[Editor's Note: Patrick Hayes is a writer with the ESPN TrueHoop Network Blog PistonPowered. For this project, Hayes chose one of the most venerated books in the annals of basketball writing, David Halberstam's Breaks of the Game. Like the best early writers in any genre, the themes that Halberstam so expertly culled from the drama of the 1979 season have become cliché by virtue of their timelessness--individual versus collective, apathy versus intensity, and the complex racial relationships at play between a mostly white audience and mostly black performers. Here, Patrick traces these themes in the writing of today's commentators, and assesses the progress made since Halberstam's iconic work.-Beckley]
When Buzz Bissinger published his screed, ‘White people hate the NBA, I tells ya!’, last week, sports and non-sports sites alike predictably picked it up. Poorly researched opinions are so hot right now:
But a major problem with the NBA, one that is virtually never spoken about honestly, is the issue of race. I have no hard-core evidence. But based on my past experience in writing about sports, I know that whites ascribe very different characteristics to black athletes than they do white ones. I also make a habit of asking every white sports fan I know whether they watch the NBA. In virtually every instance, they say they once watched the game but no longer do. When I ask them if it has anything to do with the racial composition, they do their best to look indignant. But my guess is they felt very differently about the game when Larry Bird and John Stockton were playing.
Any time someone fearlessly writes about race — and say what you want about Bissinger’s conclusions, it’s clear that he wrote this column without tiptoeing around any of the points, however flawed (read a great deconstruction), he wanted to make — we tend to treat it as if that writer is breaking some new, important ground that no one has ever considered before.
In this case, the meme that the NBA sits at some perilous point, on the fringe of collapse because the league can’t possibly be viable without the support of the general white suburban fan who possibly prefers football or hockey or baseball anyway, is nothing new.
The brilliance of David Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game isn’t simply that he chronicles one of the most interesting teams in NBA history, the late 1970s Portland Trail Blazers, but that he also provides a firsthand account that shows the arguments for why the NBA would fail were exactly the same in 1979 as they are in 2011.
Halberstam: “Just as the camera had caught and transmitted the true intensity of old-fashioned rivalries in the earlier days of the league, so it now caught with equal fidelity the increasing lethargy and indifference of many players in regular season games, a lethargy and indifference now seen by a largely white audience as at least partially racial in origin.”
Bissinger: “When I wrote the book Friday Night Lights about high-school football in Texas, I saw the racial stereotypes of some whites up close—their firm belief that white athletes admirably succeeded because of hustle and hard work and brains, and black athletes succeeded solely on the basis of pure athletic skill. In other words, white athletes virtuously worked their tails off whereas black athletes simply coasted because they can.”
Halberstam: “It was not just that they had won, but the way they had won, unselfish in a selfish world and selfish profession. … There were hundreds of telegrams and letters thanking the coach and the players for helping their programs and making it easier to coach basketball the right way.”
Bissinger: “Although basketball is supposed to be a team game, it has become more one-on-one in the NBA than a boxing match. The style has changed and it is a definite turnoff.”
Halberstam also touches on a still common point that Bissinger doesn’t deal with in his column: that fans were being turned off by escalating salaries, guaranteed contracts that crippled teams if the player didn’t provide production commensurate with his salary and bitter player-team disputes that often led to star players changing teams.
Exhibit A was Bill Walton in Portland. His departure from the Blazers was acrimonious, with Walton leveling serious accusations that the Blazers medical staff misdiagnosed his injuries, causing him greater injury as a result. There were whispers in Portland, meanwhile, that Walton was simply creating an exit strategy of sorts to get out of Portland and return to his home in Southern California, which he ultimately did by joining the then-San Diego Clippers.
After Walton’s departure, the Blazers, once a championship-level team, now had an entirely new set of issues. The pecking order had changed, so Maurice Lucas, perennially unhappy with his contract and now the team’s biggest star without Walton, became even more unhappy with his significantly below-market-value deal. One of the key players acquired as compensation for Walton, veteran Kermit Washington, had finally found happiness in San Diego, settled down with his family and wasn’t happy to have to uproot again and move to Portland. Portland’s coach, Dr. Jack Ramsay, had to adjust to losing a player in Walton who fit his system perfectly, and using a replacement center in Tom Owens who, according to Halberstam, Ramsay believed to be soft, not to mention he wasn’t near the passer Walton was.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Carmelo Anthony wanted to play on the East Coast, specifically with the Knicks. He was under contract with Denver, and because of the saturation of coverage that was heavy on opinion and light on what was actually going on behind the scenes, it appeared that ‘Melo was forcing his way out. Denver, who built its identity around Anthony, is now forced to make due with assets, not a single one of which are capable of giving remotely close to what Anthony produced, that will drastically reshape their franchise. And observers of the league, fans and media alike, are pissed that a player like Anthony who means so much to his franchise can simply decide he no longer wants to live up to his contract and force his way onto a new team.
