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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.)


The Voices of My Father

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sometimes it felt like this too
What is my father’s voice? What does it sound and feel like? What does it say? What difference does it make? In a recent post, I told part of that story, recalling how radio broadcasts would help me mute the sound of his voice as he and my mother argued and also, how, at a metaphorical level, my father desires and voice loomed as large in my childhood perceptions as Wilt Chamberlain in the Philadelphia Warriors offense. But in fishing out the memories of those feelings, I’ve also snagged some others, other memories, other stories, other feelings. They don't all literally involve his voice, but the most important one does.

My dad was one of my earliest opponents on the basketball court (my two older brothers and, on occasion my sister or her boyfriend, were the others). My father loved to watch basketball, and he was a quick and intelligent student of the game’s more subtle dynamics, but, a Spanish immigrant to the United States, he was neither experienced nor skilled as a player. Moreover, around the time I was 8 or 9, he suffered a serious back injury that made it impossible for him to run and jump. Most of my memories of playing against my dad come from that time, when he was grounded, but still willing – somehow – to come out and play with me.

What a complex classroom in basketball and in life those contests would be. I say he was inexperienced, unskilled, and hampered by injury. But my father, as I recall his game, possessed a fair bit of natural athletic ability. I don’t remember him jumping, but I imagine he had pretty good hops in his day. Around 5-9 with a medium build, he was quick with wiry strong muscles in his legs and arms.

And he was a very determined competitor, which I appreciated because playing ball at that time was for me most of all about playing against grown-ups and thereby feeling like less of the family baby and I couldn’t tolerate the idea that someone was going easy on me. I’m aware now that the grown ups were 1) probably going easy on me to some degree and 2) protecting me from the knowledge of that. But the memory I have of my experience of those games is of an all-out war of bodies and minds.

Offensively, my dad had a somewhat limited repertoire. He had a fairly accurate one-handed set shot, given the time to set it up. He had a pretty quick first step to the basket, but for the most part he needed to look at the ball to dribble and so that slowed his drives to the hoop. He also had a methodical way of backing in toward the basket, keeping his dribble alive, and then, finally close enough, a kind of quick turn-around toss, half shot, half hook, off the backboard. That was tough for me to stop because he was bigger and stronger and I remember still feeling the dread of the inevitable as I desperately dug in, trying to hold my ground.

But what I remember most viscerally is his suffocating style of defense. My dad gave new meaning to the phrase man-up. I see him feet wide apart, crouched low, back ramrod straight, my dad played torso to torso defense. He got as close as he possibly could without touching, his hands stretched to the side or straight up in the air depending on whether I was shooting. Most vividly in my memory, as I begin to dribble (because of course I can’t get a shot off over him when he’s so close with his hands up – I am probably somewhere around 5-1 or 5-2 or so at the time), his arms begin to come together, a kind of stiff-armed hug so that as I continue to press my drive around him I feel like I’m trying to go through a turnstile the wrong way: there’s a little play, but I’m not getting through that way. I imagine that we acknowledged fouls in those games, but I don’t actually remember calling them or having them called on me at all.

Kinda like my dad playing defense

I do remember the combination of frustration and determination that his intense defense used to provoke in me, as well as the sense of elation and triumph I would feel when I scored. Sometimes I felt so beaten and trapped that I wanted to cry in frustration and complaint. Sometimes, I’m sure, I did (I cried easily as a boy). But sometimes, I found that my father’s will to stop me seemed to infect me in transmuted form and I felt an unshakeable will not to give up until I got past him. Then, no matter how many times I slammed into that turnstile, I’d backtrack my dribble, try a still emerging cross-over or fake, and try to get around him on the other side, or I’d try a wider path to the hoop, trying just to elude his reach entirely. Five, six, ten times this might happen and more than anything what stays with me is the sense that I lost myself, in a way that felt good, in that tiny, intense battle for a swath of poured concrete.

On those times I made it, I felt elated, proud, relieved, but also a little anxious – I couldn’t tell what my dad felt and that worried me: was he proud? Hurt? Angry? All I felt that I could be sure of was that he was determined and serious. But probably I was wrong even about that. Maybe all he was doing was trying to endure the pain caused by the herniated disk in his back. Maybe he was thinking about something else entirely. Yet it never felt that way. It felt like he was all there, and all about stopping me by hook or by crook, and that there was something personal at stake in it for both of us.

Maybe sometimes this was confusing for me, or unsettling, but most of all I remember those games against my dad as strengthening, and building my confidence, not to mention certain skills and qualities in my game that I still notice today in pick-up games, when I am being guarded by a stronger, bigger, more physical player. I still usually respond by going to the basket with extra determination, I still do my best to bang underneath and to hold my ground when he tries to post me up. And so, above all, I feel the surging and energizing desire to win – more, to vanquish. And if I do, when I do, I feel as much that it has to do with will, with wanting it more, and I think of my dad, and feel sure that nobody but him could have instilled that in me.

I’m reminded a little of Dave Hickey’s excellent essay “The Heresy of Zone Defense” in the book Air Guitar, his collection of essays in art criticism. Hickey opens this way, with a description of this play:

Julius [Erving] takes the ball in one hand and elevates, leaves the floor. Kareem [Jabbar] goes up to block his path, arms above his head. Julius ducks, passes under Kareem’s outside arm and then under the backboard. He looks like he’s flying out of bounds. But no! Somehow, Erving turns his body in the air, reaches back under the backboard from behind, and lays the ball up into the basket from the left side.
Hickey thinks about the joy the play elicits, still today, watching it in replay and decides that the perfection of the play is as much Kareem’s doing as Dr. J’s. Kareem’s perfect defense elicited Dr. J’s perfect response. That’s how I think of my dad, now, as my Kareem: as the one whose perfect intensity and, ultimately, respect for me as his opponent, elicited from me my best, not only a set of technical skills, but also endurance and determination, not to mention the ability to transform feelings of frustration and anger into a combination of focused desire and intelligent calculation on the floor.

But my dad was more than my opponent. For once I started playing competitively, he was also my biggest, most conscientious, and most enthusiastic and vocal fan. I started playing soccer in competitive leagues when I was around 5 or 6 and played every season through my senior in high school. I started playing competitive basketball in 6th grade and, likewise, played all the way through high school. I'm sure he must have missed a game or two because I know he was traveling regularly during part of that time. But I don't remember him ever missing a single game.

Always he was there, with my mother, a fixture among the sparse crowd of parents and friends on the sidelines of a soccer game, or up about five or six rows behind our bench in our more crowded basketball games, home and away. He had a terribly painful bad back. I don't know if it really hurt him to sit in the pull-out wooden bleachers, or to stand for the duration of a soccer game. I always imagined that it must, that this why he paced the sidelines. But if it did, he never told me about it, never complained to me about that.

