Just Shooting Some B-Ball

Yo Homes, Fresh Prince intro.

I played basketball for the first time in a while, and if one is willing (to waste time with excessive ratiocination), even the simplest experiences have a treasure trove of lessons.

Here are a few. First, I experienced, for the 100th time, the importance of competition and why I find it philosophically interesting. When you’re playing a complex game, you’re reacting to the environment in a seamless, uninterrupted way, but it would be wrong to say that you’re just reacting or following impulse. Rather, you’re reading situations and constructing patterns, as well as reasoning in a kind of background, non-conceptual way. But this is old hat.

Here are two other lessons.

1. I played three games. In the second game, our opponents were not very good, but the team we had beaten in the previous game were. The good team was waiting and resting while we beat up on the bad team. I was conscious of my desire not to expend too much energy beating up on the bad team so that we could beat the better team when they came back into the game. The point is that I wonder how NCAA teams must feel. My experience suggested to me that the temptation to “look ahead” to the next round is VERY REAL, and I think could be said to have a measurable effect on what players do. In a way, thinking ahead is very dangerous, because competing almost inevitably requires that one give oneself over to the task at hand completely. There are no half-measures.

On the other hand, playing so many games in such a short time has very real consequences and issues like rest and injury can definitely play a role. Perhaps coaching is what allows one to bridge the gap between these extremes. Perhaps well coached teams are able to ratchet down their energy WITHOUT ratcheting down their intensity.

2. There are often arguments about to what extent men and women are the way they are because of society or genetic makeup. Usually the subject matter is women, and some say that women have certain attributes that are resilient to many types of social organization. These traits often include being more nurturing and emotional (and many people immediately say that because women are emotional, they are not rational. I could not disagree more, and in fact, I hope people who read this blog on a regular basis can see how the argument might go.).

But how much is the “nature” of women malleable by the institutions that we create and sustain jointly in a complex society. I think a lot, and I think this is an optimistic result, because it means that some types of devaluing of the sexes (men are devalued too in some ways) are correctable if we can correct our institutions.

My evidence is that in one of the basketball games there was a girl (woman? she was like 22) who played. Now, first things first: girls who play in pick up basketball games earn my respect immediately, because personality and attitude aside, girls ARE usually smaller, and so to bang around in a serious basketball game takes a lot of courage. Not to mention the “gender” specific difficulties that arise.

This girl though, who was flirting coyly with one of the players before the game, changed completely once the game started. I won’t say she became manly, because that’s the whole point — I don’t think that basketball is gendered. But she did conform herself to the conventions of a competitive game among equally matched players. How so? Well, there are a lot of subtleties in a pick up game. When to call a foul, how to react when someone else calls a foul, and how to behave at the end of a game. When you win, you need to shake the hands of the losers — not doing so is an obvious snub. BUT, being too friendly with someone who lost after you won is the patronizing and insulting. The middle ground is delicate, but its EASY TO FIND, if you know how this sort of thing works.

And my point is that this girl knew how things worked. She knew how to check the ball in the right way, dispute the score, and the appropriate type of chatter during the game. She also knew how to PLAY, which doesn’t hurt, but even that in a way is a learned skill. If girls are so caring, how is it that this girl was terrorizing everyone (ok terrorizing is an exaggeration, but she played well) with a VERY competitive intent in her eyes.

Bottom line, people grow and expand into the opportunities you give them, and most institutions, when they are running well — which is to say, close to their IDEAL manifestations — then all people can be induced to act so as to take advantage.

In my mind, pick-up basketball games with a reasonable group of people approach the ideal of competition, in which there is no referee because one is not needed. A group of people come together with the honest goal of defeating one another (the killer instinct) WITHIN a set of rules that lay out how each person is to be treated. The result of participating in this framework is an elevated character.



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