On This Day of Contemplation

Every once in a while I read a book, and in doing so, am forced to consider exactly how my ideas—if taken seriously—fit into some kind of larger discourse. One thing I've become especially sensitive to lately is the fact that the themes of style, identity, and personalized functionality in basketball hardly began with FD. They've been around at least as long as Nelson George's Elevating the Game, which makes me wonder if this site isn't the intellectual equivalent of the white players who introduced the jumper and no-look pass to the mainstream. These weren't stolen so much as learned from another tradition and then revealed in a space where they were taboo. Still, kind of a buzz-kill.

Last night I was reading Gena Caponi-Tabery's "Jump for Joy," which takes as its basic premise that jumping has a socio-cultural significance and, not coincidentally, emerged as an innovation in dancing and basketball at the same time. I don't think I could ever get away with writing that. But there were two things in here that pinpoint exactly how I see FD relating to this strain of scholarship.

First, there's section about the 1967 Alcindor Rule:

The most extreme example of personal style, slam dunking is a jamming of the ball into the basket that has no parallel in any other sport. A football player may spike the ball and dance in the end zone after making a touchdown; a baseball player may make a victory run around the bases but no other sports allows the athlete to celebrate his individuality at the moment of triumph to "personalz(e) the act of scoring. Of its banning Jabbar wrote, "The dunk is one of basketball's great crowd pleasers, and there was no good reason to give it up except that this and other n[egros] were running away with the sport." Former college coach Robert Bownes said "Look, if a guy is seven feet tall, he is going to score from close in whether he stuffs or just lays the ball in. That rule wasn't put in to stop seven-footers. It was put in to stop the six-foot-two brothers who could dazzle the crowd and embarrass much bigger white kids by dunking."

See, that's the kind of thing that made me jump out of bed. I'd never underestimate the importance of style, what it tells us about a player's identity, or what meanings it might hold that affect fans, coaches, and other players on the level of culture. But the dunk, while totally fucking rad, simultaneously hangs out on the margins and casts a long shadow over the foreground of this discussion. In a way, it's a red herring. With very few exception, the sheer act of finishing, or dunking, is not the most meaty part of a play. The will to dunk, whether it appears at the last minute or fuels an entire individuals or team action, is far more important—and is responsible to a lot more meaningful content—than the finish in point. Case in point: Iverson or LeBron.

But then, lower down on the page, there's this:

Part of the essence of that game is something composer Olly Wilson calls the "soul focal moment", a point of unity between audience and player that occurs when a player—whether musician or athlete—performs what is necessary with exceptional ease, grace, and flair, taking a risk while maintaining control. The soul focal moment is not gratuitous showmanship—its artistry is functional and accomplishes what the moment requires, but with a degree and twist of virtuosity that is unnecessary and unexpected. The audience gasps in surprise, exclaims with pleasure, bursts into applause, and audience and player are united in the endless inventiveness of human expression.

Yeah, that made me grimace, too. I'd say this applies to the Showtime Lakers, or peak Jordan, or the first Dream Team, or whatever. But it just seems naive, and a little foolish, to try and apply this kind of superlative to even the most FD teams. I know that the Warriors, Hawks, Garnett on the Wolves, etc. are flawed. And probably less likely to succeed than if they did things the right way. That's what has always bugged me about this intellectual current: Not only is style important, and meaningful, it's also the key to absolute goodness if applied responsibly.

I don't want And1, but it also bothers me that the application of style could be so monolithic. What fascinates me about the players I like is the unevenness and experimentation that occurs as people try to succeed with this kind of outlook. Style for its own sake, or hood for its sake, is boring and doesn't work. At the same time, as the Spurs and this year's Celtics have shown us, style and personality are on some level antithetical to winning. What interests me is the drama that occurs as individuals or teams try to change that law. It is all about compromise and disaster, but this ongoing work-in-progress can never be totally defeated nor solved through one mere paragraph of generalizations.

