Sunday, February 15, 2009

Basketball IQ: A New Sports Metaphor for America, Decision-making, Politics, and, well...Life

I guess we all learned something about Balinese Cock-Fighting from Clifford Geertz. We have probably all spun a story in our classes of the meaning of football to Americans--that old claiming of territory, fighting for turf, Manifest Destiny, three chances and then the punt and we try again another day. Not quite like cricket, certainly not like Trobriand Cricket.

Or do you mention Baseball? That great metaphor for the American life cycle and sex: first, base, second base, home run, score. Perhaps, you, like me, pontificated on the comparison with Japanese baseball--having at some time in the past read You Gotta Have Wa. Carefully delineating the differences between the two became an exercise in watching all that rehearsed lecture and properly tested for "need for cultural relativism" concept crumble away as students incredulously responded, "That's just wrong". (Proof, I might add that there is a difference in knowing and "knowing". And a good moment to reinforce my belief in small classes and discussion-oriented teaching with the Powerpoints off and the Wikis down. Hello. Teachable Moment. Commercial over. Back to our regular programming.)

This piece, The No-Stats All-Star, just up at the New York Times, discusses what may be the new model for a new America. Contained with in it? The possibility of a discussion about the baseball message of group success tied with individual success, contrasting with basketball a sport where the dynamic tension between group and individual is a negotiated terrain. Seems basketball lies mid-way between American baseball and Japanese baseball. Go even further and we are faced with a new road map of thinking about thinking. You work the process and the stats (all new, non-individualized stats, well, perhaps I should say, more inter-meshed stats; no more stand-alone stats) as long as you can--the "weak force" of Battier impinges upon the "strong force" that is Kobe Bryant (to borrow some physics metaphors) as much as it can--and, at some point, randomness takes over.

Could I just pause and say that this article was the about the best thing I have read this year. Seriously, it is tremendous fun, tremendously interesting, and just really tremendous--in a non-saving the world kind of way. (But I am biased, having devoted many hours in the pursuit of basketball knowledge at U-Hall, screaming, myself hoarse while an uber-gangly Ralph Samson struggled with knobbly knees)

And because as the author argues, basketball is the sport that is "most like life". We need to keep going. Because in the world of "weak forces" the metaphor is spreading. For even though, POTUS Obama is a devoted White Sox fan, he is a player of basketball. So, in this mornings Sunday morning press round-up we get nothing less than 5 former NBA All-Stars gathered around John King of CNN analyzing his game. Verdict--America, welcome to the world our left-handed point guard with the ability to read the floor. (The video of this bit of political theater isn't up yet.) Edited: the video is up at this link but the embed function isn't working.

My 403(b) account prays that this is so. Of one thing I am sure, if Rush Limbaugh is standing in for Shane Battier, his IQ won't allow him to pull it off, cause he is one weak, weak force.

As the NYTimes piece concludes: "The process had gone just as he hoped. The outcome he never could control."

Edited to add a link to the NYTimes review of You Gotta Have Wa which was published quite some time ago.


sparky said...

Great story: useful for teaching sports or Anth!

Anonymous said...

Basketball is in no way more like life than baseball.

Pamthropologist said...


CoyoteLibrarian said...

I used to work at the restaurant that gave free meals to the Houston Rockets. Ralph Sampson would come in, eat free (with his date), and then stiff the waitress. Pretty lifelike, I'd say!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.