Category Archives: Pedagogy

Teaching Values: Coaching the Right Way

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In the wake of my posts last week exploring some of the history, assumptions and implications underlying various aspects of coaching, I had a great conversation with Nick Hauselman at BBallBreakdown.  Nick is a coach, clearly an intelligent and caring one and so one who is looking to make coaches and coaching better. Perhaps in that spirit, he asked me the following question yesterday:

I take it that Nick is asking not whether such a debate exists (for the record, there is quite a bit of scholarly discussion of this in the sport psychology, sport sociology and sport philosophy literature–contact me for some references), but rather, rhetorically, whether I believe that it is appropriate for coaches to use sports to teach overarching themes about life? My short answer is yes.  There’s no question that sports can provide numerous opportunities to learn, either through experience or instruction, about life; and a coach can be the individual who helps teach those lessons.  Moreover, as historians such as Dominick Cavallo and Clifford Putney (to name just two among many) have shown, sports have and probably will continue to be—for better and for worse—impactful arenas for imparting these lessons. In the case of basketball, for example, the game was in part designed to do so.  And individuals like James Naismith, John Wooden, Walt Frazier, Bill Russell, Bill Bradley, Mike Krysewski, and Phil Jackson, among many others, have authored volumes elaborating their ideas about what basketball can teach and how; even as scholars have complicated our understanding of how this might work best.

But in specific circumstances (and leaving aside the kind of coaching behaviors that have left too many young people with a horrible impression of sports culture) , I might qualify my response depending on the answers to certain questions: what is the age of the athletes? What are the themes being taught and how are these being taught? And what is the social context outside of the sporting arena that might support (or undermine) the ability of individual athletes to incorporate these (presumably positive) lessons into their daily lives.  Each of these questions reflects underlying issues that complicate my answer.

This may seem obvious, but generally speaking, I think it’s most appropriate and practical for coaches to impart life lessons to younger players. This isn’t because I think we can’t stop learning about life as we get older.  Life is complicated and challenging in ways that change as we age.  And none of us are ever too old to benefit from the experiences, perspectives, and wisdom of others.  However, in a professional context such as the NBA, where (depending on your definition) most or all of the players are adults, there is a danger that coaches seeking to impart life lessons may fail to respect or appreciate the life wisdom players already have and therefore take on a patronizing attitude.  That is, a situation can arise in which one grown adult is treating another grown adult as though he were less than adult. Because of the racial dynamic whereby most coaches are still white and most players still black and the history of race relations in the US, this such an attitude can become especially problematic.

Moreover, the NBA is a business in which coaches and players alike are employed to maximize, through their success on the court, the profit line of owners. It may not be practical in that context to prioritize life lessons.  And, in addition, the business aspect of the NBA means that coaches and players may not have the opportunity to develop the kinds of intimate personal relationships (knowledge of each other’s experiences and lives, trust, etc.) that should be the bedrock for any such instruction. However, in explicitly educational contexts (such as colleges and schools) and elsewhere that younger athletes are involved, I think using the sporting experience to impart life lessons can be appropriate and desirable, depending, as I said at the outset, on what the themes are, how they are being taught, and on the broader social context in which this is occurring.

It’s probably pretty common to consider, again taking basketball as an example, that certain qualities of character likely to lead to individual and team success are also valuable in life outside of basketball.  Hard work, self-discipline, physical health, enjoyment, graciousness, adaptability, individual initiative, cooperation, unselfishness, intelligence, self-respect and respect for others, and an appreciation of individual differences in personality and ability might comprise a non-exhaustive list of such qualities. I’ve certainly found in my life in and out of basketball that cultivating and exhibiting such qualities tends to contribute to more positive outcomes more often than not.  And most would agree in principle (even if some waver or fall short in actual practice) that these qualities should be prioritized over other values (such as winning) if and when they conflict.

I’m not claiming that these are universal values.  Some arguably are, some definitely are not.  Sometimes, the objection that they are not is voiced to prevent the specific experiences of certain socially marginalized group from being erased. Such erasure is a valid and serious concern.  But I wonder if it might be constructively addressed with careful attention to the conditions under which they are transmitted.  Perhaps this is naive on my part, but if it were the case, we could then avoid resigning ourselves to the position—which admittedly I find tempting, but ultimately counter to my experience, my reasoning, and my desire—that it is hopeless, or worse harmful, to attempt to use sports to impart life lessons to athletes we care about.

Some sociologists rightly observe that there can be in sport an excessive emphasis on defining well-being and development in individual terms. The concern behind this critical observation is that such an emphasis fails to take into account the role—both for better and worse—of society (and of other collectives) in the well-being and development of individuals. Because basketball is a team sport, and as the list of qualities I offered above suggests, this may be less of a problem when it comes to the actual values some coaches seek to impart to their young players. It’s hard for me at least to imagine a basketball coach sternly instructing his or her players to go after their own individual success on the floor at all costs and that this will stand them in good stead in life after basketball.  Even so, it may be the case that some coaches fail to recognize (for any number of reasons) the broader social context in which their players must operate; a context which might make some of these qualities less practicable or practically useful than would be the case on the team or in other social scenarios with which a coach might be familiar or, indeed, in some ideal society.

But I don’t think this means that coaches should refrain from attempting to instill the values they genuinely believe will be useful to their players on and off the court.  It does, however, mean that how a coach teaches and—equally importantly—embodies these values becomes very important.  And it does mean that we should all (coaches included, or especially) be invested in the broader conditions, both of youth sport and of the social and community contexts surrounding young athletes outside of the sporting context, that might make the difference between life lessons learned through sport becoming empowering tools for individuals and communities and such lessons becoming little more than cynically deployed empty promises leading to bitterness and mistrust.

Take care of your body might be the most fundamental tenet of all coaches and the athletic principle with the most obvious relevance to daily life.  The habits of physical self-care that a young athlete might cultivate in the context of their sporting experience may well become a life-long habit with clear benefits.  But, in imparting that lesson, are we taking adequate account of the situations that athlete may be facing in their home or community that might undermine their efforts at attending to their physical well being? Do they have adequate nutrition, for example, or the opportunity to cultivate proper sleep hygiene?

Respect yourself and others: another fundamental lesson to be learned through sports.  But self-respect and respect for others are not cultivated in a vacuum, through sheer force of individual will (even if such a will is a necessary condition for their cultivation). So when we teach young athletes to respect themselves and others (teammates, coaches, officials, opponents) are we considering whether or not the conditions exist in their lives outside of sport in which such a lesson might take root and grow?  Are they respected by their teachers? By law enforcement? By their peers? What about the coach? Is the coach, in his or her interaction with players, showing respect? Or, indeed, exemplifying the other lessons of life and of character he or she seeks to instill in them?

I think one could go down the list of qualities that I mentioned above and ask of each of them: is the coach exemplifying them? Is their adequate social support for the cultivation of these lessons in a wholistic manner? If not, is the coach (and others claiming to care about the well being of the young athlete) working to ensure that the conditions exist outside the sport—in the family, neighborhood, community and country—in which these qualities can be both practicable and practically useful?

Obviously, as literal questions, the answer will be sometimes yes and sometimes no, depending on the coach.  But I mean them more as rhetorical questions designed to illuminate the more challenging areas that I fear are obscured by the broad popular consensus that sports are a good arena in which to learn life lessons and, therefore, that coaches are the appropriate instructors for such lessons.  I mean to be, in other words, pointing out some of the conditions that I think we need to meet if the potential of sport (and coaches) to work in this positive way is to be fulfilled.

Day 21: Finals

Feelings shoot like sparks across time and place. The last time I’d felt this way about a basketball game was on Friday, March 4, 1983. I was lacing up a pair of Converse All-Stars (This was a few years before the Choose Your Weapon ad campaign, but if I’d had the choice, I’d have chosen Magic) in the lockerroom at the Milwaukee Arena, also known as The Mecca. In a few minutes, I’d proudly lead my maroon and gold clad (short shorted) team out onto the court for warm-ups prior to our quarterfinal matchup in the (now-defunct) 54th Annual Wisconsin Independent Schools Association Class A State Tournament against favored Oshkosh Lourdes and their 6-8 Indiana-bound star Todd Meier.

Lourdes had lost only four games all year and came into the tournament (for the second year in a row) riding a 15 game winning streak, including a waltz through their regional tournament. For our part, the Madison Edgewood Crusaders were 13-8, and had lost four of our last six games before putting together two decent ball games to win our own regional. The only other team in the tournament that we’d played during the season, Whitefish Bay Dominican, wound up posting a 9-13 record, but they beat us by 20 on our home floor. Despite this, we were an overachieving team that had made the State tournament against predictions; and where bigger, more talented representatives of our small school over the previous four years had failed. Our biggest player was a 6-6 sophomore who, though he would go on to set scoring records at Harvard, was at the time skinny, inexperienced, and under confident. As our coach had told me prior to the season, “let’s face it, your class is a great bunch of guys, but it’s only Flint and Mark (two bad-boy transfers to our school who started alongside me senior year) that have made you even respectable as an athletic class.” Or something like that.

