Where Kant Meets Kareem

Authors of "Basketball and Philosophy" expound on what makes the sport ripe for analytical discussion, and what to make of Indiana University's coaching turmoil.
February 26, 2008

"It's a thinking man's game."

You'll hear that line used to describe any number of sports. A new book is out that makes the case for basketball, and offers up an analytic view of some of the game's finer points.

Basketball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Paint, the paper-bound version of which was recently published by The University Press of Kentucky, is a nearly 300-page collection of essays about the intersection between sport and the mind. Edited by Jerry L. Walls, a professor of philosophy and religion at Asbury Theological Seminary, and Gregory Bassham, a professor of philosophy at King's College, in Pennsylvania, the book gets contributions from what the editors call "a dream team of 26 basketball fans, most of whom also happen to be philosophers." (Among them is Myles Brand, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.)

Essayists look at questions such as "How should you deal with strategic cheaters in pickup basketball?" and "Why does a player shoot well in warm-ups but struggle during live action?"

Given that Indiana is considered a birthplace of basketball, and that the state's flagship institution, Indiana University, has been embroiled in a scandal that involves Kelvin Sampson, the men's basketball coach who recently resigned under pressure, it seemed only fitting to start our Q&A session with Walls and Bassham with a discussion of the Hoosiers.

Q: Put yourselves in the place of Rick Greenspan and Michael McRobbie, Indiana University’s director of athletics and president, respectively. In the Sampson case, what philosophical issues would you consider? What do you owe your players, your institution, your fans, yourselves?

A: (Walls) The fundamental issue here is the nature of integrity. It was a compromise of integrity that got Indiana into this jam in the first place. When they hired Sampson, they hired a guy they knew had cheated in the recent past and who also had a low graduation rate for his players. For the long term good of the university, its basketball program and its fans, they need to acknowledge their mistake and make a strong statement that they will not tolerate going further down the road of cheating and scandal, even if it costs them in terms of winning games this season and beyond. The players may end up paying a price in terms of winning basketball games -- that remains to be seen -- but they will have gained a larger life lesson that will serve them in years to come if they have been paying attention. Perhaps the basic issue here is whether true success is compatible with cheating. The great moralists would say No, and so would the truly great coaches and players. Indiana has also had a reputation for saying No in a resounding fashion.

I think the recent decisions at Indiana reflect a commitment to renew that reputation. While the university may have been reluctant initially to face up to the scandal forthrightly, they did the right thing in removing Sampson. Integrity does not require perfection, but it does require accountability and correction when serious breaches occur.

Q: Your book points out that residents of Indiana have long been enamored with basketball. How do fans form a collective identity around a basketball program that has been tainted by scandal -- especially when the community in this case was torn over how the situation should have been handled?

A: (Walls) Well, for a start, the program has to be seen in light of its longer history that has been interwoven for decades now with the culture of Indiana. The collective identity must include all these generations of fans and the continuities and connections that have created the living tradition that is Indiana basketball. Collective identity does not require unanimity but it does require loyalty and pride. The pride has no doubt taken a significant hit with recent events and perhaps some of the loyalty, too. But if errors are forthrightly owned and discipline accepted, fans can properly view the scandal as an aberration in a program that has a well deserved reputation for putting honor ahead of winning at all costs.

The taint will not go away overnight, but it should not be viewed as more definitive of the program than the years of compliance, and the more recent measures taken to rectify errors. Indeed, these recent events could well have the effect of strengthening the commitment to maintain honor and integrity in the program and enhance the long term collective identity it has provided its fans.

Q: Dr. Walls, in your chapter, “The Wizard versus the general: Why Bob Knight is a greater coach than John Wooden,” you refer to yourself as an outspoken Knight fan. You argue that it’s more impressive to succeed if one does so with comparatively fewer resources at one’s disposal (as you say Knight did); and that success is greater if it is achieved in a way that is morally honorable. You note that Knight’s program was never hit with NCAA sanctions -- though he attracted much criticism for his temper (both on and off the court) -- while citing allegations that Wooden allowed boosters to pay recruits at UCLA. Does this analysis tend to get you in trouble?

A: Some of the most heated basketball arguments I have been a part of have been generated by my outspoken support of the General. One of my friends calls him the antichrist and several think it odd, to put it mildly, that a seminary professor is such an outspoken fan of a guy who obviously offends their sensibilities. Many of these same people hold Wooden up as a model to be emulated and suggest Knight should try to be more like him. The reaction has been equally intense when I challenge their picture of Wooden.... Angry denial has been the common reaction.

