How sports taught me to think.
The 1994 NBA Finals.
Noam Chomsky once said that he was amazed at the insight and sophistication that the average American brought to the discussion of sports. Chomsky considered this use of brainpower to be a diversion that operated in the service of power. “One of the functions that things like professional sports play,” he said, “is to offer an area to deflect people’s attention from things that matter, so that the people in power can do what matters without public interference.” I guess he is right enough in his way, but for my part I hold with the literary historian Gerald Graff, who has argued that his youthful fascination with sports was not a form of anti-intellectualism, as he once thought. Instead, Graff has come to believe, fandom was a form of intellectual development by other means.
For a long time, I wasn’t merely interested in sports; I was obsessed. I inherited my love of professional basketball from my mother. While I don’t actually remember watching the 1991 NBA Finals with her, I do remember her demonstrating Jordan’s “spectacular” hand switch in our living room. During the Bulls–Knicks series in 1992, she taught me how to pronounce Ewing. We watched the 1993 NBA Playoffs on a small black-and-white television when the color television got burnt. Life got busier after the Knicks broke her heart in the 1994 finals, and so from then on I watched alone, often staying up until midnight in the darkness of our living room with the volume turned down.
It wasn’t just basketball, either. I followed nearly everything. I watched the Super Bowl every year (masochistically rooting for the American Football Conference team without fail) and kept up with hockey and baseball as best as I could. (My aunt, who lived in the Bronx, bought me a Don Mattingly T-shirt, which made me a Yankee fan until I saw the light). Though some in these parts ingested their love of cricket with their breast milk, the first time I actually paid attention to a match was the morning when my father made me watch Brian Lara break Sir Garry Sobers’s record for highest test score.
Access to daily information was limited in those pre-Internet days; only the NBA Playoffs and then, eventually, just the finals were broadcast locally. Avaricious for knowledge, I satiated my interest by diving into the past. I became so well-known at the Central Library in Castries that the desk attendants in the periodicals section would automatically reach for the bound back issues of Sports Illustrated when I showed up. I pored through whatever encyclopedias and almanacs I could find, and traced the Celtics dynasty in old World Book yearbooks I came across in the corner of a tiny school library.
The argumentative skills that I developed discussing ballplayers served for me, as it did for Graff, as an initiation to a higher discourse. Like most of boys of a certain age, I engaged in lengthy disputations about athletes, who, as my parents never failed to point out, didn’t get where they were by hanging around talking about sports. But then I was always headed in a different direction anyway.
For the past decade or so I have been indifferent to the outcome of the World Series, but I remain obsessed with Hall of Fame debates. A friend once suggested that this was because I possessed a strong historical sense. And it’s true: I tend to get inordinately excited whenever I hear blowhards on TV talk about putting the latest great sports accomplishments in historical context. Even though I know they’ll probably get the answers wrong, the questions still excite me. And just as I love debates about the greatest players and plays, so too do I love debates over the greatest writers, and arguments over the literary canon. Does this make me a vulgarian? Almost certainly. But I also remember that Umberto Eco said that the list is the origin of culture. For me, at least, the ranked list was the beginning of reason.
Matthew St. Ville Hunte lives in Saint Lucia. He is one of the Daily’s correspondents.
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