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The Art of the Art of Basketball

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I have no course diary post this week. 1) My flight from St. Louis to Detroit on Monday was delayed 6 hours so that I arrived in Ann Arbor at about 3 am on Tuesday morning; 2) Bethlehem Shoals was already in town, waiting for me in his own room at the Red Roof, in pajamas, watching a horror movie; when I arrived 3) the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion of coordinating Shoals' remarkable visit and lecture left me, through no fault of his, entirely surpassed; 4) the Fab Five documentary and aftermath dominated our class discussion on Tuesday and left me with too many feelings and thoughts to be able to put together coherently, maybe later; 5) the start of March Madness, St. Patrick's Day, and Spring Weather made Thursday's class into let's-watch-the-games-on-the-big-screen SlackFest.

Ergo, no post. I'll be back on schedule for the course diary next week. So stay tuned. I do, however, have the following reflections, aired earlier today on Voice on the Floor on the occasion of reading Leonard Koppett's classic 1974 book The Essence of the Game is Deception: Thinking About Basketball, wherein I explain why Koppett shows me that basketball is not only the most beautiful, but also the most Nietzschean and vital game of all.

Those of you who have been following my course diary know that I like to use basketball – players, fans, writing about the game, technical elements, fundamentals, and tactics – as a way to think through issues that at first glance seem far removed from the game. Sometimes these are social issues, sometimes cultural issues, and sometimes, like today, philosophical issues.

I don’t claim to be a philosopher or even to have a thorough or accurate understanding of the philosophy I have studied or read on my own. But I have read a lot of philosophy, I’ve taught a bit of philosophy as part of my day job at Michigan, and I think I have an adequate grasp of some of the basic questions that at least some strands of philosophy have wrestled with.

So I was delighted to discover, when preparing for my course on hoops culture, a book published in 1974 by Leonard Koppett called The Essence of the Game is Deception: Thinking About Basketball. I can’t recommend this book highly enough for its style, wit, clarity, insight, and surprising relevance today. And before I get into riffing on what I make of it, I want to pay its author the respect of talking a little about its success on its own terms.
The book includes a short Introduction, followed by twenty three chapters divided into three sections: “The Game,” “The People,” and “Things to Think About.” The very first of these parts, “The Game,” opens with a chapter entitled, and describing, “The Main Idea” of the book as a whole.

This first chapter itself gives a superb taste of the style of the whole: informal in tone, and ironic, but deeply informed, rigorous, and illuminating. Koppett acknowledges that the theoretical goal of the game is to throw the ball in the hoop, but goes on to argue that “on the real world, physical level, you must ‘deceive’ your opponent in order to get a decent shot, and so basketball is a game in which various types of fakes and feints, with head, hands, body, legs, eyes, are proportionately more important than in other games.” The game, he argues, “boils down to getting good shots, and getting good shots boils down to deceiving the defense.”

Koppett then goes on to introduce the implications of his insight. The first of these is that the game is likely to attract, at its highest levels, a psychologically “devious” type; or, to put it in less dramatic terms, individuals who enjoy deception, who are, as Koppett puts it, “poker” rather than “bridge minded.” Of course, he’s not arguing that this sums up the totality of every basketball player’s psyche. He’s just drawing out the point that just as certain physical gifts draw on to and are in turn reinforced by the particularities of a given sport, so that is also true of psychological propensities. In the case of basketball, it is a kind of delighted and delightful deception, a delight in deception that basketball cultivates, attracts, and rewards.

Koppett doesn’t force all the raw material of the game through the mill of his main idea about deception. Rather he holds the idea lightly throughout his treatment of shooting, dribbling, passing, teamwork, and defense, and likewise when he discusses, in Part Two, the various agents involved in the game such as coaches, players, officials, fans, and the media. He seems to know that to assert that the essence of the game is deception is not the same as saying that the most illuminating way to analyze absolutely every aspect of everything that happens on the basketball floor is in terms of deception.

Koppett’s method, in this sense, is more a kind of empiricism than anything else. He has clearly carefully observed what happens on the floor and he is trying to reverse engineer the game: to look at what actually happens and in a sense imagine what sort of problems it solves, what sort of purpose it serves. In this, reading Koppett was interestingly like reading James Naismith’s account of his invention of the game, but in reverse. Naismith built the game up in his mind by beginning with certain principles and aims and then imagining what sort of play would follow from those and what sorts of rules would be necessary. Koppett takes the ever evolving game as it is in real life and works backward to see what principles and aims must be at work for it to exist the way that it does. In this sense, while deception is for him the essence of the game, it is a kind of immanent presence that expresses itself through myriad particular modes, subordinate aims, and complexly interrelated elements and forces that might play a much stronger role at any given moment than deception itself per se.

All of this combined for me to make reading Koppett a curiously absorbing experience. I say curiously because it was not so much that it was a riveting page turner as that it was mesmerizing. A few weeks ago someone asked me how I watched games, what that was like for me. The best answer I could come up with came relatively instinctively. I said I watched them the way that I watch a fire burn, a river flow, or the ocean break against the shore. All of those things mesmerize me and put me into a frame of mind in which I am somehow simultaneously focused and distracted. Or, in other words, in which I am somehow absorbing the whole while my attention shifts from one evolving particular detail to another. That’s how Koppett books worked for me as I read it.

Reading his Introduction, which I did only after I’d read the whole book, that effect made me happy because it turns out that he was hoping to make the book like a game. He writes:

we will run and shoot and jump and lunge from subject to subject, story to story, thought to thought, and, if we’re fortunate, emerge with some sort of unified network of impressions that constitute, when completed, a successful performance. It won’t be orderly, but basketball isn’t orderly. It may not even be coherent, but basketball often isn’t coherent. But it will try to be, as basketball usually is, fun. And fast. And imperfect.

