32 Paragraphs about Basketball Story Composition aka From John Brown's Navel to the Still Point of the Turning Game Via Allen Field House and Environs
(…I tried to post this over at CJOnline in response to a catch-all story @Jesse-Newell had written after the KU defeat of New Mexico State. Alas, they have a word limit and this apparently was too long for there. So, I am posting it here instead. Without putting too fine a point on it, it is long and arcane, even for me. )
…JNew, I am glad to see you write this kind of catch-all story after the game. Make this an every game thing, if time and resources permit. It is a good way to brain dump odds and ends and I have always liked this kind of story the most, and the best, of all basketball stories. It takes more technique to do well than other kinds of stories, but its easier to do in a hurry on the days, when there isn’t time to reach for the stars; i.e., when one is in the bottom third of Self’s performance distribution.
So much of what happens around a game occurs in little dramas and comedies and documentaries. When I read this story this completes the quadratic, i.e., the second hand experience of a game in four aspects–game story, star story, coach story, and story of miscellany. I am a miscellany guy. God is not in the details for me. Details are the pieces of a process for me. God is in the miscellany. Miscellany are the elements, often independent, sometimes not, occurring in a kind of compositional field of gravitation around some central process in our everyday events of interest.
Sports coverage should be un-obviously like the John Steuart Curry mural of John Brown in the Capitol Building in Topeka. The whole mural is the big picture. John Brown is the star story. In the present, when we are so star oriented, we think John Brown is what is important. But in classical composition, everything is important. John Brown really exists in the mural as a focal point of a great upheaval of story and history. And he is not even at the center, his unseen navel is. A case might be made for something slightly lower, but in the interest of decorum, and hopefulness about truth the artist’s intent, I will work here with navel. 😇
Classical composition in painting often strives for nothing at the center and all the elements exist in a kind of static mobile arranged around that nothing at the center. There are lots of more subtle tricks going on, but that is the pivotal essence. Most effective composition, whether in figurative, or abstract painting, in film or TV, or narrative history and fiction and reporting, usually has, or should have, a focal mid point of nothing around which everything coheres.
In writing, the journalism schools teach you either to do the inverted pyramid, or the three act narrative structure (some times a five act without a tip of the hat to Elizabethan dramatists and earlier ones I probably have forgotten), or a hybrid of both, to compose your stories. They always try to get you to start with a lead until you feel a flow, and then it is supposed to unfold from there and kind of tell itself, when you get proficient at it. Once in awhile they teach you to string some beads from a lead to a closer, or something like that. There are probably other newer gimmicks, since the dark ages, when I was taught.
These gimmicks are better than nothing, but they are not usually connected to any deep, solid cultural-philosophical foundation–just the shifting sands of time management expedience and the efficacy of emulating techniques that produce story forms that readers are conditioned to, and so used to, reading easily. These are good, practical objectives. But to really connect with a subject, to build word edifices, or buildings for it, it helps to set footers and infrastructures a little deeper, not just copy the above ground frame and siding of story telling technique.
Every writer has to write his own way–I suppose–not so much because you want to, but rather because there is no other way–and has to get that first draft out his own way. But the real trick–and there is nothing at all wrong with tricks–is to “see”, or at least sense, a center point from the moment you start–however you actually write. Writers benefit from a bit of painter’s technique. Painters benefit from a little bit of writer’s technique. It can be the center point of the narrative, or it can be the center point of the meaning you aspire to make sense of and communicate.
These stories of the miscellany around the game can be beautifully composed when a center point is seen and written around. The readers never see it. Most of the writers and editors never see it. But its always there in good writing.
Readers think they are just reading odds and ends in a story of miscellany. But the center point is what the miscellany all coheres around–not a mid point of an item of miscellany itself. Its a bit paradoxical that the center point of something is nothing. But eastern cultures and their eastern philosophical embrace of paradox have nothing on we westerners and our embrace of the same. We are just so used to our ways of embracing paradox, even just complete enigma, that we don’t even notice that we do it as a matter of fact.
John Brown’s navel conceals nothing at the center of the mural. Without meaning to sound pedantic, it is the navel of the mural’s universe. Navels, paradoxically, are, once something is born, useless nothings holding the center of things together betraying origins that are now unknown, or beyond comprehension. Thus they are–with no little paradox and irony–known unknowns. Curry obviously had a great and ironic sense of humor, as well as a profound mind to go with his good taste, deft hand, keen sensitivity, and great generosity of spirit.
