A Metaphorical Wall

I like metaphors, sometimes. A metaphor can be a non-sequitur, overly-wrought, or otherwise distracting, but sometimes they are simply good to think with.

A few years ago, I got caught up comparing my academic progress to my basketball jump shot At the time my jump shot wasn’t falling and, at the same time my academic progress felt stuck in neutral Literally and figuratively, I couldn’t put the ball through the hoop. I thought about this connection every time I played basketball, particularly as practice began to pay off with my shot. Little by little, I worked on balance, grip, form, release point, as well as making each of these pieces work together and repeating the whole process the same way each time. My shot never became perfect, and never will, but I developed into one of the better shooters at my regular game. The obvious question was how this related to my academic progress, and I came to realize that, much like my shot, this progress consisted of multiple moving pieces that required a) harmonization and b) consistency. An imperfect metaphor, to be sure, and an academic career is more akin to a basketball game on a team where you are the star, but this comparison helped settle down some of my anxiety and uncertainty and gave me the sense that I knew how I could go about bringing the discrete pieces into a coherent whole.

I have been thinking about a different metaphor recently. Writing is constructive, in a fundamental way. Every piece of writing is building an edifice out of words and ideas in order to convey some piece of information, argument, or entertainment. The blocks consist of evidence and ideas, fused together by word choice and turns of phrase. Well-built, the edifice will be able to withstand weight, but if the walls are assembled in an incoherent manner, they will fall at the slightest touch.

Enter peer review. I’ve had a mixed history with this process, as a lot of people have. “REVIEWER 2” might as well be an academic boogeyman, a harsh, anonymous critic who exists to tear down articles everywhere. Reading criticism of one’s own work is often uncomfortable, and even careful and astute reviewers can come across as cruel judges shining a spotlight on inadequacies. And tone is just the tip of the iceberg, with stories of reviewers who don’t understand what the article is trying to do, whether out of obliviousness, willful ignorance, or lack of clarity on the part of the author, and submissions that go unacknowledged for years.

In the metaphor of the wall, peer-reviewers are fellow architects come to inspect the layout and construction. Some look at the wall as just that, finding the flaws and push it over to let the pieces fall where they may. There is really no way around the fact that those reviewers suck. But there are also inspectors who draw attention to weaknesses and contradictions, not to be mean, but because they want the edifice to withstand pressure. Instead of surveying the wreckage wondering where to even start again or whether to work on something else, the editing process involves pulling out braces and rearranging pieces to create the strongest final product.

I have had the good fortune to have had a fantastic experience with peer-review in all of my recent submissions, but that has only caused me to reflect further about this metaphor. My editing, it seems, involves inserting dowels, applying braces, and rearranging the blocks until they fit just right, not out of a sense of vanity, though I hope the final product looks nice, too, but so that it can withstand as much pressure as needed.

Dream Team – Jack McCallum

There have been US Olympic basketball teams composed of NBA players since, but, according to Jack McCallum, there has only one Dream Team. That team—Larry, Michael, Magic, Scottie, Charles, Stockton, Malone, Ewing, Robinson, Mullin, Clyde the Glide, and Christian Laettner—represented the United States in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the first time that NBA players were allowed to participate. The outcome of the tournament was never in question since the average margin of victory was more than forty points and they never called time out, but how the team came together and what their legacy was were stories unto themselves.

The NBA underwent a massive growth in popularity in the 1980s. Despite some racially-motivated fears about it being “too black,” the uptick was fueled by better play and stars such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Borislav Stankovic, a former Serbian basketball player and then administrator in FIBA, wanted to tap into this newfound popularity in order to grow basketball into a global game that could challenge soccer. For this he needed NBA players in international competition, but, in order to do this, he needed to change the rules governing amateurism in FIBA. In some ways, though, this was the easy part, because he then needed to get NBA buy-in and, after that, to wrangle NBA superstars into effectively volunteering their time and likenesses for the Olympics.

In the “Dream Team,” Stankovic was more successful than he ever could have hoped. What had been originally proposed as a team with half the roster composed of college players coached by person from the college roster turned into a team with single token college player (Laettner) and coached by a man with two NBA championships. Its roster didn’t have some very good NBA players so much as all the top stars excluding only Isiah Thomas, whose exclusion despite his coach guiding the team provides a significant amount of the drama in the book.

The Dream Team took the 1992 Olympics by storm, with the most competitive game they played being an intra-squad scrimmage in Monaco, but the combination of the personalities involved and the drama of the Lithuanian basketball team that famously received financial support from the Grateful Dead, made for plenty of drama. The Dream Team, in particular, was composed of larger-than-life characters, gods of the basketball universe, but this was no mere collection of the best players in the world. It was also a uniquely mature and experienced team where Magic Johnson had already retired once because of his HIV announcement and Larry Bird had just finished playing his final NBA season.

