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Saturday, June 12, 2021

June 12-13, 2021: Crowd-sourced BasketballStudying

[June 6th marks the NBA’s 75th birthday, so this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of basketball figures and stories. Leading up to this crowd-sourced weekend post featuring bball contexts shared by fellow BasketballStudiers—add yours in comments or by email, please!]

First, a few of my favorite SportsStudiers:

Lou Moore

Sport in American History

Zach Bigalke

Nathan Kalman-Lamb

And Johanna Mellis

Responding to Wednesday’s Magic Johnson post, Douglas Sackman tweets, “I remember where I was when I heard the news (in Orange County during grad school). I appreciate your take on how Magic's commercial enterprise and vision challenged ‘Fortress LA.’”

Douglas also follows up Thursday’s GOAT post, writing, “YES! Pretty much how I look at it. We learned a lot about MJ from Last Dance and his life context, and he is a compelling figure, as is his rise to greatness. Still, I find much of the investment in him as GOAT over LeBron (or Kareem!) ties into a toxic masculine model of greatness (which avers he made his teammates better by refusing empathy and modeling indomitability), and they romanticize hating the opponents and seeing the game as battle, while LeBron affirms the humanity of his teammates, opponents, and fellow citizens.”

One of my favorite FSU English Studies alums ever, and an up-and-coming sportswriter in his own right, Kurtis Kendall, argues, “Obviously you were taking a different approach, but if we’re talking goat debate, it comes down to your preference of playstyle between Jordan and LeBron (Kareem is definitely 3rd all-time though). I put Jordan at #1 because I'd want the best scorer all time first and foremost, among other reasons. Also, what people forget is Jordan can do the 8 assists and 8 rebounds like LeBron as well (his 88-89 season), while scoring more and shooting more efficiently. He just decided he was more effective scoring than passing, which, it's hard to argue with the results.”

Both Glenna Matthews and my FSU colleague Ben Lieberman agree with my choice of Kareem. And the conversation continues at this twitter thread.

Other NBA & basketball thoughts:

Tim McCaffrey writes “When I was a teenager, every year the Lakers seemed to be playing the Celtics in the finals. People used to say that the Celtics were a racist organization, and that the Lakers weren’t (likely because of the race of their star players). I used to get so mad.”

Derek Tang shares, “Grew up watching the Celtic-Showtime Lakers rivalry in full swing, then The Bad Boys, then Jordan's prime. Drifted away from the sport in the 2000s, and still don't follow it anywhere near as closely as I used to. However, my 12-yo son is a huge Luka Doncic fan, and I cannot deny that he makes following the Mavs a whole ton of fun...until they lose in the playoffs and his lack of a strong supporting cast shines through.”

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. Other bball stories, histories, or contexts you’d share (in comments or by email)?

Friday, June 11, 2021

June 11, 2021: Basketball Stories: WNBA Stars

[June 6th marks the NBA’s 75th birthday, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of basketball figures and stories. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the bball stories, histories, and contexts you’d highlight—share ‘em in comments or by email, please!]

Before Colin Kaepernick began his protests in the summer of 2016, WNBA stars were already doing so; but as is too often the case, we don’t recognize these female athletes as fully as we do their male counterparts. So I wanted to make sure to end this NBA and bball series by highlighting and briefly AmericanStudying a handful of the many phenomenal WNBA stars, past and present, on and off the court:

1)      Sheryl Swoopes: Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, and Rebecca Lobo were the first three players signed to the WNBA when it launched in 1996, and honestly any one of them could occupy this spot on my list. But Swoopes was the first signed, and I’m highlighting her in particular for that reason and because of this sentence from her Wikipedia page: “She returned only six weeks after giving birth to her son to play the last third of the WNBA inaugural season and led the Comets in the 1997 WNBA Championship.” If that doesn’t sum up the badassery of WNBA stars and female athletes everywhere, I don’t know what could.

2)      Cynthia Cooper-Dyke: While Swoopes was a big part of that inaugural Houston Comets championship team, Cooper-Dyke was the unquestionable centerpiece of their dynasty (the Comets won the first four WNBA championships), winning two regular-season MVPs and all four Finals MVPs in the process. What makes that resume even more impressive, however, is that Cooper-Dyke had finished her college career at USC a full decade earlier, after the 1985-86 season. She spent the next decade playing on European teams, and then signed with the Comets at the age of 34, making her stunning subsequent dominance of the league that much more striking still.

