Day 5: For the Love (and Hate) of the Game

Man, was that fun. I was feeling pretty unsure about today’s class. In addition to the usual adolescent insecurities (which I stepped squarely into by deciding to wear my Sheed jersey), I found myself approaching the week’s teaching with a deeper nagging worry that I’m somehow getting away with something here, teaching a basketball course, writing stuff that more than fourteen readers read. But I had the equivalent of a pregame session with the trainer and got right with my demons. Short version: “so what if I am?” No wait. I forget. Well, I’ll come back to that later. In any event, there was minimal neurotic drama today. There was, however, a different kind of challenge: how to incorporate discussion of the college game – especially its early years — into a course structured around a book on the history of pro basketball. My response: evade.

Not really. Well, sort of, yeah. I certainly was prepared, so I didn’t evade in that department. I spent a lot of time sifting through histories until I found a readable, reasonably succinct source, the 1994 Encyclopedia of College Basketball. Then I photocopied the first two chapters, which do a good job of chronicling the rise of the college game through 1950 (and especially up through the first NCAA tourney in 1939). Then I scanned the photocopies and put them up online for the students to read. I read and reread them. I carefully outlined them in my notebook so that I could take the students through the decades. Here’s the summary:

  • 1900s: birth of the conferences, IAA, the emergence of outside shooting and longer passes, the dominance of Chicago (78-12 between 1900 and 1909)
  • 1910s: Rules standardization as AAU and NCAA join forces; banning of the double dribbling, allowing the dribbler to shoot, only 4 personal fouls, no coaching during game; self-supporting basketball programs, professionalization of coaching ranks despite Naismith’s skepticism, coach as recruiter; Navy (109-9 b/w 1900-1909)
  • 1920s: Bigger arenas, limited integration of some teams; fouled players have to shoot their own FT’s, charging foul introduced, substituted-for player can return once; Ned Irish gets an idea, stock market crashes, Montana State (what?) (213-44 b/w 1920-1929)
  • 1930s: here we go: MSG promotions with NYC and other east coast colleges bring big crowds and cash leads to NIT 1938, NCAA 1939; Rule changes: 5 seconds closely guarded (1930), 10 second line (1932), 3 second (1932), 2 reentries permitted, center jump eliminated (1937), Luisetti one-handed runner
  • 1940s: first telecast 2/28/1940; ball movement, little dribbling; gambling – decade ends with gambling scandal, sets up rise in popularity of pro game, popularity of NCAA tourney over (NY-based) NIT tourney.  Oops.

Bored yet? Well, if you’re not, imagine me droning my way through this over the course of half an hour. Is that why you signed up for Cultures of Basketball? Me neither.

Enter evasive tactics. I decided on the spur of the moment to go in a different direction. I had already been uncomfortably aware that the set of names I couldn’t remember equaled “white-males-who-are-neither-on-the-basketball-team-nor-blogging-about-the-course.” While not unheard of, this is unusual for me three weeks into the semester. I needed to firm up the mnemonic webs so I decided to go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves and say what they were doing in the class. At the last second I told them to tell me their favorite team and their favorite player, any level.

This turned out to be maybe the best time we’ve had yet in the class: lots of banter and ribbing. One student offered the following logic for loving the Lakers: “I love the Yankees, and hate the Red Sox and all things Boston. Boston and the Lakers have been rivals a lot lately.” By the time we got all the way around everyone seemed really relaxed, particularly the student who explained thusly why he felt the class was made for him: “All I think about in life is basketball, females, and making money.” Wow. Ice broken.

Then a student asked me to answer my own questions (If you care: Portland, Oregon and Madison, Wisconsin; in class because I teach it; Early 70s Bucks, Mid 70s Blazers, Pistons – general bandwagon-ass cat as Sheed once said; players: Sheed, AI, Nash, Big O, Clyde, Zeke, forgot to mention Magic, forgot Ernie D). And the give and take only amped up further when someone asked me which player I most hated (Anderson Varejao) and then suggested we go around one more time to get everyone’s most hated player, with the stipulation that the player had to be current and you could only name one.

