What is Hoops Culture Class For? Unleashing Humanity

Here’s what I see when I walk into Cultures of Basketball on the first day. I’m not proud of this, nor am I proud of confessing it, but I’m saying it because I think it may be productive to acknowledge it frankly. I see a certain number of “basketball players” (this semester 5) and a certain number of “students” (this semester 23; mostly white, mostly male). Usually I already know the names of the “basketball players.” Usually I do not know the names of the “non-players.”

My primary goal as a humanities educator teaching this course is to work on fixing what’s wrong with my eyes that make me see 28 utterly unique human beings as relatively homogenous representatives of two categories.

* * *

Two secondary objectives immediately follow from this: 1) to explicitly model for my students this effort to fix what’s wrong with my way of seeing and 2) to create conditions in which students themselves can practice fixing what might be wrong with their way of seeing.

Achieving the first objective means being as self-aware and as honest as I am capable of being in the classroom. It means showing them fucked up attitudes in myself and it means showing them me trying to understand and to change those attitudes. It means being candid about the varying degrees of success I have in the process and it means showing myself sometimes giving up for a bit and sometime doggedly going on, regardless of the success or failure of my efforts.

Achieving the second objective, in turn, entails some of the practices that most people probably think of as at least reasonably appropriate for a college classroom in the humanities (to the degree that anyone not directly involved in teaching humanities even remembers anymore what the humanities are and what distinguishes them from the other subjects of study that our government and our markets seem to have decided are worth teaching).

In other words, creating those conditions means informing my students through reading materials, lectures, and discussions about the history of the culture of basketball and the ways in which it has put lenses in front of my eyes (and theirs) that lead me to see what I see when I walk through the classroom door for the first time. It means offering them a menu of opportunities through discussion and their own creative assignments to begin to practice doing for themselves what they, hopefully, are noticing that I am modeling for them: the effort to take the lenses off, change them for others, or at least polish them up a bit.

I believe that probably nothing we do in Cultures of Basketball looks less academically rigorous or important than the intra-class 3 on 3 tournament. Yet it embodies, culminates and, eventually, supersedes all the “traditional looking” academic work that has come before. So that I’ve come to believe also that probably nothing I do as a teacher does more towards realizing my goals as a humanities professor.

If you’re curious about the details of how the tournament comes together and weaves itself into the course, please contact me and I’ll be happy to explain. For the sake of brevity, let me limit myself to summary: 1) the idea comes from the students and is not a course requirement; 2) the students organize the tournament entirely; 3) I play in the tournament; 4) the UM basketball players and other, especially large elite athletes who volunteer, are distributed as evenly as possible among the 3 member teams; 5) the tournament is played during our free time after the semester has ended.

* * *

A philosopher friend who saw some pictures from the tournament asked me “You must get some not athletic students in there, yeah? What does this mean to them?” I gave him a quick answer: “in a phrase, it helps heal gym class traumas.” That’s right. But it’s misleading if you are thinking that the only people who suffer “gym class traumas” are the “non-athletes.” And it’s also misleading in that I’ve come to realize that in certain real and metaphorical senses: healing gym class traumas for everyone in the class is the highest achievement of Cultures of Basketball.

Let me go back for a moment to what I see when I walk into class on the first day: “basketball players” and “students.” Now imagine that the all the basketball players are wearing labels on their chests that say “basketball player” and all the “student” are wearing labels on theirs that say “student.” Better yet, imagine that all the basketball players are wearing their Michigan basketball uniforms in the classroom. And imagine that all the non basketball players are wearing their regular, informal going to class clothes: jeans, tee shirts, sweats, whatever it might be.

Imagine that situation and ask yourself, where does your heart go? Forget what you think your job is supposed to be, forget what you think your responsibilities are and just try to notice: where does your heart go? To whom does it reach out and why? If you get quiet and really pay attention you might notice that it goes in multiple directions, for various and perhaps even seemingly contradictory reasons. At any rate, that’s what I find. And so I try in the course of the semester to draw out from within the me that sees 5 basketball players and 23 non basketball player the me whose heart — whose tenderness, frustration, sympathetic joy; whose love — is shooting around the room like a shot from a blaster caroming crazily off the walls of Garbage Compactor 3263827 in Detention Block AA 23.