What’s more, and I've never heard of any other dad doing this, he kept track of the statistics at my basketball games all the way from 6th grade through high school. He used a small yellow steno pad and one of the ever-present fine-point pens from his shirt pocket. And on that, in neatly labeled colums, he recorded my field goals attempts, field goals, free throw attempts, free throws, assists, steals, turnovers, rebounds, fouls, and points. I believe that when I joined the high school varsity, he started doing this for the whole team as well, at least in my senior year.

My dad never used these statistics as the basis to criticize me or my teammates. I don’t remember him actually ever even making any neutral observations about the statistics he eventually came to enter into a database and to print from his new personal computer in the early 1980s. My dad was a scientist, a very capable scientist, with a brilliant statistical mind, and love of numbers. Though I never had his aptitude, I did love the mathematical games and tricks he shared with me when I was a boy, and I did love to pore over sports statistics. I even, I am a little embarrassed to say, kept track of the statistics of the different players I would imagine myself to be incarnating in one-on-one games against my friend Robb (I kept track, consulting him of course, of his “players” statistics too). All of this to say that I think what my dad was doing there was connecting more deeply to my life. It was enough that he was always there at the games, no matter what else might be going on. But he also joined one of his abilities and passions to one of mine and in so doing enhanced and augmented the space we shared.

Of all these memories, though, of competing with my dad, of poring over statistics with him, the one that most sticks out in my mind is the sound of his voice – deep, hoarse, slightly accented – bellowing over the sound of my coaches and the hundreds of fans at one of our basketball games: “Go Yago! Goooooo Yago!!!!” My friends sometimes made a little fun of me for that and I felt simultaneously embarrassed and annoyed with them and, very secretly, grateful to my dad for being the kind of dad-fan who yells for and not at his kid. Not all my friends’ dads were like that. Some of them never came to games. Others came but were quiet supporters. Others came and berated their sons publicly during and after each game. My dad came, kept stats, and shouted “Go Yago!!!!” (Maybe he also laid into the refs a little bit.)

It’s not just that he yelled “Go Yago!!!”, it’s that in that Go Yago he expressed all the pride and love and joy he drew not only from my accomplishments but from my participation. My dad let me know that he was proud of me when I won an award, or made all my free throws, or had a high assist-turnover ratio. But he also let me know, just as frequently, that he was proud of me and loved just watching me run down the floor. He just loved to watch me run. I don’t even know if it was the running per se. I dimly feel that my running on the court (or on the soccer field) really just stands for my being. And, in that way, that in loving my running my father was expressing his love for me, just as I was, just because I was. So “Go Yago” – the name of my basketball blog – is most deeply that: a calling forth of the love and acceptance of my father for me, not because I accomplish a particular thing or because I do it well, but just because I am and my being brings him joy.


Capsule Reviews (I): On Robertson, McPhee, and Bird and Magic

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Because reading has been almost as huge a part of my life as basketball, I've wanted to include in the blog a regular feature on the books I've been reading. Nothing profound, just some quick impressions.  These will appear regularly in the box on the left hand side of the blog.  But I'll also collect these from time to time as "Capsule Reviews" blogposts.  Here then is the first of these, my brief thoughts on the last three books I've read: Oscar Robertson's 2003 autobiography, The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game; Larry Bird and Magic Johnson's 2009 recollection (written with Jackie McCullan) of their intertwined NBA careers, When the Game Was Ours, and John McPhee's classic 1965 profile of Bill Bradley.  At the end of each review, I'll rate each book on a scale of one (forced my way through it) to five (would read it again and again) basketballs.

Oscar Robertson, The Big "O": My Life, My Times, My Game (2003) very worthwhile read. Robertson structures his book chronologically, recalling his early childhood in rural Tennessee, his youth and adolescence in Indianapolis, college years at the University of Cincinnati, and pro career in Cincinnati and then in Milwaukee.  Robertson is skilled and interesting in communicating how his game looked and felt from the inside and how it played out on the floor in a number of exciting descriptions of particular games and seasons  But what most moves me in his writing is the honesty and precision with which he weaves emotional, cultural, and social observation into his account of a basketball life.   He emerges as a full human being who also happens to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time.  He is particularly intelligent and refreshingly incisive on the forms of racism he encountered, both on and off the court, and on the economics of pro ball (in which he played a major role as head of the NBA player's union). Finally he is splendidly curmudgeonly on today's NBA, and delightfully ungenerous in comparing contemporary and recent stars with those of his own times.

John McPhee, A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton (1965), is a very elegantly written profile of Bill Bradley, former US Senator and New York Knick star, during his college years at Princeton. McPhee, successfully aiming at a general audience who might never have seen or read about a basketball game before, does a wonderful job of breaking down the nuts and bolts of Bradley's individual game and of integrating that into a narrative of his Princeton teams' fortunes in the NCAAs. Bradley was one of the greatest, for sure, but McPhee's intelligent and poetic hagiography unfortunately departs from the author's uncharitable description of his growing aversion to the game (over the course of the 50s):

the game seemed to me to have lost its balance, as players became taller and more powerful, and scores increased...it impressed me as a glut of scoring, with few patterns of attack and almost no defense any more....Moreover, it attracted exhibitionists who seemed to be more intent on amazing a crowd with aimless prestidigitation than with advancing their team by giving a sound performance. 
This seems like an odd characterization of the game in an era whose greatest stars included Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, and Jerry West. It's also striking in how it prefigures the sort of recurring nostalgic complaint that subsequent generations of writers (including Bird and Johnson, in their book below) would lodge against the current version of the game right up to the present day.

Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson, When the Game Was Ours (2009) a light and entertaining read, well plotted, if not very profound or stylistically elegant. Since I was in 8th grade when they first met in the 1979 NCAA championship game, this was enjoyable opportunity to revisit some of the memorable games they played during my high school and college years. Excellent stuff on Bird's legendary trash talking. For younger readers, this would be a good introduction to NBA history in the pre-Jordan era. Of course NBA history goes back much farther, but these guys are an entertaining hinge point between Jordan and Old School. You see a real love for and commitment to the game in both these players. Also, the accounts of Magic's battle with HIV, and of Magic's and Bird's respective retirements I found quite moving.



Friday, September 17, 2010

Why are we -- I mean the sports media in this country -- so head over heels in love with the American basketball team that just won the FIBA World Basketball Championships last week?  I probably should have been doing my day job, preparing for my first class on Tuesday morning. But, as I sipped my automatic machine made latte on the 2nd floor balcony of the Red Roof Inn, the four story tower of the Hampton Inn looming across the parking lot, I felt the irresistible lure of setting down some thoughts on this infatuation. I'm not thinking of the action on the court itself so much as the storyline -- the myth -- that has been repeated ad nauseum in the American media.  I encountered one of the many instances of this while reading Mike Lopresti's recent column in USA Today over my complimentary Hot Breakfast at the Big Boy adjacent to my digs at the Red Roof.    It's a beautiful life.

