The Sporting Mind and the Secret of Basketball

David Brooks writes in today’s op-ed that sports provide useful analogies and metaphors for a liberal arts education. He describes Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a German immigrant who discovered the power of sports-related metaphors in teaching his students sociology:

Rosenstock-Huessy began teaching at Harvard and converted his lectures into English. He noticed, though, that his students weren’t grasping his points. His language was not the problem, it was the allusions. He used literary and other allusions when he wanted to talk about ethics, community, mysticism and emotion. But none of the students seemed to get it. Then, after a few years, he switched to sports analogies. Suddenly, everything clicked.

“The world in which the American student who comes to me at about twenty years of age really has confidence in is the world of sport,” he would write. “This world encompasses all of his virtues and experiences, affection and interests; therefore, I have built my entire sociology around the experiences an American has in athletics and games.”

He then goes on to describe the specific ethical import of the American sporting culture, drawing on Duke University Professor Michael Allen Gillespie’s essay in the new book Debating Moral Education:

American sport teaches that effort leads to victory, a useful lesson in a work-oriented society. Sport also helps Americans navigate the tension between team loyalty and individual glory. . . Gillespie appreciates the way sports culture has influenced American students. It discourages whining, and rewards self-discipline. It teaches self-control and its own form of justice, which has a more powerful effect than anything taught in the classroom.

This reminds me of one of the major motifs in Bill Simmon’s Book of Basketball which I am slowly making my way through. This motif is what Simmons calls “the Secret:”

Year after year, 90 percent of NBA decision makers ignore The Secret or talk themselves into it not mattering that much. Fans overlook The Secret completely, as evidenced by the fact that, you know, it’s a secret (that’s why we live in a world where nine out of ten basketball fans probably think Shaquille O’Neal had a better career than Tim Duncan.) Nobody writes about The Secret because of a general lack of sophistication about basketball; even the latest “revolution” of basketball statistics centers more around evaluating players against one another over capturing their effect on a team (45).

So what is The Secret? It’s that stats matter, but in basketball, they are not of primary importance. Great players on paper do not leave great legacies or necessarily win championships (think Wilt vs. Russell). The Secret is that basketball is about being able to connect with your teammates, to play your role, to do your job, and to contribute to the harmony that is a team. More importantly, though, it is about pushing your team to its greatest possible level of excellence, year after year after year. Simmons writes,

Anyone can connect with their teammates for one season. Find that connection, cultivate it, win the title, maintain that connection, survive the inevitable land mines, fight off hungrier foes and keep coming back for more success . . . that’s being a champion. As Russell explains, “It’s much harder to keep a championship than to win one. After you’ve won once, some of the key figures are likely to grow dissatisfied with the role they play, so it’s harder to keep the tam focused on doing what it takes to win.” . . . Wilt captured one title (’67) and was traded within fourteen months. He only cared about winning one title; defending it wasn’t as interesting, so he gravitated toward another challenge (leading the leaggue in assists). Meanwhile, Russell still ritually puked before big games in his thirteenth season. He had enough rings to fill both hands and it didn’t matter. He knew nothing else. . . Merely by being around Russell and feeding off his imense competitiveness, his teammates ended up caring just as much. You can’t stumble into that collective feeling, but when it happens–and it doesn’t happen often–you do anything to protect it. That’s what make great teams great. (51-53)

But Simmons admits that The Secret of basketball has its limits when applied to real life. Take David Robinson:

The same qualities that made [Robinson] a special person also limited his basketball ceiling. Robinson might have been his generation’s most intelligent player, the guy scoring 1310 on his SATs, playing the piano, and dabbling in naval science in his spare time. Do smarts matter on a basketball court? Not really. If anything, those extra brain cells wounded Robinson. . . A peaceful Christian who tried to find good in everyone, he lacked the requisite leadership skills–much less MJs “keep this up and I’m bringing you into the locker room, locking the door and beating the crap out of you” quality, for that matter–to handle Dennis Rodman as Rodman spiraled out of control and undermined San Antonio’s ’95 playoff run. He never developed the same cutthroat attitude that defined Hakeem in his prime. It just wasn’t in him.(459)

