Category Archives: Teaching

Teaching Values: Coaching the Right Way

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.

The Triangle Myth

In thinking about basketball culture, I’ve found it useful to think about certain recurrent themes, images, metaphors and topics of discussion as myths.  I don’t mean “myths” in the sense of falsehoods. Instead, I mean myth in the definition given by scholar Robert Segal as a story that conveys a belief that, whether it is true or false, is tenaciously held by its adherents.  Another scholar once referred to myths as “cultural dreams.” If you accept that dreams can shed light on our deeper feelings and attitudes, wishes and fears, then it can be useful to explore the shame of these cultural dreams called myths, for they can help us to better understand the things we feel collectively as a culture but perhaps are not in touch with enough to articulate directly.  Better understanding these things, in turn, can help empower us to change those things that we discover may need changing, just as better understanding our individual fears and wishes can lead us to improve our lives.

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The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Francisco Goya)

Nicholas Dawidoff published an elegantly produced, honest and informative inquiry into the Triangle in yesterday’s New York Times. The piece inspired this post and I’ll be using examples from it to illustrate just what I’m talking about. Discussion of the Triangle doesn’t always take on the form of a story, thought it almost always includes stories (such as the story of Tex Winter, who originally devised it, or the story of Phil Jackson’s implementation of it when he was coaching the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan to multiple championships). But, regardless of the prominence of narrative in discussions of the Triangle, I think it’s still useful to probe them for those tenaciously held beliefs; useful, in other words, to speak of something we might call “The Triangle Myth.”

So what are the defining element of the Triangle Myth? In no particular order, the Triangle Myth consistently affirms several beliefs: 1) the complexity of the Triangle; 2) a strong association of the Triangle with the success of Jackson-coached teams in Chicago and Los Angeles; 3) the beauty of the Triangle; and 4) the qualities, especially moral qualities, required of players in order to run the Triangle effectively.

All these elements are visible in Dawidoff’s article. Indeed, the complexity of the offense appears as one of his motivations in writing the story.  He writes,

The system is basketball’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, renowned for being highbrow and difficult to understand. Yet trying to get through an abstruse book about the essence of cognition is one thing; that basketball could be over our heads is somehow harder to take.

and

I found the idea of Triangle particularly intriguing. An offensive system that had won all those championships in full public view yet remained off-limits to others — that seemed provocative, a sports riddle.

This leads him to embark upon a quest he describes (albeit ironically) in a quasi-mythological terms:

Was Triangle the golden basketball mean? Was it a mirage? Mine would be a quest of sorts, deep into the heart of Winter.

In the course of this quest, he interviews a number of college and professional coaches and players.  The result is a veritable compendium of variations on the Triangle Myth.  So, we hear former player and current analyst Jay Williams testifying to its complexity:

You hand me a piece of paper and say, ‘Jay, define the triangle for me,’ it’s kind of like a kid with Magic Markers drawing a cartoon. It’s all over the page. So many series of actions, I get lost trying to explain it.

The whole article revolves around the enormous success Jackson enjoyed using the Triangle, the challenges he has faced in implementing in New York, and the vicissitudes of other coaches and players efforts to work with the offense.  We find, moreover, none other than Kobe Bryant extolling the its beauty:

We were successful because we played in such a beautiful system.

Meanwhile, Stanford University women’s coach Tara VanDerveer compared it to improvisational jazz:

“The ball movement is beautiful!” she said, sounding the way people do when they are discussing the source of deep significance in their lives.

Meanwhile, both Jackson and his acolyte, Steve Kerr (first year coach of this seasons NBA champion Golden State Warriors) lament the difficulty of finding players with the requisite qualities for understanding, accepting and implementing the Triangle.  Thus, Jackson, speaking of his challenges as President of the Knicks:

Identifying players who can be good at it is our chore.

And Kerr elaborates the complaint:

Players grow up with the pick-and-roll, so they don’t naturally play without the ball. So many one-and-done guys are incredibly gifted,but they’re not seasoned fundamentally. In Triangle, they’d be completely lost.

Ultimately, in addition to fundamental skills and intelligence, players are required to possess the moral qualities of unselfishness, self-discipline, and trust.  They must be willing, first of all, to place the team’s interests over their own individual interests or rather more precisely: they must identify their individual interests with the team’s interests.  But also, they must be willing to trust their teammates to do the same and, moreover, the offense to produce positive outcomes for the collective.

