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.

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At 1/31/2011 12:42 PM, Blogger tray said...

On a completely off-topic note, I remember you tweeting once that you felt Robert Ryan ruined everything he was in. And I agree. But I can't articulate at all what I don't like about him and I was wondering if you could. In theory, he's this interesting actor, plays dark roles, blah blah, but in practice.. ugh.

At 1/31/2011 1:56 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

He's like that guy you think is really interesting because he's shy, but then find out there's really nothing there.

Then again, I used to hate John Garfield, so what do I know?

At 1/31/2011 2:59 PM, Blogger walrusoflove said...

humans created basketball for the same reason we gave birth to language or fire or the wheel... all technology is our attempt to expand the 'I'. sure, its just a silly game, but kevin durant is proof that humanity needs basketball.

BTW: great recent book on technology & existentialism....

At 1/31/2011 3:11 PM, Blogger walrusoflove said...

without basketball, durant is just a shy, awkward kid who has trouble finding clothes that fit.... how could 'we' let that happen?

At 1/31/2011 7:17 PM, Blogger Benjamin said...

Shoals: Perhaps you're overthinking this (though overthinking is certainly, indisputably FD), but there's a parallel/connection between Naismith and Moses for the same reason five different people read Song of Solomon and come away with five different takes on what Morrison's doing there: the innate malleability of language and the FD lens.

How likely is it that your readership wouldn't get what you were (and are) trying to do? Any layman making his way to FD and its related accoutrements is either curious enough to do the work to get it or already inclined toward conversion anyway. We all share variations of the same lens. And basketball is a little too important to all of us.

In other news, I can't wait for your thoughts on the new Nike/Kobe spot.

At 2/01/2011 1:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

if you think it's just as important "how" a player scores, the style of it, then shouldn't you be in the arena of feeling that Lebron James is a bad thing for basketball and an unexciting player to watch at best?

To me, when I watch him, it's like watching a running back barreling towards the basket. There's no grace, no finesse, nothing of the beautiful balletic movements of Robertson, Jordan, Bryant or countless others who make the game exciting. Watching him ram his way towards the basket and avoid calls makes me cringe. Even Shaq with his size and strength had the agility and foot work to really make basketball a thing of beauty

At 2/01/2011 2:11 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

@adam Are we watching the same player?

@Benjamin My question was why that parallel works for me, while, say, Wilt and Samson wouldn't. I think it's because Naismith belong to myth (all origins do) without having a mythology of his own.

At 2/01/2011 11:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Benjamin says, "And basketball is a little too important to all of us."


Shoals, I loved the idea of the all boring team versus the style squad you posited over on Fanhouse.

My All Boring Ballers: Billups, Joe Johnson, Pierce, Kevin Love, Marc Gasol

My Style Squad: Deron Williams, Monte Ellis, Iggy, Big Blake, Lamar Odom

Let the game begin.

At 2/04/2011 2:04 PM, Blogger walrusoflove said...

Benjamin says, "And basketball is a little too important to all of us."

Amen +2

But Pierce on the all-boring team? Man-o-man that hurts. Truth has more suave than rico.

At 2/05/2011 6:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pierce is top shelf in my book, but I can't help but think he is the successful, less flashy answer to the Vince, TMac question.

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