Manila Vanilla

What it's like to be a U.S. Fulbright scholar, basketball player, journalist, and the whitest man in Metro Manila.

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Location: Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines

New Yorker by birth, shipped across the globe to the world of malls, shanty-towns, patronage, corruption, basketball and a curious burnt-toast smell that wafts around at dusk

Thursday, December 08, 2005

I'll never do this

I started a book yesterday, Crashing the Borders: How Basketball Won the World and Lost its Soul at Home by New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton. The book is well-written, intelligent and everything else you'd expect of a veteran NBA reporter. That's what I don't like about it.

Old-school sports journalists like the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan and Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith seem to look at the game and wish for the golden years of Larry and Magic. Let's pause a moment to note some of the rest of the deadwood that drifted into the league back then -- Jack Sikma, Tom Boerwinkle, Larue Martin, Scott Wedman (he made an All-Star team!), Brad Sellers, Dave Corzine. Yes! Give me more of that.

And was it better before then? Not unless you yearn to watch "Chocolate Thunder" Darryl Dawkins attacking the rim in a cocaine-induced fury. Actually, that sounds pretty good to me.

Here's an excerpt of Araton's first paragraph: "If you have ever loved basketball, then you had to hate November 19, 2004. ... your senses came under assault by what you saw that night at The Palace of Auburn Hills in suburban Detroit. And the more times you watched the most frightening eruption of sustained violence ever in the American sports arena, the more you saw the replaying of a troubled young man named Ron Artest bold trom his reclining press-table position, across your television screen, and into everlasting infamy, the more angry you were and the more you hurt for the game that had brought so much joy into your life."

Uhh, no. I have loved basketball since I was about 10 years old. In college, my personal record for consecutive days playing was 92. I only stopped because of injuries. And when I watched the Pacers brawl with the Pistons fans, I felt surprised, excited, entertained -- pretty much anything but appalled. The night of the brawl, I talked to some other players on our college traveling team, other guys who had played and loved the sport since an early age. They all had the same reaction I did: "That was nuts! Play it again!"

So Araton is wrong from the beginning. Grandstanding reporters who feel the need to protect the game and dispense morality hated that moment. So did millions of fans, I'm sure. No thanks, Harvey. When I'm in the mood for morals I'll read the Bible.

There were others, probably many others like myself and my friends, avid basketball fans and players who grew up watching basketball in the 1990s and like the NBA in its present incarnation. We weren't and aren't willing to see this brawl as the end of the great game of basketball. And if I'm writing about basketball in 30 years, when the game is ruled by 8-footers from China who're afraid to dunk the ball, I will never play Nostradamus and spit doomsday prophecies for the game. I'll never be the old man wishing that every team was like my favorite team from when I was a child. I'll never try to argue that Wu ChangXi wasn't as good as Xavier McDaniel just because I used to love the X-Man.

In paragraph two of Harvey's book, he slides in some references to his hardscrabble upbringing on Staten Island in New York City. Fans of basketball non-fiction will recognize this ploy. "Hey, I'm from New York, and I grew up in a neighborhood that's kind of crappy now, so take me seriously. I knew some guys who made the NBA! I'm a real basketball lifer."

Araton slides in all the important cues -- "West Brighton Houses," the name of the housing project in which he was raised; it was a "working-class" neighborhood; he loved the game while playing and even just watching "the kids with size and skills;" a local kid made it to Columbia, and would bring future pro Jim McMillian back to Araton's "unevenly paved oasis insite one of the Island's few pockets of relative poverty."

Can't you just see Araton and his friends running around in white undershirts and Converse Chuck Taylors, drinking soda pop and shooting baskets all day long? Getting into good-natured scuffles with each other and playing pranks on the local icey vendor? What a dignified, working-class upbringing. I just don't understand why this makes a writer any more of an expert in basketball than someone else.

Almost everyone who was raised in New York and was involved in sports knew or played with somebody who made it to the NBA. Can all of us have book contracts? Mel Brooks went to Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island, same as Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair. Does Mel Brooks get automatic street and basketball credibility? Do Starbury and Bassy pound him up when they see each other at alumni day? Do they offer to take his yarmulke to Jacob Jeweler and have it iced out with diamonds? My guess is no.

New York City changes really fast. My mother and I were victims of a semi-violent robbery outside my apartment when I was a child; my father used to carry a military baton to protect himself when he returned from work late at night. Now, there are more bankers, lawyers and wealthy entertainers on my block than anything else. So whenever a lifelong New Yorker starts squawking about his or her rough upbringing, take it with a grain of salt. And again, I hope I'll never use the neighborhood I grew up in as a way to nudge readers into thinking I'm a street-tough New Yorker.

Here's where I grew up. Respect me immediately and give me a book deal.

