Category Archives: Metaphor

Our Myth of Creation

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This is the text of a presentation I gave this past weekend at the American Comparative Literature Association annual conference at New York University.  It’s also an abbreviated version of Chapter One of my book manuscript.  I know it’s a scholarly work, and long for a blog post, but I trust the intelligence, curiosity, and attention span of my readers.  Feedback welcome as always!

From its beginnings in 1891 and over the course of basketball’s subsequent history, changes in society and in the sport have sparked sometimes contentious discussion over the putative essential nature of basketball as well as over the techniques and tactics that ostensibly best convey that nature. Investigating these discussions, I have identified clusters of recurrent stories, metaphors, and images, arising around key events and personalities. I call these clusters “myths” not to suggest that they are untrue, but rather to emphasize my interest in their narrative character and cultural function. These myths give narrative shape to a collective struggle with changes—particularly related to race—taking place in basketball and in society. In general, they fabricate an idealized, timeless essence of the game and project it onto a succession of moments, individual players, coaches, and teams or conversely, fantasize that a contrasting succession poses a destructive threat to that essence.  Sometimes, the same myth simultaneously hails an embodiment of basketball’s essence and decries an imagined threat to that essence.

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Colin Kaepernick, Tattoos, and the Holiness of Us All

The easy thing to say in response to David Whitley’s melancholic lamentation on NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos is: “I’m sorry, it is a white thing.”

“It’s not a white thing, I hope” Whitley meekly protests. I don’t know David Whitley. I’ve never read him before. I don’t watch or write about pro football. I didn’t even know who Colin Kaepernick was before stumbling across this article. Maybe Whitley is sincere in his hope. Probably he is. And probably sincere also in his belief that Cam Newton (who is African-American and a QB) not having tattoos makes it not a white thing, or that Ben Roethligsberger (who is Caucasian and a QB) having one (along with numerous legal run-ins stemming from allegations of rape) also makes it not a white thing. Whitley may sincerely believe that his problem with tattoos is just a criminal vs non-criminal thing, and that that’s “not a white thing”…he hopes.

I’m a teacher, and if Whitley were my student I would certainly, and compassionately, help him to see how it is a white thing (among other things). But he’s not my student. He’s a professional writer whose work influences a hell of a lot more people than my own. So I don’t have the patience to gently tease out the problems in the tangle of racializing implication (not to mention willful ignorance of reality) that runs through Whitley’s elegy for the Untattooed Quarterback.

So instead I’ll respond to another distinction that I found offensive, but that I imagine most readers will not. Read more

Day 15: Exquisite Corpse

This also appeared earlier today on the FreeDarko website. But I’m keeping it here for the sake of consistency and for those few readers of mine who come here first

I’m tense. Whenever something good happens (like being asked to play last week), I’m immediately afraid it of it breaking. So I’m tense. Not only is Shoals about to come to Michigan to visit class and give his talk, but the Big Ten Tournament was to begin on Thursday and, while my students weren’t actually scheduled to play until Friday, I’d already received the form e-mail informing that they’d be traveling to Indianapolis for the tournament on Thursday. Still I gripped tightly to the vain hope that they’d be there on Thursday. After all, we had so much to talk about: our intra-class game had evolved in my mind into an intra-class World Cup style 8 team two round tournament complete with jerseys, nicknames, team names and logos and a ping pong ball lottery to round out the eight teams (each of which would be headed by a UM player).

Alas, as I walked into the room, my heart sank: no players. The e-mail had spoken truth. There were more important things in their lives than this class and the class tournament … more important things than me. It’s weird to me, but I guess I can understand it. And anyway, my heart didn’t sink too far, because the flipside of the players being gone is that there’s more room in our classroom and it’s easier to keep the discussion focused and, particularly, to keep it on the text. I’m sure it’s partly just that the lower numbers are easier for me to handle. Partly also that I am more properly teacherly when I’m faced with students who do not simultaneously embody a fantasy I once harbored for myself decades ago. But also, though I hate to say it, it is because those players giggle and whisper to each other like 6th grade schoolgirls at recess. What’s up with that?

Still, even without the players, it took us a while to settle down. We had to discuss their chances in the Big Ten Tourney, plus the various projections about where they might be seeded in the NCAA tournament. Then, of course, we had to talk about our tournament – lots of announcements there. And then finally, we had to discuss Bethlehem Shoals upcoming visit to our classroom and his public lecture at Michigan. Then, Oh God! they actually proposed that we should hold our St. Patrick’s Day class meeting, which in all likelihood would also be Michigan’s first day in the NCAA tournament at a bar with beer, or, in class with beer where, it was proposed, we could watch tournament games via the projector in the classroom. I’m thinking that this class has gotten away from me. I’m thinking that I never had this class in the first place. I’m realizing that I have gotten away from me.

As usual, I regain a grip on myself by ruthlessly repressing them. “Settle down,” I intone, repeating the phrase as if they were preschoolers, “settle down now.” I feel like a phlebotomist jabbing at an elusive vein. Except I’m trying to jab at that button that I thought a repressive educational system would have installed in these students long ago: you know, the one that infantilizes them, makes them afraid of authority and humiliation and incapable of thinking for themselves.

“Go to your cubbies, take out your mats, It’s time to have a short nap. After that we’ll have snack and then we’ll watch clips of the young Michael Jordan to go along with Shoals’ chapter on the subject.” I know they’re not the only ones who are excited. In fact, they didn’t even start it today. Well, maybe they did. The truth is I don’t remember. I just know that we’ve burned a good twenty minutes on fun, happy-go-lucky, laissez-faire bullshit and it feels like what the announcers call a “turning point”. I need to get a stop right here. I do, they settle in to watch the video, but I think it’s less out of fear, or even respect, and more just out of a kind of bored indulgence in my fantasy that this is actually a university classroom and not an annex of Good Time Charley’s that just happens to be located on campus.

We watch the 4:35 seconds of NBA sponsored, pre 1990 MJ highlights. I feel like I’m at a Fireworks show. Darkness, silence, expectation, restlessness – each in his or her own private world from which we emerge periodically, briefly, to exchange a collective “ooh.” It is, it strikes me, as though we are staging a skit about the birth of language and society. Or perhaps it is more than that because we haven’t rehearsed or planned this ahead of time and we are surprisingly unselfconscious. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in these sporadic, exchanged exhalations we are spontaneously living a moment like the ones from which language first emerged.

The lights come on and as always they break the spell. But somehow it seems gentler this time around. Maybe because even though the darkness has been dispelled, the silence pervades. I take a second to unhook cords, let the big screen roll back up, turn off equipment. Then I ask them what they saw besides elevation. Here is what they said:

1.Lots of run outs

2.Lots of isos

3 Few passes

4.Few jumpers

5.Everything at the rim

6.How adept he is at using his large hands and his body control to protect the ball in order to get a clean shot off in traffic.

All of these were accurate observations. In fact, I counted. The clip showed 24 different made baskets. Those 24 baskets came on 2 jump shots, 8 variations on the lay up, and 14 dunks. Tactically speaking, 11 of the 24 baskets came on fast break run outs, 9 came on half court isolation sets, and 2 came on give and go’s in the half court. And I myself had felt moved to write, when I was first watching the clip myself, that the way Jordan uses his body in mid air it is almost as though he is setting moving picks for himself.

Now, there are several students in the class from Chicago whose first basketball memories – as mine are of Clyde, Big O, and the early 70s Bucks – are of Jordan of the second three-peat era from 1996-1998. We call them Jordan babies. By no means were they the only ones to participate in the discussion but they were, I would say, perhaps, the most invested. For these students, this young Jordan really stood out. Don’t get me wrong: these are knowledgeable Bulls fans and they’ve seen this younger Jordan on video before. All the more reason why, perhaps, they were so clear and emphatic on the difference between this Jordan and the one of their early childhoods.

Which brought us perfectly to the FD chapter, written by Bethlehem Shoals, on “The Invention of Air: The Brash, Brilliant Doodles of Young Jordan.” The first comment a student made was that it seemed to him that Shoals was almost trying to “villainize” Young MJ. I felt the student was perhaps himself uncertain about his word choice, but I knew what he was getting at: that: Shoals’ chapter seems to be trying to keep alive for memory a rougher-around-the-edges, more confrontational Jordan, on and off the floor, than the one that these students grew up idolizing.

I had worried there would be resistance to this in class and this first comment put me a bit on my guard. I meant to ask him: “Why might this be so? What is the value of this move? Why does Shoals devote two chapters to Jordan, the young brash Jordan and the six title winning Jordan?” But instead, I immediately defended the choice. I pointed out that within the ethical universe of FreeDarko, a Jordan who isn’t always an obedient and polished corporate spokesman is less a villain than a hero, or perhaps best of all “an anti-hero” (which was cool, because that after all is the topic of Shoals upcoming lecture). He’s the one shaking up the comfortable, and their comfortable narratives. So I kind of spilled the beans.

