FreeDarko Book Club #1: My Faith is Like a Shark's Fin

The kind of FreeDarko vets with barbs in their knuckles may recall a little thing called my Master's thesis. Since I now despise football, that survey several hundred people volunteered for is never going to happen; actually, it might've been anxiety over that project that killed my interest in the sport of freckled beasts. Instead, I'm writing about FreeDarko itself, which has involved coming to terms with the fact that we may or may not be doing anything new. Or intelligible. Or politically sound.

Because my place of study does need something nominally academic, this also means that the notorious reading-shy Shoals has to learn to look at something other than screens. Thusly, you may be treated to the occasional post on a book whose hour has long since past. When I tried to explain FreeDarko to one of my readers, he came to the totally fogivable conclusion that the credo was distortedly Romantic and likely delusional. He told me to make a priority of reading David Shields's Black Planet, which made three on the week. I'm guessing that he either wanted me to learn from Shields's self-critique, or thought that the book's maudlin excess would shame me into sobriety.

This recap is intended as a service to any come-latelys like myself; if it turns out I'm the only person in the world who hadn't already raced though Black Planet, fine. David Shields is a middle-aged Jew teaching writing at the University of Washington. He is married to a shiksa, stutters, and has a daughter. Shields has taken a sabbatical supposedly to write a book on the Sonics' 1994-1995 season; when his access falls through, he ends up keeping a journal from the outside looking in. Shields is obsessed with Gary Payton, and black masculinity in general. He's overflowing with race-based epiphanies on basketball and/or society, many of which would not be out of place in an undergrad classroom. This may or may not be a dramatic construct, just as his homoerotic identification with Payton and endless self-laceration seem to relish their own effect. Written in a simpler time, when the players were running the madhouse and their feats were impenetrable to white fans, it's part historical document, part trainwreck-as-parable.

Speaking as the Executor General of FreeDarko, reading Black Planet was like meeting your criminally insane older sibling who lives in a pit of moss, cataching a glimpse of yourself in his eyes, and then remembering he's a gut-eater who dwells in darkness. Shields can find a paragraph's worth of meaning in a single gesture or throwaway remark; last I checked, we do that pretty well. His rendering of Gary Payton, literary persona, is tremendous when it gets room to breath. And in the fluffy abstract, he seems to grasp a lot of how those mid-nineties miscreants felt about the game, especially when it comes to style versus function. Which, considering the abrupt upheaval taking place and Shields's age, is either really perceptive or proof that "style=style" is the ultimate intellectual sports syllogism.

Ultimately, though, I know there's a lot to distinguish FreeDarko from both Shields the subject and the man as his own object. For one, he's often just plain wrong. When Gary Payton keeps the tag on his hat, it's a fashion trend based on brand fetishism, not one man's critique of the sport's business underpinnings. The thumping of one's own chest may be performed uniquely by each player, but its general syntax is as shared as the high-five. An interaction between Hakeem and Detlef Schrempf does not embody standard issue U.S. racial strife. And NBA players never accept an opponent's help getting up off the ground, no matter how well-meaning it is.

These are some of his more egregious gaffs, but running throughout Black Planet are three potentially fatal strains. For generational reasons, Shields is not exactly in-touch with the emergent hip-hop argot; simiarly, as someone who had only recently returned to the game, he has a tendency to mistake quotidien basketball culture for organic occurrence; and most gallingly, he's so intent on wounding his own gourd that he undermines the things he does well. I know that ultimately, we're supposed to second-guess everything that we as outsiders think about the game. But insofar as some of Shields's work is just harmless, artful characterization, and his insight into the player/coach dynamic simply sharp observation, I wonder how much the reader's meant to throw out the baby with bathwater.

Now for the daring part: what this means for FreeDarko. In Black Planet, Shields seems to conclude that social justice and fruity sportswriting are contradictory goals. Being sensitive to race precludes worshipping NBA players as superhuman are, and worshipping NBA players makes it impossible to speak plainly about race. Black Planet settles on a system of false positives concerning players, true negatives about race in the NBA, baseline questions about American race relations, and a narcissistic prison of personal negatives.