Still, there I was, with my teammates, getting dressed in the same lockerroom that had been used by Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and others only a few years before, getting ready to tread the same floor, shoot at the same basket, with more fans in attendance than I, for one, had ever played for. I’m not sure the knot I felt in my stomach that day was any worse than it ever was before a game. I was used to it, I mean. And I knew enough to know that it only meant that I cared about the game – not, for example, that I was unprepared or overmatched. I knew, though I couldn’t have articulated it then, that it was a sign that the game hadn’t started yet. With the opening tip, there would be no more nerves. I guess, in that sense, it’s a sign of consciousness and of the way it grasps for a purchase on the slippery surface of an anticipated experience. My body would know what to do for the most part, but sitting in that lockerroom, it wasn’t time yet, wasn’t time for my body to do what it had done hundreds and hundreds of times since I was a small boy in my driveway: dribble, pass, shoot, defend, rebound.

We lost that game. We played hard defense though, and intelligently executed our patient offense. I was the pass first point guard on that team, a co-captain, the coach on the floor. But the last 2:04 of regulation provided me with memories that will last me forever when, down six, I hit 3 consecutive 18 ft jumpers over their zone to send the game into overtime (an opportunity to hit a fourth went awry when a cross-court pass sailed over my head). But in overtime, Meier was just too much. He scored the final points of my career on a frightening two handed dunk. I’d never played in a real game in which someone had dunked before.

And that dunk, as much as anything, marks the crossroads from which he and I would go in very different directions. He’d go on to a significant supporting role on Indiana’s 1987 NCAA Championship Team (as well as some mention in Feinstein’s Season on the Brink – the downside: he had to meet Reagan and give him a hat and sweater). Meanwhile, I’d go on, after a successful intramural and city league career, to become a college literature professor teaching a course on basketball culture. His career-ending dunk marks too, in that sense, the psychic spot from which my course developed: for it to go a different way, to see what a different road might have looked like, the wish for one more chance. And that has been the energy and the pitfall of the course all season – I mean, all semester – its emotional strength and its intellectual weakness.

I knew this already, well before lacing up my sneakers in the Intramural Building at Michigan last Wednesday night. But there’s a way in which the knot that I felt as I did so viscerally emblematized the fact that I was approaching this tournament as that second chance; as it emblematized also all that has been inseparably great and weak about the course. Once again, I’d be suiting up for a tournament. Once again, Big Ten basketball players would be playing on the opposing team. History repeats itself, Marx famously wrote, the first time as tragedy the second as farce. I think this particular repetition was probably neither, but if I had to choose, it was much closer to farce.

My team, Saline Sickness (pictured above from left: Big Will Campbell, Ryan Rain Drop Feeley, Light Skin Jesus, and Jordan The Technician Dumars), did not win the First Annual Free Yago Cultures of Basketball JAMboreee. We didn’t finish first, second, or third. We didn’t finish fourth, fifth, or sixth. We finished seventh. Out of eight. In our defense, we did not have a UM basketball player on our squad. Our player-owner, Jordan Dumars, rehabbing a torn meniscus, wisely decided not to play in the game. In his stead, he recruited Big Will Campbell, a 6-5, 333 pound defensive tackle from the UM football team. Will was a remarkably quick, skilled baller, and a really nice guy (he even addressed me as “Professor”… in the middle of a game, as in, “Professor, I’m open!”). But he’s no D-1 player. In fact, the only team that finished worse, the team we beat in the final game to avoid the ignominy of last place, also was missing its player-owner, 6-10 Evan Manatee Smotrycz who might otherwise have led his S.W.A.T. team (comprised of 6-3 Sam The Garbage Man Klein and 6-2 Matt the Hebrew Hammer Gordon) to a respectable finish. As it was, Evan, unlike everyone in the class, unlike everyone who has been reading the blog or following me on Twitter, somehow managed NOT to realize that the tournament was Wednesday night at 8:30 (not Wednesday morning) and so by tip-off was already back eating his mom’s home-cooked meals in Reading, Massachusetts. S.W.A.T. team thus had to make do with the kindness of strangers – a different UM player rotated in to hoop with them in each game – and so they were never able to gel as a team.

Tournament MVP went to Corey Bing Bing Person, a 6-3 UM walkon from Kalamazoo, who led his team, The Dream Killazzz (6-0 Elliott Darvy Darvish and 6-4 Nick Sizzle Pagano) through a difficult preliminary group round and then to a championship game victory over Los Tres Amigos! (featuring 6-11 Blake Bird McClimans, 6-2 Mack Bronco Ladd, and 5-8 Tim Soy Sauce Yeh). Other highlights included a devasting posterizing of 5-10 Ron The Professor Beach by Colton Chevy Christian, a Tim Pop Pop Hardaway dunk over the game but ineffectual challenge of my teammate Rain Drop (nice outward facing bookends to my career: Meier’s dunk and Hardaway’s dunk), the lights out three point shooting of Matt Wisconsin Lunchbox Vogrich and Stuart Dr Funk Douglass, the unrepentant and often effective long range gunning of Chantel Blue Steel Jennings, the 40 inch vertical leap of Sean Nugget Fletcher, and the 3rd place game clinching triple from unexpected hero Rajesh Shake n Bake Kumar.

But even those participants I’m not singling out here had, I hope, like me: their one shining moment: a swished jumper, a sweet no-look pass, a tough put back on an offensive rebound, a steal or blocked shot, no injury. I didn’t, of course, get to see every game, but I did see every team play at least one game, and in every game I saw each player on the team contributed something, and I saw teams working pretty well together. More importantly, everyone seemed to me, at least to be having a good time, to be competing joyfully, forming small rivalries and camaraderies, trying hard, talking a little trash, and developing running gags.

It was over too quickly, like my dream of winning the title and so righting the course of history that had gone so tragically wrong 28 years before on the floor of the Mecca. We took some team photos. Claire, bless her heart, gamely snapped hundreds of action shots with my phone. And then one by one, with fist bumps or handshakes or hugs, I said goodbye to them as they filed out of the gym, on their way to study for exams, on their way to the rest of their lives. That’s fine, of course, and it is as it should be. As a teacher I know that and to some degree I experience it at the end of every semester. Just not so much. It doesn’t always hurt in this way.

And I guess that is what made this class, for better and for worse, what it was. It was made from my heart, and my memory, and my desire, relentless, to keep making life new. From the afternoon I spent crying in a bathtub in the Red Roof after the first day, trying to understand and to explain to Claire what it was all about, to the nerves and eager joy of the big game, and all points in between — Bethlehem Shoals‘ visit, a bit of internets attention for me (thanks Beckley and the True Hoop gang) and Matt Gordon, a stirring tournament run by the UM team, and a visit from Coach John Beilein — this class was infused with my feelings for the game, past and present and future. Sometimes, that probably got out of hand. Sometimes, it might have led me to attach too strongly to the players and perhaps to short shrift some of the other students, at least on occasion. I’m sorry for that if I did. I couldn’t help it this time, but I’ll learn from it. But even with whatever pitfalls might have ensued, I’m not sorry for the vulnerability I showed in teaching a class not only with my my mind, but with my heart; in modeling for students the attempt (leave aside success or failure) to do my job and fulfill my vocation as an integrated adult.

In the end, I’m heartened by three things. I won’t pretend these are really rational things, they are just things that have touched me and that, when I think of them, hearten me. I want to share these with you, but before I do I want to say, now this course is over, and so is the course diary. But it has opened up for me the possibility of bringing what tools I have to writing about basketball and I intend to keep doing that, even without the twice weekly inspiration and structure of my class to motivate my posts. I’ll keep writing. I hope you’ll keep reading.

So, my three heartening things:

1) After everyone was at the gym, shooting around and warming up at different baskets, we all started gravitating toward a single basket where we were just shooting around randomly. And then, like a flock of migratory birds, to my mind out of nowhere, we formed two lines leading away from that hoop: one line shooting layups and the other rebounding. So lovely, all the colors of our jerseys, somehow that common idea forming and materializing, the joking and kidding as people tried different crazy shots. I was so excited that when my turn came to shoot my lay up, I laid it up off the glass too hard and didn’t even draw iron. I swear I’m not a terrible basketball player, but I’m pretty sure that was the most terrible shot of the day.

2) After the tournament, there was a flurry of mutual Facebook friending among members of the class. I won’t pretend to know what that really means to this generation. But to me in the moment it felt that these people were at once reaching out and letting each other in; these people who perhaps started things off in January more aware of differences than similarities had studied together, argued sometimes, thought together, cheered for one another, organized a basketball tournament together, and played ball together and so were now, well, friends… at least on Facebook. And I don’t want snarkily trivialize the fact that it was on Facebook. Because I also felt happy to friend and be friended by them. I don’t mean to rationalize my failures as a professor in this class or any other – lord knows I’m aware of them – but I consider it one part of my job to teach and to model for younger human beings how to reach out and how to let in – how to be friends in and with the world.

3) Todd Meier, remember him? He did indeed end my high school career. He did go on to play Big Ten ball and even to win a National Championship and go to the White House. Today, Todd, having gotten his degree in Business from Indiana, is back home in Oshkosh working as the Director of Market Development for Mercury Marine. I hope this makes him happy. I have no reason to think it doesn’t. But I have to say, with no disrespect at all intended, that after all this, and because a life is a whole thing, I wouldn’t trade a single step of the path I began to walk in 1983, tears stinging mingled with sweat in my eyes after Todd’s dunk in Mecca, for a single step of his.

