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Go Yago! and the Cultures of Basketball Course Diary have moved

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Cultures of Basketball Course Diary has moved! Go here to read it! And if you are interested in my other musings on hoops and culture check out "Between the Lines" (the reincarnation of Go Yago!).


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.


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?


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.


If Shaq Had Been Perfect

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Much has been written in the wake of Shaquille O’Neal’s retirement from professional basketball this past week. Shaq retires as one of the most beloved and well-known basketball players of all time. He was, of course, also one of the most dominant, as any number of statistical measures attest. Among other things, Shaq was part of 4 NBA Championship teams, won 3 NBA Finals MVP, was named to the All-NBA First Team 14 times, and ended his career 5th on the NBA All-Time Career Scoring list. Shaq had a truly great career, deserving of respect and commemoration alongside those of the Hall of Fame centers he admired: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain.

I share in this general feeling of admiration for Shaq’s accomplishments, both on and off the court, and for the sense of humor and genuine humanity with which he carried himself in the brightest of spotlights for so many years. It’s this very humanity of Shaq, despite his larger than life physical stature, accomplishments, and persona, that struck me as I listened to his 22 minute press conference. In particular, I was struck by the fact that Shaq is “very very upset with himself” and has regrets for not living up to his potential.

These regrets surfaced at several different points during the press conference always in relation to his free throw shooting. Despite the tongue in cheek quality of some of the comments, it’s clear that Shaq believes he could have been a better free throw shooter and regrets not having put forward his best effort in this area. During the press conference, Shaq mentioned his poor free throw shooting several times in relation to his disappointment at not having reached 30,000 career points, not having surpassed Wilt Chamberlain (who is above Shaq on the list with 31,419, about 3,000 more than Shaq), and not having reached the 2nd spot on the list, just behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

I was touched by these regrets. I think too much about my own brief basketball career and what I could’ve done differently, what I would’ve done differently given what I know now. And beyond this, I think about my own life at large and how retrospect furnishes me with a critical understanding of past decisions that I’d now make differently if I had them to do over again. So I was moved by the scene of this giant of a man -- beloved by millions, with great accomplishments in his field behind him, retiring from his profession a success, and poised to enjoy still a long life with many opportunities in front of him – nonetheless emphasizing, with perhaps a self-protective touch of self-deprecating humor, his regrets, his failure to live up to his potential.

I am no statistical whiz, but Shaq’s moving “what if’s” concerning his free throw shooting woes led me to crunch some numbers. My question was simple, what if Shaq had been a better free throw shooter, all other things being equal? What if he had made half the shots he’d missed? But also, what if he shot free throws as well as the scorers ahead of him on the list Kareem, Karl Malone, and Michael Jordan (Shaq’s career free throw percentage is better than Wilt’s)? What if Shaq had just shot as well as the NBA average? What if he shot for his career as well as he did in his best free throw shooting season? What would percentage would it have taken him to surpass 30,000 points? To surpass those ahead of him on the all time points list? And, just for fun, what if Shaq were the best free throw shooter of all time?
What if?

FT %
Additional pts from FTs
Total Points
Career Scoring Rank
Shaq’s Actual Career
Shaq’s single season best
Required for Shaq to reach 30,000 points
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Career FT %
Karl Malone’s Career FT %
2011 NBA Average FT %
If Shaq had made half the FT’s he missed
Required for Shaq to pass Wilt Chamberlain for 4th on All Time Scoring List
Michael Jordan Career FT %
Required for Shaq to pass Michael Jordan for 3rd on All Time Scoring list
If Shaq were the best FT shooter of all time
If Shaq were perfect
Required for Shaq to pass Karl Malone for 2nd on All Time Scoring List
Required for Shaq to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for 1st on All Time Scoring List

I don’t want to just restate these findings in narrative form. But I’d like to share what’s most striking to me. Look first at the bottom of the table.  Perhaps the most striking figure of all for me: If Shaq had been a perfect free throw shooter, hitting every one of his 11, 252 attempts, he would still only be third on the all time scoring list. In fact, he would still be over 3,000 points behind Karl Malone and 4,400 points behind Kareem. As the bottom two rows show, Shaq would have had to hit an implausible 127 % of his free throws to surpass Malone’s career scoring mark and an even more daunting 140 % of his free throws to have ended his career as the NBA’s all time leading scorer. That’s a tall order, even for Superman.

Toward the other end of the spectrum, I’m struck by how little an impact seemingly significant changes in his free throw percentage make to Shaq’s overall point totals and so to his standing on the all time scoring list and, in relation to that, to his assessment history is likely to make of his career. A 10 % spike in his career percentage (which would about match what he shot in his best season) would only net him an additional 1000 points or so and would still leave him short of the 30,000 mark. Shaq was right that if he’d made half of his misses, he’d have hit the 30,000 mark (and more), but he still would have been short of passing Wilt on the scoring list. Shaq would have had to improve his percentage by 25 % (which is to say by around half of what it was) just to pass Wilt Chamberlain by 1 point for 4th place on the list. Anything short of that, and Shaq stays in 5th place.

Shaq’s free throw shooting certainly always seemed a shame; a disappointment to his teams’ fans no doubt and a source of schadenfreude for fans of his opponents. To me, for whom free throw shooting was always the easiest part of the game, it seemed like an incomprehensible waste. After all, other big men have been good or at least decent free throw shooters. And judging from his retirement presser it seems to be something that bothers Shaq, at least to the degree that anything bothers him.

But looking at the numbers I wind up feeling a little differently about it. I feel like it doesn’t make much difference, that each free throw he missed wasn’t as consequential and significant as it seemed to me when he missed it. After all, if he’d shot a bit better it wouldn’t make much difference from the vantage point of all time scoring lists or how future fans might evaluate him. And, in order to really have achieved the sort of dominance that would set him completely apart even from the other all time greats, Shaq would have had to be perfect, or better.

And so perhaps there are lessons here for myself.  First, my mistakes may not seem so consequential down the road, from a more expansive point of view, as they did when I was closer to having just made them.  Second, it would have been impossible to really fulfill my own expectations because this would have required perfection or beyond.   And third,  that really only examining these regrets, sizing them up, weighing them in the balance sheet of various hypothetical alternatives in a clear way can release those first two lessons.  Perhaps entertaining my regrets with good humor I can coexist with them in such a way that I don’t spend my future trying to dodge the awareness that I am imperfect.  Maybe, like with Shaq's free throws, I can acknowledge that I haven't done some things I wish I had, that I have done some things I wish I hadn't, and that this is neither nothing, nor catastrophic, but rather just part of my being human, like Superman, like everyone.  And perhaps I can bear this perspective going forward, like Shaq, with a joke or an easy laugh.  Sometimes I can.


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