Here, for those who didn't follow the tournament, are the facts:  the US won this year's FIBA World Championships and I'm glad.   None of the players that took the gold medal in Beijing in 2008 agreed to play for Team USA in the World Championships, with the result that Jerry Colangelo, who runs the USA Basketball program and Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski, assembled their roster in the two months prior to the tournament from a different, less acclaimed pool of NBA players.  The team played tough defense and ran the ball well and Kevin Durant had a terrific tournament.   I feel glad for Durant because he seems like a good guy and a good ball player; I feel glad that the team won, played well and avoided any kind of "Ugly American" incident on the court or off.  And that's about the extent of my feeling about what actually happened.  But, as I said, this is not so much a story about what actually happened or about my feelings about what happened, so much as a story about the story that has been circulating about what happened and my feelings about that.

That story inevitably begins with a backstory.  It may take different, sometimes very compressed forms for different writers, but in its main lines it goes something like this (which I'm blocking off as though it were a direct quotation to indicate that I'm paraphrasing):

Once upon a time, the US dominated international play fielding teams of the best college players and then, when the rules changes, with a series of Dream Teams of the very best American NBA players.  But there was a snake in the garden.  To begin with, the NBA's own aggressive globalization efforts began to pay off in the form of vastly improved play from international players in a number of foreign countries: Spain, Argentina, the Balkans, and France.   Then, at the same time, selfish and immature US superstars stopped considering it a priority to represent their country in international competition.  Finally, even those players that did agree to play for Team USA were at a disadvantage because 1) they weren't used to playing with another (unlike other national teams whose players had, in some cases, been playing with one another since their teen years); 2) they were selected for individual greatness and not in terms of the quality of the overall team they would combine to form; 3) they weren't coached with an eye toward the style and unique rules of international competition.  The result:  a dark period of USA Basketball:  a third place finish in the 1998 and 2006 FIBA Worlds,  a sixth place finish in the 2002 FIBA Worlds (held in Indianapolis no less), a third place finish in the 2004 Athens Olympics.  Even a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics was judged a sign of demise since several games were won by margins too narrow for comfort.   Finally, the sun begins to shine through these dissipating clouds when USA basketball got its act together, hiring Colangelo and Krzyzewski and requiring a three year commitment to training and competition from its NBA player pool.   This yielded a gold medal finish in 2008 in Beijing and all was right in our basketball cosmos.
But then,  the story arc dips into another trough of difficulty.

None of those players -- not Lebron James, not Dwyane Wade, not Dwight Howard, not Kobe Bryant -- wanted to play in this year's FIBA tournament.  The players that were selected were dubbed "The B-Team".  We couldn't expect much of this team because, for the rest of the world, the FIBA World Championship is more important than the Olympics.  
To intensify our investment in the drama, the typical storyteller injected some additional stakes

Not only the FIBA gold medal, but our spot in the 2012 Olympics in London was a stake because if the US didn't win the FIBA Worlds and its accompanying automatic qualifying bid in the next Olympic competition they would have to qualify for the Olympics through a round of inter-American competition and this would be more difficult than usual given an imminent NBA labor negotiation and the strong possibility that players who might be on strike at the time of the inter-American competition would be ineligible, leaving the US to face stiffened competition with nothing more than their best amateurs.
Now that the tournament has been played out and disaster averted, journalists and bloggers are falling over themselves to herald the over-achievement of "The B-Team," their moral stock rising, seemingly, on the tide of the "Redeem Team" players refusal to join the competition.  Here's how, again in summary, the story reaches its satisfying resolution.

Kevin Durant, humble and likeable, emerged from the shadows of the Redeem Team superstars James, Bryant, and Wade by putting on a tremendous display of scoring prowess.  While Kobe spent his summer lolling in the reverie of his recent NBA championship, and James and Wade spent theirs conspiring to join forces on the Miami Heat and greedily thrusting themselves into the media spotlight, Durant worked hard to get ready to represent his country in international competition and then, when the tournament began, put the team -- at least on offense -- on his shoulders and carried them to victory.  As for the rest of the players, undersized, not all that good, and unaccustomed to playing together, they pulled together under the wise tutelage of Coach K, played gritty old fashioned defense and then celebrated their surprising victory with the innocence and charm of the (all white) Hickory High Huskers knocking off the big, bad, black team from the big city in the 1989 film Hoosiers.  And it's a darn shame that the selfish superstars like James, Bryant, and Wade will probably displace this likeable bunch of underdogs on the team that represents the US at the 2012 Olympics in London.
So that's the story, the myth, that's being created and circulated and relished in the media here. It's a great, rousing story.  The only problem is that it rests on what might generously be called some exaggerations of actual facts, and some omissions of others.  Let me correct these first.

Kevin Durant was already, before the tournament, recognized as one of the top players in the NBA.  Durant was named College Player of the Year for his efforts as a freshman at the University of Texas (the only year of college ball he played).  In fact, he was heralded as the only freshman ever to win the award.  Then he was the second selection in the NBA draft.  In his first season, he averaged twenty points a game and was named rookie of the year.  In his second season, he averaged twenty-five a game.

Yeah, never heard of him
And this past season, his third in the NBA, he became the youngest player ever to lead the league in scoring, averaging 30 points a game, finished second in MVP voting (behind James and ahead of Bryant, Wade, and Hoard), was selected to the Western Conference all-star team, and was chosen as one of the five players (along with Bryant, Wade, James, and Howard) to the All-Pro team. He also helped his team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, to reach the playoffs, where the young, eighth seeded team pushed the top seeded, and eventual champion, Lakers to six games in their first round best of seven series.  Oh yeah, and when he came out of college to join the NBA, he signed a $60 million endorsement deal with Nike.

Certainly, the rest of Team USA's roster, top to bottom, lacked both the record of individual and team success and the star power of the 2008 Beijing Olympic team.  But it's quite a stretch to characterize them as "B Team" players.  Chauncey Billups was the third overall pick in the 1997 draft, the 2004 NBA Finals MVP, and has been an All-Star each of the past five seasons.  Lamar Odom was the fourth overall pick in the 1999 draft and, though his career has been checkered for personal reasons, was instrumental in the Lakers repeat title run this year as the first player off the bench. Derrick Rose was the first player picked in the 2008 draft, the 2009 Rookie of the Year, and an All-Star in the same year.  Among the other players, several were chosen in the top ten in their NBA draft cohort, and some had been first team All-Americans in college.

The FIBA World Championships may just as important to the players in other countries as the Olympics, maybe even more important for some of them.  But if such a generalization may be in some sense true, it doesn't account for the fact that some of the best and best-known international players in the NBA, the very players whose talent and visibility are held up as evidence that the rest of the world has caught up to the US in basketball  -- Manu Ginobili (Argentina) Nene Hilario (Brazil), Pau Gasol (Spain), Tony Parker and Joakim Noah (France)  Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), and Mehmet Okur (host Turkey) -- chose not to participate in the tournament.   One observer close to a several European players claims that the Olympics are, in fact, their top priority (after the NBA).

