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Basketball and Philosophy

Thinking Outside the Paint

Jerry Walls

Publication Year: 2007

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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: The Philosophy of Popular Culture

Front cover

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Copyright page

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Power Foreword

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pp. xi-xii

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...


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pp. xiii

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Tip-Off: Hoops, Pop Culture, and Philosophy

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pp. 1-3

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...

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Building Communities One Gym at a Time

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pp. 7-18

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?...

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To Hack or Not to Hack?

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pp. 19-30

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...

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Basketball Purists

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pp. 31-43

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...

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Hardwood Dojos

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pp. 44-56

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 film Kicking 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’s Streetball, ...

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What Would Machiavelli Do?

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pp. 57-70

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...

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Basketball, Violence, Forgiveness, and Healing

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pp. 71-82

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...

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The Breaks of the Game

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pp. 83-93

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...

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The Beauty of the Game

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pp. 94-103

“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...

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The Zen Master and the Big Aristotle

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pp. 108-115

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...

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Wilt Versus Russell

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pp. 116-128

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...

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The Wizard Versus the General

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pp. 129-144

DURING THE SUMMER of 2005, a remarkable movie entitled The Great Raid was 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...

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The Dao of Hoops

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pp. 148-157

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 as The 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....

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Hoop Dreams, Blacktop Realities

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pp. 158-167

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...

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She Got Game

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pp. 168-181

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...

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Shooting with Confidence

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pp. 185-195

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....

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The Hot Hand in Basketball

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pp. 196-206

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...

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Philosophers Can't Jump

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pp. 207-219

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...

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Playing for the Same Team Again

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pp. 220-234

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....

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Plato and Aristotle on the Role of Soul in Taking the Rock to the Hole

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pp. 235

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’...

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The Basket that Never Was

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pp. 244-255

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. Actu-...

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Hoosiers and the Meaning of Life

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pp. 256-273

HOOSIERS IS A feel-good movie about basketball that provides a rich glimpse into the human spirit. There are other great sports movies (such as Rocky, Chariots of Fire, and The Natural), but Hoosiers has 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...

The Lineup

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pp. 274-278


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pp. 279-286

E-ISBN-13: 9780813172217
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813124353

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: The Philosophy of Popular Culture