The lesson, of course, is that stories of the so-called failings of the NBA are greatly exaggerated. In the late 1970s, iconic stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, then later Michael Jordan, helped the league reach new heights of popularity, bolstered by a strong class of not-quite-iconic stars like Hakeem Olajuwon, Dominique Wilkins, Isiah Thomas, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, David Robinson, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler and others. In 2011, the NBA might have an even greater depth of star power than those 1980s and early/mid-1990s teams boasted.
The richness of basketball has changed over time, but surprisingly, not much changes in the criticisms of the game. It’s too individual. Players don’t play hard. No one plays defense. That actually says more about the critic than the game, however. The physical gifts of professional basketball players are so rare, so artful and employed with such grace that it’s hard to comprehend how these athletes accomplish the difficult so effortlessly. Because the Culture of the game can’t be easily explained, the critic relies on the cliché, which has less supporting data as the game has evolved.
Although styles certainly change with time, the principles that made the Culture of Basketball relevant in 1979 are what continue to make it relevant today. Basketball fans love the game for its individuality, its creativity and the unique on-court interpretations of the game by a diverse set of brilliant stars.
The same principles that made Walton’s Portland team so beautiful to watch are what draw fans to current teams. Durant’s Thunder are a triumph of youth, overachieving in the face of a belief system that teaches veterans are a necessity to winning teams (and even having the veterans on the team cracking up on the reg). Bryant’s Lakers are the perfect mix of a headstrong coach and a headstrong player each giving some deference to the other’s style while still preserving their individual identities. The James/Wade Heat are not villains, but out to disprove the notion that superstar NBA players are too selfish to share the spotlight with star players of equal talent. The Garnett/Pierce/Allen/Rondo Celtics stand defiantly as the mouthy antithesis to the false perception that the NBA is simply a finesse league. And the Duncan/Popovich combo exhibits the heights that could’ve been attained in Portland had Walton and Ramsay, at one time the standard for big man and coach being so completely in tune with each other, stayed together longer. The true beauty of the Culture of Basketball, oddly enough, was summed up best in Bissinger’s final paragraph: “revel in a game that is embedded more than ever with beauty and grace and strength and acrobatics.”
[Editor's Note: Brendan Jackson covers the Boston Celtics as a Senior Writer at the ESPN TrueHoop Network Blog CelticsHub.com. Here, he discusses the life and writings of Bill Russell, who was just recently honored by the President of the United States. Jackson draws on Russell's autobiographies: Go Up For Glory, and Second Wind to comment on the the evolution of Russell's legacy from controversial character in the 1960s to one of basketball's most revered and respected statesmen.--Beckley]
Well, Mr. President…you read my mind.
Russell receiving the Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama
After being tasked with reading both of Bill Russell’s Autobiography’s Go Up for Glory and Second Wind, I couldn’t help but feel the need to spend a thousand words advocating for proper recognition. Russell has a lot already. He has 11 NBA World Championships, he is enshrined in The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield Massachusetts, and he is widely revered as one of the very greatest basketball players to have ever played. None of these accolades, however, fully encapsulate the man who Bill Russell is and the experiences he has endured as both a basketball player and a man.
While Russell’s statistical contributions to the game of basketball may be debated by some, his off-court reality is indisputable and neatly chronicled in Glory and Second Wind. These works provide ample anecdotal evidence of Russell’s worthiness of Presidential praise and also explain why Russell received this individual award with near ambivalence.
“A close second. When he was about 77, my father and I were talking, and he said: ‘You know, you’re all grown up now, and I want to tell you something. You know, I am very proud of the way you turned out as my son, and I’m proud of you as a father.’ My father is my hero, O.K., and I cannot perceive of anything topping that, while I am very, very flattered by this honor.”
Basketball has always been ancillary to Russell’s main aspiration: to be a man of the highest integrity.
As the medium typically involves accomplished people doing awe-inspiring things, autobiographies can tend to carry a sentiment of subject glorification. Russell’s two books are no exception. What may be more important and consistent with the narrative of Bill Russell’s life is the way in which these two books and their writer were received by the public.
“Get up! stand up! Stand up for your rights.” ~ Bob Marley
Go Up for Glory was released in 1966. The nation was in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement. Russell was 32 years old and had just won his eighth consecutive world championship. Fresh in his mind were eight seasons of blood and sweat on the hardwood and anger and tears off of it. He combined all four of these elements together to culminate in this succinct retelling of the major experiences in his life. These experiences are described through the mind of an under-appreciated victim of racial prejudice; a framing that made white, pearl-wearing people feel uncomfortable.
Feeling “uncomfortable” is hardly an even trade-off for the conveyed hardships. Russell felt extremely uncomfortable at having to stay in hotels specifically for African-Americans, complete with complimentary cockroaches and none of the amenities enjoyed by his white peers.
