Day 18: The Answer and the Dreams of David Stern

Sometime just before 1800, the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya completed a self-portrait. An etching, Goya shows himself sitting facing the viewer, but asleep with his head resting on his arms, which are folded on the table next to him. Behind him, owls and bats rise, and flutter, and hover, perhaps departing perhaps poised for attack. On the floor, at the lower right, a cat observes with wide eyes. A banner hanging from the front of the table reads, in Spanish, “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos.” Though the Spanish word “sueño” can mean either “sleep” or “dream,” the most conventional rendering of the phrase is “the dream of reason produces monsters.”

Imagine NBA Commissioner David Stern asleep. What do you see rising menacingly above his slumbering head? I imagine it would be Allen Iverson. At least, that’s what I thought after our recent class discussion on AI, aka The Answer. I’m going to come back to the sleeping Stern and the Goya print, but first let me tell you what the students did.  We watched the clip:

And then, as usual, I asked them to tell me what they saw. Someone said “steals”. “Steals, okay, what about the steals?” Someone else says, “The anticipation and the speed, they look so easy, so clean.” “Okay, what else did you see?” “Handle.” “Handle, okay, what about it?” “The crossover, he’s got that left to right down, that’s hard to do.” I’m writing all these things down on the board. “Okay, what else?” “Fearless, someone says.” “Fearless in relation to what?” I ask. “Like on that tip slam on the free throw, he’s fearless going after offensive rebounds.” “Would you be afraid to do that?” I ask. “No, but I’m 6’9″. What was he, 6’0? To throw himself in with all those bigs, that takes fearlessness.”

This leads someone else to say something about his attitude, confidence, swag, which turns then, to commitment. Everyone seems to agree that Iverson lays it all out every second that he’s on the court. “He just doesn’t care…” somebody says, meaning to affirm what everyone else is saying about commitment. Here I pause for a second. Because it’s interesting to me that somewhere along the line in relation to AI, “not caring” can be synonymous with commitment, that is, with caring. I don’t mean to make too big a mystery out of it. I think the student meant simply that Iverson didn’t care about risking his body, didn’t care about being injured, didn’t really care about anything but going 100 % in the pursuit of victory. So Iverson didn’t care about anything but caring. And this leads students to comment on his independent streak–as in, he didn’t care what others thought of him–and the way it goes hand and hand with taking risk.

So we start talking about how much of his game involves a delicately balanced dance of vulnerability and risk and courage. Obviously, going for steals involves risk and danger and exposure. You might get beat and look the fool. The apparent vulnerability of Iverson’s small body as he leaves his feet to meet two or three much larger defenders. He can and did get crushed at times. But at other times, more often than not, in fact, it all worked out and he sped or glided or twisted of fell away or spun and turned the risk of block or injury into success. But the back and forth that leads to the cross over. The ball exposed, the whole point being to expose the ball, but not as much as the defender thinks it is exposed, and then to take it away, exploiting the miscalculated risk and so the vulnerability of the opponent. In a certain sense, his hallmark one-man offensive repertoire itself flirts with danger and risk and transformed it, even if for just one season, into glorious against all the odds, rules, conventions, and mores, into success. This flirtation with danger, perhaps, carried out on his own terms is both what made Iverson thrilling and adored and also what made him anathema to Commissioner Stern.

Which led to the commercial in which the camera circles Allen Iverson as he sits on a training table, listening to music through headphones, before wordlessly getting up off the table.

There’s so much going on in this ad. But to begin with, at the simplest level, it echoes what the students had seen in the clip and what they had perhaps, already in their memories. Iverson was a warrior. Average sized, fearlessly aggressive with the basketball, Iverson was often risking and suffering injury. And just as often, Iverson was playing injured or coming back from injury, as the ad concludes: “stronger than ever.” But there’s more, as I pointed out in class. There’s the simple division of the narrative time of the ad between the time of preparation and the time of work. When it is time to work, the ad seems to say, despite what he has suffered, Allen Iverson will be there, on time, ready to work. But before it is time to work, the ad also seems to say, he will be alone, with his music, eyes closed, in his own world–a world of solitude, the ad perhaps subtly argues, he has earned through his fearless effort and the sacrifice of his body. He will show up for work, in other words, but that is all he owes you. The rest is his.

Except, and I didn’t say this in class, that the rest isn’t exactly his either, even if he’s right that it should be. Consider the noteworthy combination of discourses, scriptures strictly speaking, converging on Iverson’s body. The tattoos, of course, which mark his body with memories, beliefs, alliances, psychological pain and the way these are paired with the more antiseptic medical scripture marking his body with a different kind of history: bursitis, fracture, contusion, bruises, dislocations. In a way, both kinds of writing do the same: they make visible the marks that history has left on Allen Iverson’s body and soul. The scanning wavy grid lines suggest, to me anyway, both flashes of recurrent pain, but also a kind of constant surveillance or scanning. And the latter is echoed both by the camera’s intrusive circling, panning, and zooming on Iverson during a “private” “solitary” moment and by the incessant gab of the announcer’s voices played over and for a time drowning out, the quieter music that is perhaps the same music Allen is listening to. The ad, read this way, says, Iverson has never been alone.

