Catch A Cab By The City
Yago's latest post from his Cultures of Basketball course is up, where he subjects the students to my "Mikan and Modernity" essay. That's the chapter I was both most shaky on and, idea-wise, the most proud of. Yago homed in on my view of Mikan as the first true individual in the game, and in doing so, drew out the definition of "modern" that begins around Descartes. That view of individuality—that it is about style, the "how" as much as the "what"—informs most of the way I see the game, and would become indispensable to the game when African American players invaded in the mid-fifties. He told me over email that to him, the irony of uber-nerd loosing the concept of style upon professional basketball is almost too good to be true. It's worth noting, though, that the Globetrotters and Rens had been around before Mikan, which certainly suggest that Mikan was more an unlikely conduit, or a strange point of entry, rather than the originator.
When I was writing it, though, I was focused primarily on not how the individuality's relationship to time and space, but the notion that in the NBA, a unique relationship to time and space was the essence of individuality. Mikan wasn't an individual who proved this through a unique relationship to time and space; he was an individual precisely because of this. It's far easier to apply this logic to Mikan, or even Pettit, than Russell or Baylor in the years that followed. I will now blame it all on my framework, which I blame on a desperate need to either make use of what I learned in grad school, or justify all the pop-science-cultural-history reading I do for fun. I was thinking of the way that, after the Industrial Revolution had once and for all put a large part of the populace on the clock (literally and figuratively), new developments like the railroads, the telegraph, and widespread electricity destabilized this concept, as well as that of space.
How, in history, does this lead to individuality? I'm not quite sure, other than the fact that suddenly, daylight and travel were nearly as plastic as you wanted them to be; the transmission of information could take weeks or seconds, depending on your inclination. I will need someone far smarter than me to explain how that's a useful expansion of the metaphysical "I", rather than a distraction from it. I am certainly not ready to say that our sense of time's existential weight is what gives rise to George Mikan. We'll save Heidegger for positionality, where Being and Time is the internal, and later Martin is the external individual. Derrida or Ornette Coleman give us the organizing principles (such as they are).
To close this on a thoroughly self-deprecating note: Whether the historical analog is the early 17th century, or the late 19th, you have, in a sense, history being compared to history. It makes considerably more sense to explain how these developments in basketball parallel those of the larger cultural context of the time, as I did with Wilt and the Cold War. Too bad they don't. Actually, it reminds me of what Jacob said was the difficulty of making wacky comparisons in this book's illustrations: to paraphrase, all sports history is mythology. It's one thing to compare a current star to Shakespeare, or the Wright Brothers. However, someone like Wilt or Cousy is already in some sense a mythological figure. It's an awkward juxtaposition, so you either have to make it especially timely (a form of literalism) or retreat into symbolism. I have no idea why Naismith as Moses (or all the other things I compared him to) works.