The overall attitude of Glory can be summed up with Russell’s response to gawkers at his height: “’Are you a basketball player?” To them I say, “No, I am a jockey.” This Larry David-esque wit is built off an attitude that screams “if you don’t care what I have to say, then I guess I can say whatever I want.”
Despite his status as the best in the game, Russell was still relegated background
“As life gets longer, awful feels softer” ~ Isaac Brock
Second Wind is an apropos title for Bill Russell’s second autobiography. He exhausted his efforts in his first by dutifully describing the plight of the African-American athlete in the 1950s and 60s. In Second Wind, he gets a second chance to fill in the gaps of one experience to another with more nuance and direction.
The biggest distinction between the two books is the tone. In Glory, Russell describes a now infamous situation during an exhibition game in Kentucky with just indignation. Russell refused to take the court due to a racially charged incident at a hotel coffee shop and the local sportswriter took it as a personal insult to Russell’s Kentuckian teammates Frank Ramsay and Cliff Hagan:
“A St. Louis sportswriter, Bob Burns, insisted in his column that I be suspended for insulting two such fine gentlemen as Ramsay and Hagan. I wondered then and I wonder now—what about me being offended? Or am I a person?”
In Second Wind, he describes such incidents of racial inequality and judgment more matter-of-factly, with the removed tone of the observer rather than the participant. In one particular recapitulation, Russell describes a good-will tour to Africa after he has already become an established NBA Superstar in which he had to deal with bigoted US Government officials:
“The State Department representatives that greeted me were seedy, alcoholic types who started calling me “boy” before I reached the last step of the exit ramp from the plane, and they spoke of their African hosts with contempt. One after another, they seemed to be arrogant louts, almost competitively eager to be racist.”
Second Wind was released 1979. Russell had been retired for ten years, his jersey for seven, and he had been a Hall of Famer for four. It seemed as though he had more time to flesh out his experiences with more context. Most people, even those not used to the everyday rigors of living in racist America can identify with another’s experience if it is described in detail. The “keeping it real” aspect of Glory was replaced with an “Oh, the places you’ll go” feeling. The books’ respective endings keep this narrative consistent. Second Wind finishes with Russell’s recounting of ascending Mount Rainier only to stop just before the top to say he had done enough. This, of course, serves as the allegory for Russell’s life being about downplaying individual achievement, whether as a basketball player and a teammate, or an African-American and a member of an oppressed race. Glory, on the other hand, ends with a similar sentiment, yet expectedly more directly delivered:
“I believe that I can contribute something far more important than mere basketball. I said before three emotions have always been very real to me– fear, prejudice, and bitterness. It is the reactions to these emotions that make a man. In the end, I live with the hopes that when I die, it will be inscribed for me: ‘Bill Russell. He was a man.”
Today, we live in a different country than the America Bill Russell endured during his heyday. A country where Bill Russell is not only respected and admired for what he did for the game of basketball, but where words that were once received with contempt are now accurately recognized as brave. A country where segregated hotels do not exist. A country where racism still exists, but is increasingly marginalized.
Where vandalizing property with racial epithets are universally condemned and are the exception and not the rule. This past Saturday, a drunk student at the University of Missouri allegedly spray-painted a racial slur on a campus fixture and on Tuesday Bill Russell received the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American President of the United States of America. Some people see what happened Saturday and wonder why sentiments like those expressed by the student still exist. Bill Russell knows why they exist but he also knows that time has the power to heal wounds and progress is possible.
Unfortunately, even receiving the Medal of Freedom from the President of the United States of America is not enough to properly honor Russell’s legacy. How could anything representative of individual impact ever be enough? As The Boston Globe notes, Russell needs his statue and more importantly, he needs his inscription.
[Editor's Note: Hayes Davenport is a writer at the ESPN TrueHoop Network Blog CelticsHub. Hayes grew up in Boston before moving to LA, where he now works as a writer for an upcoming Fox TV show. Here, Davenport takes a critical look at the mythology of Connie Hawkins's career as told by David Wolf, and discusses the surprising implications for today's rising ballers.--Beckley]
I’ve long believed that the worst thing about NBA basketball is that players are only expected to play basketball. Unlike any other profession, professional basketball players are expected to cede control of their careers before they graduate high school. Most of them never really manage their own professional lives, and I’ve always found that unseemly because of the potential for exploitation. So I didn’t expect David Wolf’s Foul!: The Connie Hawkins Story, a book about the rampant exploitation that led to a great player’s exile from the NBA, to force me to question those beliefs.
Quick summary of this long, involving story: Connie “Hawk” Hawkins was raised broke and illiterate in the ghetto of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn by a blind mother, but rose to prominence in high school as the greatest basketball player in New York and potentially the best forward in America. Schools from all over the country used extremely illegal strategies to lure him to their campuses, even though he was not at all prepared for college academics. He ended up going to Iowa because they gave him the most backroom money and offered to bus girls in from Brooklyn, should the need arise.
