Day 9: I — I mean You — Coulda Been a Contender

I’ve gotten into a rhythm of writing up my thoughts about Tuesday’s classes on Tuesday evening and Wednesday. This past week I was unable to do so, which frustrated me (because I felt that Tuesday’s class had been really rich) and left me anxious (because if I miss a post people will stop coming here and reading me and this excellent development in my life will vanish as quickly as it emerged). The silver lining: on the plane ride home from Detroit to St. Louis last night I had nothing to read and so I was stuck with Southwest Airlines’ in-flight magazine Spirit. For this month, they’d taken advantage of the occurrence of the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day to run some pieces on sports – well. football really – and love. And one of these pieces was a 40th anniversary conversation with some of the parties involved in the making of the movie Brian’s Song, which depicted the untimely death from cancer of Chicago Bears’ running back Brian Piccolo through the lens of his close friendship with fellow running back Gale Sayers. As it turns out this piece spoke directly to the themes that emerged during Tuesday’s class, for which we had all read Bethlehem Shoals’ chapter, from the Undisputed History, on Maurice Stokes and Connie Hawkins: shortened careers and the kinds of stories they make us want to create and consume.

I felt eager and prepared for this particular class. Not only was Hawkins one of my favorite players when I was a child, spurring my earliest efforts to learn from my older brother how to palm the ball. But I’d just finished reading his biography Foul! movingly written by David Wolf in the early 70s. Then, I’d been enjoying some informal, but exciting conversations with Shoals himself on this very topic, or at least on related matters that he’d been thinking about on his own (and much better) for some time. I had pulled video clips, had my discussion questions in mind, as well as a decent idea of where they’d lead, and reporter Mike Rothstein was in attendance to do a story about our class. Usually for me, this combination of positive signs would spell doom:   as surely as a 90 % free throw shooters’ streak of 35 consecutive shots made (duly noted by the obtuse announcer) virtually guarantees that he will miss his FT with the game tied and no time remaining on the clock.

But lo, the doom would come later, much later, after class and perhaps in a way not at all karmically linked to the class itself, which for me anyway, was a thrill (though I must admit that if not karmically, the doom was certainly linked to class). I dealt with some logistical matters effectively and charmingly, set the stage for our class by asking the guilefully guileless question: why are we spending a whole day on these two players? Why does FreeDarko devote a whole chapter on them?

And then we watched the videos (you don’t have to watch them to get what I’m saying but they are beautiful to watch). First a three part clip that narrated the Maurice Stokes story: from his rise to pioneering NBA star in just a few years, to his injury and subsequent struggle to regain control of his body, his close friendship with former teammate Jack Twyman, his death at age 36, and the subsequent charitable efforts that his life and death inspired.

After that, we watched a short clip describing Hawkins rise to high school stardom in Brooklyn, his recruitment by Iowa, his baseless implication in a gambling scandal and subsequent blackballing from the NBA, his itinerant journey through the pro game’s nether regions (ABL, Globetrotters, and ABA) before a successful lawsuit finally led to his abbreviated but still impressive NBA career with the Phoenix Suns.

Partly because we’d taken a lot of time with the logistics and the videos, I really wanted to get straight at it. So I repeated in so many words the theme question I’d asked before we watched the videos: why do these kinds of stories fascinate us? That question obviously isn’t specific enough (what kind of stories?), nor does it distinguish between the lives and stories of these two men, which are as dissimilar as similar. So the first answer I got – because they opened doors, they were pioneers, like Drazen Petrovic, who died in a car wreck at 24 having helped open the door to European players in the NBA –though perfectly reasonable wasn’t quite what I was looking for in order to keep things moving. Before I could rephrase the question more intelligently, someone else piped up: potential. And someone else: fantasy. Yeah, alternative futures.We got off the rails a bit as we continued the discussion, but not terribly so, I myself trundled off the road by sloppily comparing the sort of “what if” story prompted by death or injury at a young age with the sort of “what if” story (made famous by Bill Simmons) prompted by speculative reevaluations of moments that hindsight permits us to see as perhaps pivotal (like the Pistons drafting Darko Milicic # 2 in the 2003 draft — ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh). Once we cleared that confusion away, we were left with wondering what makes us not only honor those who careers were cut short, but also what makes us often append to that honor, implicitly or explicitly, a speculated alternative future in which the career plays itself out, uninterrupted. Such speculation is like a branch of fantasy literature, almost like science fiction. What, I wonder, does it do for us? Why do we do it? Why do we incorporate a description of Maurice Stokes or Connie Hawkins imagined career into our discussions of their actual lives and careers?Human nature was the first answer I got: as in, it’s just the way we are as human beings. And it proved to be a surprisingly tenacious hypothesis, to the point that I’m fairly sure the students got aggravated with me for not letting it stand. And really, I might have even toyed with letting it stand if it hadn’t been for the fact that two students in the class – both apparently human – had already stated quite convincingly that they actually didn’t feel the lure to speculate on the “what could’ve been’s” of a stricken hero’s career. So to assert human nature as the cause of that lure or impulse – even setting aside my other objections – would have flown too directly in the face of the evidence at hand for my comfort as an educator.