The best part of this round for me was when a student would start out by saying “umm, I dunno, I hate [insert names of two or three players ‘x’ ‘y’ and ‘z’].” Then, when I pressed the kid to name only one, he or she would suddenly blurt out the name of an entirely different player, as though shedding an enormous burden of repressed disgust. Best instance of this: “Um, Dwyane Wade and Vince Carter, ‘cause they’re always falling down, acting hurt.” Me: “you can only name one.” Student, rapidly: “Wally Sczerbiak.” “Wally Sczerbiak?” Ice totally shattered. Sometimes you just gotta play games.

For the record here are the tabulated results, carefully anonymized to protect the identities of the students (a promise I’m trying carefully to keep despite the enormous delight I think it would provide me to use the actual names).

Fav Player
Fav Team
Hated Player
Grew Up
Isaiah
Bad Boys
Artest
Grosse Pointe, MI
Jordan
Celtics
Kobe
Washington, D.C.
None
Nets
T Parker
Bronx, NY
Kobe
Bulls
Lakers
Big Baby
Chicago, IL (South Side)
Jordan
Lakers
Big Baby
Saginaw and Kalamazoo, MI
James
Pistons
Michigan
Duke
JR Smith
Troy, MI
Kobe
Magic
MJ
Perkins
Reggie
Lakers
Clips
Hornets
OKC

UCLAUM

Pierce
James
Beverly Hills, CA
Durant
Celtics
Varejao
Reading, MA
Noah
Jordan
Durant
Rose
Bulls
Garnett
Highland Park, IL
Lindsay Whalen
None
Scoop Jardine
“Small town north of Twin Cities”
Scottie
OKC
Marquise Daniels
Seattle, WA
Maravich
Celtics
Ginobili
Novi, MI
Kidd
Nets
Raptors
Noah
Rye, NY
Jordan
DRose
Noah
Bulls
2004-05 Illinois team
Harangody
Lake Forest, IL
Jordan
UM Men’s
Lakers
Rondo
“NJ b/w Philly and NY”
Nash
Warriors
N Robinson
Kalamazoo, MI
TMac
Pistons
Szczerbiak
Bloomfield, MI
Dirk
Whoever Dirk is playing for
Pau
Buffalo, NY
Lebron
Miami
Pierce
Miami, FL
No fav
MSU
Duncan
Okemus, MI
D Williams
Pistons
Lebron
Troy, MI
Howard
Bulls
Pierce
Chicago, IL (North Side)
Reggie
Nash
Pacers
Bulls
KG
Carmel, IN
Kukoc
Bulls
Rondo
Evanston, IL

By this time I think we’d taken up half of class. There was no way I was going to squander the stash of excellent vibes we’d accumulated in the first 45 minutes. So I bagged the boring outline and just cut to the chase. I should say that most of the time that I’d been preparing for this day’s class, in fact back when I was putting the syllabus together I’d felt some obligation (and equal and opposite resentment) to putting the college game on the syllabus. A voice in the back of my mind kept nagging me: why are you doing college here? Of course, one obvious answer is that it is a college class, with college players. Another obvious answer is that the college game was crucial to the game’s development in the first fifty-odd years after the invention of the game. Another obvious answer is that the college game continues to make a ton of money, and currently serves at least in part to feed terrific Freshmen into the maw of the NBA draft each season. So, with all these obvious answers why was I resistant at all?

I used to love the college game. When I was little basketball for me was equal parts Bucks, Knicks, and UCLA Bruins. By the time Magic and Larry squared off in the ’79 final (late in my 8th grade year), I was already hooked and I participated fully in the well-documented madness that ensued all the way through college. An ACC fan at the time, I even chose my graduate school partly on the basis of basketball. My grad school years coincided with Duke’s 1991 title and then, after a one year stint at UCLA (passing hallowed Pauley Pavilion with a knot in my stomach and a quickened pulse), I landed at Michigan in time to see the tragedy of the talented, intelligent Chris Webber call a timeout his team didn’t have in the final seconds of the second of their back to back title-game appearances. And then, kind of suddenly, I stopped caring.