Now you can go back and see how it all started on the first day of school.

Day 20: Kobe Is Us

No clever pictures today. I don’t feel like it. I wasn’t gonna write about this. In fact, I wasn’t gonna write again until after our tournament next Wednesday. I’m tired. But it came up in class and it came up in a way that made me feel compelled to call some students out. And that’s made me feel compelled to write about it here too. Now, I think I wish I’d felt compelled to write about it here anyway. I’m talking about Kobe Bryant hurling an anti-gay slur at a referee during the Lakers game against the Spurs on Tuesday night and the events and media coverage that have ensued in relation to the incident since. Here’s how it went down in class.

The classroom was already pretty riotous when I walked in. Our tournament jerseys had arrived and I was as excited as the students to check out my black dri-fit tee with the logo on the front and LIGHT SKIN JESUS emblazoned above the number 11 on the back. Tim Hardaway Jr. brought donuts (or at least he was the one passing them out when I walked into the room). Students were wearing a variety of basketball jerseys because it was wear-a-jersey-day in class. And, they were stoked, laptops out, to watch Youtube videos (which, by the way, for those unfamiliar with FreeDarko’s history of the NBA) is a legitimate use of class time since the final chapter of our textbook deals with the democratization of the NBA archive and of hoops memory via youtube. So consider that a lab.

I put on my tournament jersey and sat on the teacher’s table at the front of the room (boy I’ve come a long way from the insanely nervous wreck I was on the first day), when one of the players suggested we might talk about the Kobe incident. The player in question is a pretty sincere kid, but he also likes to needle and in this case I think he both wanted to talk about it and to needle the Laker fan in our class, which fan was promptly spotlighted to give his opinion on the matter.

I’ve got to be honest here. I can’t remember precisely what he said. And I think that’s because I wasn’t really listening to him. Or to the two or three other students who chimed in before I gave my opinion. I mean I heard them, but I wasn’t really listening because I was already thinking of what I wanted to say (and confident that no student was gonna say it). I know, I know. That’s absolutely horrific pedagogically. There’s an explanation, but no good excuse and I’m sorry.

I can say that nobody said anything offensive. Nobody thought it was “no big deal.” Everybody seemed to think that Kobe ought to apologize and the $100,000 fine levied by the NBA was merited. There was a bit of discussion back and forth on the main points that the mainstream sports media has raised in connection with the incident: 1) “the heat of the moment point” and 2) “the sports icons are held to a higher standard point”.

Those two points can and have been combined in different ways: e.g. I can understand saying that in the heat of the moment, BUT Kobe’s a sports icon and is held to a higher standard and out to know better; or I can understand saying that in the heat of the moment, but if I said it at my job, I’d be fired – sports icons should be held to higher standard. But however they are combined, when those are the terms of the discussion, it leaves a gaping hole where something much more direct and pointed should be.

Let’s pretend that at this point in our class discussion, stymied by the limited terms offered them by the media, my students had pleaded: “Yago, Professor, Professor Yago, Light Skin Jesus! Help us out of this bind, this whole thing has made us feel dirty and uncomfortable, but we aren’t sure how to think our way through those feelings. We feel weird because any of us might say some asshole things and we know it’s not okay and it shouldn’t be but, Christ, we’re only human and sometimes, well, shit comes out.” That’s what I pretended.

I told them that what I think about the incident is that everyone’s energy (and money) ought to go toward examining how something like this happens. As far as I can tell, I said, nobody is claiming that Kobe Bryant is a vitriolic homophobe in his daily life. In fact, it’s pointed out that he’s not and that seems sometimes to be invoked as a reason to stop talking about what happened (see “the heat of the moment point” above). But from my point of view that’s all the more reason why this incident, lamentable as it is in so many ways, is a superb talking and teaching opportunity.

The issue to me, I said to the class, is not should Kobe have said this or not, nor is it how should he be punished, nor even what should he say afterward. Kobe, I said, was feeling angry and frustrated in a high-pressure, high-stakes situation and he lashed out. That, I feel safe in saying, can happen to anyone.

Like most of us, in lashing out he gave voice to mental contents (you can say unconscious material if you want) that he might not normally even be aware of harboring, let alone willing to express. What interests me, I said, is to use this moment as a way to put the spotlight on how those ideas – how the words Kobe used – get deposited into his mind in the first place, and how they get associated in his mind with anger, insult, and disrespect.

I’m not trying to be mysterious or coy or obfuscating here. Nor do I think I’m saying things that haven’t been said before (though I certainly haven’t heard it discussed enough during my brief foray into the sports media world). The issue, I was trying to say to the students: is that we all participate in a culture and a society that casually uses “gay” (and related terms) as a synonym for “stupid,” “unworthy,” “emotional,” etc – in short, that casually uses “gay” as an insult. What’s really shocking, given how widespread this unacceptable discourse is (especially in the generally hyper-masculinist culture of pro sports), is that we haven’t caught more players doing what Kobe did the other night.

So, I am thinking yesterday in class, all semester I’ve been reading these students (mostly white males) write some pretty moving reflections on the struggles by women and African-Americans to be allowed to play the game on the same court as white males. And I want them to see that this is an issue much like those. That it’s an issue fought on many fronts simultaneously: in government and in the courts, to be sure; on the streets in political actions, certainly; in art and culture also. And then, in lunch rooms, and dorm rooms, and locker rooms and bars: basically anywhere that we are. If nothing else, in other words, we can fight this issue in our own heart and mind and in our own use of speech.

We can be conscious that not that long ago it would have been acceptable for a white person to use the “n” word as an insult. And we can recall that that piece of language was linked to a host of forms of material injustice and psychological harm. We can think about why there are (a few) African-Americans in our classroom, and (a few) women in our classroom, and one African-American woman in our classroom, but not one openly gay student. We can think about why in the history of men’s professional basketball in this country only one player has ever come out as gay, and he did it only four years after his retirement. And we can think about whether our own behavior explicitly or implicitly contributes to that situation or fights to change it. And then we can fight to change it, even if only by speaking up whenever we see the word “gay” casually used as an insult.

You know, I don’t feel particularly informed on these issues. I don’t know if it’s historically or philosophically legitimate to compare the struggles of African Americans and women with the struggles of gays in this country. But I don’t think that I should wait until I feel fully informed, armed with knowledge, certain of every detail, to speak from my heart.

I’m just – I was just in class — trying to say that it breaks my heart that people of whatever age who are gay, or lesbian, or trans, or gender queer in any way whatsoever (and I’m sorry I’m too ignorant to properly recognize all the possible modalities and the preferred nomenclature) ever have to feel shunned or ashamed, let alone hated and like it would be better to pretend they were something else, or worse, like it would be better to be dead. It’s just so so wrong and so so sad.

Maybe I stopped talking then. Or around then. I’m not sure. Like I said, it was a pretty raucous day in our little classroom. The only thing I’m sure of at this point is that one student – I don’t know who – said to another “you’re probably gay” or something along the lines. Whatever it was, it prompted the other student to act out some clumsy mimicking of “fairy” before flipping the first student off. People laughed.

I wanted to cry. I felt so uncomfortable. Maybe I should’ve let myself cry. I think I’ve made more than clear in this blog how much I care about these students, how much I respect and admire and appreciate them. I’ve had precious few occasions to call them out over the course of the semester, and certainly none on an issue for me so emotionally charged as this one.

It’s a bit of a blur, but I think I said something like: “Hold up. Look, I don’t want to be an asshole, or to police anybody’s speech. But I gotta call you out on this. What just went down is exactly what I’m talking about. I know you were joking around, but joking around in that way reinforces the idea – in all our minds – that ‘gay’ is an insult. It’s not an insult. You don’t have to defend yourself against it. This is not just about gay people. It’s about collectively defending our freedom to be fully who we are as human beings. Finally, you just shouldn’t use it that way. It’s ignorant and wrong and you are smarter, better people than that.”

Maybe saying that or more would be really obvious to some of you. But I have a hard time calling people out and that goes at least double in this class. But for a moment, too quick to even be a thought, really, I just felt that teaching in this moment meant calling them out, however uncomfortably, and inarticulately, and probably lamely I did it. However little it probably stuck. Today, I’m glad I said something. I think I’d feel terrible today, ashamed really, if I hadn’t. One of the students, I noticed, nodded and seemed to smile quietly to himself.

I don’t care about the issues that I’ve seen most people discuss in relation to this incident. To me, they complicate and ghettoize the whole thing. To me, it’s simpler than all this: Kobe was wrong and hurtful in a way that expressed almost perfectly the way that American society (I include myself and my students) is wrong and hurtful on this issue and anything that isn’t primarily about making that the topic of conversation feels like a waste of an opportunity. We can villify him or exonerate him — but the more time we spend talking about his behavior the less we spend examining — let alone changing — our own.

Read last class’s discussion of the ethics of fan culture

or

Check out the program for our tournament

or

Read my tournament recap and final reflections on teaching Cultures of Basketball.

