To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Basketball

Note for those of you who have ordered a shirt: There has been a delay with the screen printing, so none of the new shirts will be sent out for at least a week or two. Thank you for your patience. Carry on.

First, make sure you check out Shoals and Ziller's psychoanalysis of the NBA in The Ziller Sessions: Edition 8.

Today’s guest lecture courtesy of Mark Pike, law student and author of “Green Building Red-Lighted by Homeowners’ Associations”, 33 Wm. & Mary Envtl. L. & Pol'y Rev. Vol. 3 (forthcoming Spring 2009). He is a DJ at WCWM 90.9FM and sometimes plays Free Darko’s “The Macrophenomenal Anthem” on his show.

During a recent Local Government Law class my brain started short-circuiting information I had just read on ESPN. I began fusing basketball recaps with the concepts of zoning, land use, architectural review boards, etc. It’s not too difficult to gently stretch the metaphor.

If the Sonics departure from Seattle was, more or less, a repudiation of the principles of publicly financed stadiums (cf. CLEAN v. State of Washington), is David Stern essentially concurring with Kennedy's opinion in Kelo, crafting the NBA's version of eminent domain for private benefit? Is the rise of guard-forward hybrid players, such as Kevin Durant, indicative of a larger movement which mirrors architecture's increasing acceptance of mixed-use facilities as an example of progressive efficiency? Could Brandon Jennings and Josh Childress' exodus to Europe be comparable to the "Offshoring Audacity" of "starchitects", lured to the desert of Dubai to pad their resume or just build their own empire? Is Gilbert Arenas, a geometric savant known for his unique expressions through populist mediums, ostensibly the athletic incarnation of Antoni Gaudí?

As I marinated on these thoughts, I decided to run it by Matthew Yglesias, a basketball fan who happens to frequently write about transportation and city planning issues. He responded with:
Surely there's something about building height and player height. Skyscrapers and big men. DC with its height limit is like Don Nelson's small ball lineups -- Andris Biedrins is the Washington Monument. Maybe that works?
I would counter that Don Nelson strikes me more in the mold of a Western-libertarian reaction to restrictive contemporary city planning: if a player of any given height is best for utility, efficient breach theory suggests a Coach should insert them into the lineup instead of following the traditional G-SG-F-PF-C architecture that GM’s dictate by covenant and contract. Yglesias’s reference to Andris Biedrins as the Washington Monument is particularly insightful. Many citizens criticize the DC height-restriction as crippling to the city’s ability to obtain critical mass while artificially boosting rental prices due to limited space. The height-restriction is legislated proportionally to the width of the roads and not to the symbolic Obelisk, nevertheless resulting in both wide lanes and epic aerial vistas (i.e. dunks). Not surprisingly, a negative externality of this civic decision is that DC has some of the country’s heaviest traffic congestion.

Once again, if we superimpose this logic upon the discipline of basketball management, it counterintuitively suggests that teams spreading the lane with small ball lineups will end up having increased traffic in the paint, resulting in maximum points off of inside shots. Would you be surprised to learn that the Warriors lead the league in this statistic last year? Thanks, 82games.com! Daniel Burnham, father of the City Beautiful movement and architect of DC’s Union Station is famously quoted as saying: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” As applied to athletics, focusing on statistics while ignoring the aesthetic is simply hemostatic.

As a discipline that focuses on human interaction with spatial and social elements, it is no surprise that the concepts of urban planning and architecture translate quite well to basketball. Accordingly, a few more brief attempts to synthesize these ideas might yield some interesting results and help us understand the continuing evolution of the League. But, first, we should familiarize ourselves with some historical context to better understand the juxtaposition.

In its infancy, basketball was actually a low-scoring (9-3!) game played in armories, smoke-filled halls, and barns. There were no 7-footers. Interestingly, the 3-point line was first introduced in a college game in 1945 in order to limit the effectiveness of taller players. The rule adjustments were voted on by the crowd at halftime. In general, the rules, though basic, were applied inconsistently from court-to-court, thereby discouraging interaction on a wide-scale basis. Basketball had not yet become civilized, but rather existed like isolated hamlets. Such inefficiency significantly thwarted the transcendent communal aspect of the sport, and caused an alarming number of injuries to players. Theodore Roosevelt was concerned about this and suggested the formulation of a governing body in 1910 to standardize the rules, thereby giving birth to the modern basketball era. The parallel developments of architecture and basketball in the early twentieth century, though somewhat non-euclidean, suggest that we could possibly anticipate future movements of the sport by analyzing the history of innovative building schemes.