Finally, this is subjective (who is to say what is the requisite level of innocence and enthuiasm with which to celebrate an international championship?), but having watched most of the games in the 2008 Olympics, I'd feel hard-pressed to say that the superstars of the Redeem Team weren't excited to be there, and, even more, every bit as jubilant upon finally capturing the Gold with their finals victory over Spain.

Yeah, they don't care.
 Those players -- Kobe and others -- were also running around the court after their victory, slapping the hands of American fans in the stands and, in general, celebrating with the innocence and unbridled exuberance of a group of high schoolers winning their first state championship.

So if Kevin Durant didn't come out of nowhere and was already considered one of the best players in the world, why do we keep acting as if he did and wasn't?  If the rest of the US team didn't consist of a bunch of midget also-rans but rather were almost without exception successful and recognized as such, why did we act like it did and they weren't?  And if the rest of the world didn't bring its best players, why do keep insisting that they did?  And if the Redeem Team was excited to win too, why is it so important to say imagine that they weren't?  Why are the same media experts that participated in the circulation of all the facts that I described above now forgetting them?  What purpose is served by this?

I will be blunt, at the risk of over-simplifying.  I think what is served by this particular story, and this sort of storytelling in particular, is a particular national self-image, often not so subtly racialized if not racist, that we expect our athletes, especially our national athletes, to support.  It's that image that I sum up with the title of this post:  HoosiersNation.

Our National Team?
 That film fabricated the story of an invented small, rural Indiana high school team (the Hickory Huskers)  winning the Indiana state championship against a much more athletically gifted, all black team (with all black coaches and rowdy all black fans) from  South Bend Central.  In the process, players, fans, and coaches alike overcome obstacles, learn life lessons, and redeem their pasts.    Nevermind that the actual Indiana team (Milan) upon which the movie was based beat -- as Oscar Robertson, among others, has pointed out in his autobiography The Big O -- a Muncie Central team coached by a white man, supported by mostly white fans, and whose entire roster included only three black players.

But such realities don't need to get in the way -- any more than the facts I listed above -- of our seemingly endless need to see ourselves as a scrappy group of unheralded white guys rising, through hard work and the subordination of individual ego,  to successfully, joyfully, but humbly, meet the challenge of defeating a talented Other whose abilities and superior resources ultimately, cannot make up for their lack of heart and unselfishness.

How perfect that this year's quarterfinal game was played against the Russian team on the 38th anniversary of the 1972 Olympic Finals in which the (scrappy) US team (of all amateurs) lost to the Russian team on a last second basket, after the referees unfairly awarded the Russian team three different opportunities to replay the final seconds.  Though the players didn't make much of the anniversary, the press certainly did.  Nevermind that the 2010 Russian team (unlike the 1972 Soviet team) had done little in international competition.  Like Rocky facing the machine like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, our boys were playing out of desire and with heart, and, in the moral universe of our national fantasies, that always wills out over talent, technology, and heartless efficiency.  Finally, as if the brew weren't rich enough, this year's semi-final was played on the 9th anniversary of September 11th, 2001, helping to reinforce our collective desire to see ourselves as innocent victims and underdogs and to stoke our collective desire to assert the superiority of our self-assigned national values against overwhelming odds.

I like this year's US team.  I really do.  And I appreciate and respect what they achieved.  But I'm annoyed by the way in which the media has turned their story into a myth that permits us, as individuals and as a nation, on the court and off, to evade so many realities about ourselves (some good, some not so good) and, like an oversized infant blithely lumbering through a Lilliputian world, to cause so much suffering.  I don't want to identify with that team, that game, or that country.


Wilt and Me

Sunday, September 12, 2010

It was the most legendary individual single-game performance in professional basketball history: March 2, 1962, when 25 year-old Wilt “The Big Dipper” Chamberlain scored 100 points for his Philadelphia Warriors team in a 169-147 victory over the New York Knicks.

I wish
Every basketball fan knows about it. Nearly fifty years later the record remains unbroken and likely always will. The closest anyone has come to breaking it is Kobe Bryant, who scored 81 points in a game in January, 2006. Only four thousand people attended Wilt's game, which was played in a half-empty hockey arena in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The Warriors were safely in the playoffs by this point, and the Knicks safely out, so little was at stake as the season wound to a close. No television or film footage of the game exists. No New York reporters were there, and less than a handful of other journalists. Two photographers were there, one left after the first quarter and the other snapped just a few photos.

Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era (Three Rivers Press, 2005), by Gary Pomerantz, tells the story of that game based primarily on hundreds of interviews the author conducted with many of those who played in it or watched it. In reconstructing the numerous stories that converged on and then diverged from that historic contest, Pomerantz crafts the claim that the game served as a symbolic announcement of the definitive arrival of a new style of basketball and of “the ascendancy of the black superstar in professional basketball,” and, in that sense, formed part of the massive assertion of African-American culture and rights that developed throughout the period.

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

We moved to Madison from Portland, Oregon in July, 1968, the summer I turned three. Though I can’t remember that summer, many of my earliest, and happiest, memories from our first few years in Madison involve basketball. My dad and oldest brother dug a posthole, poured concrete, and put a hoop up in our driveway in 1969. Not long after that, a second rim, bolted to a homemade backboard, around 7 feet off the ground for my benefit, was added to our basketball pole (soon to be painted with hot pink rust-proof paint). Of course, back then there was no cable television and basketball, especially pro, was still struggling to sell itself to fans, to advertisers, and to television executives so there weren’t a lot of games on television, and we had in Madison no home-town franchise.

I do remember watching some college games, especially the UCLA teams coached by the legendary John Wooden, perhaps the greatest, certainly the most dominant, college coach of all time. And I remember watching the NBA game of the week on CBS when that started during the 1973-4 season and, before that, occasional games on ABC. Playing with my older brother, who was a star on his junior high and then high school team, and watching games on TV with my dad were more than enough to get me out onto the driveway at every opportunity, dribbling around, counting down the seconds to the final buzzer in an imaginary championship game, heaving the still heavy ball up at my hoop, going crazy if it went in and restarting the countdown on account of a clock malfunction if it didn’t.

But an entirely new world was opened to me when I saw my first professional games in person. The Milwaukee Bucks joined the National Basketball League as an expansion franchise in the 1968-69 season.
When I was a boy, they played several games a year in Madison, either at the University of Wisconsin Field House or, more commonly, at the Dane County Coliseum. I don’t remember which was the first game I saw them play there. The truth is I don’t even remember for certain how many games I went to or which teams I saw them play.

Like most new franchises, the Bucks were bad in their first year, compiling a record of 27 wins and 55 losses. But then they drafted Lew Alcindor (later to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) out of UCLA and turned their fortunes around. In their second season they won 56 games and made it to the NBA finals, where they lost to the New York Knicks. Then they picked up Oscar Robertson, the veteran, superstar guard and in the 1970-71 season went 66-16 (88-18 counting their 10-0 preseason record and their 12-2 playoff record) and swept the Baltimore Bullets for the NBA Championship. That would be their only championship, but over the next three seasons – until Oscar retired and, a year after that, Kareem left for L.A. – they remained contenders.

