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The Heresy of Zone Defense | Thomas Cummins Art & Architectural Photography | San Antonio, Tx
"Consider this for a moment: Julius Erving’s play was at once new and fair! The rules, made by people who couldn’t begin to imagine Erving’s play, made it possible. If this doesn’t intrigue you, it certainly intrigues me, because, to be blunt, I have always had a problem with “the rules,” as much now as when I was younger. Thanks to an unruled and unruly childhood, however, I have never doubted the necessity of having them, even though they all go bad, and despite the fact that I have never been able to internalize them. To this day, I never stop at a stop sign without mentally patting myself on the back for my act of good citizenship, but I do stop (usually) because the alternative to living with rules—as I discovered when I finally learned some—is just hell. It is a life of perpetual terror, self-conscious wariness, and self-deluding ferocity, which is not just barbarity, but the condition of not knowing that you are a barbarian. And this is never to know the lightness of joy—or even the possibility of it—because such joys as are attendant upon Julius Erving’s play require civilizing rules that attenuate violence and defer death. They require rules that translate the pain of violent conflict into the pleasures of disputation—into the excitements of politics, the delights of rhetorical art, and competitive sport. Moreover, the maintenance of such joys requires that we recognize, as Thomas Jefferson did, that the liberating rule that civilized us yesterday will, almost inevitably, seek to govern us tomorrow, by suppressing both the pleasure and the disputation. In so doing, it becomes a form of violence itself.

An instance: I can remember being buoyed up, as a youth, by reading about Jackson Pollock in a magazine and seeing photographs of him painting. I was heartened by the stupid little rule through which Pollock civilized his violence. It’s okay to drip paint, Jackson said. The magazine seemed to acquiesce: Yeah, Jackson’s right, it seemed to say, grudgingly, Dripping paint is now within the rules. Discovering this, I was a little bit more free than I was before, and I know that it was a “boy thing,” about privileging prowess at the edge of control and having the confidence to let things go all strange—and I know, as well, that, in my adolescent Weltanschauung, the fact that Jackson Pollock dripped paint somehow justified my not clearing the debris from the floor of my room (which usually, presciently, resembled a Rauschenberg combine). Even so, I had a right to be shocked a few years later when I enrolled in a university and discovered that Pollock’s joyous permission had been translated into a prohibitive, institutional edict: It’s bad not to drip! the art coaches said. It means you got no soul! Yikes!

Henceforth, it has always seemed to me that the trick of civilization lies in recognizing the moment when a rule ceases to liberate and begins to govern—and this brings us back to the glory of hoops. Because among all the arts of disputation our culture provides, basketball has been supreme in recognizing this moment of portending government and in deflecting it, by changing the rules when they threaten to make the game less beautiful and less visible, when the game stops liberating and begins to educate. And even though basketball is not a fine art—even though it is merely an armature upon which we project the image of our desire, while art purports to embody that image—the fact remains that every style change that basketball has undergone in this century has been motivated by a desire to make the game more joyful, various, and articulate, while nearly every style change in fine art has been, in some way, motivated by the opposite agenda. Thus basketball, which began this century as a pedagogical discipline, concludes it as a much beloved public spectacle, while fine art, which began this century as a much-beloved public spectacle, has ended up where basketball began—in the YMCA or its equivalent—governed rather than liberated by its rules."



"The long-standing reform coalition of players, fans, and professional owners would have doubtless seen to that, since these aesthetes have never aspired to anything else. They have never wanted anything but for their team to win beautifully, to score more points, to play faster, and to equalize the opportunity of taller and shorter players—to privilege improvisation, so that gifted athletes, who must play as a team to win (because the game is so well-designed), might express their unique talents in a visible way. Opposing this coalition of ebullient fops is the patriarchal cult of college-basketball coaches and their university employers, who have always wanted to slow the game down, to govern, to achieve continuity, to ensure security and maintain stability. These academic bureaucrats want a “winning program” and plot to win programmatically, by fitting interchangeable players into pre-assigned “positions” within the “system.” And if this entails compelling gifted athletes to guard little patches of hardwood in static zone defenses and to trot around on offense in repetitive, choreographed patterns until they and their fans slip off into narcoleptic coma, then so be it. That’s the way Coach wants it. Fortunately, almost no one else does; and thus under pressure from the professional game, college basketball today is either an enormously profitable, high-speed moral disgrace or a stolid, cerebral celebration of the coach-as-auteur—which should tell us something about the wedding of art and education.

In professional basketball, however, art wins. Every major rule change in the past sixty years has been instituted to forestall either the Administrator’s Solution (Do nothing and hold on to your advantage) or the Bureaucratic Imperative (Guard your little piece of territory like a mad rat in a hole). The “ten-second rule” that requires a team to advance the ball aggressively, and the “shot-clock rule” that requires a team to shoot the ball within twenty-four seconds of gaining possession of it, have pretty much eliminated the option of holding the ball and doing nothing with it, since, at various points in the history of the game, this simulacrum of college administration has nearly destroyed it.

The “illegal-defense rule” which banned zone defenses, however, did more than save the game. It moved professional basketball into the fluid complexity of post-industrial culture—leaving the college game with its zoned parcels of real estate behind. Since zone defenses were first forbidden in 1946, the rules against them have undergone considerable refinement, but basically they now require that every defensive player on the court defend against another player on the court, anywhere on the court, all the time."



"James Naismith’s Guiding Principles of Basket-Ball, 1891
(Glossed by the author)

1) There must be a ball; it should be large.
(This in prescient expectation of Connie Hawkins and Julius Erving, whose hands would reinvent basketball as profoundly as Jimi Hendrix’s hands reinvented rock-and-roll.)

2) There shall be no running with the ball.
(Thus mitigating the privileges of owning portable property. Extended ownership of the ball is a virtue in football. Possession of the ball in basketball is never ownership; it is always temporary and contingent upon your doing something with it.)

3) No man on either team shall be restricted from getting the ball at any time that it is in play.
(Thus eliminating the job specialization that exists in football, by whose rules only those players in “skill positions” may touch the ball. The rest just help. In basketball there are skills peculiar to each position, but everyone must run, jump, catch, shoot, pass, and defend.)

4) Both teams are to occupy the same area, yet there is to be no personal contact.
(Thus no rigorous territoriality, nor any rewards for violently invading your opponents’ territory unless you score. The model for football is the drama of adjacent nations at war. The model for basketball is the polyglot choreography of urban sidewalks.)

5) The goal shall be horizontal and elevated.
(The most Jeffersonian principle of all: Labor must be matched by aspiration. To score, you must work your way down court, but you must also elevate! Ad astra.)"
davehickey  via:ablerism  1995  basketball  rules  games  nfl  nba  defense  jamesnaismith  play  constrains  aesthetics  americanfootball  football  territoriality  possession  ownership  specialization  generalists  beauty  juliuserving  jimihendrix  bodies  hands  1980  kareemabdul-jabbar  mauricecheeks  fluidity  adaptability  ymca  violence  coaching  barbarism  civility  sports 
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