In this the book is Ray Allen’s perfect three-ball or Kareem’s timeless, unstoppable sky hook dropping in again, and again and again; but also Jordan’s improvisational inventions in traffic or Lebron’s powerful locomotive assaults on the basket or Manú’s slithering serpentine deceptions (on the last of which see Beckley Mason's analysis of his All-Deceptive Team).

All of which brings me to the other point that Koppett identifies as an immediate consequence of his assertion that the essence of the game is deception: namely, that “style attracts more attention in basketball than in other games.” He’s worth quoting at length on this point:

Football and baseball spectators are almost entirely result-oriented: how many yards gained on a play, how many bases or outs made. The means is quite secondary, and the universal tendency is to sneer at ‘showboating,’ defined as any extraneous movement. Flourish and flair do occur in those games, but they are not quite respectable and certainly not the main business of the day. A pop fly down the foul line that just reaches the stands for a bases full homer is accepted as far more thrilling than a 450 foot drive that is caught – even though in his heart of hearts, every baseball fan knows he gets a bigger flash of excitement from the latter He just doesn’t want to admit it. (And yet, when a Willie Mays comes along to combine super-efficiency with colorful style, the fans respond.)

In basketball, though, manner is very important to the spectators. Any knowledgeable crowd will cheer louder for a fancy pass, behind the back, or through the legs, that doesn’t lead to a score than it will for a routine basket. And an acrobatic shot that goes in is best of all. And why not? In other games, there can be many degrees of success: obviously a 15 yard gain means more than a 2 yard gain, and abases loaded triple means more than a bases empty double. But a basket is a 2 points no matter how you make it (except for the American Basketball Association’s 3 pointer, an exception that proves the rule), and there will be 50 to 80 of them in a normal game. The peaks and valleys of spectator delight, therefore are reached as easily by awesome maneuver as by the mere fact of scoring: the dunk or ‘stuff,’ the high speed fast break, the blocked shot, a sequence of passes, fancy dribbling – all transcend sheer efficiency.

While Koppett acknowledges that ultimately winning matters, he also argues that it matters to a proportionally smaller degree than in other serious team games. Because, as he puts it, “in basketball, flair and style are less separable from result, and closer to the essence of the action, and the underlying logic of this attitude folds back over the subject of deception: style is deception, made visible.”

It’s here, as well as in the terms of the very title of the book -- essence, game, deception, thinking, and basketball – that Koppett opens the doors for me on a wondrous philosophical playground. You see, a venerable and popular philosophical view sees the essence of something as the opposite of its appearance. In this view, the way something appears or presents itself to us is deceiving, hiding the true core or essence of the thing as it really, truly is. For such a view, the aim of serious thought is to penetrate that deceptive veil and identify the stable, unchanging core essence of a thing. Only then do you know the truth of that thing.
But philosophers have also thought about that issue in other ways, perhaps none more remarkably than Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher whose complex work is too often reduced to a few “might-makes-right” clichés that lend themselves either to Tony Robbins style self-help slogans or Nazi propaganda. But the Niezsche that Koppett makes me think of is a Nietzsche with a subtle view of essence, appearance, and truth and a – dare I say deceptive – style to match.

For Nietzsche the supposition that there is some hidden essence veiled by a deceptive appearance and accessible only to philosophical reason was a harmful proposition that expresses nothing so much as an aversion to the ever-shifting reality of existence, a hatred for life. Accordingly, Nietzsche harshly criticized philosophies that maintained that view and tried to develop in his own, highly poetic and suggestive style of writing, a philosophy that would emphasize the life-affirming joy of appearance. And nowhere did Nietzsche see this affirmed more strongly than in art, which he saw, in the words of one astute commentator, as “the highest power of falsehood” and the “sanctification of the lie,” and as endowed with the power to invent new possibilities of life.

You may now perhaps begin to see why Koppett’s provocative thesis – that the essence of the game is deception – so excites me. It is Nietzschean though and through in its celebration of the game as an artful contest of subtle deceits. And in embracing the paradox entailed by describing something (the game of basketball) as having deception (or appearance) as its essence, Koppett in my opinion thrusts the game into the realm of art in the most profound and moving sense of the word. But in addition to this, by holding his own thesis lightly and emphasizing instead the fluid, swirling dynamic of the game as it is actually played, even at the cost of a certain systematic order, Koppett makes his own book a work of art as well, a work worthy of Nietzsche, of basketball, and of life.


Cultures of Basketball Course Diary: The Serpent’s Tale (Day 14)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

This also appeared earlier today on the FreeDarko website. But I'm keeping it here for the sake of consistency and for those few readers of mine who come here first

This is a hallowed day. They asked me to play. They actually asked me to play. Okay, well it wasn’t exactly that they asked me to play, but pretty much. Walking across campus to class from my previous class, the fantasy image flashed into the slide projector of my mind: an intra-class pickup game. The still image sprang into motion: all of us going up and down the court at Crisler Arena. I tried to push it aside, tried to stop it. No way I’m going to propose this in class and have the players break into uncontrollable sneering laughter. But then, I walk into class and I’ve barely put my stuff down on the desk when one of the players, having very courteously asked me how my broken hand was doing, said, “We should have a class game.” Moments later, another player walked into class and said the same thing.

I feel I shall burst with joy and excitement. If God himself, donning sweats, had parted the gray Ann Arbor skies, and entered the class on a Golden Litter, born by Clyde, the Hawk, Dr. J, and Wilt, and said, “you know what, that tree of knowledge thing, I was j/k!”, I could have been no happier. A weight of decades has been lifted from my shoulders. It was an auspicious way to begin the home stretch of Cultures of Basketball, after a two week hiatus, and leading in to the much-anticipated visit of none other than Bethlehem Shoals himself to our Ivory Tower next week.

