5.17.2009

FD Guest Lecture: Thank For the Memories

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Today's very special Guest Lecture comes to us from Pasha Malla, author of The Withdrawal Method, All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts, and a scouting report on Teen Wolf done for our mutual pals at McSweeney's.

Michael Jordan never kicked Craig Ehlo in the head. For years I was sure he did: Cleveland, first round of the 1989 Playoffs, Jordan hits The Shot and hysterical with joy cuts Craig Ehlo down with an accidental boot salute; Ehlo drops like a drop-kicked sack of bricks and the assault is largely ignored—in the making of history, after all, the vanquished are irrelevant. Cue the Legacy. Awesome.

During this year’s Playoffs, The Shot has resurfaced in heavy commercial-break rotation, and each time it plays I’m thrown into painful paroxysms of embarrassment at drunken arguments I’ve had with strangers—“He kicks him, man, I’m telling you. Just watch for it.” But, fuck: Jordan’s Nikes are clearly nowhere near anyone, Ehlo’s collapse is only out of grief and shame, and it turns out I’ve deluded myself for two decades. I don’t feel so bad, though: sure, my Shot-and-Kick was a fabrication, but so is the actual footage.

While nba.com claims, “As the ball nestled through the net, Jordan pumped his fists in jubilation, completing a video highlight for the ages,” this is a moment that has only ever existed in replay. Those watching the game on TV didn’t see Jordan’s celebratory histrionics; the original CBS telecast cut immediately (and bafflingly, in retrospect) to the reaction of then-Bulls coach Doug Collins. If the NBA is to be believed, the popularized version of The Shot ranks with the moon landing and JFK assassination among the great, suspect, live experiences in American television history—regardless that the spread-eagle jump and fist-pumps only surfaced later. But we need a moment to commemorate the birth of a legend, and so the redux has been fed to us and has become, now, how we remember something most of us never saw.



The “Where will amazing happen this year?” ad campaign is weird for a lot of reasons. First, “where” seems an odd choice of interrogatives. The host city or corporate-sponsored stadium hardly seems significant—rather than the victories of teams, to me “amazing” connotes sublime moments of individual athleticism, like The Shot, that linger in our collective memory. (E.g. I have no idea how deep that Bulls team went in the ’89 Playoffs, but I do know, and can explicitly picture, how Jordan hangs in the air, waits for Craig Ehlo to land, and then bangs that jumper.)

“Where” is especially lame when you consider the alternatives: “Who will [make] amazing happen” acknowledges both the simmering potential of superstars and the possibility for unlikely heroes, “when” insinuates suspense-laden expectation, “how” a reverence for physical theatrics, “what” = mystery, and “Why will amazing happen (and why will it matter)?” could even be (existentially, abstractly, and especially if voiced by Werner Herzog) kind of funny. But we get “where”—right.

Anyway, aside from the fact that it’s a clunky non sequitor of a motto, the corresponding commercials make me uncomfortable on a more personal level. I’m of an age, demographic and cultural moment that filters my enjoyment of the NBA, like most things, through a scrim of nostalgia. As a result, I’m routinely compelled from the present to a poignant anchor in the past: the slight shudder of melancholy, for example, I suffer when a former star I grew up loving (Sam Cassell, say) checks in for garbage time at the end of a blow-out. And I like my version of the past just fine. I don’t want it co-opted and fed back to me as advertisements.

Mainly what gets me about WWAHTY? is its perversion of nostalgia. The highlights—shown without context, slowed down, flipped to black and white (= The Past), soundtracked to the sad parts of the score from Amelie—self-consciously create wistfulness they may not warrant. The suggestion that each of these plays is “amazing” relies on us remembering each of them and what, in their respective games, each one meant—whether, for example, that alley-oop to Andrei Kirilenko came late in the fourth quarter with the scored tied or early in the half with Utah up by 20. I’m not a Jazz fan—does such a thing even exist?—so I have no idea.