Hawkins was about halfway through his freshman year when NYC detectives turned up his name in their point-shaving investigation of lawyer Jack Molinas, a charming, undiagnosed sociopath who had chatted up Hawkins on the schoolyards in preparation for roping him into a fixing scam. The DA’s office flew Hawkins back to New York for two weeks of interrogation, and even though Hawkins had no knowledge of Molinas’s dealings, he was pressured by New York detectives into a false confession. When he got back to Iowa, he asked to leave, and later found himself exiled from NBA basketball.
Connie was forced to wander the wasteland of semi-pro leagues, from the ABL to the YHMA to the Globetrotters to the ABA, for eight years before a few Pittsburgh lawyers helped him sue the NBA for the right to play in the league. Connie won the suit. He became a star rookie at age 27, but he’d lost some of his best years in empty gyms.
Even though Connie is at the center of this story, he exerts no influence on its outcome outside of his work on the court. He’s thoughtful and intelligent, but for most of his life he lacks the functional knowledge to manage his own career, so people assume those responsibilities for him. His life is a series of phone calls and surprise visits in which he’s told that he can or can’t play basketball. He has nothing to do but observe and react as a parade of individuals seize control of his career, withhold information from him, and negotiate the terms of his life.
Those people who manipulated Connie, to hear David Wolf tell this story, are to blame for his misfortune. They wrung profits from Connie’s talent but never had their player’s interest at heart, or even on the periphery. It’s hard to disagree with this claim when you hear Abe Saperstein sought out darker-skinned players to be Globetrotters, because he thought they were better suited for his “black clown” act. Or how Connie’s ABA coach forced all his players to wear white shirts and ties on the road.
But looking at the other possibilities for Connie’s life, how things might have been different, the problem might not have been the fact that Hawk was exploited. It might have been that he was exploited incompetently.
I offend myself, typing that out. But I get to this from the fact that Connie’s story is inconceivable today. Because if Connie Hawkins had grown up 20 years later, someone would have recognized the opportunity to manage his career and profit off of him for the rest of his life. Whether he grew up in Bed-Stuy or Cameroon, a player like Connie Hawkins would have been surrounded by gatekeepers before he turned 15. Not only de facto agents or professional representatives, but the kind of people those people send to protect their future interests, the William Wesleys. He would never have been permitted to get involved with Jack Molinas, and certainly wouldn’t have been interrogated for two weeks without a lawyer.
But nobody like that showed up in Hawkins’ life. Instead, the people who were in a position to control him were shortsighted enough to ignore his well-being. They underpaid him, underplayed him, and refused to acknowledge that he was bigger than their league, because they didn’t get that their interests were aligned with his. If they’d made Connie feel appreciated and safe, like a savvy agent would, they would have seen a lot more profits than they did. But they were caught up in his background and playing style, and their prejudice fed their incompetence, and they all ended up losing Connie because of it.
It’s true that Hawk’s value wasn’t as high back then as it would be today, but don’t underestimate how high it was. Chamberlain called him one of the three best players in the world. Kareem said he’d never seen anybody better. Those are two guys not known for throwing compliments around. In the end, Connie’s career ended prematurely to knee injuries brought about by playing hundreds of games a year in the lower leagues. If he’d started his NBA career at 22, he’d have been a superstar in the league for well over a decade and you’d be seeing him in Shapeups commercials today.
Of course, the relationship between basketball players and their representatives does not always play out for the best. That’s why we have the stereotypical portrayal of agents in sports movies (tiny ponytails, Bluetooths, “babe”). And that’s what (ostensibly) drives the movement to require players to go to college for a year and forbids them from speaking to representatives before a hard deadline. The idea behind this is that hiring an agent is itself a decision that should be informed, so players should be as mature and well-educated as possible before they’re allowed to make it.
But for a player like Connie Hawkins, any time he was without professional guidance would have come at some cost. Connie needed help. Growing up the way he did in Brooklyn, he would have needed help with almost any career he pursued. He couldn’t read. He had trouble communicating. He was shy. He slept twelve hours a night and was pathologically late to important meetings, even the legal proceedings that decided his NBA future. He had no financial resources, and essentially nobody in his family or neighborhood to tell him what to do.
It’s not that Connie shouldhave been denied control of his basketball career; it’s just not totally clear what he would do with it if he had it. That’s why an agent, a manager, or someone who could pick up those responsibilities could have prevented his eight-year exile from ever happening. Sure, yes, they’d have been doing it for personal financial gain, but does that really matter if that intervention would have saved Connie from playing beneath his talents? Remoras suck plankton for their own selfish reasons, but you don’t hear the sharks complaining.
Here we run facefirst into William C. Rhoden’s “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” which contends that employees of a system over which they have no control are still slaves, no matter how much you pay them. Slavery, in his view, has as much to do with control as it does with wealth, and the fact that players have virtually no role in business affairs makes them subservient. And because that position is philosophical in nature, it’s hard to call it wrong, even if the word choice makes you tug your necktie knot.
