Category Archives: Playing

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

Day 21: Finals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, my three heartening things:

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

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

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

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

Day 17: Beautiful Monstrous

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

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

Light Skin Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful Monstrous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or

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

Day 16: March Madness, or, Confessions of a Bad Professor

So, yesterday, I came to class committed to a rational division of class time: we would of course take a few minutes to air out are excitement over the Wolverine’s blow-out of Tennessee and 2 point loss to number 1 seed Duke. And then we’d take a few more minutes to get up to speed on the planning of our own intraclass tournament. But even allotting generously for these matters, that would still leave us an hour to talk about the luminescence of Jordan’s Bulls and the shadow it cast over the rest of the NBA in the 1990s. And that, I expected, would be the topic of my post for today.

Instead, to summarize in rough order: we talked about the first two rounds of NCAA tournament games, the likelihood of various college players going pro, Jimmer Fredette, BYU, and the history of Mormonism in the United States, the real vs. hyped merits of various Duke players, Tim Hardaway Jr. being crossed by Nolan Smith (hey, he brought it up!), Stuart Douglass’ two handed jam against Tennessee and his 30 foot triple moments before that, the team’s prospects for next year, and, our own upcoming tournament (which topic can be further subdivided into: participant nicknames, jerseys, dates, venues, tourney format, the actual composition of teams, and team names).

The simplest thing to say would be that I’ve lost control of the class. And that would be true, but putting it that way obscures the unexpectedly complex dynamics unfolding as my first stab at teaching Cultures of Basketball unfolds. And it’d be easy for me to caricature the students’ jovial unruliness and to make this a story about how their chaotic energy overwhelmed my own best steadfast and sober efforts to focus our energy on The Reading Assignment and The Real Topic for the day. I could probably make that pretty amusing. But I don’t think it’s really how it went down and I don’t think that would really help me understood or communicate to you the experience of teaching this odd course.

It’s much truer to say that I came in spoiling for it, I was the instigator and, especially once we started talking about the intra-class tourney and I saw their enthusiasm, what interest I had in the day’s material and what guilt I felt about being a Bad Professor (would be a great nickname by the way), seemed to vanish and I was all in. Go big or go home. So I’m embracing the day’s events and am going to utilize this space to describe the First Annual Free Yago CoB JAMboreeee, as we finally determined our event shall be called. To really throw caution to the wind, and licensed by the arbitrary rationalization that the players’ season is now over, I will use real names here when necessary.

We had already determined that the tournament field would consist of 8 3-person teams. Each of the eight UM players would be designated in advance as a “team owner.” The rest of us would put our chosen nicknames on a ping pong ball, and the ping pong balls would be placed in a box. The owners would then draw randomly in a variation of the NBA draft lottery and one by one the rosters for the 8 teams would be filled out.

As for the format, we’d agreed that we wanted maximum play for everyone. So we decided to go World Cup style. Four teams would comprise a “Maize” group and four teams would comprise a “Blue” group – the groups would be formed randomly. In Round I, the four teams in each group would play a round robin tournament. From there, the top two teams in each group enter the Championship bracket, wherein Blue 1 would face Maize 2 and Maize 1 would face Blue 2. Similarly, the bottom two teams in each group enter the Losers’ Bracket (Blue 3 vs. Maize 4 and Maize 3 vs. Blue 4). The winners of the two semi-final games in the Championship Bracket would, of course, face off to determine the Champion and runner up. The losers of the two Championship Bracket semi-final games would play for 3rd and 4th place. Over in the Losers’ Bracket, the winners of the semis would play for 5th and 6th place, and the losers of the semis would play for 7th and 8th place. This way, everyone will get to play 5 games. This much had already been determined and so I began our discussion by putting it all on the board. Then we turned our attention to still undecided issues.

