Cultures of Basketball Course Diary: Exquisite Corpse (Day 15)
I'm tense. Whenever something good happens (like being asked to play last week), I'm immediately afraid it of it breaking. So I'm tense. Not only is Shoals about to come to Michigan to visit class and give his talk, but the Big Ten Tournament was to begin on Thursday and, while my students weren’t actually scheduled to play until Friday, I’d already received the form e-mail informing that they’d be traveling to Indianapolis for the tournament on Thursday. Still I gripped tightly to the vain hope that they’d be there on Thursday. After all, we had so much to talk about: our intra-class game had evolved in my mind into an intra-class World Cup style 8 team two round tournament complete with jerseys, nicknames, team names and logos and a ping pong ball lottery to round out the eight teams (each of which would be headed by a UM player).
Alas, as I walked into the room, my heart sank: no players. The e-mail had spoken truth. There were more important things in their lives than this class and the intra-class tournament … more important things than me. It’s weird to me, but I guess I can understand it. And anyway, my heart didn’t sink too far, because the flipside of the players being gone is that there’s more room in our classroom and it’s easier to keep the discussion focused and, particularly, to keep it on the text. I’m sure it’s partly just that the lower numbers are easier for me to handle. Partly also that I am more properly teacherly when I’m faced with students who do not simultaneously embody a fantasy that decades I once harbored of what I might, but failed, to become. But also, though I hate to say it, it is because those damn players giggle and whisper to each other like 6th grade schoolgirls at recess. What’s up with that?
Still, even without the players, it took us a while to settle down. We had to discuss their chances in the Big Ten Tourney, plus the various projections about where they might be seeded in the NCAA tournament. Then, of course, we had to talk about our tournament – lots of announcements there. And then finally, we had to discuss Bethlehem Shoals upcoming visit to our classroom and his public lecture at Michigan. Then, Oh God! they actually proposed that we should hold our St. Patrick’s Day class meeting, which in all likelihood would also be Michigan’s first day in the NCAA tournament at a bar with beer, or, in class with beer where, it was proposed, we could watch tournament games via the projector in the classroom. I’m thinking that this class has gotten away from me. I’m thinking that I never had this class in the first place. I’m realizing that I have gotten away from me.
As usual, I regain a grip on myself by ruthlessly repressing them. “Settle down,” I intone, repeating the phrase as if they were preschoolers, “settle down now.” I feel like a phlebotomist jabbing at an elusive vein. Except I’m trying to jab at that button that I thought a repressive educational system would have installed in these students long ago: you know, the one that infantilizes them, makes them afraid of authority and humiliation and incapable of thinking for themselves.
"Go to your cubbies, take out your mats, It’s time to have a short nap. After that we’ll have snack and then we’ll watch clips of the young Michael Jordan to go along with Shoals’ chapter on the subject.” I know they’re not the only ones who are excited. In fact, they didn’t even start it today. Well, maybe they did. The truth is I don’t remember. I just know that we’ve burned a good twenty minutes on fun, happy-go-lucky, laissez-faire bullshit and it feels like what the announcers call a “turning point”. I need to get a stop right here. I do, they settle in to watch the video, but I think it’s less out of fear, or even respect, and more just out of a kind of bored indulgence in my fantasy that this is actually a university classroom and not an annex of Good Time Charley’s that just happens to be located on campus.
We watch the 4:35 seconds of NBA sponsored, pre 1990 MJ highlights. I feel like I’m at a Fireworks show. Darkness, silence, expectation, restlessness – each in his or her own private world from which we emerge periodically, briefly, to exchange a collective “ooh.” It is, it strikes me, as though we are staging a skit about the birth of language and society. Or perhaps it is more than that because we haven’t rehearsed or planned this ahead of time and we are surprisingly unselfconscious. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in these sporadic, exchanged exhalations we are spontaneously living a moment like the ones from which language first emerged.
The lights come on and as always they break the spell. But somehow it seems gentler this time around. Maybe because even though the darkness has been dispelled, the silence pervades. I take a second to unhook cords, let the big screen roll back up, turn off equipment. Then I ask them what they saw besides elevation. Here is what they said:
1.Lots of run outs
2.Lots of isos
3 Few passes
5.Everything at the rim
6.How adept he is at using his large hands and his body control to protect the ball in order to get a clean shot off in traffic.
