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

Thursday, December 30, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

So this is genius:

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

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

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

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

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


Possibility is dead! Long live possibility!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Karl: One Last Time Machine

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

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

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

Could Be...


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

Friday, December 10, 2010

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

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

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

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


The Professor is IN

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

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


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

Thursday, December 2, 2010

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

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

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

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

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


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