Category Archives: Love

The Voice of my Dad

My father and I, a few weeks before his death.

I wrote most of this a few years ago. It seems much more important now (because of events I describe in my postscripts below), but I’m glad he could read it and appreciate it while he was still alive. 

What is my father’s voice? What does it sound and feel like? What does it say? What difference does it make? I’ve written about how radio broadcasts would help me mute the sound of his voice as he and my mother argued and how, at a metaphorical level, my father’s desires and voice loomed as large in my childhood as Wilt Chamberlain loomed in the Philadelphia Warriors offense. But in fishing out the memories of those feelings, I’ve also snagged some other memories, other stories, and other feelings. They don’t all literally involve his voice, but the most important one does. Read more

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Lebron

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My title promises the story of a reason.  Of reason.  But there will be no reasons here, and less Reason.  Consider it more a chronicle of an evening adrift on a roiling sea of inclinations, of aversions and attachments, of affections and affinities.

Sometimes, I think that the whole teeming, cacophonous universe of basketball culture lives all inside me as in a lane tightly packed with jostling big men –  arguing with itself, voicing feelings it finds reprehensible, formulating analyses it finds arcane and over thought, impressed with its own subtlety, appalled at its own ignorance. Read more

An Open Letter to Chris Webber: You Are Loved

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Dear Mr. Webber,

You don’t know me. And I don’t know you, though I know some of your close friends. So let me first introduce myself. In 1993, when your heart was broken in front of a national television audience, I was 27 years old and near the end of my first year as a professor at the University of Michigan. Read more

The ABA is Dead, Long Live the ABA

IMG_0097I first wrote this post in December, 2010, before I even had a syllabus for the first version of my Cultures of Basketball course at Michigan, let alone the experience of teaching it.  This coming Monday, in my fourth version of that course, we will be doing our lesson on the old ABA.  Between that, and the NBA All-Star Game Insanaganza (which in today’s form is a direct genetic descendant of its disgracefully unacknowledged, mocked parent: the old ABA), it seemed fitting this morning to reprise this, which was my first stab at coming to terms with my crazy sick love of the ABA.  I’ve kept it in the present tense, though I wrote it more than two years ago, because even the ways in which it is now obsolete (noted here and there throughout, and in a Postscript at the end of the piece), are part of what I love about the ABA.

“Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.” – William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

December 11, 2010

What I remember best about it is the blur as I lay on my back in bed, shooting it straight up into the air with perfect back spin: red, white, and blue giving way to the vaguely perceived promise of purple, even lavender. I was not yet ten, and my dad had brought it back from a business trip to Texas: a genuine ABA basketball autographed by the San Antonio Spurs.

Read more

Day 19: You’re a Fucking Bum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript (for humans like me):

Oh yeah, and then two other things happened:

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

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

This is a special group.

Read about last class’ discussion of Allen Iverson

or

Go here for our discussion of homophobic language in NBA culture

Day 19: You're a Fucking Bum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript (for humans like me):

Oh yeah, and then two other things happened:

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

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

This is a special group.

Read about last class’ discussion of Allen Iverson

or

Go here for our discussion of homophobic language in NBA culture

Day 10: Put Me in Coach

Thursday was the second of three “college” days on my syllabus. The first, a few weeks ago, we devoted to a discussion of the idea of amateurism. The third, a few weeks from now, will look at Michigan’s own Fab Five. For this day, though, which falls during our unit on the long decade of the 1960s in pro basketball, I wanted to spotlight what I think are two of most important phenomena of the 1960s in the college game: the UCLA dynasty under Coach John Wooden (10 NCAA titles in 12 years between 1964 and 1975) and the Texas Western title in 1966 (in which Coach Don Haskins elected to start five African Americans, and to play only his seven African American players in a win over heavily favored all-white Kentucky, coached by the white supremacist coaching legend Adolph Rupp). Though there are certainly a number of different valid avenues of inquiry to and from these two phenomena, I had decided ahead of time that I would use them as a way to talk about coaching. More particularly, I hoped to raise the provocative question of what, if anything, a coach is good for that couldn’t be gotten in other ways. And, this, in turn, I wanted to discuss in part as a screen to discuss questions of authority, ways of organizing, and the role of hierarchy in sports and beyond. We certainly got there, but as usual our path was pretty circuitous, in part because while I wanted to get to these points, I also wanted to see what other things might come up (also because I’d been hoping that Michigan Men’s Coach John Beilein would come to visit but that didn’t pan out, though I didn’t know for sure until class started and he wasn’t there).

