Category Archives: Teamwork

The Triangle Myth

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

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The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Francisco Goya)

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Kerr elaborates the complaint:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phil Jackson and the Essence of Basketball

Yesterday, Howard Beck published a fine profile of New York Knicks President Phil Jackson. Jackson, a former player (on the championship teams of the Knicks in 1970 and 1973) and coach (of 11 championship teams in Chicago and Los Angeles), is at least as well known for the string of popular books popular books blending autobiography, basketball strategy and tactics, and a mix of fundamentalist Christianity, Lakota Sioux religion, and Zen Buddhism; nuggets of wisdom from which he occasionally releases in interviews with the media.  All this makes Jackson an extremely interesting figure to me combining as he does, in his approach to the game, a love of basketball, an interest in the nuts and bolts of the game, and an awareness of wider social, philosophical and psychological issues shaping and shaped by basketball. Read more

Day 11: Dunk You Very Much

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or

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

Day 3: Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

When I first saw that UM players were signing up for the course, back toward the end of the Fall semester, I was mostly just excited. Then I started to feel a little anxious, which, as previously reported, bore gruesome fruit on Day 1. But I also a felt a more realistic, pedagogical concern: if I had 8 or 9 players in a class of 20, what would happen when they all had to miss a day (or more) because of travel for a game? And what would happen when they all came back the next day? At the time, I brushed this question off and didn’t really think through a good response since it was a bridge I hadn’t come to yet and I was still mostly just excited. But this particular repressed reared its ugly head earlier this week and I had to start worrying about it again. 

The e-mail came on Monday, as I was prepping for Tuesday’s class, from an Academic Counselor in the Academic Success Program at the University.   The subject line named all the players enrolled in my class. I was excited. Probably they’re writing because want me to get more involved with the team because the players reported to their coach what a phenomenal asset they were sure I’d be. As it turns, the message very politely, but pleasantly informally, let me know that players would miss class on Tuesday because they’d be traveling to their game against Northwestern and asked me about any assignments “the guys” (I did dig that the sender referred to the players as “the guys” to me; made me feel like part of the gang) would need to make up from not being in class on Tuesday.  My heart sank:  I’m nine and my older brother says he has to go to work and doesn’t have time to play me one-on-one.

But the message in itself was neither a problem nor a surprise. Only last week, a member of the track team who is also in the class had handed me a copy of the track schedule covered by a letter from the Provost and Vice-president for Academic Affairs, endorsed by the Chair of the Faculty Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs. I also enjoyed that letter because while I talk a good game,  I’m also craven enough to be gratified to be contacted by Power, even when it’s just telling me what to do.

The Provost informed me that “the student bearing this letter” would find it “necessary to miss a portion” of my class in order “for him/her to represent the University of Michigan.” It went on to explain that the student was not relieved of responsibility for completing course requirements and that the Provost expected the student and me to make alternative arrangements that did not “unduly inconvenience” me or the student. Alright, this seems like a reasonable approach to the issue.

After all, students miss class for much stupider reasons. Like, say, being drunk at 9 am on St. Patrick’s Day. I’m not kidding – I’ve passed them on my way to class and they call out to me with a surprising lack of sheepishness:  “Yo! Professsssssor CO-las!”

On Tuesday, it was great to have more space in our tiny overheated classroom.  The remaining students had dispersed throughout the available space like gas molecules in a drawing.  I noted with relief that I wasn’t worried about what I was wearing. But the absences made me a little down.  And, they present a practical problem in my class for reasons that have something to do, in a way, with the topics we covered in class yesterday. First, for those of you keeping track at home, the required reading assignment was pp. 16-19 of FreeDarko’s Undisputed Guide to the History of Pro Basketball. That’s the section, called “Go Forth and Dribble: Basketball’s First Great Age of Expansion,” covering professional basketball leagues in this country from 1898 up to the creation of the NBA from two existing leagues in 1949.