In a lectures first delivered in 1909, when basketball was really taking off, the American philosopher William James warned against what he called “vicious intellectualism” or “the abuse of naming,” which he defined as “the treating of a name as excluding from the fact named what the name’s definition fails positively to include.” In his example he said you might as well argue that “a person whom you have once called an ‘equestrian’ is thereby forever made unable to walk on his own feet.” You might as well argue that a person whom you have once seen as a ‘non basketball player’ is thereby forever made unable to shoot a ball at a hoop. Or you might as well argue that a person whom you have once seen as a basketball player is thereby forever made unable to write an academic paper or formulate an argument in a class discussion.

I think James nice captures the deforming impact of the way of seeing I begin class with. It basically strips away from all the students all the capacities and potentials that are not positively included in the labels I’ve placed on them. And so the change I need as a teacher to make in myself is a change I need to make also for them, one that entails getting my own deforming, reducing lenses off so that I can do all the other things I’m supposed to do as a humanities professor: get them to see that they have lenses too, get them to see where the lenses come from, get them to see the goodness that is obscured by those lenses, and then help them to cultivate and draw forth, through the fear, the inhibition, the shyness, all those abilities, capacities, potentials, and desires that the lenses kept me (and to various degrees each of them) from seeing.

A kind of philosophical teammate of James, John Dewey (who, incidentally, was teaching philosophy at Michigan around the time that James Naismith was inventing basketball), argued for the need to come up with a better way of modeling how we know things. The problem, as he saw it, was with what he called — so aptly for a course on the Cultures of Basketball — “the spectator notion of knowledge.” In that way of thinking about knowing, we (the would-be knowers) stand outside, passively observing the stuff we would like to know about. It becomes an object to us and we figure that by analyzing it deeply enough, perhaps by running it through some experiments to see how it behaves under different conditions, we will come to know it.

Go back to class for a second. I think Cultures of Basketball starts out this way, even for those who are not aware of it. Maybe every class starts out this way, but I’m pretty sure Cultures of Basketball starts out this way. Everyone an object for the other. Everyone a spectator passively standing outside waiting for the knowing to happen. And most of all, the “basketball players” objects for the “students” and the “students” (or “fans”) objects for the “basketball players.”

Why that is so has everything to do with history of the culture of basketball, and of intercollegiate athletics more generally, it has to do with television screens and fandom, with treating young athletes like animals bred for their physical capacities and nothing more and with treating fans as passive consumers of the realized desires of others.

And all of this I think suggests the perils, fantasies, fears, and tremendous possibilities available to be tapped for humanity when the TV screen is shattered, and the court boundaries are breached and a couple of dozen “basketball players” and “students” are stuck sitting next to each other in a small room twice a week for an hour and a half, talking — not about chemistry, or economics, or literature — but about the very culture that they are every single one of them in the process of embodying at the very moment they are talking about.

That’s when Dewey’s alternative to the spectator theory of knowledge gets activated and “the self becomes a knower. It becomes a mind in virtue of a distinctive way of partaking in the course of events. The significant distinction is no longer between the knower and the world; it is between different ways of being in and of the movement of things.” The significant distinction to be explored in Cultures of Basketball is between the 28 (29 counting me, and I very much count me) different ways of being in and of the movement of the culture of basketball as it unfolds in real time before our eyes.

That’s happening pretty much all the way through the semester and as it does the labels diminish in size and the humanity is enlarged. “Basketball players” become students, challenged to reflect intellectually on what they do and to articulate their positions in discussion with classmates or in papers for me. Students, who are also fans, are challenged to accept the celebrity athlete in their midst as a peer, a student, a human being, vulnerable and in transition like themselves. We come to appreciate that everyone in the class contributions to make both valuable and limited because of the uniqueness of their past experiences, their present circumstances, and the fears and desires that have begun to shape their future.

The tournament takes what we’ve been doing in the classroom all semester and shows students (whether they know it or not) that this same thing can happen on a basketball court, with fewer words. In that sense, it is, as I sometimes jokingly call it, the laboratory or workshop component of the course. But that’s not really right. It’s really just an extension of the classroom: we sit at desks, we read books, we write and talk with words, we set picks, we catch bounce passes, we shoot jumpers, and we talk with dunks. And then it becomes a celebration of humanity, growth, connection, and friendship, and everyone’s heart can go in all the directions it likes.

