Day 11: Dunk You Very Much

This also appeared earlier today on the FreeDarko website.  But I’m keeping it here for the sake of consistency and for those few readers of mine who come here first.

This must be a very precious memory. I’ve even written about it before, in passing, in the first substantial post on this blog, before I even knew there would be a Cultures of Basketball course. I am small, 6 or 7, maybe 8. And for today, I decide, I will be Walt Frazier in my driveway. I will dribble around aimlessly at first, warming up my imagination. And then: Time is running out (time was always running out). The Knicks are down by one (my team was always down by one). Frazier steals the ball from West and glides – yes, glides — down the court (somehow fast and slow at the same time) but the Lakers are already back so he passes to Bradley on the wing. Bradley fakes a jumper and dribbles two steps toward the baseline, then facing a helping defender he flips it back to Clyde at the elbow, who rises, rises gracefully, cocking the ball back and releasing it like a gentle spring at the top of his jump. My imagination loses sight of everything except the ball, its rotation and the perfect geometry of its arc to the basket. It’s good! It’s good! Frazier wins the game! Then I have an idea. This could be better. I get out my tempra paints and transform an old t shirt into a Clyde Frazier Knicks jersey. I look in the mirror. Better. But it could be better still. I get the paintbrush and carefully paint myself a moustache and sideburns, or maybe it was a full beard. I don’t remember. Now I am Clyde.

I loved the Milwaukee Bucks as a kid. They were born as a franchise the same year my family moved to Madison, in time for the 1968-69 season. The Celtics won their last title that year, Russell retired (I still have the issue of SI in which he announced it), and the field was open. The Bucks sucked that first year and I don’t really remember anything about them, But then they got Lew Alcindor from UCLA. And through the 1973-74 season they would amass the best regular season won loss record of any NBA team, win the title in 1971, lose in the Western Conference Finals to eventual champion Lakers in ‘72, lost in the WC semis to Golden State in ‘73, and lose in the finals to Boston in 74. I watched them in person when they’d play games in Madison (rarely), watched them on TV (a little less rarely), and listened to them on the radio (all the time). The other perennial contenders of that time were the Lakers (champs in 72), Bullets and, of course, the Knicks, who won the 1970 and 1973 titles. These were my formative basketball years, the experiences and memories of teams, games, and players (Robertson and Jabbar, Wilt and West, Hayes and Unseld, and then, Reed, Monroe, Barnett, Bradley, DeBusschere, and, of course, Frazier) that to this day outsize all others in my mind; that make me bristle irrationally at any suggestion that any other NBA era was better, and that make it hard to even understand what teaching the period should look like, let alone to formulate a coherent lesson plan.

So I approached Tuesdays class, for which we had read the FreeDarko chapter called “The Get Along Gang: Why Everybody loves the New York Knicks”, with a mixture of intense childlike excitement, middle-aged nostalgia, and pedagogical cluelessness and panic. I have always loved reading, and there are certain writers that I have loved especially. But they are not confusingly intertwined with the core of my being like 1970s hoops. I feel that I’ve mostly managed to integrate my passion into my teaching without becoming wholly incoherent. So much for that.

Even now, as I’m writing, I’m having a hard time weaving a story or a focused argument out of the tangled skein of memories and feelings that the period evokes for me. All the more so, since as I told the students at the outset of class, that decade of NBA history is often dismissed as a kind of low-ebb middle-ages sandwiched between the Celtics dynasty and legendary era of the 1960s and the resurgent media friendly era of Magic Bird and Jordan. The 70s offered no single dominant franchise. But that’s not all, the ABA helped drive salaries up and the league became mostly black for the first time in its history. Meanwhile, widely reported drug use among the players gave a mostly white audience an excuse to cluck in moralizing disdain and to turn the channel rather than watch rich young black men ball. All of this, of course, in the context of Vietnam, Watergate, and the Energy Crisis. Oh, and disco. So what do you when your fondest and most powerful memories of the game are of what most – not all – NBA chroniclers would prefer to forget, if not write-off as an embarrassing exhibition of what is not-Amazing? What do you do when the story of your formative years is of dissolution and wasted promise?