Now, it’s not fair to set this all on the doorstep of the college game. Much was unmanageable in my life at the time, both personally and professionally, and part of that entailed turning away from the game I loved (long story). And it wasn’t just college,  I eventually stopped caring about pro ball around 1998. But while I came back to the pro game pretty strongly around 2001, I still only really care deeply about the college game during the NCAA’s. Why?   Pretty reasonably, if you love something you want to see the best in the world do it. That’s the NBA. Of course, that’s been true for my entire life. But in the past the college game, for me at least, compensated for the relative inferiority of its individual players with other charms: an emphasis on team play, the opportunity to watch cohorts grow over several years and blend with other cohorts, the whole college spirit thing.

But now it’s a different world than the one in which I had to walk five miles to school … in the snow …  barefoot … uphill … both ways. The NBA won’t let high school kids come straight into the League so most standout high school players put in an obligatory year at college before jumping to the pros. Even second tier potential pros rarely stay around for more than two years. Coaching salaries have grown astronomically so that coaches flit from program to program like drunken hummingbirds. Television and apparel contracts have injected even more money into the whole system and helped contribute to a the perception (if not the fact) of widespread, large scale corruption. But even all of that wouldn’t bother me so much if the NCAA-Media-Coaching-Nike complex weren’t shoving the “One Shining Moment” discourse of the stirring charm of college basketball up my ass so hard. That’s why I resisted putting it on the syllabus.

I don’t want to stress the perception (undoubtedly fueled by personal nostalgia) that the college game was once (at least in my life time) somehow “pure” and has progressively grown tainted, though there’s probably some truth to that story. I’m more interested in the categories that get mobilized to defend the status quo in the college game: terms like “spirit,” “emotion,” “teamwork,” “effort” and, of course, “amateurism,” which is to say, the love of the game. And the way these get grouped together and made mutually exclusive with an NBA game that is seen as cold-blooded, lazy, individualistic, and mercenary. Don’t forget the racialization of these groups of categories too: though it is true that the percentage of African-American playing college basketball is disproportionate to the percentage in the general population, it is as yet smaller than the percentage in the NBA ranks. Then these college terms get a boost from the barrage of images of cutesy, clean-cut cheerleaders with something painted on their cheeks (as opposed to slutty dance teams), a pep band (as opposed to blaring house music), and ivy covered halls (as opposed to massive branded, arenas in anonymous suburbs or downtowns).

So it all adds up to something like the following cultural formulas:

  • college game = tradition + amateurism + spirit + teamwork + effort + wholesomeness + innocence x whiteness.
  • pro game = rootlessness + mercenariness (it’s a word) + heartlessness + selfishness + laziness + vulgarity + sinisterness (also a word) x blackness.

It’s offensively simplistic and hypocritical and so widely disseminated (even by the same agencies that expose it) that I felt a pedagogical responsibility to try to challenge it in class.

“Amateur,” I explained, “comes from the Latin word for ‘love.’” As in, I play basketball for the love of the game (as opposed to, say, for money). A big part of the history of college basketball in the period in question, as the game increased in popularity, drew larger and larger crowds, attracted promoters, investors, and gamblers, is the emergence of amateurism as a problem for college athletics. I wrote “amateur” on the board and above it the word “love.” I wrote “professional” on the board and above it drew a dollar sign. As with my Globetrotters good or bad question last week, I meant deliberately to pose a stark, oversimplified opposition. And then I just said, “I just want to hear your thoughts about these terms.”

