Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Mr. Basketball

In 1955 I made an excellent decision.  I was in ninth grade at Ardmore Junior High School.  I was new to the school, since we had just moved to the suburbs, probably choosing to put the money into a house rather than into private school for four kids, although I think the house cost a grand total of $35,000.  In ninth grade, typing was a required class, but lots of the boys just hacked around in it.  The girls tended to take it more seriously, because it would probably be more useful for their prospective jobs.  But I took it seriously.  Not only did I take everything seriously about school, but I had seen my mother typing away at her class papers at Penn, where she had broken the mold for a 50's wife and mother and gone back to school to become a social worker.  I was amazed at how she could type.

So I learned to type by taking the class seriously.  I never could beat Sue Hoffman or Betsy Tingle, but I was the fastest boy typist in the class, and I flattered myself to think in the whole ninth grade as well, although I didn't have evidence of that.  As everyone can appreciate now but maybe couldn't then, it was a great decision.  I still wonder at the vacuity of the job of the bald-headed guy who taught the class; the job seemed to be pure supervision, watching the kids looking down at the blank keys, helping them discipline themselves and following the written lessons day after day.

So when it came time to leave for college four years later, I gave up the Royal portable we had at home and took to college the new gift from my mother, a portable Olivetti.  It lacked the stately power of the Royal, but I came to love its lightness and the more intimate, more responsive touch of the keys.  I still had to use my fingers like little hammers, as my piano teacher (talk about a frustrating job!) taught in those pre-electric days, and sometimes the “T's” got only the horizontal bar at top and just a hint of vertical stalk, and sometimes the “p” looked more like an “n,” but the elite font was appealing, and late at night as I sat in my dorm room and typed, I could really go.  I found early on I could compose at the typewriter and wasn't wedded to the written page.  It was a lifesaver of time.

In freshman year at Harvard we had a basic English composition course called General Education Ahf.  What the “Ahf” stood for I probably knew once, but not now.  But even though it was a throw-in class, a few extra credits that didn't do justice to the amount of work expended, I took it seriously from the start.  Actually that was probably why I got into Harvard, even before I applied – things were different then – because our guidance teacher, Mr. Robinson, knew I was serious about becoming and educated person.  My parents and I visited him one day to figure out how I could take French and not give up Latin too early, partially because I knew colleges wanted at least three years of a language.  To do that, I would have to take five majors junior year instead of the usual four, and take United States history in summer school.  That I didn't bat an eye but wanted to do it, while my parents and Mr. Robinson looked at me for the decision, must have made an impression.  Anyway, that's how I put it together later.

Gen Ed Ahf was taught by a graduate student in English named Mr. Burlbach.  He was a nice young man with a blond crew cut as I remember, and he once shared with us that while he was a graduate student at Michigan and wrote an assignment, he was asked where he got a certain idea he put forward.  “That's my own idea,” he said.  His professor looked at him and said that he had better stick to the ideas of others when he was writing.  “That's when I decided to transfer, if I could,” he said.

I guess I was a kindred soul, although not the type to be an English major.  We had essays assigned probably about twice a month on various set topics, reacting to essays we read.  I remember this is where I first met the word “assertion,” and understood some basic types of essays, I suppose.  But later in the course, in March of my freshman year, we finally had a free assignment.  “Write on what you want,” he said.  I chose basketball.

Basketball was king of my heart.  It was a beautiful thing.  I was a pretty good player, always a good shot, and I could pass behind my back and backwards over my head in a fast break, to startling effect.  I had a driving left hand hook shot.  I watched basketball and I loved basketball, and I also wasn't very much at home in Boston.  As the eldest son of a tight family all of whom had always
lived in Philadelphia, I was very much on alien turf.  So I chose basketball to write about, and Bob Cousy, the acclaimed point guard (the term didn't actually exist then) of the Celtics, was my foil.

Now is 2016.  It's almost March which would make it the 56th anniversary of this seminal essay.  Technology has changed.  I'm writing this on my laptop.  I have saved the Cousy paper all these years, along with my other Gen Ed Ahf papers, and my great essay on Alexis de Tocqueville that got A's at several universities under various author names.  I'm have it as a pdf file, but technologically challenged, I can't just reproduce it here as a jpg or tiff image for some reason.  What I can do, though, is scan it as a Word file and copy it on here, which is what I'm doing.  I'll lose some of the written in comments by Mr. Burlbach, but I'll type the in at the end.  He was the kind of guy who understood what people were trying to do, I think, as his comments showed.  As I look at the paper, and as I reproduce it here, I remember that Olivetti, and I remember how freeing it was to write about something that took me out of myself, or deeper into myself, maybe.  I remember how much I cared.