1.Evasive action II: Nickname poll (What is your favorite all time hoops nickname?). Results: Iceman and Mailman tied with two votes each (Skip-to-my-Lou also got two votes but I invalidated them in unaccountable contradiction of the political philosophy I advocated on Day 10). My own choice: Black Jesus.

2.Time killer: Three video clips: one of Earl Monroe (see 1 above), one on the 1970 Knicks title team and one on the 1973 Knicks title team.

3.Passing the Buck open-ended question for the class: What made the biggest impression on you as you read the chapter on the Knicks or as you watched the video clips?

Hmmm. Lots of silences in today’s class. I clearly came neither ready to play nor ready to really expose myself and try to make my inability to be coherent into a teaching opportunity. Which doesn’t mean that they didn’t try to step-up and fill the void. I’d say they did. You know, sometimes it’s the students who have somehow to find a way on the spur of the moment to pull together and make a particular class work, a job that I could at least have made easier by confessing that I needed them to do it. But even without that they came up with several interesting observations. Among them, the one that most stuck in my mind is that the Knicks rarely dunked in any of the clips we watched. Why, a student wondered?

I don’t mean to be coy or over-complicating in what follows. I know that the prevalence of the dunk today really had its origins historically in the 1976 ABA inaugural dunk context, in the merger that brought acrobatic dunkers like Julius Erving and David Thompson into the NBA fold and of course especially to the confluence of Michael Jordan and ESPN, with its nightly parade of dunk highlights in the 1980s, not to mention the overall superior athleticism of NBA players today. So that it might seem that the responsible thing would have been to politely explain that the question was anachronistic, like asking why the pioneers on the Oregon Trail didn’t just take a plane. But not quite, because it’s not as though nobody dunked in the NBA back then (and, indeed, the NCAA had not long before banned dunking, imagining the threat that anticipated Lew Alcindor dunks posed to the game), and the Knicks defense certainly generated plenty of breakaway opportunities for crowd rousing jams. So it was a valid question.

And, anyway, when you are teaching or thinking about things, sometimes, I have found, it can turn out to be useful to recall and then set aside the obvious path and just pursue the question along whatever paths it takes you. You might not get to a better answer to the original question (we didn’t) but you might discover some interesting other thoughts along these not obviously promising side roads. Plus, like I say, I didn’t really have the presence of mind to come up with something on my own so I wasn’t about to piss away a student contribution. What emerged from the discussion were three points that weren’t necessarily, and perhaps shouldn’t be, related, but part of the fun of this writing is making dubious connections and offering speculative interpretations that are only tenuously tethered to the facts.

The first two possibilities were offered by students: 1) the Knicks didn’t dunk because it was at odds with the unselfish style of play to which they all obviously subscribed. The dunk might have felt like an attempt to drawn attention to oneself as an individual player. And 2) the Knicks didn’t dunk because they preferred the understated cool and fluidity of the lay up over the staccato violence of the throwdown. So, I observed, we have a moral interpretation and an aesthetic interpretation of the no-dunk Knicks. Before going on I just want to pause to point out how pleased I was with my students for thinking “beyond a boundary” and recognizing how much more there can be to understand in what appears to be a simple technical choice between two equally effective options on the court: do I lay it in or do I throw it down?

The third idea wasn’t so much an explanation of why they didn’t dunk as an account of the hidden racial politics dogging the dunk, which I offered off the cuff in response to a student question about the legal history of the shot. The dunk was never illegal in NBA competition, but was banned by the NCAA, as I mentioned above, beginning with the 1967-68 season until 1976, But the point I also made about the dunk in that context is that the first dominant dunker, Wilt Chamberlain, as has been amply noted elsewhere, terrified basketball purists who feared he would destroy the game (see John McPhee’s elegant paean to Bill Bradley, which is structured in part around the sophistication of Bradley’s style drawing McPhee back to the game in the mid 1960s after its pleasures had been spoiled for him by dunking giants). It’s difficult, and probably unwise to separate the fears of Chamberlain in that era (and of Alicindor in the next) from white fears of a black uprising in the game, which in turn are difficult to separate from white fears of a black uprising in society. In short perhaps overly simplistic but still illuminating terms, the dunk was unconsciously (though also no doubt in some quarters consciously and explicitly) racialized as a brutish black play at odds with the more sophisticated white traditions of the game.