Le Corbusier, a founding father of the modern architecture and urban planning movement, actually enjoyed playing weekly games of basketball as early as the 1920s, suggesting that the game had begun to go global. When he planned cities, he envisioned towers. He once proposed razing much of Paris and replacing it with 18 sixty-story buildings. He disliked congestion and preferred hyper-focused, specialized, regimented zones. Le Corbusier would have drafted Shawn Bradley.

Ebenezer Howard had a vision at the beginning of the 20th century for “Garden Cities”, which essentially lead to the conceptualization of suburban society. (As an aside, Howard enjoyed giving speeches in Esperanto, an invented universal language—which seems extremely Free Darko. Although, that might kind of be like if Phil Jackson insisted that the Lakers played FIBA-rules basketball just because). Howard illustrated his idea in a famous diagram titled “Three Magnets.” These “Town-Country” cities would combine the benefits of Town (opportunity, crowds, amusement, wages) and Country (beauty, fresh air, low rent, lack of society). Similarly, the NBA features a triangular tension between purists, innovators, and hybrid strategies. I would venture that the attributes of both Town and Country translate fairly well when describing basketball.

An imprecise proximation of the embodiment of Town, Country, and Town-Country for those subscribing to the Free Darko ethos might be transliterated a bit like the following:

TOWN: Kevin Garnett, New York Knicks, Vince Carter, Los Angeles Lakers, Baron Davis, Allen Iverson

COUNTRY: Kevin Durant, Memphis Grizzlies, Tyrus Thomas, Portland Trailblazers, Gerald Green

TOWN-COUNTRY: Amare Stoudemire, Chris Paul, Phoenix '04-'05, Josh Smith, Gerald Wallace, Dwight Howard

At the very basic level, both basketball and city planning are typically governed by rules— limitations agreed upon by lawmakers. Some rules are functionally utilitarian (e.g. green lines and 3-point arc placement, the 3-second rule and rent-control, the hand-check rule and city bonds), while the excessive arbitrariness of other rules can frustrate and undermine the very purpose of the establishment (e.g. the NBA dress code and Post-Giuliani Times Square). Nostalgia persists throughout many circles of NBA fans, a zeitgeist for consistent and stylized triple-digit scoring. A livable city. A productive society.

Progress has been made. The previously mentioned 3-second rule and the hand-check rule have been tremendous innovations for the League and enabled not just a transformative style of play, but statistical efficiency as well, thereby pleasing traditionalists and basketball modernists. In an extremely informative 2007 interview with Stu Jackson, Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations for the NBA, he explained precisely how such rule realignments calibrate the entire system:
Because our rules are more focused on keeping the middle open and offering more opportunities for players to cut and penetrate the basketball in the middle of the floor, the quality of our perimeter shots has gone up and we’re also getting more higher-percentage shots inside.
Field Goal Percentage increased steadily from 2003-2007, and we assume there was a direct correlation to these executive planning decisions. The logical extension of this analysis into the realm of urban planning and governance would be to consider rule changes like fuel-efficiency standards, building code regulations, tax breaks for developments achieving LEED standards, etc. In an artificial market, being an early adopter to such progressive innovation before government dictates your competitors to comply significantly decreases your overall potential for success; however, if you can foresee sudden shifts in the market, you sometimes stand to win as a first-mover. I would contend that teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and the Atlanta Hawks that have focused on an untraditional and potentially cost-effective approach of versatile and athletic players could benefit greatly if their vision of the League materializes; otherwise, pictures of their rosters could appear on paleofuture.com.

(photo: Jill Allyn Stafford)

It doesn’t take a social scientist to figure out that the way in which Howard’s vision was applied in reality was extremely flawed. Le Corbusier’s “modern” architectural work, in retrospect, has been criticized as isolating and monolithic. New urbanism is on the rise, and coaches will continue to experiment with lineups to achieve pareto optimal results. This is not the death of the big man, nor is it the birth of a new guard.