We actually began with an open ended discussion of the chapter of Wooden’s autobiography They Call Me Coach in which he describes the Pyramid of Success. To get things started, I just wanted to know how they viewed the Pyramid and Wooden’s discussion of it. There was no clear consensus, but the overriding impression I drew from the varied comments included three sentiments: 1) it’s not much different from any number of other formalized steps-to-success documents they have apparently been exposed to already in their lives 2) as such, it may be more useful as a kind of touchstone upon which one might meditate when things aren’t going well than an actual plan one might consciously follow, and 3) it’s hard to know how much of Wooden’s success as a coach is due to this philosophy and how much due to the fact that, to paraphrase one student, he was never coaching bums. I didn’t really have any problems with what they said or with the quality of thought they exhibited in putting forth these arguments. Indeed, I thought to myself, I doubt Coach Wooden would have an objection to any of this.

Now I want to say here what I didn’t say in class. Wooden was one of my boyhood heroes. I remember watching lots of UCLA ball on TV, including the loss to Notre Dame that ended the 88 game win streak. Though gear was nowhere near the hoopshead staple that it is now, I had my share of Bruin gear including a small stuffed basketball brought by a visiting colleague of my fathers. I read the Wizard of Westwood and knew all the UCLA players past and present, and the scores of all their tournament games. Later, my father recently reminded me, I had entertained, in fact tried to push for, the idea of going to UCLA upon my 1983 graduation from high school in order to walk on. Sure, they were down at the time, but, still, that shows an impressive combination of delusion and determination. But my prized possession was a copy of the very Pyramid of Success we were about to discuss in class, but mine was autographed by Coach himself and personalized: “To Iago [sic], Best Wishes, John Wooden.”

The handwriting was neat as a nun’s.

If my serious boyhood crush on Coach Wooden is of any interest here, it might be mainly because I’m over it. Don’t get me wrong: I still feel awe at his accomplishments as a coach and I feel tremendous respect for what appears to be the very high degree of integrity with which he lived his life.  By almost all accounts he was a good man.  I felt sad when he died last year and I’m sure I would have lost it had I ever had the chance to meet him. But all that notwithstanding, it’s true that I’m over my wide-eyed slavish devotion to Coach and to the style and substance which he taught and embodied, and which he formalized in the Pyramid of Success. Now I hadn’t thought too much about this change. It was more like something that just happened naturally without my thinking about it, But two bits of language that I encountered recently in connection with this course served to remind me of what I had worshipped and of what I had gone beyond.

The first bit of language I encountered before the course even began, on my first read through of FreeDarko’s Undisputed History of Pro Basketball. It’s in the Chapter on Walton and Kareem, both of whom, as Bethlehem Shoals puts it in the chapter, “had played for Westwood’s bromide-spewing legend John Wooden.” That was it. Just that adjective: “bromide-spewing.” It took me aback. Briefly I felt hurt and defensive. But that didn’t surprise me as much as the speed with which those feelings turned into laughter and a nod. Say what you want about Coach, but he certainly did spew bromides. It’s not a big deal, not even a bad thing in and of itself. It just is what it is. He was a bromide spewer and I felt something like a burden lifted upon seeing that particular quality called precisely and unfussily by its name.

The second encounter occurred some weeks later, just a couple of weeks ago, in connection with the Basketball Culture 101 series organized by Beckley Mason over at Hoopspeak.  Two weeks ago Tim Varner of 48 Minutes of Hell, a San Antono Spurs blog, was assigned Wooden’s They Call me Coach for his turn. Varner titled his own insightful reading of the autobiography “John Wooden and the Culture of Ought.” There was another stab (and it has nothing to with Tim’s essay, just the title ripped from its context), but this didn’t involve injury or defense. It was instead a stab of recognition: a) Tim was right to associate Wooden with a culture of ought b) I used to love that about Coach c) now I don’t.

