Day 17: Beautiful Monstrous

I know that over the past month I’ve fallen off the twice-weekly pace that I had set for this course diary in the first couple months of the term. Celebrity visits, travel commitments, the NCAA tournament all conspired to put other things at the top of the agenda. Now, we’re down to our last 4 classes of the semester and it’s tempting to throw in the towel. The stack of papers to grade isn’t getting any smaller. The commute isn’t getting any less tiring. And the end of the semester always seems to throw universities into spasms of urgently imperative bureaucratic activity. But the truth is the students’ work in Cultures of Basketball, both in writing and in class discussion, has never been stronger. And our intra-class tournament seems to have enhanced still further the already remarkable camaraderie in the classroom. So we are, as they say, peaking at the right time.

Over our past two class meetings we’ve had very lively and engaged, productive class discussions of the Heat-Knicks rivalry of the late 1990s and of Allen Iverson. I threw out some questions to get things going, but the students drove both of those excellent discussions not only with their responses to the questions but with their “off-track” comments as well. Today, I’m going to focus especially on the Heat-Knicks discussion (cause it’s fresher in my mind), and leave the Iverson discussion for the next post. But first an update on what has now come to be known as the First Annual Free Yago CoB JAMboreee.

Light Skin Jesus

The tournament has felt all along to me like a thrilling, fragile, and vaguely illicit possibility. Perhaps – it would be like me – it has felt fragile and vaguely illicit because it has been so thrilling. I’m pretty sure I’ve already written on here somewhere that I never played D1 basketball. The closest I ever came to that was when Bo Ryan – then an assistant at Wisconsin — told me at a summer camp when I was fourteen that “he’d be watching my development.” I guess he was disappointed, but no more so than I, that I didn’t grow more than a few millimeters beyond the 5-8 that I already was by that time.

You know the visual meme of the shoe box of hundreds of recruitment letters that appear in every film about the game? The one where an avalanche of envelopes – Duke University, The University of Kansas, UCLA, The University of Kentucky, etc. – cascade into rapidly growing pile on the coffee table of some high school phenom? Well, I had a shoe box too. I think there were about six letters in it, the highlight being Dartmouth College, but a more representative one being St. Mary’s (of Minnesota). Don’t get me wrong, they were good schools and I was absolutely thrilled to get the letters. Ultimately, money and a more sober assessment of my post-collegiate possibilities, led me to turn down the lavish offers of financial aid and the intimate, small college experience and I stayed home to attend Wisconsin.

But sometime last fall, I did Chris Milk’s Wilderness Downtown interactive film on Google Chrome, the one where you are invited to identify with an adolescent boy running the streets of an anonymous suburb at night only, magically, to arrive at your very home. The experience concludes with an invitation to write a postcard offering advice to the child who lived at that address. My eyes brimming with tears, I wrote “play college ball.” That very fact gives you a sense of how powerful are the youthful yearnings tapped by having some Division I college players ask me to play ball with them. It’s immature, I know, this fixation. But as my player-owner Jordan Dumars aka The Technician has said to me of growing up in the long shadow of a famous athlete father: “I embrace it!”

So it’s on! The teams are formed, the nicknames and numbers chosen, the jerseys ordered, the trash talk flowing (most recently 6-9 Evan Smotrycz aka Manatee warned me on Twitter: “don’t come into the lane Yago” — I laughed, and then felt a shudder of fear). The date — April 20th, 2011 8:30 to 11 pm – is set and the venue all but pinned down (note my cautious hedging against the terror that this will all still fall through). And I couldn’t be more thrilled.

I’ve had some injuries this year, most recently a broken hand that kept me off the court throughout February and March. But I have thrown myself into a training camp of my own devising – work outs, balling with my guys in St. Louis, purifying my stroke, and a training table regimen of Chipotle and La Pizza (best in St. Louis). I’m preparing psychologically. Probably the main weakness in my game – shockingly – is an overthinking born of a truly loathsome streak of insecurity and self-doubt that, when it grips me, becomes a self-fulfilling vortex. So at the moment, I’m doing the equivalent of Keanu rubbing his hands together as he stands atop a skyscraper in the “jump program”, reminding himself that “it’s all in my mind, it’s all in my mind,” before running, leaping, briefly believing, and then plummeting to city street below. You know he’s gonna fall the second he has to think about not falling. I better stop thinking and just play. Not so easy. But how ever short my performance falls of my ludicrous fantasy of proving at the age of 45 that I could’ve played D1 ball 27 years ago, I know I’ll have a blast and, more to the point of my actual life right now, I’ll have a great story to write about.