Though a short selection, it contains a wealth of material ingenously presented by Jacob Weinstein in four sections, one per page: “Micro Leagues: 1898-1909”, “Regional Leagues: 1910-1924”, “Big Leagues: 1925-1937”, and “Major Leagues: 1938-1950”. Each section includes a map showing the number of teams from different cities in each league and then provides short descriptions of the “Structure,” “Venues,” “Style” and “Innovations” characteristic of each of the four types of league. It struck me as a quite brilliantly economical way to present a great deal of information on the “pre-history” of the NBA to an audience that’s really mostly interested in the NBA. In a way, it read to me like a combination of summary and interpretation of the much more detailed book From Cages to Jump Shots, by Robert Peterson, which is a terrific resource in its own right.  This is a great section but because of its structure (which is not exactly narrative), it’s a little harder for me to feel at home there, like playing on a court without lines, or with different lines.

My plan for the day was to recap our discussion of Naismith and the invention of the game in ways that might link it to the reading about the early pro leagues, then to pull student impressions of the reading, and then to steer the discussion in the direction of the two most interesting topics that the Free Darko reading raised for me: first, how we tell “pre-history” of something (in this case the NBA), and what happens to our view of things that didn’t themselves know they were part of the pre-history of anything when they were happening; and second, how tensions between spontaneity and calculation, horizontal (or non-hierarchical, decentralized) organization and vertical (or hierarchical and centralized) organization, informal versus formal business models, and local vs. national scales were present and manifested themselves in these early leagues. That was the plan, but as always I wasn’t sure how – or if — we’d get from A to B to C.

I reminded them that we’d spoken of stories of how things come into being or how they come to have the form they have, and I pointed out that we can, in telling those stories, tilt the narrative to stress the chance or coincidental nature of the emergence of the thing or, conversely, to stress the inevitability of its emergence. Or, as philosophers might put it, we can, for reasons of temperament and agenda, stress contingency or necessity.  I’m not a philosopher, so I might have that not quite right.

In the case of Naismith, I cited the height of the goal, which didn’t “have to be” (necessity, inevitability) 10 feet, but “happened to be” (contingency, chance) because that was the height of the balcony in the Springfield Y to which he nailed the peach baskets. We also talked about how this plays out in other stories and had a good laugh imagining “Hoosiers” (a story narrated as destiny if there ever was one, but that really becomes a story worth telling only because a player hit a literally improbably, game-winning last-second shot) as a comedy. Maybe Chevy Chase could play the Gene Hackman role and a baffling series of wacky accidents and zany hijinks could brings tiny Hickory to the Indiana state title.Of course, I’m not the first to point out that the “Hoosiers”-as-destiny narrative is powerfully racially coded so that it’s unlikely that remake is gonna happen anytime soon.

For some, a stress on the contingency of history leads naturally to wonder: well, if it didn’t have to happen this way, what if it had happened another way? And these counterfactuals, as they are called, can provide for an amusing pastime, as exemplified for some in the “what ifs” section of Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball: speculating as to how the course of history might have changed if you alter one chance variable in the past (what if Jason Williams hadn’t crashed his motorcycle, what if Memphis had won the Lebron draft lottery instead of Cleveland). In fact, it’s a whole subdiscipline in the field of history. But I wasn’t interested, not in class anyway, in actually debating these what-ifs. I said this with as much weary disdain as I could muster so as to discourage what I envisioned would be a disintegration of the classroom into a kind of amateur “Around the Horn” (or, for 30 Rock fans: Sports Shouting). I just wanted the students to learn to spot these sorts of elective emphases when they are present (as they must be) in any story about the coming into being of something new.

But with that recap in mind to orient our discussion, I let go of the reins and stepped into the abyss, asking the students what had struck them in the reading. Several hands went up, catastrophe averted. I don’t care so much whether they say anything smart, so long as they say something. For better and for worse I can make just about anything sound smart, at least to 19 year-olds. In this case, fortunately, the students picked up on things that I think really were at least potentially interesting aspects of the early history of the game.  One student was struck by the violence of the early leagues. Another student was struck by the mobility of the contract-less players in the regional leagues. We laughed imagining a league in which Melo could play for NY, NJ, and Denver. Then another student described being struck by the ability to “see the evolution of the game.” He talked about how bit-by-bit, as he read the four pages, the game he is familiar with started to emerge and take shape.