* * *

Let me try to convey this with a few pictures and brief words to accompany them.

I walked into the Central Campus Recreation Building gym with my teammate, Jam, also known as Jimmy King, member of the famed University of Michigan freshman class of 1991 known as the Fab Five. Jimmy shook his head and said something along the lines, of “Damn! I haven’t been in here like twenty years! We used to have some great games in here.” The banners Jimmy’s teams won, as anyone who reads this blog knows, remain tucked away. The two teams Jimmy played on that reached the Final Four have received from the University no official acknowledgement or recognition for their achievements. On the contrary, the University’s official position, insofar as that is articulated by its top adminsitrative official President Mary Sue Coleman, is that those teams were part of a shameful period in Michigan’s history.

Here’s Jimmy signing one of I don’t know how many autographs he was asked to sign by current UM students, parents, staff members who recognized him instantly.

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What did that mean to him?

Our team, Old Skool Ballers (Gil aka G-Baby Naamani, and fourth man and Cultures of Basketball alumnus Ron “The Professor” Beach joined Jimmy and me), made a solid run. We went into the semi-finals having won our first three games. In the semi’s we faced WTF Are You Ewing? also undefeated, consisting of Lauren Brandt, Mitch McGary, and Evan King. But we were stiff, tired and really our bodies just couldn’t keep it up.

At a certain point, Mitch McGary, a freshman on the UM team whose breakout performance during the NCAA tournament put him in a position to make a decision about whether to turn pro or not during our last week of classes, inbounded the ball to Lauren Brandt, whom I was guarding. Mitch, guarded by Jimmy, cut around Lauren, who dropped off a little bounce pass to him as he passed her. Jimmy followed Mitch, but was partially screened by Lauren. I remained rooted by age and infirmity to my spot on the floor, thus failing to provide help defense. Mitch saw that he gained a step on Jimmy along the baseline went under the basket and then up for a reverse dunk.

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Mitch loves Jimmy. One day I came into class and he proudly pointed to his phone: “Jimmy King’s following me on Twitter!” He admires the Fab Five (he was one of several Michigan players to shave his hair Fab Five style to honor them on a day when Michigan would honor other past basketball alumni but not the Fab Five). What did it feel like for Mitch to dunk sort-of-on Jimmy King?

I didn’t get a chance to ask. But I asked Jimmy how it felt and he laughed broadly and said something to the effect that it wouldn’t have been right to take that as a challenge and to come back at Mitch, that it was Mitch’s time now. A torch was passed. Fab Five to Fresh Five.

But it wasn’t just Mitch’s time. One of his teammates, Lauren, also known as Sweet n LoLo, wrote me that she’s always loved basketball but for most of her life she’s been a spectator and when she does get to play it’s shooting games like horse or around the world. Here is Mitch placing the Championship medal around her neck:

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What did that mean to her? In her words, it was “redeeming.” She went on to explain in an e-mail:

I loved that I didn’t feel like I was letting anyone down in this tournament. I could shoot and miss and that was okay. I tried. We were in it together. The last game, Mitch told me I was “clutch”. That’s right! He also kept saying that it was the team and not him (which I am not so sure that is true…like at all, but he really made me at least feel like the three of us did it together).
After the tournament, Lauren told me, the first thing she did was call her dad, who called her Champ and Sweet n LoLo (her official nickname) for three days. That weekend, after the tournament was over, she went home and she and her dad went down to the park on the corner to shoot hoops.
What did that mean to her? What did it mean to him?
One last picture. I see 30 human beings. I have to look really hard, I have to make an effort to identify and distinguish between the basketball players and the students. My heart swells and stretches out to each individual human being in the picture.
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What does it mean to me? It means that I did a good job. It means that I did it in the style uniquely suited to my personality, to my past experiences, my present circumstances, and my fears about and desires for the future. I can see in the picture that they got to be their fuller selves and that made them feel happy. And I got to be me and I was loved.

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