I didn't see many Bucks' games, but I sure listened to a lot of them on the radio. Starting around the time I was 7, there was a lot of tension in my home when I was growing up. My siblings were teenagers so they argued amongst themselves a lot, and they also argued -- especially my oldest brother -- with my parents a lot. But above all, my parents fought with each other, especially at night after I'd gone to bed when, I assume, they thought I wouldn't hear. Everybody tried to be real careful about that. But my bedroom was right above the kitchen and I could hear. It seems like every night. Even if I couldn't make out -- or understand -- most of the words, the tones were unmistakable: my mother's low, mumbled stubbornness, my father's more punctuated, staccato bark. At that time, I had a little AM radio that was shaped like a cube. In fact, it was a dice.
It was red and its six sides had white spots on them. The volume and tuning dials were the "two" side of the dice. I'd put that radio as close as I could to my head on the pillow.

 Then the mesmerizing cadence and tone of Eddie Doucette's radio call would pull me away from the fading voices of adult unhappiness and disappointment and resentment, right through the radio to the Spectrum in Philadelphia, or Chicago Stadium, or the Milwaukee Arena -- Mecca as it was known, or Madison Square Garden (today all these arenas, if they even exist, are branded, called names like ATT Center, or Target Garden or what have you). And in these magical spaces, Eddie would comfort and excite me with his description of Kareem's sky-hooks, the Big O's fall-away jumper, and Bobby "the Greyhound" Dandridge's streaking fast-break lay-ups. I'd listen carefully when his color man, Ron "The Professor" Blomberg, would break down the plays and the strategy involved. And then, momentarily all child, I'd laugh when Eddie would interview Bango, the Bucks mascot. Bango, incidentally, was named after the exclamation Eddie coined for a Bucks' basket -- as in "Kareem, on the baseline, fed by Robertson, fakes the pass to Curtis Perry in the lane, turns to his left for the sky hook -- Bango!" and amuse me with his half-time interviews. A small-market franchise, Eddie would never be as widely famous as the big-market radio announcers, but he was more than enough for me and his call would serve as the template on which I'd base my own solitary adventures on the imaginary hardwood of the driveway. Sometimes I feel like I lived to hear the word Bango.

During those first six glorious seasons the Bucks played 20 games in Madison. As I said, I don’t remember for certain, with a few exceptions, exactly which games I attended. What I do remember very clearly are the bright lights of the coliseum, the plush fold out theater seats in the arena, and the cold outside walking from and to the parking lot on frigid Madison winter nights, snow plowed into mountain ranges lining the edges of the lot. I remember poring over and almost accidentally memorizing the facts and photos in the glossy programs. I remember the shiny wooden floor, the perfect glass backboards, the brightly painted lanes, the fancy cube-shaped scoreboard hanging above center court. I remember the warm-ups and the uniforms of the players when they’d peel their warm-ups off. Most of all, I remember the thrill and awe of the size of the players as they trotted in a line out of their locker rooms and onto the court for their pre-game warm-up routines.

There they were in person, so tall, so graceful, so real, so human: here were the Rockets’ Rudy Tomjonavich and little Calvin Murphy; there were Ernie DiGregorio and Bob McAdoo of the Braves; Walt Bellamy and Pistol Pete Maravich of the Hawks; Bob "Butterbean" Love, Chet Walker, and Jerry Sloan of the Bulls; Dave Bing, Bob "The Dobber" Lanier, and Jimmy Walker of the Pistons; Dave Cowens, Hondo John Havlicek, Jo Jo White of the Celtics; Lenny Wilkens, Austin Carr, and Jim Cleamons of the Cavs; Tiny Archibald of the Kings. If you aren’t a basketball fan, and of a certain age, these names won’t mean much to you. But they were legends of the game, many of them now in the Hall of Fame after successful playing and, in some cases, coaching careers. I’d seen them on TV, knew what college they played for, knew their stats and reputations. It sounds a little corny, but to me they were like figures from mythology come to life before my eyes.

And I had very strong feelings about them. On the face of it, those feelings were as simple and definite as a love of chocolate ice cream and a hatred for the smell of cauliflower. I loved Oscar Robertson and hated Rick Barry. I loved Tiny Archibald and hated John Havlicek. I loved Walt "Clyde the Glide" Frazier and hated Gail Goodrich (though I did like his name). When I reflect a little on these players though the bottom drops out of the simplicity and the obscure depths of swirling forces driving these preferences begin to surface. There is, first of all, race. In the list above, the three players I loved were African-American, the three I hated caucasian. And as I think about other affinities and aversion of the day, I realize that was often the case. I'm not entirely sure how this works -- growing up in a suburban neighborhood, in a university town in the midwest I don't remember meeting many black kids or adults, at least not until my new best friend Robb moved into the neighborhood sometime around 1975. And I'm not aware of any conscious feelings or attitudes about race from my early childhood. I don't remember even being aware of race period.

So when I think about who I loved and who I hated I think this: I loved smooth, fluid, fast but unhurried, creative but cool and apparently effortless effectiveness and I hated rough, scurrying, emotional, clumsy, scrapping effectiveness. It was not about effort (Oscar tried just as hard as Rick Barry), not about talent (all the hated players I named are now Hall of Famers), not about effectiveness -- I didn't even notice, let alone love or hate, the ineffective players. No, it was about style, about aesthetics, and something that, apparently, I invested in that style, upon which I then mapped race. I wonder, looking back now, if I didn't associate my hated style and the players who I reduced to incarnations of it with being emotional and out of control and if I didn't hate it because it felt like such a dominant feature of my household growing up, especially of my father. I think that's probably true, but I also think that as the youngest by far, I always felt like I was trying, trying to keep up, trying not to be a crybaby, and that I hated myself for the effort I had to make and I realize that I also hated the sweaty, panting evidence of effort apparent on my hated players. So in hating Rick Barry's matted sweaty hair, his foolish-looking (if incredibly effective) underhanded free throw shooting style, his shoving and holding on defense, his crying to the refs, it seems to me now, I was hating my dad, and my family as a whole, and I was hating myself. And in loving Oscar, and Tiny, and Clyde I was loving a desired possibility, a different way to be.

 It's striking to me now that if that desired possibility ever seemed elusive (and it did and would prove to be so) it wasn't on account of race, or style, or talent. I think I was ten years old before I realized, really realized, that the players I loved were almost all black and I wasn't. Before that time, I remember, I once got permission from my mother to transform an old white undershirt of mine into a Knicks jersey by painting "Knicks" on the front, and the number 10 below the name "Frazier" on the back.
Me, Age 6
Then, for good measure, I took the same black tempra paints and gave myself a goatee that I thought looked like Clyde's. I love that memory because it speaks to me of a time in the past (and perhaps whispers of a possible dimension of myself in the present) when my sense of possibility was so large that I could seamlessly identify with a 28 year old, 6'-4" black man, known almost as much for his fancy hats and suits and his Rolls Royce off the court as for his defensive wizardry and smooth playmaking on the court.