I think the contrast between the way Wooden is perceived and the way Knight is perceived is a telling indicator of the fact that we are more a culture of personality than of character. That is, we place more value on certain personality traits than we do on core matters of character. If someone has a winsome personality and a winning record, we are often willing to look the other way at cheating.

This is at the heart of the mindset that led to the recent problems at Indiana. For if Wooden did indeed cheat in the way widely alleged, and yet is revered as an icon of the game, surely this will tempt other coaches to think their cheating will be tolerated if they win enough and behave publicly with proper decorum. In comparing him with the General, I do not of course deny that Knight also has his faults. But Knight’s foibles do not detract from the very integrity of the game in the way that cheating does, especially if one re-wrote the record book while doing so.

Q: Is there a quality inherent to basketball that makes it more ripe for philosophical conversation than, say, baseball or football?

A: (Walls) Well, as we point out in our book, Dr James Naismith, the minister who invented the game, was a philosophy major in college. So that perhaps gives hoops pride of place as the thinking fan’s game. And the fact that a minister invented it perhaps also explains why many fans follow it with something bordering on religious devotion. Basketball, perhaps more than football and baseball, is a game where superior strategy and intelligent execution can triumph over sheer athletic skill and speed. It is a game of constant action requiring split second decisions, any one of which may change the final outcome. Football depends crucially on brute strength, especially in the line. It is hard to win in football if you lose the battle of the line. While basketball is also in its own way a game of strength and speed, it does not depend on these to the same extent as football. So perhaps that fact also gives hoops an edge as a sport requiring thought and analysis. But there are interesting philosophical issues raised by all three sports.

(Bassham) Each sport has unique features that lend themselves to reflective analysis. [Bassham has contributed to a book on baseball and philosophy.] In baseball, for example, statistics provide endless fodder for discussions of comparative greatness. In basketball, the importance of teamwork leads to lots of interesting debates, particularly in a culture like ours that tends to valorize self-expression and individual achievement. There is also, I think, a kind of Zen-like artistry to basketball that makes it a joy to watch and affects us at deeper levels than the verbalizing intellect. That kind of interiority can itself provoke reflection, because we struggle to articulate what we experience in non-verbal modes of awareness.

Q: It seems fitting that The University Press of Kentucky has published the book, given the institution’s rich history in the sport. Were you concerned about finding an academic press that would accept the notion of a book about philosophy and basketball?

A: (Walls) Kentucky is one of the states where basketball is deeply embedded in the culture, so it was indeed a natural fit. Analysis of pop culture is increasingly recognized as a fruitful field of study and a mine of valuable insight, and basketball is certainly as deserving of attention as other elements of pop culture.

(Bassham) We originally shopped the book around at commercial presses, but had no takers. And yes, we did wonder if any academic press would be interested in a book that, number one, is frequently jokey and irreverent, and number two, is aimed at least as much at general readers as it is at academics. So we were delighted when University Press of Kentucky accepted the book.

Q: Do you find that many professors are closet basketball fans?

A: (Walls) Well, many of my colleagues are fans but they are not closet fans, they are quite open about it! Even in Kentucky, however, some are surprised that a philosophy professor is as much as a fan as I am. I did a TV show for a local station when our book first came out and the host seemed surprised when I told him that I followed recruiting on the internet. I’m not sure how many are this serious, but I know some of my colleagues are.

Q: The book includes a chapter on basketball and masculinity, and one about how people perceive women’s basketball. But for the most part, it seems more focused on the philosophy behind game tactics, leadership, etc. Did you consider more attention to social and cultural issues?

A: (Bassham) We knew that most of our readers would be basketball fans first and budding philosophers second. So what we were looking for, first and foremost, were high-impact essays that would tap into readers’ love for the game. The book does look at social and cultural aspects of hoops, particularly in the chapters on race, gender and community. But our hope was to engage readers at a personal and existential level.

Q: One chapter identifies the overlap in successful coaches’ philosophies: 1) Set demanding goals, 2) make hard work your passion, 3) establish good habits, 4) be persistent, 5) learn from adversity, 6) put the team before yourself. All of those would seem to apply to philosophies on how to get ahead in academe -- except for, perhaps, the last one.

A: (Bassham) I guess that depends on what “get ahead” means. If your vision of academic success is solely one of individual achievement (prestige, perks, sabbaticals at the Sorbonne), being a team player might not be the best idea. You’d be better off giving short shrift to teaching and pushing off committee work to junior colleagues. But most academics don’t think of success that narrowly. Being a team player in academia means working for shared standards of excellence and carrying one’s fair share of the load. To paraphrase Coach Dale in the film "Hoosiers," academics who do that are winners in my book.


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