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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...?


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