Whoa! I was not expecting this. A student’s hand shot up. “I think players should get paid.” And here I wish I had a recorder. Almost everyone had something to say. I don’t know if this is pedagogically sound or not, but I know from experience that when college professors observe other college professor’s classrooms one of the indexes of successful teaching is the number and variety of students who participate in a given session. I don’t know exactly how many did yesterday, but it was more and more varied than for any other discussion we’ve had yet this year. So I didn’t record it, but I want to try to convey the discussion by just listing paraphrased versions of the comments (oh, and I want to emphasize that players were on both sides of the issue).

  • “Players should get paid.”
  • “Players do get paid.”
  • “Players should get paid more because they can’t hold regular jobs or take summer internships that might enhance their future career prospects in other fields.”
  • “If we pay players, what about athletes in ‘non-revenue’ sports.”
  • “We shouldn’t pay players because they will get big heads. The humility of paying your dues as a player is an integral part of the experience of growing into a professional.”
  • “It’s hard to be a player and see all the money that is being made around you and not feel like you should be getting more of it.”
  • “No way that 18 to 22 year olds should be getting money to play basketball for a college team. They are already getting an education. They aren’t professionals. In fact, in the Ivy league there are no scholarships.”
  • “Should there be no scholarships at all?”
  • “If there were no scholarships a lot of people who have the desire and the ability to attend college wouldn’t be able to because it’s too expensive.”
  • “While scholarships are great, a lot of people don’t realize that they don’t cover lots of the essential costs of attending college. Players don’t have the time or the opportunity to cover those costs with other jobs.”
  • “If we pay players then the richest programs will field the best teams and there will be no parity.”
  • “That already is the case because the richest programs have the best facilities which attract the best players.”
  • “The players should just be happy with the attention they get. Try playing a sport that nobody attends.”
  • “The players are already getting paid. Anyone who has been in the basketball community knows that every year the top players are bidding themselves out to colleges.”

I can’t resolve these issues and I have no positive alternative to offer. For my part, I was mainly just thrilled that the class had finally hit its full stride, with lots of participation and disagreement and mutual respect. I did try to suggest that they might think of various different policy pieces as “delivery devices” with advantages and disadvantages and the path to a sounder system might begin by prioritizing, honestly, the purposes of intercollegiate athletics and then formulating policies that help fulfill those purposes while discouraging others that are in conflict with the prioritized purposes. But whatever, it’s not my job to formulate or even think coherently about the details of NCAA policies. It’s my job (and what I love) to think and talk about the way we think and talk about the various aspects of basketball culture.

So I was excited that even in a college classroom, in a university strongly associated with college athletics, in a course 33 % full of college athletes, there was a willingness to take apart the ridiculous, dualistic equations I mentioned above. And, in a way, the seemingly random evasive tactic with which I began class — who do you love? who do you hate? — turned out not to be incidental to the subject of our discussion because in going around the room we # 1 inflamed passions and # 2 tacitly admitted that the pro game aroused at least as much passion as the college game. We saw, in other words, that we were basketball culture even as we were studying it; that there’s (fortunately) no divorcing passion from reason in this case (which isn’t the same as saying that they can’t or don’t inform and check each other); and that love of the game and love of money exist in both the college game and the pro game.

I’m not saying college players don’t love basketball, just that I’m tired of the assertion that they and their coaches and fans are the ones who really love it. And, even more deeply, I’m tired of the assumption on which that assertion rests: that the proof that you really love something is to do it for free. That smacks of something rich people say to everyone else: “ooh, money’s dirty.” “Yeah,” I want to reply, “it’s dirty because you’ve been wiping your ass with it for the last hundred years. But I’ll still be happy to take it off your hands.”

That attitude, especially coming from people who are making loads and loads of cash off talented, hardworking young people, that’s just too stinky. I have nothing against people doing what they love for free or for little if that’s what they want and if they are truly free to choose. But I’m offended by the obverse normative stricture that if you are doing what you love and getting paid you have fouled something clean, and are somehow getting away with something, or gaming the system. Yago 1, Demons 0.

Go back to read about the way categories of race, ethnicity, and gender shape our basketball narratives

or

Go on to read about the elements of style in hoops.

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