Day 16: March Madness, or, Confessions of a Bad Professor

So, yesterday, I came to class committed to a rational division of class time: we would of course take a few minutes to air out are excitement over the Wolverine’s blow-out of Tennessee and 2 point loss to number 1 seed Duke. And then we’d take a few more minutes to get up to speed on the planning of our own intraclass tournament. But even allotting generously for these matters, that would still leave us an hour to talk about the luminescence of Jordan’s Bulls and the shadow it cast over the rest of the NBA in the 1990s. And that, I expected, would be the topic of my post for today.

Instead, to summarize in rough order: we talked about the first two rounds of NCAA tournament games, the likelihood of various college players going pro, Jimmer Fredette, BYU, and the history of Mormonism in the United States, the real vs. hyped merits of various Duke players, Tim Hardaway Jr. being crossed by Nolan Smith (hey, he brought it up!), Stuart Douglass’ two handed jam against Tennessee and his 30 foot triple moments before that, the team’s prospects for next year, and, our own upcoming tournament (which topic can be further subdivided into: participant nicknames, jerseys, dates, venues, tourney format, the actual composition of teams, and team names).

The simplest thing to say would be that I’ve lost control of the class. And that would be true, but putting it that way obscures the unexpectedly complex dynamics unfolding as my first stab at teaching Cultures of Basketball unfolds. And it’d be easy for me to caricature the students’ jovial unruliness and to make this a story about how their chaotic energy overwhelmed my own best steadfast and sober efforts to focus our energy on The Reading Assignment and The Real Topic for the day. I could probably make that pretty amusing. But I don’t think it’s really how it went down and I don’t think that would really help me understood or communicate to you the experience of teaching this odd course.

It’s much truer to say that I came in spoiling for it, I was the instigator and, especially once we started talking about the intra-class tourney and I saw their enthusiasm, what interest I had in the day’s material and what guilt I felt about being a Bad Professor (would be a great nickname by the way), seemed to vanish and I was all in. Go big or go home. So I’m embracing the day’s events and am going to utilize this space to describe the First Annual Free Yago CoB JAMboreeee, as we finally determined our event shall be called. To really throw caution to the wind, and licensed by the arbitrary rationalization that the players’ season is now over, I will use real names here when necessary.

We had already determined that the tournament field would consist of 8 3-person teams. Each of the eight UM players would be designated in advance as a “team owner.” The rest of us would put our chosen nicknames on a ping pong ball, and the ping pong balls would be placed in a box. The owners would then draw randomly in a variation of the NBA draft lottery and one by one the rosters for the 8 teams would be filled out.

As for the format, we’d agreed that we wanted maximum play for everyone. So we decided to go World Cup style. Four teams would comprise a “Maize” group and four teams would comprise a “Blue” group – the groups would be formed randomly. In Round I, the four teams in each group would play a round robin tournament. From there, the top two teams in each group enter the Championship bracket, wherein Blue 1 would face Maize 2 and Maize 1 would face Blue 2. Similarly, the bottom two teams in each group enter the Losers’ Bracket (Blue 3 vs. Maize 4 and Maize 3 vs. Blue 4). The winners of the two semi-final games in the Championship Bracket would, of course, face off to determine the Champion and runner up. The losers of the two Championship Bracket semi-final games would play for 3rd and 4th place. Over in the Losers’ Bracket, the winners of the semis would play for 5th and 6th place, and the losers of the semis would play for 7th and 8th place. This way, everyone will get to play 5 games. This much had already been determined and so I began our discussion by putting it all on the board. Then we turned our attention to still undecided issues.