But again, it helps to look back at Connie Hawkins. His upbringing simply didn’t provide him with the tools to make sophisticated career decisions. If professional basketball required that players manage the business side, would it prohibit the entry of players like Connie, who actually just wanted to play basketball? And if we allow that he needed some kind of help, could we really have asked him to wait for it until he turned nineteen?
[Editor’s Note: Timothy Varner is the Managing Editor and a writer at 48 Minutes of Hell, a San Antonio Spurs blog that is required reading regardless of one’s interest in the Spurs. What Tim does is expertly and accurately tell the story of the game, and that should be more than enough for even the casual fan to enjoy--even if you hate Tim Duncan. Here, Varner elegantly discards notions of sport as mere exercise and entertainment through the autobiography of John Wooden, titled They Call Me Coach. –Beckley]
Ought is a funny word. We don’t hear it much anymore.
This is a great example of an ought becoming a must. Is it possible for bureaucrats to legislate love? From where does care for others spring?
When one reads anything about John Wooden, there is an immediate recognition that he didn’t lack for visitors as he grew older. Wooden’s offspring, loosely understood, stayed true to the end. He was constantly surrounded by children, biological and otherwise. He was basketball’s wise old sage.
Bill Walton’s foreword to John Wooden’s They Call Me Coach begins with the assertion that Wooden taught life at UCLA. The first word of Wooden’s preface is “life.” And from there life just flows downhill. Wooden is the bucolic lakeside retreat atop the mountain. And Wooden is the cool stream that descends into the plains below.
Everything along the banks of that life-affirming descent is green.
Here’s what They Call Me Coach is not about: John Wooden coached basketball for 29 years. During that span he won 10 National Championships. He was a good coach, perhaps the best collegiate basketball coach ever. None of this is important.
Wooden’s book is an autobiography, and it includes plenty of details of his upbringing. There are also plenty of stories of his time on the sideline. All good. Helpful. Rich. But you won’t find the pulse of the book in any of those things.
Each chapter begins with, and is typically punctuated throughout, with hokey aphorisms. Wooden lived by these things. Some of it is poetry, often written by Wooden himself. He was a lousy poet, but watch him as he goes, reasoning all the way with rhyme. The cheese factor is high. But it hits, and the man connects. And while his words sometimes have a Hallmarkish quality, they always rise above the vapid platitudes of greeting cards. John Wooden was an endearing poet of ought.
“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
“Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow.”
“When we are out of sympathy with the young, then our work in this world is over.”
And so on. If you’re reading HoopSpeak, you’ve heard these and countless other Woodenisms before. When Wooden died last year, these were the cute quotes people used to curate his life and career. I didn’t grow up with Wooden. At the time of his death, it all seemed a little too sentimental to me. After reading, They Call Me Coach, I’m learning to re-assess.
Wooden was a devout Christian. He once quipped, “If I were ever prosecuted for my religion, I truly hope there would be enough evidence to convict me.” And so I hope Wooden wouldn’t mind my drawing a parallel between himself and King Solomon.
Within the Judeo-Christian tradition—you’ll find some species of this within all systems and cultures—there is something called Wisdom literature, which is mostly attributed to King Solomon. Wisdom literature is distinct from other kinds of religious teaching in that it does not traffic so much in “shall nots” as much as “shoulds”. “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him” (Proverbs 14:13). Like Wooden, Solomon was a poet of ought.
If the demands of the Torah can be construed as rigid adherence, wisdom literature is something more akin to encouragement toward better living. Wisdom does not intend to rule society, it wants to enrich the lives of its citizens.
John Wooden is basketball’s most fascinating talking point for basketball as more than basketball.
Here’s what They Call Me Coach is about: the possibility of living better.
In that light, John Wooden is actually fairly profound, bad poetry and all.
They Call Me Coach is a launching pad for a bigger discussion: What is the purpose of coaching? What is the value of sports? What Wooden wants to say—based on how he conducted himself—is that the contest is merely a laboratory for life.
Better people make better players; Better communities make better teams.
Better players make better people; Better teams make better communities.
Sports as mere escapism (the fan) or practiced dominance (the athlete) is short-sighted at best. It’s a cheap form of self-identification, a kind of chest-thumping, absurd tribalism. Sport, in these senses, still possesses some inherent value, but not as much as we’d like to think. One might argue there is some natural selection at play, but that is, I’d argue, misguided. Considered in a vacuum, sports are positive in that they provide exercise, beauty and self-expression. Not much more.
But the meaningfulness and value of sports grows if it’s used as a platform to pursue self-improvement and the development of community. Sports are a vitally important component of any culture if viewed in the laboratory for life sense. It’s not so much about one’s free throw percentage as it is the discipline it takes to perfect one’s stroke. That kind of stuff carries through life.