But the students weren’t resistant to the idea anyway. On the contrary they seemed into it. They unanimously agreed that it was a good idea to split Jordan up into two Jordans. And they seemed intrigued by the characterization of the young Jordan; maybe the way some teenagers are intrigued by stories of the time their parents first got drunk, or smoked weed. I told them some stories about the Bad Boys and the rivalry between Isiah and Michael, which seemed to interest them more than any other stories I’ve ever shared with them.

Toward the end of class we got the point in the text that most fascinates me (and, I was pleased, fascinated them as well). But we didn’t get as much time on it as I wanted, so I want to do a bit more thinking about it here. Speaking of the transition, where Jordan began to give up the dunk for the jump shot, Shoals writes: “The dunk takes an instant and an eternity; it’s both completely frivolous and totally domineering, a flash of light so blinding and brief that it might as well have never happened. A shot was the stuff of narrative; it was itself a story with a built-in arc, climax, and resolution. It also served as the perfect punctuation to any possession, game, season, or career.”

The first thing the students and I both thought about this was that it was a stroke of hoops culture genius to yoke together two kinds of shot – dunk and jumper – with two forms of expression: the exclamation, let us say, and the narrative. Within the overall argument of the chapter, Shoals point is that Michael made a choice to alter his game, and his image, not only to win titles but to become the stuff of official NBA history.

It is to say that Michael’s transition from the high-flying solo dunker that we watched in class – all run-outs and isos – to the Triangle-playing, Phil-obeying, jump shooting team player that won 6 titles in 8 years was not only effective on the court in making his team more successful and not only more effective, thereby, in cementing his place as the consensus Greatest of All Time. It was also effective as a – admittedly probably unintentional — poetic tactic whereby he made his game more amenable to narrative; narrative, which, after all is essential to the circulation of legend and its transmutation into the concrete forms of Official History.

I think about the fireworks. I think about the “oohs” and “aahs” in class. And I see perfectly what Shoals is saying. There’s no way to build a history out of those exclamations. They are, as I had felt in class, little more than a baby’s first words. Significant as such, but with little staying power, like leftover pieces of a puzzle we have lost; or the screws leftover after assembling some piece of furniture.

In this case, as Shoals already pointed out earlier in the chapter the Story of Michael’s Greatness borrows a specific narrative trajectory, well known to lit crit types like me: the bildungsroman, or novel of formation. In that novelistic form, the protagonist, usually a talented and energetic, but raw, provincial comes to the big city, to the center of culture in his universe. There, little by little, he is formed, shaped at once by his own ambition to be recognized by that culture and by the demands that culture makes of those who would be recognized by it. In the end, the individual accepts the prevailing ethos of the culture in exchange for recognition by it and that ethos is thereby affirmed.

According to Shoals, Michael, the brutally talented individual, eventually works hard, learns (from the Master Phil Jackson no less) how “less is more” (see the graphic in the chapter that shows how the Bulls win totals rise each year as Jordan’s scoring average drops), subordinates himself for the team and, in the end, wins titles and the eternal admiration of all.

As Obi Wan says to Darth Vader, “If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Something like that is the deal the young Jordan strikes with the old Jordan. If you agree not to score 37 points per game for your whole career (which is an abomination to the game), then you can win titles with obscene ease, drain a few legendary game winning jumpers, and we will never, ever forget you. Young Michael lowers his light sabre, folds his hands across his chest, and is launched into hoops immortality.

I’m totally down with all this and think it does a brilliant job of rescuing some promising castoffs from the side of the road of history. I’m reminded of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s recognition that there is “no document of civilization that is not also a document of barbarism.” He meant that all that we remember, all that we celebrate as triumph is simultaneously a defeat for someone else, a record of something or someone having been crushed and tossed to the side. Accordingly, he recommended a way of thinking about history whereby those fragments might be gathered up. They might not ever form a standard narrative, but they could, with care, be held together, and presented as a kind of alternative to that standard narrative and a reminder that what took place was neither inevitable, nor one sided, nor without some struggle and violence.

Shoals here has presented the fragments left behind, the McDonald’s wrappers that Jordan and the NBA and hoops culture as a whole threw out the window as they tore town the Interstate at breakneck speed toward individual immortality and league global domination. It reminds me of the difference between Old Elvis and Young Elvis, between Old Marx and Young Marx and makes me think that Jordan, thanks to Shoals, gets like so few others to have it both ways: to have died young and so become immortal, and to have lived out and fulfilled his promise in the established world and so to have that immortality narrativized. Jordan is James Dean and Laurence Olivier; Maurice Stokes and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Maybe that is what it is to be the Greatest of All Time: to dunk and shoot the jumper. And I can’t really improve on that version of the story.

But I’d like to extend it with some wondering. I’m thinking of the dunk as the monosyllabic exclamation. And I’m thinking of the smooth, inevitable jump shot as the narrative of ineluctable triumphant conformity. But then I’m thinking of the video we watched. 14 dunks, 2 jump shots. But there were 8 other shots that were neither dunks nor jump shots. What is their discursive equivalent?

They were Jordan taking off somewhere within the general vicinity of the basket, leaving behind some earthbound defenders, encountering other, rising, obstacles in mid flight, fragments of bodies – arms, and hands – floating into his space, and Michael’s response: the body beginning to turn away from the basket and the defender, or, the knees drawing up toward the abdomen and the ball extending in one hand, he may begin to float beneath the basket; in either case, Michael designs and creates a physical space that he occupies alone, as he designs and creates it, in order to get the clear shot. Really, it is a space just for his left or right hand and the ball since that is all he needed to have cleared.

These plays, which are what I most remember of Jordan’s career, seem to me to carry the power of narrative unfolding, like a jumper, but without the foregone, prewritten character of that more predictable and repeatable shot. If these are part of what Shoals means by the “brash, brilliant doodles” of the chapter’s title, they might also be seen, in poetic terms, as Surrealist exquisite corpse prose exercises in which the story begin by one individual is continued by another and finished by yet another and nobody really knows how it will end until it has ended and then, and only then, will it have looked inevitable.

And that makes me realize that, whatever their differences, both the early Jordan dunk and the late Jordan jump shot share a sense of inevitability. But before one of the myriad variations on a layup that he improvised bounces around and drops in, before Michael lands in a cat like, thief like crouch, surrounded by defenders shaking their heads befuddled, before space once again becomes one, and grounded, and shared by us all – before all that, there is the dilated moment of extended exclamation, and wonder, and invested uncertainty: we don’t know how it will end, but it doesn’t matter, because we already care, it is already amazing, just as it is, a perfect slice of pure invention in process.

go backward to see our discussion of Magic and Bird

or

forward to follow us into the insanity of our class tournament planning

Day 14: The Serpent’s Tale

This also appeared earlier today on the FreeDarko website. But I’m keeping it here for the sake of consistency and for those few readers of mine who come here first

This is a hallowed day. They asked me to play. They actually asked me to play. Okay, well it wasn’t exactly that they asked me to play, but pretty much. Walking across campus to class from my previous class, the fantasy image flashed into the slide projector of my mind: an intra-class pickup game. The still image sprang into motion: all of us going up and down the court at Crisler Arena. I tried to push it aside, tried to stop it. No way I’m going to propose this in class and have the players break into uncontrollable sneering laughter. But then, I walk into class and I’ve barely put my stuff down on the desk when one of the players, having very courteously asked me how my broken hand was doing, said, “We should have a class game.” Moments later, another player walked into class and said the same thing.

I feel I shall burst with joy and excitement. If God himself, donning sweats, had parted the gray Ann Arbor skies, and entered the class on a Golden Litter, born by Clyde, the Hawk, Dr. J, and Wilt, and said, “you know what, that tree of knowledge thing, I was j/k!”, I could have been no happier. A weight of decades has been lifted from my shoulders. It was an auspicious way to begin the home stretch of Cultures of Basketball, after a two week hiatus, and leading in to the much-anticipated visit of none other than Bethlehem Shoals himself to our Ivory Tower next week.

We all began to babble excitedly about the match-up. “Players against the rest of us!” someone shouted. Oh no, I thought to myself, I didn’t wait nearly thirty years to play Division I ball in order to get clowned by a bunch of college kids. If you wanna go players and teacher against the rest of the class, I’m down, but otherwise we’re splitting the players up. Buoyed by my sudden surge of popularity among the players, and the riotous atmosphere of the room, I took a wild risk. I explained that I’d just been thinking the same thing on the way over to class and added, “But in my fantasy of this game, we’re playing at Crisler. So I want to give the players a special group assignment: make that happen.” I’m thinking that’s an impossibility, but that just saying it will curry even more favor. But lo, another player speaks up and says he thinks that shouldn’t be a problem. What! Verily, yea, I will tread the same hardwood as my forefathers CWebb and Jalen, and their forefather, Cazzie, did before them.

An evening of feverish tweeting and e-mailing ensued in which yet another player and I worked out the details of 1) a class lottery, presided over by David Stern, in which the eight players would draw names to round out the rosters for each of their teams and 2) the field of eight three-player teams would be seeded and compete in an April-Madness extravaganza culminating in the crowning of the first ever Cultures of Basketball national champion. My fiancée then tops it all off by suggesting we have the game on a weekend so that she can come up from St. Louis to witness, testify, and oversee the national media hordes that will certainly converge on Ann Arbor for the Blessed Event. So y’all can just get in touch with her about securing your media passes. I’m pretty sure that Ernie and the TNT gang already have their hotel reservations, Dicky V. called to make sure he wouldn’t be excluded, and the Goodyear Blimp, flown by Captain Jon Conrad and crew, has already secured airspace.

