Meanings of Manu: The White Basketball Unconscious, Style, and Viveza Criolla

On September 4, 2002 a watershed event in the history of basketball took place. After 58 consecutive wins, a United States team composed entirely of professional stars lost a game for the first time. The score was 87-80. Their victorious opponent was Argentina. And the star of that Argentine national team was Manu Ginobili. In one symbolically significant play, Ginobili, a 6’-6” guard sped down the court with the ball. 6’-11” American defender Jermaine O’Neal angled toward the basket, aiming to cut off Ginobili’s path. Ginobili came at the basket from the left side, as though oblivious to O’Neal’s approach. As Manu elevated toward the hoop, O’Neal, seemingly in perfect defensive position, rose with him anticipating an easy block. But then, Ginobili switched the ball to his right hand, hanging in the air as O’Neal flew by, and then floated under the basket to score on a reverse layup.

Since that time, Manu has won three NBA championships, one Olympic Gold Medal, and the NBA 6th Man of the Year award for the best reserve player. He has made the NBA All-Star team twice (including this year, where he is widely acknowledged as the most important player on one of the NBA’s best teams, the San Antonio Spurs) and he has earned close to 70 million dollars in salary in his 8 year NBA career. But in September 2002, he had yet to play an NBA game. In fact, the Spurs picked 2nd to last of the 58 players selected in the 1999 NBA draft. Though he was well-known in Argentina and among fans of European professional basketball, in some real and important senses, Manu debuted on September 4, 2002.

In his 2005 book Crashing the Borders, Harvey Araton, a New York Times sportswriter, interpreted the significance of that 2002 US-Argentina game and, specifically, of Manu’s spectacular basket over Jermaine O’Neal. Araton writes “From that moment on, the prototypical foreign player was no longer a mobility-challenged white boy in a crew cut. The story was no longer Hoosiers with subtitles.” Araton succinctly identifies a cultural context important for understanding the way meaning gets constructed in basketball: namely, the racialization of different facets of the game and different styles of individual and team play.

With the phrase “mobility challenged white boy in a crew cut,” Araton evokes a stereotypical basketball image – as in a black and white still photograph: the rural, probably Midwestern, probably Indiana, white farm boy. Maybe it is dusk. Maybe, having just finished chores, he is in dungarees and a flannel shirt. Maybe he is frozen in mid-jump shot, the ball paused in its inevitable arc toward the makeshift basket nailed to the side of the barn.

In the racialized cultural discourse of basketball this stereotypical image might be set into the motion of narrative (and thus associated further with other qualities, not specific to basketball): thus, the white hero overcomes his lack of “natural” athletic ability through some combination of the following: 1) the tireless, orthodox repetition of the game’s fundamental skills, 2) humility and subordination of his ego to the collective identity of the team (as represented by the sternly benevolent figure of the Coach), 3) persistent effort and desire, and, of course, 4) intelligence.

The “other” of this figure and narrative trope is the stereotyped African-American player: he is blessed with “natural” athletic abilities – speed, strength, leaping ability — perfectly suited to the game of basketball; and though often untutored, he develops on his urban playground an unorthodox skill set that he uses – with a creativity viewed as instinctive, flamboyant, and selfish — to assert his individuality.

Never mind for the moment the myriad problems, some disturbing, that attend what I’ve just sketched out. This binary racialized discourse has framed the history of basketball in the United States, as it has drawn from and contributed to racial discourse in the country beyond the basketball court. Though the intention is not always explicitly to malign or even to limit, and whether the player being discussed is black or white, in most gyms and playgrounds in America today you might well overhear a conversation in which the phrases “white” or “black” are earnestly and apparently meaningfully invoked to describe a player’s style of play. Of course, in most of the game’s history, this racialization has not been innocent but rather has informed and supported harmful, sometimes even violent, expressions of hatred and resentment toward African-Americans.

This discourse, in turn, exists alongside a racially segregated institutional structure whereby today’s NBA consists mostly of African-American athletes playing mostly under the direction of white coaches, for franchises owned mostly by white businessmen, before a mostly white paying public, and covered by a mostly white media. The tensions – to put it mildly – created by this structure have been described, analyzed, and critiqued in detail by a number of authors. Here I want only to identify only one effect: the stimulation of white American fans’ desire for the “Great White Hope.”