3)      Dawn Staley: Not gonna lie, this is something of a homer pick: I grew up watching Dawn Staley work her point-guard magic at the University of Virginia, and have been a huge fan ever since. She went on to make great contributions to both the US National Team and the WNBA, but it’s really as a coach that Staley has distinguished herself from other WNBA stars: literally, as Staley began coaching the Temple University women’s bball team while she was still in the WNBA; and then through her subsequent successes, with Temple, with her current coaching job at the University of South Carolina, and with the US National Team. She’s the first person to win the Naismith Award as both a player and a coach, which just about says it all.

4)      Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery: I’m grouping these last two stars together because of the similar reason why I’m highlighting them: each left a promising WNBA career over the last few years in order to pursue social justice work and activism. Moore did so in 2019, putting her career with the Minnesota Lynx on hiatus to work for criminal justice reform, as illustrated by her successful efforts for the release of her partner Jonathan Irons from prison. Montgomery did so in 2020, retiring from the WNBA in order to take part in that year’s protests and activisms for racial justice and equity. These two inspiring stars have extended the legacy of those 2016 protests and remind us that WNBA athletes have long contributed to well more than the world of sports stardom.

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,

Ben

PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other bball stories, histories, or contexts you’d share (in comments or by email)?

Thursday, June 10, 2021

June 10, 2021: Basketball Stories: MJ or LeBron--or Kareem?

[June 6th marks the NBA’s 75th birthday, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of basketball figures and stories. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the bball stories, histories, and contexts you’d highlight—share ‘em in comments or by email, please!]

On two layers to the best basketball player debate, and an unexpected twist.

In many ways, the debate over whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all time seems to come down to a very familiar refrain: championships vs. stats. That’s the same metric that has often been used to adjudicate another famous basketball debate (Russell vs. Chamberlain), as well as some of the more famous ones in football (Montana vs. Marino and Brady vs. Manning). It’s a particularly compelling sports debate because it extends the focus from just the two individual players in question to broader arguments about whether team victories or individual achievement are more effective measures of greatness—of course the ultimate goal in team sports is to win a title, but how much can any individual contribute to that, and how much should we penalize those whose teams just weren’t quite good enough? Plus, LeBron has made it to a ton more championship series than Jordan and just hasn’t quite won them all—if he had gotten those few extra bounces and won them all, would we even be having this debate? Are Jordan’s stats comparable enough that he would stay in the conversation regardless? And so on (and so on and so on…).

There’s another possible side to the greatest basketball player debate, though: the character and communal presence of each man. I wrote about Jordan’s relative lack of community engagement here, and about LeBron’s impressive activism here (which has only increased in recent years with his opening of a wonderful new school and his voting rights activism). Obviously activism isn’t the only measure of character, but in this case it does seem to line up pretty well with that side of the two men as well: Jordan was notoriously nasty and petty as a player, gave one of the most arrogant and vindictive Hall of Fame speeches ever, and has spent much of his retirement gambling like he’s in a Scorcese film; while LeBron has married his childhood sweetheart, given back to his community at every turn, and basically turned the other cheek to ridiculous levels of vitriol and hatred from fans almost everywhere other than his own cities. Obviously activism and character are separate from athletic performance—but once we introduce championships into the mix, we’ve already moved beyond the individual accomplishments of players in any case, so I see no reason not to think about whether other factors might contribute to how we measure overall greatness.

And once we start considering other such factors, the whole debate has the potential to take a surprising twist. After all, neither Jordan (#5) nor LeBron (currently #3) are at the top of the all-time NBA scoring list; that honor goes to the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And if we’re talking about social and cultural presence and impact, I don’t know that any professional athlete can compare with Kareem—from his early days in film to his ongoing career as a writer and novelist, and especially to his consistently thoughtful and impressive contributions to public debates, Abdul-Jabbar has left his imprint on American popular culture, politics, and society in numerous ways over the last five decades. That’s not enough to ensure all-time greatness of course, but again, Abdul-Jabbar is also the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and was unquestionably one of the greatest players by any number of such measures. So at the very least, I’d say that his combination of on-the-court greatness, championship contributions, and social presence and activism puts Abdul-Jabbar on the very short list of all-time greats, and perhaps should make him, rather than MJ, LeBron’s fiercest competitor for the throne.

