In The Beginning There Was No Beginning


Did basketball begin the night Naismith finished writing up the thirteen rules or did it begin the next day, when his class of unruly students played the game for the first time?

* * *

This may seem, at first glance, like the kind of question that medieval theologians (or contemporary academics) might spend their long solitary hours debating: an angels on the head of a pin kind of thing.  Who cares?  After all, the important thing is that basketball was invented and that we have basketball to enjoy today.  In one sense, I feel the same way:  I’m not too invested in pinpointing basketball’s point of origin.  Indeed, I’m not all that interested in questions of origin in general.

But if that’s so, it’s partly because of the way people pursue and respond to questions of origin, because of the kinds of investments and stories that questions of origin tend to generate and, especially, because of the purposes those stories appear to serve.  The stories that circulate – at least popularly – about the invention of basketball are no exception.  Whether they emphasize continuity or discontinuity between the game Naismith conceived and the game as it is played today, they tend to set his conception of the game up as a kind of standard – a Platonic ideal of pure basketball – and then use that standard as a point of departure for vilifying forms of play that deviate from that standard and lamenting the degradation of what they imagine used to be.

What’s worse, because these “deviant” forms of play have often originated in African-American communities and been popularized not only by their superior effectiveness but by their widespread media exposure (in turn made possible by the monetarization of the sport), these popular narratives – ostensibly crafted to isolate, identify, and conserve what they view as the essential beauty and moral value of the game – wind up as racialized jeremiads railing against the corruption of the game by the unchecked, mercenary narcissism of young black men and the cynical willingness of monied interests to market this inferior product to easily impressed, unsophisticated television (and now internet) audiences.

It’s at this point that my hackles get raised and I find myself pulling in two distinct, but possibly complementary directions.  On the one hand, I want to deploy the tools of critical analysis acquired in the course of my career as a literature professor both to debunk these myths for the pseudo-history they are and to expose the nefarious interests they – whatever the intentions of their purveyors – serve.  On the other hand, I want to elude these myths entirely and thereby avoid repeating them in the process of tearing them down, and instead generate and affirm an alternative story of basketball as a game without origins or foundations.  To experience the game as a thing without a beginning.

* * *

So with some of the stakes now visible, let me return to my initial puzzle: did basketball begin with Naismith’s conception of the rules or with the first game? It’s a little like a Rorschacht test for followers of basketball culture.  Depending on how you respond, you implicitly take a position on several other issues, some arising well beyond the domain of basketball itself.  This is because the puzzle itself embodies a tension between different ways of seeing the game, and, indeed, of seeing the world.  What’s more, whether you feel compelled to resolve that tension at all – in either direction – or, on the other hand, you try to resist resolving it also implies a position on a host of issues in and outside the game.  Let me explain how this is so.

If  you view Naismith’s conception and recording of the rules of the game as the origin of basketball, you are equating basketball with the rules of basketball.  In making this equation, in turn, you affirm that the essence of the game lies in its structuring principles.  You furthermore implicitly affirm that the power to determine what is and is not basketball resides in individuals or groups appointed (or self-appointed) to preserve and to oversee and evaluate the implementation of those principles.  But there is more still.  Because Naismith’s invention of the game was a mental act, existing in his imagination and then recorded on paper, you also take on board a philosophical position that the essence of things lies in their ideal (mental, immaterial, or, philosophers might say, Platonic) form.

If on the other hand, you find yourself deciding that the first played game was the point of origin of basketball, you equate basketball with its actual play.  And, in making this equation, you affirm that the essence of the game lies in its physical embodiment and that the power to determine what is or is not basketball resides in the individuals and groups who play the game.  And this too, you may guess by now, implies a philosophical position that the essence of things lies in their material embodiment.

But there are still further implications.  From the beginning basketball involves a struggle for power over the game:  first between Naismith and his students, the first players; then with the spread of the game between any number of proxies for Naismith and rapidly rising numbers of individuals and teams.  So choosing between Naismith’s conception of the rules and the first played game also means taking a position on what I think of as the the politics of basketball.  In this struggle for the shape and, indeed, at every moment, the future of the game, you will be affirming either the powers and rights of the non-playing governors of the game to conceive, judge, and regulate its nature and shape, or the autonomous rights of its players, in the course of play, to conceive, judge, and regulate its nature and shape.

Finally, all these choices will bear themselves out in the stories you tell about the game.  If you choose the inventor, we will tend to tell the story of basketball as the story of how its rules and governing bodies have stewarded Naismith’s original conception over the course of the past 121 years. If, on the other hand, you chose the first played game, you will tend to tell the story of the game as the story of how those who have played the game have, through their actual play, adapted and driven the evolution of the game.

Now in principle at least you might make the story of your protagonists — the rule makers or the players — a story of success or failure.  For example,you might see players as the motors of history and to tell their story as one of a decline from some original standard.  And likewise, you might see the rule making and enforcing institutions as presiding over a the deterioration of what once was good.

However, I think in the actual telling of stories, these theoretically possible cases are rare.  It is much more likely, if you see Naismith’s original conception as the origin of basketball, that you will cast players as likeable problems, if not as unruly antagonists, whose desires must be checked by rule makers in order to safeguard the essence of the game.  And, conversely, if you see the first played game as the point of origin, you will be more likely to see the game’s rule makers as stuffy, if well-intentioned, conservatives, if not as stern authoritarians bent on defending an illusory ideal purity (and their own power) against the freely evolving force of history.