I watch a lot of basketball and I have to confess that I don’t remember most of the plays in these commercials. Collectively, they feel a bit like a compilation of money shots to the porn enthusiast: glorious moments, for sure, but what about the build-up, where the real drama happens? And even as pure highlights, few strike me as particularly amazing. I see Lebron dunk and Dwayne break ankles and Manu bank lay-ups all the time; without the context to inform these plays, I’m a little lost—blame my ignorance, maybe, or failing mental capacity, but that the NBA is relying on us to imbue these moments with meaning feels not only ostentatious, but counter-intuitive to what really makes playoff basketball so exciting. In the regular season, highlights are fine; but after the 82 are up, it’s all about when the big shots happen—and for that, context is absolutely necessary.

“Remember this?” the WWAHTY? ads seem to demand. “It was important. Remember this.” The whole business smacks of contrivance, but it’s not disingenuous. In fact, nothing could be more revealing and apt than what is articulated through the whole campaign: all of us—the NBA front office and players and coaches and owners and media and fans—want to believe that, with each round of the Playoffs, we are experiencing history.

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If we are to believe the marketing campaign that has loomed over and punctuated the past few weeks, we are already living the past: the highlights of the night, the days of our lives, the memories of our future. The NBA isn’t rhetorically asking where amazing will happen; it’s more an open call to players to create moments to be relived, later, in endless replay, and for fans to be ready to acknowledge them. The effect is sort of a living archive, which, at least for me, has been causing some problems, because it’s impossible to figure out what’s genuine.

There was an interesting conversation on this site last year in the wake of the Celtics’ Championship win—and, more so, Kevin Garnett’s. Was his lycanthropic howling— “Anything’s possible!” “I’m certified!” &c.—premeditated, contrived and fake, or was it an authentic expression of emotion? There were arguments; things got heated. Assessing other people’s motivations is always futile, but Garnett was a special case: here was a guy who we’d always believed, whose sincerity was unquestionable, who came correct with the straight real and wept in John Thompson’s lap like a failed son. But, then the made-for-TV moment—and even worse, it felt made-for-replay.

Everything seems to go back to that old Michael Jordan bucket-and-swag—which, keep in mind, but for one savvy cameraman we might have never seen happen. Michael Jordan is history, but also Michael Jordan Is History: his great airy legacy looms over the league and everyone in it. Comparable Greats—Pele, Gretzky—are certainly paragons of individual achievement, yet their shadows don’t loom quite as vastly over soccer and hockey as Mike’s does over the basketball. Maybe it’s because neither has an eponymous “highlight for the ages” that not only defines their careers, but the modern era in their respective sport.

Michael Jordan provides pro ballers more than the archetype for all achievement; he’s created a model for the very idea of legacy—not only in how dominantly you play the game, but how you’re remembered. And having a metonymic, iconic image is imperative to that. So it feels, at least to me, that today’s NBA has created a culture in which players, if they want to be ranked alongside Jordan, or at least recalled in the same breath, need a watershed moment, and they need that moment recorded, and they need that moment replayed—so it’d better be good, and it’d better be theatrical.

It’s the way that this need for performativity manifests in the flow of games that troubles me the most. I shudder at the contrivance of, say, an and-one Lebron James shoulder-shimmy, which seems so concertedly not just mugging for the cameras and fans, but mugging for posterity. And, perhaps most amazingly, that sort of affectedness seems to be trickling down from the league’s top tier to its lesser lights. Even way back in the first round, the unbridled exuberance of a relative nobody like Joakim Noah felt exuberantly put-on. The league needs the wild-looking, sorta foreign youngster with a limited skill-set to have the heart of a hyperactive lion who roars and roars. And Noah—much as I grew to like the guy—seems to recognize that. Good thing we’ve got it on tape!

This sort of cynicism sucks, because I love the Playoffs. I want to believe what I’m seeing is real. But what I don’t want is to have the best moments fed back to me in slo-mo black and white by the league’s marketing department. WWAHTY? replaces the agency of subjective memory with the stagnant banality of fact; it repackages joy as commodity. If they ever were, each of the athletes in those spots is no longer doing anything amazing; they are merely figures in advertisements, reduced to hapless shills. The suggestion seems to be that players who aren’t performing something easily quantifiable as “amazing” will not find their way into a TV spot and, accordingly, will never remembered by anyone.

