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Wilt: Just like any other 7 foot black millionaire anarchist who lives next door and is friends with Richard Nixon

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What is Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7 Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door doing in the special anarchist collection of the University of Michigan library? Why is Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool by Walt “Clyde the Glide” Frazier shelved in the Children’s Literature section? As I was putting books on reserve for my upcoming course on hoops culture, these surprising discoveries got me thinking about what such misplacements can teach us about creative reclassification as means of shedding a burst of light on the shadowed sides of a too-familiar subject.

Wilt an anarchist? Hold up. I'll get to Clyde another day, but for now I want to deal with Wilt. I like anarchism and I like Wilt and I'm going to do my level best to invent a way for it to make profound sense for his autobiography to be in the anarchist collection. All I remember about Wilt’s political life was that he supported Nixon’s presidential run in 1968. For me it’s hard to spin that into anarchism or even radicalism. But, the truth is I last read Wilt’s autobiography in 1975 around the age of 10. So I took another look at the chapter on his involvement in that campaign.

Here’s the outline of the story as Wilt tells it in his anarchist autobiography. Sometime in the mid 1960s, Wilt befriends Nixon on a NY to LA plane ride (a lot happened to Wilt on planes, if the book is to be believed). Nixon impressed Wilt with his intellect and his “willingness to see things in global, rather than just national, terms.” Unconsciously, Wilt admits, he may also have been drawn to Nixon because he, like Wilt, had been saddled as a loser who couldn’t win the big one and as not very smart. Wilt hopes that if he works on the campaign then he’ll have the ear of the new President and be able to influence him on issues he feels strongly about, including overpopulation (“sweeping birth-control programs in the more backward countries”), equal opportunity for blacks, and the legalization and regulation of euthanasia and victimless crimes such as “gambling, prostitution, marijuana, and pornography.”

So first of all, how did Wilt and Nixon, who are both already megacelebrities by the 1960s -- even if they are both not smart losers, wind up sitting next to each other on a cross-country flight? What are the chances of that? Were they in coach? Who made the first move? And, what was Nixon thinking, I wonder. Fast forward years later, Wilt's in the oval office, sitting in front of Nixon who is at his desk. Kissinger in a chair maybe in the corner by the door. How would that have gone down?

Wilt begins, "I think we need some birth-control programs in the more backward countries." Nixon presses a button underneath his desk that starts the tape rolling, nods and smiles and thinks to himself: "This Bill Russell is more interesting than I expected." "For that matter," Wilt continues, encouraged, "I think it's cruel to keep some baby alive when it's born with so many mental and physical abnormalities that it can't possibly enjoy life. I feel the same way about prolong life for some sick old person who's in constant pain -- the way they did with President Truman last year." "But Bi - er, Wilt," says Nixon, leaning back in his chair smirking slyly, all faux innocence testing Wilt, "what about those who say it's humane to preserve life?" Wilt doesn't miss a beat, leaning forward in his chair he gestures with his huge palm, which flutters above Nixon's desk like an enormous black bird. Richard trembles slightly. "I'll tell you what to say to those people Richard: I think the only humane thing to do is end life. We need laws to make that possible." "Sweeping birth control abroad and euthanasia at home, Richard, and you've got that overpopulation problem beat." Nixon, chuckling, almost to himself "We've got our experiments in population control underway in Southeast Asia, you know, Wilt." The edges of Kissinger's lips curl up slightly.

Wilt’s high hopes are disappointed before Nixon even gets out of the gate, by the latter’s choice of Spiro Agnew as a running mate. Charged with selling the Nixon-Agnew ticket to black delegates at the 1968 RNC in Miami, Wilt counsels Agnew: “to say ‘black,’ not ‘Negro,’ and say it like he means it and isn’t afraid of it.” And to “say ‘law and order and justice,’ not just ‘law and order’ – and mean it.” Agnew appears to go along but then the next day “Spiro had a meeting with a group that had a lot of blacks in it. Do you know that dumb fuck must have said ‘Negro’ and ‘law and order’ 10,000 times? I’m sitting right there, looking at him, and sliding further down in my chair every minute. I finally walked out.” He’s further disappointed, once Nixon is elected, by his appointments to the Supreme Court and Attorney General and by his new posse of Watergate-bound henchmen. But the last straw? “I was also pissed off when Richard had our astronauts put an American flag on the moon. Outer space is supposed to be for all mankind, not just Americans. I was disappointed in Richard then.” Wilt wasn't the only one to have been fooled by Tricky Dick. Or to have been disappointed.

Of course, it depends entirely on what you mean by “anarchy,” but the only thing that to me reads as even vaguely anarchical (besides the story itself) is Wilt’s penchant for the world perspective on things; that, and maybe the fact that in the face of those who questioned his support for a Republican candidate Wilt declared himself to be the proto-liberated fan: “I’ve never paid much attention to labels and stereotypes. In sports, I root for individual players, not teams; in politics I vote for the man, not the party.”

And maybe there, in that last quotation, is something like a clue, or rather – more frankly – something that could be spun into a plausible or at least cool-ish reading of Wilt-as-Anarchist. Leonard Koppett once argued brilliantly that the essence of basketball is deception, but he also showed that if there is law of organization in basketball it is that it is “a team game to the nth degree,” more than any other sport. And, while Koppett and other good thinkers will readily admit that you can’t have a great team without great individual players, the law of the game still implies that if in conflict, the interests of the individual must be surbordinate to those of the team.

