FD Guest Lecture: We Holds These Dunks to Be Self-Evident
Ladies and gentlemen, Joey Litman.
A cynic might suggest that to be an effective basketball commissioner, one merely must pray for good fortune and possess only a basic professional competency. After all, how hard could it have been to preside over Basketball’s prosperity during a time when a player like Michael Jordan flourished on the court and a marketing machine led by multinational companies, such as Nike, extended the domain of the hero and his sport? That, surely, required little advanced training or extraordinary ability; Michael Jordan received no help from National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern while performing those signature dunks or fade-away jump shots. And it was not Stern whose artistic creativity was manifest in the exhortation for everyone to “Be Like Mike.” Being commissioner does not seem so difficult, it could be argued.
This thesis is a simple one, of course. It neglects the myriad complications that could otherwise impede the growth of a sport and its icons were an able commissioner failing to execute his responsibilities. Upon consideration of what is required to preside over a sports league, most serious observers likely would be quick to point out this flaw. But in committing such an egregious error of omission, the theory paradoxically offers a strong case for a commissioner needing to apply a rigorous, robust education to the complicated legal and business challenges that confront an organization such as the NBA. Given the substance of the NBA commissioner’s job—issues ranging from labor law to international commercial transactions to intellectual property and so much more—ceding the spotlight to the sport and its athletes while keeping the mechanics of league operation beyond the public’s view is perhaps ultimate affirmation of an exemplary executive.
I begin law school next week with the goal of applying my legal education precisely in this capacity. I am gunning for that number-one spot. Bring on the complicated insurance issues, the arduous collective-bargaining process, the troubling bouts of player misbehavior. I’ve seen my future, and it looks a lot like David Stern.
For five post-college years, I worked at jobs that were stimulating, that taught me a great deal, and that brought me into contact with wonderful people who have irrevocably changed me for the better. And during all of that time, despite those many strengths, I never once went home knowing that I was pursuing my passion. I liked my work. I respected my work. But I never loved it.
What I love is the NBA. I grew up in a household where basketball was the religion practiced most regularly; where Julius (Erving) was next to godliness; where the maxims of my early childhood were to work hard in school, read more books, save money by eating at home, and develop a good left. The NBA has always been the arena in which interests that forever drive my enthusiasm and occupy my mind—race, the American socioeconomic system, hip-hop, sneaker culture—have played out. It is inextricably linked to my experience, my identity.
Another way I think about it: life is largely organized by institutions that also give individuals identities. As a child, your family is the organizing institution that provides purpose and a sense of self. Your rules, your restrictions, your education, your time, your values, your ideas are all dictated by family. It’s a constant, though it ultimately gives way to school, which by adolescence becomes the institution that so many people use to augment an identity and find direction. Your friends, your allocation of time, your responsibilities, your activities, your social education, your cultural understanding, your mores—all driven by school, with your family serving as a second institutional influence. This persists through college. You come out of it as many things. Among my identities, I am a New Yorker, a liberal, a Michigan Wolverine, a hip-hop fan, and so forth. As an adult, your job, your marriage, and some other experiences play a similar role in helping to construct identity.
“NBA Lover” is an inalienable part of my identity. As I just described, the Lig is an institution that has given my life shape, has given my person contour. It has influenced my values and my perception of the world. For this, and for the NBA entertainment that has been a catalyst for all forms of relationships in my life, I am forever indebted and deeply invested. I wrote last week that I consider myself to be a citizen of the Lig above anything else.
I was only being a little sarcastic.
Citizenship implies ownership and endorsement. To be a citizen is to participate in a society while espousing its values and acknowledging that you are of those people. At least, to some basic, shared extent. Citizenship can become a challenging concept when the institution to which you are tethered has violated your compact in a way such that you are no longer comfortable countenancing its values and practices. On the U.S.’s citizenship exam, for example, applicants are asked which of the rights ensured in the United States is the most important. The answer is the right to vote, something that seems appropriate for a country that was born amidst concerns about tyranny and government that did not reflect the will of the people. In effect, to be a U.S. citizen is to adopt this perspective, and to disagree with it would likely encourage disaffection.
Devoid of a constitution or foundational documents that articulate not just rights but ideology and common values, the NBA may be an institution whose citizens cannot as easily identify the shared tenets that unite them. I’d imagine that appreciating the Lig’s prevailing styles of basketball and the attendant culture—the celebrity, the cultural overlap with music and fashion, etc.— that accompanies the NBA in America and abroad would be fairly basic requirements. However, I am wary of writing anything too rigid because there is a certain attitude that is ineffable but very much apparent among seemingly everyone who would describe themselves as NBA citizens.
The notion of citizenship has been particularly salient as I’ve watched the current Olympics, an event that has provided a theater for my own national angst. A vocal polemicist during these last eight Bush Administration years, I do not fit the profile of your stereotypical American patriot. And beyond partisan politics and this particular regime, I find America’s persistent racial and economic divisions, and the ever more blissfully ignorant mainstream culture, to be so distressing that they often make me resent the United States even while I remain keenly thankful for the constitutional rights that come with living here. There are few days when I’d quickly answer in the affirmative when asked if I loved the United States of America.
Thus, you would think that I’d happily watch the Alicia Sacramones of the world fall on their asses, some kind of karmic punishment for America’s wayward policies. But my disappointment and indignation have recently run into even stronger feelings: fear and powerlessness. The ongoing economic downturn, the changing global power dynamics, and the macroeconomic factors that argue for America’s continued slide have aroused a certain kind of petulance and frustration that has led me to vocally cheer for athletes like Jason Lezak and Lauryn Williams. Further, and uglier, I’ve found myself indulging my worst xenophobia and resenting the success of the others from foreign nations, such as China, that suddenly appear to be challenging the United States’ well-being (even if we have done a lot of this to ourselves). Rising global prosperity may not have to sum out at zero, but it has certainly felt that way as news is now dominated by concerns over resource availability and the sluggish American economy. Almost out of desperation, I have been cheering loudly for the American athletes. It’s taken on a symbolic significance, as it is both cathartic and, when considering the large-scale factors, hopeful.
I’ve reveled in no success as I’ve reveled in Team USA’s (or “the Redeem Team” if you’re into that. I’m not.) However, my emerging anxiety over the health of America and my subsequent Olympic rooting interest are wholly distinct from the excitement I’ve experienced while watching basketball. This is something different.
Seeing Dwyane Wade throw off-balance alley-oops to Kobe, or watching LeBron conquer a gauntlet of defenders for a layup, or looking on as Chris Paul has made it impossible to put the ball on the floor near him has exclusively appealed to my pride as an NBA citizen. Unlike my national ambivalence, I experience no pangs of loathing or deep resentment when I consider the NBA. Instead, I have affectionately looked on as the only team comprised solely of NBA personnel has dominated by playing the NBA brand of basketball, our brand. For a league that has often endured reputational punishments that exceed the severity of its crimes—with international basketball often serving as a catalyst for the excessive consternation—this has, thus far, been sweet vindication.
To be an NBA citizen and watch this team is to share in the swelling joy. Team USA’s run has validated a deep-seeded part of my identity, as riding with the NBA again seems cool and worthwhile, just as it would be personally fulfilling for the United States to use its defining characteristics in a manner that bred success. In that regard, having committed to the Lig and having been counted among its citizens for some time, Team USA’s success is directly connected to my own happiness and pride. It legitimizes all the hours spent watching the games, defending the Association, championing its code and culture. It has uplifted its citizens.