Heritage Re-enactment

I think I allowed myself to believe that Michael Jordan kicked Craig Ehlo in the head because back then that sort of bizarre accident actually felt possible—let’s keep things moving and blame pre-adolescent innocence rather than retrospective idealism. But my corrupted memory also makes me think about how excited I’ve gotten when this year’s playoff action has spilled into the unpredictable—Rafer Alston smacking Eddie House on the head, Derek Fisher’s cross-check of Luis Scola—and I feel even sadder. Are eruptions of violence the only time when I let myself feel that I’m not watching programmed automatons, but actual human beings?

Maybe it’s more that I know these are scenes the NBA can’t co-opt, blemishes that the league is in a constant battle to buff and polish out of its pristine product—see the resultant suspensions and ejections. And, when it comes to basketball, I don’t crave or fetishize violence; Vernon Maxwell punching a fan in the face is pretty amazing, in its way, but it’s certainly not a moment in league history that I particularly cherish. No, I just want my memories for myself. And what I don’t want, ever, is to think the stuff I’m playing out in my head (like John Starks’s career-defining dunk on Horace Grant—and MJ, bitch!) is just another commercial.

There’s a weird tension between the celebration I associate with The Shot, which feels absolutely genuine, and the knowledge that I might have never known it happened. In retrospect, it’s more than Michael Jordan’s metamorphosis from showman to winner, but also from man to brand. And while lamenting the commodification of Jordan is a bit like standing in the Ganges and whining that you can’t drink the water, there is still a precious purity to my fantasy about that fabricated replay—after all, Craig Ehlo taking a roundhouse to the temple isn’t the version that’s being played ad infinitum, as a promo for the league.

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24 Comments:

At 5/17/2009 11:38 PM, Blogger pmmasterson said...

Not sure if you were expecting anyone to question the sincerity of the timestamp on this post, but I'll go there. Memories and the truth: In two years, no one will question whether this was posted exactly at 11:11. Refabricating history? Make a wish.

 
At 5/18/2009 12:46 AM, Blogger M.A.P. said...

its funny you wrote about this cuz i was just thinking about how lazy this NBA ad campaign is.

 
At 5/18/2009 1:22 AM, Blogger World B. Freaky said...

This was a great read. Thanks. It helps me understand more deeply the 'why' of how repulsive I found Kobe's instant grimace-fist pump a couple of years back. (Perhaps intentionally, I've forgotten the details of the series/game, although it was one I was following closely. A selective memory trick very much in line with this post as well)

 
At 5/18/2009 3:05 AM, Blogger pretty in tents said...

makes me wonder, if in 500 years or so when our current modes of thought and social customs are rendered completely redundant, basketball will be characterized similiarly to how something like the joust is at ren fair. Maybe their understanding of the game will be patches together through these types of isolated clips that are drenched in the phony sentimentality. People will think, wow, this was a really romantic game...

 
At 5/18/2009 3:09 AM, Blogger Dave said...

I'm glad you acknowledged how ironic it is to invoke Jordan in an indictment of crass commercialism.
I don't know, I think looking for this kind of purity in something as mass market as professional sport seems kind of like expecting your candy bar to be healthy. It's like being disappointed when a band with zero political content "sells out." I understand the reasoning, but I don't get where the expectation comes from.
I do like the point about latching on to all of those unpolished moments that the league tries to hide away. Maybe if an outright endorsement of violence doesn't sit right, you can rest assured that something like Ben Gordon's ball grab won't ever receive the slo-mo treatment.

 
At 5/18/2009 3:20 AM, Blogger Alexander J said...

The NBA's fans are a really great mixture of ages and various other identifiers. It's good for blindly nationalistic european fans who don't get subjected to these commercials, but whose idea of a highlight is every single fucking time a player from the national team farts, let alone makes a noteworthy play.

The canonization of the great plays and feats of strength from this season ought to not lose their special context, this was the part of the post that tugged most at my heart strings. I think the And 1 mixtape has advanced this cause just as much as any recent advertising by the lig itself.

These ads catalyzed a viral fan movement to put other random moments within the baroque-piano, slo-mo context; If someone made a Mark Eaton highlight reel to the album "Shock of Being" by Make Believe, then I would say something amazing is happening.