Curry is careful to balance his elements around the unseen navel under John Brown’s tunic (or something close) and to make the elements so interesting that we cannoy really look more than briefly at the navel of John Brown under his tunic, even when we try, because, well, it is a hidden nothing at the center of so much exciting stuff–action scenes of tornadoes, civil war skirmishing, etc.
Of course, the center, the unseen navel, is at the same time the still point of the turning world, as T.S. Eliot once wrote in “The Four Quartets,” which was a long, four part poem arranged around the nothing at the center of four parts–four literary beads on a string emulating a musical experience–each individually and together emulating the forms and tones of piece of chamber music played by a symbolic quartet that isn’t there. Despite being from Missouri, Eliot, like Allen, had some talent. There is no fifth bead, no fifth quartet. It doesn’t even look, or feel right, to write “fifth quartet.”
Overtimes in basketball, despite their dramas, provoke a similar dissonance to fifth quartet. Something perfectly balanced, a game with two halves, has not resolved elegantly, so it must be resolved in a coarse, expedient, but unfortunately necessary way–a “5” minute overtime. Notice it is NOT a 4 minute overtime. 4 would signal another quaternity.
An overtime in basketball is a recognition that error can plague even the greatest game ever invented. So, imperfection in basketball is a given, as sin is in Catholicism.
Introducing some subjectivity here, I dislike overtimes, about as much as I dislike sin, though winning and going to heaven are relieving ointments. Two overtimes make me feel much more harmonious. And would make me feel even more harmonious were they 4 minutes long instead of the aesthetically inharmonious, and so vulgar, 5. But I digress.
T.S. Eliot could easily have written a fifth quartet, but then there would have been something at the center, and that wouldn’t have been organic to either his theme, or his composition–the still point of the turning world–at the center of the quaternity. This nothing at the center with elements arranged in coherence around them connects forms (and their meanings) organically to the idea of a four sided frame with an illusion of a possibility at its center…
…(Note: I know people hate this word, “organic” but it really is a useful word to reflect that form itself can communicate meaning as well as meaning can communicate meaning–that an organ’s form can, actually cannot help but, contribute to its function, if you will.)
And isn’t basketball an illusion of a human possibility for play and teamwork enabled at the center of a rectilinear court that is a four-sided frame, a quaternity?
A game of basketball within the black lines hints at a human possibility in much the same way that Curry’s painting hints, not just at a historical event, but at an eternal human possibility at the center of an imposed frame–sometimes an intolerable one.
But there are, after all, multiple reasons why paintings are so often square. The 4-sided form echoes our rectilinear walls, of course and humans like those kind of harmonious echoes. And if you’ve ever measured twice and cut once to build something out of wood, you know how much easier it is to work in square forms than in circular ones. But, regardless of ease of use, the square form is inescapably conveys a quaternity, whether one wishes it to, or not.
Quaternity is a very profound concept in western culture–just as profound as the interlocking circle is in eastern culture. And both cultures make use of the quaternity, and the circle, so we can infer that both have not only profound practical utilities, but also may be used to communicate profound meanings, or at the very least betray the structures of human logic that constrain and determine our tendencies in thought and action in constructing our games, also.
I want to communicate a bit more about about rectilinearity and its philosophical equivalent–quaternity-- and the temporal organization of a basketball game, in order to build a small bridge between the game of basketball and writing about the game of basketball.
Basketball games are arranged in two halves around a nothing cloaked in a halftime in the middle. Those halves in high school are composed of quarters, which makes the quaternity manifest. In college ball, the quarters are suppressed even though the action on the floor, the coaching substitutions and strategies, and the commercial breaks, all operate in recognition of an implicit half way mark of each half, i.e., as if the ten minute mark were a buried bench mark at the center of each half–as if it were a buried brass cap bench mark at the meeting point of four square townships in a grid coordinate survey system overlain not on America, or the earth, but on the temporal form of a basketball game.
The court is itself a quaternity, so are the backboards and free throw lanes. The center circle fulfills, if you will, the function of John Brown’s navel. Note, what I am doing here is not telling the “meaning” of what a poet or novelist told in the form of his or her story, which is one of the stupider aspects of literary academics at any level of education to engage in. I am rather pointing out the obvious, but usually overlooked “construction” of the court and the game. You make of the meaning of it what you will.
To continue, on James Naismith court, the enormous Jayhawk obscures the center circle that our minds never the less know to be buried there. Thus the mythical bird, like the mythical John Brown, holds at its center the navel of basketball’s universe of action, at least for us Jayhawks. Again, this is not an interpretation meaning. It is a description of the construction of the court. And the free throw circles are symmetric echoes of that great navel center circle that is itself painted at the center of the whole basketball mural that is James Naismith Court and environs (a kind of Howth Castle and environs once crafted by another Jimmy, James Joyce, in a myth of a commodius vicus along a river of paradoxically eternal return to…what I think as the greatest game ever invented…now you may justly accuse me of waxing a bit poetic.).
