You Dance and Shake The Hurt (Day 13)
The latest from Yago Colas.
My students, and readers following me here, know that in 1968, when I was 3, my family moved to Madison, Wisconsin and that my memories of my first few years there are dominated by the Bucks and their meteoric rise to a title and to perennial contention. But all that changed forever in the summer of 1975. The knowledgeable among you are thinking that’s the summer that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left Milwaukee for LA. But that’s only part of it. The other part is that I celebrated my 10th birthday with a family vacation to Portland, Oregon (where I was born) and came back with a Trailblazers pennant. So this chapter of the Undisputed Guide to the History of Pro Basketball, which links the mid to late 70s dominance of Kareem and Portland’s Bill Walton, seemed tailored especially for me.
Maybe three months before we headed west for my birthday trip, Kareem played his last game with the Milwaukee Bucks on April 6th, 1975, a home loss to the Chicago Bulls. The season had been a disappointment, especially after taking the Celtics to seven games in the NBA Finals the previous season. But Oscar had retired, Lucius Allen, the other starting guard, had already been traded, and Kareem himself had missed the first two months of the season with a broken hand. Kareem was in the last year of his contract, and though he wrote fondly of the Milwaukee fans in his 1983 autobiography Giant Steps, he was feeling isolated, alien, and alone: a 7-2 black Muslim, native of Harlem, in a small market Midwestern city. The Bucks ultimately agreed to trade him to the Lakers, where, as everyone knows, he would play the rest of his career, winning 5 more championships alongside Magic Johnson and becoming the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.
As for the Bucks, they sucked for the next two seasons before Don Nelson began to turn them around in the 1977-78 season. I still liked them and wanted them to do well, but I had moved on, adopting the Portland Trailblazers as my new home team on the grounds that I had been born there and that I had visited there in 1975. I even had that Trailblazers pennant up in my bedroom, right next to the Bucks pennant. Now, the 75-76 Blazers weren’t anything to write home about either, finishing 37-45 and missing the playoffs. But even so they held my attention because, among other things, they had Bill Walton, in his second year out of UCLA. As I’ve written elsewhere, as far as college hoops went I was a Bruin. And indeed, the very next season Walton led the Blazers to the NBA championship and vindicated my decision to adopt them as my home team.
In his chapter on this period of my life – I mean, on these two centers and the period of NBA history they dominated – Shoals first establishes some of the contrasts, in fact and perception, around which we might organize our understanding of their careers. There are, first of all, the very arcs of their careers. While Kareem played over 1500 games in 20 seasons, Walton played less than 500 games over 10 seasons. Kareem won six titles and six MVP awards, and played in 19 All-Star games. Walton won two titles, one MVP award, and played in two All-Star games.
But if that were all there was to it, then it would seem Walton – exceptionally skilled though he was -- hardly merits a co-starring role in the story of this period of league history. But that’s not all there is to it. Though to fully and honestly understand why Walton continues to be considered among the all time great centers of league history and as one of the dominant players of the 70s we have to follow Shoals out of the arena and into American society at large.
There we find that each player embodied different facets of 1970s America. Kareem, as is widely known, converted to Islam and changed his name from Lew Alcindor in May 1971, the day after the Bucks won their first and only NBA championship. That was right around the time that Walton would enroll at UCLA and embark not only on a legendary college career, but also break the athletic mold by experimenting with a variety of extra-curricular activities from political protests to vegetarianism. Kareem, already perceived as stoic if not aloof, came with his conversion to emblematize angry blackness that would not be appeased or assimilated. Walton, meanwhile, would be seen as the eccentric, outgoing campus radical.
But in an NBA era in which the increases in black players, salaries, and reports of drug use would combine to turn off a white audience that would rationalize its disinterest as a sorrowful lament for the decline of the team game, the rise of egotism and flamboyance, there was more: Walton would be stationed as the standard bearer for the traditional game played the right (read: white) way. This perception would culminate, and Walton’s historical reputation be set in stone, when his disproportionately white Trailblazers team, playing an effective passing game, defeated what Shoals calls the “badder than thou” 76ers of Julius Erving, Darryl Dawkins, and World B. Free in the 1978 finals.
I was oblivious to these dynamics at the time, though in another way I was living them and, in yet another way, I was undoing or at least complicating them. As I’ve written before, one of the more striking aspects of my memories of the Bucks is how sparsely attended their games in Madison were. In Packer country, none of my (all white) Catholic school friends really cared much about the Bucks, let alone about basketball. So I gravitated to the only kid who did, who also happened to be the only black kid in my neighborhood, Robb. Robb had moved into the neighborhood in 1976 and went to public school. He was a Dr. J fanatic.