Good feeling.  Scintillating.  I liked the image and seized on the term evolution.  Here is possibility.  Here is the pebbled surface of the ball in my hands.  I pointed out, parenthetically acknowledging that he surely used the word evolution deliberately, that often times we use that term with a teleological (look it up) connotation, as though we knew all along where something that was evolving was evolving to. And then I pointed out that at the heart of the theory of evolution and its mechanisms of natural selection and genetic drift is the phenomenon of random variation generated by mutation.  Only after these random variations have manifested and proved advantageous do they begin to get “selected,” … “naturally.” That’s a bit too much chance for some storytellers though, I said, just because it sounded good, and so some want to assign a motivating, necessary cause to “random variations.” An example of such a cause would be God. I’m not a biologist (I know, I fake it a lot), so I might have that evolution stuff wrong, but if I do, it’s the way it ought to be.

I hadn’t planned it, or thought at all ahead of time about evolution in relation to the day’s reading (obvious though it now seems to me). But that’s one of the advantages of having a relatively unstructured class format and bright students willing to participate: they can come up with things I haven’t thought of and I’m free to pursue them. Of course, sometimes those things turn out to be a dead end or I’m not skillful enough as a teacher to make them pay off. You never know for sure. Yesterday, I only knew that evolution was an important word, but I didn’t yet know how and I was both exhilarated and a bit afraid as I grabbed the rebound and pushed the ball up the floor in traffic without numbers:  cool because I didn’t know what’s going to happen next, scary because I didn’t know what going to happen next.  It’s weird because I count on the trailer and even though I’ve been told a million times that I can always pull it back out if there’s nothing there, something inside me just keeps pushing me toward the basket where something magnificent or something catastrophic will happen.  Nothing in between.

And that’s the where the day’s topic of discussion connects back to my concerns about the absence of a third of my class. In this respect, I’m thinking, my course works very much like evolution itself: “random” variations (like a student throwing out a word that happens to catch my fancy) generate a kind of “natural selection” of topics (I take the word and shape the rest of the discussion with it, explicitly or implicitly).  Students who miss class can, and I’m sure will, keep up with all the formal assignments. However, because my class time is not carefully planned out, but relies heavily on impromptu student participation, discussion, and improvisation there is no real way for the absent students to ever “get” what they missed.

I can point them to other students’ notes, or to my own, or even to this blog post – but all of those are not only inevitably going to be partial and distorted representations of the discussion, they are of a completely different nature than discussion. Because class discussion is not only about the content and the points that were raised, not even mainly about that: it’s mainly about the form – the escalating energy and vibe of collaboration as a group tentatively stumbles and gropes its way to discovery.

As a humanities professor, I feel that one of the main things of which I am a steward and which I am responsible for conveying to my students and nurturing in them is just this experience of open-ended, collaborative discovery. In a way, the whole canon of the humanities can be seen as a very long, extended discussion in which one person says, for example, “Hmm, it looks to me like, despite the appearance of change, everything is, deep down, fixed and unchanging?” and then someone else says, “Mehhh, not so much, to me everything looks as though is fluid and mutable.  What makes you think there’s a ‘deep down’?”  I want my students to learn about that history.  More than that I want them to live it and to feel themselves heirs to it and participants in it and in that way to come to be invested in it and in making it better and more useful in addressing the world they live in.

Okay, so that’s a lot. And it’s not like the absence of a third of the class a handful of times (or two handfuls; how many handfuls will it be exactly? I wonder) over the course of the semester is the end of the world, or a problem that can’t be addressed. But it adds a degree of difficulty to any class. And in a class in which there is already some awareness, for better and for worse, of differences, this just adds one more. It’s a loss not only for the players and the journalist who missed out on Tuesday’s class and who have to show up on Thursday, I imagine, with some degree of anxiety or pressure, but also for those who were there on Tuesday and may be wary of participating in ways that refer to Tuesday’s class and so exclude their classmates from fully participating. As I say, I can deal with this, but I also have to deal with this.