Last bball story tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other bball stories, histories, or contexts you’d share?

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

June 9, 2021: Basketball Stories: Magic Johnson

[June 6th marks the NBA’s 75th birthday, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of basketball figures and stories. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the bball stories, histories, and contexts you’d highlight—share ‘em in comments or by email, please!]

On genuine low and high points for the legendary Lakers star, and what they both exemplify.

I’ve written before, in this post as well as in the chapter on AIDS epidemic histories and literature in my fourth book, that Magic Johnson’s 1991 announcement of his HIV-positive status marked a pivotal turning point in public conversations about the disease. I certainly believe that’s the case (and am of course not alone in arguing the point), but at the same time it’d be important not to let a desire to consider the historical big picture lead us to skip too quickly past what the moment meant for Johnson and his family. Even if we leave aside the moment’s personal (such as Johnson’s subsequent confessions of serial infidelity) and professional (his immediate, although not permanent, departure from the NBA) ramifications for Johnson, his wife Cookie, and their young family, in 1991 HIV and AIDS were still (and understandably, given the statistics) perceived as death sentences. While Johnson has been able to battle the disease quite successfully (it seems) for the three decades since his announcement, that subsequent history shouldn’t cloud our perspective on what his diagnosis and situation meant, for him and everyone around him, in 1991. It was as painful and frightening a moment as any faced by an American athlete or celebrity in the era.

While Johnson’s battle against that HIV diagnosis has continued for these 30 subsequent years, his moves forward from that moment and toward another career high point began much more rapidly than that. In 1994, less than three years after his announcement, Johnson and his Johnson Development Corporation announced their plan for Magic Johnson Theatres, a line of movie theaters that would open in and provide entertainment options, as well as jobs and revitalization, for urban communities. The first such theater, the Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15, opened in South Central Los Angeles in 1995; a second, the AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9, opened in New York in 2000, and more followed in Cleveland, Atlanta, and other cities. While Johnson’s achievements will always be defined first by his basketball stardom and successes, it’s fair to say that on the court he was one of a number of great players, present and past (if a unique one to be sure)—whereas his theaters represent a more distinctive and singular vision and achievement, within their communities and in American business overall. Although many of the theaters have changed ownership in the decades since, they established a new model for both locations and styles of movie theaters (and other urban developments)—and in any case, as with Johnson’s HIV announcement, subsequent events shouldn’t elide what this moment in Johnson’s life and career meant at the time.

So for Johnson, these two moments and stories reflect contrasting yet nearly concurrent low and high points, a particularly striking spectrum in a life that’s been consistently mercurial. If we take a step back and examine them in relationship to the African American community, however, I would argue that they together represent a period of extreme social and cultural shifts on both destructive and productive levels. Johnson’s theaters offer one illustration among many—alongside films like Boyz in the Hood (1991), New Jack City (1991), and Menace 2 Society (1993) and the explosion in popularity of gangsta rap, among other examples—of how African American urban communities were becoming central to American popular culture in the 1990s. Yet at the same time, such communities were facing significant new threats, from the war on drugs and the rise of mass incarceration to, yes, the AIDS epidemic; while the disease was largely associated with gay communities at the time of Johnson’s announcement, by the end of the 90s it would be just as fully linked to impoverished, and often African American, inner city communities. While Johnson’s personal battle with HIV certainly differs from that communal epidemic, the presence in his life and career of both that battle and an economic and cultural transformation of urban spaces reflects a similar spectrum of danger and possibility for the African American community in this same period.

Next bball story tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other bball stories, histories, or contexts you’d share?

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

June 8, 2021: Basketball Stories: Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell

[June 6th marks the NBA’s 75th birthday, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of basketball figures and stories. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the bball stories, histories, and contexts you’d highlight—share ‘em in comments or by email, please!]