First, the bad news. Crisler Arena is closed for construction. That left us mulling two possibilities: one of the University’s recreational facilities or an outdoor court. Because of the tournament format, we really need games going on two baskets at a time. I was pushing for an outdoor venue, figuring that by the time we play in mid April the weather will be “good” and, more importantly, that the irregularities of the playground might serve as an equalizer (Tim Hardaway, Jr. agreed with this but I couldn’t tell if he favored the outdoor option or not). But others seemed clearly averse to that possibility. Some suggested reserving a court in one of the IM buildings, which remains a possibility, though I find myself strangely cowed by the prospect of calling to arrange this. Evan Smotrycz suggested we just show up, figuring that people would be “intimated by . . . you know, we’ve got like 30 people”. I’m not sure what thoughts were contained by that pause, but I was imagining that he was thinking people will be intimidated because, well, we are the UM basketball team. I was thinking that. Ultimately, a final decision on the venue was tabled pending further inquiries and “discussion”.

0-1.

I passed out a sign-up sheet on which students were to indicate, if they had not already, their chosen nickname and their top three jersey number preferences. One student, Rajesh Kumar, had graciously volunteered to make the necessary inquiries at the printing shop. He reported back that we could get regular cotton tees printed with a logo (a single one for all) and a team name on the front, and a name and number on the back for $15 a piece, or the same thing but printed on a dri-fit tee for $20. At first count, a majority favored the dri-fit option. However, the minority presented the argument that the cotton tee would make for a better souvenir. I was nearly swayed by this, touched as I was that they would want a souvenir of the event. Ultimately, we charged Rajesh with finding out if the printer could accommodate individual requests for the type of shirt or if we all had to go the same route. Another decision tabled.

0-2

We discuss the name and logo for the event itself. I initially reject all options involving my own name. In athletic contexts, and despite the influx of Latin players into the NBA game, it still horrifies me to utter it and then, inevitably, to have to repeat it, slowly, as though it were immensely complicated to pronounce rather than two short syllables that most infants manage to articulate before they can even speak.

Jordan Dumars helpfully offers to come up with the name. He’s shown himself to be a quiet kid, but a clever and quick-witted thinker and adept in language. I’ll take the help. He only needs two minutes he says. In the meantime, good natured Mack Ladd volunteers to design the logo. I ask him, do you have the skill set for this. “No,” he says, “but I’ll get it done.” I forget that a lot of these kids are in the b school so that the fact they can’t do something doesn’t automatically induce panic as it would in me. It just induces outsourcing.

Jordan and Colton Christian start laughing. Jordan has come up with a name but initially tries to pass it off as Colton’s idea. Finally, we get Jordan to share: “The Washtenaw County Colonoscopy Invitational.” He’s concerned, naturally, about copyright issues, but other than that seems to feel pretty good about it. I’m not so sure, though strangely, I am also delighted.

Someone – I don’t remember who – shouts out “jamboree”, someone else picks it up, I turn it into JAMboreee and that seems to stick. Or maybe they have lost interest. But it gets put together with Free Yago (a nod to the Free Darko textbook we are ignoring today). Finally, I have to admit, I like that they have been so insistent that the tournament should bear my embarrassing name. And when I remember that some of them want the souvenir tee shirt, I glow. No official conclusion was reached in class, but there was enough consensus around it that, later in the evening, enterprising Mack, who had already lined up his graphic designer, was running possibilities by me that all involved some combination of “Free Yago” and “JAMboree.”

Let’s call that a free throw. 0-2 from the field, 1-2 from the line.

Discussion turned to the date. Now here it would seem the best thing would be to just pick, say, the last day of class. After all, it’s guaranteed that everybody can make that time. But I vetoed that option in advance, perversely arguing that I didn’t want to take up “class time” with the tournament (!) and also, somewhat more reasonably, that we’d need more time than the hour and twenty minutes of class to play out the whole tourney. We talked about weekend dates in April but that was proving tough to manage since someone it seemed would be out of town every weekend in April. So we began to turn to weekday dates, but the cacophonous mix of helpful suggestions, idle chatter, and objections combined with my own limitations as a logistician made the room spin and my eyes swim. I tabled that decision as well, pending the submission by all participants of a full calendar for the next month indicating the dates and times they would be absolutely unavailable to play.

We are sucking at making decisions. The stat line is not encouraging: 0-3 from the floor, 1-2 from the line.