We all began to babble excitedly about the match-up. “Players against the rest of us!” someone shouted. Oh no, I thought to myself, I didn’t wait nearly thirty years to play Division I ball in order to get clowned by a bunch of college kids. If you wanna go players and teacher against the rest of the class, I’m down, but otherwise we’re splitting the players up. Buoyed by my sudden surge of popularity among the players, and the riotous atmosphere of the room, I took a wild risk. I explained that I’d just been thinking the same thing on the way over to class and added, “But in my fantasy of this game, we’re playing at Crisler. So I want to give the players a special group assignment: make that happen.” I’m thinking that’s an impossibility, but that just saying it will curry even more favor. But lo, another player speaks up and says he thinks that shouldn’t be a problem. What! Verily, yea, I will tread the same hardwood as my forefathers CWebb and Jalen, and their forefather, Cazzie, did before them.

An evening of feverish tweeting and e-mailing ensued in which yet another player and I worked out the details of 1) a class lottery, presided over by David Stern, in which the eight players would draw names to round out the rosters for each of their teams and 2) the field of eight three-player teams would be seeded and compete in an April-Madness extravaganza culminating in the crowning of the first ever Cultures of Basketball national champion. My fiancée then tops it all off by suggesting we have the game on a weekend so that she can come up from St. Louis to witness, testify, and oversee the national media hordes that will certainly converge on Ann Arbor for the Blessed Event. So y’all can just get in touch with her about securing your media passes. I’m pretty sure that Ernie and the TNT gang already have their hotel reservations, Dicky V. called to make sure he wouldn’t be excluded, and the Goodyear Blimp, flown by Captain Jon Conrad and crew, has already secured airspace.

Talking to a student later during office hours, he shook his head with dread: “Maybe the players just wanted to play us so they could destroy us.” “Who cares?,” I said to him, “I just wanna play. It’s like when you’re little,” I explained, “you just want your big brother to play with you, you don’t care that he’s gonna beat your ass. It’s just about the attention.” My student smiled and said, “I was the big brother.” Well, okay, but you get the idea. I know I’ll actually be shitting myself on the day of the game, and I’ll probably dribble off my foot, shoot a couple of air balls, and – horror of horrors – be single-handedly responsible for decimating the ranks of next year’s Michigan basketball team by somehow injuring each and every one of the eight players through some clumsy display of aged overreaching. But really, who cares? It’s the sort of moment when it all comes together and several lifetimes’ worth of minor slights and trivial but embittering disappointments are swept away by a deluge that leaves your soul as brand spanking new and clean and naked as Adam and Eve in the Garden.

Speaking of paradise, today’s class was devoted to the section of FreeDarko’s history on Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the first segment of Chapter 4: “The Gold Standard: 1980-1990.” But before we got to Magic and Larry Legend, and after we’d settled down, we had one more bit of topical business to address: the controversy over the Heat “allegedly” crying in the locker room after their 1 point loss to the Bulls the other day, at the time their fourth straight loss. I asked them what they thought and they told me, but then I realized that I didn’t so much want to know what they thought as tell them what I thought they should think, or at least what I thought they should bear in mind as they formed their own judgments of the event.

So we briefly discussed the possible meanings of tears and of emotions in general, the role that emotion plays in sport and in human life more generally, and the way that culture and upbringing, especially as coded by gender, shape the way we judge – and that we feel entitled to judge – public displays of emotion by other human beings.

One of the more interesting points was raised by a student, who pointed out that the gender double-standard also works against female athletes who show anger or swag in the course of competition. In both cases, culturally set parameters of appropriately “masculine” or “feminine” relationships to particular expressions of emotion wind up underwriting thoughtless critical judgments of particular athletes for crossing the boundaries of emotional expression.

It’s sad, really, that young men and women, athletes or not, should be subject to such constraints. And sadder, still, perhaps, that other young men and women should participate in limiting the scope of what it is possible to be and to feel and to show you feel as a young man or young woman. Nothing was resolved, of course, but I think that students by the end of our little conversation were equipped to do more than just accept the terms of the discussion as provided by ESPN or the guy next to them at Buffalo Wild Wings.

Having completed my pontification on the topic of emotion, gender, and athletics, we rode the FD time machine back to Bliss, the Gold Standard, the Paradise of the NBA in the 1980s. The religious, specifically Edenic, lexicon that I’ve been trying to weave into this post is neither accidental, nor really of my own invention. The illustration that fronts the Magic Bird chapter shows the two players, in iconic poses, emerging from a garden lush with sunflowers, ferns, daffodils and tropical foliage.

An unpaid student query about the significance of the image gave me the opportunity to say a few words about the myth of Eden and the kind of cultural work it can do in Judeo-Christian societies. I don’t want to go biblical on your ass, or be too dweebishly unsubtle about it (especially, in view of the compact subtlety of Jacob Weinstein’s visual argument), but it’s worth acknowledging, at least, the force and pervasiveness of that myth in the way that we lace often overly simplistic judgements of good and evil into narratives of memory and history. It’s not that Eden is always invoked explicitly, but rather that it doesn’t have to be because by now it is almost second nature (a distinctly un-Edenic concept, or maybe it is Edenic). Everytime you hear someone talk about the good old days, nostalgia, you know the routine, once upon a time – always, there Eden is at work.

In the case of Magic, and Bird, and the 1980s, it’s certainly understandable, and close to my own heart’s experience, that the myth of Eden should appeal. As FD writes in the brief Introduction to the chapter, the decade saw a truly awesome influx of talent into the game: not just Magic and Larry, but Isiah, Worthy, Jordan, Barkley, Akeem, Stockton, Malone, Ewing and others entered the league in the period. Moreover, unlike, say, in the 1960s, that talent was properly showcased by the rise of ESPN and other forms of media exposure and endorsement deals, all carefully overseen by the – whatever else you want to say about him – far-sighted and shrewd PR vision of Commissioner David Stern. The play on the floor was brilliant and more people than ever were getting to see it. FANtastic was born.