But what of McCallum’s contention that this was the one and only Dream Team? It is hard to imagine a team with a greater level of star-power on it, though later USA basketball teams have come close without quite the same dominant results. The differences in part come from the divergent legacies of 1992. International basketball players saw the Dream Team as not just particularly athletic, but also impossibly skilled in all facets of the game and worked to emulate them, demonstrating fulfillment of Stankovic’s vision; in contrast, US basketball players saw their on-court dominance and took it to indicate American invincibility in basketball, without recognizing either the unselfishness or determination that manifested in legitimate practice and Jordan and Pippen deciding that they were going to utterly annihilate their future teammate Tony Kukoc because of an imagined slight that really had nothing to do with the Croat. The United States still had a preponderance of basketball talent, but it was not talent alone that drove the Dream Team to such dominance.

McCallum covered the NBA in the 1980s and therefore was also one of the journalists covering the team in Barcelona; Dream Team weaves these recollections together with interviews he conducted in later years and reads like an extended feature article. The book is immensely readable, though, and the NBA players come alive on the pages, so much so that I found myself going back and watching old highlights of Larry Bird while reading. This is probably not a book for someone who is not at least a causal basketball fan, but for anyone who is, Dream Team needs to be necessary reading for a glimpse at the seed for the modern, globalized NBA.

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I have once again fallen behind on posts here, or, perhaps, I have had a little more time than usual for reading since, in addition to Dream Team, I have also finished Mo Yan’s strange novel The Republic of Wine and N.K. Jemisin’s excellent The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms since my last post. I haven’t decided what I am going to read next, but I am nonetheless looking forward to it.

Noonball Metrics

I love basketball. I like a lot of sports, including baseball, but there is just something about basketball, which I have been playing the vast majority of my life and have played, refereed, and coached that draws me back to it. I even once came to a philosophy concerning how I approach academia and my dissertation while ironing out an issue with my shot while shooting free throws one morning. One a little more spiritually minded might say the reverse is true now that I am a better shooter than at any other point in my life. I digress, but this is something that points to a great thing about basketball. In baseball you really need two people in order to even play catch. You need more for batting practice, and even more for a game. In basketball, one person with a ball can dribble around. With a hoop s/he can work on shooting. With two there is one on one, four is two on two, six is three on three. At four on four makes for a full-court game.

For the last few years, I have been playing in a competitive pickup game three days a week, from 11 until people have to leave–sometimes going as late as 2. We start once we have ten (provided we expect ten to show), on a first-come basis. People come in and out of the group, but there has been a consistent fifteen or twenty guys who reliably play. The game is 1s and 2s to 16, and the winners get to stay on to play the next team, with guys waiting on the sideline having first dibs on forming the new team. There are certainly shenanigans that take place in this game in terms of schoolyard tricks, people who either do not or can not play defense, and showboating, and it will sometimes devolve into shouting matches or people just lost on the court. However, I like the game because it is frequently of a high quality, running some semblance of an offense that varies between a fast-break secondary break, motion, and high screen and roll, with players who generally like to pass and work together, at least as much as can be expected without a coach. When it is all working it can be quite fun to see guys (who will admit when they arrive that they spent an hour that morning watching Golden State highlights) try make a pass they saw Steph Curry make.

Grantland ran an interesting story last year that talked about pickup basketball and the three pointer, in which it made the case that playing by 1s and 2s makes the deep ball worth significantly more than almost any other shot. Basically, players using that scoring system should basically only ever shoot deep or shoot layups because any shot in-between is statistically worth so much less. This is true in the game I play in, too, and there is always a sizing up period for new players to determine if their jump shot needs to be respected. The next step for the metrics would be to chart steals, turnovers, and rebounds (or, really, offensive rebounds given up), though these stats probably have a less-universal applicability.

The game I play in is very competitive. Some might say too competitive, since most days there is at least one shouting match about whether someone pushed someone else (they did, this is pickup), or who touched the ball last, or whether there was a travel. We even have had a few confrontations about moving screens, to which at least we can say there are enough screens to have this happen. But what has been interesting is to watch how the defenses develop.

Since there is actually some offense rather than just one on one play, the defenses have to keep up. Just like with offense, this works better when the teams are made up of players who know each other and who communicate and are therefore able to switch or trap opposing players, as well as knowing which shooters you can’t leave open. There is plenty of sloppy play on any given day and plenty of players who could be coached up, but just like with players willing to run a team offense, it is nice to see players play a team defense.

In short, I like this game a lot.

I’ll conclude, though, with my five NBA players I’d most enjoy see playing pickup basketball of the type I like–that is defenders who try and will put their bodies on the line, but aren’t going to block most shots, everyone can shoot threes, and are willing passers with a willingness to throw absurd passes. I considered either Karl-Anthony Townes or Anthony Davis for my fifth spot on the grounds that either would feast with the other players passing to them, but eventually decided against them because they didn’t fit my “shoot all the threes, block no shots” vision for pickup. My five are Manu Ginobili, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Boris Diaw.