Day 19: You're a Fucking Bum

We’re winding down. The temperature in Ann Arbor today is in the 60s. The sky is blue. We’ve all started to check out and to go, at least mentally, our separate ways. I have mixed feelings. Summers, of course, are when the college teaching gig really pays big. And in my case in particular, the end of this term means the end of two semesters of horrible, exhausting weekly commuting back and forth between my home in St. Louis and my job at Michigan. But I still feel a little sad. I’ve grown attached to this course, and to the students in it. They’ve worked hard, their writing and class participation have been excellent. I’ve felt rejuvenated as a teacher and, in some ways, as a person. The course was the realization of a dream I hadn’t even realized I had and for that reason, no matter how many times I teach it in again, this semester, this one class I think will always hold a uniquely special place in my heart. The other day we had a lively discussion that in many ways captured this for me.

We didn’t talk about the assigned reading (an excellent chapter on the point scoring renaissance, unleashed in part through imaginative positional innovations, ushered in by the Mavs, Kings, and Suns in the early 2000s). We didn’t look at any clips. A brief discussion of the Men’s and Women’s NCAA national championship games, and of media coverage, drifted into a spirited discussion of the meaning of being a fan.

This was particularly interesting in that in many ways it returned us to our beginning-of-semester state – remember? – where I at least was hyper-conscious of the course as consisting of players and fans. Only back then it was a problem I worried over a little bit. And part of what was especially rewarding about this conversation was the way it subtly indicated how far we had all come in being able to relate to each other as human beings first, and as players or fans second, or, really, third. I mean that the discussion was marked by a consciousness that we mostly inhabit different sides of the out of bounds lines, but that consciousness led not to separation or antagonism, but to an enhanced collective understanding of the issues in play when talking about fans.

Among the players, there was a strong, touching sense, of dependency on fan support. More than one clearly voiced the feeling that fan support, especially when expressed loudly in the arena (but not only there) motivated and inspired them, and helped them find new levels of intensity on the court. But the flip side of that also emerged: a desire to be supported and loved by the fans, a desire for the fans to be informed and knowledgeable, to understand individual and team strengths and limitations and to adopt a broad perspective on this basis. Even more interestingly, though these particular players at least are thoughtful and measured in their words, there was a certain resentment of the segment of fan culture that loses sight of these things.

On the other side, the fans (i.e. the students in the class who don’t play for the UM Men’s Basketball Team) were certainly understanding of the players feelings. But they were also firm and articulate in expressing the feelings that lead fans to passionate, at times unfair, criticism of their beloved teams and the players on them. Fans talked about feeling that the teams (whether pro or college, but we were especially talking about the college game I guess) represented them and that they experienced the players’ behavior and performance on the court as a reflection of themselves (the fans). Even Coach John Beilein of the UM team, who came to class yesterday to speak briefly with us, said that he tries to keep present and to impress upon his players that you can’t have the adulation and attention of 13,000 people without accepting your accountability to them.

That certainly seemed reasonable put in those terms. But does accountability also mean that you have to accept vitriol, an every manifestation of the volatile roller coaster of emotion that fans experience? That’s a heavy burden to bear, I said. I wondered aloud how many of us as students and faculty are mindful of representing the University of Michigan in our public behavior – in bars or other Ann Arbor business establishments, in airports, on the web. Maybe it’s not exactly the same thing. I know that players, students, and faculty all participate in the University in slightly different ways (faculty get paid, students pay, and players, well, that’s it’s own thing). But whether we have deliberately signed up for it or not, our public behavior, once we are known to be associated with the University, shapes the opinion of the general public of what Michigan is about. Whether or not that’s fair – it is and isn’t at the same time, I think — is probably beside the point. My point was just to try to get across that the players don’t stop being human beings any more than the other students do, or than I do, just because we are associated with the University of Michigan. And as such, like the rest of us, they will sometimes make mistakes. Sometimes their attitude or behavior will leave something to be desired. Sometimes they will make errors in judgment. Sometimes their performance will fall short of hopes and even of reasonable expectations.

I think every student in the class understood this point and accepted it. And they were quick to affirm — and to look straight at the players in the class in saying so — how much of their fan experience involves pride, joy, gratitude, and a vicarious relishing of another’s excellence. But they rightly asserted that being a fan isn’t only cheering and especially that it isn’t only – or even mainly – about what’s rational. It’s about feelings. And they insisted on their right to experience the emotions awakened by identifying with a group of young men, and investing in the outcome of events, that they had finally very little control over.

As a fan myself, I wouldn’t want to argue with that. As a teacher, not just of basketball, but of human experience and its cultural manifestations (of which fandom is one), I also wanted to complicate and challenge that assertion. At the very least, I wanted to acknowledge the validity of the feelings while also putting the focus on the choices that we as fans make in how we deal with those valid feelings. As I’ve written here before, in some ways, this has become more important and more urgently impressed upon me as a result of this class. I mean, by the experience of getting to know to varying degrees the players on the team as adolescents, as young men, as college students; the disorienting experience of seeing them on national television – covered (I mean the word pointedly) by the media – and feeling the shock of familiarity at seeing that young face that I see twice a week in class, only now that face is looking anxious from the bench at the action on the court, or that face is lighting up with joy at some successful play, or that face seems a mask covering what I can only imagine are a rapidly evolving range of emotions in the wake of an error or setback, or that face seems to be fighting tears. These are my students and I care about them.

And that has led me, I confessed to the class, to try my best to employ a different criteria in my public and private fandom. It’s simple, but hard: I try to say or write about a player only what I would say to his or her face. This is new to me. Perhaps it is old news to many of you who have more experience covering and writing about sports than I do, though I have to say the media doesn’t seem very mindful of it by and large. As a fan, as an individual human being, I have a right to experience my full range of human emotions. And as an individual human being who must – who wants – to live with and feel connected to other human beings, I think I have an ethical responsibility to process those feelings in ways that keep present and don’t diminish the reality of other human beings. That includes athletes. And that includes athletes getting paid millions and millions of dollars, essentially, to entertain me. I think I can complain and criticize. But I think I ought to do so in ways that can meet the standard face to face communication.

It’s not that I think that totally covers my responsibility as a person. After all, I can be as much of an asshole to someone’s face as anyone else. But for me, at least, it’s a good start because imagining the real person really in front of me, imagining the look in their eyes, the way their muscles tighten, as I begin to say that I hate them, that they are losers, that they have no business being out there, that they are a waste, that they’re a piece of trash – imagining all that creates a pause in which I can reflect on my feelings and choose my words with a little more care.

I think I rambled a bit on this point in class, as I think I’m doing now. I think I probably let my point extend to culture in general. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. I’m aware as I write that I’m looking at a computer screen and that I’ll send this off where it will be read mostly by people I will never see. And I’m aware of how much of my time, of our time, is spent in interactions like this. I know I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before. And I don’t mean to be hectoring or pontificating, let alone some kind of cop. I just mean to speak for myself and to let that resonate to whatever degree it will: I don’t think my experience as a fan or a person would be diminished by holding myself to the standard of only saying or writing what I would say to someone in person. Maybe this small constraint would stimulate me to be more creative and imaginative in my expression of emotion.

I think, too, that it’s important for me to try to practice this in the privacy of my own home as I watch games as it is in what I might say in a public forum. And the reason for that is that I think it is, in fact, a practice. For me at least, it’s not reasonable to expect that I can in the privacy of my home permit to flourish one sort of unrestrained expression of my fandom and then expect in public to regularly cultivate another sort. Or maybe it’s reasonable, but I don’t think it’s healthy for me. Public and private aren’t the same, and I’m okay with that distinction, don’t get me wrong. But with certain spheres of my behavior and my culture, I think it’s best for me to cultivate in private what I’d like to manifest in public.

I feel a little embarrassed by this. I’m not sure this is the sort of thing anybody comes here to read. Just as I felt embarrassed in class, unsure that it’s the sort of thing students come to a class to hear. But I’ll take heart from the fact that as they left the room several students – players and fans both – told me they felt it was the best class of the year.

Postscript (for humans like me):

Oh yeah, and then two other things happened:

1), one fan (coincidentally named Tim) confessed with a smile to feeling sad and embarrassed as CBS showed over and over again the footage of Duke’s Nolan Smith breaking Michigan player Tim Hardaway Jr’s ankles with a crossover during their NCAA tournament game. This fan named Tim was sitting right next to a player, also named Tim (as in Hardaway Jr.), in class. Then, someone (another player) shouted out that we should see the clip. Tim Hardaway Jr. started laughing and said okay, we should. Then, when I pressed him, he admitted that seeing the clip made him feel bad. So I said I didn’t want to show it. Then he laughed, and said it was fine, and helped me navigate to the page on youtube where he knew — because he’s seen it dozens of time. And we watched it. And we all laughed. And then we watched a clip of one of Tim’s ferocious reverse slams.

2), I had posted on our group Facebook Page a link to where a post by Matt Gordon (the student who has been blogging about the course for Hoopism.com) was picked up and cited approvingly by none other than Henry Abbott of ESPN’s Truehoop. Before long, another student had “liked” the link and wrote “Damn man, nice!” and then Stuart Douglass, one of the players, cheered: “Yeahhhhhh boiiiiiii!” This was right after class.