It’s not surprising that as They Call Me Coach concludes, Wooden spends a few chapters dealing with his observations about changes within the world of basketball since his retirement in 1975. And again, it’s basketball on the surface and life beneath.
One thing that has helped me during the years without Nellie [Wooden's wife who died of cancer in 1985] is the number of bright, interesting young people who come to my camps at California Lutheran College in Thousand Oaks…
What an interesting activity; each group is different and has an appealing makeup. I feel the greatest value of young people coming to my camp is not how much basketball they learn but the association they have with all the others in the camp…We insist on all being courteous and polite to each other and on all taking advantage of the opportunity to make new friends.
We stress conduct, attitude, and attention in every session of the week-long camps. Our subject is not just basketball. We try to develop the full personality, just like I insisted on at every place I taught basketball. We believe the youngsters should be neat in their dress, keep their rooms in order, bus their dishes after each meal, and maintain proper decorum in their rooms, and we insist they listen attentively to instructors.
All these things, in my opinion, are more valuable to them as people than the basketball instruction they receive.
I want to stop short of describing They Call Me Coach in terms of kumbaya, and maybe I’ve already gone too far in that direction. If so, I’m sorry. But the culture of basketball is not wholly distinct from the broader culture in which it inhibits. More accurately understood, it is that culture. This is our takeaway.
[Editor's Note: Zach Harper is eloquently guest lecturing for Graydon Gordian today because the mail system stole Graydon's copy of The Essence of the Game is Deception. Harper is the host of ESPN's Daily Dime Live and writes often and incisively for Hardwood Paroxysm, Cowbell Kingdom, A Wolf Among Wolves and Talkhoops.net. Here, Harper untangles the mystique of NBA life through the unlikely vehicle of the Whoopi Goldberg classic, Eddie.--Beckley]
Basketball isn’t played in a vacuum.
That’s a saying I like to drop on people when they’re trying to tell me you can’t take this player’s scoring away from their team or adding a high-scoring NBAer to another team will make that franchise the best scoring squad in the league.
What it would look like if basketball were played in a vacuum
For every action, move or injury in the NBA, there is an equal reaction, adjustment or fill-in. Nothing happens independent of other occurrences. Take Monta Ellis off of the Golden State Warriors and someone like Reggie Williams will step up his scoring while David Lee and Stephen Curry get more shots. Switch Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose, and the Bulls probably run a less guard-heavy scoring attack.
Life adjusts in the NBA.
But rarely does the NBA adjust to life. The NBA keeps chugging along at a full head of steam while those affected by the normal ups, downs and gyrations of life continue to try to keep up.
Nothing taught me this more than the movie Eddie starring Whoopi Goldberg. Eddie is probably considered a joke amongst you and your peers if you’ve ever seen it or heard of it. The premise is sort of absurdly brilliant or maybe it’s brilliantly absurd.
The protagonist, Edwina Franklin (played by Goldberg), is a super fan the likes you have never seen seen pretty much everywhere you go in terms of sports bars, online chats and professional sporting venues. By happen chance happenstance, she drives the new owner of the New York Knicks to his team, impresses him with some words of advice, and then is given the chance to coach the team after he notices her screaming in the nosebleed seats during a game at Madison Square Garden. She’s a novelty act that he uses to galvanize the interest in his new purchase, the attendance at MSG and the actual team itself.
On the surface, it’s no less gimmicky than Air Bud or Like Mike in its fantasy-driven “how cool would it be if” type of tale. However, when you dive into the movie, it shows you a glimpse into the life of the professional athlete that we never really think about.
There are two primary reasons fans hate athletes: jealousy and money. Jealousy can be sparked because you want their lifestyle, fame, ability, or whatever. But ultimately, whether there is jealousy for the money pro athletes make or not, resentment is almost always there.
“If I made $12 million a year, I’d shut my mouth and just be happy.”
Unfortunately, that’s a crock of feces. Eddie is a movie that shows us professional athletes are actually people too.
Regardless of how much money you do or don’t make in life, there are always going to be personal issues, familial issues and other extenuating circumstances that affect your happiness. In Eddie, the New York Knicks were a microcosm of everything that could go wrong with an NBA team.
The ownership was changing hands, which meant the future of the franchise was sort of up in the air. The head coach was a stubborn jerk who viewed himself as more important than the players could ever be. There was a malcontent, self-absorbed star who wouldn’t pass the ball. They had players battling injuries that were limiting careers. They had players more interested in photo shoots and rap albums than playing defense. They had a player going through a messy divorce. And my god they had Greg Ostertag as the moment of levity and Dwayne Schintzius pretending to be Russian as their enforcers in the middle.
While the problems are not the exact same as the everyday people Sly and the Family Stone would croon about, they’re relative to the problems anybody can face on any given day.
When NBA players like Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson were making “normal wages” for their craft and battling racial and societal upheaval during the Civil Rights movement, the plight of the professional athlete wasn’t really discussed. They were just like everybody else. They were trying to live out their dreams, do what made them happy for a career and find a way to make life better.