This is athletics as architecture. Sport as city.

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At 11/13/2008 4:55 PM, Blogger Spencer said...

Mark Pike, you just made my day. My daily digest of BLDGBLOG and FreeDarko just made a lot more sense.

Each paragraph deserves longform treatment and discussion.

Also, the Boston/Toronto "KG Clapping Game" from the other night, coupled with the losses stacking up for San Antonio, and the Suns/Rockets fracas, officially signaled a new NBA where November matters. The teams seem to have picked up where they left off last year, playing every game like it’s a playoff matchup.

At 11/13/2008 8:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Freedarko you are my Aurthur Fonzarelli.

I am punch drunk on hoops.

At 11/13/2008 11:38 PM, Blogger themarkpike said...

@Spencer, thanks!

Based on comments left on FDa while back when Shoals posted a pic from BLDGBLOG, I figured there'd be a shared readership between the forums. I wholeheartedly welcome more discussion.

So... Nash is Calatrava?

At 11/14/2008 12:40 AM, Blogger Noah said...

I dont know a damn thing about basketball but as i sit here in the desert staring agape at george murisan, ahem, i mean the burj dubai, I feel the power of the comparison.

ball on brother.

At 11/14/2008 9:09 AM, Blogger Mike Sacks said...

If Le Corbusier could have been the Sixers' GM back when the tall Mormon came to town, how does one account for Clarence Witherspoon?

At 11/14/2008 10:20 AM, Blogger milaz said...

Note for those of you who have ordered a shirt: There has been a delay with the screen printing, so none of the new shirts will be sent out for at least a week or two. Thank you for your patience. Carry on.

Note for those of you making shirts available to order: Why not allow shipping overseas? I want a t-shirt, please.... pretty pleeeasseee!! :P

At 11/14/2008 11:43 AM, Blogger Spencer said...

Not to take over the comments or anything, but I got my copy of the book in the mail this morning. I was blown away - it really is macrophenomenal.

Seriously - congratulations to everyone who worked on it. That thing is a work of art and genius all the way around.

At 11/14/2008 1:12 PM, Blogger Orkila said...

Yes, just got the book and all work has stopped.

It is simply great.

At 11/14/2008 1:55 PM, Blogger avery said...

mark, so are the d'antoni knicks urban renewal or gentrification?

At 11/14/2008 2:37 PM, Blogger dunces said...

Also, that leaves question as to the suns: An aborted attempt at some kind of radical, borderless mixed-use community, now being retrofitted into condominiums in an attempt to make the project profitable?

Not trying to stretch the metaphor or anything.

At 11/14/2008 3:54 PM, Blogger jbz said...

I have to say, I think FD can do much better than this post. For one thing, it strikes me as being a bit anti FD in that it appears to take itself too seriously, and lacks the appropriate amount of irony and oddity.

Also, I think the comparisons made are dubious. Some are confused (So Don Nelson is "in the mold of a Western-libertarian reaction to restrictive contemporary city planning," but he employs a small ball set up with height restrictions that ends up with effects that resemble the effects of the DC height restriction...). Some are woefully underdeveloped (such as the claim that Le Corbusier would draft Shawn Bradley--which is doubtful insofar as Le Corbusier valued the functional...). And the big comparison at the end is completely vacuous--the things said about basketball and city planning both being rule-governed could be said of most normative orders. Pointing out that two different things fit under a broad conceptual umbrella does not an interesting comparison make...

Next time, try to take the pseudo-theory a little less seriously.

At 11/14/2008 3:54 PM, Blogger Jon said...

MP - great read.

@ Avery: Maybe the Knicks - but definitely the Warriors of '07-'08 (and to an extent these days) - are more Gehry-esque...very post-structuralist.

BTW, if Marbury ever gets to design his own team, can we call him a Starchitect?

At 11/14/2008 4:05 PM, Blogger Ben said...

Le Corbusier wanted everybody to live in monolithic apartment buildings out in the middle of fields and commute like half an hour to work. He completely failed to realize that most people like having neighbors and not having to drive 25 minutes to get a soda.