First, the bad news. Crisler Arena is closed for construction. That left us mulling two possibilities: one of the University’s recreational facilities or an outdoor court. Because of the tournament format, we really need games going on two baskets at a time. I was pushing for an outdoor venue, figuring that by the time we play in mid April the weather will be “good” and, more importantly, that the irregularities of the playground might serve as an equalizer (Tim Hardaway, Jr. agreed with this but I couldn’t tell if he favored the outdoor option or not). But others seemed clearly averse to that possibility. Some suggested reserving a court in one of the IM buildings, which remains a possibility, though I find myself strangely cowed by the prospect of calling to arrange this. Evan Smotrycz suggested we just show up, figuring that people would be “intimated by . . . you know, we’ve got like 30 people”. I’m not sure what thoughts were contained by that pause, but I was imagining that he was thinking people will be intimidated because, well, we are the UM basketball team. I was thinking that. Ultimately, a final decision on the venue was tabled pending further inquiries and “discussion”.

0-1.

I passed out a sign-up sheet on which students were to indicate, if they had not already, their chosen nickname and their top three jersey number preferences. One student, Rajesh Kumar, had graciously volunteered to make the necessary inquiries at the printing shop. He reported back that we could get regular cotton tees printed with a logo (a single one for all) and a team name on the front, and a name and number on the back for $15 a piece, or the same thing but printed on a dri-fit tee for $20. At first count, a majority favored the dri-fit option. However, the minority presented the argument that the cotton tee would make for a better souvenir. I was nearly swayed by this, touched as I was that they would want a souvenir of the event. Ultimately, we charged Rajesh with finding out if the printer could accommodate individual requests for the type of shirt or if we all had to go the same route. Another decision tabled.

0-2

We discuss the name and logo for the event itself. I initially reject all options involving my own name. In athletic contexts, and despite the influx of Latin players into the NBA game, it still horrifies me to utter it and then, inevitably, to have to repeat it, slowly, as though it were immensely complicated to pronounce rather than two short syllables that most infants manage to articulate before they can even speak.

Jordan Dumars helpfully offers to come up with the name. He’s shown himself to be a quiet kid, but a clever and quick-witted thinker and adept in language. I’ll take the help. He only needs two minutes he says. In the meantime, good natured Mack Ladd volunteers to design the logo. I ask him, do you have the skill set for this. “No,” he says, “but I’ll get it done.” I forget that a lot of these kids are in the b school so that the fact they can’t do something doesn’t automatically induce panic as it would in me. It just induces outsourcing.

Jordan and Colton Christian start laughing. Jordan has come up with a name but initially tries to pass it off as Colton’s idea. Finally, we get Jordan to share: “The Washtenaw County Colonoscopy Invitational.” He’s concerned, naturally, about copyright issues, but other than that seems to feel pretty good about it. I’m not so sure, though strangely, I am also delighted.

Someone – I don’t remember who – shouts out “jamboree”, someone else picks it up, I turn it into JAMboreee and that seems to stick. Or maybe they have lost interest. But it gets put together with Free Yago (a nod to the Free Darko textbook we are ignoring today). Finally, I have to admit, I like that they have been so insistent that the tournament should bear my embarrassing name. And when I remember that some of them want the souvenir tee shirt, I glow. No official conclusion was reached in class, but there was enough consensus around it that, later in the evening, enterprising Mack, who had already lined up his graphic designer, was running possibilities by me that all involved some combination of “Free Yago” and “JAMboree.”

Let’s call that a free throw. 0-2 from the field, 1-2 from the line.

Discussion turned to the date. Now here it would seem the best thing would be to just pick, say, the last day of class. After all, it’s guaranteed that everybody can make that time. But I vetoed that option in advance, perversely arguing that I didn’t want to take up “class time” with the tournament (!) and also, somewhat more reasonably, that we’d need more time than the hour and twenty minutes of class to play out the whole tourney. We talked about weekend dates in April but that was proving tough to manage since someone it seemed would be out of town every weekend in April. So we began to turn to weekday dates, but the cacophonous mix of helpful suggestions, idle chatter, and objections combined with my own limitations as a logistician made the room spin and my eyes swim. I tabled that decision as well, pending the submission by all participants of a full calendar for the next month indicating the dates and times they would be absolutely unavailable to play.

We are sucking at making decisions. The stat line is not encouraging: 0-3 from the floor, 1-2 from the line.

