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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.


C Meade October 4, 2010 at 9:24 AM  

Have you seen the documentary "Hoop Dreams" Yago? It seems to treat the topic of the Wetzel and Yaeger, to some extent, but in a much more empathetic manner. It's really an excellent movie.

Yago Colás October 4, 2010 at 11:18 AM  

Claire and I just saw it last night, Chris. I was thinking the same thing. Another good one, in the book category, is Darcy Frey's "The Last Shot"

j December 28, 2010 at 3:52 PM  
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