But there’s more to it than that. In Magic and Bird, of course, you had two players with a ready-made rivalry established in the 1979 NCAA title game (itself a watershed moment in most accounts of the college game), and a rivalry amped up by the storied history of the Lakers and Celtics, the franchises they joined. Moreover, as we discussed in class after watching clips of the two players, Magic and Larry truly showcased a remarkably complete (and remarkably similar – a fact I think that is often undernoticed) set of basketball skills.

Though neither was an exceptional athlete by NBA standards, each had the intelligence and put in the work to maximize the gifts they did have and so to turn themselves into astonishingly creative passers and effective rebounders, ball handlers and shooters (more Magic than Larry for the handle, more Larry than Magic for the shot). Both were capable of scoring from unpromising angles and traffic situations, both capable of unselfishly raising the game of their teammates, both clutch and both winners, and both driven to lead by example in squeezing every last drop out of seemingly every play on the floor.

In their styles of play, both players, as Brown Recluse, Esq. (BRE) notes, embodied the happy marriage of ABA creativity with NBA stability. BRE even concludes by correctly observing that Magic and Larry left us as a legacy the freedom that would evolve into positional revolution with oversize point guards, and bigs who can hurt you inside or step out and hit the three. And finally, of course, one was black and one was white. Put it all together and that’s hard to top if you’re looking for Paradise in the history of the NBA.

The myth of the Garden of Eden, though, is more than just an emblem of unadulterated bliss. It describes a tricky pseudo-contract in which submissive ignorance is the price exacted for that bliss. Moreover, it tells us that pain, labor, and sexuality are punishments for the violation of that contract. You remember, right? Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, aspiring in the process to have their blind eyes opened and to see as God sees and, as a result, are cast out of the Garden. Ultimately, the narrative carries for me a dark side by which we are commanded to remain in a childish state -- lacking knowledge, desire, experience, and agency -- if we are to be happy.

I’m not the first to point this out, of course. John Milton in Paradise Lost (perhaps in spite of himself) and William Blake (very much not in spite of himself) long ago suggested or argued outright that it’s not so clear who might be the good guys and the bad guys in the story of our “Fall.” More recently, the British author Philip Pullman rewrote the whole story in his remarkable trilogy His Dark Materials. There Pullman conceives that our “Fall” was really a kind of elevation, a growing-up of the species if you will, prompted by angels rebelling against a God who was really just the first angel, but had usurped authority, styling himself the Creator of the rest, and establishing a tyrannical Kingdom of Heaven in place of the immanent Republic of Heaven.

In Pullman’s reading, the rebel angels did us a favor and every time we think for ourselves, enjoy our existence as beings with minds and bodies, and make independent decisions, every time we assert the right to determine the course of our own futures, we are embodying the empowering legacy that the Judeo-Christian myth of the Fall would have us lament and repent for unto eternity.

Offering this counter-vision doesn’t mean that I think the myth of a fall from grace, or innocence, is useless or bad. Just that it’s a more complicated tool for organizing our understanding of ourselves than might appear at first glance. In my own case, the bliss ushered in by Magic and Bird’s appearance in the NBA (which was indeed a paradise for me: my room was plastered with Magic posters, and I still have a scrapbook I started keeping in 1979 with Magic clippings from the local papers and Sports Illustrated) coincided with my exit from the innocence of childhood via a number of doors simultaneously: I learned to shoot a jump shot, my parents separated, and I entered puberty.

So it was a complicated Eden for me, that: one that sends my mind and my emotional memories snapping back and forth wildly like a standard in a strong wind. But I wouldn’t trade that complicated and painful time – and all that grew from it – for the relatively less complicated, ignorant bliss of pretending to be Clyde in the driveway at age 7.

By now you might be imagining that I am of the Devil’s party, as Blake once said of Milton. Maybe that’s true in some sense. It is certainly true that the serpent is for me the most interesting character in the story. And, in relation to this Golden Era of NBA history, I certainly wonder where (or who or what) the serpent is.

About fifteen years ago, in a first futile stab at doing this kind of writing, during a leave year in which I received tenure at the University, I became fascinated with Dennis Rodman. Around this time Terry Pluto published a book called Falling from Grace (1995). Its subtitle was “Can the NBA Be Saved?” In it, if I remember correctly, Pluto characterized the then-current crop of young players as brawling, trash-talking thugs whose basketball fundamentals were decidedly underwhelming. I’m pretty sure Dennis was singled out in that book, along with a few other players as symptomatic of all that had gone wrong with the game.

At the time, I wrote an essay – now long lost – on the joy of being Dennis Rodman. I wasn’t interested so much in defending Dennis’ style choices (or behavior), so much as pointing out that in his play on the court (tenacious defense, hard-nosed intelligent rebounding, good passing), Rodman embodied many of the values that Pluto himself was nostalgically associating with a different, now bygone era (not to mention race, I remember feeling upon reading the book).

I’m not sure what I’d think of Pluto’s book or of my own argument now. Maybe I wouldn’t stand by it any longer. But I definitely do stand by the impulse I acted on to complicate simple notions of human history that characterize it as either a steady progress toward something good or a steady (or precipitious) fall from something good. That much, perhaps, is the serpent in me.

In fact, maybe the serpent isn’t so much a character in the story, or not only a character in the story, but a role we all step into whenever we question the story and read it against the grain; whenever we take the childish dichotomies we are offered – and which, make no mistake, can be quite useful in limited cases – and begin to poke at the boundaries separating them.

