Here are the ways of seeing and being in basketball:
I call “Hoops 1” everything that pertains to basketball as a manifestation of integrated human capacities exercised in such a way as to produce beauty and good.
Here are the ways of seeing and being in basketball:
I call “Hoops 1” everything that pertains to basketball as a manifestation of integrated human capacities exercised in such a way as to produce beauty and good.
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.
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.
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.