Araton mentions how he lived in Brownsville, Brooklyn until he was seven years old. There are two ways to look at this. A) He comes from the same place as playground legend Fly Williams former heavyweight champions Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe. He's really cool and streetwise. B) White flight. If the old, Jewish/Italian/Irish immigrants of Brownsville hadn't jumped ship at the first whiff of black people, maybe it wouldn't be a segregated pit today.

I'm oversimplifying things here because it's hard not to. It's not Araton's fault his family moved. He was seven at that time, and I'm sure the family had its own reasons. White flight is too broad an explanation to understand what drives families to move. Likewise, having once lived in Brownsville or any other well-known rough neighborhood does not automatically make someone an authority on basketball or New York. Mr. Araton is authoritative in both areas, but it's because he's been reporting on them for almost 30 years.

The Grinch who stole basketball.

Interestingly, Araton's in-depth analysis of the Pistons-Pacers brawl considers a lot of racial ambiguities that lesser columnists never bothered to mention last year. Araton writes insightfully about the behavioral double standards NBA athletes face as employees of a league that relies on a black, urban image for marketing purposes but needs well-heeled gentlemen on its benches to appease the corporate types who can still afford tickets to live games. But it's almost too late. The title of the book states that basketball has lost its soul, and the first paragraph tells us it's been hijacked by a band of tattooed thugs led by Ron Artest.

I disagree. It's a great game, as it has been and always will be, whether dominated by lanky white guys wearing short shorts, muscular black guys wearing long shorts, Bunyan-esque Chinese guys or the Monstars from Space Jam. The soul of the game comes from trying to shoot the ball into the basket and trying to stop another player from doing it, not from whoever's playing it.


Anonymous New York fan said...

As a New Yorker for 40 years and a basketball fan for longer than that, thanks for your contrarian view of pro ball's "loss of soul."
Hell, they had a brawl, instigated by fans throwing beer onto the court. Pennies and batteries have hit players over the years as well.
So Artest lost it, and went into the stands. This is the end of basketball as we know it? The media professionals, the sports journalists from mags to newspapers, love this kind of event. They get to sermonize about morality & the good old days. One could just as well contend that basketball lost its soul when Kermit Washington cold-cocked Rudy T. That was a while back, and the game seemed to go on.
I haven't read the Araton book, but he's fair game if he touts his "roots" in various neighborhoods in whatever borough.
If you present your past as credentials, then you have to bear the knowledgeable insepction of readers. The book sounds, however, like it's worth the read, even if one doesn't agree with his drastic assessment of the game.
In my mind, the Detroit brawl was over-hyped, and Artest had already been a marked figure. Can you imagine if it had been Rodman?
He would've been banished for life.
I wonder if Araton would consider the weekly baseball "donnybrook" that occurs when a batter gets beaned and both benches empty to gather in a nasty scrum on the infield. Does baseball lose its soul every week? Of course there are no fans attacked here, only other players. (Hockey loses its soul every game, ha!)But violence is violence, the soul seems to be an anti-violent substance according to sportswriters. Yes, players should be "know" better, but nations go to war, invade & butcher the enemy. They should "know" better. Players & nations usually are restrained, but not always. Big deal. I don't want to see fights every game, absolutely not. But when a rarity occurs, let's call it what it is, a rarity. Thanks again for the viewpoint.

10:01 AM  
Blogger RafeBoogs said...

I'm now about two-thirds of the way through Araton's book, and it has gotten steadily better as it went on. After the introduction, which annoyed me because the writer established his street cred by referencing his upbringing on the Island of Shaolin (he might as well have added that he knows the Rza), the book is quite good. Araton spends most of his efforts arguing that the entire American basketball system is flawed, from AAU to college to the pros, and does a good job of pointing out some double-standards between basketball and other sports that are rife with racial undertones. I still don't agree with his conclusion, that the flawed system is creating unlikeable, spoiled athletes who are no longer the best basketball players in the world. That's crazy talk to me. They are clearly the best players in the world, and losing the Olympics with a poorly assembled team against awful refs and improved competition doesn't mean that American players aren't the best anymore. I also happen to find most NBA players likeable, almost in an inverse relationship to how likeable the media deems them.

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Jersey City Ray said...

I used to think U.S. colleges should only recruit atheletes who could perform college level work. Well, like everything else, money & power entered into Division I sports in a big way in the last 30 years, and it's really a business.
Hell, college is a business--ask any parent who's shelling out the big bucks for their kid's education, and ask the average graduate, who leaves w/ his sheepskin & $20 grand in debt. That's a business. So is sports.
All one can hope to do is try to improve the education for the recruited atheletes. They certainly bring in the cash to the big schools.
As for the quality of basketball in the U.S., it's better than ever skill-wise. And the teams that win championships do, indeed, pass the best, and work as a team. So while some teams flounder with bad chemistry & selfish players, those teams usually don't win. That said, I'm going to seek out a copy of Araton's book & give it read. You have to keep your mind open to new ideas & criticisms.

2:52 PM  

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