About the only thing of which I am feeling certain at this point is that this beautiful dream, this highly cool idea, is fading faster than Michigan State’s NCAA title aspirations this season. I can feel the pressure rising, a half hour remains of class time. We have done no real work and at this point, I feel so despairing about the intractability of pulling off the tourney that I don’t even want to do any. I’m not sure we will ever make it back to the syllabus. I buy time by checking to see if the nickname sheet has made its way around. It is, almost everyone has signed up. We have spent 50 of our 80 minutes.

I’m seeing only the failures in this moment: not only the failure to tackle tournament logistics, not even only the failure to manage class time so as to be able actually to think and discuss the cultures of basketball. I’m thinking bigger failures: failure to generate in the students, after 2 ½ months, enough interest in my approach to hoops culture that they themselves would be demanding we study; and, even bigger than that, lifelong failure to assert myself, independently of what I fear others might think of me. I play at cheerful impatience, but inside I’m withering, And I’m figuring I’ll just collect the sheet, send them home, resign my job on grounds of incompetence, and fly home to regroup. It is a low point for me.

They save me, they buoy me, they lift me once again to new heights of delectable triumph. “Let’s pick our teams NOWWW!” they shout, almost in unison. I pause. I am thinking, with a kind of whiny, loserly petulance: “but what about the ping pong balls?” But fortunately, a saner, more desperate, less stubborn and more pragmatic voice prevails: “Don’t be a madman!! They are still enthusiastic, don’t kill it over some pathetic detail of your fantasy!! Ride it, man, ride it!!”

So I say, as enticingly as possible, “you wanna go ahead and do that? Even without the ping pong balls” (as if they were the ones dying to do the ping pong balls). “Yay! Yay!” they crow brightly and beneath the cheering one of them – maybe Mack – asks me was I really planning to do ping pong balls. I think there is genuine concern for me in his voice. I say yes, but tell him it’s totally fine. While the last of the students fill in their nicknames and jersey numbers on the sheet, I start tearing up scraps of paper and then feverishly scribbling the nicknames I already know on them in order to speed things up. Finally, we have all the names on paper and all the paper in my hat.

I write the chosen nicknames of the 8 players/owners in a row across the top of the board: Bird (Blake McClimans), Manatee (Evan Smotrycz), The Technician a/k/a Daddy (Jordan Dumars), Chevy (Colton Christian), Wisconsin Lunchbox (Matt Vogrich), “Stuart” (Stu Douglass, who still hadn’t decided, but has since gone with Dr. Funk from a Vince Carter Nike commercial), Bing Bing (Corey Person) and Pop Pop a/k/a Thard Nation (Tim Hardaway Jr). Everyone seems to be laughing, the air thick with excited anticipation. I am hot. Even with my hat off. I’m boiling hot and nervous. My hands shake as I approach Blake with my hat. I worry suddenly that they will be grossed out picking names out of my hat, as if instead of just wearing it on my head I’d been using it for a chamberpot. I worry that somehow our hands will touch. I worry that they will see my hands shake. My hands shake more.

Blake picks out the first paper: “Bronco”. That’s Mack Ladd. Applause, laughter, shouting, and hollering ring out. Even though it was a random drawing, some honor seems to go along with being the first pick in the draft and while I’m genuinely happy for Mack (already an absurd feeling), I’m also jealous (oh God!). I make some crack about the max rookie contract he’ll be able to command. Then I turn to The Technician a/k/a Daddy. Jordan rustles around in the hat, pulls out the paper, reads it and then silently extends his arm and fist to me. Oh! I realize suddenly, he’s picked me! I awkwardly fold my still healing right hand into a small fist and bump it against his, hoping he won’t hit it too hard, realizing I don’t know how hard to hit it. David Shields was wrong, I think: this camaraderie is mine too. Perhaps this is the best moment of my life.

For the record, I’d been going over this moment in my mind for weeks, and I’d honestly come to realize that I would have been thrilled to join any of the players’ teams. I’ve come to like and respect them all as individuals a great deal. And likewise, I found something exciting about every possible non-player student I might have been teamed up with. Still not only do I like Jordan a lot, but because he is Joe Dumars’ son a deeply irrational part of my soul reacts as if Joe D just plucked me from obscurity with the second pick of the draft! Wait a minute, I don’t mean that to connote what it inevitably will, especially in light of the title of our textbook. But you get the idea.