I was eighteen when I wrote it.  The awkwardness of many sentence constructions leaps out at me.  I don't think I was ever a natural writer; I think I had to work hard to become a passable one.  My friend Bob, though, comes to my rescue, and tells me he's impressed with it for an 18 year old.  Thank God for supportive friends.

So, without further ado, here is my paper: “Mr. Basketball; Or Why I Hate Bob Cousy.”

Budd N. Shenkin 
 Mr. Burelbach
March 9, 1960

I love basketball. I hate Bob Cousy. These statements might appear antithetical to the average basketball fan, inflicted with the image of Bob Cousy as the essence of all good basketball, This image is not based on the fan's own observations of the facts, but rather on his reading of the newspapers and his absorption of the common press stereo­types. The newspapers, never known to be the ultimate source of unbiased truth, have built up Cousy as the great superstar, and the public, never examining the facts objectively, has accepted this image of a Ruthiam figure. Perhaps this is the reason for my hate. The press is trying to nut something over on the public, and is succeeding.
The newspapers have built up Cousy as "the man who makes the Celtics go,"the greatest ballhandler and passer of all time,” "the master strategist and tactician," and even, in pure defiance of the statistics, "the great shotmaker." Why have the sports writers done this? Why is he loudly praised as the man the Celtics can't do without after a wretched game in which he scored only eight for 32 from  the floor? Why,after making a routine pass 35 feet out to a teammate who makes a wonderful shot, is Cousy's name boomed out by the announcer as if he had just made the greatest play of the game - "...from COUSY!"? Obviously this vaunting, infecting the entire league, is more than chauvinism, although admit­tedly it occurs not so much anywhere as in Boston. More than chauvinism, it is a response to basketball's need for a superstar, the element which no sport could do without. Baseball would not be baseball without Willy Mays, Ernie

Banks, Ted Williams, et. al. Nor would football be football without Johnnie Unitas and Jimmy Brown. Without superstars, who would follow the games, save a few total enthusiasts?
Who would buy newspapers? More Freudian than this last, how else could sports writers think that they were so terribly important in their pontificating unless the subject were that in which everyone was interested? Now my point is not that superstars are spurious images, for I do not think this is true, but I am saying that if a sport lacks a genuine super- star, it must invent one to subsist, to satisfy both the circulation of the newspapers and the ego of its sports- writers. Further, the fact that the owners, and anyone con­nected with the financial end of the game, are not averse to seeing money booming in lends currency to any interest-provoking image the sportswriters happen to put forth. These motives may often be subconscious, but this possibility only heightens their danger.  They (the writers) have made a superstar, not found one.
I would like here to add a note about superstars. A superstar is someone who can perform the actions required of him by his particular sport in a manner far more skillful than his nearest competitor, or, in the case of multiple superstars, far more skillfully than the next plane of athletes. In most sports there exists a “division of labor,” one man is not expected to do more than one thing. A hitter in baseball is expected to do hardly anything at all in the field, and, in fact, this situation has led many to condemn the game as played by the moderns as too easy. The need, however, for a superstar is great, as I have pointed out, and baseball

and baseball has come much further with him than it went without him, prior to the live bull and the emphasis on hitting. Actually, we might see now a regression to the earlier values, since the modern players, being selected from a greater group than formerly, can do more things better than the old ones - a purely mathematical situation. But thin is extraneous. The point is that where other sports have reduced the number of actions to be performed by a player - observe the specialists in football -- basketball has not done this. A basketball player must dribble, pass, shoot, rebound, guard, etc. To find a superstar, then, and not devalue any of these qualities, it is necessary to find     someone who can do it all. This is not an easy     task. None was to be found in the 1950’s, and so some were trumped-up – case in   point, Cousy. Now, in my opinion, one has at last been found. Elgin Baylor can do everything, and if I am correct in my judgment, as soon as the trumped-up heroes move off the scene, Baylor will replace them as the true superstar. The main point is that if a sport must have a superstar, and if there are to be high standards, at certain periods a star will not exist, and one must be fabricated. 
There are three reasons that fans have been susceptible to this spurious superstar image of      Cousy, and have accepted
it as a pure fact, with no room for opinion. First, Cousy is
only 6’1", a David among Goliaths. Naturally, normal sized people will identify themselves with him, and will want him to be victorious against great odds.  He becomes

