Category Archives: Teams

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.

“Getting Free” and “Playing the Right Way”

Over the past year, as I’ve been working on Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketballmy book manuscript, I’ve also written a couple of essays that have been published in academic journals.  Unfortunately, many of those I’d like to reach with my writing do not have access to the institutional portals that house these very expensive journals.  So I’m making them available here for those who might interested.  I hope readers find them stimulating, enjoyable and edifying, and, as always, I welcome feedback. Read more

"Getting Free" and "Playing the Right Way"

Over the past year, as I’ve been working on Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketballmy book manuscript, I’ve also written a couple of essays that have been published in academic journals.  Unfortunately, many of those I’d like to reach with my writing do not have access to the institutional portals that house these very expensive journals.  So I’m making them available here for those who might interested.  I hope readers find them stimulating, enjoyable and edifying, and, as always, I welcome feedback. Read more

Bill Simmons is Wrong! (But also…) On Russell and Chamberlain’s Supporting Casts

I just can’t let this go. My distaste for Bill Simmons’ smug pseudo-argumentation has led me on a four-day journey down a rabbit hole of advanced statistics and I feel compelled to share my report of the trip. Read more

The Freedom in Dennis Rodman

This was written sometime in the summer of 1996, after the Bulls won the NBA championship, led by the trio of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and, implausibly, their former nemesis and Detroit Piston Bad Boy, Dennis Rodman.

 A former colleague and good friend of mine, Grant Farred, with whom I’d shared numerous conversations about sports, invited me to write it for a collection he was putting together.  Grant went on to a very successful academic career in the field of sports studies, but this particular collection never got published and I thought my contribution was lost forever. But I recently found the typescript in a drawer at my parents’ house and thought I’d share it here.  Some of the writing and formulations are out-of-date, embarrassing, or just wrong.  But I haven’t changed anything in it. 

 You have to turn your imagination back to the 1995-1996 season and especially the finals (or fire up some youtube clips from the period).  And if you can, then this piece might have some historical or archival value – as a way of seeing the Dennis Rodman of that time. ~ yc

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Dennis Rodman looks out of place on a basketball court.  His body doesn’t seem to belong, not to him and not on the court.  First, there’s the way he runs the floor.  For all his athletic ability, maybe even because of his athletic ability, Rodman runs like that guy in middle school: the one the coach pulled out from behind the school where he was smoking cigarettes with the other dirtballs, switched his leather jacket for a pair of gym shorts, and put him at center because he’d hit puberty before anyone else.  He could run the floor faster and longer than any of us who had been doing it all our young lives, but purely as a physiological act.  His body seemed to do it in spite of himself, in spite of his mind, which surely was elsewhere.  Knees picked up too high, landing almost on the tips of his toes, arms doing nothing but helping him run.  He could run alright, he was a natural runner, but not a basketball player who was running.  He could jump too, but the same way, as a natural jumper.

Our resentment surely began there, covetous of squandered gifts we knew already we would never enjoy, we turned our timid pre-pubescent wit at everything else about him:  his skills first, but also his grades, his appalling and shameful delinquency, and above all, his nonchalance, which we, true to the formula of athletics, recast as “lack of intensity,” egotism, or when it related to the coach, “insubordination.”  The “head case” was born of our envious juvenile imaginations.  This is Rodman, and you see it everytime he pulls down a defensive rebound.  He seems almost afraid to move his feet because of the disaster that will ensue if he tries to do that which he does so well when he’s just moving in a straight line down the flow while he has to think think of something else, like how to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. Read more

How the Fab Five Saved John’s Life: A Reader’s Letter

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Only when the past ceases to trouble and anticipations of the future are not perturbing is a being wholly united with his environment and therefore fully alive.  ~ John Dewey (Professor of Philosophy, University of Michigan, 1884-1894)

A man I’ve never met or heard of, a stranger, wrote me a letter on Saturday morning.  It’s not the only one I got in response to my open letter to Chris Webber.  But this one, more than any other, stopped me absolutely cold in my tracks so simple, direct, and vivid was it in its declaration of why and how things like the Fab Five, their banners, and Michigan basketball matter.

They saved John Gorman’s life. Read more

When, Why, and How There is an “I” in “Team”

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Early on in Hoops Culture class, my students read an essay by an established philosopher of sport, Professor R. Scott Kretchmar. He begins an essay on the moral qualities of different styles of basketball with a distinction between two kinds of basketball: one that he calls “purist” and one that he calls “modernist.” He draws up a table with two columns indicating the contrasting features of each style, touching on everything from the kind of offense and defense, individual skills, and even the pace that he believes characterize each one.

In the end, he argues for the superior moral virtue of what he calls “a modified purism” but along the way he acknowledges that he believes “purist basketball, generally speaking, is better than modernist basketball.” I don’t think it’s a particularly convincing essay and moreover the distinctions he draws are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) racialized. This is important and something I’ve written about extensively elsewhere, and something we talk about in class. But it’s not really what I want to emphasize here. What I want to focus on here is his claim that “purist” basketball is “centered on team capability” while “modernist” basketball is “centered on individual capability.”

It’s a commonplace in basketball culture, really in all of sports culture, to say that “there is no ‘I’ in ‘Team.'” And Kretchmar’s two column table begins more or less as a dressed up version of that cliche. But I disagree and want to challenge that truism. Among the things that stirred me so and inspired me in this year’s Michigan team was that they demonstrated very obviously, in my opinion, that there is an “I” in “team”, indeed that there must be an “I” in “team” and, in fact, that there must be and more than one “I” in “team.” Read more

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