Talking to a student later during office hours, he shook his head with dread: “Maybe the players just wanted to play us so they could destroy us.” “Who cares?,” I said to him, “I just wanna play. It’s like when you’re little,” I explained, “you just want your big brother to play with you, you don’t care that he’s gonna beat your ass. It’s just about the attention.” My student smiled and said, “I was the big brother.” Well, okay, but you get the idea. I know I’ll actually be shitting myself on the day of the game, and I’ll probably dribble off my foot, shoot a couple of air balls, and – horror of horrors – be single-handedly responsible for decimating the ranks of next year’s Michigan basketball team by somehow injuring each and every one of the eight players through some clumsy display of aged overreaching. But really, who cares? It’s the sort of moment when it all comes together and several lifetimes’ worth of minor slights and trivial but embittering disappointments are swept away by a deluge that leaves your soul as brand spanking new and clean and naked as Adam and Eve in the Garden.

Speaking of paradise, today’s class was devoted to the section of FreeDarko’s history on Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the first segment of Chapter 4: “The Gold Standard: 1980-1990.” But before we got to Magic and Larry Legend, and after we’d settled down, we had one more bit of topical business to address: the controversy over the Heat “allegedly” crying in the locker room after their 1 point loss to the Bulls the other day, at the time their fourth straight loss. I asked them what they thought and they told me, but then I realized that I didn’t so much want to know what they thought as tell them what I thought they should think, or at least what I thought they should bear in mind as they formed their own judgments of the event.

So we briefly discussed the possible meanings of tears and of emotions in general, the role that emotion plays in sport and in human life more generally, and the way that culture and upbringing, especially as coded by gender, shape the way we judge – and that we feel entitled to judge – public displays of emotion by other human beings.

One of the more interesting points was raised by a student, who pointed out that the gender double-standard also works against female athletes who show anger or swag in the course of competition. In both cases, culturally set parameters of appropriately “masculine” or “feminine” relationships to particular expressions of emotion wind up underwriting thoughtless critical judgments of particular athletes for crossing the boundaries of emotional expression.

It’s sad, really, that young men and women, athletes or not, should be subject to such constraints. And sadder, still, perhaps, that other young men and women should participate in limiting the scope of what it is possible to be and to feel and to show you feel as a young man or young woman. Nothing was resolved, of course, but I think that students by the end of our little conversation were equipped to do more than just accept the terms of the discussion as provided by ESPN or the guy next to them at Buffalo Wild Wings.

Having completed my pontification on the topic of emotion, gender, and athletics, we rode the FD time machine back to Bliss, the Gold Standard, the Paradise of the NBA in the 1980s. The religious, specifically Edenic, lexicon that I’ve been trying to weave into this post is neither accidental, nor really of my own invention. The illustration that fronts the Magic Bird chapter shows the two players, in iconic poses, emerging from a garden lush with sunflowers, ferns, daffodils and tropical foliage.

An unpaid student query about the significance of the image gave me the opportunity to say a few words about the myth of Eden and the kind of cultural work it can do in Judeo-Christian societies. I don’t want to go biblical on your ass, or be too dweebishly unsubtle about it (especially, in view of the compact subtlety of Jacob Weinstein’s visual argument), but it’s worth acknowledging, at least, the force and pervasiveness of that myth in the way that we lace often overly simplistic judgements of good and evil into narratives of memory and history. It’s not that Eden is always invoked explicitly, but rather that it doesn’t have to be because by now it is almost second nature (a distinctly un-Edenic concept, or maybe it is Edenic). Everytime you hear someone talk about the good old days, nostalgia, you know the routine, once upon a time – always, there Eden is at work.

In the case of Magic, and Bird, and the 1980s, it’s certainly understandable, and close to my own heart’s experience, that the myth of Eden should appeal. As FD writes in the brief Introduction to the chapter, the decade saw a truly awesome influx of talent into the game: not just Magic and Larry, but Isiah, Worthy, Jordan, Barkley, Akeem, Stockton, Malone, Ewing and others entered the league in the period. Moreover, unlike, say, in the 1960s, that talent was properly showcased by the rise of ESPN and other forms of media exposure and endorsement deals, all carefully overseen by the – whatever else you want to say about him – far-sighted and shrewd PR vision of Commissioner David Stern. The play on the floor was brilliant and more people than ever were getting to see it. FANtastic was born.

But there’s more to it than that. In Magic and Bird, of course, you had two players with a ready-made rivalry established in the 1979 NCAA title game (itself a watershed moment in most accounts of the college game), and a rivalry amped up by the storied history of the Lakers and Celtics, the franchises they joined. Moreover, as we discussed in class after watching clips of the two players, Magic and Larry truly showcased a remarkably complete (and remarkably similar – a fact I think that is often undernoticed) set of basketball skills.

Though neither was an exceptional athlete by NBA standards, each had the intelligence and put in the work to maximize the gifts they did have and so to turn themselves into astonishingly creative passers and effective rebounders, ball handlers and shooters (more Magic than Larry for the handle, more Larry than Magic for the shot). Both were capable of scoring from unpromising angles and traffic situations, both capable of unselfishly raising the game of their teammates, both clutch and both winners, and both driven to lead by example in squeezing every last drop out of seemingly every play on the floor.

In their styles of play, both players, as Brown Recluse, Esq. (BRE) notes, embodied the happy marriage of ABA creativity with NBA stability. BRE even concludes by correctly observing that Magic and Larry left us as a legacy the freedom that would evolve into positional revolution with oversize point guards, and bigs who can hurt you inside or step out and hit the three. And finally, of course, one was black and one was white. Put it all together and that’s hard to top if you’re looking for Paradise in the history of the NBA.

The myth of the Garden of Eden, though, is more than just an emblem of unadulterated bliss. It describes a tricky pseudo-contract in which submissive ignorance is the price exacted for that bliss. Moreover, it tells us that pain, labor, and sexuality are punishments for the violation of that contract. You remember, right? Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, aspiring in the process to have their blind eyes opened and to see as God sees and, as a result, are cast out of the Garden. Ultimately, the narrative carries for me a dark side by which we are commanded to remain in a childish state — lacking knowledge, desire, experience, and agency — if we are to be happy.

I’m not the first to point this out, of course. John Milton in Paradise Lost (perhaps in spite of himself) and William Blake (very much not in spite of himself) long ago suggested or argued outright that it’s not so clear who might be the good guys and the bad guys in the story of our “Fall.” More recently, the British author Philip Pullman rewrote the whole story in his remarkable trilogy His Dark Materials. There Pullman conceives that our “Fall” was really a kind of elevation, a growing-up of the species if you will, prompted by angels rebelling against a God who was really just the first angel, but had usurped authority, styling himself the Creator of the rest, and establishing a tyrannical Kingdom of Heaven in place of the immanent Republic of Heaven.

In Pullman’s reading, the rebel angels did us a favor and every time we think for ourselves, enjoy our existence as beings with minds and bodies, and make independent decisions, every time we assert the right to determine the course of our own futures, we are embodying the empowering legacy that the Judeo-Christian myth of the Fall would have us lament and repent for unto eternity.

Offering this counter-vision doesn’t mean that I think the myth of a fall from grace, or innocence, is useless or bad. Just that it’s a more complicated tool for organizing our understanding of ourselves than might appear at first glance. In my own case, the bliss ushered in by Magic and Bird’s appearance in the NBA (which was indeed a paradise for me: my room was plastered with Magic posters, and I still have a scrapbook I started keeping in 1979 with Magic clippings from the local papers and Sports Illustrated) coincided with my exit from the innocence of childhood via a number of doors simultaneously: I learned to shoot a jump shot, my parents separated, and I entered puberty.

So it was a complicated Eden for me, that: one that sends my mind and my emotional memories snapping back and forth wildly like a standard in a strong wind. But I wouldn’t trade that complicated and painful time – and all that grew from it – for the relatively less complicated, ignorant bliss of pretending to be Clyde in the driveway at age 7.

By now you might be imagining that I am of the Devil’s party, as Blake once said of Milton. Maybe that’s true in some sense. It is certainly true that the serpent is for me the most interesting character in the story. And, in relation to this Golden Era of NBA history, I certainly wonder where (or who or what) the serpent is.

About fifteen years ago, in a first futile stab at doing this kind of writing, during a leave year in which I received tenure at the University, I became fascinated with Dennis Rodman. Around this time Terry Pluto published a book called Falling from Grace (1995). Its subtitle was “Can the NBA Be Saved?” In it, if I remember correctly, Pluto characterized the then-current crop of young players as brawling, trash-talking thugs whose basketball fundamentals were decidedly underwhelming. I’m pretty sure Dennis was singled out in that book, along with a few other players as symptomatic of all that had gone wrong with the game.