Nobody cared that Elgin was in the military during the days of the week he wasn’t on the hardwood. Nobody cared that Bill and Oscar were fighting through archaic racial boundaries like they’d fight through screens. If they had bad games, they were letting you down, no matter where their minds were because of tough and important aspects of their life outside of basketball.
In looking at today’s NBA landscape, nothing has really changed. The fact that Carmelo Anthony wants to live closer to what he calls home while dealing with public scrutiny for wanting to improve his quality of life as he mourns the death of his sister doesn’t seem to matter to fans of the NBA. It allegedly shouldn’t affect him because he makes $17 million this season and has an offer of three years and $65 million begging him to scribble his name on it.
Carmelo’s play and performance are down this year, but that’s not the fans’ problem. Because he was fortunate enough to have immense basketball skill and a work ethic strong enough to allow him to achieve his goals, he’s been blessed with taking advantage of the free market for his services. Apparently his money should negate any emotions or feelings he has throughout his personal life.
Eddie shows us this is an unfair way to feel. NBA players appear to have super human abilities, but they’re still human nonetheless. They’ve been humans whether they’re battling racism, family illness and death, a crappy boss to work for, a city they don’t want to live in or whatever the personal reason is. They’re affected by their lives and jobs the same ways we are, even if they live in a world we can’t all relate to.
In the movie, Whoopi Goldberg’s ability to relate to the players and find a way to reach out to them as a common person is instrumental in bridging the gap between the two existences. Indeed it is only once Eddie connects with her players off the court that her team begins to win on it. You don’t have to feel sorry for the NBA players. Just try to remember what affects your job performance can affect theirs as well.
Is Eddie full of kitschy fluff and inaccuracies that cheapen the reality of the story being told? Absolutely. That’s part of what makes it so fun to watch as a self-aware NBA fan. You can make fun of the failed execution of the NBA rules and intricacies in many ways.
But you can’t deny the reality of the human element this movie deals with, in reminding us that pro athletes are actual people.
[Editor's Note: Bret LaGree has been at the helm of Hoopinion, one of the internet's most consistent sources of brilliant basketball writing, since 2004. For this first installment of Basketball 101, LaGree delves into the history of the NBA through its original star, George Mikan. Many of us younguns only know Mikan as the bespectacled goober who had a hand in the world's most boring drill. Here, LaGree reveals how Mikan's spectral presence still looms over us all, player, owner and fan alike. --Beckley]
Michael Schumacher’s 2007 biography of George Mikan, Mr. Basketball: George Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers, and the Birth of the NBA, attempts both to represent Mikan as the league’s proto-superstar and to imply the degree to which the league has transformed from an unstable, regional, American league into a financially robust, worldwide phenomenon.
It’s easy to forget both how new the NBA is and how different the second half of its existence has been from its first. Easier, perhaps, when one’s conscious memory encompasses only that second half of the league’s existence. Befitting the NBA’s origin as a less popular alternative to college basketball, my earliest conscious memory of watching live basketball dates to Patrick Ewing repeatedly goaltending early in the 1982 NCAA Championship Game.
Though my conscious memory of the NBA consists only of the league after Magic and Bird began to make the league modern (and even then only consists of vague memories of getting to watch Kings games on a UHF channel when visiting my grandparents in Kansas City), spending three formative years in rural, Northeastern Kansas provided me with two important links to the first half of the league’s existence.
First, I collected (and still possess) a set of 1979-80 Topps NBA cards, the last set not to include Magic and Bird. With televised games rare, those cards provided my first exposure to the game’s recent history including but not limited the existence and absorption of the ABA, the adoption of the three-point shot, and how awesome Junior Bridgeman is.
The second brings me back to Mikan. Lew Hitch, a reserve big man on the 1952 and 1953 Minneapolis Lakers, both NBA Championship teams led by Mikan, also lived In Westmoreland, KS (still does as far as I know) and, between the sheer small town of it all and my precocious interest in basketball, I met him. Now, as to what a two-time NBA champion discussed with a pre-schooler, I can’t recall. Presumably he confirmed that he had played for the championship Lakers teams and he was, perhaps, graciously bemused by my serious interest in this fact. For any of this to have any impact on me, it must have been explained to me that the Lakers played in Minneapolis before moving* to Los Angeles, that they won several championships there and, in explaining that, the name “George Mikan” must have come up.
*The advance knowledge of this possibility did nothing to soften the blow of the Kings leaving Kansas City a few years later.
That wasn’t the last time I gave conscious thought to Mikan but once the last opportunity passed to impress a basketball coach by knowing why the Mikan Drill was so named, I can’t say he occupied my mind.