Put these two fragments of language together and I wound up with an oddly apt little portrait of Coach: his message was ought and his medium was the bromide, I want to take pains here to emphasize, again, that it’s not that I think there’s something wrong with that in and of itself as it was taught and lived by John Wooden. This isn’t exactly about him. It’s about me (of course) and about coaches and authority, and maybe about growing up and leaving childish things behind,

It’s hard for me to disentangle the various forces, around and within me, that would account for my changing feelings and views. And I’ve thought and talked about these things a great deal. How much harder than for my students, in a different time of life, to make manifest, let alone disentangle, the buried nest of needs and fears, hopes and desires that shape their attitudes not toward Wooden per se, but toward what Wooden can be said to be the embodiment of: the coach as horizon of truth and authority? That’s what I really wanted to discuss.

What good are coaches? I asked them. What do we really need them for? Try, I urged, to imagine basketball without coaches and see when you get to a point where your need for a coach arises. In relation to what problem, what need, what fear do you find yourself bringing in a Coach as the only – or even the best – solution? Try to figure out what you are creating the coach for and whether or not that function could be better served by some other delivery device.

For the most part – and with lots of due qualification that it all depends on the level — the students tilted their responses toward the indispensability of the coach. Some felt the coach’s technical expertise was indispensable. Others felt that he or she needed to manage the personalities and desires of individual players. Others saw the coach as offering an indispensable vision and rallying point: inspiration. Though the view was not universally shared there was a strong sense that the coach was there to keep chaos at bay.

I, accordingly, tried shamelessly to push them toward the chaos. I’m pretty sure that even when I’m wrong, I can make better arguments than they can or, failing that, that I can make them feel uncertain about their own arguments. I’m trying to beat them down, just enough; to irritate them into coming back with something stronger, In the case of this topic, there was a strange feedback loop at work, one that probably tangled me up.

Here’s what I think – besides the glacially slow resolution of my own Oedipal issues — was at stake for me. The remarkable, heretical philosopher Baruch Spinoza asked in his 17th century political philosophy why people desired their own enslavement as if it were their freedom. I ask that too, of myself and others, Why do we look to others to exercise capacities that we ourselves have? Why are we so quick to transfer our own powers? Spinoza showed us, among many many other things, how this was a recipe for sadness, as we moan and flail and wonder why we feel so powerless when in fact we have separated ourselves from our own powers. In fact, to simplify only slightly, that was Spinoza’s definition of sadness (joy, conversely, he said is the name we give to what we feel when we are connected to our power to act). In code, this is what I am asking my students: why are you so sure you don’t have the power to do what you are saying only the coach can do?

When Tim argued that Wooden was a teacher and that what he taught was the culture of ought, I think he was trying to emphasize three things: the first is that Wooden saw no separation between teaching basketball and teaching a life well-lived. The second is that Wooden believed a life lived ought to turn on self-respect, self-discipline and care for others. The third is that Wooden’s “ought” was neither “the must” of legislation nor the “shalt not” of negating prohibition. In other words, for Tim, Wooden was offering an affirmative life wisdom centered on love for oneself and love for others. I can certainly see that, but it’s not how it feels to me.

I hear that ought as a must. Some of this no doubt has to do with being the youngest by far in a family of strong personalities. I was certainly well-loved, but for many reasons I felt my position in the family as a kind of defenselessness, a kind of chaos, and I responded to that, in part, by turning “shoulds” (and “should nots”) and even “you might want to’s” (and “you might not want to’s”) into “musts.”  I wanted, in other words, not to think for myself. I wanted a clear formula for love and approval (which is what success meant to me at that young age). If I do this then I will be played with, not punished, not left alone, I will be congratulated, attended to; I will be loved. Among the problems with that is that once I’d reduced the world’s script to “you ought to”, I imultaneously reduced my own script to one of two options: “yes sir,” or “fuck you” (with maybe some numb silences thrown in at times when this whole machine got a little creaky). I think that working through that (or rather, that having only partially worked through that) has made me both productively aware and perhaps unproductively hypersensitive to the culture of ought.