At the time, I wrote an essay – now long lost – on the joy of being Dennis Rodman. I wasn’t interested so much in defending Dennis’ style choices (or behavior), so much as pointing out that in his play on the court (tenacious defense, hard-nosed intelligent rebounding, good passing), Rodman embodied many of the values that Pluto himself was nostalgically associating with a different, now bygone era (not to mention race, I remember feeling upon reading the book).

I’m not sure what I’d think of Pluto’s book or of my own argument now. Maybe I wouldn’t stand by it any longer. But I definitely do stand by the impulse I acted on to complicate simple notions of human history that characterize it as either a steady progress toward something good or a steady (or precipitious) fall from something good. That much, perhaps, is the serpent in me.

In fact, maybe the serpent isn’t so much a character in the story, or not only a character in the story, but a role we all step into whenever we question the story and read it against the grain; whenever we take the childish dichotomies we are offered – and which, make no mistake, can be quite useful in limited cases – and begin to poke at the boundaries separating them.

So when I think of the NBA since Magic and Bird’s time, back, when, as they recently wrote, “the game was ours,” I think as much of Bird’s legendary trash-talking, I think of the image of Magic posterizing some chump with a tomahawk jam and then pointing to him as he lay splayed on the floor along the baseline. He wasn’t beaming. Sure I think of and marvel at their amazing array of skills and their run of titles. And I’m genuinely moved by the way their rivalry evolved into friendship and love. But I also think of their personal lives, seriously troubled at times like those of any human being. I think as well, as Brown Recluse, Esq. advises, of the marvelous players that have come after them in a more or less continuous stream since that time, patterning their unusual combination of skills and size and styles of play on some permutation of Magic and Bird.

And when I think that way, the gate at the Eastern end of the Garden of Eden, the one guarded by the angel with the flaming sword, the one that Adam and Eve left through, and that supposedly clearly marks the line between paradise and our own sorry existence starts to blur and fade.

I like that moment because the alternative offered by subscribing to the Eden story is to spend all of existence trying to make up for something I didn’t do and that I don’t think was wrong in the first place. It is to hate actual existence in the name of a time that has long since ceased to exist and that I don’t think ever existed in the first place.

So when the gates swing open, and I can acknowledge the splendor of Magic and Larry Legend in all its complex shadings, then the present and the future open back up and I am once again in a position, as one of Phillip Pullman’s characters urges: “to build the Republic of Heaven right here, because for us there is nowhere else” and to appreciate those in the game and the world today who are laboring to build it too.

go back to read my account of Walton and Jabbar and the politics of the late 70s NBA

or

Go on to read about our discussion of the Young Michael Jordan here

Day 14: The Serpent's Tale

This also appeared earlier today on the FreeDarko website. But I’m keeping it here for the sake of consistency and for those few readers of mine who come here first

This is a hallowed day. They asked me to play. They actually asked me to play. Okay, well it wasn’t exactly that they asked me to play, but pretty much. Walking across campus to class from my previous class, the fantasy image flashed into the slide projector of my mind: an intra-class pickup game. The still image sprang into motion: all of us going up and down the court at Crisler Arena. I tried to push it aside, tried to stop it. No way I’m going to propose this in class and have the players break into uncontrollable sneering laughter. But then, I walk into class and I’ve barely put my stuff down on the desk when one of the players, having very courteously asked me how my broken hand was doing, said, “We should have a class game.” Moments later, another player walked into class and said the same thing.

I feel I shall burst with joy and excitement. If God himself, donning sweats, had parted the gray Ann Arbor skies, and entered the class on a Golden Litter, born by Clyde, the Hawk, Dr. J, and Wilt, and said, “you know what, that tree of knowledge thing, I was j/k!”, I could have been no happier. A weight of decades has been lifted from my shoulders. It was an auspicious way to begin the home stretch of Cultures of Basketball, after a two week hiatus, and leading in to the much-anticipated visit of none other than Bethlehem Shoals himself to our Ivory Tower next week.

We all began to babble excitedly about the match-up. “Players against the rest of us!” someone shouted. Oh no, I thought to myself, I didn’t wait nearly thirty years to play Division I ball in order to get clowned by a bunch of college kids. If you wanna go players and teacher against the rest of the class, I’m down, but otherwise we’re splitting the players up. Buoyed by my sudden surge of popularity among the players, and the riotous atmosphere of the room, I took a wild risk. I explained that I’d just been thinking the same thing on the way over to class and added, “But in my fantasy of this game, we’re playing at Crisler. So I want to give the players a special group assignment: make that happen.” I’m thinking that’s an impossibility, but that just saying it will curry even more favor. But lo, another player speaks up and says he thinks that shouldn’t be a problem. What! Verily, yea, I will tread the same hardwood as my forefathers CWebb and Jalen, and their forefather, Cazzie, did before them.

An evening of feverish tweeting and e-mailing ensued in which yet another player and I worked out the details of 1) a class lottery, presided over by David Stern, in which the eight players would draw names to round out the rosters for each of their teams and 2) the field of eight three-player teams would be seeded and compete in an April-Madness extravaganza culminating in the crowning of the first ever Cultures of Basketball national champion. My fiancée then tops it all off by suggesting we have the game on a weekend so that she can come up from St. Louis to witness, testify, and oversee the national media hordes that will certainly converge on Ann Arbor for the Blessed Event. So y’all can just get in touch with her about securing your media passes. I’m pretty sure that Ernie and the TNT gang already have their hotel reservations, Dicky V. called to make sure he wouldn’t be excluded, and the Goodyear Blimp, flown by Captain Jon Conrad and crew, has already secured airspace.

Talking to a student later during office hours, he shook his head with dread: “Maybe the players just wanted to play us so they could destroy us.” “Who cares?,” I said to him, “I just wanna play. It’s like when you’re little,” I explained, “you just want your big brother to play with you, you don’t care that he’s gonna beat your ass. It’s just about the attention.” My student smiled and said, “I was the big brother.” Well, okay, but you get the idea. I know I’ll actually be shitting myself on the day of the game, and I’ll probably dribble off my foot, shoot a couple of air balls, and – horror of horrors – be single-handedly responsible for decimating the ranks of next year’s Michigan basketball team by somehow injuring each and every one of the eight players through some clumsy display of aged overreaching. But really, who cares? It’s the sort of moment when it all comes together and several lifetimes’ worth of minor slights and trivial but embittering disappointments are swept away by a deluge that leaves your soul as brand spanking new and clean and naked as Adam and Eve in the Garden.

Speaking of paradise, today’s class was devoted to the section of FreeDarko’s history on Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the first segment of Chapter 4: “The Gold Standard: 1980-1990.” But before we got to Magic and Larry Legend, and after we’d settled down, we had one more bit of topical business to address: the controversy over the Heat “allegedly” crying in the locker room after their 1 point loss to the Bulls the other day, at the time their fourth straight loss. I asked them what they thought and they told me, but then I realized that I didn’t so much want to know what they thought as tell them what I thought they should think, or at least what I thought they should bear in mind as they formed their own judgments of the event.

So we briefly discussed the possible meanings of tears and of emotions in general, the role that emotion plays in sport and in human life more generally, and the way that culture and upbringing, especially as coded by gender, shape the way we judge – and that we feel entitled to judge – public displays of emotion by other human beings.

One of the more interesting points was raised by a student, who pointed out that the gender double-standard also works against female athletes who show anger or swag in the course of competition. In both cases, culturally set parameters of appropriately “masculine” or “feminine” relationships to particular expressions of emotion wind up underwriting thoughtless critical judgments of particular athletes for crossing the boundaries of emotional expression.

It’s sad, really, that young men and women, athletes or not, should be subject to such constraints. And sadder, still, perhaps, that other young men and women should participate in limiting the scope of what it is possible to be and to feel and to show you feel as a young man or young woman. Nothing was resolved, of course, but I think that students by the end of our little conversation were equipped to do more than just accept the terms of the discussion as provided by ESPN or the guy next to them at Buffalo Wild Wings.

Having completed my pontification on the topic of emotion, gender, and athletics, we rode the FD time machine back to Bliss, the Gold Standard, the Paradise of the NBA in the 1980s. The religious, specifically Edenic, lexicon that I’ve been trying to weave into this post is neither accidental, nor really of my own invention. The illustration that fronts the Magic Bird chapter shows the two players, in iconic poses, emerging from a garden lush with sunflowers, ferns, daffodils and tropical foliage.

An unpaid student query about the significance of the image gave me the opportunity to say a few words about the myth of Eden and the kind of cultural work it can do in Judeo-Christian societies. I don’t want to go biblical on your ass, or be too dweebishly unsubtle about it (especially, in view of the compact subtlety of Jacob Weinstein’s visual argument), but it’s worth acknowledging, at least, the force and pervasiveness of that myth in the way that we lace often overly simplistic judgements of good and evil into narratives of memory and history. It’s not that Eden is always invoked explicitly, but rather that it doesn’t have to be because by now it is almost second nature (a distinctly un-Edenic concept, or maybe it is Edenic). Everytime you hear someone talk about the good old days, nostalgia, you know the routine, once upon a time – always, there Eden is at work.