This reminds me that the other common factor of the players I loved, my very favorites, is that they were all playmakers, floor generals, point guards. They were also often, not always, the smallest players on the floor which must have appealed to me as well, not because I already knew that I'd never be tall, but because I was the smallest in my family. But despite their size, with their intelligence, their quickness, their unerring judgment, and their ball-handling skills, they controlled the complex flowing pattern of player and ball movement on the floor. Or at least that's how it looked to me. It would probably be more accurate, I think now, to say that they harmonized themselves with and influenced that pattern, but to me at that time they were in control and what could be better than a world run by the smallest.

But their control of the family -- er, I mean, the game -- achieved despite their smallness was also a positive function of their unselfishness. They controlled not by dominating others, not by bossing or asserting their will or rights, but rather by giving to others. In the economy of
God's Point Guard
my family, as I saw it at the time, things looked pretty simple: my dad was assertive and bossed and yelled and demanded a lot, my mom was quiet and kind and compassionate and generous and understanding. Besides the obvious reasons why a young boy might find the latter a more desirable model than the former, there was also the fact that with my siblings growing up and out of the house, and my father gone much of the time, my mom and I spent a lot of time alone together and had a very close relationship. My mom was the point guard, and in many ways, I learned how to love, how to love the point guard, and how to be one from her. In any event, the effectiveness through unselfishness -- elevated to the level of moral virtue by my Catholic mother's incarnation of the value -- sealed the deal for me as to who I loved and who I hated on the basketball floor.

And the fact of the matter is that in those particular years the very best point guards were black. That would be complicated, in the 1974-75 season, by Buffalo's sensational Rookie of the Year, Ernie Di Gregorio out of Providence, who was white. But in my mind, Ernie played black and was noteworthy most of all because, as a white player playing black he served as another material link in the chain of being connecting my miserable actual existence to my desired alternative existence as Walt Frazier. In other words, what I loved was black not because it was black but because I loved it. And to this day, while I can think of other white players I loved, I cannot think of a single black player I hated.

In a separate category, were the big guys like Lanier, McAdoo, Wes Unseld, Walt Bellamy, and Thurmond, for all of whom I felt a vertigo-like combination of attraction and terror. They were like dinosaurs to me, absurdly large, another species with a whole different way of moving than anyone else on the court, than the smaller guys, and therefore than me. And like dinosaurs, I was fascinated with them, but also a little bit scared by them. I don’t think my mind really knew yet how to assimilate their difference. But it was more than just their size. Their value to teams as shot blockers, rebounders, and inside scorers was undeniable, even to me, but I couldn't really understand or connect to their style and their values. What did it mean? What could it mean? What would it be like to be unable to handle the ball and to be okay with just receiving passes? Wouldn't there be a lot of pressure on you, just someone else doing all the work and you get the pass? -- you better put it in the hole every time or else everyone would surely hate you. I'd rather be the one passing. Then, when the big doofus misses the bunny, I can seethe inside and sublimate my anger by telling him not to worry about it, that I understand he's trying his best. Just like my mother, the point guard.  Much of my adult life can be explained by this.

But despite my identification with point guards, I don’t think I invested more emotion in any one player than in Wilt, the biggest (and baddest) of the big guys; and I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to see a sporting event than I was to see Wilt play in person in Madison. It happened on March 1, 1972,
I knew about Wilt’s 100 point game, of course, I know about his 50 point per game, 26 rebound per game season in 1961-62, knew about all his individual records, knew also about his rivalry with Bill Russell of the Celtics, about how Wilt struggled to gain recognition as a winner and so belie the perception that he was a selfish individualist who never learned to accommodate his massive talent with a successful team framework.

Wilt was unreal to me as a person, like a President or a superstar celebrity. Even seeing him in person, from just a few yards away, my mind struggled to assimilate his reality. Whereas with even the greatest of the other players I saw live during those years I was able to enjoy the way their mythical greatness was incarnated before my eyes, rendering them human and accessible, with Wilt my young intellectual and mental gears creaked and stalled. He was, undeniably, there, a living individual, walking and talking before my eyes. But somehow I couldn’t quite accept it. He was larger than life, more than real.

Also, my dad hated Wilt. I'd always thought it was because Wilt endorsed Nixon in the 1972 presidential campaign, but when I recently asked my dad about it he didn't remember that at all. He remembers preferring Russell to Chamberlain in the context of their rivalry because of the usual thing: Russell was able more intelligently to integrate his own astonishing abilities with those of his teammates. In my dad's words, "Chamberlain was blessed (or cursed) with a powerful physical presence which he used to neglect team play." Now, this is a much more muted and reasonable expression of this aversion than what I recall, which makes sense since my dad has mellowed considerably and I am no longer a small six year old. But at the time, my dad's preferences and desires seemed enormous to me: they were the most important desires in a household in which everyone's desires seemed more important than mine. On Christmas Eve, when we opened our presents, we opened them in descending order of age. So if he hated Wilt Chamberlain, it was as though, when I looked at Wilt on the television screen, he slowly morphed into a scowling, bullying, roaring demon.

Except it wasn't quite that simple. It still isn't quite that simple. Because already at that age I was finding secret ways to rebel and one of them, in this case, was by secretly loving the player my dad obviously hated. Sure. Except it wasn't quite that simple either. Because, in many ways, though he disliked him, my dad was the Chamberlain of our family:
My Dad, Age 44
our offense revolved entirely around him, he was unapologetically self-assertive to say the least, he was a dominating presence, and he wasn't a great team player.  So maybe in disliking Chamberlain on the grounds that he wasn't a team player, my dad was unconsciously expressing a dislike for himself and a wish to be more like Russell. Or maybe my dad didn't and wouldn't today recognize the Wilt-like aspects of his personality when I was growing up. What I think is for sure, though I wasn't aware of it at the time, is that I identified Wilt and my father and in my secret love of Wilt I found a way to express not only a secret love and admiration for my father but also a secret desire to be the opposite of a point guard, to be the guy who could take 60 shots a game and not feel bad because he knew that he could make 36 of them, knew that he could score 100 points. What would that be like?  It must feel awesome to be Wilt! The center of everyone's attention, all the energy of the game directed toward you, and it doesn't make you feel bad, like you've done something wrong or are hurting someone else, it just feels natural and right.  To this day, I understand success in life, at a very deep level, as something like "know when to take your shot, and know when to give it up." But back then (and still today) I veered madly between my outward worship of the abstract, unselfish point guard ideal and my shameful, secret fascination with the scoring machine, the player who, as they say, has no conscience.