* * *

But what if you don’t want to choose at all? 禪-ouyang

I mean, some of you may have already chosen one or the other alternative.  But others may already have been feeling frustrated and constrained by my dichotomous presentation of the possibilities.  It is not so simple, you might say, to resolve the puzzle, and even if it were, the series of implications of doing so one way or the other do not follow so neatly and implacably from one choice or another.  If you feel this way, then I agree with you. In fact, the point of posing this riddle and patiently imagining its possible solutions and implications was really just to refuse the terms of the question entirely in such a way that would also show what is to be gained by refusing the question.  Mu.

The only way to resolve the puzzle I posed would be to identify a fixed essence that defines basketball.  Whether we decide that the structuring principles or the actual play is that fixed essence matters little.  In other words, both of the alternatives I’ve outlined so far are idealist, essentializing positions that confront an unresolvable tension in the game of basketball and pretend to resolve it by splitting the whole that is basketball in two, and then taking the preferred half as the necessary, essence of the game and relegating the other half to the role of accidental or unfortunate antagonist.  But of course, without players playing the game, Naismith’s elegant conception and rules would be nothing more than an unrealized plan.  And equally, without the structuring principles he set down, the first players would have had no structure or direction within and against which to apply their physical and mental powers.

So, in my view, the origin of basketball cannot be determined with the precision asserted by popular histories and lore.  To put it another way, the unresolvable tension exposed by my puzzle about the origin of the game is the indispensable point of departure for one, such as myself, who wants to write in support of the effort to free the life of the game from what imprisons it.  The most we can say about the origin point of basketball is that, as a matter of fact, it encompassed the sometimes fluid and sometimes fractious interplay of rules and play, structure and agency, supervision and autonomous self-organization (not to mention a host of broader social forces at work that involved the sweep of class, immigration, gender, and race in late 19th and early 20th century America).

We know that Naismith imagined the game and its rules (responding to certain preset parameters and values) in a single evening, wrote them down, had them typed up the next morning and posted outside the gymnasium where his class of students had gathered.  We know that their initial response, before trying the new game, was skepticism.  We know then that, once they began to play, they took to it with energy and relish.  And we know that already in that first game, they were exercising their imaginative capacities, expressing their wills, and moving their bodies in ways that changed the game Naismith had conceived.  We know that in some cases Naismith stepped in among the players to enforce his original conception of the rules, that in other cases he simply ignored violations of these rules, and that in still other cases he viewed violations as creative modifications of the game that he (or others) subsequently codified in new rules or specifications of already existing rules.

This is what the origin of basketball looked like:  a kaleidoscopic dynamic set in motion by the tension or antagonism (there is no contradiction, no dialectic, and no resolution) between objective structure (the rules and the idealized conception of the game they embody) and subjective desire and capacity. And that was just the first day.

From that moment on, this dynamic that was and is basketball only proliferated, growing in complexity and dimension, via the same contingent interplay of fundamental forces, as more and more individuals took up the game and played in within and against the growing number and sets of rules, the expanding and consolidating self-appointed governing bodies, and the chaotic attractions introduced by parties marketing the game for profit.

* * *

Accordingly, form my point of view, any attempt to fix the essence of basketball in some static element or aspect of the game, abstracted from the dynamic whole that it is and has been from the beginning, is part of what imprisons the life in basketball.  And these attempts are rife throughout the history of the game’s culture, past and present.  Sometimes they take the form of myths of origin, or myths of particular golden eras or perfect teams or of the right way to play, or individual players whose style and demeanor are portrayed as embodiment of timeless values set forth by Naismith.  Sometimes they take the form of attempts to impose hierarchical inequalities of power that stunt the free interplay of forces that constitute the dynamic life – and so – art that is the game.

To combat or elude these efforts and to affirm instead basketball as the ceaselessly unfolding relation of desire and constraint is to see the art and the life of the game.  In his influential theory of sports, the philosopher Bernard Suits spoke of what he called the “lusory attitude.”  That is where a participant foregoes pure utilitarian efficiency and willingly agrees to confront relatively arbitrary obstacles in pursuit of a particular aim or desire.  The basketball player, for example, agrees, though it may be more efficient not to, to forego running with the ball.  He accepts the requirement that he dribble while advancing with the ball and this requirement in turns inspires his imaginative and physical capacities and draws from him ever-more inventive ways of doing so.  If the constraints presented by rules (or equipment or competition) are too lax or too tight, then the interest, desire, and tension that inspires creativity is drained away.

escher waterfall

For the American philosopher John Dewey, this dynamic interchange and interaction between desire and the constraints presented by the environment was the very nature of living (you can think of Dewey’s notion of life as more or less the same, in this context, as Deleuze’s, described in my Introduction).  And all art, for Dewey, was simply a consciously undertaken iteration of this basic nature of lived experience, one in which a provisional equilibrium has been reached between the force of desire and the constraints of the environment.

Approaching basketball – including its origin and the stories of its origin — with the aim of freeing the life within it from what imprisons it demands that we embrace the fact of this fundamental tension (e.g. in the first instance, Naismith’s rules and the first players playing) and then track the vicissitudes, at both micro and macrophenomenal scales, of its subtle, contingent proliferation in myriad forms of provisional equilibrium.

One comment

  • All rules are arbitrary in some degree. All activity is elastic to some extent. Therewith the relation between them and what may be the inevitable patten of change in both enterprise and in rules.


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