Clyde the Glide’s Guide for the Perplexed (On Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool)

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I can remember how prideful I felt to wear the sneakers, and how I dug looking down and watching me walk in them. — Clyde Frazier, Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool

When people ask me what I do for a living I say I’m a professor. Almost inevitably, there’s a follow-up question: “Oh. That’s cool, what do you teach?” For twenty years, my answer has been some variation on “I teach literature.” If the person was also an academic in the humanities I might be more specific: “I teach Latin American literature” or “Comparative Literature.” But most people aren’t academic humanists, so I’d just say plain “literature.”

I’ve always found it embarrassing and disheartening to see the initial spark of interest sputter and fade when I answered. At best, it seems, literature is escape. For most, I know, literature is boring, pretentious, intimidating, even hateful; and all the more so because it is useless. I love literature. But I’m not proud of the sour taste that the study of literature has left in many people’s mouths. I know it’s not only the fault of literature professors, but certainly some of the blame lies there and, while I do my best to buck that trend, I’m still part of that system.

Lately, I’ve noticed that when that follow-up question comes I involuntarily pause because now I can say something else. I mean: I’ve always taught literature, my PhD is in literature, and my official title at the university is associate professor of comparative literature. But now I am teaching “Cultures of Basketball.” I imagine that will preserve interest. So I say it.

I can tell from the response whether they even heard the word “Cultures” at the beginning of my answer. If they look away glazed, then they heard it alright and I am stuffed back into the irrelevant egghead category – or maybe even worse now because I’ve sullied something as awesome as hoops with my wienerly eggheadery. But if I say it quickly enough – “cultures of BASKETBALL” – then they might miss it. Then I might get all I’ve ever really expected from these brief encounters: A raised eyebrow, a smile, a nod. “These aren’t the droids we’re looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.”

But the real truth is that in my own mind, for better and for worse, they really aren’t different things: literature and cultures of basketball. Because what fascinate me most in either case are the stories we are provoked to tell. It doesn’t make much difference to me whether the provocation comes from a novel, a full-court lob pass, or a good book about the game. I’m fascinated by the relationship that springs up between a reader and a book, a player and the game, or a fan and a play – a relationship that I believe exceeds each of its terms, is more than the sum of its part; a relationship that often gets expressed in the form of a story.

If I thought it would make any sense to the people who ask, I’d want to say I teach stories as a form of feeling, thinking, and acting in relation to the world. I’d borrow the words of the late Joseph Campbell, who spent a lifetime studying, classifying, and writing about the myths of the world, and concluded “we tell stories to try to come to terms with the world, to harmonize our lives with reality.” But who ever heard of that major?

When you spend as much time with stories as I do sometimes they can start to run together. Their uniqueness can fade from view and the different stories begin to appear as examples of a few types of story: for example, the love story, requited or unrequited, comic or tragic. This is how we classify, of course, and while we no doubt temporarily lose something precious and particular when we classify, we also gain (or we create, or we gain by creating) a vision of what is shared and held in common. This sort of vision was the basis for Campbell’s work on world mythology and it led him to some profound insights about the empowering roles that such common elements can play in our individual and collective spiritual and material lives.

I’ve noticed that books on basketball lend themselves to being sorted into a few basic categories. There is, of course, the autobiography and biography. There is the story of a season. There is the playground chronicle. There are historical surveys of the game (either general or emphasizing race, geography, gender, or institutional level or venue). There are the reports of the event that changed the game forever. There are books, often in coffee table format, on a single franchise or college program. Probably there are a few others. In describing these stock categories I don’t mean to disparage the world of basketball literature. Within each of the categories I just named are books that I would count among the most moving and thought provoking I have read.

And I find it interesting to identify the common patterns in the world of basketball mythology and try to understand why those patterns recur and what value they have. The underdog story, the best-there-never-was story, the selfish-individual-learns-team-values story, and so on. From there one might even try restore the specificity of the particular instance and try to understand how – for example – the underdog myth works differently depending on the class and race of the underdog in question. That’s part of the work that I’m trying to do in my course and in my own writing about basketball.

But I also feel drawn by the kind of book that stubbornly resists classification or paraphrase, or that invites multiple, even conflicting classifications. As I was preparing reading lists for my class back in early January of 2011, I discovered that the University of Michigan library had shelved the book Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool, by former Knicks star Walt Clyde Frazier and then New York Times reporter Ira Berkow, in the Children’s literature section. The particular classification certainly surprised me, but in another way, it didn’t. Clyde’s book is one of those that resists easy classification. You might even say that it resists sense entirely. And you might think therefore that Clyde’s book is useless, especially as a self-proclaimed guide. But I think nothing could be further from the truth. And that may be why the best place for Rockin’ Steady is the Children’s Literature.

For those unfamiliar with the work – and here already the book begins to resist me as I try to give you a mental picture of it – Rockin’ Steady was originally published in 1974 and was recently republished last Fall. Then as now it’s very format was unusual, large, square, fairly slim (at 144 pages), and richly decorated with photos and illustrations. In addition to the Preface by Berkow, a Foreword by Bill Russell and an Afterword by Clyde, the book has six chapters. 1. Cool; 2. Defense; 3. Offense; 4. Statistics; 5. Rockin’ Steady: Game Day Preparation; 6. A General Guide to Looking Good, and Other Matters. Just the list of chapters begins to give a sense of the book’s unruliness: the way that it seems to defy not only the classificatory schemas we might impose on it from outside, but also its own internal categories. Never mind that the “chapter” on Statistics is two pages long and includes only Frazier’s career stats and his four favorite box scores. In what sense of the word, it is fair to ask, is that a chapter? And even it is a chapter, then in what way does it relate to the chapters that come before and after it?