 
At 5/18/2009 4:18 AM, Blogger milaz said...

The NBA has always been a really good marketing machine; highlights, nba action, top 10 plays. And while, taking something out of context makes it's lose its true value, there is a beauty to it even then. I prefer to watch the WHOLE game and view things within context, but that's not always possible. Showing fancy moves as highlights perpetuates the view of basketball as a game for showmen... when in actual fact the puzzle is a lot more complicated and intricate.

Finally, placing so much value on highlights is what creates comments like "It's good for blindly nationalistic european fans who don't get subjected to these commercials, but whose idea of a highlight is every single fucking time a player from the national team farts, let alone makes a noteworthy play.", immediately after recognizing that "The NBA's fans are a really great mixture of ages and various other identifiers." The true essence of basketball is far from the actual highlight, it's what led to it. It's about NOT thinking about making it, but let it came as part of a detail to a larger picture.

 
At 5/18/2009 4:51 AM, Blogger Alexander J said...

Milaz, yes i agree wholeheartedly that what's most important here is the process; how we got from that moment of transcendent glory to the repackaged glorification.

My earlier comment was in direct response to watching ESPN Deportes in Argentina, fall/winter 2006 and Canal + in Spain for the last 8 months, where wide open lay-ups in the second quarter warrant my attention for no apparent reason.

 
At 5/18/2009 10:26 AM, Blogger chutneeamerica said...

I really, really like this essay. But I think you're off-base about the WWAHTY? commercials: I've felt that, by slowing the action down, and removing the color so that the movement appears more starkly, they're asking us to notice that, damn, basketball is effing beautiful, especially when played at its highest level on its biggest stage by its most breathtaking performers with the highest-possible stakes. That is to say: amazing.

Maybe I'm way wrong. In any event, that perspective allows me to love those commercials, so I rather prefer it.

 
At 5/18/2009 11:53 AM, Blogger appel82 said...

I'm just tired of c# minor.

 
At 5/18/2009 12:35 PM, Blogger Jon L said...

This was great. I've also thought about how the context of the "amazing" plays aren't given, so who knows if they were really to cut the lead to seven or something.

The only time you're given contest is the Kobe-to-Shaq alley-oop ad, where right at the end the audio says "there are still 40 seconds left."

 
At 5/18/2009 2:08 PM, Blogger Faith said...

I totally disagree with this post... the point of this ad campaign is not to lure in die hard NBA viewers like yourself (or myself) or anyone reading a basketball blog like this. The point is to lure in the casual fan and increase ratings, thereby increasing the rates they can charge advertisers for future matchups. Of course this is obvious, but don't confuse the contexts of these plays with what their goal is... "Hey casual NBA fan that usually doesnt tune in until the conference finals or nba finals... this guy joe johnson once hit a VERY important shot versus the celtics last year - who oh by the way won the title that Im sure you watched. Maybe you should tune in and watch this guy play against Lebron." Of course they have to include the mega stars in these series too because those are who the people tune in to see the most. So that's why you get a Lebron dunking on KG and Kobe's shot over the Suns highlight. If the NBA wanted to put together a highlight package type commercial for die hard fans, which would air on NBA TV or something they would no doubt select an entirely different group of clips and they'd have a totally different tag line to encourage the die hards to either watch more or actually attend the games...

 
At 5/18/2009 3:47 PM, Blogger Abe said...

I agree with the comments of laziness and NBA biting of youtubers, but I think the campaign gets it done. I'm sure casual(er) fans dig on it and it increases viewership.

I really wish they would expand it to include Noah, Rose, 'Melo, Birdman. Get about 20 of these going - seeing the same four over and over again gets old fast. And of course change up the music, give Ray Allen some TV On The Radio.

Duncan looks awkward with his sidearm fist pump, but the look in 'Bron's eyes after the dunk still gives me goosebumps.

wv: cofzrful = the flu I got from dealing with Juggalos last night.

 
At 5/18/2009 4:02 PM, Blogger Michael said...

Hey! Jazz fans exist.