And, perhaps because I am predisposed to sympathize with him, I feel that I understand better and want to support his desire to draw a sharp line between his game on the court (which, let us say, as a paid pro, he does owe and–be fair–he more than paid up) and everything else (which he should just be allowed, as much as he can, to live in whatever combination of company and solitude pleases him). Iverson in this ad is an innocent, by which I don’t mean to say without experience or history. But innocent in the sense of guileless and without malice. An average man engaged in battles against the above average: giant centers, horrific social conditions, history has marked him with injuries of every sort, physical and spiritual, and he has responded with integrity, resolve and quiet determination.

I might not have said this in class in such detail, but that might be because I feel like the students were already there. Iverson was their hero, wherever they were from, whatever the color of their skin, their gender, their position, their sport, whatever their background, whatever their style of ball: Iverson was their hero because he was the hero of being yourself. Which may also be why their strongest and most articulate impressions came in relation to what they saw as David Stern’s foolish and clumsy war on all things Iverson.

We’re talking about the “Dress Code” of course, and hanging perhaps too large a hat on it. But then again, I don’t know [NOTE: since I first wrote this, David Leonard published the definitive treatment of the dress code as part of the NBA’s assault on blackness.  You should read that.]. The code, announced just before Opening Day in 2005, was also accompanied by NBA Cares, a public service initiative. As for the code itself, here it is as reported in The New York Times on October 19, 1995:

Players must adhere to the following requirements at all team or league functions: collared dress shirts or turtlenecks; dress slacks, khaki pants or dress jeans; and dress shoes or boots or “other presentable shoes” with socks, and no sneakers, sandals, flip-flops or work boots. Players are prohibited from wearing headgear, T-shirts, team jerseys, chains, pendants or medallions. Sunglasses while indoors and headphones, except on the team bus, plane or in the locker room, are also banned. Players who are on the bench during a game but not in uniform must wear a sports coat. Both the player and his team will be fined for violating the rules, and repeat offenders could be suspended.

While the rhetoric of the dress code, and the NBA cares initiative was of encouraging increased professionalism, the racialization of the categories professional/unprofesssional; appopriate/inappropriate was lost on pretty much nobody, including the New York Times reporter who, in the same article, summarized the changes as Stern’s latest push to get the players to “look a little less gangsta and a little more genteel.”

We talked in class about what David Stern wants and what he doesn’t want. In the David Stern plus column we had popularity, global markets, money, commercial sponsorship, exciting, creative basketball, marketable individual superstars. In the David Stern minus column we had: thugs, drugs, violence, badness, selfishness. And then, finally, someone said it: blackness.

But it was more complicated than that, of course. Because David Stern actually does seem to want a certain kind of blackness. He wants, it seemed to us in class, a blackness that has overcome itself and renounced its origins in poverty and desperation, in struggle against social and economic injustice. He wants the creativity, authenticity, the game and the credibility that for a long time have come from urban, primarily African-American neighborhoods. But he wants it without any of the “rough edges,” sanitized, whitewashed. He doesn’t just not want guns and drugs in NBA lockerrooms. Probably nobody wants that. He also doesn’t want any of the sartorial markers of the hood: no drawers showing, no baggy jeans, no head gear, no bling. I don’t think, though, that Stern banned these things just because they signified a blackness that might make the average 50-something corporate white fan/sponsor uncomfortable.

Or rather, I think that if he did, it is because this blackness and the cultural expressions and social conditions it is metonymically associated with reveals the failure (for America’s inner cities, as for much of the third world) of the very political and economic tendencies towards unfettered, neo-liberal capitalist globalization that Stern and the NBA have ridden to explosive international popularity.

In a sense, to dream the dream of expanding global capital, to dream David Stern’s dream is, necessarily to dream also of decimated inner cities without adequate housing, education, medical care or social services; it is to dream of the numerous killings that Iverson witness or mourned as a young man growing up in Virginia; it is to dream of the very cultural and economic improvisations that necessity urges on African-American youth; improvisations that Stern simultaneously exploits in sanitized form and despises when asserted with a little too much independence.

We talked in class about how bad it must feel, if you are a feeling human being (which we all assumed Allen Iverson to be), and no matter how much money you are getting paid, to be told quite directly that only a part of you is welcome. Moreover, that parts of you that you find to be inextricably tied together — the courage of a warrior on the court and the life of an urban warrior off it — must be severed. We want only the warrior on the court, please leave the other guy out and when you won’t, we will airbrush him from our magazines (as happened to Iverson’s tattoos) and we will take away his clothes.

I think that Goya’s reason might dream of frightening, dark things in many senses. In the sense that when reason is dormant these nocturnal, irrational wildnesses can emerge to play; in the sense that these are the things that secretly threaten the domination of reason; and, finally, in the sense that the realized dream of reason for total domination would be terrifying.

It is as though Stern wanted the edge, the creativity, the intensity, the heroism that Iverson could give him, but he didn’t want to know where Iverson had gotten it, doesn’t want to know the suffering that has given rise to it and so aggressively represses any signs of it. And that is why I feel that Allen Iverson could be the poster boy for the neo-liberal global capitalist dreams of David Stern, which is to say: the poster-boy for what he desperately needs and equally desperately fears and despises.

Go back to read about the beauty of the Heat Knicks rivalry of the late 90s


forward to read about the ethics of fan culture

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