Once you ignore this and just get into the book things can get even more confusing. For example, the chapter on game day preparation naturally enough includes a description of how Clyde’s driver takes him to the arena. But it also includes a long digression on Clyde’s first car. It’s also hard to know exactly how the discussion of catching flies fits into the “General Guide to Looking Good and Other Matters” that comprises Chapter 6. I mean, obviously it’s part of “other matters,” right? Or is it part of “looking good”? How does it connect to the other topics in that chapter like proper sleep, weight lifting, money, and drying off with a towel after a shower? Even a more conventional chapter like “Offense” (conventionally titled I mean), includes the following within a list of moves and how to execute them: “Hook Shot: I never could shoot a hook shot.” In the “Defense” chapter a numbered list entitled “Fundamentals” promises simplicity and order until it grows like a virus to include 24 items, some subdivided and a few several paragraphs long. Fundamentals?

The book, at the same time, is tremendously absorbing, often moving, and has a quasi cult status. Even President Obama remembers buying it at the age of 12. His age reminds me that at Michigan we’ll find this book in the children’s literature section of the library. And that, after all, it is meant to be a guide. So all this raises for me the question of how to put these two sides of the equation together. A book that defies ready classification, that is internally incoherent, filled with digressions and useless instructions and even non-instructions is also simultaneously a guide revered by none other than the President of the United States for its value at a key formative moment in his life. What sort of guide is this? What sort of guidance does it offer? What is Clyde trying to teach me?

One of my strategies when we in class are stuck facing what appears to us to be a contradiction along the lines of “how can this be ‘x’ when it is also ‘y’?” is to investigate whether “this might be ‘x’ because it is also ‘y.’ What if Rockin’ Steady is a guide not despite but because of the way its excessive, digressive, and useless – but nonetheless absorbing – contents spill beyond all categories, even its own illogical ones? What might something like that be a guide to?

The word that springs to mind is “life.” I don’t mean though that Clyde’s book provides a blueprint for how to live your life, of the sort you might find in the self-help section of the book store. I mean that the experience of reading it is something like a laboratory exercise in life itself. Think about it: cool, offense, defense, statistics, game day, and looking good: isn’t that all of life? Let me translate, a general disposition (“cool”), how to make things happen you want to happen (offense), how to stop things from happening that you don’t want to happen (defense), how to relate to bureaucratic, quantitative forms of measurement (statistics), how to relate to particular events (game day), how to relate to qualitative forms of measurement (looking good). Now, doesn’t that kind of resemble the structure of life?

But of course as I’ve already said the book only looks like a how-to manual. If you really expect to come away from it with the instructions necessary to stop, say, Pete Maravich, then I don’t know what to tell you except that the joke is on you. For one thing, Clyde’s strategy involves getting Pete in a position where he’ll be distracted by the hair flopping into his eyes. Really? Then, even so, you’d still have to adapt Clyde’s instructions for stopping Pete Maravich to your own skill set because, well, you’re not Clyde, and neither am I. Except when I am. But wouldn’t it always be the case with any kind of guide to something as volatile and varied as life that you’d have to adapt it?

And wouldn’t it also have to be ironic, like these instructions that are not instructions. A great Argentinean writer, Julio Cortazar, once published a book that included instructions for doing everyday things: How to Cry, How to Climb a Staircase, How to Wind a Watch. Among the effects of such instructions is that we begin not only to look more closely at these everyday activities but also to wonder about our readiness to receive instructions for completing any but the simplest mechanical tasks.

If we step back, along with Clyde, and can laugh not only at him, as he does, but at our own frantic efforts to master this guide, to tie the whole thing up into a neat package that we can summarize and send on its way to the proper shelf then we can begin to see how it delivers an object lesson in dealing with at least those aspects of life that call for self-ironizing humor.

So I’m suggesting that one way to read Rockin Steady is as a kind of tutorial experience in life: confusing, promising, disappointing, edifying, amusing, moving, instructive, frustrating and, above all, meaningless apart from the effort you make to craft a meaning, a story if you will, from the elements it provides.

It might be that in this Clyde’s book is like other books that break molds and don’t fit neatly into the standard schemas by which we organize common patterns. Maybe what those books share is that they drive us to have – and not just hear about — an experience in the course of reading them, and, thus, in the course of reading them, to gain practice for the lives we will live after we close them.

Those books might not be useful in our usual sense of the word. I’m reminded of the late novelist Italo Calvino who concluded a long article called “Why Read the Classics” with the following equivalent of a shoulder shrug: “it is better than not to read the classics.” I think Calvino was saying it’s not what the classics tell you that make them important, it’s what they do to you while you read them that’s important. In that respect, Rockin’ Steady is, for me, a classic.

And, if I think of classics as texts with which we help form our young, then what better place for Rockin’ Steady than the children’s section?

first written for the now-defunct audioblog Voice on the Floor (March 3, 2011)

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