an image of themselves, triumphing on grounds where they dare not even tread. Consequently, the average person is ready to accept Cousy as "the greatest ever" on the slightest push. Secondly, the push is supplied by the newspapers' incessant repetition of Cousy's magnificence, s repetition reminiscent of Brave New World. If one says something loud enough and often enough, it is soon accepted as a fact. Lastly, our society's fear of not knowing extends even to basketball. Although basketball seems on the surface to be a relatively simple game, it is in reality extremely complex, and difficult to understand. This combination engenders a subconscious fear in people that they are ignorant, and because of societal pressures they must find a way to prove to themselves and others that they are not ignorant. The godsend to them is the news­paper, which says who is good and who is bad, and, in par­ticular, that Cousy is "the greatest." They then accept these judgments and think they have found it out by themselves, and refuse to listen to anyone who should have the temerity to try to upset one of their values. Near that they should he found out rules them. They really do not know anything about basketball, as is obvious from their use of the meaningless cliches "playmaking" and “spark." They don't even know what they are saying, for they are merely defending their place in society. With these conceptions in mind, it is not difficult to see why Cousy has become a modern myth.
But how good really is Cousy? His supporters say that he is the man who nakes the Celtics go, and the Celtics are basketball's most successful team. Therefore, he must he

a great "spark.” The fact is often overlooked, however, that the Celtics for years were a losing team with Cousy. It took Bill Russell to lift them out of mediocrity; only after he joined the team did they begin to win. It is hardly logical then, to say that Cousy is the man who makes the Celtics go. His supporters further insist that the statistics bear out his greatness, pointing to the assists column. This column, however, is the most attacked statistic in all basketball.
It is a "fairy tale" statistic, for it determines not the individual’s passing ability, but rather the team's scoring ability. If, for instance, Cousy brings the ball down the court and passes to Ramsey 35 feet out, and Ramsey scores, Cousy gets an assist. This pass is hardly significant. The fact that Cousy always leads the league in assists, then, can be accounted for by the fact (1) that he is a guard, and there­fore runs into many situations similar to the one just des­cribed, as, in fact, do all guards, and (2) that the Celtics are the highest scoring team in history. With so many won­derful shots on the team, Cousy could hardly help leading the league in assists, the fact that Cousy is a mediocre shot is borne out by statistics, as is the fact that he is a "gunner," always accounting for a great percentage of his
|                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       .   to*
team’s shots. Even the fact that his substitutes consistently outshine him, and have consequently been playing recently even more than he has, fails to faze his supporters, even though they are forced back to the argument, "Well, there's just some­thing about the team when he's in there." As the last point, it is amazing how far the principle of "remember the good

plays” goes with Cousy's proponents, They fail to see that
for every spectacular play he makes, he throws the ball away
at least three times.  This virtual blindness has been borne out in practice,
for when I point Cousy’s mistakes out play by play to his rooters during a game, they
are constantly amazed at the facts. And the flashy
plays that people do remember inevitably occur on three-on-
one situations, where the less flashy play would have been
at least as good. When someone says that no one but Cousy
could have made a certain play, what they are really saying
is that no one but Cousy would have tried it, for Cousy is
the showboat supreme, always trying the flashy play, making
about 20% of them. In other sports a player of this type is fined
for hurting the team effort.
This last brings up another point, Cousy’s amazing conceit. Often, in trying to appear modest, he says, ‘'It's easy, if you're a freak like me.”  He refers to the fact that he has extremely long arms and large hands. What he is saying, in effect,is, ‘'Sure I'm great, but I'm built for the game."
This is hardly modesty. As a further example, in picking "his" All America team for I960 in Dell's Basketball Yearbook, he has this to say about Johnny Egan of Providence College: "Pardon my pride, but Egan is my boy. Since I coached him a bit, he's patterned his style after mine. Johnny's a brilliant dribbler, driver, set-shot, and playmaker."
Modest Bob is forever to be found analyzing a game for reporters, and otherwise getting his name in print. He is amazingly adept at appreciatively receiving gift checks. His arro­gance, I must apmit, is understandable. The man has a good

Appreciatively receiving gift checks.  His arrogance, I admit, is understandable.  The man has a goodbrain, and in pro basketball, this in a rare thing. Put arrogance is hardly justified by explanations.
Why do I hate Bob Cousy?  My hate started from a general dislike of his personality, but soon branched out to a richer, deeper hate. He has been built up to the image of all good basketball by sportswriters who can't tell a layup from a dunk themselves. All they see is his dribble behind the back and his utterly useless behind the back layup. These writers have been so convincing, however, that Cousy himself believes them, and even some of the other players believe them.  It is this state of affairs which makes me hate Bob Cousy.

Actually, “hate” is probably too strong a word, don’t you think?  With that sole exception (and my quibbling emendations throughout, all in the direction of greater accuracy), I consider both the reasoning and the style of this paper to be superlative.  If only academic matters would excite you that much!


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