This is a special group.

Read about last class’ discussion of Allen Iverson

or

Go here for our discussion of homophobic language in NBA culture

Day 19: You’re a Fucking Bum

We’re winding down. The temperature in Ann Arbor today is in the 60s. The sky is blue. We’ve all started to check out and to go, at least mentally, our separate ways. I have mixed feelings. Summers, of course, are when the college teaching gig really pays big. And in my case in particular, the end of this term means the end of two semesters of horrible, exhausting weekly commuting back and forth between my home in St. Louis and my job at Michigan. But I still feel a little sad. I’ve grown attached to this course, and to the students in it. They’ve worked hard, their writing and class participation have been excellent. I’ve felt rejuvenated as a teacher and, in some ways, as a person. The course was the realization of a dream I hadn’t even realized I had and for that reason, no matter how many times I teach it in again, this semester, this one class I think will always hold a uniquely special place in my heart. The other day we had a lively discussion that in many ways captured this for me.

We didn’t talk about the assigned reading (an excellent chapter on the point scoring renaissance, unleashed in part through imaginative positional innovations, ushered in by the Mavs, Kings, and Suns in the early 2000s). We didn’t look at any clips. A brief discussion of the Men’s and Women’s NCAA national championship games, and of media coverage, drifted into a spirited discussion of the meaning of being a fan.

This was particularly interesting in that in many ways it returned us to our beginning-of-semester state – remember? – where I at least was hyper-conscious of the course as consisting of players and fans. Only back then it was a problem I worried over a little bit. And part of what was especially rewarding about this conversation was the way it subtly indicated how far we had all come in being able to relate to each other as human beings first, and as players or fans second, or, really, third. I mean that the discussion was marked by a consciousness that we mostly inhabit different sides of the out of bounds lines, but that consciousness led not to separation or antagonism, but to an enhanced collective understanding of the issues in play when talking about fans.

Among the players, there was a strong, touching sense, of dependency on fan support. More than one clearly voiced the feeling that fan support, especially when expressed loudly in the arena (but not only there) motivated and inspired them, and helped them find new levels of intensity on the court. But the flip side of that also emerged: a desire to be supported and loved by the fans, a desire for the fans to be informed and knowledgeable, to understand individual and team strengths and limitations and to adopt a broad perspective on this basis. Even more interestingly, though these particular players at least are thoughtful and measured in their words, there was a certain resentment of the segment of fan culture that loses sight of these things.

On the other side, the fans (i.e. the students in the class who don’t play for the UM Men’s Basketball Team) were certainly understanding of the players feelings. But they were also firm and articulate in expressing the feelings that lead fans to passionate, at times unfair, criticism of their beloved teams and the players on them. Fans talked about feeling that the teams (whether pro or college, but we were especially talking about the college game I guess) represented them and that they experienced the players’ behavior and performance on the court as a reflection of themselves (the fans). Even Coach John Beilein of the UM team, who came to class yesterday to speak briefly with us, said that he tries to keep present and to impress upon his players that you can’t have the adulation and attention of 13,000 people without accepting your accountability to them.

That certainly seemed reasonable put in those terms. But does accountability also mean that you have to accept vitriol, an every manifestation of the volatile roller coaster of emotion that fans experience? That’s a heavy burden to bear, I said. I wondered aloud how many of us as students and faculty are mindful of representing the University of Michigan in our public behavior – in bars or other Ann Arbor business establishments, in airports, on the web. Maybe it’s not exactly the same thing. I know that players, students, and faculty all participate in the University in slightly different ways (faculty get paid, students pay, and players, well, that’s it’s own thing). But whether we have deliberately signed up for it or not, our public behavior, once we are known to be associated with the University, shapes the opinion of the general public of what Michigan is about. Whether or not that’s fair – it is and isn’t at the same time, I think — is probably beside the point. My point was just to try to get across that the players don’t stop being human beings any more than the other students do, or than I do, just because we are associated with the University of Michigan. And as such, like the rest of us, they will sometimes make mistakes. Sometimes their attitude or behavior will leave something to be desired. Sometimes they will make errors in judgment. Sometimes their performance will fall short of hopes and even of reasonable expectations.

I think every student in the class understood this point and accepted it. And they were quick to affirm — and to look straight at the players in the class in saying so — how much of their fan experience involves pride, joy, gratitude, and a vicarious relishing of another’s excellence. But they rightly asserted that being a fan isn’t only cheering and especially that it isn’t only – or even mainly – about what’s rational. It’s about feelings. And they insisted on their right to experience the emotions awakened by identifying with a group of young men, and investing in the outcome of events, that they had finally very little control over.

As a fan myself, I wouldn’t want to argue with that. As a teacher, not just of basketball, but of human experience and its cultural manifestations (of which fandom is one), I also wanted to complicate and challenge that assertion. At the very least, I wanted to acknowledge the validity of the feelings while also putting the focus on the choices that we as fans make in how we deal with those valid feelings. As I’ve written here before, in some ways, this has become more important and more urgently impressed upon me as a result of this class. I mean, by the experience of getting to know to varying degrees the players on the team as adolescents, as young men, as college students; the disorienting experience of seeing them on national television – covered (I mean the word pointedly) by the media – and feeling the shock of familiarity at seeing that young face that I see twice a week in class, only now that face is looking anxious from the bench at the action on the court, or that face is lighting up with joy at some successful play, or that face seems a mask covering what I can only imagine are a rapidly evolving range of emotions in the wake of an error or setback, or that face seems to be fighting tears. These are my students and I care about them.

And that has led me, I confessed to the class, to try my best to employ a different criteria in my public and private fandom. It’s simple, but hard: I try to say or write about a player only what I would say to his or her face. This is new to me. Perhaps it is old news to many of you who have more experience covering and writing about sports than I do, though I have to say the media doesn’t seem very mindful of it by and large. As a fan, as an individual human being, I have a right to experience my full range of human emotions. And as an individual human being who must – who wants – to live with and feel connected to other human beings, I think I have an ethical responsibility to process those feelings in ways that keep present and don’t diminish the reality of other human beings. That includes athletes. And that includes athletes getting paid millions and millions of dollars, essentially, to entertain me. I think I can complain and criticize. But I think I ought to do so in ways that can meet the standard face to face communication.

It’s not that I think that totally covers my responsibility as a person. After all, I can be as much of an asshole to someone’s face as anyone else. But for me, at least, it’s a good start because imagining the real person really in front of me, imagining the look in their eyes, the way their muscles tighten, as I begin to say that I hate them, that they are losers, that they have no business being out there, that they are a waste, that they’re a piece of trash – imagining all that creates a pause in which I can reflect on my feelings and choose my words with a little more care.

I think I rambled a bit on this point in class, as I think I’m doing now. I think I probably let my point extend to culture in general. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. I’m aware as I write that I’m looking at a computer screen and that I’ll send this off where it will be read mostly by people I will never see. And I’m aware of how much of my time, of our time, is spent in interactions like this. I know I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before. And I don’t mean to be hectoring or pontificating, let alone some kind of cop. I just mean to speak for myself and to let that resonate to whatever degree it will: I don’t think my experience as a fan or a person would be diminished by holding myself to the standard of only saying or writing what I would say to someone in person. Maybe this small constraint would stimulate me to be more creative and imaginative in my expression of emotion.

I think, too, that it’s important for me to try to practice this in the privacy of my own home as I watch games as it is in what I might say in a public forum. And the reason for that is that I think it is, in fact, a practice. For me at least, it’s not reasonable to expect that I can in the privacy of my home permit to flourish one sort of unrestrained expression of my fandom and then expect in public to regularly cultivate another sort. Or maybe it’s reasonable, but I don’t think it’s healthy for me. Public and private aren’t the same, and I’m okay with that distinction, don’t get me wrong. But with certain spheres of my behavior and my culture, I think it’s best for me to cultivate in private what I’d like to manifest in public.

I feel a little embarrassed by this. I’m not sure this is the sort of thing anybody comes here to read. Just as I felt embarrassed in class, unsure that it’s the sort of thing students come to a class to hear. But I’ll take heart from the fact that as they left the room several students – players and fans both – told me they felt it was the best class of the year.

Postscript (for humans like me):

Oh yeah, and then two other things happened:

1), one fan (coincidentally named Tim) confessed with a smile to feeling sad and embarrassed as CBS showed over and over again the footage of Duke’s Nolan Smith breaking Michigan player Tim Hardaway Jr’s ankles with a crossover during their NCAA tournament game. This fan named Tim was sitting right next to a player, also named Tim (as in Hardaway Jr.), in class. Then, someone (another player) shouted out that we should see the clip. Tim Hardaway Jr. started laughing and said okay, we should. Then, when I pressed him, he admitted that seeing the clip made him feel bad. So I said I didn’t want to show it. Then he laughed, and said it was fine, and helped me navigate to the page on youtube where he knew — because he’s seen it dozens of time. And we watched it. And we all laughed. And then we watched a clip of one of Tim’s ferocious reverse slams.

