Day 10: Put Me in Coach

Thursday was the second of three “college” days on my syllabus. The first, a few weeks ago, we devoted to a discussion of the idea of amateurism. The third, a few weeks from now, will look at Michigan’s own Fab Five. For this day, though, which falls during our unit on the long decade of the 1960s in pro basketball, I wanted to spotlight what I think are two of most important phenomena of the 1960s in the college game: the UCLA dynasty under Coach John Wooden (10 NCAA titles in 12 years between 1964 and 1975) and the Texas Western title in 1966 (in which Coach Don Haskins elected to start five African Americans, and to play only his seven African American players in a win over heavily favored all-white Kentucky, coached by the white supremacist coaching legend Adolph Rupp). Though there are certainly a number of different valid avenues of inquiry to and from these two phenomena, I had decided ahead of time that I would use them as a way to talk about coaching. More particularly, I hoped to raise the provocative question of what, if anything, a coach is good for that couldn’t be gotten in other ways. And, this, in turn, I wanted to discuss in part as a screen to discuss questions of authority, ways of organizing, and the role of hierarchy in sports and beyond. We certainly got there, but as usual our path was pretty circuitous, in part because while I wanted to get to these points, I also wanted to see what other things might come up (also because I’d been hoping that Michigan Men’s Coach John Beilein would come to visit but that didn’t pan out, though I didn’t know for sure until class started and he wasn’t there).

We actually began with an open ended discussion of the chapter of Wooden’s autobiography They Call Me Coach in which he describes the Pyramid of Success. To get things started, I just wanted to know how they viewed the Pyramid and Wooden’s discussion of it. There was no clear consensus, but the overriding impression I drew from the varied comments included three sentiments: 1) it’s not much different from any number of other formalized steps-to-success documents they have apparently been exposed to already in their lives 2) as such, it may be more useful as a kind of touchstone upon which one might meditate when things aren’t going well than an actual plan one might consciously follow, and 3) it’s hard to know how much of Wooden’s success as a coach is due to this philosophy and how much due to the fact that, to paraphrase one student, he was never coaching bums. I didn’t really have any problems with what they said or with the quality of thought they exhibited in putting forth these arguments. Indeed, I thought to myself, I doubt Coach Wooden would have an objection to any of this.

Now I want to say here what I didn’t say in class. Wooden was one of my boyhood heroes. I remember watching lots of UCLA ball on TV, including the loss to Notre Dame that ended the 88 game win streak. Though gear was nowhere near the hoopshead staple that it is now, I had my share of Bruin gear including a small stuffed basketball brought by a visiting colleague of my fathers. I read the Wizard of Westwood and knew all the UCLA players past and present, and the scores of all their tournament games. Later, my father recently reminded me, I had entertained, in fact tried to push for, the idea of going to UCLA upon my 1983 graduation from high school in order to walk on. Sure, they were down at the time, but, still, that shows an impressive combination of delusion and determination. But my prized possession was a copy of the very Pyramid of Success we were about to discuss in class, but mine was autographed by Coach himself and personalized: “To Iago [sic], Best Wishes, John Wooden.”

The handwriting was neat as a nun’s.

If my serious boyhood crush on Coach Wooden is of any interest here, it might be mainly because I’m over it. Don’t get me wrong: I still feel awe at his accomplishments as a coach and I feel tremendous respect for what appears to be the very high degree of integrity with which he lived his life.  By almost all accounts he was a good man.  I felt sad when he died last year and I’m sure I would have lost it had I ever had the chance to meet him. But all that notwithstanding, it’s true that I’m over my wide-eyed slavish devotion to Coach and to the style and substance which he taught and embodied, and which he formalized in the Pyramid of Success. Now I hadn’t thought too much about this change. It was more like something that just happened naturally without my thinking about it, But two bits of language that I encountered recently in connection with this course served to remind me of what I had worshipped and of what I had gone beyond.

The first bit of language I encountered before the course even began, on my first read through of FreeDarko’s Undisputed History of Pro Basketball. It’s in the Chapter on Walton and Kareem, both of whom, as Bethlehem Shoals puts it in the chapter, “had played for Westwood’s bromide-spewing legend John Wooden.” That was it. Just that adjective: “bromide-spewing.” It took me aback. Briefly I felt hurt and defensive. But that didn’t surprise me as much as the speed with which those feelings turned into laughter and a nod. Say what you want about Coach, but he certainly did spew bromides. It’s not a big deal, not even a bad thing in and of itself. It just is what it is. He was a bromide spewer and I felt something like a burden lifted upon seeing that particular quality called precisely and unfussily by its name.