Beautiful Monstrous

Somewhere toward the tail end of that clip summing up the Knicks-Heat playoff rivalry from 1997-2000, Pat Riley – the sadistic, bad Daddy who engendered the two monsters and then set them at each other’s throats – says with an unsettling, calm bemusement: “It might not have been the most artistic, but from an effort standpoint, from a defensive standpoint, from a competitive standpoint, where you were not going to give your man anything, and he wasn’t going to give you anything, it was some of the best basketball that’s ever been played.” “Some of the best basketball that’s ever been played.” I latched on to that statement as a take-off point for class discussion because it clashed so starkly – while occupying the very same interpretive terrain – as “Rotten Island: Knicks-Heat, the Rivalry That Made Hate a Virtue,” Joey Litman’s elegantly written chapter on the rivalry in FreeDarko’s Undisputed History of Pro Basketball.

Litman both accurately recaps the rivalry and pinpoints the very real emotional forces and their causes that gave the series such intensity: Riley’s leaving New York to take the job in Miami and the match-up between defensive minded, ex-Georgetown centers Patrick Ewing (Knicks) and Alonzo Mourning (Heat). He then concludes with the following: “In the end, it never was about the basketball. What the Knicks and Heat played could hardly even be called that at times. Their rivalry, staged over ninety-four feet of hardwood, was nonetheless about strength and frailty, about the many costumes in which passion arrives. Humanity, sometimes beautiful, sometimes hideous, and oftentimes just passable, was truly on display. Not basketball. And such an honest depiction was a riveting counterweight in an era filled with the soaring victories and freakish sucessess of so many superheroes.”

What I think is at stake in this rivalry and in these two evaluations of it is the weight that beauty and morality, respectively, should be given in judging the quality or goodness of a particular manifestation of basketball. Riley, for his part, acknowledges that the rivalry fell short in the beautiful, but insists that moral virtue is a legitimate standard in its own right, a standard from which point of view the rivalry could be judged “some of the best basketball ever played.” Litman agrees that it was unbeautiful. He also agrees that the rivalry itself put forward a different set of criteria derived from the moral sphere. But he diverges from Riley by concluding, if I understand it correctly, that the absence of beauty made the rivalry not only not the best basketball ever played, as Riley claims, but not basketball at all (even though he accepts its fascination and value as a human drama).

This constellation of terms – beauty vs. morality and the quality and nature of basketball in relation to them – was the focus of our discussion. So I started off discussion by putting them on the board. On the left, at the top, I wrote “artistry” and below it I wrote “aesthetic beauty”. On the right, at the top, I wrote “effort, defense, competitiveness” and below that I wrote “moral virtue.” I drew a line between them, reaching about half way down the board. At the bottom of this line I wrote “(good/the best) basketball.” We didn’t, of course, resolve this unresolvable matter. But in the course of the discussion, the students generated a pretty complex matrix of associated ideas.

We talked about first how artistry is associated with offense and morality with defense. And we mused about the proper role of defense in the game. After all, we wondered, isn’t it a great defense that helps to make offensive artistry stand out (as Dave Hickey pointed out in his essay on Dr. J, Kareem, and the Heresey of zone Defense)? And, more concretely, wasn’t Riley’s contribution to the game in the 1990s partly about the willingness to offer – to borrow Litman’s phrase – a “counterweight” to the unbearable lightness of Jordan’s dominating Bulls’ dynasty? Aren’t these two linked inextricably in anything we’d call great basketball?

Why should great defense be typically, if not exclusively, associated with a set of moral virtues and great offense with a set of aesthetic virtues? Is there no such thing as defensive artistry? As offensive virtue? What do those combinations look like? Isn’t Bill Russell, to take just one example raised in class, a good example of defensive artistry, by which was meant beauty, grace, elegance in the service of defense (or vice versa)? And does it really make sense – of any kind – to exclude effort and competitiveness (the moral virtues) from the offensive games of, say, Reggie Miller or Ray Allen, Bird or Magic, or Jordan?