Schumacher’s book provides a welcome corrective for those of us largely ignorant of the least-visible (there’s almost no extant footage of Mikan in action) NBA great. It’s not just Mikan’s on-court greatness (In addition to his individual honors, the collegiate and professional championships his teams won, he inspired both the institution of the modern defensive goaltending rule and the expansion of the lane from six- to 12-feet) but his post-career, off-court struggles that resonate across the 60-plus years of the NBA existence.
The NBA is no longer arena-filler in between hockey games and ice shows in the Northeast nor joint vanity project and promotional vehicle for Midwestern industrialists. Teams don’t rely on balancing their books by scheduling themselves as the undercard on a double-header with the Harlem Globetrotters* serving as the main event, and the best players are paid more intensely, for a longer period of time, and receive better medical treatment than Mikan, who retired (the first time) at 29. But the struggle to achieve a lifetime of success when your greatest skills abandon you at a young age is timeless, perhaps the inherent complication of having great athletic gifts.
*Schumacher is at his least convincing when suggesting that the NBA’s color barrier existed as much for financial as racial reasons, that the league’s owners kept the league all-white until the 1950-51 season because they didn’t wish to anger Abe Saperstein by competing with him for talent and thus risk losing the gate from future Globetrotter exhibitions.
George Mikan wasn’t just the first franchise player in the NBA, he was the first franchise player to retire only to come back, unsuccessfully, one year later, the first franchise player to learn that on-court success did not automatically translate to success in the front office or on the sideline, and the first franchise player to serve as commissioner of a basketball league that no longer exists.
One needn’t be a franchise player to suffer post-playing career financial setbacks but Mikan experienced those, too: a failed law firm and a self-financed, unsuccessful run for Congress foremost among them. Because of those setbacks, because his relatively short and modestly compensated career took place prior to the creation of a pension plan for NBA players in 1964, and because of the effects of diabetes (which would ultimately cost him a leg, a few fingers, and 12 hours a week to dialysis for four-and-a-half years) Mikan, in his 60s, sold off his personal memorabilia collection to cover his medical bills.
In those losses one can measure the scope of the league’s history. From the merger of the NBL and BAA in 1949 for an inaugural season featuring 17 NBA teams to the eight teams left standing for the 1954-55 season, through the expansion of the ‘60s and ‘70s that more than doubled the size of the league, through the merger with the ABA, through Magic and Bird and Jordan (and Stern), through the modern round of expansion teams, the Dream Team, the global broadcasts, and the influx of international stars, the NBA grew sufficiently larger, broader, deeper, and richer to take its existence for granted.
Case in point: through several iterations of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, players who retired prior to 1965 were required to possess more service time than those who retired in 1965 or later in order to receive reduced (if any) pension benefits. The irony in the lack of benefits for Mikan, the league’s first great draw, is that he was most definitely not forgotten. He was honored, if not continuously, consistently* while also having to advocate for his pension rights and those of his fellow pioneers.
*He was the only NBA player in the inaugural class of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1968. He was named one the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players at the 1997 All-Star Game in Cleveland. A statue of Mikan was unveiled in front of the Target Center in Minneapolis in 2001. The Los Angeles Lakers honored the Hall of Famers who played for the Minneapolis Lakers a year later.
It’s not just those specific remembrances, either. The ghost of Mikan lingers. Even if we don’t immediately recognize it as such. Not just in the brief, spectral video footage of the man in action but in the very design of every court, in the existence of the shot clock, in every shot that falls through the basket unmolested, and in every decision to draft a big man with the first overall pick.
A couple months ago, I met a University of Michigan Professor of Comparative Literature named Santiago (Yago) Colas (behold the wonders of Twitter). This semester, Yago is teaching a course called Basketball Cultures, which I highlighted during my brief and exhilarating reign as TrueHoop’s stand-in Editor.
In my post, I noted that many us who love watching, playing and read about basketball would kill to take this course. Now, with some help from our TrueHoop Network comrades, HoopSpeak will be doing just that in a new feature called Basketball Culture 101.
Creative title, no?
Each Thursday, for the next three months, a guest writer from the TrueHoop Network will tackle, in essay form, one of the course materials from the Yago’s class. There will be no grades given, no credit awarded and no holds barred.
This week, the accomplished and eloquent Bret LaGree of Hoopinion will be kicking things off with a commentary on the chronologically appropriate Mr. Basketball: George Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers, and the Birth of the NBA by Michael Schumacher.
I couldn’t be more excited about this project. Each writer will use a book or film relating to basketball culture as a jumping off point, but you can expect a diversity of approaches and voices that will reflect the myriad ways the very phrase “basketball culture” can be understood.
As Yago’s syllabus explains, the straightforward goals of his course are:
To expand our knowledge of the history and variety of the game’s manifestations
To enhance our awareness of the nature and types of stories that spring up around the game
To strengthen our ability to recognize and shape the stories we tell about the game as well as the uses to which we put those stories in daily life.
I hope the new project can live up to the Professor’s expectations, and that you tune in each Thursday to read some of the best NBA writers around (full schedule below).