Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How We Remember Sports: FreeDarko's Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History

The title of the FreeDarko collective's latest book--The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History--is something of an elaborate joke. The only part of the title that accurately reflects the book's content is that two-word segment about Pro Basketball. If not for the need to market this thing with a keyword friendly title, it very well might have been called The Subjective and Personal Recollection of Pro Basketball Memory.

FreeDarko's first book-length effort--The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac--presented its thesis right at the start, with a six-part manifesto outlining the group's conceptual approach to basketball, elaborating on such concepts as the primacy of the individual and the superficiality of judging basketball players and teams solely by the unforgiving categories of wins and losses. The Undisputed Guide, on the other hand, hides its working thesis on page 210, in the book's afterword.

And I quote:

As historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi wrote, "Certain memories live on; the rest are winnowed out, repressed, or simply discarded by a process of natural selection which the historian, uninvited, disturbs and reverses." In sports, history is winners and losers, statistics and dates; memory, which is where the stories start, is imperfect, stylized, personal.

The chapter introduction pages contain the most basic achievements of history--NBA champion, MVP, along with per game leaders in points, rebounds, and assists--but the meat of the book, as one might expect, is devoted to topics more closely associated with memory. This most often takes the form of re-readings of accepted wisdom, interpreting, for example, Red Auerbach's Celtics not as the embodiment of slow, stodgy, right way basketball that have become the darlings of strong-willed coaches over the last forty years, but, instead, as a fast-breaking, ass-kicking team that was "tough and focused, sure, but a hell of a lot of fun."

The book's strongest sections, though, describe not the result but, rather, the process of memory. Two examples will suffice here. The first is the essay "Cult of Personality," which examines the ways in which shoe commercials redefined or defined basketball stars of the 1990s. Chris Webber's barbershop commercials amplified his essential character. Larry Johnson was viewed as Grandmama, that slam-dunking old lady in Converses, even after he "grew a beard of Abrahamic proportions to signify his conversion to the Nation of Islam, called his Knicks a teams a group of 'rebellious slaves,' and remarked that he and Avery Johnson were from the 'same plantation.'" Dikembe Mutombo overcame the affected Africanization of his Adidas-designed multicolor shoes through the sheer force of his personality. Perhaps most interesting, though, are those players whose personalities are seen entirely through the prism of their sneakers. When Penny Hardaway's personality was found by Nike to be lacking, the marketing folks replaced it with a stronger one. Thus was born Lil' Penny, voiced by none other than Chris Rock. And Dee Brown simply "was his shoe," the Reebok Pumps. This chapter may necessarily oversimplify these complex athletes, but it serves as a forceful reminder that in the public memory, the shoes really do make the man.

Appropriately enough, the book's ultimate chapter, "Arbiters of Amazement," discusses YouTube's democratization of basketball's public memory. No longer does the NBA and its corporate partners hold exclusive control over the dissemination of basketball moments. They're not mentioned by The Undisputed Guide, but Ron Artest's various post-game interviews given during the 2010 postseason are perfect examples of this new democratic spirit. Artest's meandering conversations with Craig Sager and Doris Burke would never have been given a place in the sanitized official history of the league, but they have been viewed many hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube.

This book is really strong. While other recent additions to the basketball enthusiast's library have claimed to tell the story of the NBA from a fan's perspective, I much prefer to align myself with the approach espoused by these fans and with their thoughtful conception of the game I love.


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