I like to think that FreeDarko evades this fatalism by virtue of accepting that player myths are stylized, having some generational comprehension of players' language, and gotten past some of the more angsty white guilt. Maybe we're failing, but I feel confident that our readings of LeBron or Arenas are not crass or apolitical. We're not using them to fill voids in our lives, and what we say about them follows from having already spent a lot of time troubling ourselves about race. We go a little overboard when it comes to making them explicitly political, but in the larger, post-sixties sense of the term I don't see how they can't be. The most lasting politicans develop into complex characters through a mix of the factual and the fictive, the intentionally public and the backroom leak; this is its own kind of authority, one that at once engages, intoxicates, and challenges the public. If we don't admit that today's athletes might function in the same way, we're once again selling them short.


At 2/01/2007 12:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

NBA.com poll: Which player was the star of the night, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007 -- Kobe Bryant, Mehmet Okur, Chris Bosh, or Gerald Wallace? I am proud to announce that I voted for the latter, along with 9% of the aggregately un-FD NBA.com readers.

ogmjdl - O God Michael Jackson is downloading [more child porn]

At 2/01/2007 2:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know I'm not exactly going to the heart of the matter here, but I feel like I see NBA players help up players from the other team pretty regularly. I'd say typically at least once per game I see someone offer a hand up to a guy on the floor not on his team. Now, granted, they don't always accept the hand up, but still...

At 2/01/2007 2:55 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

that was a fuck up on my part. yeah, they often offer, but it's the not accepting that I was referring to.

At 2/01/2007 3:36 PM, Blogger Octopus Grigori said...

Speaking of Arenas: this seems like some kind of weird reverse Michael Jackson thing. (Second MJ reference in this thread.) Read into that what you will.

sykjmlt = energy drink for mental patients

At 2/01/2007 4:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

bldgblog + freedarko: YOU CROSSED THE STREAMS. Now I'm going to be covered in marshmallow goop.

At 2/01/2007 5:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome auto-ethnography!

At 2/01/2007 5:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't believe this post is the first I've seen in ~1 year of reading this blog that finally acknowledges the latent homosexuality in our adulation of NBAers.

At 2/01/2007 5:59 PM, Blogger Octopus Grigori said...

Anon: Don't you think there's an implicit commentary on Shoals's post in the revealed common readership between BLDGBLOG and Free Darko?

That question might be racist.

At 2/01/2007 7:43 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Shit, I just read BLDGBLOG for the pictures.

At 2/01/2007 11:25 PM, Blogger salt_bagel said...

In an alternate universe, FD does not exist, but rather a parallel blog perpetrated entirely by WASPs. Both blogs diverge on different courses, cultivating similar philosophies (but with key differences in logic and mental foundations), until strangely they both arrive back on a picture of Kiss holding up an Edmonton Oilers jersey.

At 2/02/2007 2:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is very strange, I was reading BLDGBLOG this morning, and now this.

At 2/02/2007 6:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn Shoals, don't trip.

Shields' book is, to this black man, both sad and hilarious. His self-flagellation at the altar of Gary Payton makes me wince. His homoerotic worship of Payton and other black ballers makes me laugh. As I read his book I swear I thought there was going to be a chapter about how he invited GP to his house to do his wife.

But I digress.

INMO, self-examination is the finest of human traits and as long as what you write here comes from where you feel your soul is at a given moment, then it's cool. And the meaningful praise and meaningful critiques can both be used to move you to greater understanding.

Like I said in a comment to another of your posts, just keep doin' what you do because, unlike so much out here in the sports blogsphere, you don't hide and you don't front, and you can't ask any more from a writer than that.

