Basketball and Philosophy

Basketball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Paint

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Basketball and Philosophy
    Book Description:

    What can the film Hoosiers teach us about the meaning of life? How can ancient Eastern wisdom traditions, such as Taoism and Zen Buddhism, improve our jump-shots? What can the "Zen Master" (Phil Jackson) and the "Big Aristotle" (Shaquille O'Neal) teach us about sustained excellence and success? Is women's basketball "better" basketball? How, ethically, should one deal with a strategic cheater in pickup basketball? With NBA and NCAA team rosters constantly changing, what does it mean to play for the "same team"? What can coaching legends Dean Smith, Rick Pitino, Pat Summitt, and Mike Krzyzewski teach us about character, achievement, and competition? What makes basketball such a beautiful game to watch and play? Basketball is now the most popular team sport in the United States; each year, more than 50 million Americans attend college and pro basketball games. When Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, first nailed two peach baskets at the opposite ends of a Springfield, Massachusetts, gym in 1891, he had little idea of how thoroughly the game would shape American -- and international -- culture. Hoops superstars such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Yao Ming are now instantly recognized celebrities all across the planet. So what can a group of philosophers add to the understanding of basketball? It is a relatively simple game, but as Kant and Dennis Rodman liked to say, appearances can be deceiving. Coach Phil Jackson actively uses philosophy to improve player performance and to motivate and inspire his team and his fellow coaches, both on and off the court. Jackson has integrated philosophy into his coaching and his personal life so thoroughly that it is often difficult to distinguish his role as a basketball coach from his role as a philosophical guide and mentor to his players. In Basketball and Philosophy, a Dream Team of twenty-six basketball fans, most of whom also happen to be philosophers, proves that basketball is the thinking person's sport. They look at what happens when the Tao meets the hardwood as they explore the teamwork, patience, selflessness, and balanced and harmonious action that make up the art of playing basketball.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7221-7
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Dick Vitale

    IF YOU ARE an avid basketball fan, you are certainly aware of my passion for the game that has served me so well. I have been so lucky to have been involved in this game, which was started over a century ago by Mr. Naismith. Interestingly, I bet many of you did not know that Mr. Naismith was a philosopher and a Presbyterian minister as well as a man who was active in many ways in the great game he invented.

    My journey has taken me through every level involving the roundball game. I’ve had the golden opportunity to coach...

    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. TIP-OFF: Hoops, Pop Culture, and Philosophy
    (pp. 1-4)

    BASKETBALL HAS PLAYED a long and storied role in American popular culture, and every year it seems to get bigger. Now the most popular team sport in the United States, hoops is high energy, constant motion, spectacular athletic plays, graceful choreography, clutch shots, and dramatic comebacks. Basketball is the big screen and rock and roll rolled into one.

    The high-energy, high-drama nature of the game no doubt partly explains why basketball has become so intertwined with popular culture. Past and present NBA stars such as Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, and Yao Ming are instantly recognizable pop icons the...

    • BUILDING COMMUNITIES ONE GYM AT A TIME: Communitarianism and the Decline of Small-Town Basketball
      (pp. 7-18)
      Stephen H. Webb

      WHICH WOULD YOU rather be, a high school basketball star or a professional basketball star? True, most professional players were once high school stars, but not all of them, and it’s certainly true that not all high school stars make it to the pros. So pretend you could be only one or the other. Which would it be?

      You are probably thinking this is a trick question. What is there to choose? High schools are full of kids walking around with letter jackets, while the pros promise a life of fame and fortune. Why be known only by the people...

    • TO HACK OR NOT TO HACK? (The Big) Aristotle, Excellence, and Moral Decision-Making
      (pp. 19-30)
      Thomas D. Kennedy

      IN THE BEGINNING of basketball, as in almost all beginnings, things were a lot simpler. Games were thirty minutes long; there was no backboard; and the basket was, well, a basket and the ball had to stay in it in order to score a goal. There were fouls, of course, and they were pretty serious business. Rule 5 of Dr. James Naismith’s original thirteen rules of basketball (1891) addressed fouls this way: “5. No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed; the first infringement of this rule by any player...

