06/08/2012 03:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Gameplan on Basketball and Postmodernism

In my last graduate class ever there was no final paper. Thank god. What we had to do instead was much more fun. And useful. The class focused on theories of rhetoric and postmodernism and we were charged with creating our own theory "map" by which to make sense of these mostly dead French dudes. Springtime is also basketball time and the NBA playoffs go on for almost an entire semester. While perhaps not as intricate as football (a way more modernist game) it does have a level of sophistication that often goes unnoticed. Wired magazine actually compared the two in terms of the high level of improvisation required to excel in both.


In that same vein I did the same with basketball and postmodernism. Reposted below is my "map" of half court, the five positions, and how they link to major theories of the postmodern. Explanations of the positions appear below the map.

Point Guard (Agency)
  • Controls the ball on offense.
  • Facilitates movement.
  • Theorists: Liberal Humanism, Laclau and Mouffe, Kenneth Burke, Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Rajon Rondo.

Shooting Guard (Democracy/Antagonism)

  • Primary scoring option, often most athletic player on floor.
  • Democracy, antagonism, populism serve as the major "so what" endgame issues of these discussions since they focus on what these ideas mean for actual political action. They produce the most visible results.
  • Theorists -- Laclau, Mouffe, Toscano, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant.

Small Forward (Aesthetics/Performativity/Affect)

  • Small Forward is often interchangeable with Shooting Guard; as their positions and body types are similar.
  • Often the most versatile player on the floor. While certainly always already political, the form and approach theorists in this position employ is less defined, more fluid
  • This interchange is similar to the interaction of political emotions and unreason to antagonism in liberal democracy. It is also akin to the interplay of politics and popular culture, especially in the last 30 years.
  • Theorists: Deleuze, Ranciere, Butler, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Lebron James, James Worthy, Sheryle Swoops.

Power Forward (Structuralism)

  • Power Forward is the enforcer position. Less mobile than Guards or Small Forward they nevertheless exert a powerful influence and are often the most physical player in the game.
  • (Post) Structural theorists seek to emphasize both the enabling and constraining impacts of linguistic/discursive/social structures on agency, democratic participation, performativity, mass media, aesthetics, etc.
  • Theorists: Burke, Foucault, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, Karl Malone, Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan.

Note: Agency-structure and point guard-power forward were harder distinctions than you'd think. The tension between them is often reflected in either a player embodying both positions (Magic Johnson) or the two positions working in conjunction with one another (John Stockton/Karl Malone).

Center (Marxism)

  • The center is the largest, most imposing presence on the floor, usually more so than the power forward.
  • Much like classical Marxism, there was an era in the NBA called the "Big Man" era, where the center was the most dominant force on any team. Other positions have taken precedence in recent years, but the Center's necessity to a successful team cannot be overlooked in the present day.
  • Theorists: Marx, Harvey, Braverman, Eagleton, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Lisa Leslie, Dwight Howard.

Running the Postmodern Offense

Basketball is a game of perpetual movement. Unlike baseball or football, gameplay is less linear with players constantly rotating positions on the floor. Furthermore any player can score at any time, relating to Best and Kellner's notion that a "multidimensional critical theory stresses the relative autonomy of each dimension of society and is thus open to a broad range of perspectives on the domains of social reality and how they are constituted and interact." (p. 264). There are two offensive schemes/perspectives that can be helpful to extend this metaphor into how the dimensions emphasized here interact:

Pick and Roll:

Strategy where one player moves toward a teammate's defender to set a "pick," obstructing the defender's ability to follow their original player leaving them free to move about the floor. The obstruction similarly leaves the player setting the pick open, as their defender gets caught up in the confusion as well. For the purposes of postmodernism this can be akin to negotiating tensions between agency and structure, or politics and affect to address criticisms of the limitations of any one perspective. The pick and roll is an offensive strategy predicated on a dialectic tension.

Triangle Offense:

Players on the floor are spaced 15-20 feet apart forming points on an interconnected set of triangles that can constantly move and adapt to the movements of the defense.

"Postmodern theory in general analyzes phenomena mainly from cultural and discursive perspectives, and often in terms of disconnected fragments without grasping systemic interrelationships such as exist between the capitalist state, economy and mass media" (Best and Kellner, 1991, p. 268).

The discursive and cultural perspectives are similar to the roles of the shooting guard and small forward. While perhaps the most versatile and athletic positions in the game, success of these players has always been limited without the presence of strong power forwards and centers. This was as true for point guards like Jerry West in the 1970s as it was for Michael Jordan in the 1990s and Kobe Bryant in the 2000s. All of them have needed bigger, more dominant players down near the basket to make them more effective. The Triangle Offense, in which Jordan and Bryant both participated, relied on an interplay among all positions, but particularly the stronger and more dominant players. Similarly, democratic antagonism, aesthetics and performativity cannot ignore the concerns of materiality and structure in their analyses.

"Multiperspectival analyses do not, moreover, rule out strong and focused analyses of specific phenomena or development of a specific perspective" (Best and Kellner, 1991, p. 270).

Though the Triangle Offense emphasizes multiple player roles and positions in breaking down the defense (or limitations of a particular perspective) it still leaves room for individual matchups between players. In other words it does not discount the role a particularly gifted player may play in exploiting a temporary lapse in the opposing defense. In this sense the "specific phenomena or development of a specific perspective" Best and Kellner argue is akin to the star player (of any position) using the help of their teammates to make a big individual play. Depending on the team, and the specific resistance offered by the other team, this player can be of any position. Traditionally it has been centers and power forward but more recently big plays (theoretical developments) have come from the shooting guards and small forwards.

So there you have it. I'd be interested in any feedback, especially from fans of basketball and philosophy. I'm looking at you Phil Jackson.