The second encounter occurred some weeks later, just a couple of weeks ago, in connection with the Basketball Culture 101 series organized by Beckley Mason over at Hoopspeak.  Two weeks ago Tim Varner of 48 Minutes of Hell, a San Antono Spurs blog, was assigned Wooden’s They Call me Coach for his turn. Varner titled his own insightful reading of the autobiography “John Wooden and the Culture of Ought.” There was another stab (and it has nothing to with Tim’s essay, just the title ripped from its context), but this didn’t involve injury or defense. It was instead a stab of recognition: a) Tim was right to associate Wooden with a culture of ought b) I used to love that about Coach c) now I don’t.

Put these two fragments of language together and I wound up with an oddly apt little portrait of Coach: his message was ought and his medium was the bromide, I want to take pains here to emphasize, again, that it’s not that I think there’s something wrong with that in and of itself as it was taught and lived by John Wooden. This isn’t exactly about him. It’s about me (of course) and about coaches and authority, and maybe about growing up and leaving childish things behind,

It’s hard for me to disentangle the various forces, around and within me, that would account for my changing feelings and views. And I’ve thought and talked about these things a great deal. How much harder than for my students, in a different time of life, to make manifest, let alone disentangle, the buried nest of needs and fears, hopes and desires that shape their attitudes not toward Wooden per se, but toward what Wooden can be said to be the embodiment of: the coach as horizon of truth and authority? That’s what I really wanted to discuss.

What good are coaches? I asked them. What do we really need them for? Try, I urged, to imagine basketball without coaches and see when you get to a point where your need for a coach arises. In relation to what problem, what need, what fear do you find yourself bringing in a Coach as the only – or even the best – solution? Try to figure out what you are creating the coach for and whether or not that function could be better served by some other delivery device.

For the most part – and with lots of due qualification that it all depends on the level — the students tilted their responses toward the indispensability of the coach. Some felt the coach’s technical expertise was indispensable. Others felt that he or she needed to manage the personalities and desires of individual players. Others saw the coach as offering an indispensable vision and rallying point: inspiration. Though the view was not universally shared there was a strong sense that the coach was there to keep chaos at bay.

I, accordingly, tried shamelessly to push them toward the chaos. I’m pretty sure that even when I’m wrong, I can make better arguments than they can or, failing that, that I can make them feel uncertain about their own arguments. I’m trying to beat them down, just enough; to irritate them into coming back with something stronger, In the case of this topic, there was a strange feedback loop at work, one that probably tangled me up.

Here’s what I think – besides the glacially slow resolution of my own Oedipal issues — was at stake for me. The remarkable, heretical philosopher Baruch Spinoza asked in his 17th century political philosophy why people desired their own enslavement as if it were their freedom. I ask that too, of myself and others, Why do we look to others to exercise capacities that we ourselves have? Why are we so quick to transfer our own powers? Spinoza showed us, among many many other things, how this was a recipe for sadness, as we moan and flail and wonder why we feel so powerless when in fact we have separated ourselves from our own powers. In fact, to simplify only slightly, that was Spinoza’s definition of sadness (joy, conversely, he said is the name we give to what we feel when we are connected to our power to act). In code, this is what I am asking my students: why are you so sure you don’t have the power to do what you are saying only the coach can do?

When Tim argued that Wooden was a teacher and that what he taught was the culture of ought, I think he was trying to emphasize three things: the first is that Wooden saw no separation between teaching basketball and teaching a life well-lived. The second is that Wooden believed a life lived ought to turn on self-respect, self-discipline and care for others. The third is that Wooden’s “ought” was neither “the must” of legislation nor the “shalt not” of negating prohibition. In other words, for Tim, Wooden was offering an affirmative life wisdom centered on love for oneself and love for others. I can certainly see that, but it’s not how it feels to me.