Former Bulls’ player Horace Grant brings all the elements together:

You need intelligence to run Triangle. We have great one-on-one athletes out there in the N.B.A., but to be as one, you need to know your role in Triangle. It was a smooth operating machine. Baryshnikov in action! Picasso painting! A beautiful thing!

What Bethlehem Shoals once called the “NBA bildungsroman” of Michael Jordan laboring selfishly and Punishment_sisyphunsucessfully year after year in a Sisyphian task of rolling the Chicago Bulls up the hill of the NBA playoffs only to fall back down again before coming under the firm but benign and quasi-mystical guidance of Phil Jackson and the Triangle serves as the exemplary moral tale here, which Dawidoff dutifully recounts, in the form of a quotation from then-Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause:

Michael’s smart as hell. It took him a few months, but then he realized what he could do in Triangle. He went back to Carolina, and all he did all summer was work on post stuff. For the next eight or 10 years, he scored more points in the post than most centers did.

So all the elements are here: the Triangle is a bafflingly complex system, associated with some of the most unparalleled team successes in basketball history, but its complexity, together with the individual skills and moral traits required to implement it are beyond the reach of most of today’s players. So having reviewed these examples of the constitutive elements of the Triangle Myth, let me look a little more critically and deeply.

The first thing to note is the logic whereby an offensive system (or “rubric” as Dawidoff nicely terms it) that has been successfully implemented in specific circumstances is viewed as a kind of tactical, moral, and aesthetic ideal to which coaches and teams should aspire.  This is important because it only through this elevation of the contingent into the necessary that it makes any sense for coaches to complain that they don’t have the right circumstances (read: “players”) in which to implement the Triangle.  The tacit idea here is that running the Triangle is the best of all possible basketball worlds, the Eden every coach and team would blissfully inhabit if only those players—unschooled in the fundamentals, lacking the intelligence, or unwilling to sacrifice their own interests for the good of the team—weren’t mucking it up.

The Triangle may well have been enormously successful, perhaps more successful than any offensive system in basketball history, and many may consider the patterns of ball and body movement it generates to be beautiful.  It may even exemplify certain moral traits reasonable people would consider desirable such as unselfishness, self-discipline, and trust.  I don’t have any problem with assenting to any of this.  My problem comes when in idealizing the Triangle through the Triangle Myth it becomes yet another bludgeon with which to hammer players (past and especially present) for what they appear—through the lens of this myth—to lack.

The deficiencies of today’s players seem to me to be enumerated so frequently that I fear people will come to really believe that NBA players lack fundamental skills, or intelligence, or moral qualities like unselfishness, self-discipline, or trust.  When the list of deficiencies is harnessed to the cart of a powerfully compelling story like the Triangle Myth, I think such distortions become all the more likely to be accepted as truths.

Anybody’s who has been reading me ever, but especially lately, probably knows that this is the moment to remind you that most NBA players are black and most NBA coaches are white and that it’s troubling to me to see basketball culture repeat, as though in a social vacuum, any number of criticisms of black men that have been a staple of racist discourse in this country for centuries.  That Michael Jordan (who is obviously black) is trotted out as a counter-example is itself another staple of such discourse: the exhibition of an African-American who through determination and individual virtue manages to hoist himself above his culture and so as to fulfill the expectations of the dominant, white culture.

Instead of this, we might remove the distorting lenses furnished by myths like that of the Triangle.  In doing so, we might appreciate that in every NBA game we witness dazzling exhibitions of fundamental skills honed through long hours of solitary practice, of moral virtue cultivated in, often times, the least nourishing of soils, and of a kind of embodied intelligence that—because we fall prey to the longstanding assumption that minds and bodies are two separate facets of the human being and that the mind is the sole residence of intelligence—we’re likely to overlook because it is not expressed in the forms—such as speech—we expect.

As a teacher (a kind of coach if you will) I try—when I am at what I think of as my best, which is certainly not always—to approach my classes as though the students already possess the basic skills and dispositions required to make the course a success.  I assume they are all intelligent, curious, and open to learn from and teach one another.  But I recognize that intelligence, curiosity and openness take different forms.  And I spend a fair amount of time over the first few weeks of each semester getting to know the specific individual and collective gifts a given group of students will be bringing to the table.  Only then, having established that I respect and value them, have I earned in turn th respect that allows them to accept and meet the challenges I offer them to go further and to stretch themselves.

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