The problem with sports metaphors is that sports are ultimately looking for a champion. There are certain character traits that a champion has which others should strive for, but what makes a champion different from the rest of us is that he would sacrifice anything to be on top, and we expect him to be on top. Nice guys very rarely win championships and when they do, we say that they won in spite of being nice (my husband is always saying this about Dwight Howard–he’s just too nice to win a championship).

So sports teach us a lot—-that winning is not an individual act of will but a team effort, that sacrifice is worthwhile, that pain is necessary for gain—-but sports don’t teach us to value niceness. They teach us to tolerate and respect niceness, but not root for it. At the end of the day, I bet more people are wearing Kobe jerseys than they are Howard jerseys. Allen Iverson is an All-Star this year, not because of talent but because of popularity. And I bet David Robinson is actively being forgotten in anyplace not named San Antonio. And its not because of winning. People don’t like Kobe and Iverson more because they win; they like them more because they have a meanness that seems a prerequisite to winning. And we respect that meanness, even if we know we can’t imitate it in ordinary life.


12 comments so far

  1. Adam on

    David Robinson did in fact win two championships, though (1999 and 2003). Not only that, he was inducted into the NBA hall of fame in September 2009. I don’t think a player need a handful of rings or a cut-throat attitude to possess “the secret”. Robinson was clearly an integral player, evident by the simple fact that the team kept him for his entire NBA career. Is this fact not evidence enough that Robinson had an outstanding ability to “connect with [his] teammates, to play [his] role, to do [his] job, and to contribute to the harmony that is a team”?

    • everydaythomist on

      David Robinson did indeed win two championships but it is generally agreed that it was the arrival of Duncan, not the waning Robinson, that pushed them to the top. Robinson had great team harmony. He would cheer on the sidelines for even the lowliest player. He was unselfish and a very kind leader by all accounts, and an integral player for the Spurs, just not THE integral player for the championship Spurs. And he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, but he’s not unfortunately going to be remembered by this next generation of basketball fans. When they watch those championship Spurs games, it will be Duncan who shines, not Robinson.

      Look, I love David Robinson, but I wonder if we was too nice. And I wonder if that is what made him a great person, but not a great champion. I think he needed to play Robin to Duncan’s Batman, and while Batman and Robin do win, its Batman whose the champion, not his trusty sidekick.

  2. Adam on

    I had no idea this was you too… until Rita just told me. So, please forgive the double post. You can remove it and we can chat via facebook. Sorry!

    • everydaythomist on

      I would rather discuss this on the blog, actually. You raise very good points. I think Robinson had to sacrifice some of his niceness in order to win pre-Duncan. And so as fans, we are put in this odd place of following and cheering for meanness, ruthlessness, and absolute drive that would sacrifice all else. Imagine this, say you are a Cavs fan and you’re in game six of 3-2 championship run against the Lakers. Earlier in the season it was discovered that Lebron had a girlfriend, whom he loves, and who is also having the baby. In the locker room right before the game, he gets a call that she is in labor, a very tricky labor, and she’s scared and wants him by her side. As a fan, we would rip him apart if he left and didn’t play, but as a person, we would appreciate it. And this is where I think sports falls a little flat. We root for the sort of qualities that in real life make you a worse, not a better person.