In the case of Magic, and Bird, and the 1980s, it’s certainly understandable, and close to my own heart’s experience, that the myth of Eden should appeal. As FD writes in the brief Introduction to the chapter, the decade saw a truly awesome influx of talent into the game: not just Magic and Larry, but Isiah, Worthy, Jordan, Barkley, Akeem, Stockton, Malone, Ewing and others entered the league in the period. Moreover, unlike, say, in the 1960s, that talent was properly showcased by the rise of ESPN and other forms of media exposure and endorsement deals, all carefully overseen by the – whatever else you want to say about him – far-sighted and shrewd PR vision of Commissioner David Stern. The play on the floor was brilliant and more people than ever were getting to see it. FANtastic was born.

But there’s more to it than that. In Magic and Bird, of course, you had two players with a ready-made rivalry established in the 1979 NCAA title game (itself a watershed moment in most accounts of the college game), and a rivalry amped up by the storied history of the Lakers and Celtics, the franchises they joined. Moreover, as we discussed in class after watching clips of the two players, Magic and Larry truly showcased a remarkably complete (and remarkably similar – a fact I think that is often undernoticed) set of basketball skills.

Though neither was an exceptional athlete by NBA standards, each had the intelligence and put in the work to maximize the gifts they did have and so to turn themselves into astonishingly creative passers and effective rebounders, ball handlers and shooters (more Magic than Larry for the handle, more Larry than Magic for the shot). Both were capable of scoring from unpromising angles and traffic situations, both capable of unselfishly raising the game of their teammates, both clutch and both winners, and both driven to lead by example in squeezing every last drop out of seemingly every play on the floor.

In their styles of play, both players, as Brown Recluse, Esq. (BRE) notes, embodied the happy marriage of ABA creativity with NBA stability. BRE even concludes by correctly observing that Magic and Larry left us as a legacy the freedom that would evolve into positional revolution with oversize point guards, and bigs who can hurt you inside or step out and hit the three. And finally, of course, one was black and one was white. Put it all together and that’s hard to top if you’re looking for Paradise in the history of the NBA.

The myth of the Garden of Eden, though, is more than just an emblem of unadulterated bliss. It describes a tricky pseudo-contract in which submissive ignorance is the price exacted for that bliss. Moreover, it tells us that pain, labor, and sexuality are punishments for the violation of that contract. You remember, right? Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, aspiring in the process to have their blind eyes opened and to see as God sees and, as a result, are cast out of the Garden. Ultimately, the narrative carries for me a dark side by which we are commanded to remain in a childish state — lacking knowledge, desire, experience, and agency — if we are to be happy.

I’m not the first to point this out, of course. John Milton in Paradise Lost (perhaps in spite of himself) and William Blake (very much not in spite of himself) long ago suggested or argued outright that it’s not so clear who might be the good guys and the bad guys in the story of our “Fall.” More recently, the British author Philip Pullman rewrote the whole story in his remarkable trilogy His Dark Materials. There Pullman conceives that our “Fall” was really a kind of elevation, a growing-up of the species if you will, prompted by angels rebelling against a God who was really just the first angel, but had usurped authority, styling himself the Creator of the rest, and establishing a tyrannical Kingdom of Heaven in place of the immanent Republic of Heaven.

In Pullman’s reading, the rebel angels did us a favor and every time we think for ourselves, enjoy our existence as beings with minds and bodies, and make independent decisions, every time we assert the right to determine the course of our own futures, we are embodying the empowering legacy that the Judeo-Christian myth of the Fall would have us lament and repent for unto eternity.

Offering this counter-vision doesn’t mean that I think the myth of a fall from grace, or innocence, is useless or bad. Just that it’s a more complicated tool for organizing our understanding of ourselves than might appear at first glance. In my own case, the bliss ushered in by Magic and Bird’s appearance in the NBA (which was indeed a paradise for me: my room was plastered with Magic posters, and I still have a scrapbook I started keeping in 1979 with Magic clippings from the local papers and Sports Illustrated) coincided with my exit from the innocence of childhood via a number of doors simultaneously: I learned to shoot a jump shot, my parents separated, and I entered puberty.

So it was a complicated Eden for me, that: one that sends my mind and my emotional memories snapping back and forth wildly like a standard in a strong wind. But I wouldn’t trade that complicated and painful time – and all that grew from it – for the relatively less complicated, ignorant bliss of pretending to be Clyde in the driveway at age 7.

By now you might be imagining that I am of the Devil’s party, as Blake once said of Milton. Maybe that’s true in some sense. It is certainly true that the serpent is for me the most interesting character in the story. And, in relation to this Golden Era of NBA history, I certainly wonder where (or who or what) the serpent is.

About fifteen years ago, in a first futile stab at doing this kind of writing, during a leave year in which I received tenure at the University, I became fascinated with Dennis Rodman. Around this time Terry Pluto published a book called Falling from Grace (1995). Its subtitle was “Can the NBA Be Saved?” In it, if I remember correctly, Pluto characterized the then-current crop of young players as brawling, trash-talking thugs whose basketball fundamentals were decidedly underwhelming. I’m pretty sure Dennis was singled out in that book, along with a few other players as symptomatic of all that had gone wrong with the game.

At the time, I wrote an essay – now long lost – on the joy of being Dennis Rodman. I wasn’t interested so much in defending Dennis’ style choices (or behavior), so much as pointing out that in his play on the court (tenacious defense, hard-nosed intelligent rebounding, good passing), Rodman embodied many of the values that Pluto himself was nostalgically associating with a different, now bygone era (not to mention race, I remember feeling upon reading the book).

I’m not sure what I’d think of Pluto’s book or of my own argument now. Maybe I wouldn’t stand by it any longer. But I definitely do stand by the impulse I acted on to complicate simple notions of human history that characterize it as either a steady progress toward something good or a steady (or precipitious) fall from something good. That much, perhaps, is the serpent in me.

In fact, maybe the serpent isn’t so much a character in the story, or not only a character in the story, but a role we all step into whenever we question the story and read it against the grain; whenever we take the childish dichotomies we are offered – and which, make no mistake, can be quite useful in limited cases – and begin to poke at the boundaries separating them.

So when I think of the NBA since Magic and Bird’s time, back, when, as they recently wrote, “the game was ours,” I think as much of Bird’s legendary trash-talking, I think of the image of Magic posterizing some chump with a tomahawk jam and then pointing to him as he lay splayed on the floor along the baseline. He wasn’t beaming. Sure I think of and marvel at their amazing array of skills and their run of titles. And I’m genuinely moved by the way their rivalry evolved into friendship and love. But I also think of their personal lives, seriously troubled at times like those of any human being. I think as well, as Brown Recluse, Esq. advises, of the marvelous players that have come after them in a more or less continuous stream since that time, patterning their unusual combination of skills and size and styles of play on some permutation of Magic and Bird.

And when I think that way, the gate at the Eastern end of the Garden of Eden, the one guarded by the angel with the flaming sword, the one that Adam and Eve left through, and that supposedly clearly marks the line between paradise and our own sorry existence starts to blur and fade.

I like that moment because the alternative offered by subscribing to the Eden story is to spend all of existence trying to make up for something I didn’t do and that I don’t think was wrong in the first place. It is to hate actual existence in the name of a time that has long since ceased to exist and that I don’t think ever existed in the first place.

So when the gates swing open, and I can acknowledge the splendor of Magic and Larry Legend in all its complex shadings, then the present and the future open back up and I am once again in a position, as one of Phillip Pullman’s characters urges: “to build the Republic of Heaven right here, because for us there is nowhere else” and to appreciate those in the game and the world today who are laboring to build it too.

go back to read my account of Walton and Jabbar and the politics of the late 70s NBA

or

Go on to read about our discussion of the Young Michael Jordan here

Day 11: Dunk You Very Much

This also appeared earlier today on the FreeDarko website.  But I’m keeping it here for the sake of consistency and for those few readers of mine who come here first.

This must be a very precious memory. I’ve even written about it before, in passing, in the first substantial post on this blog, before I even knew there would be a Cultures of Basketball course. I am small, 6 or 7, maybe 8. And for today, I decide, I will be Walt Frazier in my driveway. I will dribble around aimlessly at first, warming up my imagination. And then: Time is running out (time was always running out). The Knicks are down by one (my team was always down by one). Frazier steals the ball from West and glides – yes, glides — down the court (somehow fast and slow at the same time) but the Lakers are already back so he passes to Bradley on the wing. Bradley fakes a jumper and dribbles two steps toward the baseline, then facing a helping defender he flips it back to Clyde at the elbow, who rises, rises gracefully, cocking the ball back and releasing it like a gentle spring at the top of his jump. My imagination loses sight of everything except the ball, its rotation and the perfect geometry of its arc to the basket. It’s good! It’s good! Frazier wins the game! Then I have an idea. This could be better. I get out my tempra paints and transform an old t shirt into a Clyde Frazier Knicks jersey. I look in the mirror. Better. But it could be better still. I get the paintbrush and carefully paint myself a moustache and sideburns, or maybe it was a full beard. I don’t remember. Now I am Clyde.