So when I think of the NBA since Magic and Bird’s time, back, when, as they recently wrote, “the game was ours,” I think as much of Bird’s legendary trash-talking, I think of the image of Magic posterizing some chump with a tomahawk jam and then pointing to him as he lay splayed on the floor along the baseline. He wasn’t beaming. Sure I think of and marvel at their amazing array of skills and their run of titles. And I’m genuinely moved by the way their rivalry evolved into friendship and love. But I also think of their personal lives, seriously troubled at times like those of any human being. I think as well, as Brown Recluse, Esq. advises, of the marvelous players that have come after them in a more or less continuous stream since that time, patterning their unusual combination of skills and size and styles of play on some permutation of Magic and Bird.

And when I think that way, the gate at the Eastern end of the Garden of Eden, the one guarded by the angel with the flaming sword, the one that Adam and Eve left through, and that supposedly clearly marks the line between paradise and our own sorry existence starts to blur and fade.

I like that moment because the alternative offered by subscribing to the Eden story is to spend all of existence trying to make up for something I didn’t do and that I don’t think was wrong in the first place. It is to hate actual existence in the name of a time that has long since ceased to exist and that I don’t think ever existed in the first place.

So when the gates swing open, and I can acknowledge the splendor of Magic and Larry Legend in all its complex shadings, then the present and the future open back up and I am once again in a position, as one of Phillip Pullman’s characters urges: “to build the Republic of Heaven right here, because for us there is nowhere else” and to appreciate those in the game and the world today who are laboring to build it too.

go back to read my account of Walton and Jabbar and the politics of the late 70s NBA


Go on to read about our discussion of the Young Michael Jordan here


Clyde the Glide's Guide for the Perplexed

Thursday, March 3, 2011

These thoughts on Walt Frazier's Rockin' Steady first appeared on the audio blog Voice on the Floor. I'm posting here as well for those who wanted to read that more slowly and without my actual voice ringing in their ears.

When people ask me what I do for a living I say I’m a professor. Almost inevitably, there’s a follow-up question: “Oh. That’s cool, what do you teach?” For twenty years, my answer has been some variation on “I teach literature.” If the person was also an academic in the humanities I might be more specific: “I teach Latin American literature” or “Comparative Literature.” But most people aren’t academic humanists, so I’d just say plain “literature.”

I’ve always found it embarrassing and disheartening to see the initial spark of interest sputter and fade when I answered. At best, it seems, literature is escape. For most, I know, literature is boring, pretentious, intimidating, even hateful; and all the more so because it is useless. I love literature. But I’m not proud of the sour taste that the study of literature has left in many people’s mouths. I know it’s not only the fault of literature professors, but certainly some of the blame lies there and, while I do my best to buck that trend, I’m still part of that system.

Lately, I’ve noticed that when that follow-up question comes I involuntarily pause because now I can say something else. I mean: I’ve always taught literature, my PhD is in literature, and my official title at the university is associate professor of comparative literature. But now I am teaching “Cultures of Basketball.” I imagine that will preserve interest. So I say it.
I can tell from the response whether they even heard the word “Cultures” at the beginning of my answer. If they look away glazed, then they heard it alright and I am stuffed back into the irrelevant egghead category – or maybe even worse now because I’ve sullied something as awesome as hoops with my wienerly eggheadery. But if I say it quickly enough – “cultures of BASKETBALL” – then they might miss it. Then I might get all I’ve ever really expected from these brief encounters: A raised eyebrow, a smile, a nod. “These aren’t the droids we’re looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.”

But the real truth is that in my own mind, for better and for worse, they really aren’t different things: literature and cultures of basketball. Because what fascinate me most in either case are the stories we are provoked to tell. It doesn’t make much difference to me whether the provocation comes from a novel, a full-court lob pass, or a good book about the game. I’m fascinated by the relationship that springs up between a reader and a book, a player and the game, or a fan and a play – a relationship that I believe exceeds each of its terms, is more than the sum of its part; a relationship that often gets expressed in the form of a story.

If I thought it would make any sense to the people who ask, I’d want to say I teach stories as a form of feeling, thinking, and acting in relation to the world. I’d borrow the words of the late Joseph Campbell, who spent a lifetime studying, classifying, and writing about the myths of the world, and concluded “we tell stories to try to come to terms with the world, to harmonize our lives with reality.” But who ever heard of that major?

When you spend as much time with stories as I do sometimes they can start to run together. Their uniqueness can fade from view and the different stories begin to appear as examples of a few types of story: for example, the love story, requited or unrequited, comic or tragic. This is how we classify, of course, and while we no doubt temporarily lose something precious and particular when we classify, we also gain (or we create, or we gain by creating) a vision of what is shared and held in common. This sort of vision was the basis for Campbell’s work on world mythology and it led him to some profound insights about the empowering roles that such common elements can play in our individual and collective spiritual and material lives.

I’ve noticed that books on basketball lend themselves to being sorted into a few basic categories. There is, of course, the autobiography and biography. There is the story of a season. There is the playground chronicle. There are historical surveys of the game (either general or emphasizing race, geography, gender, or institutional level or venue). There are the reports of the event that changed the game forever. There are books, often in coffee table format, on a single franchise or college program. Probably there are a few others. In describing these stock categories I don’t mean to disparage the world of basketball literature. Within each of the categories I just named are books that I would count among the most moving and thought provoking I have read.

And I find it interesting to identify the common patterns in the world of basketball mythology and try to understand why those patterns recur and what value they have. The underdog story, the best-there-never-was story, the selfish-individual-learns-team-values story, and so on. From there one might even try restore the specificity of the particular instance and try to understand how – for example – the underdog myth works differently depending on the class and race of the underdog in question. That’s part of the work that I’m trying to do in my course and in my own writing about basketball.

