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Soylent Green is People! (Hoops Culture v 2.0, Day 5)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I wrote a lot about metaphor and its many important functions in my last post. Tuesday’s class (on the Celtics’ teams of the late 50s and 60s) provided our class with an opportunity to experience first hand the rich power of strong simple metaphors to provoke us to exercise our powers of creative thought and to complicate our received ideas about things. As usual, the point of departure was a chapter in FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History

For those unfamiliar with the text (and if you are a fan of basketball and interested in cultural history, you really ought not remain unfamiliar with this wonderful book), it is divided into seven chapters (numbered “0” through “6”) and all but one of these chapters is further subdivided into anywhere from three to six sections. Each of the seven chapters is dedicated to a different period of professional basketball history. Thus, “Chapter Zero: Up from the Waters” takes on the period from 1891 to 1946, “Chapter One: A More Perfect Union” from 1947-1956, and so on, roughly by decades thereafter. So Chapter Two covers the period from 1957 to 1969. Entitled “They Walked This Earth”, the chapter includes six sections within it. For Tuesday’s class we read the first of these, called “Green and Black and Red All Over.”

1 Gods and Dinosaurs

Because we’d be working with this chapter for the next four class periods, I wanted to create a sense of the metaphorical backdrop for the work we’d be doing over the next two weeks. Like every chapter in the book, the title of this one is a metaphor: “They Walked This Earth”. So in order to evoke the backdrop, we began class with a short discussion of that metaphor. The question I posed was a simple one: “What does the metaphor ‘they walked this earth’ evoke for you as a reader?”

Like the students in last semester’s edition of Cultures of Basketball, they quickly struck the most productive metaphorical veins: gods and dinosaurs. This time, rather than dictate to them the importance of these metaphors, I let them run a bit, asking them to tell me what qualities they associated with gods, first, and then dinosaurs. They came up with a range of qualities. For gods: immortality, domination, superhuman powers, interaction with humans; for dinosaurs: domination, great size, evolutionarily superseded (i.e. extinct). And for both: subject to legend and myth. Of course, dinosaurs are also the subject of archaeology and natural history, but for most of us dinosaurs are the subjects of anthropomorphized narratives that entertained us as children.

So the metaphorical title “They Walked This Earth” encourages us to consider the ways in which the figures to be treated throughout the course of Chapter Two were like gods or dinosaurs. Some of these ways may pertain to the figures themselves. For example, the Celtics really did dominate professional basketball in that era, just as the dinosaurs dominated the earth during their era. Likewise, when we get to him, we might easily see that Wilt Chamberlain brought attributes of size, strength, athletic ability, and skill to the game that no other individual player had ever before exhibited and, in that sense, was to other players of his time as a god might be to human beings.

But already with the example of Wilt, we can see that one of the ways in which the figures of Chapter Two are like gods or dinosaurs is that, perhaps in part because they played prior to the living memory of many fans (and all of the students in the class) and in part because they played in a less media rich time, their qualities and exploits are subject to legendary or mythological recounting. Roughly 19,000 were in the building to witness first hand Kobe Bryant scoring 81 points against the Raptors a few years ago. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions more, saw it live on television. And probably millions more have since seen the game on video, at least clips of it. But only 4,124 saw Wilt score 100 in 1962. Period. Nobody saw it on television, live or otherwise, because there were no television cameras there. No video cameras either. There were two photographers at the game. One left in the first quarter and the other took just a handful of pictures. That’s it. Anything from the past that we cannot witness first hand can become the stuff of history. Anything from the past that we cannot witness first hand and that is surpassing in its greatness or horror becomes the stuff of legend and myth. This much, more and less, I covered in class and in my post on this last semester. From here, on though, class went in a very different direction.

 2 Machines and Men

All this, remember, is just to set the backdrop for Chapter Two. It prepares us as readers, as it were, for what we are going to read when we turn the page. But for now, we’ve only read the title so far. When we turned the page, with these things in mind, we begin to read about the Celtics’ teams of the 50s and 60s. So rich with metaphorical potential are these teams, so richly realized is that potential in FreeDarko section on those teams, that it is easy to overlook the work that metaphor is doing.