All of these were accurate observations. In fact, I counted. The clip showed 24 different made baskets. Those 24 baskets came on 2 jump shots, 8 variations on the lay up, and 14 dunks. Tactically speaking, 11 of the 24 baskets came on fast break run outs, 9 came on half court isolation sets, and 2 came on give and go’s in the half court. And I myself had felt moved to write, when I was first watching the clip myself, that the way Jordan uses his body in mid air it is almost as though he is setting moving picks for himself.
Now, there are several students in the class from Chicago whose first basketball memories – as mine are of Clyde, Big O, and the early 70s Bucks – are of Jordan of the second three-peat era from 1996-1998. We call them Jordan babies. By no means were they the only ones to participate in the discussion but they were, I would say, perhaps, the most invested. For these students, this young Jordan really stood out. Don’t get me wrong: these are knowledgeable Bulls fans and they’ve seen this younger Jordan on video before. All the more reason why, perhaps, they were so clear and emphatic on the difference between this Jordan and the one of their early childhoods.
Which brought us perfectly to the FD chapter, written by Bethlehem Shoals, on “The Invention of Air: The Brash, Brilliant Doodles of Young Jordan.” The first comment a student made was that it seemed to him that Shoals was almost trying to “villainize” Young MJ. I felt the student was perhaps himself uncertain about his word choice, but I knew what he was getting at: that: Shoals’ chapter seems to be trying to keep alive for memory a rougher-around-the-edges, more confrontational Jordan, on and off the floor, than the one that these students grew up idolizing.
I had worried there would be resistance to this in class and this first comment put me a bit on my guard. I meant to ask him: “Why might this be so? What is the value of this move? Why does Shoals devote two chapters to Jordan, the young brash Jordan and the six title winning Jordan?” But instead, I immediately defended the choice. I pointed out that within the ethical universe of FreeDarko, a Jordan who isn’t always an obedient and polished corporate spokesman is less a villain than a hero, or perhaps best of all “an anti-hero” (which was cool, because that after all is the topic of Shoals upcoming lecture). He’s the one shaking up the comfortable, and their comfortable narratives. So I kind of spilled the beans.
But the students weren’t resistant to the idea anyway. On the contrary they seemed into it. They unanimously agreed that it was a good idea to split Jordan up into two Jordans. And they seemed intrigued by the characterization of the young Jordan; maybe the way some teenagers are intrigued by stories of the time their parents first got drunk, or smoked weed. I told them some stories about the Bad Boys and the rivalry between Isiah and Michael, which seemed to interest them more than any other stories I’ve ever shared with them.
Toward the end of class we got the point in the text that most fascinates me (and, I was pleased, fascinated them as well). But we didn’t get as much time on it as I wanted, so I want to do a bit more thinking about it here. Speaking of the transition, where Jordan began to give up the dunk for the jump shot, Shoals writes: “The dunk takes an instant and an eternity; it’s both completely frivolous and totally domineering, a flash of light so blinding and brief that it might as well have never happened. A shot was the stuff of narrative; it was itself a story with a built-in arc, climax, and resolution. It also served as the perfect punctuation to any possession, game, season, or career.”
The first thing the students and I both thought about this was that it was a stroke of hoops culture genius to yoke together two kinds of shot – dunk and jumper – with two forms of expression: the exclamation, let us say, and the narrative. Within the overall argument of the chapter, Shoals point is that Michael made a choice to alter his game, and his image, not only to win titles but to become the stuff of official NBA history.
It is to say that Michael’s transition from the high-flying solo dunker that we watched in class – all run-outs and isos – to the Triangle-playing, Phil-obeying, jump shooting team player that won 6 titles in 8 years was not only effective on the court in making his team more successful and not only more effective, thereby, in cementing his place as the consensus Greatest of All Time. It was also effective as a – admittedly probably unintentional -- poetic tactic whereby he made his game more amenable to narrative; narrative, which, after all is essential to the circulation of legend and its transmutation into the concrete forms of Official History.
I think about the fireworks. I think about the “oohs” and “aahs” in class. And I see perfectly what Shoals is saying. There’s no way to build a history out of those exclamations. They are, as I had felt in class, little more than a baby’s first words. Significant as such, but with little staying power, like leftover pieces of a puzzle we have lost; or the screws leftover after assembling some piece of furniture.