About the only thing of which I am feeling certain at this point is that this beautiful dream, this highly cool idea, is fading faster than Michigan State’s NCAA title aspirations this season. I can feel the pressure rising, a half hour remains of class time. We have done no real work and at this point, I feel so despairing about the intractability of pulling off the tourney that I don’t even want to do any. I’m not sure we will ever make it back to the syllabus. I buy time by checking to see if the nickname sheet has made its way around. It is, almost everyone has signed up. We have spent 50 of our 80 minutes.

I’m seeing only the failures in this moment: not only the failure to tackle tournament logistics, not even only the failure to manage class time so as to be able actually to think and discuss the cultures of basketball. I’m thinking bigger failures: failure to generate in the students, after 2 ½ months, enough interest in my approach to hoops culture that they themselves would be demanding we study; and, even bigger than that, lifelong failure to assert myself, independently of what I fear others might think of me. I play at cheerful impatience, but inside I’m withering, And I’m figuring I’ll just collect the sheet, send them home, resign my job on grounds of incompetence, and fly home to regroup. It is a low point for me.

They save me, they buoy me, they lift me once again to new heights of delectable triumph. “Let’s pick our teams NOWWW!” they shout, almost in unison. I pause. I am thinking, with a kind of whiny, loserly petulance: “but what about the ping pong balls?” But fortunately, a saner, more desperate, less stubborn and more pragmatic voice prevails: “Don’t be a madman!! They are still enthusiastic, don’t kill it over some pathetic detail of your fantasy!! Ride it, man, ride it!!”

So I say, as enticingly as possible, “you wanna go ahead and do that? Even without the ping pong balls” (as if they were the ones dying to do the ping pong balls). “Yay! Yay!” they crow brightly and beneath the cheering one of them – maybe Mack – asks me was I really planning to do ping pong balls. I think there is genuine concern for me in his voice. I say yes, but tell him it’s totally fine. While the last of the students fill in their nicknames and jersey numbers on the sheet, I start tearing up scraps of paper and then feverishly scribbling the nicknames I already know on them in order to speed things up. Finally, we have all the names on paper and all the paper in my hat.

I write the chosen nicknames of the 8 players/owners in a row across the top of the board: Bird (Blake McClimans), Manatee (Evan Smotrycz), The Technician a/k/a Daddy (Jordan Dumars), Chevy (Colton Christian), Wisconsin Lunchbox (Matt Vogrich), “Stuart” (Stu Douglass, who still hadn’t decided, but has since gone with Dr. Funk from a Vince Carter Nike commercial), Bing Bing (Corey Person) and Pop Pop a/k/a Thard Nation (Tim Hardaway Jr). Everyone seems to be laughing, the air thick with excited anticipation. I am hot. Even with my hat off. I’m boiling hot and nervous. My hands shake as I approach Blake with my hat. I worry suddenly that they will be grossed out picking names out of my hat, as if instead of just wearing it on my head I’d been using it for a chamberpot. I worry that somehow our hands will touch. I worry that they will see my hands shake. My hands shake more.

Blake picks out the first paper: “Bronco”. That’s Mack Ladd. Applause, laughter, shouting, and hollering ring out. Even though it was a random drawing, some honor seems to go along with being the first pick in the draft and while I’m genuinely happy for Mack (already an absurd feeling), I’m also jealous (oh God!). I make some crack about the max rookie contract he’ll be able to command. Then I turn to The Technician a/k/a Daddy. Jordan rustles around in the hat, pulls out the paper, reads it and then silently extends his arm and fist to me. Oh! I realize suddenly, he’s picked me! I awkwardly fold my still healing right hand into a small fist and bump it against his, hoping he won’t hit it too hard, realizing I don’t know how hard to hit it. David Shields was wrong, I think: this camaraderie is mine too. Perhaps this is the best moment of my life.

For the record, I’d been going over this moment in my mind for weeks, and I’d honestly come to realize that I would have been thrilled to join any of the players’ teams. I’ve come to like and respect them all as individuals a great deal. And likewise, I found something exciting about every possible non-player student I might have been teamed up with. Still not only do I like Jordan a lot, but because he is Joe Dumars’ son a deeply irrational part of my soul reacts as if Joe D just plucked me from obscurity with the second pick of the draft! Wait a minute, I don’t mean that to connote what it inevitably will, especially in light of the title of our textbook. But you get the idea.