The Great White Hope is the Caucasian player who will be able to rival his African-American counterparts on the hardwood, redeem whiteness and the attributes putatively associated with it, and, for that white fan, exorcise the complex emotional demons of racial injustice. Since the early 1960s, when the game at its highest level was definitively dominated by African-American superstars (and politically outspoken ones at that), every few years white fans and the media have identified a new, promising, white collegiate talent and anointed him the new messiah: Bill Bradley for the 60s, Pete Maravich for the 70s, Larry Bird for the 80s. While among the most talented and effective players ever, these players all received an outsized portion of media attention and white fan adulation on account of their whiteness.

Over the course of the 1990s, more and more white European players entered the ranks of an NBA more and more powerfully marked by the hip-hop culture of inner-city African-American youth. And white fans came to cast these players all the more desperately as Great White Hopes. In the process, fans stripped the European players’ games of their specificity and ignored their geographical and social origins. Many of these players had come to basketball from impoverished surroundings in war-torn Eastern European ghettos much more like American inner-cities than Indiana farm town. Not for nothing did Detroit Pistons veteran Rasheed Wallace refer to his rookie teammate Darko Milicic as a “Serbian Gangster.” It is then precisely the racist and reductive view of the white European player as incarnation of the stereotypical American white game that Araton, to his credit, attempts to nullify by declaring that, after Manu’s basket on Jermaine O’Neal, “The story was no longer Hoosiers with subtitles.”

Fair enough. But if that is no longer the story, what then is the story? In Araton’s book, the story seems to be that players like Manu Ginobili embody a kind of dialectical synthesis of the racialized stylistic antithesis between white and black. Like the stereotypical white player, they are heady, skilled, and work hard. Like the stereotypical black player, they are athletic, creative, and exciting. It certainly is the case that Manu combines a highly developed set of fundamental skills with athletic ability. But this doesn’t set him apart from a number of other NBA players, past and present. One thing that does set him apart from that particular group of players is that he skin is relatively light in tone.

And this fact leads me to feel that Araton’s interpretation runs unfortunately close to the grooves of a logic I doubt he intended. First the American game is divided into a white game and a black game and these set against each other as incomplete halves of a whole. Then the American game is opposed to the International game — represented by Manu. This international game at one and the same time heals the ills of basketball and the racial conflicts of American society. But it does so via incarnation in the white body of Manu Ginobili. And in this way, Manu becomes (secretly) the Greatest of the Great White Hopes because he is the Great White Hope who ends once and for all the need for a Great White Hope because he transcends the very antagonism – white game vs black game — that historically provoked White feelings of inferiority and engendered the desire for a Great White Hope in the first place.

There are, as you can imagine, a number of problems with the story. I’m here most interested in what the story seems to leave out about Manu’s game, and about what that game – read closely — might say about class, the global economy, and politics. Let’s begin with his game.  Watching even a short clip of Manu will leave you with the impression that, perhaps even more than the skill and the athletic ability, what makes Manu remarkable and exciting is his deceptive, improvisational creativity: his ability to make a play where there doesn’t appear to be one.

Manu appears to throw himself headlong into a crowd of defenders; he uses deceptive dribbling and passing techniques such as moving the ball behind his back or between his legs (or the legs of the defense); his awkward-seeming footwork presents defenders with unfamiliar shapes and possibilities, and he uses his body and the basket to protect the ball. Manu seems almost to look for trouble only to always get out of it. He breaks many of the time-honored tenets of sound (read: safe) basketball on the court: throwing one-handed passes, leaving his feet without having a clear path to shoot or pass, exposing the ball to the defender while dribbling, shooting without facing the basket. But he gets to the basket and finishes (or makes the right pass) with such maddening effectiveness that you begin to realize that perhaps it only looked like trouble to us; that he knew all along what he was going to do, or at least what it was possible for him to do, and perhaps even that the appearing to be in trouble was an integral part of the success. That is part of why one NBA observer has singled him out as among the five most deceptive players in the league. Manu transforms what appears as inevitable constraint in the world around him – an opponent’s dunk on a breakaway or a blocked path on offense – into the viral unstoppability of his own invention.

