Preface: In Praise of Heresy

My wife Claire often makes heretical statements when we watch sports.

Like me, she loves in sports the exhibition of what a human body can do, as well as the revelation sports so often offer that in fact we are one, a body-mind, working in graceful, confident harmony. Unlike me, Claire has not spent her life swimming in the culture of sports. She didn’t play sports competitively, didn’t watch them obsessively, didn’t read sports pages and sports magazines and sports books. Her observation of sports rattles along innocently, unconfined by the well-worn grooves of thought and discourse that experience and repetition have carved into those of us who have spent our lives in sport culture. The combination of her passion for what is going on and her inexperience in the habits of sports culture gives rise then, as I say, to these heretical outbursts.

Escape of a Heretic (1559) Sir John Everett Millais

Escape of a Heretic (1559)
Sir John Everett Millais

For example, a few years ago, we were watching a Detroit Pistons’ National Basketball Association (NBA) game on TV. It may have been a playoff game. A foul was called against Pistons’ forward Rasheed Wallace. Wallace vehemently disagreed with the call and the referee promptly whistled him for a technical foul for unsportsmanlike conduct. Claire decried the unfairness of both calls. That’s not the heretical part. On the contrary, that is a time-honored tradition within sports culture. But then she went to the dangerous place: “Why do they even need refs?” I laughed. She flashed, indignant: “What?” I laughed more. “I’m serious!” she insisted. I couldn’t stop laughing. In part, I laughed because I found her earnest outrage completely charming, but also because her heresies make me nervous.

They unsettle me because they illuminate the areas of sports culture that I have come to accept as natural and necessary and so have stopped questioning. “Why do we need refs?” I might have sputtered, “Why? Well, of course, it’s quite obvious, you see, if we didn’t have refs, well, then, why, you know…” It’s not that there was no answer to the question. There was an answer to the question: I could see it in my mind, but as I stumbled towards it, it began to repel me and so it never quite made it out of my mouth. It’s a bit like introducing a spectacular new friend to your family: when you see your family through the eyes of your friend, it may look better in some ways, it may look worse, but it will never look the same. Some of the things to which Claire draws attention, when I think about them under the hot spotlight of her heresy, do stand the test of critical reflection. Others do not. When they do not, I feel a little embarrassed for sports for being that way, and for myself for not having noticed.

More specifically, I feel embarrassed because basketball, in particular, has been my home for all of my life and the people of basketball are my people. My family put up a hoop in the driveway when I was four, and I was chasing my older siblings around on that court soon after. I was seven when I saw Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West go head to head at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin; probably around seven, too, when I painted sideburns and a mustache on my face and scrawled “Knicks” on the front—and “Frazier” and the number “10” on the back—of a tee shirt. I think I was twelve when a classmate procured me a personally autographed copy of John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. When I was fourteen, I plastered my walls with Magic Johnson posters, made a Magic Johnson scrapbook, and wrote to the Lakers asking for Magic’s home address (they didn’t give it to me). At sixteen, I made room on the wall for Isiah Thomas. I was seventeen when, as the point guard and captain of my high school varsity, I lost a state tournament game in overtime on the same floor where Kareem and Oscar had won a world championship thirteen years before; and I afterwards cried in their same locker room. At twenty, I got not one, but two pairs of the original Air Jordans. Years—decades—have passed, slicing not inches but feet off my vertical leap. But time has not dulled my enthusiasm for the game in all its forms. The heroes have changed, but still I watch their games and buy the shoes they hawk. And still I lace up those shoes at least twice a week in my noon pickup run. Moreover, the very myths of the culture of basketball that I critique in this book and the values they harbor formed my experience of the game and shaped my personality, even off the court. I believed in them then and, even if now I no longer do, I still feel their emotional pull. So, Claire’s questions sometimes unsettle my heart and disorient me, as though the rightness of my very being were suddenly thrown into question.

Fortunately, she’s a gentle, capacious and loving heretic so that none of this gets in the way of our continuing to love what we love in sports, just as they are. In fact, I find that her heresies have shown me a way to expand and enrich my encounter with sports much as any relationship grows stronger and more durable when it expands to flexibly accommodate a variety of types and intensities of feelings such as wonder, doubt, frustration and disappointment. I’m writing this book guided my wife’s spirit of loving heresy and in the hopes that my reflections on some of the cherished myths of basketball culture will similarly unsettle my readers, whether they are life long residents of basketball or just passing through. But also, as with Claire’s sporting heresies, I hope that, supported by history and enhanced by fanciful inventions, mine will not cause readers to love basketball less, but only to love it better.

Continue to the Introduction or go back for an overview of Ball Don’t Lie!

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