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Carrying the Ball and Other Things (Hoops Culture v 2.0, Day 2)

Friday, September 9, 2011

In many ways, last year’s course diary was a reading: a reading of texts, a reading of classroom dynamics, a reading of myself. If so, then this semester I’m rereading: literally rereading FreeDarko’s textbook, but also rereading the experience of the class and rereading myself in a new context. And as with any “text,” rereading “Cultures of Basketball” will sometimes yield fresh perspectives and insights and sometimes simply resurvey familiar ground. I’m not committed to a regular course diary. It will depend on whether the different context within which I’m doing this “rereading” allows me to say something I haven’t already said (also on how much time I actually have). That said, Day 2 felt fresh and different to me than Day 2 last semester. Things came up that didn't come last semester: about literary readings, plot structures, and metaphors, all, of course, wrapped up in the amazing story of the invention of basketball.

Last year on Day 2, after spending a fair bit of time in class making me feel calmer, we briefly discussed the work of origin stories, compared the “Down by Law” chapter in FreeDarko’s history to the James Naismith chapter “The Origin of Basketball”, and then launched somewhat spastically into a lively discussion of basketball as religion. I had imagined doing something more or less like that this time around, and until I reread the texts for the day and was struck by how, well, literary, they were. 

Readers familiar with FreeDarko’s book will not be surprised by this impression. In fact, you may, rather, be surprised that the literary quality of the writing made an impression at all since it is so evident. But what I mean is that, as often happens when one rereads a literary text, I was far more tuned into the details of its literary operation, to the how it is producing the effect it is producing. Whereas last year I was content (ecstatic, in fact) to use the text’s religious references to have a general discussion about basketball, this year I was drawn more deeply into the rich, metaphorical fabric of the text. As for Naismith, last year I described Naismith’s narrative as a dry, logical monologue, a kind of desert of affect punctuated by the oasis of discovery. So I was very surprised as I began to read the chapter again this year to find myself in the presence of a riveting quest narrative comparable to The Odyssey, Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, Star Wars, or The Matrix.

Combined, I realized, I had two exemplary texts, perfect for teaching (at least some of) the basics of literary reading: plot, character, and style. And, I realized, that is what I wanted to teach, or to convey to the class: that it was not just a class about basketball, but a class about the cultures of basketball, the categories and stories through which we participate and consume the game and then, from there, go on to invent our own narratives of the games and, from there, to go on and exercise more agency in inventing the narratives of our lives. I loved my class last year, and I believe some of them, at least, to their credit, were able to extract that from the chaos that was my teaching. But this time around, I hope, more might get it and not despite but rather because of my teaching.

We started with Naismith. For those who haven’t read the book, when Chapter III (“The Origin of Basketball”) begins, we have already read of Naismith’s early childhood, his theological studies, his hearing the call of athletics and subsequent employment by the Springfield Y.M.C.A. We’ve heard, then (in Chapter II), in more detail, about the specific mission that Naismith with which Naismith is tasked: to devise an indoor game to occupy the attention of a particularly unruly class of students.

Chapter III opens thusly: “Two weeks had almost passed since I had taken over the troublesome class. The time was almost gone; in a day or two I would have to report to the faculty the success or failure of my attempts. So far the had all been failures, and it seemed to me that I had exhausted my resources. The prospect before me was, to say the least, discouraging.” And, just a bit further down: “I had nothing new to try and no idea of what I was going to do” … “I saw the end of all my ambitions and hopes.” “With weary footsteps,” Naismith tells us he “mounted the flight of narrow stairs” to his office. “I slumped down in my chair, my head in my hands and my elbows on the desk. I was a thoroughly disheartened and discouraged young instructor.”

How had I missed this gloom last year?! Like Frodo and Sam wandering in weary circles in the Emyn Muil, lost and hopelessly searching for the Dead Marshes; like Luke whining bitterly next to the swamp on Dagobah; like Neo, Trinity, and Tank facing certain doom while Morpheus is interrogated and sentinels swarm the Nebudchadnezzar; like these heroes, Naismith opens the chapter in the grip of despair, in his own private abyss. The setting may not be spectacular or fantastic, but Naismith is a questing hero stuck in an underworld, bereft of both resources and hope.

What follows in the chapter hews fairly closely to the components of the quest monomyth: Naismith summons his courage, begins tentatively to explore his options, identifies what turns out to be a passage or light in the darkness (there shall be no carrying the ball), and the proceeds down the uncertain, but smoother, path to his promised land (he deduces the remaining rules of the game). Upon his arrival, he is no longer the same James Naismith. Now, he is the inventor of a game, who has succeeded on his impossible quest. The final words of the chapter: “When the first game had ended, I felt that I could now go to Doctor Gulick and tell him that I had accomplished the two seemingly impossible tasks that he had assigned to me: namely to interest the class in physical exercise and to invent a new game.”

I wanted students first of all to be able to step back from the “information gathering” mode of reading and to see how writers structure their texts, to see that writers structure their texts into narratives and that as diverse as those narratives may be in terms of specific details they also tend to conform to certain basic types that are used time and again because of the way they affect readers.