As a means to draw attention to that work, I asked them first to simply state the facts as they had been able to glean them from the reading. The facts: 1) the Boston Celtics basketball club won 11 of the 13 NBA Championships awarded between 1957 and 1969, including a stretch of 8 consecutive championships from 1959-1967; 2) no other team has ever done this or, really, come close; 3) Arnold “Red” Auerbach was the general manager throughout the run and coach through the 1967 title year; 4) the teams were, throughout the run, racially integrated. Two additional facts already begin to shade into interpretation: 1) that Auerbach’s Celtics were the first NBA team to turn the specialization of basketball tasks into an organizing principle and 2) that Auerbach’s Celtics were the first team to conceive of the fast break as a central strategy employed to both offensive and defensive purpose.

And, really, that’s about it as far as facts go. The rest, for the most part, is interpretation; interpretation, metaphor, and storytelling. So once we’d enumerated those facts, we began to look at a few of the central metaphors organizing the chapter. The central metaphor of the chapter, in fact, is not given in words but rather through Jacob Weinstein’s striking two page print of a large green machine. Distributed evenly upon the machine, operating various buttons, levers, pulleys, and pedals are seven players (recognizable to those familiar with the Celtics of the period as Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, John Havlicek, and Tommy Heinsohn). Each player is portrayed in a posture that evokes (sometimes only loosely) the basketball task for which they would be best known. On a bench in the lower right, smoking a lit cigar, sits the figure of Red Auerbach, watching with a smug smile as a parade of shiny gold trophies passes by him on a conveyer belt: the output of this green machine.

The Celtics were a machine for producing titles. That’s the metaphor. And so in class, as we did with dinosaurs and gods, we came up with some qualities of machines: impersonal, efficient, productive. Again, we might have come up with more (for example, greater than the sum of their parts), but this gave us a good start to a discussion about the ways in which the Celtics were like a machine and so, in that way, a handle on some of the distinctive features of that team. They were efficient, they were productive, and each individual part did connect to and complement the other individual parts. Putting it together with the metaphor of legends of gods and giant prehistoric beasts, we might characterize what we’ve constructed as something like “The Myth of the Green Machine.” So far so good. And what fan wouldn’t want their team to be an efficient machine for winning championships?

But in the text of the chapter also opens by casting at least a potential shadow over that thrilling vision. “Usually,” Bethlehem Shoals tells us, “when we confront this kind of sustained, bone-pulping dominance, there’s cause for uneasiness.” Perhaps the machine does more than make trophies. Perhaps it grinds up the very men that make it up, or that are fed into it (see, for example, the grisly wood-chipping scene in Fargo). Shoals goes on: “At some point along the path to perpetual victory, souls are sold, man becomes machine. This is the banner of the twentieth century.” Not only, in other words, does the super machine possibly feed off the bones of men, but perhaps it feeds off their very souls. All well and good to have your team efficiently churning out titles, but, we are encouraged to ask what is the price? If we pay for our titles with bones and souls, is that too high a cost? Ethical questions aside, can we, as fans, even root for a machine?

Fortunately, we are quickly reassured, the Celtics teams “never forfeited their humanity. They reveled in it in fact.” Bones and souls are metaphors for the human being. And so, in class, accordingly, we riffed a bit on the human: individuality, freedom of will, and personality. All of these, Shoals tells us, the Celtics maintained, even as they grew into the Great Green Machine. In a way, it might be fair to read the chapter as emphasizing and celebrating the idea that the Celtics were at once men and parts of an unstoppable machine. Or, from another point of view, it is a chapter about the harmonious mixing of metaphors: cogs and parts, wheels and engines, bones and souls – they may be fruitfully combined and how comforting and important a story that is on the heels of a century so often characterized by the unhappy collision between human beings and their machines.

The question, of course, is how the Celtics managed this. While this section of Chapter two offers a succinct, engaging and, so far as it intends to, factually accurate account of the process, it abstracts from this no generalizable formula, no blueprint. Instead, it concludes by recasting the entire enterprise as a undeniable but still mystifying “nonanswer” to a mythical query: “the spinxlike riddle of basketball: How do individual and team coexist in a way that makes the most of both? Auerbach’s intermingling of player and tema identity is perhaps his greatest insight. And at the same time, it’s a nonanswer. That might explain why, to this day, no team has managed to replicate either Red’s methods or the run of success they yielded.” Indeed it might, but it might not.