2), I had posted on our group Facebook Page a link to where a post by Matt Gordon (the student who has been blogging about the course for Hoopism.com) was picked up and cited approvingly by none other than Henry Abbott of ESPN’s Truehoop. Before long, another student had “liked” the link and wrote “Damn man, nice!” and then Stuart Douglass, one of the players, cheered: “Yeahhhhhh boiiiiiii!” This was right after class.

This is a special group.

Read about last class’ discussion of Allen Iverson

or

Go here for our discussion of homophobic language in NBA culture

Day 18: The Answer and the Dreams of David Stern

Sometime just before 1800, the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya completed a self-portrait. An etching, Goya shows himself sitting facing the viewer, but asleep with his head resting on his arms, which are folded on the table next to him. Behind him, owls and bats rise, and flutter, and hover, perhaps departing perhaps poised for attack. On the floor, at the lower right, a cat observes with wide eyes. A banner hanging from the front of the table reads, in Spanish, “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos.” Though the Spanish word “sueño” can mean either “sleep” or “dream,” the most conventional rendering of the phrase is “the dream of reason produces monsters.”

Imagine NBA Commissioner David Stern asleep. What do you see rising menacingly above his slumbering head? I imagine it would be Allen Iverson. At least, that’s what I thought after our recent class discussion on AI, aka The Answer. I’m going to come back to the sleeping Stern and the Goya print, but first let me tell you what the students did.  We watched the clip:

And then, as usual, I asked them to tell me what they saw. Someone said “steals”. “Steals, okay, what about the steals?” Someone else says, “The anticipation and the speed, they look so easy, so clean.” “Okay, what else did you see?” “Handle.” “Handle, okay, what about it?” “The crossover, he’s got that left to right down, that’s hard to do.” I’m writing all these things down on the board. “Okay, what else?” “Fearless, someone says.” “Fearless in relation to what?” I ask. “Like on that tip slam on the free throw, he’s fearless going after offensive rebounds.” “Would you be afraid to do that?” I ask. “No, but I’m 6’9″. What was he, 6’0? To throw himself in with all those bigs, that takes fearlessness.”

This leads someone else to say something about his attitude, confidence, swag, which turns then, to commitment. Everyone seems to agree that Iverson lays it all out every second that he’s on the court. “He just doesn’t care…” somebody says, meaning to affirm what everyone else is saying about commitment. Here I pause for a second. Because it’s interesting to me that somewhere along the line in relation to AI, “not caring” can be synonymous with commitment, that is, with caring. I don’t mean to make too big a mystery out of it. I think the student meant simply that Iverson didn’t care about risking his body, didn’t care about being injured, didn’t really care about anything but going 100 % in the pursuit of victory. So Iverson didn’t care about anything but caring. And this leads students to comment on his independent streak–as in, he didn’t care what others thought of him–and the way it goes hand and hand with taking risk.

So we start talking about how much of his game involves a delicately balanced dance of vulnerability and risk and courage. Obviously, going for steals involves risk and danger and exposure. You might get beat and look the fool. The apparent vulnerability of Iverson’s small body as he leaves his feet to meet two or three much larger defenders. He can and did get crushed at times. But at other times, more often than not, in fact, it all worked out and he sped or glided or twisted of fell away or spun and turned the risk of block or injury into success. But the back and forth that leads to the cross over. The ball exposed, the whole point being to expose the ball, but not as much as the defender thinks it is exposed, and then to take it away, exploiting the miscalculated risk and so the vulnerability of the opponent. In a certain sense, his hallmark one-man offensive repertoire itself flirts with danger and risk and transformed it, even if for just one season, into glorious against all the odds, rules, conventions, and mores, into success. This flirtation with danger, perhaps, carried out on his own terms is both what made Iverson thrilling and adored and also what made him anathema to Commissioner Stern.

Which led to the commercial in which the camera circles Allen Iverson as he sits on a training table, listening to music through headphones, before wordlessly getting up off the table.

There’s so much going on in this ad. But to begin with, at the simplest level, it echoes what the students had seen in the clip and what they had perhaps, already in their memories. Iverson was a warrior. Average sized, fearlessly aggressive with the basketball, Iverson was often risking and suffering injury. And just as often, Iverson was playing injured or coming back from injury, as the ad concludes: “stronger than ever.” But there’s more, as I pointed out in class. There’s the simple division of the narrative time of the ad between the time of preparation and the time of work. When it is time to work, the ad seems to say, despite what he has suffered, Allen Iverson will be there, on time, ready to work. But before it is time to work, the ad also seems to say, he will be alone, with his music, eyes closed, in his own world–a world of solitude, the ad perhaps subtly argues, he has earned through his fearless effort and the sacrifice of his body. He will show up for work, in other words, but that is all he owes you. The rest is his.

Except, and I didn’t say this in class, that the rest isn’t exactly his either, even if he’s right that it should be. Consider the noteworthy combination of discourses, scriptures strictly speaking, converging on Iverson’s body. The tattoos, of course, which mark his body with memories, beliefs, alliances, psychological pain and the way these are paired with the more antiseptic medical scripture marking his body with a different kind of history: bursitis, fracture, contusion, bruises, dislocations. In a way, both kinds of writing do the same: they make visible the marks that history has left on Allen Iverson’s body and soul. The scanning wavy grid lines suggest, to me anyway, both flashes of recurrent pain, but also a kind of constant surveillance or scanning. And the latter is echoed both by the camera’s intrusive circling, panning, and zooming on Iverson during a “private” “solitary” moment and by the incessant gab of the announcer’s voices played over and for a time drowning out, the quieter music that is perhaps the same music Allen is listening to. The ad, read this way, says, Iverson has never been alone.

And, perhaps because I am predisposed to sympathize with him, I feel that I understand better and want to support his desire to draw a sharp line between his game on the court (which, let us say, as a paid pro, he does owe and–be fair–he more than paid up) and everything else (which he should just be allowed, as much as he can, to live in whatever combination of company and solitude pleases him). Iverson in this ad is an innocent, by which I don’t mean to say without experience or history. But innocent in the sense of guileless and without malice. An average man engaged in battles against the above average: giant centers, horrific social conditions, history has marked him with injuries of every sort, physical and spiritual, and he has responded with integrity, resolve and quiet determination.

I might not have said this in class in such detail, but that might be because I feel like the students were already there. Iverson was their hero, wherever they were from, whatever the color of their skin, their gender, their position, their sport, whatever their background, whatever their style of ball: Iverson was their hero because he was the hero of being yourself. Which may also be why their strongest and most articulate impressions came in relation to what they saw as David Stern’s foolish and clumsy war on all things Iverson.

We’re talking about the “Dress Code” of course, and hanging perhaps too large a hat on it. But then again, I don’t know [NOTE: since I first wrote this, David Leonard published the definitive treatment of the dress code as part of the NBA’s assault on blackness.  You should read that.]. The code, announced just before Opening Day in 2005, was also accompanied by NBA Cares, a public service initiative. As for the code itself, here it is as reported in The New York Times on October 19, 1995:

Players must adhere to the following requirements at all team or league functions: collared dress shirts or turtlenecks; dress slacks, khaki pants or dress jeans; and dress shoes or boots or “other presentable shoes” with socks, and no sneakers, sandals, flip-flops or work boots. Players are prohibited from wearing headgear, T-shirts, team jerseys, chains, pendants or medallions. Sunglasses while indoors and headphones, except on the team bus, plane or in the locker room, are also banned. Players who are on the bench during a game but not in uniform must wear a sports coat. Both the player and his team will be fined for violating the rules, and repeat offenders could be suspended.

While the rhetoric of the dress code, and the NBA cares initiative was of encouraging increased professionalism, the racialization of the categories professional/unprofesssional; appopriate/inappropriate was lost on pretty much nobody, including the New York Times reporter who, in the same article, summarized the changes as Stern’s latest push to get the players to “look a little less gangsta and a little more genteel.”

We talked in class about what David Stern wants and what he doesn’t want. In the David Stern plus column we had popularity, global markets, money, commercial sponsorship, exciting, creative basketball, marketable individual superstars. In the David Stern minus column we had: thugs, drugs, violence, badness, selfishness. And then, finally, someone said it: blackness.

But it was more complicated than that, of course. Because David Stern actually does seem to want a certain kind of blackness. He wants, it seemed to us in class, a blackness that has overcome itself and renounced its origins in poverty and desperation, in struggle against social and economic injustice. He wants the creativity, authenticity, the game and the credibility that for a long time have come from urban, primarily African-American neighborhoods. But he wants it without any of the “rough edges,” sanitized, whitewashed. He doesn’t just not want guns and drugs in NBA lockerrooms. Probably nobody wants that. He also doesn’t want any of the sartorial markers of the hood: no drawers showing, no baggy jeans, no head gear, no bling. I don’t think, though, that Stern banned these things just because they signified a blackness that might make the average 50-something corporate white fan/sponsor uncomfortable.

Or rather, I think that if he did, it is because this blackness and the cultural expressions and social conditions it is metonymically associated with reveals the failure (for America’s inner cities, as for much of the third world) of the very political and economic tendencies towards unfettered, neo-liberal capitalist globalization that Stern and the NBA have ridden to explosive international popularity.

