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Tomgram: Lewis Lapham, The Playing Field as Battlefield

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Check out a new feature at the site. As many of you are aware, Timothy MacBain is producing a TomCast audio interview a week for this site. (Next in line: a best of TomCast compilation.) You can now find a new "Podcast" icon for them at the TD main screen -- just scroll down the right column to find it. If you click on it, you'll go to MacBain's interviews at the iTunes store, which can be downloaded to your iPod or MP3 player for free. There is an added advantage for us in this. As you know, if you click on any TomDispatch book cover or book link at the site, go to Amazon.com, and buy a book (or anything else), we get a modest cut of your purchase at no cost to you. Similarly, if you now click on that new icon to the iTunes store and buy anything there, we get a similar deal. It's an easy way to contribute painlessly to this site, if you use either venue anyway.

Let me also make a small listening recommendation. For any of you who are Studs Terkel fans, don't miss Sydney Lewis's "Working with Studs," a loving, touching memorial to our greatest listener (who never stopped talking). It's how he was -- by those, including me, who at one point or another worked with him.

Now, read Andy Kroll's intro to Lewis Lapham's latest. One of my favorite writers, Lapham is fast becoming a TD regular, this time focusing on sports as another battlefield in American life. It's also the introductory essay for the latest issue of Lapham's Quarterly, the most inventive new magazine I've seen in a while. Tom]

When I think about John Wooden, the greatest basketball coach in the game's 119-year history, the player who comes to mind, oddly enough, is Steve Patterson. A 6'9" center, industrious and tough on the glass, he was best known as a trivia question: Who played center between the reigns of two UCLA legends, Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton? Nevertheless, Patterson was remarkable. Under Wooden, he won three NCAA championships and three Pacific-8 conference titles, losing only three times in 90 games. His 87th victory, the 1971 championship against Villanova, was his finest -- 29 points, eight rebounds, four assists. After Wooden, Patterson spent five years playing in the National Basketball Association, but found pro-ball a letdown and a kind of purgatory.

He once described Wooden's coaching style like this: "The practices were choreographed like a ballet. The sharp cuts, the sounds of sneakers squeaking on the wood floor, the ball popping, Coach Wooden's voice echoing in the Pavilion, the feeling of harmony -- it was as close to perfection as you can imagine."

On Friday, Wooden died. He was 99.

I grew up in a family of Wooden acolytes. I've read his many books and can recite his aphorisms -- "Be quick, but don't hurry." "Make each day your masterpiece." -- at the drop of a hat. I've kept a copy of his famous Pyramid of Success with me since I was young and yet I find that I don't feel sad about his death. He lived long, was sharp till the end, achieved great success, and taught generations of students and athletes.

What's troubling is the game Wooden leaves behind. With its vulture coaches, billion-dollar TV deals, and corporate sheen, college basketball looks increasingly indistinguishable from the NBA that so disappointed Patterson (or worse). Wooden spent a lifetime teaching people how to compete and be true to the game, yet his lessons seem lost on the John Caliparis and Kelvin Sampsons of today. Wooden stayed at UCLA for 27 years; rare nowadays is the coach who bothers to stick around anywhere in an era of glitzier, more lucrative offers.

Given the money involved, recruiting scandals are now ubiquitous, the latest accusations being those leveled against that powerhouse, the University of Connecticut, and its head coach John Calhoun. In 2010, coaches like Wooden don't really preside over the game at all. The people who run the show are the ones with the deepest pockets, the boosters and sponsors, the media executives who inked the $10.8 billion, 14-year deal between Turner Broadcasting and CBS to televise the NCAA men's March Madness tournament.

Indeed, as Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper's Magazine, writes, much of the sporting world has become a cash-flush, slickly packaged spectacle, a modern circus for today's Romans. Lapham's essay introduces the new issue of Lapham's Quarterly, a gem of a magazine that unites around a single topic the most provocative, original voices in history. (You can subscribe to it by clicking here.) LQ's new issue is sport-themed, and we thank that magazine's editors for allowing us to preview Lapham's essay at TomDispatch. Andy

Field of Dreams
The CIA & Me & Other Adventures in American Sports

By Lewis Lapham

[This essay appears in "Sports & Games," the Summer 2010 issue ofLapham's Quarterly and is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]

"The space of play and the space of thought are the two theaters of freedom." -- Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

Rosenstock-Huessy was a German army officer in World War I, afterward a professor of medieval law in Breslau until the Nazis acquired the franchise in 1933. Signed for the next year's season by Harvard University to teach undergraduates the rudiments of Western civilization, he soon noticed that few of them grasped what he was trying to say, couldn't square the lines of thought with the circle of their emotions. To overcome the difficulties the professor recast his lectures in the idiom of sports and games, the only world, he said, "in which the American student really has confidence" this world encompasses all of his virtues and experiences, affections and interests."

True then, even truer now, not only of college students but of every loyal American, naturalized or native-born, for whom sport is the soul of democracy, the field of dreams on which they come to bat, cut a deal, catch a break, stay the course, run out the clock. It is with the metaphor of sport that we forge an American consciousness, locate a national identity, replay our history, book the odds on a winning or a losing future. What other sets of reference do we share in common if not the ones that hold true to form in the fourth quarter as in the first, away and at home, inside and outside the ropes?

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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