So I tried every which way to challenge the human nature hypothesis: basically, unless you can show me the portion of the human genome responsible for this impulse, I’m gonna say that attributing it to human nature just begs the question. Yet my brave Herculean efforts to chop off the Hydra heads of this hideous hypothesis in the name of better thinking were initially futile, Not that it was a useless battle, since in the course of it students did bring up some terms that I think are useful to understanding the fascination of the tragically/unjustly abbreviated career story. Someone talked about empathy and the work of mourning, someone else said something that allowed me to point out the template of organic progress (birth, maturation, aging, death, decay) that we often unconsciously hold up as the measure of the actual course of events.

And ultimately, if I didn’t convince them that “human nature” was a poor explanatory delivery device in this case, I at least annoyed and fatigued them enough that one of them finally said, with some exasperation in his voice, “what then? Why do you think it is?” “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”  And the first thing I want to say is that the question is, in some ways, an unfair trap. There are as many reasons to tell and listen to a particular story as there are people telling and listening. So I’m not trying to say that everybody who has ever speculated about the career that Maurice Stokes, or Connie Hawkins might have had, or, for that matter, that James Dean, Heath Ledger, Marilyn Monroe. Kurt Cobain, Richie Valens, JFK, RFK, MLK, or Malcolm X might have had are all fulfilling a single purpose.

But I do believe that if we have identified certain narrative patterns as especially common in a society then part of the task of understanding that society and its culture involves hypothesizing about the kind of individual and collective “work” performed by such narratives. And as I write I realize that the whole human nature pitfall could have been avoided if I had not repeatedly pushed the students by formulating my query in the form of “why?,” which sends most students scurrying for an originary cause, when all I am looking for is a partial and speculative exploration and enumeration of purposes served.

Now part of that task of understanding, in turn, involves taking what seems natural and looking at it as though it were strange. Around 20 years ago, in my vain quest to make myself feel smart in graduate school, I purchased a book that had nothing to do with my interests but that many around me were hailing. It was called The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and Paris Commune by Kristin Ross. For those who don’t know, Arthur Rimbaud is a celebrated 19th century French poet who, among other notable facts, wrote all of his poetry between the ages of 16 and 21. Then he went off to trade in guns and slaves in Africa before dying at the age of 37.

I remember nothing about that book except that I was very struck by the author’s calling out the habit – almost like a knee jerk reflex – among Rimbaud scholars of imagining what his “mature poetry” might have looked like. She offered the provocative counter proposal that “mature” and “poetry”, in Rimbaud’s case, might have been a contradiction in terms. In other words, not only was there no mature poetry in actual fact, but that – aesthetically – there could have been no such thing as mature poetry from Rimbaud, not in the sense of mature these other scholars had in mind; that his poetry was, essentially and constitutively, immature. I’m thinking about arguments like Ross’s when I try to pose these questions of my students.

It’s not the elegy for the fallen, nor the lament on behalf of the unjustly treated that I’m interested in, so much as the fantasy that can be part of that elegy or lament: the part where we fill in what could have been, what the hero was robbed of, what we were robbed of. You know: had he not spent the prime years of his life playing under terrible conditions in empty arenas, Connie Hawkins would today surely be counted among the greatest scorers and rebounders, not to mention passing forwards, ever to play the game, as well as a creative innovator and precursor, a link, perhaps, in the lineage of Jordan, Erving and Baylor, or perhaps Lebron James or Blake Griffin avant-la-lettre. What would Rimbaud’s mature poetry have looked like? Why that?

The answer I gave my vexed students in class, too briefly and nervously, was that I felt such narratives were a kind of compensation, whereby we provide for ourselves in “fiction” what we feel we were robbed of in reality. Maybe that’s part of it. But upon reflection, I think there’s more to it than that, and some of that had its basis in what the kids said in class. For example, I think that the student who talked about empathy and mourning was on to something, We feel loss and one of the ways to work through that loss, perhaps, is to name it, to give it narrative form and shape, flesh and blood as it were and in that way we at once bring ourselves closer to what we have lost and begin to let it go and adapt to a reality without that in it.  I can’t believe I’m going to quote this, but why not? In SWA’s Spirit magazine, Brian’s Song writer William Blinn said “The loss of an athlete, a superhero, really, always hits us so hard. It makes us feel how fragile we are. When we lose someone like that, it’s a more painful loss because it remindsus that everyone falls” This is also to say, then, that we exercise a power in narratives that we do not always have in reality: the power to extend life in the face of death. So I think that certainly goes a long way toward describing the work that such narratives can do, the kinds of feelings that they can help us to organize and make sense of.