At the risk of sounding like a woman, process is important here. The development of players. Their personal histories. The ups and downs of young teams. What exactly leads up to the dunk, block, or other chest-pound worthy incident. How it is that players can be effective while acknowledging that The Gospel of Style is no less absolute or impermeable than that of The Right Way. It's trial and error, give and take, tightrope and abyss. To presume that a playing being himself is the key to freedom is to admit that with freedom comes a whole new set of problems.

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At 6/15/2008 4:44 PM, Blogger BPH said...

basic premise that jumping has a socio-cultural significance

First thing that came to my mind was this John Edgar Wideman quote:

"When played the way it's supposed to be, basketball happens in the air; flying, floating, elevated above the floor, levitating the way oppressed peoples of this earth imagine themselves in their dreams."

When I first read that I wanted it to explain why I had been drawn to basketball since childhood. That I was some uncommonly perceptive and conscientious toddler, enamored with the game because it gave people hope.

That probably (well: definitely) wasn't it, but nowadays I keep it in my mind.

At 6/15/2008 11:48 PM, Blogger Aaron said...

How does 'process is important' relate to the FD fascination with the 5x5?

At 6/16/2008 1:31 AM, Blogger MC Welk said...

Fecund as a male sea dragon, or Derek Fisher. See his twins in the Times today? like one for each ball.

At 6/16/2008 2:56 AM, Blogger BW said...

I love basketball.

At 6/16/2008 2:34 PM, Blogger mdesus said...

Basic premise of this post, I think, is that application of style as content has socio-cultural significance. No? This is why I love this site.

At 6/16/2008 4:22 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

The average "successful" person was once the coolest person you knew. But then he (or she) got a job. Switched from t-shirts to button-downs. Hosted dinner parties. Bought a sedan, a house, a sofa. Started eating Fiber One for breakfast, talking conversationally about mutual funds, or which lawn treatment kills the most weeds and where you can get it the cheapest.

This guy was the king. Now he sucks.

But that is ultimately what society values, what natural selection favors. The price of your house, your suit, and so forth. Obviously speaking in generalities here, but that's what it comes down to in the big picture. "Winning" people, according to the societal norm, eventually embrace this process, because it works. That's life.

And that's the story of Kevin Garnett on the Boston Celtics.

Whether or not we choose to hold it against him, though...

At 6/16/2008 11:55 PM, Blogger cw said...

What you wrote about what interests you about bball makes good sense. It's a interesting way to look at the game.

It's not what I like about basketball (which obviously doesn't mean your way is bad). I don't really care about style unless it leads to winning. For me, the central thing about any team sport is that it has this simple objectively observable goal: to win (within the rules). That gives you something to measure yourself against. You spend all your time tryint to learn how to play this sport. You have to start really young to get all the physical stuff down and at the same time figure out the conceptual stuff and where you fit in to: what can you do to help a team win. The level of thought, practice, meditation can be every bit as intense as any artist or architect or scholar or whatever. It is all about process. You are learning how to do something.

And then you play the game and see how what you practiced fit in, you learn about what you learned. Plus it's really fun. There's all the competitive intincutal stuff that I won't get into here.

So what I really like is seeing how players and teams figure out how to win games. I like to see them put thier learning to use in different situations. If they can do it with flair, I like that even better. So for me, it's not that the Spurs are boring, it that they are responding well to the challenges they face using the tools that they have assembled. We are in an era when strong defense wins championships. That's the nature of the current situation and teams have to come up with soloutions to that kind of problem. Things will probably change in the future and different kinds of strategies will win. i think that's what you are talking about but you have a certain direction that you want it to go. I guess I don't really. But whatever it is, the teams that win are the ones that really think about the game and take it seriously, like artists or architects. That's why I'm not totally into guys like Lamar odem, baron davis, or the dreaded kobe: they don't seem to have successfully figured out how they can best play the game.

At 7/08/2008 5:57 PM, Blogger Lord Uncooked said...

"wonder if this site isn't the intellectual equivalent of the white players who introduced the jumper and no-look pass to the mainstream. These weren't stolen so much as learned from another tradition and then revealed in a space where they were taboo."



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