I think that's a pretty dead on comparison to the Shawn Bradley selection process.

At 11/14/2008 4:27 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...

Hard to say which stuck out more: la tour montparnasse or elder bradley.

At 11/14/2008 4:59 PM, Blogger jbz said...

Shawn Bradley was always more or less destined to be a one trick pony whose height was inefficiently used and who ended up being more or less like an ornament (something that Le Corbusier hated)--a sort of grandiose and sometimes magnificent figure (remember his gangly longness blocking 13 shots against the Blazers?) who took up space in a lineup without really producing all the goods.

Le Corbusier intended, at least, to use height in his buildings precisely as the most efficient use of space. The machine for living was supposed import the modular efficency of the production line into the home.

Le Corbusier's intentions may not have worked out in reality--but the claim is that he would have drafted Shawn Bradley, and drafting is analogous to intention in this respect. Did anyone really think, on the eve of the 1993 draft, that Shawn Bradley would become a hyper efficient "machine for basketball"? That isn't how I remember it.

But wait, I forgot--Le Corbusier liked really tall buildings, and Shawn Bradley was also really tall, therefore Le Corbusier would have drafted Shawn Bradley. Genious insight.

At 11/14/2008 6:13 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

phil jackson is daniel liebeskind during the off-season. look at their pictures. metaphor is now literal and complete.

excellent reporting mr. pike.

At 11/14/2008 6:17 PM, Blogger dunces said...

Any given pick in the draft can be looked at as having some kind of unlimited potential. Those with particularly unprecedented qualities, ie Bradley or Manute Bol, represent the precise sort of misguided thought that decides a tall building in the middle of nowhere might work - that by reducing a problem to few dimensions a simple solution presents itself.

The fact that "you can't teach height" is still a prominent mode of thought - that is to say, is still a practiced idealism - shores up the analogy.

The NBA game could certainly have developed rules that favored Shawn Bradley; we're all lucky it didn't. That the same could be said in architecture is a genuine insight and worth your fifteen minutes or whatever.

At 11/14/2008 6:30 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

The other night (OKC/Indiana?), the Pacers color guy said the following:

"You can't teach height. Well you can, but it's already there"

At 11/14/2008 6:34 PM, Blogger jbz said...

The general claim that in any given rule-governed enterprise the rules could be adjusted to favor or disfavor certain elements is an obvious fact about rules. And the further claim that two given rule-governed enterprises are thus similar in that way is not a genuine insight, it is an obvious claim which has here been dressed up in the emperor's new pseudo-intellectual clothes.

And I fail to see how you have added any depth to the claim that Le Corbusier would have drafted Shawn Bradley because he liked really tall buildings.

But this argument is somewhat beside my original point--I am not really against the FD's pseudo-intellectualism, in fact I think it is usually great, because of its ironic undertones. Perhaps I am just not grasping his rhetoric, but I am not all that sure that the author of this post sees the "pseudo" in all of this...

At 11/14/2008 8:11 PM, Blogger oliver said...

Based on my 13 year-old thought-process when the Sixers drafted Bradley, I assumed that we would become the best team in basketball, because... he was the tallest persion in basketball. So the Le Corb analogy works for me -- I did view his body as a hyper-efficient machine for basketball. And the Le Corb thing double-works for me, because I was an idiot in thinking that tallest = best. I oversimplified.

Simiarly, Le Corb oversimplified to the point of idiocy when he suggested bulldozing all the beautiful 14th-century streets in Paris, so that he could replace them with dumbass skyscrapers. ...But his sketches for those skyscrapers look beautiful on paper, just as Bradley was a good idea in theory -- until you stuck him on a team with Barros and Weatherspoon.

I realize I'm rehashing a bit here, but hey, I wanted to stick up for the analogy.

...Le Cord designed plenty of non-tall buildings by the way. Like that church, Notre Dame de la Huit (or whatever); which is actually really beautiful. You guys probably knew that already, but I'm stuck on some sort of pedentic streak tonight.