So, for now, just keep these speculative notions in the back of your mind: the Knicks preference for the lay in over the dunk could be read as having moral, aesthetic, and political layers of meaning. Meanwhile, our reading for the day, as I say, was Bethelehem Shoals’ investigation into “why everybody loves the New York Knicks.” His argument, already succinctly expressed in the title of the chapter: “the get along gang”, is two fold. In the first instance, the Knicks embodied a style of play (aggressive team defense and unselfish offense with quick passing and lots of movement away from the ball) that “was a direct descendant of the ball that had been played in New York colleges during the first half of the century. It harked back to the city’s past and resonated with generations of fans from the New York diaspora (and not just Jews).” Second, the Knicks employed the style successfully with a roster of players who represented exactly the particular racial, ethnic, geographical, and socio-economic groups that were most definitely not getting along in American society at the time, In Shoals’ words: “everyone loves the one about the pimp [Frazier], the nerd [Bradley – also a Midwestern banker’s son], the black Southern Gentlemen [Willis Reed], the white workingman [Dave DeBusschere], the hippie [Phil Jackson], and the street urchin they picked up along the way [Earl Monroe]. The Knicks were America’s Team for a country trying to make sense of itself –and wondering what coexistence might look like.”

In addition, I think that Shoals, in his comparison of Red Auerbach (architect and coach of the 60s Celtics dynasty) and Red Holzman (laconic coach of the Knicks), is also suggesting that the Knicks offered a different kind of response to the essential hoops tension between the individual and the team. Where the Celtics became interchangeable parts in a durably and predictably (if also magically) effective winning machine, the Knicks players were all personalities, celebrities even, off the court who found a way to mesh perfectly on the court – despite, or perhaps because, of the considerably greater spotlight that the new era and their New York home shined on them.

I have zero objection to this view of what made (and makes to this day) the Knicks of that era so appealing. Indeed in class we talked about this (oddly arriving at it ourselves without reference to the book – a sign of my poor psychological preparation for the day) and it led to an interesting, if abbreviated, discussion of the kind of roles that teams can play for their cities and for the society at large. We talked about and cited the numerous examples of teams galvanizing and inspiring a city that is struggling (as with the Pistons and Detroit, both in the late -80s and in the more recent edition). But we also wondered together whether there was a flipside to the way teams can inspire and excite struggling cities (and societies). Whether there is a palliative effect at work whereby the success of a team and the feel-good atmosphere it can inspire can serve to dissipate anger at conditions and injustices that persist after all the ticker-tape has been swept up. In other words, we tried to think about the ways in which a team’s success can lead us either to stop thinking that our society has problems that need our attention and effort or to stop working for those problems because after all, unlike a title run, there really isn’t a clear cut sign of final triumph in the struggles against, say, poverty or racism.

I want to emphasize that I’m not proposing an either or here, nor am I trying to tell anyone (including my students) what they ought to think about this issue, or about any particular instance of these dynamics in general. I’m just trying to encourage critical, well-rounded thought on the question and, in class, anyway to try to introduce students to a long standing debate in the humanities over the role of art in society (a debate of which I take, for the present purposes, the sports and society question to be a kind of related offshoot). I like and wished I had pointed out to the students that its possible to feel and think both ways at the same time, as Shoals does when he writes, “if the Knicks offered hope for the country, they did so while acknowledging that things would never be the same again. For America, these teams were not an attempt to deny the trauma of the sixties but a reality that offered a way forward. They continue to resonate because, in the end, the Knicks are about the possibility of shared values even after the whole world seems to have broken wide open.”