But I also think it has made me sensitive and suspicious of bromides and formulas (even as I still crave them and fantasize that somewhere out there is the one magic formula for extra good feeling). Spinoza (who owns the distinction of having been ostracized not only by his native Jewish community, but also by the Christian community there, not to mention by Amsterdam’s economy) argued that at the heart of Judeo-Christian mythology lies a misinterpretation very similar to mine as a child. We read the story of Adam and the apple as if it was about prohibiton, disobedience, and punishment, as if Adam were a child and God the tough-love father. But what if we see it as a story about ethical advice in which someone with a different – even greater – understanding of cause and effect says to someone else if you eat the fruit of this tree the following things will happen because you are made of “x” properties and it is made of “y” properties. It’s the difference between prohibiting upon pain of punishment the touching of a hot stove and explaining through demonstration the effects of touching a hot stove.

My problem with the bromide or the formula (which is also what I love about them): is that in their very form they prohibit (or relieve us of) independent thought and experimentation. Short and pithy, elegant and succinct, they admit no debate, no questions even. And when the content or message borne by that form of discourse is “you ought to do this” then I am thrown into a kind of authoritarian echo chamber in which there is no space for me to think for myself, no space to try things out, no space to make mistakes and, crucially, no space perhaps to discover a new way that works better for me in the face of the chaotic messiness life sometimes presents.

Sometimes I am stupidly contrarian. Like on this day when I provoked them by asking if anybody else felt, like me, that it must have been a bummer for the white kids on the Texas Western team (I mean the ones who had been starting or playing regularly all year, who also had been working their whole lives to play in an NCAA title game, and for whom that game would be last game of their careers) when they were told by their Coach that they would be sitting on the bench and watching instead. Not too many takers for that feeling. And that’s fine. I’m glad my students could recognize that in that situation there were larger issues of collective well-being at stake and that these sometimes override our individual wishes and disappointments.

And I hope they understood that my position was not that Haskins made the wrong choice, or that the outcome was bad somehow.  The opposite is true. But the feeling I described stems from my sense that these things (collective well-being and individual satisfaction; outcome and decision-making process, ends and means) need not have been placed at odds with one another. Precisely such a momentous ethical stand as was taken by Coach Haskins and per force by extension his team, would have been even more thoroughly ethical and emancipatory had it been arrived it collectively, by the whole team, and not handed down from on high by the (white) coach as the only (and already arrived at) way through an urgently demanding ethical and political (not to mention basketball-ical) situation. I think it’s awesome that they did what they did. And awesome that all the players seem ultimately to have accepted the decision. I just think it would have been more awesome had Haskins said: here’s what I’ve been feeling and thinking, “what do y’all think about it?”  Let the discussion ensue.

Maybe my edging toward the position that there is something dangerously authortiarian in the traditional role of the coach as tough-loving parent-God sounds far fetched. Maybe it is.  I hope at least that if it does it is not because the game seems to have little to do with life.  After all, like life basketball involves harmonizing individual skills and aspirations with those of others in pursuit of excellence and joy.  And, like life, this delicate task happens often on the fly, under duress, in the midst of rapidly changing circumstances suffused by, among other things, random events.  In any event,  I hope I have shown that I acknowledge it to be a view I can’t separate from my own issues. But if I have, that hardly invalidates my argument since all arguments are insperable from someone’s own issues. Indeed, I think that doing so just supports my argument further. Because life is complicated, because the stakes are high, because we are all different and all have issues, we cannot afford not to assume the freedom and responsibility to be full participants ion the decisions that will affect us.