But I also feel drawn by the kind of book that stubbornly resists classification or paraphrase, or that invites multiple, even conflicting classifications. As I was preparing reading lists for my class back in early January, I discovered that the University of Michigan library had shelved the book Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool, by former Knicks star Walt Clyde Frazier and then New York Times reporter Ira Berkow, in the Children’s literature section. The particular classification certainly surprised me, but in another way, it didn’t. Clyde’s book is one of those that resists easy classification. You might even say that it resists sense entirely. And you might think therefore that Clyde’s book is useless, especially as a self-proclaimed guide. But I think nothing could be further from the truth. And that may be why the best place for Rockin’ Steady is the Children’s Literature.

For those unfamiliar with the work – and here already the book begins to resist me as I try to give you a mental picture of it – Rockin’ Steady was originally published in 1974 and was recently republished last Fall. Then as now it’s very format was unusual, large, square, fairly slim (at 144 pages), and richly decorated with photos and illustrations. In addition to the Preface by Berkow, a Foreword by Bill Russell and an Afterword by Clyde, the book has six chapters. 1. Cool; 2. Defense; 3. Offense; 4. Statistics; 5. Rockin’ Steady: Game Day Preparation; 6. A General Guide to Looking Good, and Other Matters. Just the list of chapters begins to give a sense of the book’s unruliness: the way that it seems to defy not only the classificatory schemas we might impose on it from outside, but also its own internal categories. Never mind that the “chapter” on Statistics is two pages long and includes only Frazier’s career stats and his four favorite box scores. In what sense of the word, it is fair to ask, is that a chapter? And even it is a chapter, then in what way does it relate to the chapters that come before and after it?

Once you ignore this and just get into the book things can get even more confusing. For example, the chapter on game day preparation naturally enough includes a description of how Clyde’s driver takes him to the arena. But it also includes a long digression on Clyde’s first car. It’s also hard to know exactly how the discussion of catching flies fits into the “General Guide to Looking Good and Other Matters” that comprises Chapter 6. I mean, obviously it’s part of “other matters,” right? Or is it part of “looking good”? How does it connect to the other topics in that chapter like proper sleep, weight lifting, money, and drying off with a towel after a shower? Even a more conventional chapter like “Offense” (conventionally titled I mean), includes the following within a list of moves and how to execute them: “Hook Shot: I never could shoot a hook shot.” In the “Defense” chapter a numbered list entitled “Fundamentals” promises simplicity and order until it grows like a virus to include 24 items, some subdivided and a few several paragraphs long. Fundamentals?

The book, at the same time, is tremendously absorbing, often moving, and has a quasi cult status. Even President Obama remembers buying it at the age of 12. His age reminds me that at Michigan we’ll find this book in the children’s literature section of the library. And that, after all, it is meant to be a guide. So all this raises for me the question of how to put these two sides of the equation together. A book that defies ready classification, that is internally incoherent, filled with digressions and useless instructions and even non-instructions is also simultaneously a guide revered by none other than the President of the United States for its value at a key formative moment in his life. What sort of guide is this? What sort of guidance does it offer? What is Clyde trying to teach me?

One of my strategies when we in class are stuck facing what appears to us to be a contradiction along the lines of “how can this be ‘x’ when it is also ‘y’?” is to investigate whether “this might be ‘x’ because it is also ‘y.’ What if Rockin’ Steady is a guide not despite but because of the way its excessive, digressive, and useless – but nonetheless absorbing – contents spill beyond all categories, even its own illogical ones? What might something like that be a guide to?

The word that springs to mind is “life.” I don’t mean though that Clyde’s book provides a blueprint for how to live your life, of the sort you might find in the self-help section of the book store. I mean that the experience of reading it is something like a laboratory exercise in life itself. Think about it: cool, offense, defense, statistics, game day, and looking good: isn’t that all of life? Let me translate, a general disposition (“cool”), how to make things happen you want to happen (offense), how to stop things from happening that you don’t want to happen (defense), how to relate to bureaucratic, quantitative forms of measurement (statistics), how to relate to particular events (game day), how to relate to qualitative forms of measurement (looking good). Now, doesn’t that kind of resemble the structure of life?

But of course as I’ve already said the book only looks like a how-to manual. If you really expect to come away from it with the instructions necessary to stop, say, Pete Maravich, then I don’t know what to tell you except that the joke is on you. For one thing, Clyde’s strategy involves getting Pete in a position where he’ll be distracted by the hair flopping into his eyes. Really? Then, even so, you’d still have to adapt Clyde’s instructions for stopping Pete Maravich to your own skill set because, well, you’re not Clyde, and neither am I. Except when I am. But wouldn’t it always be the case with any kind of guide to something as volatile and varied as life that you’d have to adapt it?

And wouldn’t it also have to be ironic, like these instructions that are not instructions. A great Argentinean writer, Julio Cortazar, once published a book that included instructions for doing everyday things: How to Cry, How to Climb a Staircase, How to Wind a Watch. Among the effects of such instructions is that we begin not only to look more closely at these everyday activities but also to wonder about our readiness to receive instructions for completing any but the simplest mechanical tasks.

If we step back, along with Clyde, and can laugh not only at him, as he does, but at our own frantic efforts to master this guide, to tie the whole thing up into a neat package that we can summarize and send on its way to the proper shelf then we can begin to see how it delivers an object lesson in dealing with at least those aspects of life that call for self-ironizing humor.
So I’m suggesting that one way to read Rockin Steady is as a kind of tutorial experience in life: confusing, promising, disappointing, edifying, amusing, moving, instructive, frustrating and, above all, meaningless apart from the effort you make to craft a meaning, a story if you will, from the elements it provides.