    • BASKETBALL PURISTS: Blind Sentimentalists or Insightful Critics?
      (pp. 31-43)
      R. Scott Kretchmar

      BASKETBALL PURISTS HAVE had something to crow about recently, and they haven’t been quiet. When the U.S. basketball team embarrassed itself at the Greek Olympic Games in 2004, purists jumped at the opportunity to point out our lack of good passing, shooting, and teamwork. And when Detroit and San Antonio ended up in the 2005 NBA finals, sports columnists noted that this would be a series for basketball purists. With the likes of Tim Duncan and Richard Hamilton leading their respective squads, fundamentals would be featured over raw athleticism, good shooting over brute force, hitting the open player over taking...

    • HARDWOOD DOJOS: What Basketball Can Teach Us about Character and Success
      (pp. 44-56)
      Gregory Bassham and Mark Hamilton

      LIKE MOST OTHER sports, basketball as such doesn’t teach anything about values or character. If your daughter learns to play soccer from the win-at-all-costs coach played by Will Ferrell in the 2005 filmKicking and Screaming,she’ll learn that the rule is “play dirty, but don’t get caught.” Likewise, if your son learns basketball from watching ESPN’sStreetball,he’s not going to learn a great deal about discipline, respect, fair play, or teamwork.

      Clearly, basketball can teach rotten values if a player has bad coaches and role models. But is the reverse also true? Can basketball teach good values if...

    • WHAT WOULD MACHIAVELLI DO? Confronting the Strategic Cheater in Pickup Basketball
      (pp. 57-70)
      Regan Lance Reitsma

      I’M A LITTLE embarrassed to admit that I vividly recall several “strategic ticky-tackers” my college friends and I encountered in pickup basketball games—eleven years ago. A strategic ticky-tacker is a species of cheat. A “ticky-tacker” is a person who routinely calls nonexistent fouls; a “strategic” ticky-tacker is someone who does this intentionally, to gain a competitive advantage. It’s not my habit to keep a moral ledger of past transgressions against me. But the thing is, cheats are infuriating. With little effort I can resurrect the personal contempt, righteous indignation, and helpless frustration I felt when confronted with such unscrupulous...

      (pp. 71-82)
      Luke Witte

      ANYONE WHO IS even a casual basketball fan will readily recall the ugly brawl that disrupted the game between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers in November 2004 and resulted in suspensions for several players. The incident was a major story in the media and was replayed over and over. Like almost everyone else who saw it, I was sickened by the continuous stream of video showing the violence erupting on the court and even into the stands. For me, however, the incident touched a deeply personal nerve because it brought back memories of a similar event I was...

    • THE BREAKS OF THE GAME: Luck and Fairness in Basketball
      (pp. 83-93)
      Scott A. Davison

      IN BASKETBALL, AS in everyday life, luck plays a role in the outcome of things. In fact, sometimes luck appears to play such a pivotal role in a game that we are tempted to think that the outcome wasn’t fair. Should we ever draw that conclusion? How are luck and fairness related?

      First, let’s consider the connection between luck and skill. Daniel Dennett, a contemporary American philosopher, describes it this way. Over time, luck tends to average out in sports, because it is randomly distributed. As gamblers routinely discover, there’s no reliable way to be lucky. There are no true...

      (pp. 94-104)
      Peg Brand and Myles Brand

      “IT’S BEAUTIFUL, BABY!” yelled Dickie V, as the unheralded junior dunked over his opponent, drawing a foul and tying the score with six seconds remaining in the championship game. “And one!”

      “It wasn’t beautiful,” Billy said, struggling to be heard above the cheers of the crowd. “It wasn’t pretty at all, but it got the job done, and that’s all that counts.”

      The shooter bounced the ball, slowly and repeatedly, trying hard to loosen his limbs and lessen the stress that had fallen upon his shoulders. It was a hard foul.

      “He’s not the best free throw shooter on the...