I hear that ought as a must. Some of this no doubt has to do with being the youngest by far in a family of strong personalities. I was certainly well-loved, but for many reasons I felt my position in the family as a kind of defenselessness, a kind of chaos, and I responded to that, in part, by turning “shoulds” (and “should nots”) and even “you might want to’s” (and “you might not want to’s”) into “musts.”  I wanted, in other words, not to think for myself. I wanted a clear formula for love and approval (which is what success meant to me at that young age). If I do this then I will be played with, not punished, not left alone, I will be congratulated, attended to; I will be loved. Among the problems with that is that once I’d reduced the world’s script to “you ought to”, I imultaneously reduced my own script to one of two options: “yes sir,” or “fuck you” (with maybe some numb silences thrown in at times when this whole machine got a little creaky). I think that working through that (or rather, that having only partially worked through that) has made me both productively aware and perhaps unproductively hypersensitive to the culture of ought.

But I also think it has made me sensitive and suspicious of bromides and formulas (even as I still crave them and fantasize that somewhere out there is the one magic formula for extra good feeling). Spinoza (who owns the distinction of having been ostracized not only by his native Jewish community, but also by the Christian community there, not to mention by Amsterdam’s economy) argued that at the heart of Judeo-Christian mythology lies a misinterpretation very similar to mine as a child. We read the story of Adam and the apple as if it was about prohibiton, disobedience, and punishment, as if Adam were a child and God the tough-love father. But what if we see it as a story about ethical advice in which someone with a different – even greater – understanding of cause and effect says to someone else if you eat the fruit of this tree the following things will happen because you are made of “x” properties and it is made of “y” properties. It’s the difference between prohibiting upon pain of punishment the touching of a hot stove and explaining through demonstration the effects of touching a hot stove.

My problem with the bromide or the formula (which is also what I love about them): is that in their very form they prohibit (or relieve us of) independent thought and experimentation. Short and pithy, elegant and succinct, they admit no debate, no questions even. And when the content or message borne by that form of discourse is “you ought to do this” then I am thrown into a kind of authoritarian echo chamber in which there is no space for me to think for myself, no space to try things out, no space to make mistakes and, crucially, no space perhaps to discover a new way that works better for me in the face of the chaotic messiness life sometimes presents.

Sometimes I am stupidly contrarian. Like on this day when I provoked them by asking if anybody else felt, like me, that it must have been a bummer for the white kids on the Texas Western team (I mean the ones who had been starting or playing regularly all year, who also had been working their whole lives to play in an NCAA title game, and for whom that game would be last game of their careers) when they were told by their Coach that they would be sitting on the bench and watching instead. Not too many takers for that feeling. And that’s fine. I’m glad my students could recognize that in that situation there were larger issues of collective well-being at stake and that these sometimes override our individual wishes and disappointments.

And I hope they understood that my position was not that Haskins made the wrong choice, or that the outcome was bad somehow.  The opposite is true. But the feeling I described stems from my sense that these things (collective well-being and individual satisfaction; outcome and decision-making process, ends and means) need not have been placed at odds with one another. Precisely such a momentous ethical stand as was taken by Coach Haskins and per force by extension his team, would have been even more thoroughly ethical and emancipatory had it been arrived it collectively, by the whole team, and not handed down from on high by the (white) coach as the only (and already arrived at) way through an urgently demanding ethical and political (not to mention basketball-ical) situation. I think it’s awesome that they did what they did. And awesome that all the players seem ultimately to have accepted the decision. I just think it would have been more awesome had Haskins said: here’s what I’ve been feeling and thinking, “what do y’all think about it?”  Let the discussion ensue.

Maybe my edging toward the position that there is something dangerously authortiarian in the traditional role of the coach as tough-loving parent-God sounds far fetched. Maybe it is.  I hope at least that if it does it is not because the game seems to have little to do with life.  After all, like life basketball involves harmonizing individual skills and aspirations with those of others in pursuit of excellence and joy.  And, like life, this delicate task happens often on the fly, under duress, in the midst of rapidly changing circumstances suffused by, among other things, random events.  In any event,  I hope I have shown that I acknowledge it to be a view I can’t separate from my own issues. But if I have, that hardly invalidates my argument since all arguments are insperable from someone’s own issues. Indeed, I think that doing so just supports my argument further. Because life is complicated, because the stakes are high, because we are all different and all have issues, we cannot afford not to assume the freedom and responsibility to be full participants ion the decisions that will affect us.