And I wanted them to understand the quest narrative specifically not only because it’s the one that Naismith uses, but because it is one that is so commonly mobilized in athletic contexts. The fortunes of teams and of individual players, the arc of games, seasons, careers and dynasties are often narrated in terms drawn from quest narratives in which we are implicitly invited to identify with a heroic protagonist and to pull for him or her to succeed in their quest. Understanding this can help to empower the reader to engage the text not only for information, not only for pleasure, but critically as well. Who, you can ask, is being situated as the hero of this quest? Do I really want to identify with this hero and with his goals? What am I being sold along with the story of, say, Dirk Nowitzki’s quest for a championship ring?

Of course, going back to Naismith, he is not literally on a quest because he doesn’t actually go anywhere. He is on a mental quest, which means, in a sense that the quest narrative structure he uses (consciously or not) to plot his own tale is a metaphor. It’s an extended structural metaphor, but it’s a metaphor nonetheless, just as it is a metaphor when FreeDarko opens its tale of the history of pro basketball by saying “In 1891, basketball was born; it then took more than fifty years to mature.” “Born” and “mature” are terms used metaphorically because they are qualities of living things and basketball is not a living thing. But those qualities are being transferred or carried across (the word metaphor comes from the Greek to carry across and, by the way, I think there’s something nice about that etymology and the fact that Naismith’s eureka moment – the Greek meaning “I’ve got it!” – was the prohibition on carrying the ball) from one domain to another. So what’s a metaphor good for? Why use metaphors? The standard first response is that metaphors make the experience of reading more interesting. But why, what is more interesting? How is reading a metaphor more interesting?

In the first place, metaphors (which the philosopher and literary critic Paul Ricoeur called “deviant naming”) serve a cognitive function. Aristotle noted that “ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh.” We might cleverly deconstruct the opposition between “ordinary words” and “metaphor”, but there’s plenty to gain, especially for beginners, by accept the distinction. We can see then that with metaphors not only is new light shed on a familiar subject, but our intellectual faculties are engaged and we are forced to do the work of discovering (or constructing) new relationships and connections among previously unrelated things. To say “basketball was born” is, implicitly, to require a reader to investigate the question: “in what ways is the game of basketball like a living thing?” 

There’s no single answer to that question. But in the course of investigating it (even very rapidly as we assimilate the metaphor unconsciously) we are discovering qualities of the game (and of living things) that we might not have considered previously. In his book on child development and education, noted educational philosopher Kieran Egan makes the metaphorical use of language and metaphorical thinking the cornerstone of the earliest stage of post-linguistic child development, which he calls “mythic understanding,” and emphasizes its key role in developing not only language competence but our ability to learn, even later in life.

The other reason I believe we find metaphor interesting derives from its emotional force. We might say, rationally, that basketball is not a living thing (and so could not literally be born or mature). But it’s probably also true for many of us that the game feels like a living thing, just as Naismith’s struggles to solve the problems set to him felt like a quest journey. In this sense, the cognitive work metaphor requires us to do enables us to understand something not only about the world outside of us (basketball and living things; or Naismith’s experience and arduous missions), but about the world inside of us, about ourselves, and also about the relationship between the two. Because in coming up with the ways in which basketball is like a living thing we are coming up with at least some of the reasons why we feel about it that it is a living thing.

Part of the fun of the kind of literary reading that we can do when we pay attention to even simple textual devices like narrative structures and metaphor is the way we are activated as it were, empowered to enter into a more active relationships with a text and its author. Rather than passively gathering information which we will then spit back as though we were recording devices (note the mixed metaphors in that sentence), we become cocreators, participating in a conversation with the author, even if, like Naismith, he is long dead. We elaborate upon the author's words, tell our own stories, experience new feelings, have new thoughts.

Naismith’s story, as students pointed out, structured as it is, denaturalizes the existence of basketball. It makes us see something that we take for granted as fresh and new and contingent (it might not have been at all, and it certainly might not have been the way that it was). Perhaps that makes us appreciate it more. Perhaps it provokes wonder. Perhaps, more broadly, it makes us appreciate human imagination and creativity.

As for FD’s chapter on Naismith, it runs through a metaphorical recapitulation of several thousand years of human history. In class, we identified a succession of five governing metaphors (in order of appearance): 1. The Mosaic metaphor; 2. The Lutheran metaphor; 3. The Enlightenment metaphor; 4. The Romantic metaphor; 5. The Constitutional metaphor. These metaphors allowed us to begin to discover and play with qualities of the game and its invention. It is mythic, awe-inspiring, transcendent and foundational (like Moses and the ten commandments); historical, concrete, corrective, and consequential (like Luther and his 95 theses). It is systematic, logical and pragmatic (like the 18th century scientist or engineer) and it is imaginative, fevered, and inspired (like the Romantic poet). Finally, it is constitutive and flexible, like the American constitution.

To explore how the invention of basketball is like all of these world historical icons and instances is to explore the tremendously rich cultural possibilities in the game and its history. And to explore that is also to explore the various emotional modalities of our fascination with the game. But reading in this way, I hope, not only shed light – as it did last year – on the many different ways we can and do feel and think about basketball. I hope also that it helped the students to recognize the force of their own creative powers as readers and storytellers.

It may be just fine to go back and forth in an argument about whether Kobe or Lebron is the better player. But, as I told the students, we are built to do so much more.


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