And whatever position one finally takes, I have no doubt that all the issues I have just tried to name are buried beneath the surface of a discussion like the one we had on the purpose of a Coach, Just as I am certain they are buried beneath the surface of most discussions of the functions of a teacher. And this is where the discussion tangles me up in it. I think we’re talking about coaches and I’m trying to push them to question their assumption that they need someone to keep order and to tell them what to do and how to do it and suddenly I realize I am talking about what’s going on in our classroom, in their relationship to me as a teacher, as the latest in a line of teacher after teacher they’ve had since before they could read. So what’s my job? Am I doing anything in there that they couldn’t find another way – a better way perhaps – to do for themselves.

I guess the short answer is no, I really don’t think so. I tried to tell them this in class too. I tried to step out of that strange feedback loop by doing the paradoxical two-step of talking about how to erase myself in the class as the source of truth and authority. I explained how for a number of years I experimented with self-grading in my classes in an earnest effort to dehierarchize the classroom, to detach what I had to offer as an older person with special education in the field of study (all of which I felt and feel it is my responsibility to make available to them) from any sort of regulatory or police function, from any sort of dictatorial use of language, to clear the decks of all excuses they might have for not thinking for themselves, for not identifying what they want and taking responsibility for shaping themselves and their surroundings in accordance with those aspirations, proportionately shaped by their freely exercised capacity for thought.

The best I can do in the classroom, I guess, is to invent (through reflection and improvisation) ways to help them locate their own powers of action (including feeling and thought). This can certainly entail lending resources and offering critique and feedback and other traditional components of pedaogogy, But even more crucially I feel that my job involves finding ways to use what they have invested in my position against that investment. Sometimes this involves being deliberately, provocatively, wrong; sometimes direct challenges, sometimes refusing to provide answers, including an answer to the question: “how am I doing? Am I okay?”

I know this doesn’t work for all my students all the time. I know that I don’t always do it effectively, even when I have correctly identified what to try. I work within an institutional context, though I am lucky that in this course, taught within the University of Michigan’s experimental Residential College, I feel fully supported in my experiments.  But even so, we have all, my students and I, learned within deeply grooved educational experiences that sometimes work so powerfully against this aim that it is all we can do just to blindly grope our way along those grooves and try to mumble the name of the trap we are caught in.  I’m certain that I could be a lot better as a teacher.  Certain that I have known better teachers than I, both in the classroom and outside of it.

More than 40 years ago, at a cultural congress in Havana, Cuba that was convened to discuss the tasks of intellectuals in the third world, the great Trinidadan activist and writer C. L. R. James – author of among other things Beyond a Boundary, one of the greatest sports books ever written – shook things up by telling Fidel and a number of other political and cultural luminaries that he felt the real task of intelletuals in the third world was to labor to abolish the category of the intellectual as the social embodiment of learning, thought and culture. I’d be happy as a teacher if it could be said of me that I have tried earnestly (and sometimes successfully) in getting students to drop the notion that a teacher is somehow the social embodiment of discovery and truth and to embrace instead the idea that at best a teacher is another human being, like them, in relation to whom they can discover and develop the powers they themselves already have for transforming themselves and their world for the better.

Postscript: A student interrupted discussion today by saying “I have bad news for any Jazz fans. I got a text from my pop that Jerry Sloan just resigned.” Now, I don’t in principle care whether a student is texting in class so long as they don’t distract me or other students. After all, I figure, it is their loss. I mean, I ask them not to and I tell them that I think it is rude and disrespectful, but I’m not going to disrupt my own class by telling someone who doesn’t seem to be disturbing anyone else to stop texting. So here in the middle of the class comes this interruption which threw me into a mini-eddy of confusion because a) the kid was not only texting, but announcing that he was texting b) the text came from his father; c) the father was texting him about basketball; d) the particular text had everything to do with our class discussion and, oh yeah, e) the father in question is a Hall of Fame basketball player and current NBA GM and, as such, has provided me with some of my most cherished basketball memories of the last 20 years, Faced with such unforeseen and unforeseeable events, it’s hard for me to wish I had more control over my classroom.

Go back to read about our fascination with foreshortened careers

or

Go on to read about the missing dunks of the New York Knicks ca. 1970-1973

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