At 2/02/2007 6:30 AM, Blogger SilverBird5000 said...

i think you're right that the opposition between fandom and critique is a false one. which is not to say it doesn't exist (most sportswriters really are politically insensitive, and academics come off as if they’ve never enjoyed a game). I think the problem is that both perspectives are understood with the same false premise. call it the denial of subjectivity. On the one hand, Shields limits fandom to the appreciation of exclusively objective phenomenon: bodies, wins, dunks. But it is equally possible to appreciate players as subjects (COMPETITIVE STYLE!!!), at which point it ceases to be problematic. One the other hand, cultural/political readings of basketball invariably reduce it to a commodity or text, ignoring the actual, internal politics of the league (SYNTHETIC BALL!!!) for some vague reflection of the larger whole. And yet a leftist morality play is still a morality play. Charles isn't a role model, but he isn't a signifier or jazz musician either.

At 2/02/2007 7:40 PM, Blogger S-Love said...

"His homoerotic worship of Payton and other black ballers makes me laugh. As I read his book I swear I thought there was going to be a chapter about how he invited GP to his house to do his wife."

Doesn't he imagine that he is Gary Payton while f*&^%ing his wife at some point? A bit unsavory, but interestingly complicated. I enjoyed reading the book years ago, but I agree with all of the criticisms. The one thing that sticks out in my memory the most is Shields' wife talking about Payton's attractiveness. I would be interested in hearing about the erotics of the NBA from a female or gay male perspective that goes beyond lamentations about groupies.

At 2/03/2007 8:23 AM, Blogger Fat Contradiction said...

Doing anything new?
Grade-6 me remembers reading God, Man, and Basketball Jones, which dealt, in an admittedly simplistic way, with these same issues of hoopcentricized identification and narrative that so thrill to-day. That book has a delightful 70s vibe, full of love for those team-first Knick and Blazer championship squads. Have not seen a copy since then, and it likely doesn't hold up, but in my creation myth it has its own modest pride of place.

Doing anything intelligible?
I thought the house motto was "intelligible as we wanna be". Granted, it may be problematic to leave so much of the work to: uncited references (amounting to endless in-jokes); connotation and other sorts of semantic assonance; the, uh, pictures. But, if a problem this be, surely you're not among the pioneers...we'd not read the Wasteland anymore, had Eliot not footnoted it for us. It's jes' modernity, fellahs, no big deal.

Doing anything politically sound?
This is, maybe, more of a problem. I'd begin with my standard soundbite: these figures in these games demonstrably constitute important elements in our, ahem, inner lives, and as such, they merit the full critical/analytic apparatus available for any moment of the social.

On a more personal level, I feel comfortable asserting both: (a) I did not invent the fetishizing of young black men; (b) my mode of fetishizing young black men is less bad than my society's has been, then and now.

SB5K's comments deserve more attention later (like when I'm sober). For the moment, I note three things. 1: that most here seems dead-on. 2: Any reduction to commodity/text that elides politics (understood in an inclusive sense), is one shoddy reduction indeed. 3: while the granting of subjectivity may ease the "opposition" of fandom and critique, nothing can collapse the two categories into one. (And I take it that this opposition-easing is the problem that subjectivity-granting solves: that is, I do not take SK5K to suggest that granting subjectivity solves all political issues/objections available to FD practice...)

Distortedly Romantic and likely delusional?
Well, there's your next t-shirt slogan. The gorgeous rhetoric aside, this seems two swings, two foul tips. The proof of non-delusion is in the quality of the analysis, and it seems unlikely any thoughtful fan of the league would be wholly unmoved by this stuff. And I admit that I've been motivated occasionally to try to tar FD with the R-brush, but I've never been able to make it stick, not to my satisfaction.

It's funny, I read this post today, then at work found this little nugget, courtesy of total life model C. Wright Mills:
"'Nothing is so poor and melancholy,' Santayana somewhere remarks, 'as an art that is interested in itself and not its subject." (Images of Man 6)

At 2/05/2007 5:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Problems with Shield's narrative voice/approach (and maybe more fairly with the way people talked about race and racism in the 1990s) is that he is so self-flagellating that it almost becomes a spectacle of martyrdom--and thus way more about him (again) than the players he is watching or discussing. So the book is really kind of more about him charting his pain and distress with his own thoughts than an attempt to reach outside of himself. I don't see that happening in this blog.

At 4/13/2009 5:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...




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