We think basketball is just a game with lines arbitrarily drawn to give boys something to do, and so keep them out of trouble, on a winter afternoon, or eve. And while it IS first and foremost born of that and so at least that, it is something more–not by interpretation but by simple description of its elements of construction and what the elements actually do mean in our culture, whether Naismith, or others after him, adding this line, or that stripe, gave a whit of a thought to their cultural functions, and meanings, or not.
The game’s forms, and their elegant geometric simplicities, which continue outward into Allen Field House’s geometric and engineered forms, are composed, not just by Naismith’s rules, but by the accrued modifications to the game, and, in turn, that composition unavoidably is an externalization of the logical structure of human minds at work and at play, in an economy of costs and benefits, or wishing to be; this is the cultural and intellectual importance of sport underlying its pursuit of athletic excellence, its sporting drama, its entertainment value, its power to bind culture with myth and athletic drama, and its capacity for keeping boys and girls out of trouble on a winter day, or eve.
These forms do not communicate meaning so much as structure of mind. Like a great Gothic cathedral expresses not so much meaning of Christianity as theology, as it reveals the mind’s logical structure operating, when it chooses to believe in a Christian world view, so too does our Allen Field House and its court within reveal the logical structure of minds with a world view of competition and play.
But the word meaning is hardly a bad, or irrelevant word to make use of in these remarks either.
This is the structural “meaning” of sport underlying its dynamics of performance (i.e., there is meaning in the game that is played in the structures of rules, courts, fields, arenas and stadia). There is meaning in the shell it operates in and leaves behind, like a crumbling Roman coliseum, or a jungle surrounded Meso-American Ball court in Chichen Itza, when a culture, or civilization, recedes, or dies, and another preserves those structures. And its informing power of structure and myth is working on and informing coaches, players, fans, and everyone else involved with sport whether they grasp it or not, without reflection and thought.
A sports journalist that consciously worked at emulating these underlying forms in his writing, especially in his composition, while taking care not to get caught with his technique showing, could make a great composition to sports journalism and to culture…for all deeply harmonious and organic forms of expression are embraced without deception and inspite of it. The truth…is…the truth.
In form and in fact, (Note…
@jaybate-1.0 Should’ve been a 4 part mini-series.
Maybe we can get someone to do it.
Some years back, I watched a several part series called “Cathedral,” by a British scholar, if I recall correctly. He studied the gothic cathedral in its era of Christendom. He likened a great Gothic Cathedral to major public works undertaking, like the space program, or the Panama Canal, or a great city subway system. The project not only was a product of a Christian world view, but it was a economic program to jump start a city that would be strategically beneficial to nurture. It was a project that bound generations together. It was a project that triggered the development of new technological advancements that could then trickle down to the private sector so to speak. And it was a crowning achievement of sacred beauty that all the community could take pride in and be ordered by. It was even a kind of anchor store in an urban regional mall. He said Gothic cathedrals were one one of the earliest intentional Mixed Use developments. I always admired Gothic cathedrals, but this show made me like them and relate to them more. I had a similar experience when I realized the the Great Pyramid, all of the pyramids, of Egypt, were not only these great tombs and works of architectural art, but also surveying bench marks and seasonal weather forecasting tools to be used in conjunctions with the sun and stars. It made them purposeful in a diversified, and human way that made them less ominous and more human.
I have a hunch someone could do exactly what you suggest with the modern area and stadium and tracking its evolution back some to Rome.
Who knows? Maybe its already been done.
@jaybate-1.0 Seriously, that was awesome. I wish you had been my English/Literature teacher in high school. I loved your references from sports and religion to aesthetics, poetry and philosophy. Inspiring stuff Jaybate, truly. Where’s that book of yours?
On to the impending game today. I will just say this; KU and WSU will both play tough and bring their A games. This is more than just an NCAA game for the sweet 16. This is in-state bragging rights and 22 years of built up tensions between the programs, albeit most of it coming within the last couple years. Both teams will come out and compete hard and leave it on the court. Win or lose this game, I am proud to be a Jayhawk today.
You have nailed the essense of this game. Thx.
Your compliment is very kind, too. Thank you.
There is so much to be learned from the greatest game ever invented.
Beat Marshall’s Munchkins.