I find that to be extremely stirring, well-thought-through stuff. It even helps me to understand why, even as they eclipsed my beloved the Bucks in agonizing fashion in the early 70s, I was dressing up as Clyde and loving the Knicks. Now that I think about it, I realize that as a kid I was looking pretty desperately for a get along gang in my own family, which suffered its share of tension and strife at the time. I’m not saying I thought this consciously of course. Consciously I just knew Clyde was fucking cool and I was going to be him when I grew up (which as it turns out is exactly what happened as you can tell from my account of the first day of class), I’m just saying that unconsciously I had picked up on the get along discourse of the Knicks and had internalized it as a kind of fantasy I wanted to live in, even if I was too young to really realize that my whole country – and not just my family — might have been in need of that too.

So I’m down with all of this. But I’m still left wondering how to solve the case of the missing dunks, and I’m still not content to go with the easy and true historical answer (that the dunk was just not yet a big part of anybody’s game in the NBA at that time). I want to try to put this all together. It’s actually pretty easy with the moral and aesthetic qualities we in class attributed to the non-dunk. That is: if the Knicks’ non-dunk is an affirmation of unselfish humility and of understated fluidity then it’s not hard to see how that supports the kinds of values the Knicks would be supplying their city and the nation as a whole.

I’ll admit all of this may just be the sign of an oft remarked upon general shift in basketball culture. I’d never noticed the lack of dunks on the Knicks. But it was one of the first things my students – and a “Jordan baby” from the Chicago area no less — noted. And believe me, I was and am as seduced as anyone by those Knicks teams. Above all, they created open look after open look whether on a fast break off a steal or in their unstructured intelligent and cool offensive flow – everything looks so easy. Who needs a dunk? Who even misses them when you are watching that?

But when I think about the racial politics of the dunk I’m left a bit confused and uncomfortable. Let me explain. The City Game, published by journalist Pete Axthelm in 1970s, is a moving, elegantly written account of the 1970 Knicks championship season that shows why the Knicks were so popular in New York by telling their story alongside those of countless city playground stars who played the very same kind of ball the Knicks played. But as Axthelm acknowledges, as galvanizing as those Knicks were, they did not cure the ills of the city or of society, and many of those same enthusiastic playground ballers wound up strung out on drugs, trapped in poverty, imprisoned or dead. What feelings does that give rise to? And what is the appropriate expression of those feelings? Where I want to ask, in the Knicks playbook, is the basketball play that expresses the sadness and rage occasioned by that social violence, that colossal waste of human creativity and talent?

It is as though, in light of all this, in addition to everything else I have also felt and thought about the Knicks, that I feel and think about the Knicks, I am also provoked – in spite of myself — to view them as a kind of populist compromise. I mean, the sort of populist compromise that appears to offer room for everyone and everything at the social banquet table, but that has actually done so at the expense of leaving some standing outside the door. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s inevitable. Yet it doesn’t feel okay to me now, even as I still feel lured by the stirring style of play and success of those Knicks teams, even without the dunks.

If the dunk has historically been seen as the flamboyant, sometimes violent expression of individual power (if not anger, or gleeful anger), not to mention racialized as such, then I can’t help but think that there was no room for those things in the new reality the Knicks promised us. All of which would be just fine if it were also the case that the conditions that give rise to the feelings that get expressed in a dunk had disappeared from society. But if they didn’t (and we know they didn’t and maybe that is the not so secret story of the lost decade in which I was formed, basketballically and otherwise), then what do we do with our desire – what do I do with my desire and I mean this as a real, not rhetorical question — to forego the extra pass, eschew the easy lay up, and throw down a “Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam”?

Maybe I’m overstating things. I usually do. Maybe all I’m saying is the the missing jams now look to me in retrospect like an index of where we fell short in putting it all together. Where we are still falling short.

go back to read about our discussion of coaching and the surprising deep needs it satisfies in us

 Check out Go Yago! to my review of Clyde Frazier’s Guide to Basketball and Cool


Go on to read how the missing dunks wound up in the ABA


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