Learn about basketball culture, for credit

December, 28, 2010
12/28/10
6:11
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Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
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When I stumbled across a real life college course called “Basketball Culture” I thought to myself: where was this class when I was slogging through Pre-Modern Japanese History?

Not many college courses allow hoop-heads the opportunity to study the game they love for credit. But if you are an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, you could be a couple weeks away from spending the upcoming semester doing just that with Dr. Santiago Colás.

For those readers who might question the worth of basketball culture as a focus of higher learning, consider this from Dr. Colás:
“The humanities, despite its aspirations to timelessness, obviously reflects the world around it. Basketball has never been so popular as it is now...Not that anyone is telling me what to teach, but if I had to get approval, it would be easy to pitch a hoops course in terms of race, the globalization of American culture, gender and the WNBA, etc. In relating to basketball we can (and inevitably do) take experiences and ideas we have of race, class, gender, and geography, and also of selflessness and selfishness, about individual and collective, the list goes on and on -- and we shape them into stories."

One imagines a curriculum chalked full of coursework you couldn’t wait to complete. If one week the assignment is reading excerpts from Phil Jackson’s philosophical manifesto, Sacred Hoops, the next week might focus on Doctor J’s classic study of race, teamwork, and astrology-guided team-building: The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh. The scene in which the Doctor wins over his love interest with a slow-mo dunk-porn montage would serve as a particularly striking example of how style, grace and the high flying finish are valued: chicks dig dunks.

One of these documents was written by perhaps the game’s greatest living sage, the other is a discoliscious borderline-blacksploitation fantasy. However both works provide fertile ground for discussions about hoops culture.

To encompass as many of basketball culture's enormously various manifestations, the Professor (no, not this one) plans to to structure the course historically and then by theme.
“I’ll probably use Free Darko’s history of the game as the structuring textbook since I think their periodizing schema is as good as any. Then, within each of those periods, I’ll emphasize and track certain key areas of tension: for example, playground vs. school vs. pro league, individual expression vs. collective results, race, ethnicity, and globalization.”

Indeed! We usually internalize these basketball narratives through informal means: reading about hoops when we have the time, watching when we can, playing when it’s nice out. But Colás’s class will provide form to the myriad ways basketball touches our lives.
“I’d like the students in my basketball course, above all, to begin to see how they are shaping -- often unconsciously -- the “raw” material of their basketball experiences and interests into meaningful stories that do some sort of work for them in their lives.”

Often, we consider the time we spend thinking about and interacting with professional sports to be a diversion from the concerns of real life. But basketball culture, just like the culture of all popular art and entertainment is not degraded by its link to recreation--there is no such thing as meaninglessness with regards to culture. In fact, it is by critically evaluating the moments when we are unconsciously enjoying a top 40 song or commenting on the number of overlapping tattoos on Monta Ellis’s arms that we can reveal and understand what drives our broader cultural beliefs. In doing so, I imagine Dr. Colás’s students will learn not only how their experiences forms and are formed by basketball culture, but how to make the tools of cultural creation their own.

Click here to check out Santiago's excellent basketball blog, Go Yago!
Beckley Mason is an NBA contributor for ESPN.com.

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