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Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball

Jeffrey Lane

(University of Nebraska Press)

With Under the Boards, first-time author Jeffrey Lane volunteers a worthy, even if scattered and sometimes frustrating, study to sports and culture hawks alike. He enters with a firm, almost intuitive angle: since the 1980s, the intertwined worlds of collegiate and professional basketball have reflected, in a broad sense, ever-shifting mores of the American zeitgeist, particularly racial politics. The topic is far from opaque and, undoubtedly, has received more attenuated review in such pop-sports publications as ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated. Lane, conversely, plunges deep into the recent past, into the black masculinity embodied by Allen Iverson, the NBA’s manipulated marketing of race, the white idealization of Larry Bird, and basketball’s globalized form to bulk up his decently travelled thesis. Under the Boards thrives more from the insight of these individual details and less from any seamless connection that Lane may chart between them. But, in its best strides, Boards is a strongly informed, often scathing examination of noted personalities and controversies in basketball’s previous couple of decades.


The first three chapters of Boards achieve a steady, coherent flow. Though race permeates Lane’s findings, it is in these parts that the literally “black and white” dichotomy of basketball is most trenchantly observed. In the NBA, a simmering conflict of values and professional goals hampers relations between the predominantly white corporate/management structure and many players of African American and other black descent. It’s a clash of business-minded suits, helmed by NBA Commissioner David Stern, with an immensely divergent worldview, one that incorporates an “incestuous relationship of hip-hop, basketball, and the drug culture ...”


Why is it that Jay Z frequently invokes MJ’s greatness or that Tracy McGrady has cameo-ed in a Jadakiss video? What magnetic pull do fallen rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. have over Allen Iverson, and how does it concern his stealthy crossover? Lane pursues these convergences and even locates the subtle parallels between the one-upmanship of a freestyle rap smackdown and an incendiary dunk. Both elevate the individual, in a flashy, machismo-fueled manner, over his peers. This is worrisome to the powers that be. A full-bore tolerance of black expression, it’s surmised, encourages gaudily flamboyant styles, the abusive antics of Latrell Sprewell, and a league that’s dangerously “street.”


Lane conveys this power tug-a-war and all of Board’s smarts with well-targeted and accessibly literate prose. At heart, he’s a hoops fanboy, unquestionably. But such youthful enthusiasm for the game rarely translates into amateur findings. This is his lucid summation of Stern’s precisely engineered approach to basketball’s “street” element: “David Stern and the NBA walk a fine line, both peddling and curbing black authenticity, benefitting from it and reproaching the ‘cool pose,’ in order to create a product that is exciting but ‘safe’ for white, middle-class consumption and corporate partners.” His sly penchant for catch-phrasing—“commercially viable equilibrium,” “reasonable deviance,” etc.—further points to a concise and sharp mind.


The strength of Lane’s style holds up throughout Boards even as the second half brings diminishing returns. Curiously, his assemblage of quasi-case studies reverses in time sequence to consider Larry Bird’s deification among white fans and Bobby Knight’s heated tenure at the University of Indiana. Regarding the latter, Lane doesn’t offer any fresh, revelatory substance to a drawn-out, mostly bitter discourse on “the General.” Like many observers, he rightly finds Knight exasperating and distasteful. Though, Lane is too clear-headed to dismiss the coaching legend outright. Wisely so. Just consider his vast achievements, all earned with outrageous, saddening, and, occasionally, uproarious pigheadedness. More than anything, Boards ably contextualizes Knight, focusing on Indiana’s socioeconomic heritage for guidance to the man’s stridently defiant ways. But Lane must ultimately concede defeat. Knight perseveres as a riddle.


Only with his breakdown of “Larry Legend” does the young author exceed his reach. This chapter convincingly details Boston’s love affair with the baller from French Lick and, adequately corroborated, chronicles the city’s shoddy treatment of past Celtics who were African Americans (i.e. Bill Russell). The accounts of Bird’s towering ego and mammoth skills are often highly amusing. But Lane uses this foundation as a springboard for absurdly sweeping conjectures on white basketball fans’ messianic image of Bird. Observe the spectacular glibness of these statements: “In large part, Bird’s national popularity and lasting legacy were propelled by an impulse that is probably inside of all white fans (my italics). It is simultaneously a frantic desire to be included and a patronizing belief that the white athlete can restore the sanctity that has been traditional to sports and reverse the damage caused by black irreverence.” This is excessively vague and almost fantastical. Where is even a smidgeon of substantiation and how does one overlook the problematic use of “probably” near “all?” At every other turn, Lane had proven himself above such unrestraint. But, in this moment, sloppy race rhetoric carried the tone into an overkill blend of white guilt and nameless indictment.


Even in their miscues, chapters one to five of Under the Boards remained swift and engaging (refer to the previous paragraph for an obvious aberration). Its final section, on the globalization of the NBA and the questionable methods of rearing young talent, is just too insider-ball and burdened with a dirge of details. It also seems most distant from the main threads put forth by the thesis. This is a young author though, tackling a bold, involved, and, at times, unwieldy subject. Boards’ inconsistency was written in its deliberately loose, case-by-case structure. Lane’s most penetrating insights, however, are worth the rock passes. He is unabashedly smitten by the game of basketball and effectively labors to demonstrate its import on and off the hardwood.

Rating:

Barry writes about all things Beatles at The Daily Beatle (thedailybeatle.blogspot.com). Twitter: @Beatlesblogger. He can be reached at bplenser[at]gmail[dot]com.


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