On an unrelated note, the Sixers are killing me this season, and I find them to be totally unwatchable. Adding this era onto the Iverson era, I now feel like I've spent 15 years of my life watching a team that cannot hit a goddamn wide open jump shot. (With the sort of exception of Iverson, but his ability to hit open jump shots seemed to randomly fluctuate from day to day; he was often a better shooter when he was being guarded.)

Anyway, yuck.

Thank you for letting me mildly vent like this.

(**Oh, I forgot! If you've got Shawn Bradley or Manute Bol on your team, why not have them practice three pointers from a single spot on the floor for, say, five hours a day? It's not like their inside game was ever going to evolve, anyway. Wouldn't a 7'6" killer three-point shooter be fairly unstoppable? I know this is kind of a dumb theory and a dumd idea, but I guess I'm still sort of the same person I was when I was thirteen.)

At 11/14/2008 8:47 PM, Blogger growfauxfinns said...

Kudos to whoever wrote this line in Macrophenomenal: "THEN I HAD TO GLOBETROT AND GET ON SOME BIG BIRD IN CHINA SHIT"

That literally made me laugh till my eyes watered. Thank you.

At 11/16/2008 2:15 AM, Blogger Ben said...

JBZ, Le Corbusier designed some pretty good buildings. It's just that the ones he really wanted to build - the skyscrapers out in suburbia - were awful in terms of human interaction and mobility.

This works pretty well as a basketball analogy because Bradley himself was a decent player - just not a decent NBA player because he never could supply the human interactions and mobility necessary to score or defend.

At 11/16/2008 6:05 PM, Blogger dennisedwardlu said...

Is the title of this article perhaps a prescient reference to Anthony Morrow?

At 11/16/2008 10:03 PM, Blogger Brown Recluse, Esq. said...

Don Nelson actually gave Manute Bol the green light to shoot 3's when he was on Golden State.

From the Mar 26, 1989 Philadelphia Inquirer:

Nelson, who revamped his offense after center Ralph Sampson went out Dec. 23 with his latest knee injury, has, in fact, given Bol the go-ahead on his outside shot if he's open. While not among the league's top three-point artists, Bol has responded impressively.

After going 0 for 3 on three-pointers in his first three NBA seasons, Bol is fourth on the Warriors this year with 17 treys in 57 tries (29.8 percent) as of Friday.

At 11/16/2008 10:28 PM, Blogger T. said...

Gilbert gave you guys a plug (well he did write the foreward) in his latest blog.


At 11/17/2008 10:14 AM, Blogger themarkpike said...

@jbz, no worries. the author understands the entire conceit of city planning as basketball is a stretch; but, nevertheless felt it was worth the exercise. seriously. irony and oddity? like BLDGBLOG, read the pics between the lines.

@dunces, re: suns currently condos. YES. is it any surprise that the surrounding area in phoenix has an extremely high incidence of common-interest developments? privatopia.

@dennisedwardlu, TOWN-COUNTRY. i totally called it. my only explanation is that Don Nelson subscribes to the RSS feed.

this was fun. thanks for the comments.

At 11/18/2008 12:41 PM, Blogger 6$dog said...

True urbanism is much more successful than New Urbanism. New Urbanism too often comes off as static fake culture that is too controlled to respond to the growth and changes of the outside world.
Just as the collections that make up the last/current? iterations of the Pistons are appealing as unpredictable juxtapositions of unique but yet to be successful talents, the planned arrangements of the Spurs are less satisfying. It will be interesting to see how these teams develop as they are forced to deal with the changes in direction forced by ageing structures and a context moving in a different direction. The dynamism of urban environments allows cities to be more amenable to time than planned communities, similar to how the Pistons appear to be more mobile for change and growth. The Spurs may just provide some true insight into the lifespan of controlled system that would take a city or development generations to uncover and several more to recover from. How can the Spurs design withstand the deterioration of Timmy or Pop?

At 11/18/2008 5:47 PM, Blogger mekenny said...

an internet search of "kill the wizards" brings up links to a Zulu chieftan's order to attack Boer trekkers and Juwan Howard's contract of a few years ago. King James has been known to "kill the wizards" although his namesake in fact predates the Boers. Caron Butler's trip to Johannesburg in September furthers the connection.

there, i'm all out of energy to devote to this.

At 4/13/2009 1:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...




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