These things that quiet me
It's true that I just started my first semi-real job in five years, and am under the spell of one of my trademark adult ear infections. But the real cause of my prolonged silence? Earlier this week, I read most of Nelson George's 1992 Elevating the Game, and have been positively tormented ever since. For one, the reliably relevant Mr. George committed to print an embryonic form of many of the ideas that have come to be loosely identified as FreeDarko (adj.). Cal me a simpleton, but I draw some small satisfaction in the feeling that I've hit on something vaguely original. I've also been unable to come to terms with how fucking clumsy and stupid they seem in his hands, leading me to question exactly what it is I value in the game of basketball. Or, at very least, admit that what I look for in the sport is best understood as whimsical, since it don't wear absolute self-importance well.
For those not familiar with George's book, the basic argument goes something like this: white people conceived of the game one way, and throughout history blacks have injected it with style, athleticism, and attitude to make it the perfect pasttime we know and see today. During last week's football cypher, I let loose the following definition of FreeDarko at its most base: "'black' and/or flashy and/or dominant and/or hyper-athletic." My point was that this only really works with football, where this element is far more exotic and less conflicted. But let's face it: a large part of what we've deified here has been domination-through-style, the star as an existential force who asserts himself in the face of bland, functional models of play. And while we may not fall victim to the same one-note cheerleading as George—I like to believe that each situation or player we deal with expands or enhances our terms, rather than complicting them—I can't really say I disagree with the story he preaches.
I guess my main problem is that George takes the wrong things too seriously, maybe as a result of the era he wrote in. At this point in history, it's a little difficult to call a player "black" without some sense of irony, or dramatic overstatement. The same goes for declaring the inherent value of "pure" Afro-American basketball, a move that robs man of his right to find Iverson or the Rucker at all flawed. Race looms over all of the Association, but it's no longer as simple as correlating style with skin color or cultural legacy. In a way, this view seems more in line with the fabular contours of baseball's golden past. I'm not even sure this cause works well with the NBA of yore, given the sheer variety of positional approaches (not to mention Russell/Wilt/Kareem. . .); in 1992, was it really so easy to identify the "blackest" athletes, or the single "blackest" way to play the game?
If anything, George's polarized outlook seems to prefigure the post-Jordan years, when hegemonies duelled and basketball suddenly became the epicenter of the "young thugs ruining the world we knew" conversation. It should come as no surprise that Elevating the Game was republished in 1999, when George likely felt even more compelled to push a polarized outlook. It was basketball's socio-cultural moment in the sun, with the NBA suddenly as monolithically subversive as any sixties radicals. Now, this strikes me as one of the last times in human history that anything regarding race and/or basketball aesthetics could be construed this simply—at least with a straight face.