The draft progresses, now that I’ve been picked I can focus on the genuinely touching dynamic as each “owner” picks the nickname of a classmate, who recognizes his or her own name as it is called out, and lights up, shyly or gregariously raising his or her hand. Perhaps this moment is great for them too. And the players respond with enthusiasm; not because they know anything about their classmate’s skills, but seemingly just because it is fun for them to make new teammates. They delight in each others choice of nicknames. Maybe I’m just inventing all this, but I liked the feeling that these big time college athletes, who just two days earlier had taken # 1 seeded Duke University to the wire before the biggest television audience of the first two rounds were now undeniably joyful in a cramped attic classroom, at the news that they’d just added a 5-8 4th year mechanical engineering student to their squad.

I choose to see that as a pedagogical success.

Once we’d picked all the teams (obviously doing the second round in reverse), they clamored to break into their teams and begin to devise team names. Jordan and I got together (our third, as yet nickname-less Ryan Feeley was competing in the NCAA men’s swimming championships and so was absent from class). Washtenaw County Colonoscopy Invitational notwithstanding, Jordan really is good at this kind of thing, so I was eager to hear his suggestion.

He immediately won me over: “You know that movie I just wrote about? Semi-Pro? You know how they were called Flint Tropics?” I’m on it straight away. It’s brilliant, a faux ABA name. I’m down, I love the ABA, Jordan truly is a great teammate!! “So we need the name of an obscure town then.” “How about Saline?” Jordan suggests. I like that. Saline, a small town outside Ann Arbor, is not pronounced SAY-lean, like the solution, but rather suh-LEAN, like, well, nothing. It’s perfect. Now we need a nickname, “something intimidating,” I say. “Yeah, it should be intimidating,” he agrees. “I got an idea,” I say, extremely apprehensively. “How ‘bout the Saline Sickness.” Jordan pauses. Fist bump. For the win.

Postscript: For those keeping score at home, here are the rosters for the First Annual Free Yago CoB JAMboree (date and venue TBA). Some team names have yet to be announced, but for each team I’ve listed nickname, real name, and jersey number

MAIZE GROUP:

The Dream Killazzz

Bing Bing (Corey Person) 93

Darvy (Elliott Darvish) 24

Sizzle (Nick Pagano) 33

Team Name TBA

Pop Pop a/k/a Thard Nation (Tim Hardaway, Jr.) 10

White Lightning (Morgan Bailey) 800 [Morgan is a ceremonial pick     since she runs the 400 and 800 on the Women’s Track Team and     will still be competing]

Burr!! (Nick Berlage) 4

Flyy Kicks (Christina Albert) 16

Team Name TBA

Bird (Blake McClimans) 88

Bronco (Mack Ladd) 269

Panchero (Tim Yeh) 8

Team Name TBA

Manatee (Evan Smotrycz) -6

The Garbage Man (Sam Klein) 12

The Hebrew Hammer (Matt Gordon) 18

BLUE GROUP

Team Name TBA

Dr. Funk (Stuart Douglass) 3.14

Hot Sauce (Shantanu Kumar) 23

TBA (Sean Fletcher) TBA

The Melting Pot (tentative only, subject to change)

Wisconsin Lunchbox (Matt Vogrich) infinity symbol

The Professor (Ronald Beach II) 14

Shake n Bake (Rajesh Kumar) 7

Save 2nd Base (BYU)

Chevy (Colton Christian) #

Blue Steel (Chantel Jennings) 22

The Caucasian Invasion (Andrew Dickson) 13

Saline Sickness

The Technician a/k/a Daddy (Jordan Dumars) 84

Light Skin Jesus (Yago Colas) 11

TBA (Ryan Feeley) TBA

Go backward if you want to read about last class’ discussion of the young Michael Jordan

or

forward if you want to read about the Knicks Heat rivalry of the late 90s

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