In a sense, to dream the dream of expanding global capital, to dream David Stern’s dream is, necessarily to dream also of decimated inner cities without adequate housing, education, medical care or social services; it is to dream of the numerous killings that Iverson witness or mourned as a young man growing up in Virginia; it is to dream of the very cultural and economic improvisations that necessity urges on African-American youth; improvisations that Stern simultaneously exploits in sanitized form and despises when asserted with a little too much independence.

We talked in class about how bad it must feel, if you are a feeling human being (which we all assumed Allen Iverson to be), and no matter how much money you are getting paid, to be told quite directly that only a part of you is welcome. Moreover, that parts of you that you find to be inextricably tied together — the courage of a warrior on the court and the life of an urban warrior off it — must be severed. We want only the warrior on the court, please leave the other guy out and when you won’t, we will airbrush him from our magazines (as happened to Iverson’s tattoos) and we will take away his clothes.

I think that Goya’s reason might dream of frightening, dark things in many senses. In the sense that when reason is dormant these nocturnal, irrational wildnesses can emerge to play; in the sense that these are the things that secretly threaten the domination of reason; and, finally, in the sense that the realized dream of reason for total domination would be terrifying.

It is as though Stern wanted the edge, the creativity, the intensity, the heroism that Iverson could give him, but he didn’t want to know where Iverson had gotten it, doesn’t want to know the suffering that has given rise to it and so aggressively represses any signs of it. And that is why I feel that Allen Iverson could be the poster boy for the neo-liberal global capitalist dreams of David Stern, which is to say: the poster-boy for what he desperately needs and equally desperately fears and despises.

Go back to read about the beauty of the Heat Knicks rivalry of the late 90s

or

forward to read about the ethics of fan culture

Day 17: Beautiful Monstrous

I know that over the past month I’ve fallen off the twice-weekly pace that I had set for this course diary in the first couple months of the term. Celebrity visits, travel commitments, the NCAA tournament all conspired to put other things at the top of the agenda. Now, we’re down to our last 4 classes of the semester and it’s tempting to throw in the towel. The stack of papers to grade isn’t getting any smaller. The commute isn’t getting any less tiring. And the end of the semester always seems to throw universities into spasms of urgently imperative bureaucratic activity. But the truth is the students’ work in Cultures of Basketball, both in writing and in class discussion, has never been stronger. And our intra-class tournament seems to have enhanced still further the already remarkable camaraderie in the classroom. So we are, as they say, peaking at the right time.

Over our past two class meetings we’ve had very lively and engaged, productive class discussions of the Heat-Knicks rivalry of the late 1990s and of Allen Iverson. I threw out some questions to get things going, but the students drove both of those excellent discussions not only with their responses to the questions but with their “off-track” comments as well. Today, I’m going to focus especially on the Heat-Knicks discussion (cause it’s fresher in my mind), and leave the Iverson discussion for the next post. But first an update on what has now come to be known as the First Annual Free Yago CoB JAMboreee.

Light Skin Jesus

The tournament has felt all along to me like a thrilling, fragile, and vaguely illicit possibility. Perhaps – it would be like me – it has felt fragile and vaguely illicit because it has been so thrilling. I’m pretty sure I’ve already written on here somewhere that I never played D1 basketball. The closest I ever came to that was when Bo Ryan – then an assistant at Wisconsin — told me at a summer camp when I was fourteen that “he’d be watching my development.” I guess he was disappointed, but no more so than I, that I didn’t grow more than a few millimeters beyond the 5-8 that I already was by that time.

You know the visual meme of the shoe box of hundreds of recruitment letters that appear in every film about the game? The one where an avalanche of envelopes – Duke University, The University of Kansas, UCLA, The University of Kentucky, etc. – cascade into rapidly growing pile on the coffee table of some high school phenom? Well, I had a shoe box too. I think there were about six letters in it, the highlight being Dartmouth College, but a more representative one being St. Mary’s (of Minnesota). Don’t get me wrong, they were good schools and I was absolutely thrilled to get the letters. Ultimately, money and a more sober assessment of my post-collegiate possibilities, led me to turn down the lavish offers of financial aid and the intimate, small college experience and I stayed home to attend Wisconsin.

But sometime last fall, I did Chris Milk’s Wilderness Downtown interactive film on Google Chrome, the one where you are invited to identify with an adolescent boy running the streets of an anonymous suburb at night only, magically, to arrive at your very home. The experience concludes with an invitation to write a postcard offering advice to the child who lived at that address. My eyes brimming with tears, I wrote “play college ball.” That very fact gives you a sense of how powerful are the youthful yearnings tapped by having some Division I college players ask me to play ball with them. It’s immature, I know, this fixation. But as my player-owner Jordan Dumars aka The Technician has said to me of growing up in the long shadow of a famous athlete father: “I embrace it!”

So it’s on! The teams are formed, the nicknames and numbers chosen, the jerseys ordered, the trash talk flowing (most recently 6-9 Evan Smotrycz aka Manatee warned me on Twitter: “don’t come into the lane Yago” — I laughed, and then felt a shudder of fear). The date — April 20th, 2011 8:30 to 11 pm – is set and the venue all but pinned down (note my cautious hedging against the terror that this will all still fall through). And I couldn’t be more thrilled.

I’ve had some injuries this year, most recently a broken hand that kept me off the court throughout February and March. But I have thrown myself into a training camp of my own devising – work outs, balling with my guys in St. Louis, purifying my stroke, and a training table regimen of Chipotle and La Pizza (best in St. Louis). I’m preparing psychologically. Probably the main weakness in my game – shockingly – is an overthinking born of a truly loathsome streak of insecurity and self-doubt that, when it grips me, becomes a self-fulfilling vortex. So at the moment, I’m doing the equivalent of Keanu rubbing his hands together as he stands atop a skyscraper in the “jump program”, reminding himself that “it’s all in my mind, it’s all in my mind,” before running, leaping, briefly believing, and then plummeting to city street below. You know he’s gonna fall the second he has to think about not falling. I better stop thinking and just play. Not so easy. But how ever short my performance falls of my ludicrous fantasy of proving at the age of 45 that I could’ve played D1 ball 27 years ago, I know I’ll have a blast and, more to the point of my actual life right now, I’ll have a great story to write about.

Beautiful Monstrous

Somewhere toward the tail end of that clip summing up the Knicks-Heat playoff rivalry from 1997-2000, Pat Riley – the sadistic, bad Daddy who engendered the two monsters and then set them at each other’s throats – says with an unsettling, calm bemusement: “It might not have been the most artistic, but from an effort standpoint, from a defensive standpoint, from a competitive standpoint, where you were not going to give your man anything, and he wasn’t going to give you anything, it was some of the best basketball that’s ever been played.” “Some of the best basketball that’s ever been played.” I latched on to that statement as a take-off point for class discussion because it clashed so starkly – while occupying the very same interpretive terrain – as “Rotten Island: Knicks-Heat, the Rivalry That Made Hate a Virtue,” Joey Litman’s elegantly written chapter on the rivalry in FreeDarko’s Undisputed History of Pro Basketball.

Litman both accurately recaps the rivalry and pinpoints the very real emotional forces and their causes that gave the series such intensity: Riley’s leaving New York to take the job in Miami and the match-up between defensive minded, ex-Georgetown centers Patrick Ewing (Knicks) and Alonzo Mourning (Heat). He then concludes with the following: “In the end, it never was about the basketball. What the Knicks and Heat played could hardly even be called that at times. Their rivalry, staged over ninety-four feet of hardwood, was nonetheless about strength and frailty, about the many costumes in which passion arrives. Humanity, sometimes beautiful, sometimes hideous, and oftentimes just passable, was truly on display. Not basketball. And such an honest depiction was a riveting counterweight in an era filled with the soaring victories and freakish sucessess of so many superheroes.”

What I think is at stake in this rivalry and in these two evaluations of it is the weight that beauty and morality, respectively, should be given in judging the quality or goodness of a particular manifestation of basketball. Riley, for his part, acknowledges that the rivalry fell short in the beautiful, but insists that moral virtue is a legitimate standard in its own right, a standard from which point of view the rivalry could be judged “some of the best basketball ever played.” Litman agrees that it was unbeautiful. He also agrees that the rivalry itself put forward a different set of criteria derived from the moral sphere. But he diverges from Riley by concluding, if I understand it correctly, that the absence of beauty made the rivalry not only not the best basketball ever played, as Riley claims, but not basketball at all (even though he accepts its fascination and value as a human drama).

This constellation of terms – beauty vs. morality and the quality and nature of basketball in relation to them – was the focus of our discussion. So I started off discussion by putting them on the board. On the left, at the top, I wrote “artistry” and below it I wrote “aesthetic beauty”. On the right, at the top, I wrote “effort, defense, competitiveness” and below that I wrote “moral virtue.” I drew a line between them, reaching about half way down the board. At the bottom of this line I wrote “(good/the best) basketball.” We didn’t, of course, resolve this unresolvable matter. But in the course of the discussion, the students generated a pretty complex matrix of associated ideas.