In this case, as Shoals already pointed out earlier in the chapter the Story of Michael’s Greatness borrows a specific narrative trajectory, well known to lit crit types like me: the bildungsroman, or novel of formation. In that novelistic form, the protagonist, usually a talented and energetic, but raw, provincial comes to the big city, to the center of culture in his universe. There, little by little, he is formed, shaped at once by his own ambition to be recognized by that culture and by the demands that culture makes of those who would be recognized by it. In the end, the individual accepts the prevailing ethos of the culture in exchange for recognition by it and that ethos is thereby affirmed.
According to Shoals, Michael, the brutally talented individual, eventually works hard, learns (from the Master Phil Jackson no less) how “less is more” (see the graphic in the chapter that shows how the Bulls win totals rise each year as Jordan’s scoring average drops), subordinates himself for the team and, in the end, wins titles and the eternal admiration of all.
As Obi Wan says to Darth Vader, “If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Something like that is the deal the young Jordan strikes with the old Jordan. If you agree not to score 37 points per game for your whole career (which is an abomination to the game), then you can win titles with obscene ease, drain a few legendary game winning jumpers, and we will never, ever forget you. Young Michael lowers his light sabre, folds his hands across his chest, and is launched into hoops immortality.
I’m totally down with all this and think it does a brilliant job of rescuing some promising castoffs from the side of the road of history. I’m reminded of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s recognition that there is “no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He meant that all that we remember, all that we celebrate as triumph is simultaneously a defeat for someone else, a record of something or someone having been crushed and tossed to the side. Accordingly, he recommended a way of thinking about history whereby those fragments might be gathered up. They might not ever form a standard narrative, but they could, with care, be held together, and presented as a kind of alternative to that standard narrative and a reminder that what took place was neither inevitable, nor one sided, nor without some struggle and violence.
Shoals here has presented the fragments left behind, the McDonald’s wrappers that Jordan and the NBA and hoops culture as a whole threw out the window as they tore town the Interstate at breakneck speed toward individual immortality and league global domination. It reminds me of the difference between Old Elvis and Young Elvis, between Old Marx and Young Marx and makes me think that Jordan, thanks to Shoals, gets like so few others to have it both ways: to have died young and so become immortal, and to have lived out and fulfilled his promise in the established world and so to have that immortality narrativized. Jordan is James Dean and Laurence Olivier; Maurice Stokes and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Maybe that is what it is to be the Greatest of All Time: to dunk and shoot the jumper. And I can’t really improve on that version of the story.
But I’d like to extend it with some wondering. I’m thinking of the dunk as the monosyllabic exclamation. And I’m thinking of the smooth, inevitable jump shot as the narrative of ineluctable triumphant conformity. But then I’m thinking of the video we watched. 14 dunks, 2 jump shots. But there were 8 other shots that were neither dunks nor jump shots. What is their discursive equivalent?
They were Jordan taking off somewhere within the general vicinity of the basket, leaving behind some earthbound defenders, encountering other, rising, obstacles in mid flight, fragments of bodies – arms, and hands – floating into his space, and Michael’s response: the body beginning to turn away from the basket and the defender, or, the knees drawing up toward the abdomen and the ball extending in one hand, he may begin to float beneath the basket; in either case, Michael designs and creates a physical space that he occupies alone, as he designs and creates it, in order to get the clear shot. Really, it is a space just for his left or right hand and the ball since that is all he needed to have cleared.
These plays, which are what I most remember of Jordan’s career, seem to me to carry the power of narrative unfolding, like a jumper, but without the foregone, prewritten character of that more predictable and repeatable shot. If these are part of what Shoals means by the “brash, brilliant doodles” of the chapter’s title, they might also be seen, in poetic terms, as Surrealist exquisite corpse prose exercises in which the story begin by one individual is continued by another and finished by yet another and nobody really knows how it will end until it has ended and then, and only then, will it have looked inevitable.
And that makes me realize that, whatever their differences, both the early Jordan dunk and the late Jordan jump shot share a sense of inevitability. But before one of the myriad variations on a layup that he improvised bounces around and drops in, before Michael lands in a cat like, thief like crouch, surrounded by defenders shaking their heads befuddled, before space once again becomes one, and grounded, and shared by us all – before all that, there is the dilated moment of extended exclamation, and wonder, and invested uncertainty: we don’t know how it will end, but it doesn’t matter, because we already care, it is already amazing, just as it is, a perfect slice of pure invention in process.