I loved the Milwaukee Bucks as a kid. They were born as a franchise the same year my family moved to Madison, in time for the 1968-69 season. The Celtics won their last title that year, Russell retired (I still have the issue of SI in which he announced it), and the field was open. The Bucks sucked that first year and I don’t really remember anything about them, But then they got Lew Alcindor from UCLA. And through the 1973-74 season they would amass the best regular season won loss record of any NBA team, win the title in 1971, lose in the Western Conference Finals to eventual champion Lakers in ‘72, lost in the WC semis to Golden State in ‘73, and lose in the finals to Boston in 74. I watched them in person when they’d play games in Madison (rarely), watched them on TV (a little less rarely), and listened to them on the radio (all the time). The other perennial contenders of that time were the Lakers (champs in 72), Bullets and, of course, the Knicks, who won the 1970 and 1973 titles. These were my formative basketball years, the experiences and memories of teams, games, and players (Robertson and Jabbar, Wilt and West, Hayes and Unseld, and then, Reed, Monroe, Barnett, Bradley, DeBusschere, and, of course, Frazier) that to this day outsize all others in my mind; that make me bristle irrationally at any suggestion that any other NBA era was better, and that make it hard to even understand what teaching the period should look like, let alone to formulate a coherent lesson plan.

So I approached Tuesdays class, for which we had read the FreeDarko chapter called “The Get Along Gang: Why Everybody loves the New York Knicks”, with a mixture of intense childlike excitement, middle-aged nostalgia, and pedagogical cluelessness and panic. I have always loved reading, and there are certain writers that I have loved especially. But they are not confusingly intertwined with the core of my being like 1970s hoops. I feel that I’ve mostly managed to integrate my passion into my teaching without becoming wholly incoherent. So much for that.

Even now, as I’m writing, I’m having a hard time weaving a story or a focused argument out of the tangled skein of memories and feelings that the period evokes for me. All the more so, since as I told the students at the outset of class, that decade of NBA history is often dismissed as a kind of low-ebb middle-ages sandwiched between the Celtics dynasty and legendary era of the 1960s and the resurgent media friendly era of Magic Bird and Jordan. The 70s offered no single dominant franchise. But that’s not all, the ABA helped drive salaries up and the league became mostly black for the first time in its history. Meanwhile, widely reported drug use among the players gave a mostly white audience an excuse to cluck in moralizing disdain and to turn the channel rather than watch rich young black men ball. All of this, of course, in the context of Vietnam, Watergate, and the Energy Crisis. Oh, and disco. So what do you when your fondest and most powerful memories of the game are of what most – not all – NBA chroniclers would prefer to forget, if not write-off as an embarrassing exhibition of what is not-Amazing? What do you do when the story of your formative years is of dissolution and wasted promise?

1.Evasive action II: Nickname poll (What is your favorite all time hoops nickname?). Results: Iceman and Mailman tied with two votes each (Skip-to-my-Lou also got two votes but I invalidated them in unaccountable contradiction of the political philosophy I advocated on Day 10). My own choice: Black Jesus.

2.Time killer: Three video clips: one of Earl Monroe (see 1 above), one on the 1970 Knicks title team and one on the 1973 Knicks title team.

3.Passing the Buck open-ended question for the class: What made the biggest impression on you as you read the chapter on the Knicks or as you watched the video clips?

Hmmm. Lots of silences in today’s class. I clearly came neither ready to play nor ready to really expose myself and try to make my inability to be coherent into a teaching opportunity. Which doesn’t mean that they didn’t try to step-up and fill the void. I’d say they did. You know, sometimes it’s the students who have somehow to find a way on the spur of the moment to pull together and make a particular class work, a job that I could at least have made easier by confessing that I needed them to do it. But even without that they came up with several interesting observations. Among them, the one that most stuck in my mind is that the Knicks rarely dunked in any of the clips we watched. Why, a student wondered?

I don’t mean to be coy or over-complicating in what follows. I know that the prevalence of the dunk today really had its origins historically in the 1976 ABA inaugural dunk context, in the merger that brought acrobatic dunkers like Julius Erving and David Thompson into the NBA fold and of course especially to the confluence of Michael Jordan and ESPN, with its nightly parade of dunk highlights in the 1980s, not to mention the overall superior athleticism of NBA players today. So that it might seem that the responsible thing would have been to politely explain that the question was anachronistic, like asking why the pioneers on the Oregon Trail didn’t just take a plane. But not quite, because it’s not as though nobody dunked in the NBA back then (and, indeed, the NCAA had not long before banned dunking, imagining the threat that anticipated Lew Alcindor dunks posed to the game), and the Knicks defense certainly generated plenty of breakaway opportunities for crowd rousing jams. So it was a valid question.

And, anyway, when you are teaching or thinking about things, sometimes, I have found, it can turn out to be useful to recall and then set aside the obvious path and just pursue the question along whatever paths it takes you. You might not get to a better answer to the original question (we didn’t) but you might discover some interesting other thoughts along these not obviously promising side roads. Plus, like I say, I didn’t really have the presence of mind to come up with something on my own so I wasn’t about to piss away a student contribution. What emerged from the discussion were three points that weren’t necessarily, and perhaps shouldn’t be, related, but part of the fun of this writing is making dubious connections and offering speculative interpretations that are only tenuously tethered to the facts.

The first two possibilities were offered by students: 1) the Knicks didn’t dunk because it was at odds with the unselfish style of play to which they all obviously subscribed. The dunk might have felt like an attempt to drawn attention to oneself as an individual player. And 2) the Knicks didn’t dunk because they preferred the understated cool and fluidity of the lay up over the staccato violence of the throwdown. So, I observed, we have a moral interpretation and an aesthetic interpretation of the no-dunk Knicks. Before going on I just want to pause to point out how pleased I was with my students for thinking “beyond a boundary” and recognizing how much more there can be to understand in what appears to be a simple technical choice between two equally effective options on the court: do I lay it in or do I throw it down?

The third idea wasn’t so much an explanation of why they didn’t dunk as an account of the hidden racial politics dogging the dunk, which I offered off the cuff in response to a student question about the legal history of the shot. The dunk was never illegal in NBA competition, but was banned by the NCAA, as I mentioned above, beginning with the 1967-68 season until 1976, But the point I also made about the dunk in that context is that the first dominant dunker, Wilt Chamberlain, as has been amply noted elsewhere, terrified basketball purists who feared he would destroy the game (see John McPhee’s elegant paean to Bill Bradley, which is structured in part around the sophistication of Bradley’s style drawing McPhee back to the game in the mid 1960s after its pleasures had been spoiled for him by dunking giants). It’s difficult, and probably unwise to separate the fears of Chamberlain in that era (and of Alicindor in the next) from white fears of a black uprising in the game, which in turn are difficult to separate from white fears of a black uprising in society. In short perhaps overly simplistic but still illuminating terms, the dunk was unconsciously (though also no doubt in some quarters consciously and explicitly) racialized as a brutish black play at odds with the more sophisticated white traditions of the game.

So, for now, just keep these speculative notions in the back of your mind: the Knicks preference for the lay in over the dunk could be read as having moral, aesthetic, and political layers of meaning. Meanwhile, our reading for the day, as I say, was Bethelehem Shoals’ investigation into “why everybody loves the New York Knicks.” His argument, already succinctly expressed in the title of the chapter: “the get along gang”, is two fold. In the first instance, the Knicks embodied a style of play (aggressive team defense and unselfish offense with quick passing and lots of movement away from the ball) that “was a direct descendant of the ball that had been played in New York colleges during the first half of the century. It harked back to the city’s past and resonated with generations of fans from the New York diaspora (and not just Jews).” Second, the Knicks employed the style successfully with a roster of players who represented exactly the particular racial, ethnic, geographical, and socio-economic groups that were most definitely not getting along in American society at the time, In Shoals’ words: “everyone loves the one about the pimp [Frazier], the nerd [Bradley – also a Midwestern banker’s son], the black Southern Gentlemen [Willis Reed], the white workingman [Dave DeBusschere], the hippie [Phil Jackson], and the street urchin they picked up along the way [Earl Monroe]. The Knicks were America’s Team for a country trying to make sense of itself –and wondering what coexistence might look like.”

In addition, I think that Shoals, in his comparison of Red Auerbach (architect and coach of the 60s Celtics dynasty) and Red Holzman (laconic coach of the Knicks), is also suggesting that the Knicks offered a different kind of response to the essential hoops tension between the individual and the team. Where the Celtics became interchangeable parts in a durably and predictably (if also magically) effective winning machine, the Knicks players were all personalities, celebrities even, off the court who found a way to mesh perfectly on the court – despite, or perhaps because, of the considerably greater spotlight that the new era and their New York home shined on them.