    • THE ZEN MASTER AND THE BIG ARISTOTLE: Cultivating a Philosopher in the Low Post
      (pp. 107-115)
      Fritz Allhoff and Anand J. Vaidya

      IT IS OFTEN HARD to see how esoteric philosophical speculations have anything to do with everyday practical concerns. The dense abstractions of Aristotle and the cryptic and poetical musings of Lao-tzu can easily seem irrelevant to our supercharged world of deadlines, day care, and cell phones. However, this conception of the relation between philosophy and everyday life is deeply mistaken, as the following analogy bears out.

      As we write, philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s bookOn Bullshit(2005) is a New York Times Bestseller. Although Frankfurt’s book is a first-rate work of (semi-)serious philosophical analysis, many people probably buy the book only...

    • WILT VERSUS RUSSELL: Excellence on the Hardwood
      (pp. 116-128)
      David K. O’Connor

      IN THE 1960s, professional basketball posed a great philosophical puzzle. Who is the ideal basketball player, Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell? My friends and I got our first taste of philosophizing by defending our answers to this question.

      The competing ideals were sharply drawn. Supporters of Wilt pointed to his greater ability to dominate a game by himself, especially on offense. They also pointed out that he carried a heavier responsibility for his team’s success than Russell, since he was always the focus of the action. Russell had better teammates, who could contribute more on their own. Everyone recognized that...

    • THE WIZARD VERSUS THE GENERAL: Why Bob Knight Is a Greater Coach than John Wooden
      (pp. 129-144)
      Jerry L. Walls

      DURING THE SUMMER of 2005, a remarkable movie entitledThe Great Raidwas released. The movie is remarkable primarily because the extraordinary events it depicts really happened. In 1945, during the Second World War, more than 500 U.S. prisoners of war were under the threat of imminent death in the infamous Cabanatuan Japanese POW camp in the Philippines. The movie recounts the story of how 121 men in the Sixth Ranger Battalion undertook a daring, against-all-odds mission to liberate those POWs.

      This task was daunting not only because these men would be far outnumbered by the Japanese but also because...

      (pp. 147-157)
      Dirk Dunbar

      THE DAO (“THE WAY”) permeates popular culture. The yin-yang symbol is a media icon, visible on car bumpers, TV commercials, T-shirts, surfboards, you name it, while books such asThe Tao of Pooh, The Tao of Physics, and the Tao/Dao of almost anything imaginable can be found in most bookstores.¹ The reason is simple: the Dao and its related notions offer a model of balanced and harmonious action that can enhance all kinds of ways of being and doing, including the art of playing basketball.

      For me, basketball is the ultimate sport: to play it well requires teamwork, instantaneous decision...

    • HOOP DREAMS, BLACKTOP REALITIES: Basketball’s Role in the Social Construction of Black Manhood
      (pp. 158-167)
      Bernard Jackson Jr.

      BASKETBALL IS AN institution that can play a pivotal role in the construction of black manhood, and the philosophical dimensions of such a construction are quite complex. Philosophers of sport owe a debt of gratitude to feminist theorists, for they have done a great deal of important work in this area. Feminist theorists have convincingly argued, for instance, that “manhood” is not something that biological males are simply born with. No one doubts that men are male human beings, and their maleness is a biological given. But this notion of “givenness” obscures the process of identity formation in a dual-gender...

    • SHE GOT GAME: Basketball and the Perfectly Developed Woman
      (pp. 168-182)
      Deborah A. Wallace and James M. Wallace

      DISCUSSIONS OF WOMEN’S basketball often divide into these two opposing assessments of the game: either it is celebrated as the purest form of basketball, played gracefully by competitive athletes in a spirit of cooperation and a devotion to teamwork, or it is condemned as the slowest, dullest form of basketball, featuring participants who seldom demonstrate the individual athleticism and wizardry that make modern men’s basketball so entertaining. Both camps reason from the same set of evidence: compared to the men’s game, the women’s game is played “below the rim,” “on the floor,” with more cutting and passing, less one-on-one jousting,...