I think this is part of why I responded so strongly to Pomerantz' book, which I picked up by chance in a used bookstore this summer as I was looking for some light reading. That book, as I’ve written here, has led me not only to reading more basketball books, not only to reexamining the rich role that basketball has played in my life, but even to serious consideration that the second half of my working life might be most enjoyably devoted to basketball. The book is good, excellent in some ways, but I think it’s most meaningful to me because it shares and articulates a fascination with the most fascinating game in the career of the one NBA player who most fascinated me in the formative years of my early childhood.

Basketball histories are often structured around an argument that some game, some season, some player, even some play was a turning point, a clear dividing separating one era from another; a moment or a player after whose appearance nothing would ever be the same. This may be an effective storytelling device, but it’s bad history because changes in the course of human affairs in any arena are always too complex to be reduced to a single pivotal moment. That said, such histories can still be effective in drawing attention both to the factors involved in complex changes and to the ways in which individuals and events can come to serve as symbols.

Such is the case with Wilt, 1962, which argues that Wilt’s 100 point game and, more generally, Wilt’s appearance in the league in the Fall of 1959 separated, in effect, one NBA from another. The pre-Wilt, pre-100 point league was mostly white, and mostly dominated by white men, involved a game played mostly at slow speeds, below the rim, and prizing team coherence over individual talent, and presented stars with whom the typical fan (also a white man) could identify, stars who by size, background, lifestyle and even salary weren’t that different from that average fan. The NBA ushered in by Wilt and emphatically announced by his 100 point game, by contrast, would be mostly black, still run, perhaps, by white men, but by white men who increasingly had at least to keep happy or to pretend to keep happy the black stars. It was played at higher speeds, more often above the rim, and made greater room for individual talent and creativity. Moreover, the individual players were less and less like the average fans. If those fans were increasingly black and shared backgrounds (urban, often poor) with the game’s players, the rise in salaries and the emergence of a celebrity lifestyle among at least the game’s players would make them less and less easy to identify with – all more true for the average white fan. And all of these changes, Pomerantz rightly points out, which involve complex configurations of race and class, occurred as the nation was entering a turbulent period of often violent change in relation to race.

Now, it is also true that NBA teams first began to integrate their rosters in 1950, when the first three African-Americans in the league – Earl Lloyd, Sweetwater Clifton, and Chuck Cooper – suited up, almost a decade before Wilt made his debut. Moreover, Bill Russell of the Celtics was the game’s first black superstar, joining the team in late 1956, leading it in rebounding in his rookie season, and playing the key role in a string of Celtics championships during the era. The game itself, for that matter, had already begun to speed up in 1954 with the introduction of the 24 second shot clock (an offensive team had to shoot the ball within 24 seconds of gaining possession or the ball would be turned over to the opponent). And players like Elgin Baylor, Rookie of the Year in the 1958-9 season, was already known as a tremendously creative individual player, who some players and observers consider the first in a line of such players that would include, decades later, the great Michael Jordan. Gone already before Wilt entered the league were the days when players were paid $5 to $15 per game. By the time Wilt entered the league, Bob Cousy was the highest paid NBA player, making $25,000 per year for the Celtics and the average NBA salary was $12,000, nothing of course compared with today’s salaries (Kobe will make 24 million next season), or even those of a decade later, but still nearly 3 times the average American annual salary at the time.

But these facts notwithstanding, a persuasive if necessarily debatable case can be made that Wilt and his 100 point game intensified and, especially, brought attention to, incremental changes that had been building in the preceding decade. Certainly, whatever the broader implications of the 100 point game, it was unprecedented and came to symbolize the appearance of a force that the game would have to contend with: the unstoppable offensive force. Indeed, Wilt had been unstoppable all season, averaging over 50 points and 25 rebounds per game, while playing in all but 8 minutes of the Warriors’ season. No team and no individual defender could contend with Chamberlain’s combination of height, strength, speed, leaping ability, and skills close to the basket, not even Russell and the Celtics. They certainly beat Chamberlain’s teams, but not because they stopped him; rather because they had superior talent at all the other positions on the floor (Russell joined a team that had already had five future Hall of Famers) and were able to integrate that talent.

If Wilt was larger than life on the court, he was also larger than life off the court. The $75,000 dollars he earned in his first year in the league already set him apart from the average player, let alone the average fan. But it went beyond money. Chamberlain lived in Harlem, where he was part-owner of a nightclub, rather than in Philadelphia. He would drive to home games from New York, often the afternoon of a game, after a night rubbing shoulders with James Baldwin, Redd Foxx, and other legends of the Harlem of the era.
Wilt's Club
Though he was reportedly a hard-working and likeable teammate, his contemporaries knew that he was not, as it were, in the same league as they were, in any sense, and found it difficult to get to know him. He appeared on American Bandstand and What’s My Line? and once challenged Ali to a boxing match, certain that with his size and reach Ali would never touch him.  And though he clearly loved the game, it was also clear that he could take it or leave it, was sure that he could excel in any number of arenas outside of basketball.

This combination of factors made Wilt a perfect scapegoat for the average (white) fan who probably felt that he was fast losing control of the game and, as with the game, of his comfortable post-World War Two world. So Wilt came to be known as a sullen, selfish, loser. This is a debate that strictly speaking can never be resolved. But as much as it is undeniable that Wilt was a self-assertive scorer who was gratified by his scoring and rebounding dominance, it is by no means clear that he asserted himself as a scorer only to gratify his ego (which is what would make him, in my book, selfish). Pomerantz has some good, balanced pages on this, especially in the context of the Chamberlain-Russell rivalry. I think that when Wilt was breaking records as a scorer it was because his desire to dominate dovetailed with a probably justifiable belief that his teams would win more games (even if maybe even he knew they weren't good enough to win championships no matter what) that way than with him sharing the ball more. After all, when Wilt was himself surrounded by several Hall of Famers (with the Warriors in the late 60s and then with the Lakers), he maintained his rebounding dominance (which was essential to those teams' success) but shifted his efforts from scoring to assists, in which he once led the league and three other times finished in the top ten. In other words, I think Wilt did what he and his coaches genuinely and probably rightly believed he needed to do for his teams to win as possible. His misfortune, I think, was that what he happened to have to do was take a lot of shots and score a lot of points and his great sin, in the eyes of his critics, was, I think, that he appeared to enjoy it.

But in a certain way, I think it was his full on enjoyment of his life off the court that may have been most unforgivable to the average (white) fan. Put it this way: "not only had Wilt humiliated the older (whiter) version of the game by beating teams who incarnated its values through an exhibition of sheer individual athletic ability and scoring talent, but he also seemed to be just as happy to play beach volleyball, to challenge Muhammed Ali (the Muslim draft-dodger) to a boxing match, or to be out all night carousing (in the ghettoes of New York no less). We white fans like our black basketball players to be humble and grateful for the opportunity we have given them to escape the hardships of the inner city."  In this way, I think, Wilt served as a convenient symbol of all that terrifed, confused, and enraged ordinary white American men in the 1960s.