I have zero objection to this view of what made (and makes to this day) the Knicks of that era so appealing. Indeed in class we talked about this (oddly arriving at it ourselves without reference to the book – a sign of my poor psychological preparation for the day) and it led to an interesting, if abbreviated, discussion of the kind of roles that teams can play for their cities and for the society at large. We talked about and cited the numerous examples of teams galvanizing and inspiring a city that is struggling (as with the Pistons and Detroit, both in the late -80s and in the more recent edition). But we also wondered together whether there was a flipside to the way teams can inspire and excite struggling cities (and societies). Whether there is a palliative effect at work whereby the success of a team and the feel-good atmosphere it can inspire can serve to dissipate anger at conditions and injustices that persist after all the ticker-tape has been swept up. In other words, we tried to think about the ways in which a team’s success can lead us either to stop thinking that our society has problems that need our attention and effort or to stop working for those problems because after all, unlike a title run, there really isn’t a clear cut sign of final triumph in the struggles against, say, poverty or racism.

I want to emphasize that I’m not proposing an either or here, nor am I trying to tell anyone (including my students) what they ought to think about this issue, or about any particular instance of these dynamics in general. I’m just trying to encourage critical, well-rounded thought on the question and, in class, anyway to try to introduce students to a long standing debate in the humanities over the role of art in society (a debate of which I take, for the present purposes, the sports and society question to be a kind of related offshoot). I like and wished I had pointed out to the students that its possible to feel and think both ways at the same time, as Shoals does when he writes, “if the Knicks offered hope for the country, they did so while acknowledging that things would never be the same again. For America, these teams were not an attempt to deny the trauma of the sixties but a reality that offered a way forward. They continue to resonate because, in the end, the Knicks are about the possibility of shared values even after the whole world seems to have broken wide open.”

I find that to be extremely stirring, well-thought-through stuff. It even helps me to understand why, even as they eclipsed my beloved the Bucks in agonizing fashion in the early 70s, I was dressing up as Clyde and loving the Knicks. Now that I think about it, I realize that as a kid I was looking pretty desperately for a get along gang in my own family, which suffered its share of tension and strife at the time. I’m not saying I thought this consciously of course. Consciously I just knew Clyde was fucking cool and I was going to be him when I grew up (which as it turns out is exactly what happened as you can tell from my account of the first day of class), I’m just saying that unconsciously I had picked up on the get along discourse of the Knicks and had internalized it as a kind of fantasy I wanted to live in, even if I was too young to really realize that my whole country – and not just my family — might have been in need of that too.

So I’m down with all of this. But I’m still left wondering how to solve the case of the missing dunks, and I’m still not content to go with the easy and true historical answer (that the dunk was just not yet a big part of anybody’s game in the NBA at that time). I want to try to put this all together. It’s actually pretty easy with the moral and aesthetic qualities we in class attributed to the non-dunk. That is: if the Knicks’ non-dunk is an affirmation of unselfish humility and of understated fluidity then it’s not hard to see how that supports the kinds of values the Knicks would be supplying their city and the nation as a whole.

I’ll admit all of this may just be the sign of an oft remarked upon general shift in basketball culture. I’d never noticed the lack of dunks on the Knicks. But it was one of the first things my students – and a “Jordan baby” from the Chicago area no less — noted. And believe me, I was and am as seduced as anyone by those Knicks teams. Above all, they created open look after open look whether on a fast break off a steal or in their unstructured intelligent and cool offensive flow – everything looks so easy. Who needs a dunk? Who even misses them when you are watching that?

But when I think about the racial politics of the dunk I’m left a bit confused and uncomfortable. Let me explain. The City Game, published by journalist Pete Axthelm in 1970s, is a moving, elegantly written account of the 1970 Knicks championship season that shows why the Knicks were so popular in New York by telling their story alongside those of countless city playground stars who played the very same kind of ball the Knicks played. But as Axthelm acknowledges, as galvanizing as those Knicks were, they did not cure the ills of the city or of society, and many of those same enthusiastic playground ballers wound up strung out on drugs, trapped in poverty, imprisoned or dead. What feelings does that give rise to? And what is the appropriate expression of those feelings? Where I want to ask, in the Knicks playbook, is the basketball play that expresses the sadness and rage occasioned by that social violence, that colossal waste of human creativity and talent?

It is as though, in light of all this, in addition to everything else I have also felt and thought about the Knicks, that I feel and think about the Knicks, I am also provoked – in spite of myself — to view them as a kind of populist compromise. I mean, the sort of populist compromise that appears to offer room for everyone and everything at the social banquet table, but that has actually done so at the expense of leaving some standing outside the door. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s inevitable. Yet it doesn’t feel okay to me now, even as I still feel lured by the stirring style of play and success of those Knicks teams, even without the dunks.

If the dunk has historically been seen as the flamboyant, sometimes violent expression of individual power (if not anger, or gleeful anger), not to mention racialized as such, then I can’t help but think that there was no room for those things in the new reality the Knicks promised us. All of which would be just fine if it were also the case that the conditions that give rise to the feelings that get expressed in a dunk had disappeared from society. But if they didn’t (and we know they didn’t and maybe that is the not so secret story of the lost decade in which I was formed, basketballically and otherwise), then what do we do with our desire – what do I do with my desire and I mean this as a real, not rhetorical question — to forego the extra pass, eschew the easy lay up, and throw down a “Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam”?

Maybe I’m overstating things. I usually do. Maybe all I’m saying is the the missing jams now look to me in retrospect like an index of where we fell short in putting it all together. Where we are still falling short.

go back to read about our discussion of coaching and the surprising deep needs it satisfies in us

 Check out Go Yago! to my review of Clyde Frazier’s Guide to Basketball and Cool

or

Go on to read how the missing dunks wound up in the ABA

Day 12: What It Is

I didn’t plan it this way when I designed the syllabus, but it seems especially appropriate to be teaching, thinking, and writing about the old ABA during the media-amped spawn of pure skill and utter silliness that is NBA All-Star Weekend. We wrestled no bears, but it was as though the giddy 70s hallucination that the ABA can appear to have been infected my students (and me) so that we had a wacky day worthy of the most surreal of that defunct’s league’s half-time shows.

I undoubtedly set the tone for this, in part, by beginning class with my personal anecdote about watching the Michigan game the night before at Applebee’s next to a couple of puffy, red-faced, slick-haired vulgarians who were ragging endlessly on each and every one of the players that I have in class. I was surprised to find myself offended. The students (players more than anyone) insisted on hearing the criticisms in all their blockheaded, paunchy glory. And with that I seem to have informalized the classroom beyond the point of no return.

From there, after a brief and meaningless introduction, I rolled a 3-minute clip of Julius Erving tearing up the ABA. As Dr J exhibited his assortment of pull-up threes, twisting finger rolls, and, of course, elegant swooping slams to a funky instrumental backbeat, the students got rowdy and loud.

Beating on their little desks, they screamed for more clips: “Where’s the drifting-out-from-behind-the backboard scoop?!!” “That was the NBA,” I tell them, oldly, “against the Lakers.” “We wanna see that!” “Julius in the NBA!” Inside I’m resisting – this isn’t about Julius per se, but about the ABA – but I’m weak. I don’t want to lose them, I don’t want to police them, and most of all, as I’ve said before, I could watch these clips all day. I want to see the Doctor too. “You really wanna see that?” I ask, suggestively, blithely unaware of the doom about to descend. “Yayyyyyyy!!” they shouted, birthday hats akimbo, noisemakers blaring, faces smeared with cake. “Okay!” I say brightly.

With my computer’s desktop projected enormously on the screen in the front of the room, I quickly Google “Dr J in the NBA”, self-conscious about how slow I am in this medium compared to these kids who were all born and raised in the Matrix (even slower than usual since I can’t type normally because of the splint immobilizing my right hand). But I manage to get to a long list of video links. Now I can’t decide. We see one called “NBA Julius Erving Mix”, with a subtitle in Spanish: “dunk de Julius Erving.” That looks like fun. I click and then watch with horror as the first static image appears on my screen (and therefore, I know, 1 billion times larger on the screen over my left shoulder, and probably on a monitor in the Dean’s office): a woman wearing a cut off tank-top with the words “Got dick?” emblazoned across the front. Yeah. Of all the stupid things I’ve done, of all the humiliations I’ve suffered in the classroom since I taught my first class as a graduate student at Duke University in 1988, nothing like this has ever happened. Now we are indeed in a time machine hurtling toward the ABA.

The students are like teenagers – well, most of them are teenagers – at their first keg party. Howling, laughing, shouting clever comments to the person sitting two inches away from them, hysterical with embarrassment and excitement at having blasted through a taboo. Jumping over a car seems like nothing when you’ve just seen that in your college class. My crippled fingers stab at the keyboard trying to make it go away, my clumsiness magnified exponentially as I try to restore a semblance of calm to what has become a roomful of very large, coked-up 6th graders. I find a new clip and, as always, the graceful moving images of baller excellence gradually bring them back to their senses, or, at least, make them quiet down a bit. But, as the last image fades, along with the last bellowed note of Whitney’s “Greatest Love of All,” I sense the loopy energy bubble back up to a boil.

I try to channel it: “what do you see in the clips of Erving? “ Some of the answers: “grace, dunks, the range on his finger-roll, his athleticism.” Great, I tell them. And then I remind them that much of what we saw in the Dr J clips was occurring at the same time as what we had seen two days before in clips of the Knicks. But it looks like a different game, like a different era, like our era. And, in fact, it’s true, they see it too, today’s NBA game – driving athletic layups, rim rattling dunks, three-pointers – owes much more to Erving and the ABA than it does to Red Holzman and the Knicks. Unfortunately, scintillating and promising though that postulation may be, they’ve lost interest and begin to bombard me with irrelevant questions about Dr J’s career. That happens a lot: class disintegrating into a streetball version of Jeopardy.