And whatever position one finally takes, I have no doubt that all the issues I have just tried to name are buried beneath the surface of a discussion like the one we had on the purpose of a Coach, Just as I am certain they are buried beneath the surface of most discussions of the functions of a teacher. And this is where the discussion tangles me up in it. I think we’re talking about coaches and I’m trying to push them to question their assumption that they need someone to keep order and to tell them what to do and how to do it and suddenly I realize I am talking about what’s going on in our classroom, in their relationship to me as a teacher, as the latest in a line of teacher after teacher they’ve had since before they could read. So what’s my job? Am I doing anything in there that they couldn’t find another way – a better way perhaps – to do for themselves.

I guess the short answer is no, I really don’t think so. I tried to tell them this in class too. I tried to step out of that strange feedback loop by doing the paradoxical two-step of talking about how to erase myself in the class as the source of truth and authority. I explained how for a number of years I experimented with self-grading in my classes in an earnest effort to dehierarchize the classroom, to detach what I had to offer as an older person with special education in the field of study (all of which I felt and feel it is my responsibility to make available to them) from any sort of regulatory or police function, from any sort of dictatorial use of language, to clear the decks of all excuses they might have for not thinking for themselves, for not identifying what they want and taking responsibility for shaping themselves and their surroundings in accordance with those aspirations, proportionately shaped by their freely exercised capacity for thought.

The best I can do in the classroom, I guess, is to invent (through reflection and improvisation) ways to help them locate their own powers of action (including feeling and thought). This can certainly entail lending resources and offering critique and feedback and other traditional components of pedaogogy, But even more crucially I feel that my job involves finding ways to use what they have invested in my position against that investment. Sometimes this involves being deliberately, provocatively, wrong; sometimes direct challenges, sometimes refusing to provide answers, including an answer to the question: “how am I doing? Am I okay?”

I know this doesn’t work for all my students all the time. I know that I don’t always do it effectively, even when I have correctly identified what to try. I work within an institutional context, though I am lucky that in this course, taught within the University of Michigan’s experimental Residential College, I feel fully supported in my experiments.  But even so, we have all, my students and I, learned within deeply grooved educational experiences that sometimes work so powerfully against this aim that it is all we can do just to blindly grope our way along those grooves and try to mumble the name of the trap we are caught in.  I’m certain that I could be a lot better as a teacher.  Certain that I have known better teachers than I, both in the classroom and outside of it.

More than 40 years ago, at a cultural congress in Havana, Cuba that was convened to discuss the tasks of intellectuals in the third world, the great Trinidadan activist and writer C. L. R. James – author of among other things Beyond a Boundary, one of the greatest sports books ever written – shook things up by telling Fidel and a number of other political and cultural luminaries that he felt the real task of intelletuals in the third world was to labor to abolish the category of the intellectual as the social embodiment of learning, thought and culture. I’d be happy as a teacher if it could be said of me that I have tried earnestly (and sometimes successfully) in getting students to drop the notion that a teacher is somehow the social embodiment of discovery and truth and to embrace instead the idea that at best a teacher is another human being, like them, in relation to whom they can discover and develop the powers they themselves already have for transforming themselves and their world for the better.

Postscript: A student interrupted discussion today by saying “I have bad news for any Jazz fans. I got a text from my pop that Jerry Sloan just resigned.” Now, I don’t in principle care whether a student is texting in class so long as they don’t distract me or other students. After all, I figure, it is their loss. I mean, I ask them not to and I tell them that I think it is rude and disrespectful, but I’m not going to disrupt my own class by telling someone who doesn’t seem to be disturbing anyone else to stop texting. So here in the middle of the class comes this interruption which threw me into a mini-eddy of confusion because a) the kid was not only texting, but announcing that he was texting b) the text came from his father; c) the father was texting him about basketball; d) the particular text had everything to do with our class discussion and, oh yeah, e) the father in question is a Hall of Fame basketball player and current NBA GM and, as such, has provided me with some of my most cherished basketball memories of the last 20 years, Faced with such unforeseen and unforeseeable events, it’s hard for me to wish I had more control over my classroom.

Go back to read about our fascination with foreshortened careers


Go on to read about the missing dunks of the New York Knicks ca. 1970-1973

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