      (pp. 185-195)
      Kevin Kinghorn

      THE HISTORY OF basketball is full of three o’clock superstars you’ve never heard of. They consistently hit nine out of ten shots from outside the three-point arc, and it’s not unusual for them to have made their last fifty free throw attempts. Absolute superstars they are. But they do all this at three o’clock—during team practices and pregame shootarounds. Once the eight o’clock tip-off comes, they’re completely different players. In games they suddenly become shaky free throw shooters, and their three-point percentage plummets toward single digits.

      Ever hear of Josh Carrier? He played for the University of Kentucky from...

    • THE HOT HAND IN BASKETBALL: Illusion or Reality?
      (pp. 196-206)
      Steven D. Hales

      ANY BASKETBALL FAN or weekend warrior knows what it means to have a hot hand. It’s the feeling that you are in the groove, that you can’t miss your shots, that everything you do is the right thing. “If only I could play like that all the time, I’d be starting for the Lakers,” we lament. The pros feel the same way. Purvis Short, of the Golden State Warriors, has said, “You’re in a world all your own. It’s hard to describe. But the basket seems to be so wide. No matter what you do, you know the ball is...

    • PHILOSOPHERS CAN’T JUMP: Reflections on Living Time and Space in Basketball
      (pp. 207-219)
      Tim Elcombe

      MATHEMATICALLY, A SPACE that measures ten feet is the same distance anywhere in the world. The same can be said for time: ten seconds in Indianapolis is the same as ten seconds in Toronto, Buenos Aires, Munich, Sydney, or Beijing. But anyone who has ever played basketball knows that ten feet or ten seconds can be experienced in radically different ways in different situations. For a nine-year-old child, dreams of flying through the air to dunk a basketball are tempered by the seemingly insurmountable space between their outstretched hands and the bottom of the rim. A free throw to tie...

      (pp. 220-234)
      Matthew H. Slater and Achille C. Varzi

      The following is a transcript of what might very well have been five telephone conversations between Michael Jordan and former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson in early March 1995, just before MJ’s comeback after more than a year pursuing a baseball career.


      Mike:Hey, Phil, it’s me. Is this a bad time?

      Phil:It’s never a bad time, as long as I’m not deep in meditation. I was just visualizing our next game. What’s up?

      Mike:Still thinking about my comeback.

      Phil:Come on, Michael, give it a break. It’ll be just like old times. Two words: Repeat...

      (pp. 235-243)
      Daniel B. Gallagher

      WITH THE CLOCK stopped at twenty-six seconds, Patrick Sparks, the Kentucky Wildcats’ best free throw shooter, steps to the line to shoot a one-and-one. His team is tied with Michigan State with a trip to the 2005 NCAA Final Four on the line. Although he’s still a kid, he’s been here countless times before. Shooting a free throw is as natural to him as breathing. But in this huge moment with the game on the line, the ball comes clanking off the rim into the opponents’ hands. Dejected, Sparks slouches toward the bench, takes a seat, and feels the pathetic...

      (pp. 244-255)
      Thomas P. Flint

      THERE ARE EXACTLY 2.34 seconds remaining in the game to decide the conference championship, and it looks as though good old Yoreville U just might pull off an upset that will be world famous in Yoreville for a millennium. Yoreville trails Emeny by a single point, Yoreville has the ball, and Coach Quoats is using his last time-out to design a play. Actually, you and everyone else in the arena know what’s coming: somehow or other, the ball is going to South Shore, Yoreville’s famed shooting star. The players return to the court, the ref hands the ball to Yoreville’s...

      (pp. 256-273)
      Michael L. Peterson

      HOOSIERSIS A feel-good movie about basketball that provides a rich glimpse into the human spirit. There are other great sports movies (such asRocky, Chariots of Fire,andThe Natural), butHoosiershas it all. Based on the true story of the Milan Indians who beat Muncie Central to win the 1954 Indiana boys’ high school basketball championship, this film holds you captive from beginning to end. If you’re a sports fan, or a basketball fan, or even remotely interested in the meaning of life, then see the movie before reading this chapter.

      Written by Angelo Pizzo and directed...

    (pp. 274-278)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 279-286)