I countered by putting a concrete focal object in front of them. “Take out your books,” I droned, “and open to this picture, on p. 86.” At least they are obedient, even if glumly so. We look at Jacob Weinstein’s trippy ABA artwork, a two-page visual explosion, in magenta, yellow, and the palest of pale blues, of elevating players, towering stylized afros, skyrocketing shapes and stripes, squiggles and loops, and bears and dancing girls. It’s really a brilliant piece of work, like mainlining Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls (the canonical documentary account of ABA zaniness). “Let’s look at this,” I say, “like a work of art, what jumps out at you?”

First answer: “the 70s.” I press for a little elaboration. They do pretty well, pointing to the color palette and the explosive lines and forms just barely ordered. They smartly contrast this with the art work we’ve already examined in the class: the neat lines and subdued colors of the Celtics trophy machine, the slightly more individualized and fantastic but still by no means chaotic image of the Knicks plying their trade against a skyline of newspaper headlines and box scores. What do the 70s mean to you? I ask.

One kid’s answer: “I don’t exist.” By which, it turns out, he meant neither to roll out a slip-n-slide of Cartesian doubt, nor to transport us into a paradoxical first-person consciousness prior to his conception, but rather just to state the obvious: it’s before his time and so doesn’t mean much. It’s the flipside of the Trivial Pursuit version of historical interest: none. I choke back the rising gorge of self-righteous indignation so as to glide past that worrisome – and all too common — ignorance and lack of curiosity about any frame of reference outside the first person singular in the present tense. Fortunately, someone else says, “It’s the 70s, it just looks like, like, anything could happen. You tell me something crazy happened in the 70s and I’d believe it, because anything could happen in the 70s.” A couple of students echo that, as though the first one hadn’t even spoken, like academics in a committee meeting.

Bingo. I can work with that. “The 70s,” I say, “I’m hearing means possibility to you, an expanded field of possibilities.” I hear a sound. Everybody laughs. I look confused. I hear the sound again. Not sure if it is a fart or a snore. Everyone laughs again. “Please,” I think I begged, “can y’all stay with me here.” A hand goes up: “Who is the guy holding the McDonald’s bag in the fur coat?” I look more closely at the illustration. I can’t remember and I’m so irritated by their unrepressed fascination with the marginal detail. Then I come up with it: Marvin Barnes. I tell them the story about Barnes refusing to board a St Louis bound plane in Louisville because it would arrive “before” it departed: “I’m not getting on no time machine,” said the player some felt could’ve been the greatest ever. No hand, but a voice calls out, “Who is the guy with the gun in the Condors uniform?” I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t fucking know. Their fucking attention spans are like the 2005-6 Phoenix offense: 7 seconds or less. I say none of this. Instead I laugh: “you can look it up if you want, y’all are so much faster on your devices than I am.” (it was John Brisker, for the record).

I try again: “Possibility,” I say richly, trying to make the word sound like an open door rather than a lead balloon. I really want to bring home the point that this marginalized insanity of the ABA, the league that apparently folded, had actually migrated into the NBA and taken over, viz. All-Star Weekend. But I also want them to get not only that historical point about the game, but to glimpse that there’s a way of thinking about possibility and growth, about marginality and centrality here. I fantasize about them going out in the world and scrambling social hierarchies because of Culture of Basketball class.

“Wendell Berry,” I tell them, “is an American poet and essayist, who is also a farmer in Kentucky.” (Snickers). “He’s interested in questions of land use, farming, productivity, and ecology,” I say. Back in the late 70s, just after the ABA folded, he took a trip to Peru to study the farming practices of Andean peasants there. I remember almost nothing of this essay except the following (which I may in fact be misremembering): Berry was struck by the fact that the Peruvian farmers would leave a wild margin all around their cultivated plots. Accustomed to the US practice of tilling and planting every possible square inch of arable land, Berry was puzzled. The farmers explained that the margin was sort of like a research laboratory. If some sort of pest, for example, destroyed their crop one year, they could look to the margins and see what had survived and in that way begin to develop hybrids that would resist that blight the next time.

Now it all started coming together for me. I began to see the students’ wildness today as an expression of, a way of responding to, by reflecting, the wildness of the ABA. “What the hell was the ABA?” asks the subtitle of Bethlehem Shoals’s chapter (entitled Notes from the Underground) on the league in FreeDarko’s history of the pro game. Indeed, what the hell was that? The question we ask after something absurd occurs. Or, even more pertinently, after we come to our senses having participated in something absurd and inexplicable, or maybe even embarrassing. The question we ask having seen a UFO shoot across the evening sky, a quick trailing flash in our peripheral vision. It’s the question that might be asked of anything that grows in the unpoliced, uncultivated, untended margins of our attention. What the hell was that?

Indeed, that’s why I’ve allowed myself (why I always allow myself), against my judgment, to ramble about the seemingly unproductive, distracted and distracting occurrences and comments in class. The students seemed to me to be pestering for the identities of players on the margins of the picture, but they were really asking what the hell was that on the periphery of their egocentric, adolescent vision? What was that in a cowboy hat and six shooter? In a fur coat clutching a McDonald’s bag? Is Will Ferrell true? What was that world before I was born? (Indeed, the viral metaphor helps me understand how I kept getting carried away on the tide of their appetite for the decontextualized marginal detail; they were bitten by the ABA and I was bitten by them). What the hell was that?

And the answer, just like when someone hauls out the baby pictures (or better yet, the ultrasound images), is: it’s you, silly! Your game, your day and age. Saturday night Claire and I watched – riveted, bored, and embarrassed all at once — a high-heeled, dolled up Heather Cox (I know its obvious, but really, why is a woman wearing heels to a basketball game?) escort Clippers guard Eric Gordon to a green screen, where he bashfully donned a Spartan helmet, grabbed a fake sword, and stood awkwardly before Jon Barry, ESPN commentator, who himself was also holding a sword and wearing a gladiator mask. They proceeded to mumble a few lines from the movie “Gladiator” and half-heartedly to knock their swords together like two embarrassed six year olds who are friends only because their parents are. “Thanks for the giggles, Eric” said Heather. He wandered off probably wondering “What the hell was that?” That was just before Justin Bieber nailed a three pointer in the celebrity game; which was just before he claimed his MVP trophy shouting props to “my boy Magic Johnson.” Did Justin Bieber really say “my boy Magic Johnson”? Did Magic really not only let him, but slap palms with him as he did? What the hell was that? The ABA –oops, the NBA – Its FANtastic! Have we really come so far from wrestling bears and playboy bunnies?

It’s true, the ABA may primarily be a mine of retro cache for a few urban hipsters, or a nostalgia trip for some middle-aged ballers like myself, but in some very real ways the ABA didn’t fold at all, it just implanted itself parasitically into the NBA and mutated (Shoals himself offers the viral metaphor in passing, and refers to the league as a “workshop or laboratory”). Add it’s not just the shamelessly, insatiable appetite for attention in the global media marketplace or the brazen techniques for securing it that the farmers of the NBA found and hybridized in the margins that were the ABA. It’s also, as I pointed out to the students, the game itself, the product on the floor.

If LeBron idolized Michael Jordan, well, it’s well-known that Michael idolized North Carolina State, then ABA, high-flyer David Thompson. Thompson may have burned out, but Dr. J didn’t, becoming instead a dominant gene in the host body of his new league. Where clips of the 70s Knicks offer an endless series of sober layups and mid-range jumpers (their regularity only emphasized by the oddity of an Earl Monroe scoop shot), the typical NBA game today presents itself as a series of 3 pointers, twisting layups in traffic, and mighty jams: in short, as a Dr J ABA highlight reel. And never is that more evident than during All-Star weekend, when the game turns itself inside out: parading as spectacular exhibition what in fact it is all the time.

There is a beautiful coda I would like to add, though it didn’t occur to me in class, lest I sound too disdainful. I’m only a little disdainful. After all, I’m of original ABA vintage and my authentic ABA game ball (autographed by the 1975 Spurs) sits proudly on our mantle. It’s in my DNA. But if I nonetheless seem less than caught up in the spectacle let me offer this by way of gratitude to the progenitors of Amazing.

The students, in responding to the artwork, mentioned the word “psychedelic.” In the feverish haze of my own ABA acid trip, I neglected to tell them that etymologically, “psychedelic” means “soul manifesting.” But it strikes me now that the phrase is a perfect response to the question: what the hell was the ABA? It was soul, manifesting. And while it may well have been an economically futile, exploitative, drug driven ride for a few martini-soaked businessmen, it also implanted some much needed soul (and style) into the genetic material of the mother ship that would first absorb and then be possessed by it.

go backward to read the previous day’s explanation for why the early 70s Knicks didn’t dunk and why it matters

or

Go on to read Day 13 and another version of soul

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