On the other hand, as I’m writing, it occurs to me – thinking of the ways in which discussion in my classroom and evolution resemble free-lancing in a pickup game – that it may perhaps be easier to deal with a shifting roster if you don’t have a highly structured, set offense that depends heavily on the skill set of particular players who might be injured or traded and that, moreover, has to be taught to new players that might be acquired.  In this sense, each class meeting is like a single game.  Players are removed and added to playground teams all the time – even the winning team. And that works in part because there are no set plays. Everyone is improvising and so its easier to remain effective even when you’ve lost a player and had to pick up a new one, even if that new player sucks. So maybe even as the unstructured nature of the class makes it harder to “catch people up”, perhaps it will be easier to accommodate the goings and comings of my student-athletes (and of other students for other reasons) because the class is more or less free-lanced.

At the same time, it’s also true that playing even a couple of games in a row with the same players can lead you to familiarize yourself with your teammates’ tendencies, strengths, and limitations and make you more effective.  So I think part of my job is going to be to step up and assert myself enough to communicate to returning students the valuable tendencies (things like an emerging class “vocabulary” or even a vibe) that the class developed in their absence. That sort of thing happens all the time on the playground. You join a team that’s been playing or where a couple of players already know each other and they pull you aside and in a few seconds bring you up to speed. And I think I can do this successfully while encouraging returning students to make their own improvisational contributions without fear that this is somehow going to jeopardize or destroy what is already in place.

And this issue of how to harmonize the interests and abilities of the individual with those of the group also echoes something we already talked about in class, though we were talking about it in the guise of the tension between “one-on-one” style and “team” style that is highlighted in Weinstein’s account, particularly, of the “Regional Leagues” that predominated between 1910 and 1924.  Weinstein makes the point that at this time, pro players were still permitted to double-dribble so that games were dominated by one-on-one play, “with the dribbler acting like a football running back and bowling over defenders by head-butting them.”   In other words, because players could double-dribble they did double dribble as a means of advancing the ball toward the basket.  At the same time, as he also points out, “while teams might barely last a season intact [because of player mobility], pairs and groups of players often stuck together for years, and their familiarity with each other led to the development of the pick and roll, or, as it was known at the time, the buddy system.”

So in the very same league two different tendencies are in effect; tendencies that, taken to their logical extreme, are incompatible with one another and so, in that sense, are vying for ascendancy in the game.  Will pro basketball come to be about one-on-one play and physical strength or will it be about collaboration, ingenuity, and finesse (the pick, after all, works only because it’s illegal for the defensive man physically to blast through a screener)? And what decides this?

In class (I feel obliged to point this out because some of the students at least will be reading this) none of this emerged with great clarity and we spent most of the time talking about the way the relative emphasis on one-on-one vs. team styles changes depending on the level of play, the skill of the players, the culture of the institution, and the power dynamics between players and coaches – all of which was very worthwhile in its own right. But here I want to stress what I only mentioned incoherently in passing on Tuesday: namely that “fitness” in the evolutionary sense of the term, as far as the history of pro basketball is concerned, has to some degree come down to commercial viability.

The double-dribble was eliminated from most pro leagues following its ban from the American Basketball League in the 1920s. The ABL, in turn, banned it in part because it had already been banned by the much more popular amateur circuits such as the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in 1908-1909. “Henceforth,” as Robert Peterson puts it, “the professional game would gradually become faster and depend less on bulk and strength and more on speed, agility, and cleverness,” like its more popular college and amateur counterpart.

Now, once the ABL banned the double-dribble, players were forced to make a different decision once they’d picked up their dribble. They had to shoot or pass. And it’s at this point that certain “team” features – like the pick and roll — that had originally emerged as an almost accidental function of small groups of players growing accustomed to one another in an era of no contracts and great player mobility became dominant strategies.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the market “decided” ahead of time how the pro game evolved, then or now. Part of the beauty of basketball is that technical innovations born of informal, horizontally organized, extra-institutional venues make their way into the formal game because they are strategically more effective (indeed, the dribble itself began as an accident:  someone knocked the ball out of an early player’s hands and it rolled and as he raced to retrieve it he realized he’d succeeded in advancing the ball up the court without running with it, which was disallowed; eventually this became deliberate). But strategically more effective is only one of the variables that makes those innovations stick. By itself it might not be enough. Think, for example, of the anxiety that gets generated when those innovations appear to be too effective: Mikan camping in the lane, Russell’s offensive goaltending, Wilt or Kareem’s dunks.