When I asked followers on Twitter to talk about Manu’s significance, inviting them specifically to comment on whether or not his game had a “race,” one replied with the following, illuminating remark: “I always thought his game had a class more than a race. Scrambly, improvisational but w/ a very limited lexicon.” Intrigued, I pressed him to specify the class. He responded: “I have in mind ‘street, the ‘common man’ of de Certeau…urban, not (necessarily) underclass.” He then agreed with me that “lumpenproletariat” would work as the classical formulation.

Classical, that is, as in “Classical Marxism.” Marx had some famously unflattering words for the lumpenproletariat. In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx referred to them as the “refuse of all classes”, including “swindlers, confidence tricksters, brothel keepers, rag-and-bone merchants, and beggars.” Unlike the virtuous, hard-working and productive members of the industrial working class, the cast-off rags of the lumpenproletariat were shifty and unproductive, lazy, trying to get something for nothing, politically unreliable and deceitful.

My Twitter friend’s comment in turn reminded me of a description that serves as well as any to describe, quite concretely, Manu Ginobili’s work on the basketball court: “it operates in the ‘cramped quarters’ and ‘impossible positions’ of the ‘small peoples’ and ‘minorities’ who lack or refuse coherent identity.” These are the terms used by Deleuze and Guattari to describe what they call “minor politics.” I invoke them directly here for two reasons. First to suggest how a basketball maneuver – when read in close detail – may be seen as an artistic performance and a philosophical proposition. But second, because I think Deleuze and Guattari’s words describe the kind of political activity that was especially important in Argentina around the time of Manu’s debut.

Let me emphasize the where and when of that debut: first, the FIBA championships in Indianapolis, Indiana – the symbolic heartland of white American basketball and second, the NBA, athletic emblem of untrammeled American corporate globalization at the dawn of 21st century. And then, the when: 2002, just months after the most devastating economic crisis in Argentina’s history and in the midst of the massive, subsequent political upheaval it provoked. That crisis, of course, was partly precipitated by the Argentine government’s complicity with neo-liberal economic policies originating in the United States; policies that, ironically, had facilitated the globalization of basketball and the NBA brand, leading, in turn, to the development of the game abroad. In a very real way, the late 2001 crisis converted vast numbers of middle and working class Argentines into a contemporary lumpenproletariat.

At the same time, many of these individuals spontaneously organized themselves, not only to protest and not only to disrupt attempts to carry on business as usual, but also to form communities and networks of communities charged with providing education, health care, food, clothing, and social services. If the upstanding Marx missed the political potential of the lumpenproletariat, Bakunin did not: he saw them as the “flower of the proletariat” and believed, like Deleuze and Guattari after him, that those who were most alienated from the structures and values of power were in the best position to embody an alternative to the status quo; in much the same way that Manu relies upon the appearance of trouble to elude his defender, the way he uses the apparent inevitability of his own failure as a condition for his success.

There’s a tradition of this in Argentina. A tradition, I mean, of radical, horizontal, self-organizing that eludes wherever possible and by whatever means the apparatus of the state and I mean the supposedly benevolent paternalist state as much as the nakedly repressive authoritarian state. But there’s a tradition, also, I mean to point out, of crafty creativity in cramped spaces, of making something out of what seems like nothing. Hearing me talk about Manu’s game, Claire connected it to “viveza criolla.” Jason Wilson in his Buenos Aires: A Cultural and Literary History speaks of it in terms of “artful lying and cheating” and of the “vivo,” its practitioner, as “the improviser, the quick-fixer, the street-wise survivor.” Sometimes, these two traditions – the anarchist self-organizer and the crafty vivo — seem, as in the fiction of Roberto Arlt, to wind together. Even what fans who don’t like Manu don’t like about his game – his “flopping”, where he falls to ground as if he’s been fouled in order to deceive the referee into calling a foul on his opponent – expresses this quality of his game.

In light of all this, Manu’s game might best be read as Argentine and, more specifically, Argentine in the spirit of radical, improvisational, immigrant anarchism, viveza criolla, and unbeautifully styled inventions of Roberto Arlt. If so, it is disappointing at best, telling at worst, that the specificity of Manu’s game is drained from even the most intelligent mainstream US commentary on his emergence. In part, this may simply involve ignorance of the local traditions embedded in Manu’s style. But it may also express, I am arguing, the persistent force of the desire on the part of the American white fan to somehow, finally and for once and for all, overcome the inevitable, overpowering blackness of basketball.

