Cultures of Basketball Course Diary: The Serpent's Tale (Day 14)
This is a hallowed day. They asked me to play. They actually asked me to play. Okay, well it wasn’t exactly that they asked me to play, but pretty much. Walking across campus to class from my previous class, the fantasy image flashed into the slide projector of my mind: an intra-class pickup game. The still image sprang into motion: all of us going up and down the court at Crisler Arena. I tried to push it aside, tried to stop it. No way I’m going to propose this in class and have the players break into uncontrollable sneering laughter. But then, I walk into class and I’ve barely put my stuff down on the desk when one of the players, having very courteously asked me how my broken hand was doing, said, “We should have a class game.” Moments later, another player walked into class and said the same thing.
I feel I shall burst with joy and excitement. If God himself, donning sweats, had parted the gray Ann Arbor skies, and entered the class on a Golden Litter, born by Clyde, the Hawk, Dr. J, and Wilt, and said, “you know what, that tree of knowledge thing, I was j/k!”, I could have been no happier. A weight of decades has been lifted from my shoulders. It was an auspicious way to begin the home stretch of Cultures of Basketball, after a two week hiatus, and leading in to the much-anticipated visit of none other than Bethlehem Shoals himself to our Ivory Tower next week.
We all began to babble excitedly about the match-up. “Players against the rest of us!” someone shouted. Oh no, I thought to myself, I didn’t wait nearly thirty years to play Division I ball in order to get clowned by a bunch of college kids. If you wanna go players and teacher against the rest of the class, I’m down, but otherwise we’re splitting the players up. Buoyed by my sudden surge of popularity among the players, and the riotous atmosphere of the room, I took a wild risk. I explained that I’d just been thinking the same thing on the way over to class and added, “But in my fantasy of this game, we’re playing at Crisler. So I want to give the players a special group assignment: make that happen.” I’m thinking that’s an impossibility, but that just saying it will curry even more favor. But lo, another player speaks up and says he thinks that shouldn’t be a problem. What! Verily, yea, I will tread the same hardwood as my forefathers CWebb and Jalen, and their forefather, Cazzie, did before them.
An evening of feverish tweeting and e-mailing ensued in which yet another player and I worked out the details of 1) a class lottery, presided over by David Stern, in which the eight players would draw names to round out the rosters for each of their teams and 2) the field of eight three-player teams would be seeded and compete in an April-Madness extravaganza culminating in the crowning of the first ever Cultures of Basketball national champion. My fiancée then tops it all off by suggesting we have the game on a weekend so that she can come up from St. Louis to witness, testify, and oversee the national media hordes that will certainly converge on Ann Arbor for the Blessed Event. So y’all can just get in touch with her about securing your media passes. I’m pretty sure that Ernie and the TNT gang already have their hotel reservations, Dicky V. called to make sure he wouldn’t be excluded, and the Goodyear Blimp, flown by Captain Jon Conrad and crew, has already secured airspace.
Talking to a student later during office hours, he shook his head with dread: “Maybe the players just wanted to play us so they could destroy us.” “Who cares?,” I said to him, “I just wanna play. It’s like when you’re little,” I explained, “you just want your big brother to play with you, you don’t care that he’s gonna beat your ass. It’s just about the attention.” My student smiled and said, “I was the big brother.” Well, okay, but you get the idea. I know I’ll actually be shitting myself on the day of the game, and I’ll probably dribble off my foot, shoot a couple of air balls, and – horror of horrors – be single-handedly responsible for decimating the ranks of next year’s Michigan basketball team by somehow injuring each and every one of the eight players through some clumsy display of aged overreaching. But really, who cares? It’s the sort of moment when it all comes together and several lifetimes’ worth of minor slights and trivial but embittering disappointments are swept away by a deluge that leaves your soul as brand spanking new and clean and naked as Adam and Eve in the Garden.
Speaking of paradise, today’s class was devoted to the section of FreeDarko’s history on Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the first segment of Chapter 4: “The Gold Standard: 1980-1990.” But before we got to Magic and Larry Legend, and after we’d settled down, we had one more bit of topical business to address: the controversy over the Heat “allegedly” crying in the locker room after their 1 point loss to the Bulls the other day, at the time their fourth straight loss. I asked them what they thought and they told me, but then I realized that I didn’t so much want to know what they thought as tell them what I thought they should think, or at least what I thought they should bear in mind as they formed their own judgments of the event.
So we briefly discussed the possible meanings of tears and of emotions in general, the role that emotion plays in sport and in human life more generally, and the way that culture and upbringing, especially as coded by gender, shape the way we judge – and that we feel entitled to judge – public displays of emotion by other human beings.