In class, I tried to emphasize how this whole issue is heavily moralized and racialized so that one-on-one play is thought to be selfish and ostentatious and black while team play is though to be selfless and humble and white. I felt that this moral and racial coding of a properly technical, strategic issue is so prevalent and seemingly natural that it had to be named and not only named, but ridiculed, which I did by overstating the case that in no other game do technical and strategic choices get fraught with moral and racial meanings.   Of course, that’s not true, but it worked it seemed to get the students to really stop and see how weird it is that we make my decision about whether or not to pass the ball at a given moment in a fast-moving game into a morally and racially significant one.

Moreover, I stressed (or at least I wish now I had stressed), the history of the game can be told in ways that make it appear that the “essence” of the game is team play and has been from the very start. Whether or not it’s true that team play is critical to success at the highest level of basketball is beside the point. I want my students to understand how stories get told that associate the essence of something desirable with certain classes, races or ethnicities, and genders and thus position individuals of other classes, races or ethnicities, and genders as potentially dangerous interlopers, marauders. The snake in the garden.

But with all this in mind, the market, too, sooner or later plays a role in determining the “fitness” of certain innovations, sometimes in ways that dovetail with these moralizing and racializing narratives and sometimes in ways which run against them.  Part of what is exciting about the early history of the NBA is the decentralization that served as a kind of dispersed laboratory in which experiments with the game could thrive. That laboratory still exists today of course: on playgrounds, the And-1 circuit, minor leagues like the new ABA, and so forth. But the NBA, very obviously, exerts a much more powerful, constraining gravitational pull than any institution did in the first half of the 20th century.

I love the NBA game: not only the game on the floor, but also the accompanying personalities and even the consumer culture associated with it. I love, of course, the athletic ability and skill of the players. I love the variety of styles that teams play. I don’t think the game is worse now than it used to be, nor do I think it’s necessarily better than it will be. It’s just different and, well, amazing (sorry). So in that sense, I can’t really complain about how evolution has treated the pro game.

But I also couldn’t help but feel a little sad as we read about and discussed the early pros, who were riotously experimenting with a brand-spanking new game rife with possibilities and didn’t know that they were simply participating in someone else’s pre-history.  I can’t help but be irritated that when I search for early NBA history videos on line what I get are actually videos of a BAA game from 1946 that the NBA has colonized as its own, as though it were inevitable that the BAA would, after its merger with the more talent-laden NBL, evolve into the NBA.   And so I couldn’t and can’t help but pull for what I think of as some anarchic impulse that challenges the naturalized, hierarchized, centralizing force of the NBA, even if the expression of that impulse seems to come – temporarily — at the expense of the “quality” of the game on the court.

I love the NBA, but I also love the things that put the NBA in crisis in various ways.  Think of Rodman and Artest (maddening combination of effective and unruly on the court).  Think Iverson and Arenas (maddening combination of effective on and unruly off the court).  Think Russell and Chamberlain (maddeningly unstoppable).  Think Cousy and Robertson (maddeningly confrontational in the boardroom).  Think Rasheed (maddening combination of extraordinary individual talent, modest individual ambition, and extraordinary outspokenness).  I know the NBA probably isn’t really threatened by these figures.  Maybe even they learn to capitalize on them.  But when they first surface there’s a least a shudder in the powers that be.

I’m not sure, but I think that in a very roundabout way I just set myself up to be David Stern and my students to be the early pros. The point is that I want my class to have the room to evolve. I want there to be enough flexibility that random heretical comments – the classroom equivalent of a crossover dribble flying in the face of the conventional wisdom that the ball handler should keep his body between the ball and the defender; the kind of innovation a ref blows the whistle on because he’s never seen it before — have a chance to prove their fitness. And so that students have the opportunity to practice being part of a genuine intellectual dialogue. But part of that practice also entails I think developing with them some criteria of fitness in the form of an emerging common vocabulary and set of shared interests that we can return to when our actual or figurative wandering has left us feeling lost, which seems like an appropriate place to end since Thursdays class will be devoted to the itinerant barnstormers.

Go back to read about how basketball is like a religion or a nation

Go on to read about why I should be but am not identified as Chris Paul on the playground