It might be that in this Clyde’s book is like other books that break molds and don’t fit neatly into the standard schemas by which we organize common patterns. Maybe what those books share is that they drive us to have – and not just hear about -- an experience in the course of reading them, and, thus, in the course of reading them, to gain practice for the lives we will live after we close them.

Those books might not be useful in our usual sense of the word. I’m reminded of the late novelist Italo Calvino who concluded a long article called “Why Read the Classics” with the following equivalent of a shoulder shrug: “it is better than not to read the classics.” I think Calvino was saying it’s not what the classics tell you that make them important, it’s what they do to you while you read them that’s important. In that respect, Rockin’ Steady is, for me, a classic.

And, if I think of classics as texts with which we help form our young, then what better place for Rockin’ Steady than the children’s section?


There Is No Spoon: Towards a Microphenomenal Hoops Criticism

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

It’s Spring Break, I’m home in St. Louis, and while my students are busy doing their hoops homework on the sunny soft beaches of Florida, Texas, and Mexico, the bi-weekly imperative of the course diary is temporarily relaxed. So in addition to finally putting together my reflections on Rockin Steady and why it’s in the Children’s Section of the library for the upcoming edition of Voice on the Floor, I’m also taking this time to try to explore more deeply some basic questions arising from my particular adventures in basketball fandom.

As I understand the history behind the notion of “liberated fandom,” Bethlehem Shoals and the crew at FreeDarko introduced it a few years ago in order to create a space in which basketball discussion could be more than just 1) crowing or moping about our favorite teams or 2) dissecting the personnel decisions of management because we had no control over them. One effect of the idea (if not its intention) seems to me to have been to allow us, even as we still held our team rooting interests, to become attached to individual players regardless of their team affiliation. In that sense, the notion entailed displacing the “team” in order to accommodate appreciation of the individual, regardless of whether he was on your “home” team or a rival, on a good or bad team.

Around the time FreeDarko was founded and the idea first floated, I was in the heart of Pistons territory. I’d been whole heartedly rooting for them since they came back from down 3-1 to beat TMac’s Magic in the first round of the 2003 NBA playoffs. In the draft that year, given what the Pistons already had and what I’d read about him, the now-notorious Darko draft pick (whereby he was made the number 2 pick after LeBron James but ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dywane Wade and Chris Bosh) made sense to me and I was excited to see him integrated into this intriguing and improving team of under-the-radar flyers.

As Darko’s long long stint on Coach Larry Brown’s bench unfolded into a saga, I must confess that, though somewhat torn, I placidly toed the franchise line. At the time, I was participating regularly on pistonsforum.com (a fine fan site distinguished by the intelligence and courteousness of its core posters). There were a few vocal dissenters on the site who felt for a variety of reasons that Darko should be getting more run (this is before FreeDarko, remember). But I wasn’t one of them. I wouldn’t have minded. I wasn’t anti-Darko or anything. But like the solid coach on the floor point guard I was raised to be, I assumed that Larry Brown had his reasons and that they were good. After all, Larry was the Hall of Fame coach and, most of all, it was hard to argue with the results. The Pistons won the 2004 title and pushed the 2005 finals to Game 7 before dropping a series they could have won. And that was what was important to me.

The next season, Brown was replaced as coach by Flip Saunders and Darko was traded mid-season to the Orlando Magic. They won a bunch of regular season games and would make the Eastern Conference Finals that season and the next two. But they wouldn’t get back to the Finals before the excruciating process of breaking up an aging core and trying to rebuild around younger players began. At some point during those last two seasons I started to feel both bored and uneasy as a Pistons fan.

I felt bored because I knew they’d peaked and I knew they weren’t going to make the finals anymore. It wasn’t even their failure to do so that was bothering me, though. It was that their failure was predictable. But I was uneasy because I felt disloyal compared to my fellow forumites, many of whom were lifelong residents of Detroit and fiercely loyal to the franchise.

I remember one thread from late April 2006 that someone started about other teams and players that fans were having “affairs” with. I was interested in the thread, and so were a few other stalwart Pistons fans. We spent a few days confessing secret love for Kobe, DWade, Nash and others. It was thrilling, but perhaps expressible, even tolerable, only because it was tethered to the solid familiarity of our unwavering loyalty to the Pistons. Little did I know, at that time, that the feelings we were tentatively airing in our little corner of the basketball world had already been named and promoted as the birthright of all fans by the writers over at FreeDarko.

But not without resistance, naturally. For what could strike more to the soft beating heart of the Basketball Fan than the assertion that one might prefer an individual to a team? Isn’t what makes our game the Game the way that individuals sublimate their individual ego-interests for the sake of the W and the eternal glory of the team? We might have incensed a few solid Pistons fans because we were straying from that particular team during the spring of 2006. But imagine the reaction if we had gone further and asserted that we didn’t really care that much about teams period, let alone whether they win or lose.

In hoops, of course, it is still considered that the team wins games (at least least until we start compiling won loss records for franchise players like they do for pitchers in baseball, which may be where we are headed). All the marketing of individual stars, all the talk about the greatest individual players being great because of the rings they’ve won – all of that exists within a context in which, I think, everyone still believes that overall and in the broader scheme of things it is the team that wins the games.

I’m pointing this out in order to draw attention to the maybe obvious fact that “liberated fandom’s” displacement of the centrality of the team also opened the question of what criteria – if not winning, since only teams do that – might be used for judging individual players. Or, in other words, if we love teams either because they are our “home” teams or because they win, then why do we love (or hate) individual players?

The truth is, I think, that this displacement as applied to individual players also reverberated, at least as far as FreeDarko-thinkers were concerned, and so wound up expanding also the scope of reasons for choosing which teams to follow. So “liberated fandom” comes to rest in my mind as asserting the legitimacy of liking individual players as much as teams, and of liking players and teams both for reasons other than effectiveness at producing wins, and therefore making questions of taste and the art of advocating for taste a legitimate enterprise for someone thinking and writing about the game.