And so perhaps there is something a little anarchic in Wilt’s assertion of his preference for the individual over the team, the man over the party. Not just because he’s going against the accepted dogma ("basketball is a team game", "African-Americans who support republicans are working against their own interests as African-Americans" – both of which statements are no less likely to be true for being dogma); but because in asserting this he is also affirming that individuals are greater than the categories (party, team) we might employ in order to channel their powers and understand their meaning.

I don’t think that by itself that makes Wilt an anarchist. I do think it makes him a radical empiricist in the tradition of William James, who criticized what he called “vicious intellectualism” or “the abuse of naming”: “the treating of a name as excluding from the fact named what the name’s definition fails to positively positively to include" so that you might "contend that a person whom you have once called an 'equestrian' is thereby forever made uanble to walk on his own feet."

We know Wilt was sensitive to labels, sensitive to the abuse of naming. Labeled a scorer, he bent over backward to lead the league in assists – ironically, probably hurting his team in the process. Labeled a loser, he won a championship and then said that was enough for him, which somehow seems to negate the championship in the eyes of history. There are great players with no rings. It's almost as though, in basketball lore, Wilt has negative rings -- though he had two. Wilt always stood out at a time in American history when standing out as tall, black, physically powerful, and wealthy provoked fear and anxiety and set him up to be labeled.

And so, philosophical and political labels -- precisely -- aside, I bet he felt a desire, proportionate to the labeling, to be himself and to be accepted as such. I don’t know whether Wilt would agree with any thing I’m saying, nor do I really believe that what I’m saying is the explanation for why his autobiography is in the anarchist section of the library. But I do think there’s something anarchical (maybe it’s what FreeDarko calls “the nuclear option”) in the legacy of Wilt – something uncontainable by any hierarchically organizing powers.

Both his solitary individuality and his uncontainability -- he's "amazin'" he's "a problem that'll never be solved" -- seem echoed in the fact his is the only basketball book in the anarchist library. Well, not quite. Of the 76 works in the Michigan library that are classified under the same Library of Congress class and subclass as Wilt’s book (GV 884) – only two others are shelved in the anarchist collection: 1) Bad as I wanna Be, by Dennis Rodman and 2) ... wait for it ... Bad as I wanna dress: the unauthorized Dennis Rodman paper doll book.

In the dazzling novel Hopscotch, there’s a moment where one of the characters is reading a tract called “The Light of World Peace.” Its author, Ceferino Piriz, enumerates the number and type of “National Corporations” (like Ministries or Cabinet Departments, but more encompassing) that would exist in his ideal nation. He proposes a National Corporation of Houses of Collection in which he includes “deposits, warehouses, archives, museums, cemeteries, jails, asylums, homes for the blind, etc.” He reasons that “an archive keeps files in a collection; a cemetery keeps corpses in a collection; a jail keeps prisoners in a collection, etc..” The character over whose shoulder we are reading admires the Piriz, commenting that “he has an intuition for relationships, and that, basically, is true intelligence.

And that character’s emphasis on relationships reminds me that for all the individuality and uniqueness, asserted with ironic understatement in the subtitle of his autobiography – “just like any other 7 foot black millionaire who lives next door” – there is an assertion of relatedness that perhaps corresponds somehow to the affective yearning that those who knew him report Wilt feeling – to be loved. After all, even his involvement in the Nixon campaign seems motivated mostly by an affective connection, expressed perhaps in the self-conscious way he draws attention to the fact that he only ever calls Nixon "Richard" in the book. Journalist Pete Axthelm ventured a similar view even at the time.

To be like any other 7 foot black millionaire who lives next door, of course, is to be like almost nobody else, which is in a sense to be alone, in a group of one’s own, sui generis. But it is to be that because one is related to so many others who aren’t normally related to one another: 7 footers, blacks, millionaires, and neighbors. Wilt, in that sense, the ultimate individual, and the champion and poster-boy -- for better and for worse -- of the rights of the expression of individual potency comes also to stand for relatedness, and for relationship. Maybe it is that combination of an irreducible freedom that finds its highest expression in relation, that makes Wilt at home in the anarchist library.

Or maybe it's something else.

P.S. - for Jorge Luis Borges

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this, I received the following e-mail reply from Ms. Julie Herrada, Curator of the Labadie Collection, whom I had queried about the book's placement:

Dear Mr. Colas,
Thank you for your inquiry. You ask a very good question. The book in question is indeed one which could easily fit in the general stacks. We purchased it on our Diversity fund in 1999. The Labadie Collection contains materials not only on radical history but also in Black history, Latino/Chicano history, and other subject areas that were once covered under the heading of “minorities”. Sometimes this overlaps with the general circulating collections. This particular copy of Wilt is a first edition with a dust jacket in excellent condition, which makes it more suitable for closed stacks than for the open stacks where dust jackets are routinely discarded before a book is placed on the shelf. It is true that the Labadie has relatively few books in the GV section of the catalog, but we do have over 100 titles, including, one on the Negro League team, the Detroit Stars; a few books on the boxer Jack Johnson; sports in Apartheid South Africa; Floyd Patterson, Dennis Rodman, Alvin Ailey, etc. We even have a couple dozen periodicals in this subject area.

I hope this answers your question. We would be happy to place this book on reserve in our reading room for your class if you wish. Please keep in mind that our hours are 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. M-F and 10 a.m. – noon on Saturdays.


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