What We Talk About When We Talk About Basketball
March 17, 2014 | by Brian Short
There is a lot to love about basketball. There’s the optimistic “spong” sound that a fully inflated ball makes when it bounces, the squeak of sneakers against wood as a player turns on their heels to catch a pass. There are specific feelings—the stab of panic as someone snatches the ball, the workmanlike satisfaction of a nailed jumpshot, and the wave of elation when your team wins their division, as the Michigan men’s basketball team did earlier this month, taking home their first Big Ten Championship since the 1985-1986 season. Michigan will be the number two seed in the Midwest bracket at the NCAA Championship, facing off against Wofford on March 20 at 7:10 P.M.
For Residential College and Comparative Literature Professor Yago Colás, basketball is about all of these things, but it’s perhaps most importantly about its capacity to create community. Colás, a basketball scholar, started playing at age four, and he still finds that basketball has a powerful ability to bring people together.
“I still play basketball as often as I can,” Colás says. “I might be traveling somewhere but I can find a playground and there will be people I’ve never met before and will maybe never see again, but we can immediately form a bond. Using the codes of pickup basketball, we come together. That’s really valuable to me.”
This fall, Colás will teach a course called Global Sports Cultures during the College of LSA’s “Sports and the Academy” theme semester. The class will examine the various ways that sports is personally, communally, and financially valuable all over the world, using examples that even casual fans will recognize—Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Bend It Like Beckham—as jumping-off points to discuss the play, rules, and business of sports in different cultures.
And there are plenty of differences. The NBA and basketball have achieved commercial success outside of the United States, for example, while the NFL and American football haven’t. Colás wants students to think critically about why these differences exist and what they mean, to discuss sports “on a deeper level than you get sitting at a sports bar.”
“For me, it starts with stories,” Colás says. “Sports is a kind of machine that generates all kinds of things, including money, but it also generates stories. And the stories that it generates, stories that we consume and repeat, tell us a lot about ourselves and our culture.”
Taking Your Shot
Colás began playing basketball competitively in junior high. Born to Spanish immigrant parents and raised in the Midwest, sports were a way to assimilate, Colás says.
“Sports were a way to feel like other American kids and to feel, myself, American,” he says.
Colás played point guard on the basketball team and, much later as an adult, he noticed how his relationship to his position on the court mirrored elements of his personality and reinforced both valuable and challenging aspects of his assimilation experience.
“There was always a certain unselfishness in being point guard, an attentiveness to the needs of others, and an ability to see large-scale dynamics and try to manage them. Those were the good points. The downside—and this isn’t the only way to be a point guard, but it’s the way I was one—is a lack of self-assertiveness, excessive deferment, and an imbalance in the relationship between self and group.
“You have to realize that there are times you have to get your own shot, that that’s the best thing that you can do for yourself and for your team.”
Thinking about his role in sports both as a participant and as a viewer allowed Colás to enlarge his sense of who he is. That understanding is something he hopes to pass on to his students.
“As individuals, we are, in a certain sense of the word, made of stories,” Colás says. “We have the capacity to learn and change our own stories by looking at how stories work, what makes them persuasive, how they influence our behavior, how they shape the way we see things. Stories are always necessarily, unavoidably selective. We have to ask ourselves what values are driving those selections for stories that we tell about ourselves and about others.
“Everyone can benefit from that kind of self-knowledge.”
Cover photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography. Top photo: Yago Colás and Jimmy King. Courtesy of Yago Colás.