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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.


PQ March 6, 2011 at 6:50 PM  

Great piece.

The clips posted on the YouTube channel for "outsidethenba" seem to embody this microphenomenal appreciation of the game pretty well.

For instance, this clip from last night. A missed field goal that was just...pure magnificence. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4xH2ZWtOcM

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