One of the more interesting points was raised by a student, who pointed out that the gender double-standard also works against female athletes who show anger or swag in the course of competition. In both cases, culturally set parameters of appropriately “masculine” or “feminine” relationships to particular expressions of emotion wind up underwriting thoughtless critical judgments of particular athletes for crossing the boundaries of emotional expression.
It’s sad, really, that young men and women, athletes or not, should be subject to such constraints. And sadder, still, perhaps, that other young men and women should participate in limiting the scope of what it is possible to be and to feel and to show you feel as a young man or young woman. Nothing was resolved, of course, but I think that students by the end of our little conversation were equipped to do more than just accept the terms of the discussion as provided by ESPN or the guy next to them at Buffalo Wild Wings.
Having completed my pontification on the topic of emotion, gender, and athletics, we rode the FD time machine back to Bliss, the Gold Standard, the Paradise of the NBA in the 1980s. The religious, specifically Edenic, lexicon that I’ve been trying to weave into this post is neither accidental, nor really of my own invention. The illustration that fronts the Magic Bird chapter shows the two players, in iconic poses, emerging from a garden lush with sunflowers, ferns, daffodils and tropical foliage.
An unpaid student query about the significance of the image gave me the opportunity to say a few words about the myth of Eden and the kind of cultural work it can do in Judeo-Christian societies. I don’t want to go biblical on your ass, or be too dweebishly unsubtle about it (especially, in view of the compact subtlety of Jacob Weinstein’s visual argument), but it’s worth acknowledging, at least, the force and pervasiveness of that myth in the way that we lace often overly simplistic judgements of good and evil into narratives of memory and history. It’s not that Eden is always invoked explicitly, but rather that it doesn’t have to be because by now it is almost second nature (a distinctly un-Edenic concept, or maybe it is Edenic). Everytime you hear someone talk about the good old days, nostalgia, you know the routine, once upon a time – always, there Eden is at work.
In the case of Magic, and Bird, and the 1980s, it’s certainly understandable, and close to my own heart’s experience, that the myth of Eden should appeal. As FD writes in the brief Introduction to the chapter, the decade saw a truly awesome influx of talent into the game: not just Magic and Larry, but Isiah, Worthy, Jordan, Barkley, Akeem, Stockton, Malone, Ewing and others entered the league in the period. Moreover, unlike, say, in the 1960s, that talent was properly showcased by the rise of ESPN and other forms of media exposure and endorsement deals, all carefully overseen by the – whatever else you want to say about him – far-sighted and shrewd PR vision of Commissioner David Stern. The play on the floor was brilliant and more people than ever were getting to see it. FANtastic was born.
But there’s more to it than that. In Magic and Bird, of course, you had two players with a ready-made rivalry established in the 1979 NCAA title game (itself a watershed moment in most accounts of the college game), and a rivalry amped up by the storied history of the Lakers and Celtics, the franchises they joined. Moreover, as we discussed in class after watching clips of the two players, Magic and Larry truly showcased a remarkably complete (and remarkably similar – a fact I think that is often undernoticed) set of basketball skills.
Though neither was an exceptional athlete by NBA standards, each had the intelligence and put in the work to maximize the gifts they did have and so to turn themselves into astonishingly creative passers and effective rebounders, ball handlers and shooters (more Magic than Larry for the handle, more Larry than Magic for the shot). Both were capable of scoring from unpromising angles and traffic situations, both capable of unselfishly raising the game of their teammates, both clutch and both winners, and both driven to lead by example in squeezing every last drop out of seemingly every play on the floor.
In their styles of play, both players, as Brown Recluse, Esq. (BRE) notes, embodied the happy marriage of ABA creativity with NBA stability. BRE even concludes by correctly observing that Magic and Larry left us as a legacy the freedom that would evolve into positional revolution with oversize point guards, and bigs who can hurt you inside or step out and hit the three. And finally, of course, one was black and one was white. Put it all together and that’s hard to top if you’re looking for Paradise in the history of the NBA.
The myth of the Garden of Eden, though, is more than just an emblem of unadulterated bliss. It describes a tricky pseudo-contract in which submissive ignorance is the price exacted for that bliss. Moreover, it tells us that pain, labor, and sexuality are punishments for the violation of that contract. You remember, right? Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, aspiring in the process to have their blind eyes opened and to see as God sees and, as a result, are cast out of the Garden. Ultimately, the narrative carries for me a dark side by which we are commanded to remain in a childish state -- lacking knowledge, desire, experience, and agency -- if we are to be happy.
I’m not the first to point this out, of course. John Milton in Paradise Lost (perhaps in spite of himself) and William Blake (very much not in spite of himself) long ago suggested or argued outright that it’s not so clear who might be the good guys and the bad guys in the story of our “Fall.” And I've even written about how Baruch Spinoza had a different take on the whole episode. More recently, the British author Philip Pullman rewrote the whole story in his remarkable trilogy His Dark Materials. There Pullman conceives that our “Fall” was really a kind of elevation, a growing-up of the species if you will, prompted by angels rebelling against a God who was really just the first angel, but had usurped authority, styling himself the Creator of the rest, and establishing a tyrannical Kingdom of Heaven in place of the immanent Republic of Heaven.