I will be the Blazers and Robb will be the Sixers. Best of 7. Blazers home games will be played in my driveway. Sixers home games will be played up on the court up The Park, which borders Robb’s back yard. His terrifying German Shepard, Ginger, chained to her dog house in the back yard, will cheer Robb on and intimidate me, especially when Robb, laughing, will say, “Kill Ginger Kill.” We will have boom boxes blaring music during our games and, for night games in my driveway, we will hook up shop lights to the garage door. We will introduce the starting line-ups: “at forward, from the University of Massachusetts, NUMBer SIX, JOOOOLLLLIUSSSS ERRRRRRVINGGGGGGGGGG.”
Robb had the edge in one respect for sure: it was much easier to imitate the Sixers than the Blazers. He could pull up for long jumpers and be World B. Free, he could back me in for a power lay up as Darryl Dawkins or a little Caldwell Jones jump hook, or, of course, he could swoop in for demoralizing driving Dr. J. layup – the crowd in “The Spectrum” going nuts (or the crowd in Memorial Coliseum hushed by the display of athleticism and blackness).
Meanwhile, what was I going to do: be Bill Walton throwing an outlet pass? Be Dave Twardzik hitting Bob Gross for a backdoor bounce pass? Maurice Lucas ripping down a board? Of course, I did all these things, but it wasn’t quite the same and I still recall the confusion I often felt as I attempted to translate what I was doing in my one-on-one game with Robb into the language of a Blazers broadcast.
I don’t remember how those series turned out. I remember we kept stats, “arbitrarily” assigning a certain number of points, rebounds, and assists to each of our “players.” Robb was about a year and a half older than me and though his time was split between hoops and football (and mine was not), I think he probably still won more of those games than he lost (that would change over the course of high school). I know that our games were fiercely competitive and serious, frequently leading to arguments, but these always seemed to resolve themselves over post-game meals. At the Spectrum, we would enjoy postgame homemade sweet potato pie and iced tea. At the Coliseum it was more likely to be fresh baked chocolate chip cookies and milk,
I came to consider Robb my closest friend, even though we went to different middle schools, high schools, and colleges. He introduced me to Earth, Wind and Fire, and later to Luther Vandross. We went to see Purple Rain together, several times (but also, before that, Rocky, also several times, and Conan the Barbarian too, because of Wilt’s cameo – just one time). We even “recorded” a song together, covering EW&F’s “After the Love is Gone” under the pseudonyms McAlister and Whitehead, for which we carefully drew the LP art.
To this day, Robb erroneously believes it was McFadden, not McAlister. We don’t get in touch regularly, but every time we do it is as if no time had passed. We smoothly integrate the victories and defeats of our respective passing lives into our friendship, a friendship we built when we were competing for the NBA title back in the 1970s and stumbling with awkward gait through family discord into adolescence.
But I realized reading Shoals that Robb and I were also playing with social and ideological, especially racial, dynamite. It’s as though the grownups left us these fucked-up toys and we still did something cool with them. After all, we saw and loved both Rocky and Purple Rain (maybe we loved Purple Rain a little more). Robb may have been the Sixers and I may have been the Blazers, he the hard-to-contain slasher, I the dead-eye shooter, he black and I white. But somehow, for better or worse (for better and worse), we never seemed to understand that these affinities had racial significance. Or maybe, at some deep level we did, but we didn’t care. I certainly don’t remember us talking much about race until we were older, maybe late in high school. Maybe I’ve repressed it and Robb remembers this differently. Maybe it just wasn’t as important as trying to find a way to feel less alone and more at home.
Or (and) maybe we were both tapping into something that Shoals points out toward the end of his chapter, something that undoes the dichotomous opposition between Kareem and Walton, Blazers and Sixers, and all the broader moral and racial meanings mapped onto those figures; something that the two of them shared, not only as players but as figures on different edges of the American mainstream at the time. “Each,” Shoals argues, “embodied a different kind of purism. In the stately Kareem and the playful Walton, there was a wholly original perspective on how to approach the game, philosophically speaking. . . . Each lived by his own version of the philosophy expressed in this statement by Kareem: “Don’t ever forget that you play basketball with your soul as well as your body.”
I’m not sure that the philosophy was a new one, but I think that the articulation of it and in those terms specifically was a new one and very much of its time. I suspect, for example, that Bill Russell also played basketball with his soul as well as his body, but I don’t think Bill’s time (nor perhaps his temperament) were ready to say so, let alone to stand for that. But Kareem and Bill both did stand for that, as did by the way, in my opinion, Dr J and the Sixers of that era. Those Sixers after all more than any other team at the time embodied the ABA genome that was just then impacting the NBA, a genome, as I wrote last week, that could be summed up with the phrase psychedelia, or “soul, manifesting.” It’s a nifty way to sum up, perhaps, what is shared by every wonderful player, event, or moment in the game’s history: they are played with soul as well as with body. I think Kareem and Walton hold the distinction of being the first notable players of the modern NBA to fully live the consequences of that commitment, on and off the court.