  3. Adam on

    We only root for that if we elevate it to a point in our own lives that it does not belong. At its nature, a sport is a child’s game. How much of the pressure on athletes is because we, the fans, are imbalanced and unreasonable with our expectations of athletes. Fans, like athletes, are people first. Most people are reasonable. Reasonable people, particularly fans, accept and respect that athletes meet the needs of their family first. This holds true even if we may be a bit disappointed about an athlete’s absence from the team. Sports, like all professions and hobbies, needs to be properly ordered. It is when fans elevate sports to a higher importance in their own lives that we judge the athlete unfairly and harbor unrealistic, and unGodly, expectations. Sports, when properly ordered, provides concrete challenges in a game setting that can be applied to life… Challenges such as working as a group, overcoming obstacles, sacrifice, dealing with failure and setbacks, perseverance, and sportsmanship (appreciating another’s ability that may be greater than one’s own). These characteristics lead to virtue and can transfer into “real life”.

  4. everydaythomist on

    “Sports, when properly ordered, provides concrete challenges in a game setting that can be applied to life… Challenges such as working as a group, overcoming obstacles, sacrifice, dealing with failure and setbacks, perseverance, and sportsmanship (appreciating another’s ability that may be greater than one’s own). These characteristics lead to virtue and can transfer into “real life”.”

    No complaint there, Adam. I totally agree that sports are a great way to teach virtue, both in playing a sport, and in being a fan. And I would much prefer, if people are going to watch TV, for them to watch sports than most any other program because of the sort of real life ethics sports teach. And I agree that sports need to be properly ordered. I think that this ordering gets a little difficult, if not impossible, when you have a superstar like Lebron. You expect Lebron to be consumed by the game, to think of nothing else besides victory. This is what allegedly made Russell and the Legend great–they thought of nothing else, breathed nothing else, lived for nothing else besides basketball. And so they become sports heroes, but in doing so, it seems to me they give up a little of their humanity.

    In the recent loss against the Timberwolves, Dirk, the Mavericks’ superstar, arrived late. When I saw this, I was outraged. I thought, “Nothing excuses that. You’re the superstar, the team is depending on you, and you’re getting the big bucks, so you show up on time no matter what.” But what if Dirk was dealing with family difficulties or other personal issues. Wouldn’t I forgive that in any other person and say that their tardiness was simply not in character? But I haven’t done that for Dirk at all. I haven’t forgiven him. The team lost and I blame him. So maybe as a fan, I am disordered, but I also say that sports breeds this sort of disorder in fans. I am habituated by the practices of the sports community to expect my superstar (the Big German in my case) to put winning above all else, and night after night, I demand this of him. And I think most sports fans do. They want to win, and they put aside the sort of qualities and virtues they admire in real life all for the sake of winning.

  5. Adam on

    Who is the sports community but the commentators, analysts, and fans? I don’t think that those qualities need to be set aside for the sake of winning, and I think the Church supports that opinion. But let’s think of another example. Imagine that you are an academic, or a professor, conducting research and trying to publish so as to advance your career and appease the demands placed on you by the university. Similar difficulties can arise here… pride, the desire to publish something unique (or first), investing oneself totally and completely into the research so as to neglect family or friends, feelings of superiority. It is not only sports that breed this mentality among members in its community. Any occupation is subject to this temptation (to put aside admirable qualities and accept negative traits) and it seems unfair to narrow it down only in the “sports” realm. Like academics, sports is a part of the real life. All avenues of life are subject to a choice, either to live a life of virtue or to sacrifice this virtue for the prize, be that prize a trophy or academic/professional success and glory.

    • everydaythomist on

      The difference with academics is that fan base is not a major part of success. Sports are most definitely a part of real life and can be pursued moderately and as part of a balanced life style, but not if you are going to be a superstar. Superstars are expected to forsake everything for the sake of the sport, and more specifically for the sake of winning. So yeah, I think that every talented athlete has a choice, but I think the ones that go on to become Lebron or Kobe or KG or Byrd or Magic don’t live moderate virtuous lives. They live lives where winning is everything. And the fans love it.