I believe all that. But lest I appear to be dribbling foolishly into the troublesome traffic of triumphant Argentine nationalism, let me emulate the subject of my talk and slip out of it by pointing out that if the essence of Manu’s game is deception, and though that deception in some way derives from Argentine culture and even from the Argentine political response to the crisis, then in the view of one respected philosopher of the basketball, Manu’s game is also nothing more and nothing less than the essence of basketball itself.

I’m referring to Leonard Koppett, who in 1974 published a volume of meditations on the game entitled The Essence of the Game is Deception. Koppett acknowledges that the theoretical goal of the game is to throw the ball in the hoop, but goes on to argue that “on the real world, physical level, you must ‘deceive’ your opponent in order to get a decent shot, and so basketball is a game in which various types of fakes and feints, with head, hands, body, legs, eyes, are proportionately more important than in other games.” The game, he argues, “boils down to getting good shots, and getting good shots boils down to deceiving the defense.”

Koppett then goes on to introduce the implications of his insight. The first of these is that the game is likely to attract, at its highest levels, a psychologically “devious” type; or, to put it in less dramatic terms, individuals who enjoy deception, who are, as Koppett puts it, “poker” rather than “bridge minded.” Of course, he’s not arguing that this sums up the totality of every basketball player’s psyche. He’s just drawing out the point that just as certain physical gifts draw on to and are in turn reinforced by the particularities of a given sport, so that is also true of psychological propensities. In the case of basketball, it is a kind of delighted and delightful deception, a delight in deception – a “viveza criolla” — that basketball cultivates, attracts, and rewards.

The second implication of his hypothesis that the essence of the game is deception is that “style attracts more attention in basketball than in other games.” Because, Koppett, argues, a basket is always worth the same amount, and because there are so many in the course of a game, “The peaks and valleys of spectator delight, therefore are reached as easily by awesome maneuver as by the mere fact of scoring: the dunk or ‘stuff,’ the high speed fast break, the blocked shot, a sequence of passes, fancy dribbling – all transcend sheer efficiency.” That is why, as he puts it, “Any knowledgeable crowd will cheer louder for a fancy pass, behind the back, or through the legs, that doesn’t lead to a score than it will for a routine basket. And an acrobatic shot that goes in is best of all.” While Koppett acknowledges that ultimately winning matters, he also argues that it matters to a proportionally smaller degree than in other serious team games. Because, as he puts it, “in basketball, flair and style are less separable from result, and closer to the essence of the action, and the underlying logic of this attitude folds back over the subject of deception: style is deception, made visible.”

Manu doesn’t have to pass the ball behind his back or through an opponent’s legs every time he does it. He does that because doing that makes visible, in Koppett’s words, or draws attention to what he is more subtly doing all the time: deceiving his opponents. In this sense, the functionally unnecessary flourish on the deceptive play announces itself as deception. And what could be a more joyful, exuberant declaration of resilient unstoppability than to deceive someone while announcing to them that you are deceiving them? That is basketball and that is Manu’s game.

With his title – The Essence of the Game is Deception — Koppett makes me think of Nietzsche’s subtle view of essence, appearance, and truth and his – dare I say deceptive – style to match. For Nietzsche the supposition that there is some hidden essence veiled by a deceptive appearance and accessible only to philosophical reason was a harmful proposition that expresses nothing so much as an aversion to the ever-shifting reality of existence, a hatred for life. Accordingly, Nietzsche harshly criticized philosophies that maintained that view and tried to develop in his own, highly poetic and suggestive style of writing, a philosophy that would emphasize the life-affirming joy of appearance. And nowhere did Nietzsche see this affirmed more strongly than in art, which he saw, in the words of one contemporary commentator, as “the highest power of falsehood” and the “sanctification of the lie,” and as endowed with the power to invent new possibilities of life.” It is the art of viveza criolla; the art of rhetoric, the art of turning the inevitability of sadness and death into the unstoppability of joy and life. It is the art of Manu and it is the art of basketball.

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