take on all this NBA and NCAA history in Young, Black, Rich, & Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion, and the Transformation of American Culture (2003). Though, frankly, I found this book disappointing, frustrating, and hard to get through, I also found it a refreshing alternative to the more restricted analytical scope of mainstream journalistic accounts and I'm glad it exists. Boyd's book positions itself as history with a thesis, as all history must necessarily be. In this case, the history is of the NBA since the 1970s and the thesis is that as the league's player pool grew to be predominantly black, NBA culture intertwined with other forms of black popular culture (primarily hip hop) characterized by an unapologetic individualism and that white owners and white fans find this racialized cultural amalgam highly threatening. I don't really disagree with this. In fact, I find it, particularly in light of the flap over Lebron using the "R-word", refreshing and valuable. Boyd's periodization of the NBA in relation to music history is also provocative and provides food for thought, though I wish that he had deepened it to include analysis of musical structures themselves (rather than restricting himself to the occasional reference to lyrics or marketing styles). I found it interesting to think about the relationships and transitions between Oscar Robertson and Motown or between Magic Johnson and Michael Jackson; as well as Boyd's more general reflections on the politics of relating basketball to various musical genres such as jazz, classical, funk, or hip hop.

At the same time, I found the structure and style of Boyd's writing confusing and, at times, contradictory and alienating. I have no issues with his desire to marry the "formal and the vernacular" as he puts it. On the contrary, I applaud his intention and admire his skill in doing so. But the book also suffers from flaws that I don't think stem from this particular stylistic strategy: unnecessary repetition that makes the book sometimes feel like a series of essays pretending to be a book, unhelpful oversimplification that makes even a sympathetic reader like me take issue, and the presentation of conjecture (however warranted) as fact. I'm glad this book was written, because the topic is both interesting and important to me. But because the topic is both interesting and important to me, I wish it had been written with more care and subtlety and with more desire to persuade a broader audience.


Thinking With And: 101 Words

Friday, October 1, 2010

Introducing a new feature. My friend Jason encourages me, like John Wooden but in his own words to "be quick but don't hurry." In the spirit all of who create within the constraints of arbitrary rules (and honoring and surpassing Wilt): 101 words, no more no less.

...and it could be like this

I’ve lost patience.

Couldn't Lebron's Decision Spectacle (backlash included) be complex? Couldn't Lebron be narcissistic AND immature AND want to play with friends AND want a championship AND feel unsure AND want publicity AND want money? AND couldn't we feel annoyed AND jealous AND value loyalty AND stability? AND couldn't white men secretly resent wealthy, young, independent black men?

Couldn't this be about race AND class AND tribe AND...?


You can't guard me

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How do you get to be a trash talker? What is that all about anyway? Why do I love it? And, since I love it, why can’t I seem to do it? I don’t mean, why am I incapable of executing trash talk. I mean, why am I unwilling to talk smack? What does it mean to me that stops me short?

A couple of weeks ago, on one of my recent commuting trips from St. Louis to Ann Arbor, where my job is, I went to the North Campus Recreation Building to try to run some pick-up ball. It took a little doing, since faculty members at the University of Michigan don’t get into the campus recreational facilities for nothing, but I finally got some cash, paid my $10 for a courtesy day pass, checked out a ball, and made my way to the gym.

There are two courts at the NCRB. On one there was a full court game going with a line several players deep for next game. I went across the gym to the other court and saw that one half had a volleyball game going and the other a half-court four on four game with only a couple of guys standing around on the sidelines. I’d have preferred a full court run, but was kind of tight for time so I approached one of the young guys who was holding a ball near the baseline and watching the half-court action. He was a lanky kid, around 6-1. I asked him if he had next, he nodded silently, and I asked if I could run with him. He nodded again, again silently. Then he wandered around to the sideline and asked another guy – short and stocky – if he wanted to play with us as well. When the game finally ended, we picked up another 6 footer, also lanky, who had shown some outside shooting ability for the losing team.

While the winning team filed over to the water fountain, my new teammates and I shot around a little bit. I like to know the names of my teammates. It helps with communication on defense and on offense, and, I believe, facilitates building a little chemistry, even in a half-court pick up game. I also think it makes me feel a little less inhibited during the game. The winners came back and we started our game, up to 12, straight up, by 1s and 2s (that means that shots from behind the three point line count as 2 points and everything else counts as 1 point and that the first team to 12 wins without having to win by 2 points).

We won that game, Charles, Leon, Andy, and myself, and then we won five more after that before I had to get going and so we retired, undefeated. I had a great work out, played pretty well, and enjoyed the wins, some of which involved exciting rallies in which we banded together to lock down on defense and worked patiently to get higher percentage shots on offense.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel a little empty, a little disconnected from the action. Though we were all – my teammates and our opponents -- clearly working hard to win games, something was missing. The only sounds were the pounding of the ball, the squeaks of their sneakers on the polished wood floor, and the occasionally correctly called out “pick right!”, “Switch!” or “Shot!” and then the obediently mumbled “good game” after the run ended. They were competent, business-like and joyless. I thought about my recent experiences playing on the outdoor courts at Heman Park in St. Louis, and how joyful and expansive I feel after every run, even when my team loses so that we don’t get to hold court like my team did in Ann Arbor.