Right with you on the nauseatingly self-congratulatory NBA Cares campaign.

 
At 5/18/2009 4:37 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Just as these ads rely on a sense of the past, we must remember where these ads came from. They came from "The NBA, Where Amazing Happens", which evolved into the WWAHTY?

I agree with the idea of this post though. Alright, Kirilenko caught a great pass for an alley-oop. But Kirilenko has been turned into a shell of his once-great self, and the Jazz keep getting ritualistically bounced from the playoffs. That's amazing? Super. Whatever you titans of marketing say...

 
At 5/18/2009 7:52 PM, Blogger myke said...

Another Jazz fan here...

Where this campaign lost me was when before the playoffs they showed a highlight of Yao making a move and hitting a shot against the Jazz, the same Jazz that eliminated the Rockets from the playoffs in the first round the previous two years.

Why not dig up some footage of Bryon Russell nailing a three in the '98 Finals while we're at it?

 
At 5/18/2009 8:51 PM, Blogger Harris said...

It's funny, but this is exactly what i thought of when I saw Kobe drive the lane with his jersey hanging from his mouth the other night. Every time he does something like that, fist bump included, I feel like I can read his mind... "I need my own tongue wag, I need my own tongue wag"

 
At 5/18/2009 10:47 PM, Blogger 800# said...

I grew up watching the Jazz, and I never entertained the possibility that Cav's fans existed until draft night 03'.

Butler describes Performativity: “…that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains.”

How on earth does the whole FD ethos function without the constant awareness and affirmation of the court as theatre? As metaphor? Considering that Jordan was being shot from 12 angles, how can we consider his fist pumps an order of contrivance below "Doin' Work,"? There were directors, producers, and a man who could sell 200$ sneakers to the slums of Calcutta without coming across as a dick.

I can understand that you want to feel ownership for your viewing experience, but I think that you're being naive. Yeah, the NBA's commercials don't drip pathos like they're supposed to, but neither does basketball without commentators, close ups, and replays. Knowledge + Power = Co-productive, right? So why as a "fan" would you ever expect to get 100% of your own experience without getting that of those who pull the strings? I dig that players understand that they're on camera. They'd be idiots not to. We hold them accountable all of the time when they fuck up before our eyes, so why can't they retain ownership over that?

Basketball is performative. Players create basketball, Sports Center reflects on FD sees race/gender/class on the court. Jazz is artificial, contrived, created, beautiful and so are the Jazz (when their offense works). Players create their own narratives by winning, losing, punching fans, and dropping records. They perform as their background, or in defiance of it, and we write that all over their bodies (which are, incidentally, covered in ink).

So while I don't think they're well executed, I think it's an aesthetic thing rather than something deeper. Kind of like this post.

 
At 5/19/2009 5:43 AM, Blogger Headless Chicken said...

Regarding Teen Wolf scouting AND the WWAHTY? series: VIDEO! H/T: KD at BDL

 
At 5/19/2009 7:55 AM, Blogger Tizzleton said...

I am a native Clevelander who watched the shot live 20 years ago on a black & white TV. I have been a Cavalier fan my whole life and still feel sick to my stomach when I see that replay. But you know what? I am not mad at those commercials. Why, you ask? Because I understand that they are commercials. They push the NBA as a product. I happen to like the product, so I am open to the idea of pitching to other people, even if that means reliving one of the worst fan experiences in my life in perpetuity.

Criticizing any commercial on the basis that it obscures context implies that the primary context of a commercial is to do something other than sell something. Since commercials really exists outside the bounds of context (i.e., in a “commercial break”), highlights – segments of the game out of context – actually fit the format exceedingly well. By allowing the devices of slow motion and dramatic music tell the story of these highlights, the ads imbue NBA basketball with drama and mystique. The implicit message is that "you do not need to know the context (or have watched all regular season) to enjoy our product."

It seems Malla's larger beef is with players' "growing" acknowledgement of the camera. This seems a bizarre quibble, given that NBA basketball is played in 20,000 seat arenas. Whether or not Kobe is posing for the camera, he is certainly posing for an audience, and would be even if the “Amazing” ads never existed. What's more, in an era of camera phones and YouTube, the omnipresence of the voyeur, means that all of us (certainly, at least all pro athletes) are constantly being observed and therefore always performing, (and yes, sometimes caught performing poorly).Perhaps, it is us, not the players who are more aware of the camera's.