      • Adam on

        So only basketball “superstars” are expected to forsake everything for the sake of the game at the expense of virtue? I haven’t seen any other examples listed of this. Instead, let’s take a look at athletes who did not forsake a moderate virtuous lifestyle, were entirely devoted to winning and competition, and have still become “superstars” for their respective sports:

        1 – Cal Ripken, Jr.
        Numerous gold gloves and MVPs, devoted father, still married, formed the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation to help poor children learn the game that he loves

        2 – Kurt Warner
        Clearly competitive b/c he persevered to stardom from the bottom of the NFL to the top and always accepted his role on the team, retired to be a better father to his 7 children, an unabashed and thankful Christian, encourages volunteer efforts with the developmentally disabled

        3 – Mike Krzyzewski (Duke coach, “Coach K”)
        Championship and most successful NCAA coach, prides himself on forming players to be good men for life as referenced in his book Leading With The Heart, formed a cohesive team out of egocentric NBA superstars (including Kobe and Lebron) for a gold medal run in the Beijing Olympics, and on top of this is a devoted father and husband

        4 – Tim Tebow
        A superstar at the college level and Heisman trophy winner, a devout, courageous and respectfully outspoken Christian, spent his summers in college on missionary trips to the Phillipines, and has this to say about football, “Pressure is not having to win a football game; pressure is having to find your next meal. Even though we love it so much, football is still just a game. A lot of people bleed over it and love it, and I’m one of those people. But at the end of the day, I know what’s more important, and pressure is definitely not football.” You can find it here:

        These “superstars” and countless others live a life of virtue and successfully view sports through a healthy lens. Not only are they winners in a sport, they are winners in life and use sports as a means to practice that virtue. Moreover, they do not let the sport (or other players within it) dictate their behavior in or out of the game. The problem with your statement that “superstars are expected to forsake everything for the sake of the sport… [by refusing to] live moderate virtuous lives” is that not all superstars accept that mentality. There are many who choose to live differently and their lifestyles are overshadowed by the lifestyles of the Lebrons, Kobes, KGs, Byrds, or Magics. Although the fans love these players for their ability, they will remember the Cal Ripkens, Kurt Warners, Mike Krzyzewskis, and Tim Tebows for having something more than athletic ability. And what is that something more but a purpose-driven life of virtue?

  6. everydaythomist on

    I agree, these people are admirable and athletic. But they aren’t superstars in the sense of Kobe and Lebron (I will use NBA examples, since that is the league I know, and is noticeably absent from your list). I guarantee you, more people know of and are fans of Lebron James and Kobe Bryant than Mike Krzyzewski and Kurt Warner. I bet half as many people at most know the people on your list as know Kobe and Lebron. So yeah, to be a superstar, I still say that living a life of virtue and moderation detracts, rather than enhances.

    Which just shows that if you are athletic, and in professional sports AND you want to be virtuous, you have to be prepared to make sacrifices. You have to sacrifice success in the sport for success in other areas of life. I don’t think this is a bad lesson. It’s a lesson that carries over in lots of areas in your life. Talented people can choose to be a one dimensional superstar or a multi-dimensional star. Your list is the latter, and I agree that those people are better role models than mine. But I still think that my list of people are role models to MORE people than yours.

  7. Adam on

    This is purely opinion. It seems irrational to me to create your own expectations for a “superstar” and then demean their person by saying that they fail to live a virtuous life because they live the expectation that you created for them. This is unreasonable, judges them unfairly, and leaves them little hope for being a good person. We can agree to disagree.

  8. everydaythomist on

    While I will agree to disagree, I find your tone a little harsh for a friendly conversation. My goal is in no way to demean anyone’s person, and the accusation of being “unreasonable” for an EverydayThomist is unfairly mean. The goal of this post is to think of the virtues that WE want, the virtues that make US a good person. The “superstars” that I think are most famous are not role models I want to have, nor do they embody virtues I think are important for non-superstars to flourish. And one of the virtues I respect is having the ability to carry on a conversation without concluding on the note of accusations. In no way do I find this “unreasonable.”

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