ART: JAKE VAUGHAN
If the Southside of Chicago were to suffer a catastrophe like Katrina, news organizations would deploy and the wider nation would soon learn more about its art and spirit, its sense of decor, and the Southside’s many frames of reference. But without such catastrophe, the nation is now finding the ways of the Southside. And this includes the ways of pickup basketball.
It is game different than the professional game, For one, the pickup game has no referees – it finds its morals and regulations in a heated scrum that becomes consensus.
Barak Obama found his true home on the Southside of Chicago, and now as he comes to Washington, the U.S. is discovering more about this essential part of the Second City, and how it comes to view the world. Climbing up the political ladder in Chicago, Obama developed a certain degree of street savvy. There as well he came to understand the ways of basketball. As it is in parts of New York City, basketball is one of the essential elements of the Southside.
Skills Obabma gained in Southside pickup basketball games may hold him in good stead in his new position – much as the skills Theodore Roosevelt garnered with trackers and cowboys in another century on the lonesome plains girded him for the job of president. Of course, Obama has already benefited from his basketball experience. It helped forge the bond that led to his marriage to Chicago’s Michelle Robinson.
During the run-up to the inauguration, one read bits of the couple’s back story. Michelle Robinson Obama, in Chicago back in the day and before she had been too very long dating Barak, asked her brother Craig to play basketball with him and give a report. The thinking was: if the dashing Obama had genuine hidden character flaws of any kind, they would probably surface in a pick-up game of b-ball. One story on Craig Robinsion notes that his Michelle’s father was want to sometimes say one could tell a lot about a man by the way he played basketball.
Pickup basketball. It’s a game without referees, and thus one where a sort of common law takes the place of strict regulations. Craig Robinson reported back to Michelle that Barak passed muster – that he was a great guy. He passed the ball when he should - he show the ball when he should.
For my part, basketball ended huffing and puffing in embarrassed exhaustion a long time ago on the intramural courts at Boston University. So I contacted friends – bona fide basketball geezers, some - who’d carried forward the torch. I asked: What would be bad traits that might emerge in these games? What ugly traits, ones you wouldn’t want to endure for a lifetime, might leap out in a pick-up basketball game? Who were the outliers? Snippets from their reports follow.
A curse on the ball hog. “He is the one who feels he has to take a disproportionate number of shots,” wrote one correspondent. “Even if he's good and he makes a high percentage. That's not why the rest of us are out there; not to watch some other guy crank up his jump shot the whole time.” This errant-styled hoopster possesses “an inflated view of his own worth: the kind of person who is often blind to his defects and is oblivious to the talents or needs of others.”
Woe be the trash talker – Such people belittle the skills of others. Chattering incessantly, as if to summon testosterone. Winning means humbling the opponent. These telling signs betray low self esteem, and ungenerous spirit.
The guy who calls ‘foul’ - A person who drives to the basket and misses or takes an outside shot and misses, may call “Foul!” when he was clearly not fouled. He blames the missed shot on someone else, not himself. Since there is no ref, and there is no mechanism for handling fouls in the pickup basketball game, this is a sign of nastiness. It has its correlative in the hard fouler…
The hard fouler, or pick setter – This is the player who gets frustrated and as a result intentionally fouls hard or sets a pick with a football fullback's block. “If you cut to the basket without the ball,” says a long-time pick-up gamer, “he'll step into you to knock you off line. I know this stuff happens in the NBA, but it's a sign of a personality flaw in pickup ball because there's no real consequence.”Would you want your sister to marry one of these toxic assets?
In Obama’s first weeks, we have seen him try to share the ball – inviting Republicans to help achieve consensus. He let the Congressional Democrats shoot their shots, although aspects threatened the passage of his economic stimulus package. He has accepted the ‘foul’ – taking, for example, the blame for the Daschle nomination debacle. He’s been generally complimentary; his critical analysis of political partisans does not cross the threshold of ‘trash talk.’ There have been setbacks. His odd, semi-magnanimous choice of a Republican New Hampshire senator ended when Judd Greg left the Team of Rivals. Yet, in his February state of the economy speech, he found so much common ground that the opposition spent a grand portion of the speech standing up to clap with the Dems. His announcement of Iraq withdrawal plans garnered Republican huzzahs, and some Democratic mumbling.
Obama’s consensus building may owe more to his neighborhood activism, based in some part on tenets rooted in the work of old rad Saul Alilnsky, than it is based on basketball.
And, no doubt, other sports also forge character and unveil shortcomings. The golf or poker cheat comes to mind. Beltway folklorists may point to quail hunting as a sport where true character outs. The drama that could be called “Obama: The Early Days” has quickly passed. The limits of bipartisanship are most vivid – the limits of sports analogies too.
He’s moved from a game without referees to an arena of ten-million judges. One hopes some instinctual fortitude may carry over from the game of the Southside.