Nostalgia is a remarkable thing in that it both distorts and distills the truth. I don't actually know what was shown on the live broadcast after The Shot (we turned off our TV immediately and began sulking), but I do know that regardless of whether or not he connected with Ehlo, Michael Jordan surely kicked an entire fan base in the face with that play. He kept kicking us with his subsequent domination of the Eastern Conference. And then he kept kicking us whilst he bludgeoned the entire NBA. As a Cavs fan then and now, in that moment Jordan was an egotistical heel, not a star finally arriving on the big stage. I say that because all “highlight reel moments” are by their very nature taken out of context AND interpreted by the viewer in a unique and personal way. The idea that Jordan’s moment – or any play that happened 20 years ago – was more “pure” because it happened 20 years ago is just our mind’s version of the NBA’s “Amazing” ads. Does any of us really believe that Michael Jordan was unaware of the audience? And the bigger questions, “Does that change the outcome of The Shot and our reactions to it?”

Having seen The Shot first in black & white, the fact that the NBA packages it in black & white for their ads does not affect my experience of the play, but ,for that matter, neither does the slow motion nor the orchestral arrangement. The fact that the highlight is part of a commercial is all I need to know that the only thing I am supposed to take from the ad is to watch (and talk about) NBA basketball. Alas, we are doing that, so I guess those ads are successful after all.

 
At 5/21/2009 12:09 PM, Blogger lost said...

some comments accuse the author of being naive or having unreasonable expectations for the sincerity of the emotional reactions of NBA players, but I think he saves himself by invoking Starks.

no matter what success or recognition he received you had the impression that Starks would never market himself as a 'zany, BPD basketball player' the way that Rodman did. always felt like he hated Jordan as much as I did, if not for the same reasons. I doubt Starks cared if Jordan was a corporate whore or not, but he hated losing. too bad he was so good at it.

they been pushing Birdman as the GWH through these playoffs and I just hope he doesn't bite into it. I love his energy because I believe it is not contrived. Observe the way he reacts after big plays on the road: he pulls the same blank-faced stare with his back to the benches, but only momentarily. Then, when the realization sinks in that he's not in front of his home crowd, that he did not just bring the house down, he smoothly turns and Kareems his way up the court. If his animation were merely histrionics, he'd do the same on the road as he does at home.

There are still plenty of guys in the league whose emotions are real. I'm sure Baby put a little extra wrist into the clear-out on that twelve year-old. maybe he could smell the punk-ass nature of the kid and his old man.

as for Kob? 'He's not human, he's Product.'

 
At 5/22/2009 2:51 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

Actually, I think most of these clips require that the viewer be a reasonably conversant fan in order to appreciate the "amazingness". Other than the Bryant alley-oop to Shaq against Portland in 2000, there are few truly spectacular athletic feats on display. (Why don't they show Baron Davis's dunk on Kirilenko? Or Derek Fisher's .4 second shot? Or Prince's block on Reggie Miller?)

Tim Duncan's three in 2008 against Phoenix means nothing unless you know (i) this came at the end of a playoff game (ii) against a bitter rival (iii) by a guy who rarely attempts threes (iv) and rarely shows emotion on the court. Even Shaq's alley-oop looks hardly more than banal unless you know that it capped a big fourth-quarter comeback in Game 7. I don't think these are arbitrarily manufactured memories -- these are (mostly) events that fans still spontaneously talk about.

 
At 10/27/2009 9:40 PM, Blogger David said...

Great post. My feeling from watching the commercials was that they highlighted the aesthetic beauty of the game; the main reason I watch. That said, the main addition of the playoffs to the NBA is that there is more there than just the aesthetics, so I agree with your point that this campaign completely missed what was special about the playoffs.

Also, John Starks defining moment was clearly Reggie Miller's eight points in six second defeat of the Knicks.

 
At 11/03/2009 4:16 AM, Blogger Karch Coon said...

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