I’m guessing that most people reading this know that trash talk, also known as talking smack or smack talk (and probably by a bunch of other names that I don’t know), involves a running commentary on the action while a game is underway. It usually takes the form of boasting about your own talent, declaring the success of the play you are about to execute, or insulting your opponents abilities, or a combination of all of these. Sometimes it sounds serious and intense, though in my experience it’s mostly humorous.

At Heman Park, it seems to me, everyone talks trash, everyone but me. From the prepubescent 8th grader, Mook, who is talented but still shoots a push shot from his chest to the 6-4 “old school” guy, whose name I don’t know, but who dominated play the couple of times he showed up to play, trash gets talked. Even Bob, a 64 year-old white dude with knee braces, a backward baseball cap, and wrap around sunglasses. Bob can’t even walk without visible effort, but he talks trash. Just like Mook, just like Old School.

One player, about 6-3 and in his late 20s, I would guess, and who looks like Dwyane Wade, pulls the ball out to the three point line, executes a series of complex stationary cross-over and between-the-legs dribbles, all the while repeating “Class is in session. Hoopin’ 101.” Then, he laughs, and just before either flying past his defender or draining the three ball, asks “You ready for school?” and then, after the play, “Go home! You ain’t ready for school!”

My favorite is probably Vic, the nearly toothless drunk who plays in street clothes and boots and one time not only won our game of “buckets” (the St. Louis version of “21” – actually played to 32); but then went on to lead our four to two victories before leaving us with this vintage piece of smack for our opponents – “Y’all can’t guard me and I’m drunk. I’m’a come back sober and y’all really see something.” Everyone broke out laughing and a bystander came back with “If you were sober you couldn’t even find your way here.”

I loved this exchange as I love all the trash talk on the courts at Heman. It’s an integral part of my enjoyment of the game. So, given the choice, I’ll take the game with the good trash talkers. The question is why doesn’t it come out of me? By the time I was in high school I was regularly playing on playgrounds in Madison where trash talk was the rule of the day, so it’s not as though this is some unfamiliar cultural form or a court protocol that’s foreign to me. On the contrary, I immediately relax when I hear it, as though I were returning to my native land after a long stay abroad.

I feel like I have the requisite qualities for talking trash. I’m competitive. I love dominating as much as the next guy. I have no problem telling guys where to go on offense or defense, even guys I don’t know, or that are individually more talented than I am. I do tend to be a little shy socially at the park or gym, but that just seems to beg the question of why that is so and why my shyness doesn’t prevent me from asserting myself in other ways on the floor. So, like with anything else I find puzzling about my own behavior I asked my therapist about this (yeah, I know). Doc did the therapist thing and threw the question back at me. In fact, I knew this would happen, like I know what would happen if I took the ball into the paint on Ben Wallace. “Let’s explore this. What comes to mind for you?”

“Larry Bird.” I could’ve said Michael Jordan or Reggie Miller or Kevin Garnett. Or, my favorite trash talker, because he looks like he’s having so much fun doing it: Rasheed Wallace. But at the time I had been reading Bird and Magic Johnson’s book about when the league was theirs. One of the things that stood out to me in that account – more as a reminder of a fact I’d forgotten than as something new – was Bird’s legendary trash talking. The usual stories were there, the ones I remember from his playing days. How on a Christmas game he told Chuck “The Rifleman” Person (who had previously made some comment about “The Rifleman going Bird hunting”) that he, Bird, had a present for him. Then he proceeded to launch a three right in front of Person on the Pacers bench while saying “Merry Fucking Christmas”, just before the ball dropped through. Or the time he pointed out to Xavier McDaniel the spot on the floor from where he would hit the game winning shot. Then went to that spot, got the ball, and hit the game winner over McDaniel.

So I tell my therapist about this and he sees me smiling and animated as I tell the stories and just voices this observation, asking me why I think I’m drawn to that story. My first stab is the obvious. “It’s the confidence. I mean, I feel pretty confident when I’m playing basketball and I know my limitations so I’m not too often in a position where I’m trying to do something that’s not going to work. But that just seems like a crazy level of confidence,” I say. Then I trail off, unconvinced and feeling that by-now familiar feeling that there are more thoughts and more feelings. I’m observing them in my head or wherever they are, like a dark opening into a darker forest, and briefly but deliberately mulling over whether I feel like going there, like starting down that path that I know is going to lead to something surprising, something that is closer to the bone.