On a clear distinction between two iconic greats—and why it’s not quite so clear as that.

Between 1956 (when Bill Russell was drafted by the Boston Celtics; Wilt Chamberlain was officially drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors three years later) and 1973 (when Chamberlain finished his last season with the Los Angeles Lakers; Russell had ended his playing career with the Celtics four years earlier), the National Basketball Association might as well have been renamed the Russell-Chamberlain Association. Russell and the Celtics won 11 NBA titles in those 18 years (1957, 1959-66, and 1968-69), while Chamberlain and his teams won 2 (with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967 and the Lakers in 1972). The discrepancy between those two championship totals, and the fact that Russell’s teams often beat Chamberlain’s in the playoffs en route to their titles (the Celtics were 7-1 in playoff series against Chamberlain teams), has led many NBA fans and basketball pundits to opine that Russell clearly got the best of this truly unique rivalry. But while such debates are fun for fans and historians alike, the truth is that these are two of the all-time great NBA players, and there must be room in any account of the sport for acknowledging and engaging with both men’s achievements and successes.

Those on-court achievements are the most important part of Russell and Chamberlain’s careers and legacies—but if we turn our attention to their lives and personalities off the court, it would be difficult to imagine a more contrasting pair. Russell was (and has largely remained in the decades since his retirement) notoriously prickly and private, not only with the media but with fans and the public more generally, as illustrated (if in a particularly divisive way) by his description of Boston as a “flea market of racism” and his initial desire to have his jersey retired in an empty Boston Garden. Chamberlain was (and largely remained until his 1999 death) famously gregarious and social, as exemplified (if in a particularly controversial way) by his claim (in his 1991 autobiography A View from Above) that he had slept with roughly 20,000 women in his life. Those differences might help explain why Chamberlain only coached for a year (with the San Diego Conquistadors of the American Basketball Association), while Russell not only coached the Celtics for the final four years of his playing career (becoming one of the first African American coaches in professional sports in the process), but went on to coach two other teams in the next two decades (the Seattle Supersonics in the mid-1970s and the Sacramento Kings in the late 1980s).

Yet I would argue that those seemingly divergent details and lives also reveal a similar influence and factor for both men. In the interview at that last hyperlink, Russell argues that his time as the Celtics’ player-coach had nothing to do with race or racial progress; yet as his comments on Boston and its fans reflect, Russell has consistently become—whatever his own overall goals—a lightning rod of racial attitudes and debates in both the city and the sport. For his side, Chamberlain denounced the Black Panthers and openly supported Richard Nixon in both 1968 and 1972, separating himself very distinctly from African American social movements of the era; yet from his college days at the University of Kansas on through every subsequent stage of his career and life, Chamberlain both experienced direct instances of racism and was defined as a stereotypical black man (never more so than in the aftermath of his sexual claims). Neither of these two titans of the sport can or should be reduced to his race, but neither is it possible to separate them from that aspect of their identity, even when each has in some ways expressed a desire for such separation. Indeed, Russell and Chamberlain’s careers marked a significant step in the NBA’s continued evolution toward being the most centrally African American sports league and community in America—one more reason to remember their iconic presences and legacies.

Next bball story tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other bball stories, histories, or contexts you’d share?

Monday, June 7, 2021

June 7, 2021: Basketball Stories: James Naismith

[June 6th marks the NBA’s 75th birthday, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of basketball figures and stories. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the bball stories, histories, and contexts you’d highlight—share ‘em in comments or by email, please!]

Three interesting contexts for the sport’s inventor and its subsequent popularization.

1)      Canadian Origins: Naismith himself was Canadian: born in Ontario to Scottish immigrant parents, he attended (and starred in multiple sports) at Montreal’s McGill University, where he subsequently became the first director of athletics before leaving to become a physical education teacher at the Springfield (MA) YMCA International Training School (later Springfield College). That biography itself illustrates the interconnected identities of Canada and the U.S., in an era when the border was unpatrolled and movement between the two nations was particularly easy and frequent. But Naismith’s first ideas for “Basket Ball” likewise reflect a Canadian influence: the game of “duck on the rock,” which the young Naismith had played in the fields of Ontario and which taught him the value of arcing or lobbing rather than straight throws and directly inspired key aspects of basketball. Thanks, Canada!