We talked about first how artistry is associated with offense and morality with defense. And we mused about the proper role of defense in the game. After all, we wondered, isn’t it a great defense that helps to make offensive artistry stand out (as Dave Hickey pointed out in his essay on Dr. J, Kareem, and the Heresey of zone Defense)? And, more concretely, wasn’t Riley’s contribution to the game in the 1990s partly about the willingness to offer – to borrow Litman’s phrase – a “counterweight” to the unbearable lightness of Jordan’s dominating Bulls’ dynasty? Aren’t these two linked inextricably in anything we’d call great basketball?

Why should great defense be typically, if not exclusively, associated with a set of moral virtues and great offense with a set of aesthetic virtues? Is there no such thing as defensive artistry? As offensive virtue? What do those combinations look like? Isn’t Bill Russell, to take just one example raised in class, a good example of defensive artistry, by which was meant beauty, grace, elegance in the service of defense (or vice versa)? And does it really make sense – of any kind – to exclude effort and competitiveness (the moral virtues) from the offensive games of, say, Reggie Miller or Ray Allen, Bird or Magic, or Jordan?

The students then noted, quite properly in my opinion, that in the history of basketball culture, the two categories of artistry and effort, aesthetics and morality, set against each other as such, seemed to carry significant racial baggage. Artistry, beauty, elegance, and style – along with their connotations of ease, naturalness, and effortlessness – have been racially overcoded as black. Meanwhile, moral virtue – effort, hard work, competitiveness, even or especially when manifested with what is seen as a plucky, independent-minded disregard for appearance, style, or looks – have been racialized as white.

Of course, the point of this was not and is not here that either Riley or Litman were stirring up this kind of racial coding. Nor do the racial codes apply in any meaningful way to the two teams in question. The point, rather, was the way in which the intensely racialized history of basketball attaches itself to practically any evaluation of the game, however removed it may seem and intend to be from matters of race. More specifically, thinking about it in this context helped us to understand, to some degree, how racial (or racist) dichotomies can force apart the complex greatness of the whole that is aesthetically beautifully, morally virtuous offensive and defensive basketball into a set of sterile dichotomies, in both thought and in the sport itself.

As a bonus, the students also took the discussion in the direction of class, where they noted associations of the moral virtues cited by Riley with the working class, the blue collar ethic. At this point, my overly schematic chalkboard visualization, led them understandably to characterize the aesthetic as white collar. From a certain point of view, I could see it, but I was at the moment in the grip of thinking about class in slightly – possibly ahistorical – terms. I was thinking about the historic, ideological association of effortless beauty and ease with the old European nobility, for whom the mark of status was not to have to work, not to have to try, not to have to compete and this status was transformed culturally into a quasi-proprietary standard of beauty. While the aristocracy as a socio-economic category may not be particularly relevant today, many of the terms that basketball culture uses to describe its greatest moments derive quite directly from aristocratic culture: grace, elegance, ease, even nobility.

I just have to say that this was an awesomely rewarding moment for me as a teacher. I’ve had a fantastic time teaching this class, and we certainly have had some entertaining and interesting discussions. But in this particular one (and in the one about Iverson that I’ll talk about in my next post) I felt that the students had, suddenly it seemed to me, put it all together. Players, non-players, pretty much everyone was contributing a close eye for the happenings on the court with a willingness to think in broader terms about what and how those happenings on the court signify culturally and socially.

Anyway, we were now presented with a kind of puzzle. On the right hand side, we had morality: “effort,” “hard work,” “competitiveness,” “grittiness” “white,” and “blue collar” (and a few other terms). On the left hand side, we had “aesthetic beauty,” “artistry” “ease” “black,” “white collar” and “aristocracy.” Right. Right there, black aristocracy? I’m no historian, but I’m pretty sure that’s a fairly sparsely populated set, at least in the European context.

It was as though, all of a sudden, our very discussion had eradicated African-Americans from the game – a troubling result to say the least. If anything, speaking in sociological generalities, “Black” should have gone with the working class category. But “Black” isn’t “allowed” there because “whiteness” has appropriated the moral virtues of the working class while assigning the attributes associated with “Black” game to a sociological-cultural category – aristocracy or nobility – that a) has never been significant in this country and b) real African-Americans haven’t for obvious reasons belonged to. As a student pointed out, whatever the gains of the civil rights movement, the problem isn’t solved by associating the left hand side with a white collar ownership, executive or managerial, or professional class from which African-Americans are still disproportionately absent.

I think that impasse says something more than just that we were thinking poorly in class. At least I hope so. And anyway, I think, if we were thinking poorly, at least we were groping along with critical self-awareness and that’s a pretty decent start. But leaving that aside, does our “puzzle” mean that the culture and analysis of class has no place in a discussion of basketball culture? Does it not map? Does it mean that there’s something about this very way of talking about the game that somehow expresses the secret desire of a certain segment of the white fan base to do away with the “Black” game entirely? Would we have been better off just sticking to pointing out the truism that great basketball involves both great offense and great defense and that both of these both involve aesthetic qualities like beauty, grace, and elegance and moral qualities like hard work, effort, intensity, and competitiveness? That would have made for a short class.

If you read my review of Leonard Koppett’s The Essence of the Game is Deception or my paper on Manu Ginobili, then you know I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between deception, artfulness, and art and, with a boost from Chris Flink (who also publishes as Fat Contradiction and Chris Collision), the connection between these two and what Marx called the lumpenproletariat and more contemporary sociologists refer to as the underclass. This is the class of individuals for which capitalism has no use: excluded by birth from the aristocracy, barred from ownership of the means of production, they also can’t or won’t be absorbed into the industrial working class.

Thus ejected, they devise any number of strategies and informal economies by which to survive and to survive, even, with a sense of autonomy (while the system that pushes them toward these strategies also criminalizes them). While Marx characterized the class, broadly speaking, in pejorative terms as shifty and politically unreliable, I was interested in recuperating the very qualities of deceptiveness and street smarts in order to relate it to basketball. It’s also the case that this class happens in the United States to be disproportionately populated by African Americans.

I quickly explained this and then wrote “lumpenproletariat” up in between our two columns, where I’d already written “(good/best) basketball” (to reference how the categories of beauty and morality can converge and conflict in an assessment of the quality and nature of the game). I meant to suggest that perhaps this category lay at the heart of basketball and that despite or because of this it somehow scrambled and complicated all the analysis we’d done so far. But our time was up and we didn’t get a chance to pursue it further.

I didn’t in class, and I don’t want here to pretend that this somewhat thin thread of associations forms the key to understanding the (especially unconscious) work that race and class do in basketball culture. Or even, conversely, that it can provide a way to get from basketball cultural manifestations – like the Knicks Heat rivalry – to any major original insights about race and class in the United States. That’s all too big for one person, at least if the person is me, at least right now.

I brought it up in class on the spur of the moment, they way you might make an unusual move on the court – one you haven’t practiced or calculated, but that is born of the exchanges and flows that have occurred in the immediacy of the game and that you haven’t yet cognitive or self-consciously processed. In the moment, that move might or might not have the desired effect. You might not remember it later and so it might just fade back into some kind of oblivion, a primordial soup creative possibilities from which, under the right circumstances, it might emerge again.

Or, as sometimes also happens, you (or someone else) might remember it and think about what purpose it was supposed to serve. You might then practice it and make it second nature and, faced with similar circumstances, execute it again. It might in that way become part of your repertoire, even part of the repertoire of the game.

That’s all that was. In this case, I think the move works well to talk about Manu. I’m not so sure yet what purpose it serves in our discussion of the Knicks and the Heat. There are still a lot of vexing questions that the rivalry and its crystallization in our collective basketball memory as a moment of emotional, effort-full ugliness raise for me. Most apparently, I’m still not sure how to interpret the racial and class undertones of that crystallization. I’m not sure what I think defense contributes to the game of basketball, especially physical defense. Heck, I’m not sure how I even feel about it, which might be part of why I have a hard time thinking clearly about it.

I only know that I feel uncomfortable with – even as I’m drawn to – dichotomous thinking: beauty vs. morality, mind vs. body, black vs. white. That, and that I’m drawn even more strongly to the terms and experiences that dichotomous thinking can’t process. These might be third alternatives, middle grounds, or hybrids. They might be paradoxes, contradictions, or outliers entirely. Or monsters, which, etymologically speaking, stand as warnings. In this case, perhaps, as a warning that we are encountering something that we don’t yet know how to think about, that will challenge our received categories of understanding, that might make us feel confused and say things that seem stupid.

In my own experience as a teacher, thinker, writer, and, well, person, even as I’m attracted to these monsters, I can also feel an impulse (born of fear of the unknown, I think) to clip away their edges and fold them neatly back into the envelope of my received categories. But it can also be thrilling to explore the confusion they can engender and, when possible, to see what sort of new and hitherto unknown capacities they can provoke us to develop and to exercise. Maybe the Knicks Heat rivalary – for at least one way of thinking about the game and its philosophical, racial, and class implications – is that sort of beautiful monster.

Go forward to read about Allen Iverson and the nightmares of David Stern

go backward to read about the developing discussions of our class tournament

or

go sideways to read my take on the racial and geo-politics of Manu Ginobili’s deceptive game

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