This time I do. I continue, “It’s not just the confidence. I have that when I play. It’s the verbal aggressiveness. It’s one thing to be confident, it’s another thing to explicitly assert your superiority by telling your opponent what you are going to before or while you are doing it, and then doing it anyway, showing up that they are powerless to stop you so superior are you.” Now, let me just acknowledge that I’m rarely in the position of superiority (the need to acknowledge that is like a vacuum sucking the trash-talk energy right out of me), but that fact doesn't stop most of the players at Heman from talking trash.

Please like me (or at least don't be mad at me)
The more relevant explanation is that I’m too concerned with other people’s feelings, too worried that too much feeling, too much self-expression, too much me will cause problems for them. So I’m a pleaser (interestingly, though Magic could talk trash, he rarely did, and close teammates described him as a pleaser too). This concern with other people’s perceptions becomes a kind of abyss for me when it comes to trash talking. A corollary avenue of exploration would be my almost compulsive need to say “My bad” on the court. My guy scores, no matter how tough the shot, no matter how good my defense, I will say “My bad” to my teammates (and “Tough shot” to the opponent). Pathetic.

First off, there’s just the obvious worry that I won’t deliver on the promise of whatever smack I throw out there. I see myself falling away on a baseline jumper – “Money!” – and then watch in horror as the ball barely grazes the bottom of the net. Then, there’s an additional worry that my trash talk will be outdated or in some other way idiomatically clumsy or inappropriate. But most of all, I’m worried that the other guy will be mad at me, won’t like me anymore.

What’s interesting to me about this is that the first two worries, which really aren’t seriously inhibiting concerns of mine, are the more likely outcomes in reality. On the other hand, my third concern, which I think is what really holds me back, is the least likely, particularly in a neighborhood game like the ones at Heman park where I know most of the guys by their first name and they know me. Maybe I’m unrealistically terrified in proportion as I am desperately grateful for the sense of inclusion that playing at Heman gives me.

That’s probably true. But it’s also true that after throwing all this out there for my therapist, as a kind of afterthought, I added “Larry Bird must have been filled with rage.” Awkward moment. I realize I have never read or heard that about Larry Bird. I feel as though my psyche just farted. Loud. I realize I’m not talking about Bird anymore. I’m talking about myself. It’s not just asserting myself, not just worrying about doing something awkwardly, it’s about expressing something particular that I feel: my rage. And it’s made all the more tempting because trash talk on a city playground is an absolutely acceptable form of expression and all the more alarming because I certainly have no reason to be angry with my opponent at Heman Park. That’s just what scares me about rage, that it will be out of off target, out of proportion, and out of control.

My fear, my wish

I think about the only basketball situation in which I was ever really comfortable talking trash. It was when I used to play one on one with my older brother, Juan. Juan is 8 years older than me, the second in our family. Our oldest brother was probably the best athlete in the family and Juan never played competitively. But he was no slouch. He was about four inches taller and about 25 or 30 pounds heavier than me. He had a pretty good jump shot from the wings, released from behind his head which made it hard to block, and he was (having also played against my dad) physical and aggressive on defense and on the boards. As I got older, and spent more and more time playing ball and as Juan got older and spent less and less time playing ball, I began to beat him more regularly. And I started talking trash to him.

Did I not care what Juan thought of me? Was I so sure of his affection for me that I could risk giving free rein to these scandalously excessive self-expressions? Maybe. But Juan, in addition to his accurate over the head jump shot, has a wickedly incisive, dry sense of humor. In other words, he started it (or at least that’s how I remember it). He might call me too weak, or too small, or tell me I didn’t have the heart to really d him up. And that would make me angry and in my anger I would play harder and better and then, especially by the time I was around 18 or 19, I would want to humiliate him, not just by beating him, but by telling him I was beating him and how I was beating him and making it evident that there was nothing he could do to stop it.

I think of how many of my formative basketball experiences in that driveway in Madison were filled with rage. I don’t know why (it’s typical of me to think that there had to be some reason, to try to domesticate and justify and rationalize rage). I just know that as I contended with my father’s physical play, or my brother Juan’s teasing, or my oldest brother Tony’s effortless, unreachable superiority over me – as I contended with the feeling of being too damn small, smaller than everyone else, the rage would grow in me. I see my small body going harder, faster, digging in on defense, seeking rather than trying to avoid contact, unafraid of pain.

I see the bemused expression on my brothers’ faces as I hurl my angry body around the court, and I get angrier and I’m determined that when I grow, when I finally, grow, I will leave them standing still, a blur on my way to the hoop. “You can’t guard me.” I will swat the ball back in their faces, then give it to them to try again, and then swat it again. “Get that weak shit outta here.” And then, when it’s game point, I will spot up from way in the corner, 25 feet away from the hoop and when they dare me to shoot it, I will look them in the eye, and then as I effortlessly shoot my jumper I will say “Cash.” Of course, the ball will go in, and they will finally collapse like the deactivated droids in The Phantom Menace, left powerless and humiliated by the recognition that they can’t stop me.

(Sorry. My bad.)


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