In Pullman’s reading, the rebel angels did us a favor and every time we think for ourselves, enjoy our existence as beings with minds and bodies, and make independent decisions, every time we assert the right to determine the course of our own futures, we are embodying the empowering legacy that the Judeo-Christian myth of the Fall would have us lament and repent for unto eternity.
Offering this counter-vision doesn’t mean that I think the myth of a fall from grace, or innocence, is useless or bad. Just that it’s a more complicated tool for organizing our understanding of ourselves than might appear at first glance. In my own case, the bliss ushered in by Magic and Bird’s appearance in the NBA (which was indeed a paradise for me: my room was plastered with Magic posters, and I still have a scrapbook I started keeping in 1979 with Magic clippings from the local papers and Sports Illustrated) coincided with my exit from the innocence of childhood via a number of doors simultaneously: I learned to shoot a jump shot, my parents separated, and I entered puberty.
So it was a complicated Eden for me, that: one that sends my mind and my emotional memories snapping back and forth wildly like a standard in a strong wind. But I wouldn’t trade that complicated and painful time – and all that grew from it – for the relatively less complicated, ignorant bliss of pretending to be Clyde in the driveway at age 7.
By now you might be imagining that I am of the Devil’s party, as Blake once said of Milton. Maybe that’s true in some sense. It is certainly true that the serpent is for me the most interesting character in the story. And, in relation to this Golden Era of NBA history, I certainly wonder where (or who or what) the serpent is.
About fifteen years ago, in a first futile stab at doing this kind of writing, during a leave year in which I received tenure at the University, I became fascinated with Dennis Rodman. Around this time Terry Pluto published a book called Falling from Grace (1995). Its subtitle was “Can the NBA Be Saved?” In it, if I remember correctly, Pluto characterized the then-current crop of young players as brawling, trash-talking thugs whose basketball fundamentals were decidedly underwhelming. I’m pretty sure Dennis was singled out in that book, along with a few other players as symptomatic of all that had gone wrong with the game.
At the time, I wrote an essay – now long lost – on the joy of being Dennis Rodman. I wasn’t interested so much in defending Dennis’ style choices (or behavior), so much as pointing out that in his play on the court (tenacious defense, hard-nosed intelligent rebounding, good passing), Rodman embodied many of the values that Pluto himself was nostalgically associating with a different, now bygone era (not to mention race, I remember feeling upon reading the book).
I’m not sure what I’d think of Pluto’s book or of my own argument now. Maybe I wouldn’t stand by it any longer. But I definitely do stand by the impulse I acted on to complicate simple notions of human history that characterize it as either a steady progress toward something good or a steady (or precipitious) fall from something good. That much, perhaps, is the serpent in me.
In fact, maybe the serpent isn’t so much a character in the story, or not only a character in the story, but a role we all step into whenever we question the story and read it against the grain; whenever we take the childish dichotomies we are offered – and which, make no mistake, can be quite useful in limited cases – and begin to poke at the boundaries separating them.
So when I think of the NBA since Magic and Bird’s time, back, when, as they recently wrote, “the game was ours,” I think as much of Bird’s legendary trash-talking, I think of the image of Magic posterizing some chump with a tomahawk jam and then pointing to him as he lay splayed on the floor along the baseline. He wasn’t beaming. Sure I think of and marvel at their amazing array of skills and their run of titles. And I’m genuinely moved by the way their rivalry evolved into friendship and love. But I also think of their personal lives, seriously troubled at times like those of any human being. I think as well, as Brown Recluse, Esq. advises, of the marvelous players that have come after them in a more or less continuous stream since that time, patterning their unusual combination of skills and size and styles of play on some permutation of Magic and Bird.
And when I think that way, the gate at the Eastern end of the Garden of Eden, the one guarded by the angel with the flaming sword, the one that Adam and Eve left through, and that supposedly clearly marks the line between paradise and our own sorry existence starts to blur and fade.
I like that moment because the alternative offered by subscribing to the Eden story is to spend all of existence trying to make up for something I didn’t do and that I don’t think was wrong in the first place. It is to hate actual existence in the name of a time that has long since ceased to exist and that I don’t think ever existed in the first place.
So when the gates swing open, and I can acknowledge the splendor of Magic and Larry Legend in all its complex shadings, then the present and the future open back up and I am once again in a position, as one of Phillip Pullman’s characters urges: “to build the Republic of Heaven right here, because for us there is nowhere else” and to appreciate those in the game and the world today who are laboring to build it too.