The draft progresses, now that I’ve been picked I can focus on the genuinely touching dynamic as each “owner” picks the nickname of a classmate, who recognizes his or her own name as it is called out, and lights up, shyly or gregariously raising his or her hand. Perhaps this moment is great for them too. And the players respond with enthusiasm; not because they know anything about their classmate’s skills, but seemingly just because it is fun for them to make new teammates. They delight in each others choice of nicknames. Maybe I’m just inventing all this, but I liked the feeling that these big time college athletes, who just two days earlier had taken # 1 seeded Duke University to the wire before the biggest television audience of the first two rounds were now undeniably joyful in a cramped attic classroom, at the news that they’d just added a 5-8 4th year mechanical engineering student to their squad.

I choose to see that as a pedagogical success.

Once we’d picked all the teams (obviously doing the second round in reverse), they clamored to break into their teams and begin to devise team names. Jordan and I got together (our third, as yet nickname-less Ryan Feeley was competing in the NCAA men’s swimming championships and so was absent from class). Washtenaw County Colonoscopy Invitational notwithstanding, Jordan really is good at this kind of thing, so I was eager to hear his suggestion.

He immediately won me over: “You know that movie I just wrote about? Semi-Pro? You know how they were called Flint Tropics?” I’m on it straight away. It’s brilliant, a faux ABA name. I’m down, I love the ABA, Jordan truly is a great teammate!! “So we need the name of an obscure town then.” “How about Saline?” Jordan suggests. I like that. Saline, a small town outside Ann Arbor, is not pronounced SAY-lean, like the solution, but rather suh-LEAN, like, well, nothing. It’s perfect. Now we need a nickname, “something intimidating,” I say. “Yeah, it should be intimidating,” he agrees. “I got an idea,” I say, extremely apprehensively. “How ‘bout the Saline Sickness.” Jordan pauses. Fist bump. For the win.

Postscript: For those keeping score at home, here are the rosters for the First Annual Free Yago CoB JAMboree (date and venue TBA). Some team names have yet to be announced, but for each team I’ve listed nickname, real name, and jersey number

MAIZE GROUP:

The Dream Killazzz

Bing Bing (Corey Person) 93

Darvy (Elliott Darvish) 24

Sizzle (Nick Pagano) 33

Team Name TBA

Pop Pop a/k/a Thard Nation (Tim Hardaway, Jr.) 10

White Lightning (Morgan Bailey) 800 [Morgan is a ceremonial pick     since she runs the 400 and 800 on the Women’s Track Team and     will still be competing]

Burr!! (Nick Berlage) 4

Flyy Kicks (Christina Albert) 16

Team Name TBA

Bird (Blake McClimans) 88

Bronco (Mack Ladd) 269

Panchero (Tim Yeh) 8

Team Name TBA

Manatee (Evan Smotrycz) -6

The Garbage Man (Sam Klein) 12

The Hebrew Hammer (Matt Gordon) 18

BLUE GROUP

Team Name TBA

Dr. Funk (Stuart Douglass) 3.14

Hot Sauce (Shantanu Kumar) 23

TBA (Sean Fletcher) TBA

The Melting Pot (tentative only, subject to change)

Wisconsin Lunchbox (Matt Vogrich) infinity symbol

The Professor (Ronald Beach II) 14

Shake n Bake (Rajesh Kumar) 7

Save 2nd Base (BYU)

Chevy (Colton Christian) #

Blue Steel (Chantel Jennings) 22

The Caucasian Invasion (Andrew Dickson) 13

Saline Sickness

The Technician a/k/a Daddy (Jordan Dumars) 84

Light Skin Jesus (Yago Colas) 11

TBA (Ryan Feeley) TBA

Go backward if you want to read about last class’ discussion of the young Michael Jordan

or

forward if you want to read about the Knicks Heat rivalry of the late 90s

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

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