Monday, May 9, 2016

Basketball and the Sense of Place

Part I

Question: “What is more important, basketball or life?”

Answer: “Basketball is life.”

Sometimes this answer makes a lot of sense. But even if it's an exaggeration, it's a great sport, and a young one, where innovation still occurs regularly. And also, as a young sport, some of us can remember the old days pretty well, well enough to compare. I even remember when it was mostly white guys, that's how old I am. I remember the elation of the Texas Western triumph, speaking of race.

Basketball talk can include lots of things, one of which would be the greatest innovator of all time. It could be Hank Luisetti and the jump shot, or Dr. J and the dunk, or as I have argued, Steph Curry for breaking the equivalent of the four minute mile and proving that one could rely on the three-pointer and also for developing the high-off-the-backboard layup over a giant defender.

Another discussion would be the greatest team of all time: this year's Warriors vs. the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, for instance, vs. Showtime Lakers, vs. 1968 76ers, or even one of the Celtics teams.

Yet another discussion would be the top five one could put together: I have historically chosen Wilt at center, Oscar and West at guards, Bird at forward, and Jordan at small forward (changing his position.) I'm moving away from this five gradually, slanted toward the past as it is.

And yet another is the best backcourt of all time, from West and Goodrich up to Steph and Klay.

But with this too long lead in, the most recent discussion has been, what city has produced the best five of all time? Bruce Jenkins, our excellent and sometimes quite enjoyably discursive SF Chronicle sportswriter who is fond of casting the wide eye, last Saturday submitted his all-time list of Oakland basketball greats.

He puts Russell at center, Paul Silas at power forward, and three guards: Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, and Damian Lillard. His reserves are Joe Ellis, Isaiah Rider, Brian Shaw, Nate Williams, Antonio Davis, Leon Powe and Cliff Robinson. This is a hell of a team, a hell of a team. Russell a candidate for best center of all time, two of the guards Hall of Fame, and if Lillard continues, he'll be the third.

So I challenged our basketball discussion group to erect the Philly all-time great team, although we were conscious of a certain unfairness of comparison, Philly being so much larger.

Correspondent Bob Liss observed: “The Oakland team has zero offensive firepower up front. But that is a very interesting team anyway. They can certainly get rebounds. Maybe they can make room for Vada Pinson or Bob Beamon.”

The definitive Philly list came from Bob Levin, which I then sent on to Jenkins in this email:

“Your column today mentioned your all-Oakland team, which is near and dear to my heart and many of my friends' as well, since many of us have lived here for many years.

“But, it happens that some of us come from Philadelphia. So, here is our all-Philadelphia team as postulated by Bob Levin :

'My All-Philadelphia team would run Wilt, Rasheed Wallace, Kobe, Guy Rodgers, and Earl. My bench would be Gola, Arizin, Wali, Chink Scott, Walt Hazzard, Kyle Lowry or Fred Carter.

If you want to reduce it to one area, West Philly, you have Wilt, Earl, Wali, Walt, Chink, Jellybean Joe, Wayne Hightower, Jim Washington and then a choice of Malik Rose, Lewis Lloyd, Doug Overton, and Hal Lear.

If you want to reduce it to one high school (Overbrook) you have Wilt, Wayne, Wali, Walt, those last four guys above, and Mike Gale.'

Much as I love and respect Oakland, I think Philly (OK, much bigger place) takes the honors. In fact, Overbrook might take honors. Although I have to admit, Oakland's guards are terrific - love Gary, Jason, and now Damian.”

Then Bruce J. responded:

“Budd: Great stuff. Love the all-Philly team. I'd take Oakland because of Russell. I'd take any city if he was on it. But thanks so much for writing -- Bruce J.”

Part II

Basketball aside, this made me think about our affiliations. Why do we root for our hometown teams? That's an old question. There is Jerry Seinfeld's observation, which could have been about the Oakland A's, about the peripatetic nature of the staffing of sports teams. What are we cheering for, asked Jerry, when these guys have been ripped off from here and from there and the teams change all the time? Are we cheering for the uniforms? Are we cheering for a laundry?

Well, when I grew up in Philadelphia – granted teams were much more stable, and there was even the territorial draft – the Eagles, Phillies, A's, and Warriors were all part of who we were. If it had been the Middle East, they would have accused us of tribalism. Leaving Philadelphia for college at Harvard, I found it difficult, indeed impossible to root for Harvard teams. Who were these guys, anyway? I didn't know them personally – at high school I rooted for my friends, and played some myself. Who was I going to root for at Harvard, those preppies, New Englanders, Ohioans? What was the point of that? That changed when I roomed with the basketball team and played JV myself, but otherwise, I rooted for Philly.

Cambridge itself was difficult to absorb. I liked the roast beef sandwiches at Elsies – hey, the chief sandwich maker, Smitty, was from Philadelphia! – but a sub shop instead of a hoagie shop, and putting all that pickle relish on a non-Amoroso bun? Narraganset beer - “Have a 'Ganset!” – or Carling's Black Label? Give me a break. Let alone rooting for the hated Celtics against the Warriors, or the Red Sox against the A's. To me, it was identity.

I thought about it. Not rationally, I just investigated my own feelings. I thought, I'm loyal to Philadelphia; my parents were from there and never left, and I was from there. I'm loyal to the United States. But Boston? Come on, I'm still going to root for Penn. In fact, I couldn't lay down roots there in Boston, hard as I tried, although others could, especially in med school.

So here I am in the East Bay for more than 40 years. I went to grad school at Cal, so I can feel some loyalty there. I have rooted hard for the transplanted Warriors (former season ticket holder) and A's (former season ticket holder), and the Giants (current season ticket holder), and the Niners and Raiders, and I'm here long enough, and I worked in Oakland long enough, to take pride in Oakland, especially now in Lillard for some reason I can't put my finger on. And for Marshawn Lynch. And Jason Kidd. I think I'm double-rooted.

They are all symbols, clearly. We care for them, and they “give back to the community.” We yell and scream at the games and talk about them all the time, and they give speeches about the fan's deserving their victories. It's not frivolous. It's commercial, true, but then so is everything now – our descendants will look back on this commercialism the same way we look back at Roman customs, and marvel at the triumph of capitalism. But you can make money and still care. I'm a doctor, so I know.

I still think of sports as a search for artistic triumph. Honing of skills over a long period of time, intrinsic ability, working together toward a common goal, production of beauty – “beautiful play” is not just a casual term, it's the essence of sport. But there is also identity. And that's why it's important to stick to the rules, not to be dirty, not to cheat, not to cut corners. Because what we are doing is succeeding together in the eyes of God – non-denominational, open to atheists, and benign rather than awful – but something beyond just us.

Is art compatible with competition, or with identity? Sure it is! That's why sports are so great – it's not simple, it's everything combined. Let's not forget that Greek plays, one of the crowning successes of mankind in art, were produced in competitions. I don't know for sure that there were neighbors and friends rooting for Sophocles and Aeschylus, but I bet there were. And around the year 400 BC, and 350 BC, I bet there were arguments about the best of all time. And arguments about how could you compare the Olympics to the theater.

Somehow I think I could have fitted in there. Better than in Boston, where they had the hated Celtics.

Budd Shenkin

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