2)      Fun at the Y-M-C-A: It was while teaching PE at that Springfield YMCA that Naismith invented basketball; he was tasked by the school’s PE director, the pioneering recreation advocate Dr. Luther Gulick, with coming up with a game that would keep the school’s rowdy young men active during the New England winters (and one that would both be fair and not too physically rough), and in December 1891 Naismith debuted “Basket Ball.” That origin thus reflects two core elements of the YMCA: its Christian emphasis on fairness and its attempt to harness the energies of young men. And it was through the YMCA that the sport truly began to spread: even when Naismith moved to the University of Kansas in 1898 and founded that institution’s men’s basketball program, many of their games were against regional YMCA teams (as most colleges did not yet offer basketball). We often focus on collegiate and professional athletics to trace the history of sports in America, but basketball’s early history reminds us of the equally vital role of community and recreational athletics in that story.

3)      A Coaching Tree: Although Naismith frequently argued that “you don’t coach basketball; you just play it,” he nonetheless originated a chain of coaches that includes some of the sport’s most legendary figures: he instructed his successor at Kansas, Forrest “Phog” Allen, who came to be known as “the Father of Basketball Coaching”; and during his long career at Kansas Allen coached both Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith, who went on to become two of the 20th century’s most influential coaches (at Kentucky and North Carolina, respectively). That multi-generational story illustrates how influential individual figures and relationships can be in affecting and changing the course of history. But it also reminds us of how young America is, and how quickly our contemporary figures and stories (like that of Michael Jordan, who was coached and in his own words profoundly influenced by Smith) can be connected back to originating moments and histories. A great lesson to take away from Naismith and the origins of basketball.

Next bball story tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other bball stories, histories, or contexts you’d share?

Saturday, June 5, 2021

June 5-6, 2021: A Memorial Day Tribute

On why the holiday’s contemporary meaning also has profound AmericanStudies significance.

Throughout this past week’s series, I’ve made the case for how and why we should better remember the Decoration Day origins of our modern Memorial Day, as well as the overtly white supremacist reasons for the shift from one holiday and frame to the other in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As is the case with so many aspects of 21st century America, we can’t understand where we are without a better sense of where we’ve been—and that remains true, if it’s not indeed especially true, when it comes to seemingly innocuous societal elements like a shared and celebratory national holiday. As I said back in Monday’s post, however, none of that means that I don’t recognize and agree with that contemporary meaning for the holiday, the emphasis on commemorating and celebrating those who have fallen in American wars and conflicts over the centuries.

Moreover, that modern Memorial Day meaning can in and of itself offer a profound challenge and alternative to white supremacist histories and visions of America. In this Saturday Evening Post Considering History column, I made the case for the WWII soldiers of color—Japanese American, African American, and Native American soldiers and units (in the still-segregated armed forces) in particular—whose stories and sacrifices truly exemplify the American contribution to that crucial conflict. The same is true for every war and conflict in which the United States has been involved: Americans and communities of color have participated, have served and sacrificed, in numbers that far outstrip their demographics within the national population at the time. The nearly 180,000 African Americans who served in the Civil War’s United States Colored Troops units, and most especially the 20% of those soldiers who were killed in action (a number 35% higher than the equivalent rate for white Union troops), offer only a particularly striking illustration of this longstanding trend.

After one of my book talks for We the People a couple years back, an audience member asked why so many of my examples of an inclusive America were related to wars and military service. I took the point to heart, and in Of Thee I Sing I tried not to focus too much on military service for my examples of active and critical patriotism. War, even in the most idealized versions, certainly features and often foregrounds horrors that can’t be elided or minimized. But there’s no doubt that military service also represents one of the most overt and consistent forms of civic participation, an expression of an individual’s presence in and commitment to the national community. It’s thus pretty damn telling that Americans of color have so consistently, so centrally, and so inspiringly served and sacrificed for a nation that too often has been dominated by white supremacist narratives and ideologies that would seek to exclude those Americans from the national community. That’s a history worth commemorating and celebrating every day—and doubly so on Memorial Day.

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Memorial Day tributes or thoughts you’d add?