The students then noted, quite properly in my opinion, that in the history of basketball culture, the two categories of artistry and effort, aesthetics and morality, set against each other as such, seemed to carry significant racial baggage. Artistry, beauty, elegance, and style – along with their connotations of ease, naturalness, and effortlessness – have been racially overcoded as black. Meanwhile, moral virtue – effort, hard work, competitiveness, even or especially when manifested with what is seen as a plucky, independent-minded disregard for appearance, style, or looks – have been racialized as white.

Of course, the point of this was not and is not here that either Riley or Litman were stirring up this kind of racial coding. Nor do the racial codes apply in any meaningful way to the two teams in question. The point, rather, was the way in which the intensely racialized history of basketball attaches itself to practically any evaluation of the game, however removed it may seem and intend to be from matters of race. More specifically, thinking about it in this context helped us to understand, to some degree, how racial (or racist) dichotomies can force apart the complex greatness of the whole that is aesthetically beautifully, morally virtuous offensive and defensive basketball into a set of sterile dichotomies, in both thought and in the sport itself.

As a bonus, the students also took the discussion in the direction of class, where they noted associations of the moral virtues cited by Riley with the working class, the blue collar ethic. At this point, my overly schematic chalkboard visualization, led them understandably to characterize the aesthetic as white collar. From a certain point of view, I could see it, but I was at the moment in the grip of thinking about class in slightly – possibly ahistorical – terms. I was thinking about the historic, ideological association of effortless beauty and ease with the old European nobility, for whom the mark of status was not to have to work, not to have to try, not to have to compete and this status was transformed culturally into a quasi-proprietary standard of beauty. While the aristocracy as a socio-economic category may not be particularly relevant today, many of the terms that basketball culture uses to describe its greatest moments derive quite directly from aristocratic culture: grace, elegance, ease, even nobility.

I just have to say that this was an awesomely rewarding moment for me as a teacher. I’ve had a fantastic time teaching this class, and we certainly have had some entertaining and interesting discussions. But in this particular one (and in the one about Iverson that I’ll talk about in my next post) I felt that the students had, suddenly it seemed to me, put it all together. Players, non-players, pretty much everyone was contributing a close eye for the happenings on the court with a willingness to think in broader terms about what and how those happenings on the court signify culturally and socially.

Anyway, we were now presented with a kind of puzzle. On the right hand side, we had morality: “effort,” “hard work,” “competitiveness,” “grittiness” “white,” and “blue collar” (and a few other terms). On the left hand side, we had “aesthetic beauty,” “artistry” “ease” “black,” “white collar” and “aristocracy.” Right. Right there, black aristocracy? I’m no historian, but I’m pretty sure that’s a fairly sparsely populated set, at least in the European context.

It was as though, all of a sudden, our very discussion had eradicated African-Americans from the game – a troubling result to say the least. If anything, speaking in sociological generalities, “Black” should have gone with the working class category. But “Black” isn’t “allowed” there because “whiteness” has appropriated the moral virtues of the working class while assigning the attributes associated with “Black” game to a sociological-cultural category – aristocracy or nobility – that a) has never been significant in this country and b) real African-Americans haven’t for obvious reasons belonged to. As a student pointed out, whatever the gains of the civil rights movement, the problem isn’t solved by associating the left hand side with a white collar ownership, executive or managerial, or professional class from which African-Americans are still disproportionately absent.

I think that impasse says something more than just that we were thinking poorly in class. At least I hope so. And anyway, I think, if we were thinking poorly, at least we were groping along with critical self-awareness and that’s a pretty decent start. But leaving that aside, does our “puzzle” mean that the culture and analysis of class has no place in a discussion of basketball culture? Does it not map? Does it mean that there’s something about this very way of talking about the game that somehow expresses the secret desire of a certain segment of the white fan base to do away with the “Black” game entirely? Would we have been better off just sticking to pointing out the truism that great basketball involves both great offense and great defense and that both of these both involve aesthetic qualities like beauty, grace, and elegance and moral qualities like hard work, effort, intensity, and competitiveness? That would have made for a short class.