Pomerantz is on to something in his claim that the 100 point game condenses all these factors (the broader changes in the game and the country and the emergence of Wilt as the fearsome offensive dominator) into a single event. And he is also on to something in tuning into the sharp contrast between the magnitude of the event and the relatively ordinary circumstances within which it occurred, as well as the very ordinary individuals who witnessed it. Pomerantz may be somewhat prosaic in describing the action of the game itself, but he is most skillful and sensitive in pulling us away from the action in order to give us the backstory – gleaned from hundreds of interviews – of the marginal players, the coaches, the courtside public address announcer, the referees, owners, and even the teenage fans who were at the game.

This collision of the ordinary and the extraordinary and of their mixing is what I find most moving in the book. Thus, we meet 14 year old Kerry Ryman who, by his own account, snatched the game ball from Wilt as the game was interrupted and fans mobbed the court when he scored his 100th point with 46 seconds to go. Ryman kept the ball and played with it for decades as he went about his ordinary life in Hershey (I could relate to this, my dad once brought me an ABA basketball signed by the San Antonio Spurs -- their coach, weirdly, was our neighbor Mr. Nissalke -- and I played with it in the driveway so that the autographs of George Karl, Swen Nater, and Larry Kenon are all but vanished). Eventually, a co-worker suggested he try to auction it. In the weeks and months that follow, Ryman appears on the morning television talk shows and seems poised to make hundreds of thousands of dollars off the sale of the ball. But then another, only slightly less ordinary individual steps in. Joe Ruklick, Chamberlain’s back up, who played all of 300 minutes in that season, claimed that he had actually secured the game ball at Chamberlain’s request, stuffing it into a gym bag at the end of the game. Ruklick, whose only claim to fame was having assisted on the 100th point (a claim he ensured was recorded by rushing over to the statistician to be sure he had awarded Ruklick the assist), was by this time a reporter for a small Chicago newspaper. The controversy that ensued lowered the value of Ryman’s game ball so that he ultimately wound up with around $25,000, with which he bought his daughter a used car (keeping hers), and invested the rest in a stock that skyrocketed and then bottomed out, so that after all, he was left with about what he had started with. Wilt, by the way, never claimed to have the game ball and didn't care to have it.

Except that Kerry Ryman had a story, and he had the memory of being at the game, and of having shaken Wilt’s hand. I didn’t get to shake’s Wilt hand when I saw him play in Madison on March 1, 1972, the eve of the ten year anniversary of the game. But I think my memory is no less powerful and no less sweet. Back then, the NBA had 17 teams divided into two conferences, Eastern and Western, and four divisions, Atlantic and Central in the East and Midwest and Pacific in the West. My defending champion Milwaukee Bucks were 55-15 and sitting comfortably in first place in the Midwest Divison, the Lakers were an awesome 57-11, far ahead in the Pacific. Earlier in the year, the Lakers had set a still unbroken record for consecutive victories, winning 33 in a row in November and December. That streak had finally been snapped by the Bucks in January in a game I’d seen on TV. The Lakers had, for their part, already beaten the Bucks twice, once during the win streak, and once after it had ended. There would be one more regular season meeting between these two teams who seemed to be headed for a Western conference playoff collision that was the real championship because none of contenders in the Eastern Conference in that season were really up to the level of either the Bucks or the Lakers.

Though both teams were assured a playoff spot by this point the game had the atmosphere of playoff intensity, both because the best record in the league and so the home-court advantage throughout the playoffs was still at stake, because there is that atmosphere whenever the two best teams in any league compete, and, no doubt, because the major players on each team were among the greatest competitors in the game’s history. Still, there were only 9,227 fans in the 22,000 seat coliseum that night.  That sparse attendance was still not uncommon for an NBA game, especially for a small market team like Milwaukee, and especially for a game played in Madison.

One of the dimensions of my basketball memories from those days is of how much in a minority I was among my friends in Madison as a basketball fan. They were baseball and football fans and basketball hadn’t gripped the imaginations of my suburban, almost all white friends.  I often wished that I could love baseball and football as much as they did, wished that my father, a Spanish immigrant, did and that he was adept at those sports like their fathers always seemed to be.  I wished, in that way, to be more clearly an American boy.  But it wasn't that way:  I played soccer and basketball and while my dad was always unequivocally and enthusiastically supportive of my playing and while I enjoyed watching games with him, he was never very good at basketball, which was new to him.  So for a few years at least, I feel that I was the only kid in Madison who loved and played basketball and I was certainly the only one of my friends to see the Bucks and the Lakers that night.

That Lakers team was named one of the top ten teams of the NBA’s first fifty years. The Bucks team of the previous season, for that matter, substiantally the same team I would be watching that night, could easily have been included in that list. Among the ten players who started that game for their respective teams were five who would be inducted into the Hall of Fame as players (Chamberlain, Jabbar, Robertson, Gail Goodrich, and Jerry West, whose silhouetted image is now the logo for the NBA). Four of them would be named to the list of the 50 greatest players in the NBA’s first half century. The remaining starters were talented role players on these two teams, but would have been stars on other teams. And one player, a Laker reserve who actually had a big game that night, would become a Hall of Fame coach: Pat Riley.  Following this interesting statistical indicator there would be no possibility of watching a single game in today's NBA that would feature so many players with so high a probability of making it into the Hall of Fame -- not last season's Lakers - Celtics finals, not even the All-Star game.

I don't remember very much about the game, almost nothing in fact except Kareem posting up Wilt near the hoop, the swirling movements of West, Goodrich and Robertson on the perimeter, and that the Bucks lost a close one. So I looked up an old newspaper account and found that the Bucks had taken a four point lead into the fourth quarter, extended it to five with just over a minute to play, and then blown the game in the final minute, losing by a point on a Gail Goodrich jumpshot with four seconds to go.  Chamberlain had missed three free throws with the Lakers down by one, the last rebounded by Lakers' forward Happy Hairston, who passed it out to Goodrich for the game winner.  I doubt that in the excitement of what I'd seen I cared very much about the loss. About a month or so later, the Bucks would lose in the Western Conference finals to the Lakers, who would in turn go on to defeat the Knicks for the championship, Wilt’s second as a player. Before too long, Oscar would retire, Kareem would be traded to LA, and I struggled to maintain my love for the Bucks even though they stopped playing in Madison and their roster was now populated with mere mortals rather than the mythical heroes of my early years. But that night I would go back home dumbly trying to assimilate the dimensions of what I had witnessed: Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest players ever. And then, the next day, as on so many days after that, I would ask my father to move the car out of the driveway, put on several layers of clothes, grab a rubber Wilson basketball out of the garage, my fingers already growing cold (they would soon be numb), and try, through practice and imagination, to grow my very ordinary self to the size of what I had witnessed, to the extraordinary dimensions of the Big Dipper.


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