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They Were Friends (Hoops Culture v 2.0, Day 6)

Friday, September 23, 2011

I made one slight change in the reading schedule for Cultures of Basketball. Last semester students read the sections from FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History about the Celtics' dynasty and Bill Russell on the same day. This semester, I had them read about the Celtics' dynasty for Tuesday and then had them read the section on Bill Russell ("Pride of the Celtics: Bill Russell and the Price of Winning) together with the section on Wilt Chamberlain ("The Nuclear Option: Wilt Chamberlain, the Man Who Went Too Far") for Thursday.

I think both arrangements make good sense, but they make different kinds of sense. Last semester’s schedule recognized that Russ and the Celtics, while not identical to one another, were inseparable. It also set Wilt apart, alone, which in a sense is appropriate to the way he presented and the way he is treated in the book.

This semester’s arrangement treated the Celtics as a team phenomenon and kept the focus on Red Auerbach. Meanwhile, it emphasized the relationship and rivalry between Russ and Wilt. Because it is almost impossible to find any substantial story of either man that doesn’t include reference to the other and to the way in which they – depending on the sophistication of the source material – either really were or were perceived to be polar opposites of one another, the arrangement I chose also provided a valuable opportunity to think with students about binary thinking – its inevitability, its value, its limitations, and alternatives to it.

Educational philosopher and innovator Kieran Egan, writes in The Educated Mind of the role of binary thinking in the child development and so in early childhood education, “the educational point is not to teach binary concepts, nor to teach that the world is structured in binary terms, but always to lead toward mediation, elaboration, and conscious recognition of the initial structuring concepts.”  (Egan, by the way, is a truly valuable thinker on matters of pedagogy, psychological development, and culture.  Check out his group’s website for more information.  I've written on him elsewhere.)

The fact that I’m teaching college students doesn’t render Egan’s point any less vital.  Even if binary thinking is an especially striking feature of early childhood, it is also an inevitable consequence of using language and very obviously not a feature of our thinking that simply vanishes as we grow older.  What can happen is that binary thinking can come to operate in a different cognitive environment.  We acquire other cognitive tools that allow us to engage the world (and the other tools – such as binary thinking – that we use to grasp it) in different, more subtle and nuanced ways.

Sometimes, I find, students can best identify, deconstruct, and reflect on the purpose of dichotomous thinking when they first produce it themselves.  In other words, if I first walk them through the construction of binary oppositions they seem to get a more concrete sense of such oppositions as constructed as well as a better feel for the emotional and intellectual purposes such oppositions might serve.

The students certainly cooperated, readily serving up the standards set of oppositional terms in response to my asking them two different questions after showing them extended video clips focusing on each player: 1) How would you describe Bill Russell? 2) How would you describe Wilt Chamberlain?  In FreeDarko’s Undisputed Guide Bethlehem Shoals described the Russell/Wilt binaries as “staples of NBA discourse” and helpfully enumerates them.  I’ll present them here as a table, much as I did on the chalkboard in class, along with one more pair – catalyst/finisher – that one student came up with.

Bill Russell
Wilt Chamberlain
Natural talent
Devotion to the game
Wavering interest

Once we had these two neat columns, we could begin to work on blurring the vertical line that separate Wilt and Russ and all the terms we had listed beneath their names.  The table, as a visual means of organizing information, is obviously useful and obviously limited, just like the binary thinking that informs it.  Showing this visually on the chalkboard allows us to begin change that thinking, initially by just making changes to the visual representation: for example, erase the vertical line.  From there, we might do other things draw lines between terms to represent different kinds of connection, redistribute the whole array of terms and the two men’s names differently on the space of the chalkboard, or use circles and blocks to create different (possibly overlapping) groups of terms.  Whatever the actual physical operation, the idea is 1) to connect binary thinking to the creation of a two column table; 2) to change the visual representation; 3) to  make the connection between the changed visual representation and the kind of critical thought it expresses (including its complication or the original binary structure).

In all this, we were certainly aided by the treatment the two men receive in Shoals texts, which take an appropriate critical distance from the dichotomies and in fact side-step them neatly by looking at each player with an alternative set of lenses.  But, for readers to whose minds that binary schema still tenaciously clings, Shoals ends the Wilt section with the moving words that Bill Russell spoke at Chamberlain’s funeral:  “Today, I am unspeakably injured.”  

Those words started the process of scrambling our neat table. So did hearing Russell in one of the video clips speaking of just how much winning someone who is losing game 7 of a finals series has already done.  The list of the NBA’s all time leaders in win shares per 48 minutes (1.Jordan, 2.David Robinson, 3.Wilt Chamberlain . . . 24. Bill Russell) also helped.  Observing first hand Russell’s ball handling and scoring abilities confused things further.

At this point, given how obviously inadequate the binary schema is for actually understanding the two individuals as players or human beings, the question arises of why we reproduce it and cling to it and what, if anything, it is good for?  A basketball game results in an outcome in which one team scores more points than another.  According to the rules of the game the team that scores more points is the winner.  The rules don’t tell us what to call the team that has scored fewer points.  But everything in athletic culture tells us to call them the losers.  And so it can seem natural, certainly understandable and legitimate, to view a basketball contest through the lens of winning and losing.

It’s a bit harder to understand how winner and loser become tags for individual players in a team sport, how individual players get assigned those tags exclusively on the basis of the number of championship teams of which the individual was a part.  And from there much harder to understand how a series of subjective, all-or-nothing moral judgments (such as of an individual’s selfishness or unselfishness) get adduced after the fact as though they were before-the-fact causes of the winner-ness or loser-ness of the individual. 