Given the durability of our friendship, and the other interests that we shared and introduced each other too, given the intensity with which we constructed an imaginary space in which we could, with soul and body, embody these heroes of ours, I suspect that Robb and I were more than anything loving and trying to live Kareem’s maxim in our games and in that way to elude the painfully alienating dichotomies that marked the time, and the game at the time, and that we were perhaps just beginning to fathom, each in our own way.
A French philosopher I much admire, Gilles Deleuze, once wrote in favor of what he called “intensive reading,” which he described in the following terms: “the only question [of a book] is ‘Does it work, and how does it work?’ How does it work for you? If it doesn’t work, if nothing comes through you try a different book. . . . A book is a little cog in much more complicated external machinery. Writing is one flow among others, with no special place in relation to the others, that comes into relations of current, countercurrent, and eddy with other flows. . . This intensive way of reading, in contact with what’s outside the book, as a flow meeting other flows, one machine among others, as a series of experiments for each reader in the midst of events that have nothing to do with books, as tearing the book into pieces, getting it to interact with other things, absolutely anything…is reading with love.”
Let me now just type that passage again with some simple substitutions: “the only question [of the game] is ‘Does it work, and how does it work?’ How does it work for you? If it doesn’t work, if nothing comes through you try a different game. . . . A game is a little cog in much more complicated external machinery. Hooping is one flow among others, with no special place in relation to the others, that comes into relations of current, countercurrent, and eddy with other flows. . . This intensive way of playing and watching, in contact with what’s outside the game, as a flow meeting other flows, one machine among others, as a series of experiments for each player and fan in the midst of events that have nothing to do with the game, as tearing the game into pieces, getting it to interact with other things, absolutely anything…is playing (or watching) with love.”
The cases of Walton and Kareem’s respective careers and personas, Shoals writing on those cases, and my own memories of the time offer, I think, another important instance of how the game is more than a game, or, in other words, of what it means to play, watch, and think about the game with love. In this particular case, the instance is inflected specifically by the tones of the era in question. And the cases are instructive of that time, in which during the decline of American civilization some people were still talking about soul, desperately trying to find their way to something like an integrated existence in a rapidly transforming (not to say disintegrating) culture that was America around the time of its bicentennial, in the wake of Vietnam, and Watergate, and in the thick of the energy crisis.
In this, we can see also the conditions under which the game allows itself to be experienced and understood as more than just the game, more than just the moves on the court, more than just the technical innovations. Kareem and Walton offer examples of throwing oneself so fully into the game that you come out the other side and see the game as a swatch in a much vaster fabric through which our very selves are threaded.
We were just playing, sure, Robb and I, just like Walton and Kareem and the Doctor were just playing, but we were also, like them, taking the promising and unpromising threads of our time and place, private and public, and weaving ourselves, body and soul, from them, And in turn, we were – we are -- weaving those unfinishable selves into the fabric of the world.
[postscript for readers with writerly interests: I didn’t actually have a class this week. I cancelled it to stay in St. Louis to care for my fiancée, Claire, who was sick. I expected that to have no impact at all on my post this week (odd as I realize that may sound). But it did. Normally, I leave class and take a few minutes to jot down a few key notions – some from the book, some from the clips, some from the students, and some of my own. Then later, when I have some time, I write out the blog, which usually comes out in the first draft more or less as you have been reading it. This time, of course, I didn’t have those notes. But I didn’t think that would matter at all. I wrote and wrote. What I wrote was a lovely, extensive recollection of my life between 1975 and 1977. But, as Claire, who I believe is a more talented writer and professor than I, gently pointed out when she read it, it didn’t have much to say about what was important, in terms of the Cultures of Basketball, about Kareem and Walton and the game at that time. We went back and forth once more: me drafting and she reading, before, lo and behold, I found myself jotting down a few notions: some from the book, some from the clips, some from the students, and some of my own. And these became the basis for the post you’ve just read.
That really might only be of interest to me. But it strikes me as offering yet another instance of what I think Deleuze is promoting in the passage I quoted above. I had mistakenly thought that the class and the students weren’t important to my own thinking; that, in a sense, I didn’t need anything but myself and my memories to communicate about the history of the game. And it’s not that that was useless. But it was, in a sense, closed. What Claire did, which is perhaps what my students in their own way do in class, is open the game, open my game, my experience of the game, and my thinking and writing about the game out to that wider world. Talking about this with Claire, she reminded me of an adage along the lines that you must study the Torah in pairs so that God can come in between. It might be sloppy analogical thinking on my part, but that strikes me as another way of recommending reading with love. Or sometimes, to put it in other words, the best way to tear the book, or the game, into pieces is to share it with someone else.]