I doubt FreeDarko’s brain trust would want to claim that the idea was unknown before they tagged it with a catchy phrase (after all, as a kid in Wisconsin in the 70s, I vastly preferred the Vikings to the Packers because a) I dug purple and gold b) I liked watching Fran Tarkenton run around). And I know for a fact that in the years since they did so, they have, Shoals especially, tried to be careful to protect the nuances of the position.

I say this because I don’t want to overstate the novelty of this position or to rehearse a silly argument about whether there is room at the hoops banquet for raising a glass to those players or groups of players or teams that we love even when they are not effective; maybe even because of the way in which they are not effective. That compromises nobody’s right to cheer for the home team, or to bow in admiration of the one franchise that happens to put it together and secure the title in a given year. It just amplifies the range of what we can love in the game, the field of joy the game can provide and I don’t understand, frankly, how anybody could be against that.

Moreover, having spent most of my career thinking and writing about why I love the books that I love, I’m profoundly grateful for the path FD opened whereby I could apply my interests and skills to something I love even more than books: basketball.

In fact, in the very spirit of contributing the idea of something like a “sports criticism” that would be attentive simultaneously to specific, formal aspects of any given manifestation of the game and to the historical roots and social and cultural implications of that manifestation, as well as offer arguments supporting one’s affinities and aversions, I want here to push the idea of liberated fandom a little further along a path already suggested on FreeDarko and that I alluded to in an earlier post on style in the early NBA. I’m interested in advancing the possibility of a microphenomenal analysis of the game that could be the sports critical equivalent of close reading.

[WARNING: Over simplified literary critical excursus for those interested. Skip the following paragraph if you just want to get on with the ballin’.

In literary studies, close reading has traditionally been viewed as a way of approaching a text that excludes consideration of external factors in the course of interpretation. Understood in this way, it was felt to be at odds with approaches that would interpret texts in light of literary or cultural history, other art forms, philosophy, or society. But I’ve thought for some time that there’s no reason why close reading, where we attend to the formal details of a text (or even of just fragments of a text) like style, diction, and so forth, can’t be seen as a critical part of understanding how a text fits into the history of culture as well as into the social and cultural present of the world.]

Now back to the game. I’m interested in advancing the possibility that we can liberate ourselves from our attachment to individual player identities as well and in so doing open a space in which we can love (or hate) a fragment of physical motion, a facial expression, or an element of style.

As I say, I think this much is already implied by FreeDarko's Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. Sure, it hews to the liberated fandom guidelines and organizes itself around individual players as expressions of certain types (the Master Builder, the Uncanny Peacocks, etc.). But when you look closely to see what those individual players are “made of” you find combinations of just the things I noted above: fragments of physical motion, facial expression (or gestures), and elements of style. In any given style guide illustration in that book the things I love are drawn and named in glorious living color. Take Chris Paul: “exacting vision at multiple depths” + inifintesimally brief stoppage of time” + extremely quick change od irection within fixed space” + minute incisions, precise and sharp” and so on. TO love, Chris Paul, in other words, is to love this particular combination of elements.

But can we love and organize our vision and thinking around these elments, and not only around the players that combine them artfully? I am trying to imagine a book on the game that organizes itself around these kinds of elements, fragments, or partial moves. The straight vertical rise: it’s a fragment of physical motion deployed by Ray Allen when he shoots a three, Dwayne Wade when he flushes at the end of a baseline drive, but also a Bill Russell block. Lateral change of speed and or direction: in Iverson’s cross over, but also in Artest’s perimeter defense.

From there, as is suggested in tantalizing, inventive brevity by FD’s almanac, that book would offer musings, meditations, fugues really, on the meanings (basketball, social, aesthetic, and philosophical) of these fragments. I would be free to love and follow “the move” (my shorthand for a piece of motion) as it migrates like an electric current from player to player, offense to defense, team to team, around the league, beyond the league, traversing all seemingly impermeable barriers at the speed of light and thereby reconfiguring all we hitherto deemed to be solid.

I know the Matrix is well-worn as a source for comparisons, but I can’t resist trying this one on for size. The so-called “old League”, where we are bound to our team affiliations regardless of who is wearing the jerseys, is like the Matrix when we don’t know how it works, like at the beginning of the movie. Liberated fandom is like being in the Matrix once you know how it works. It radically increases your potential and actual capacity within it, but still within certain limits. What I am fantasizing is having the eyes to be in the Matrix but seeing it all in code, like Neo does before he explodes the agent at the end. I’m dreaming of having the eyes to see all the zooming quantum particles of hoops action zooming around in all their defiant uncertainty and simplicity.

I feel like this would accommodate yet another – microphenomenal -- level on which I am drawn to the game. Not now only because “my team” wins (or loses artfully), not now only because “my player” excels (or fails to do so) through some freakish and exciting combination of skills, but also because “my move” – the bit of pure motion or rest that I love above all others – has momentarily gripped hold of the action on the court and become, for the briefest flash of time, the center around which the basketball universe turns.

But don’t let me mislead you. My enthusiasm for this, my fervent wish for the eyes to see and appreciate it, and my firm advocacy for amplifying our hoops vocabulary so that we might become fluent in the language of these dynamic fragments – none of that means that I don’t care about teams or players or about the game as a mystifying, beautiful whole.

On the contrary, for me, it is my way of caring about teams and individual players both. I want, in other words, to see at all levels at the same time and to be free to love (or hate) teams or players because I can see the way that they are themselves just uniquely invented combinations of these faster than light fragments. It might be something like a high-def sports criticism that could then begin to approximate the complexity not only of the game on the floor, but of the webs of affect that bind us to it.


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