Here is where, as we combed the chapter for metaphors, we encountered another one. A metaphor, in fact, for Red’s method. It comes near the beginning of the chapter when we are told that “Auerbach put his players in chains so that they might really be free, limiting their roles so they might truly flourish.” Whoa! Auerbach didn’t literally put his players in chains, but what a productive metaphor! What other kinds of figures put human beings in chains, we wondered? Slave owners and prison wardens. Red’s not looking so benign now, not so much a figure to emulate. But, we continued, metaphorically there are other figures that restrict your freedom ostensibly for your own good. We came up with parents, teachers, clergy and – students now making up their own metaphors – engineers.

3 Chains Chains Chains

The metaphor of Red chaining his players for their own sake, so that they might flourish not only as a team but as individuals seems to me, for lack of a better word, an aggressive one in that it reintroduces the shadow of an unhappy collision of machine and man even in the paragraph that would have us reassured that the Celtics paid no such price for the assembly of the Great Green Machine. It can lead (and it led us, in our discussion) simultaneously 1) to problematize the legend of a magical, artful synthesis of individual and team identity on the Celtics 2) to complicate the simple opposition between individual and team and 3) to think more broadly not just about the Celtics but about the ways in which great teams become great and about the psychodynamics of the individuals composing those teams.

Maybe, Shoals, concluded, nobody has managed to replicate Red’s methods or the Celtics’ success because there is in fact no answer to the riddle of basketball, the tension between individual and team identities or aspirations. But if Red metaphorically chained his players so that they might be free it may also be the case that nobody has replicated the methods or success because our culture (at more than a half-century’s remove from the Celtics dynasty and in the wake of the civil rights movements at home and decolonization abroad) no longer accepts so readily the idea of chaining individuals for the sake of their greater freedom. Or maybe (or maybe also) because – at least where athletics is concerned – the greater number of options available to individual players makes it harder to put chains on them. There was no free agency when Red assembled those Celtics teams and not many options for would-be pro basketball players (especially African American ones) outside of whatever the Celtics offered them.

I'm reminded of a question Baruch Spinoza set out to address in his political philosophy: why do human beings cling to their slavery as dearly as if it were there freedom? Maybe the Celtics offer an answer. Or maybe Spinoza's question offers a rhetorical redescription of what the Celtics mystique was really all about.

Of course, my hypothesis of a cultural shift away from the idea that it might be good for one’s freedom to submit to chains need not only be seen as a positive thing. It is that, I believe. But if we stretch the metaphor a bit that perhaps we feel that it would be better if, as a culture, we were more able, at the very last, to constrain ourselves with a long view. A range of issues from the environment to finance to individual health to civil discourse might look different if we were more willing to constrain ourselves with an eye toward a greater good, both for the individual and the collective of which he or she is a part. We might see this not so much as submitting to another’s chains as voluntarily channeling our desires and our powers in a more focused direction. I certainly don't want to go on record as saying that self-discipline is an undesirable quality in human beings. But to go from self-discipline to submitting to the chains of another we traverse a broad gray area marked by such varied socio-psychological forms as social contracts, populism, fascism, ideology, and hegemony.

Like all things worthy of discussion in a humanities class, I don’t believe there is a single correct answer or position on the questions that these strong metaphors elicited in our class. How to reconcile individual desire, well-being, and identity with the desires, well-being and identities of the multiple groups and collectives in which we as individuals participate is a question, properly, for the ages. The responses to that question that we come up with, whether theoretical or practical, should always be scrutinized and revisited and, of course, adjusted when they are found wanting.

What I find particularly thrilling about the experience of this class, when it is at its best, is that the study of a moment in basketball history, including the study of literary writing about that moment, can lead us from the analysis of a Celtics fastbreak to a discussion of the psychological dynamics and the moral and political implications of different ways of thinking about the individual and the collective. And back.

Other things we mentioned but didn’t really get back to and so I leave them, as I do in class, for further discussion.

- If the Celtics were a machine, however efficient, there must have been some byproduct or waste. What was it?

- To what degree did Red’s methods work because, well, they worked? If the team is successful because its members subordinate their individual aspirations for the good of the team and individual team members are willing to subordinate their individual aspirations for the good of the team because it is successful, then…?

- How much of the Celtics success depended upon the continuity, stability, and viability of the rhetoric of franchise identity? Or, to put it in other terms, consider the Celtics’ model in the light of an era in which our professional sports teams play musical chairs with our cities (and our hearts), in which player mobility is so vastly enhanced, in which even college programs (at least in basketball) more and more often recruit players to play for only a single season. Given all that, could it ever happen again? Would we want it to if it could?


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