When, Why, and How There is an “I” in “Team”
Early on in Hoops Culture class, my students read an essay by an established philosopher of sport, Professor R. Scott Kretchmar. He begins an essay on the moral qualities of different styles of basketball with a distinction between two kinds of basketball: one that he calls “purist” and one that he calls “modernist.” He draws up a table with two columns indicating the contrasting features of each style, touching on everything from the kind of offense and defense, individual skills, and even the pace that he believes characterize each one.
In the end, he argues for the superior moral virtue of what he calls “a modified purism” but along the way he acknowledges that he believes “purist basketball, generally speaking, is better than modernist basketball.” I don’t think it’s a particularly convincing essay and moreover the distinctions he draws are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) racialized. This is important and something I’ve written about extensively elsewhere, and something we talk about in class. But it’s not really what I want to emphasize here. What I want to focus on here is his claim that “purist” basketball is “centered on team capability” while “modernist” basketball is “centered on individual capability.”
It’s a commonplace in basketball culture, really in all of sports culture, to say that “there is no ‘I’ in ‘Team.'” And Kretchmar’s two column table begins more or less as a dressed up version of that cliche. But I disagree and want to challenge that truism. Among the things that stirred me so and inspired me in this year’s Michigan team was that they demonstrated very obviously, in my opinion, that there is an “I” in “team”, indeed that there must be an “I” in “team” and, in fact, that there must be and more than one “I” in “team.” But also — lest your own purist hackles be raised by that statement — they also showed that this “I” (or self) is of a very special kind, not the kind we usually have in mind when we carelessly assent to the cliche that “there is no ‘I’ in ‘Team.'”
The cliche, as it is usually given and taken, tells us that for that entity that is greater than the sum of its parts that we call a true “team” to emerge, the individual members of it must sacrifice their individual interests. We say they must be “selfless.” Or to put it another way, we say they must lose their selves in order for the team to emerge or form. A frequent image or metaphor for that process is that of the “finely tuned machine” that works “like clockwork.” I can understand why that image comes to mind, but I don’t care for it because it implies that the process of becoming selfless requires that an individual shed his or her humanity and become lifeless, inanimate, a cog. It is to me a sad ideal to impose on athletes, especially on adolescent athletes who are in the midst of precisely that time of life where we all begin to differentiate ourselves from our families and to explore just who we are as unique individuals.
Fortunately, it need not be this way. And the evidence of my own perception of watching this team over the course of the year belies that view and its depressing mechanical metaphor. They did indeed function beautifully as a team, and they did so to the degree that each individual player was “selfless.” But the inspiring beauty and elevating moral virtue of the team arose because that selflessness did not require the shedding of their unique human individuality, but rather the assertion of it. They looked and felt to me more like a flock of birds rising from a field — one and many at the same time, bursting with unchecked life — than like some soulless mechanical device.
This is what I saw — to take one example — when I watched Nik Stauskas, in the course of a single possession, a game, or the season as a whole, navigate the tricky dilemma of when to shoot and when not to shoot. He loves to shoot, understandably, as it is an expression of a power he has developed over countless hours already in his young life. The joy he experiences when he exercises that power, fulfilling himself, is evident in his expressive exuberance when his shot settles in the bottom of the net. And it serves the team. But of course there are times when the shot doesn’t fall, there are times when he doesn’t even see the ball. And at those times, Nik stands patiently in the corner, demonstrating his understanding (even if it is intuitive, it is an understanding), that him standing in that corner creates space for teammates to exercise the powers that they have spent their young lifetimes developing. And, moreover, it works that way because of the many, many times that he has expressed his individual capability and has reveled in it.
It’s what you see when Trey Burke — a player with a great variety of powers — carefully chooses which to exercise at which time. Perhaps for a whole half he will use his power to beat his defender off the dribble and draw other defenders in order to pass to teammates who are open for easy shots because he has actually exercised his individual power. We call this unselfishness and understandably so. But only rightly so when we understand that this unselfishness is a function of the individual player (in this case Trey) actually asserting his unique individual capacities. The very same dynamic is involved when Trey, as happened, for example, against Kansas in the Regional final, pulls up for a 30 foot jump shot. There again, he is exercising a capacity he’s developed his entire life, asserting himself, but the choice is no less unselfish than any of the times, say, in the first half of that game, when he helped create opportunities for his teammates; teammates who, in turn, themselves were constantly involved in this fluid dynamic of individual self-assertion, by moving without the ball, by setting firm screens, or by rolling to the basket.
I could go on and on: each player from the regulars (Tim, Glenn, Mitch, Spike, and Caris) to the edge of the rotation (Jon and Jordan) to the end of the bench (Corey, Josh, Eso, Blake, Max and Matt) demonstrated this. That’s why I feel this team — and not only this team, but this is the one I care about — provided a powerful on-court refutation of the specious dichotomy that Kretchmar establishes. For the players on the team demonstrated that one can be selfless and remain a distinct individual, uniquely creative and expressive. In fact, I think they demonstrated that to be truly selfless, and so to truly form a team, each player has to embrace his or her distinct individuality, and must create for themselves and their teammates opportunities out of that individuality, and must express that individuality in whatever way their temperament and personality dictate. There are fifteen “I’s” in “Team.” And the team that emerges as greater than the sum of its parts affirms the individual dignity of each of its parts.
And I will say more (though people may be tired of hearing me talk about it): this is what the Fab Five and the teams of 1992 and 1993 did as well. They exhibited precisely this same dynamic. This is why they were so good and it is, I think, in large measure, why they were so captivating and continue to be so captivating, including to the players on the present team. I mean to say because they had found that sweet joyful spot where the egotistical self dissolves and the true, human individual self emerges in its fluid, boundless form and from the combination of those selves — of those “I’s” — a true team emerges. The joy arises from freeing themselves from the prison of rigid dichotomies (like those in Professor Kretchmar’s essay) between “team” and “individual,” between “self” and “other” and between “selfishness” and “unselfishness.” And the joy and power we revel in when watching them arises exactly to the degree that we too let go and allow ourselves to participate in what they have set in motion. Call it what you want, but to me there is nothing more pure in the culture of basketball.