But Blinn’s explanation doesn’t account for why we do this not only with death but also injustice, nor does it address why such narratives are more frequently attached to the young. We didn’t, to state the obvious, have to imagine what Wilt’s career would have been like when he died because his career was over, had already had a chance to unfold. One of the students had said we are fascinated by potential and, in these stories also, by lost potential. Potential, interestingly, has its etymological roots in the word for power, as in capacity, as in power to (not power over). Perhaps then we are mourning not only the loss of the already powerful (as in the superhero of Blinn’s explanation), but the loss of the arc of ascent. Maybe this is because we find it easier to identify with the one who is on his way than with the one who has arrived, who surveys his field from the heights of command. Maybe we are inspired by the upward thrust and exhilaration of flight, of desire and energy combining with talent to do more. Maybe we are mourning the loss of “more” and we are supplying “more” ourselves where reality will not supply it,

Much of Shoals’ chapter on Hawkins and Stokes contrasts the two lives and the two careers, which is as it should be since, whatever spiritual work we need done ought not, in my opinion, come at the cost of sacrificing the individuality and uniqueness of others.  It may be inevitable for us to press memories of the dead into the service of continuing to live, but we ought to be careful in doing so not to falsify or dishonor, to reduce or oversimpify, the lives of the dead.  Shoals manages in this chapter to honor, remember and evoke their careers without oversimplification.  I want to stress that because I think there’s something admirably restrained and unselfish about being able to remember the career that was without indulging what is for me, ultimately a self-serving desire to fantasize about the careers that might have been.

Remembering them in the same chapter of my mind, among other things, reminds that in fact, both Stokes and Hawkins had careers.  And it’s only the fact that they had the careers, combined with the fact the careers were short that permit me to crank up the story machine in my soul that will tell you about the careers that could’ve been.  And thinking it of it this way highlights for me part of my stake in telling that  story.

I’m thinking of time passed, time lost.  Every career that is cut short, which indeed highlights lost potential reminds us I think — reminds me let me just say — of my own lost potential which, inevitably perhaps, means thinking about lost or wasted time. If I had known then what I know now,…. Here too the narrative is compensatory (helping to give a sense of control over time’s ineluctable passage) and adaptive (allowing me safely to name the loss of my time, the passage of time, of my life as a source of pain and sadness).

But there’s also a curious transfer at work there. Because after all, in my case, potential wasn’t lost because of death, injury, or legal or social injustice. So if I am to some degree identifying with Hawk or Stokes, even though empiricially we share only the fact of there being some quanta of lost potential in our lives (as in any human life), perhaps it is because the objective unfairness that is at the source of their lost potential captures and expresses a subjective feeling I have about my own. It is a cry.  “I know I might have done things differently, made different choices, but I didn’t know then, it was unfair!” And it feels as unfair, perhaps, as being framed and slandered and unjustly cut off from doing what you love; as unfair as the mishandled injury that leads to paralysis and premature death.

I feel embarrassed because I am trivializing their tragedies.  Both their potential and their suffering were greater than mine.  But maybe, even in this embarrassing impulse, I am expressing a truth — I mean beyond the subjective truth that  I have lost time, lost life.  I mean the truth that each experience of loss is utterly, irreducibly unique, incomparable, and immeasurable and that therefore every loss is of equal, which is to say infinite (or infinitely small) importance.  Or maybe I’m just saying that to make myself feel like less of an asshole.  I’m not sure what’s right.  I’ve got some issues here, I know that.

Time passes. It doesn’t care about me. It doesn’t slow down or back up for me when I fuck up, it doesn’t eddy and pool when I am on a good roll. It moves on impervious, grinding me, ultimately, to dust beneath its grave inertia. And then I, you, we are gone. But before we are gone, perhaps, we begin to tally accounts, to see looming ever larger the shadow of what we never became. Maybe, these stories of tragically, unjustly lost potential are for those times when we find it too hard to smoothly integrate our pasts, presents, and possible futures.

But ultimately, that might be bullshit. I mean, I think I’m on to something with this, but my first answer – “I don’t know. I really don’t know” – was also right. Whatever my speculation about the particular purposes served by this sort of narrative, what I’d like to have imparted to my students more effectively on this particular day is that these narratives serve practical purposes for us as human beings. They aren’t simply autonomic reflexes coded in our genetic material. They aren’t natural, but rather cultural. We invent them and partake of them, usually, at one and the same time to admit that we can’t control some things, to pretend to control what we can’t and to control what we can; to order the chaos around and inside us and to give some running room to that chaos. We tell these stories to modify reality, to adapt ourselves to it, and to allow ourselves to beat our fists against it in rage and complaint, and to soothe and rock ourselves to sleep when it has left us feeling crushed.

Go back to learn how to appreciate greatness that hath no rings


Go on to read an anarchist inspired critique of coaches.

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