If you read my review of Leonard Koppett’s The Essence of the Game is Deception or my paper on Manu Ginobili, then you know I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between deception, artfulness, and art and, with a boost from Chris Flink (who also publishes as Fat Contradiction and Chris Collision), the connection between these two and what Marx called the lumpenproletariat and more contemporary sociologists refer to as the underclass. This is the class of individuals for which capitalism has no use: excluded by birth from the aristocracy, barred from ownership of the means of production, they also can’t or won’t be absorbed into the industrial working class.

Thus ejected, they devise any number of strategies and informal economies by which to survive and to survive, even, with a sense of autonomy (while the system that pushes them toward these strategies also criminalizes them). While Marx characterized the class, broadly speaking, in pejorative terms as shifty and politically unreliable, I was interested in recuperating the very qualities of deceptiveness and street smarts in order to relate it to basketball. It’s also the case that this class happens in the United States to be disproportionately populated by African Americans.

I quickly explained this and then wrote “lumpenproletariat” up in between our two columns, where I’d already written “(good/best) basketball” (to reference how the categories of beauty and morality can converge and conflict in an assessment of the quality and nature of the game). I meant to suggest that perhaps this category lay at the heart of basketball and that despite or because of this it somehow scrambled and complicated all the analysis we’d done so far. But our time was up and we didn’t get a chance to pursue it further.

I didn’t in class, and I don’t want here to pretend that this somewhat thin thread of associations forms the key to understanding the (especially unconscious) work that race and class do in basketball culture. Or even, conversely, that it can provide a way to get from basketball cultural manifestations – like the Knicks Heat rivalry – to any major original insights about race and class in the United States. That’s all too big for one person, at least if the person is me, at least right now.

I brought it up in class on the spur of the moment, they way you might make an unusual move on the court – one you haven’t practiced or calculated, but that is born of the exchanges and flows that have occurred in the immediacy of the game and that you haven’t yet cognitive or self-consciously processed. In the moment, that move might or might not have the desired effect. You might not remember it later and so it might just fade back into some kind of oblivion, a primordial soup creative possibilities from which, under the right circumstances, it might emerge again.

Or, as sometimes also happens, you (or someone else) might remember it and think about what purpose it was supposed to serve. You might then practice it and make it second nature and, faced with similar circumstances, execute it again. It might in that way become part of your repertoire, even part of the repertoire of the game.

That’s all that was. In this case, I think the move works well to talk about Manu. I’m not so sure yet what purpose it serves in our discussion of the Knicks and the Heat. There are still a lot of vexing questions that the rivalry and its crystallization in our collective basketball memory as a moment of emotional, effort-full ugliness raise for me. Most apparently, I’m still not sure how to interpret the racial and class undertones of that crystallization. I’m not sure what I think defense contributes to the game of basketball, especially physical defense. Heck, I’m not sure how I even feel about it, which might be part of why I have a hard time thinking clearly about it.

I only know that I feel uncomfortable with – even as I’m drawn to – dichotomous thinking: beauty vs. morality, mind vs. body, black vs. white. That, and that I’m drawn even more strongly to the terms and experiences that dichotomous thinking can’t process. These might be third alternatives, middle grounds, or hybrids. They might be paradoxes, contradictions, or outliers entirely. Or monsters, which, etymologically speaking, stand as warnings. In this case, perhaps, as a warning that we are encountering something that we don’t yet know how to think about, that will challenge our received categories of understanding, that might make us feel confused and say things that seem stupid.

In my own experience as a teacher, thinker, writer, and, well, person, even as I’m attracted to these monsters, I can also feel an impulse (born of fear of the unknown, I think) to clip away their edges and fold them neatly back into the envelope of my received categories. But it can also be thrilling to explore the confusion they can engender and, when possible, to see what sort of new and hitherto unknown capacities they can provoke us to develop and to exercise. Maybe the Knicks Heat rivalary – for at least one way of thinking about the game and its philosophical, racial, and class implications – is that sort of beautiful monster.

Go forward to read about Allen Iverson and the nightmares of David Stern

go backward to read about the developing discussions of our class tournament


go sideways to read my take on the racial and geo-politics of Manu Ginobili’s deceptive game

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