I want the students in my class to scrutinize that kind of thinking, not only to understand basketball history in a more nuanced and complete fashion, and not only to become better thinkers, but also because the kind of thinking that reduces the complexity of Russ and Wilt to a two-column table of mutually exclusive, dichotomous traits can also contribute to similar reductions with respect to human beings and their interrelationships in other spheres (e.g. “with us” vs. “with the terrorists”, “good” vs. “evil”, “gay” vs. “straight,” “man” vs. “woman,” “native” vs. “foreign,” “black” vs. “white.”).

Binary structuring helps us get an initial grasp on a complex situation: e.g. Q. “What happened in the game last night?"  A. “The Celtics won (or the Lakers lost)”.  That’s a good start and it’s easy to imagine the conversation continuing in a way that complicates that initial binary rendering of the complexity of the game.  By the end of such a conversation, the fact of who won or who lost may not even be the most important fact.  For some, the most interesting part of sports and its discourse is not who won or lost, but everything else (which may include how someone won or lost).

But in the case of Russell and Chamberlain, we see a discourse that not only remains arrested in the initial binary assessment, but actually further retrenches itself in such assessment by adding a further series of binary terms to the initial set as if they were causally related.  E.g. Q: “What happened in the game last night?”  A: “The Celtics won because Russ was unselfish, team oriented, defensive minded, absolutely devoted to winning, and a tirelessly hard worker (or The Lakers lost because Wilt was selfish, individually oriented, offensive minded, didn’t care about winning, and was lazy.)”

To understand why this thinking might be so tenacious we need to recognize that sports serves a vicarious function for many fans and commentators.  Sport may be the cultural site in which any number of  range of feelings too uncomfortable to acknowledge frankly can run free and be aired, authorized by the martial drama of the athletic contest to run rampant over our rational cognitive faculties. 

Thus, as Shoals explains, deep and powerful anxieties about annihilation raised by the invention and utilization of nuclear weapons might be channeled into (among other things) fears of Wilt Chamberlain annihilating the game of basketball.  Metaphor, after all, doesn’t only serve useful cognitive functions in a learning environment.  It also allows us to treat an excellent basketball player as though he were a nuclear weapon.  Indeed, metaphor is at work when we speak of a basketball game as a battle, doubly so when we speak of it as a moral battle between good and evil.

In the case of Russell and Chamberlain, the binary discourse that made Russell the incarnation of good and Chamberlain of evil was doing some racial heavy lifting.  It
allowed white fans – anxious in an era of rising agitation for civil rights among African-Americans – to sublimate guilt and fear through a fantasy of an epic contest between the bad black man and the good negro in which the latter emerges victorious.   The black man in that fantasy is desire incarnate and uncontrolled, veering wildly toward violence and destruction. 

Russ, the schema could say, had harnessed his individual desire in the interests of the team (and to the degree that he could not – as say in his political activism – he would not be accepted).  Wilt, the schema could say, refused to do so.  Indeed, aggressively asserted his individuality and appetite.  But, Wilt lost and Bill won and in that way the final outcome of a sporting event is made to do the work of a final quod erat demonstratum in an illogical argument set within a hysterical hateful fantasy fueled by fear and guilt and abetted by willful ignorance.

There’s much to be lamented in this, much that is tragic in fact for our society.  In class, mostly, we focused on how frustrating it must have been for both Russell and Chamberlain to find themselves continually cast into confining roles they’d never consented to play, forced time and again to check the full range – good and bad and indifferent – of their humanity at the door all because they were both large African-American men, both played basketball, both played center, both were superb players,  and played against each other a whole lot.  Oh, and Russell’s teams won more championships.

Whatever hold we legitimately gain on the complexity of their situation by seeing them through the dichotomous lens I cannot see it as worth the limiting damage that we thereby do to them, and to ourselves, our powers of thought, and our humanity.


Mister Suss September 27, 2011 at 3:17 PM  

This morning, upon arriving at work, I had the following conversation:

ME: Did you watch football last night?


ME: Fuck Jim Haslett. Could you believe that shit?

Just an illustration of your point that, very often, it's not who won the game that's interesting but rather how it went down. Note that I'm from Maryland and root for the Redskins (yes, racist name, beside the point for the time being) and so had a greater-than-average interest in the traditional, binary outcome of the game. Even then, the most interesting fact about the game was not who won but rather that one of the coaches made an inexcusably stupid decision that cost his team dearly.

When you get into individual players within team sports, binary comparisons are even less enlightening or interesting, as you eloquently describe. Wilt and Russell are certainly prime examples of that but it's also tiresome to see in other contexts, even in individual sports like tennis or golf. Especially when race is involved, e.g., Tiger vs. Phil. I think maybe that's what finally drove me away from Bill Simmons and what drives me insane about Gladwell and Klosterman and all of their ilk: reductionism fucking blows.

Veering suddenly, it makes me a little uncomfortable to think of my Charlotte, NC-raised dad's lifelong fandom for Russell as framed by the undeniable racism of my grandparents and of the community in which my dad grew up. Dad is as progressive as they come and he is more actively unracist than most white people I know - myself included - but I wonder how much of his love for Russell just came out of the atmosphere you describe. Maybe not, I've never talked to him about it.

Anyway, I'm blathering with no real point again -- what else is new? I'm glad you're back to writing this blog, even if less frequently than last year. Always nice to see a new post.

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