The crown is dead, long live the king
Some of you may recall my real life role as grad student and occasional freelancer. Fuck what you heard—that’s on hold until I can bring myself to make a dent in the work I’m supposed to have been doing all year. As in, I’ve been down so long, I’ve forfeited my downeture. Cast off the burden. Suchly, I am not above spending an entire Saturday afternoon watching ESPN Classic, especially not when it’s the uber-inspiring “Black History Month” showcase. Break not, mantle of respect, but nothing gets me quite as (self-congratulatorily) misty as recountings of those earliest, most arcanely pristine, days of the struggle. When each footstep was a monument, and only the greatest of men, those most awash in accomplishment, were fit to make such gestures. Right was right, wrong was wrong, and there was no question of who had the right right, or whether you needed a license to fight wrong. In short, it’s exactly the kind of moral clarity and fitful call to arms that I think a lot of us wish we could still find on the lefter-ly side of the political spectrum, especially with regards to the race.
Not surprisingly, that day’s program was preposterously baseball-centric. I can barely bring myself to survey the league leaders in our day and age, but still have an All-American soft spot for the sport’s great, gilded past. I was brought up to love the damn thing, and knew Bill James by heart well before I knew who Elgin Baylor was; that doesn’t explain, though, how it is that in all my socio-historical maturity, I still want baseball to be the sport that spoke of its age as, in our fractured land, the NFL, NBA, college football, and that thing with cars do in this century.
The truth is, baseball just plain lends itself to that simpler, more optimistically charged time than any other pastime. I neither have the time nor the qualifications to rhapsodize about the elegance of the game’s aesthetics, but it certainly evokes the contours of pre-Vietnam America—and accommodates the era’s near-epic assertions of race, identity, and justice—better than the dizzying action of basketball or the feudal likeness of football’s minions. And before you either jump on me for romanticizing the American past or call MLK an adulterer, read up on Jackie Robinson’s abundance of antagonistic style and militant politics; beneath the storybook version of things are contradictions that succeed only in bolstering his broad-stroke cred. As in, risk-taking, dissent, and even folly were part of being man enough to ultimately pull off the obvious. Somehow it’s gotten lost to history that Rosa Parks was making moves for the Birmingham NAACP before she refused to move to the back, as if that somehow lessens her accomplishment. A streamlined Civil Rights movement might be a borderline racist one, but there’s no reason that complexity or process need undermine those emblematic moments. In fact, it’s what delivered them.
That, to me, is pure baseball. Without fail, it consists of a handful of simple actions, but only the twists and turns of an individual and his career can get you there. The actual game is frightfully uniform; it’s what happens in the margins that gives it specificity and meaning. And more importantly, it’s got a universality to it that both precedes and follows from the individual (and the individual game, season, etc.). It would be like if all of basketball were free throws, or football field goals and two-point conversions. No sport lends itself to historical metaphor like baseball—whether you’re witnessing it or discovering it after the fact. Assuming, of course, that actual instances (or convincing deployments) of this kind of history are rarer in our current world than at any other preceding time since, umm, the Dark Ages.
Which brings me to the game we know and love, basketball. Let’s face it, the NBA is far too topsy-turvy, unstable, and contentious to ever distill this kind of moment. It’s no accident that the sport thrives in our history-less, constantly contested day and age, when no one can agree on anything and turning points are more often than not rhetorical flukes. And since this blog exists in part to turn everything NBA-related into a racial issue, I’d argue that no sport more accurately represents the contemporary question of race in America than this treasured diversion of ours; not coincidentally, it’s the non-stop dialogue over thuggery, young black millionaires, 81, the hip-hop influence, and “attitude problems” that have been professional sports’ equivalent of the Robinson-era’s assault on the color line.
And nowhere is this more evident than in the NBA, the sport no one can agree on, even within the ranks of otherwise “progressive” fans. Gather round a thousand liberals and ask them how they feel about the age limit, the dress code, Iverson, Artest, or Adam Morrison; unlike football, where the agitators are also clearly in petulant violation of the game’s unspoken codes (even Chad Johnson—the world breathed a sigh of relief when he reportedly lost it in the locker room), the NBA offers no easy answers, no fixed categories, and no clear sense of direction. I’m not here to insult anyone’s intelligence, but this ambiguity, coupled with the haunting possibility of socio-cultural landmines, pretty much mirrors American attitudes on race. No one knows who the good guys and bad guys are, increasing information only muddies the picture, and you couldn’t take a consistent side if you wanted to—even if you made a point of conscientiously waiting for someone else’s opinion.
This was initially going to be a post about how I’m not going to be in Houston for All-Star Weekend, largely because I have no idea what I’d do to mark the occasion. I’m a late-twenties, fairly anti-social, upper-middle-class (raised, at least) Jew who’s too sober these days to hit the club and hasn’t bothered to cultivate a like-minded crew with whom I could stage a parallel celebration (Philly ASW 2002: Silverbird and the Baby remember!!!!!). I could wander around the Galleria hoping I see Shawn Marion buying glasses, but that’s an insult to both myself and this exotic community I’m so fascinated by. It’s one thing to respect it, another thing to obsessively chase it with no possibility of participation. I don’t know if I, had I been born in my father’s shoes, I would’ve made a point of seeking out Jackie Robinson at Ebbets Field. But I can say with some confidence that, having learned a lot from paying attention to the NBA on a “deeper” level, I couldn’t possibly hope for something similar (even strictly symbolically) by hanging around Houston this weekend.