Jul/Aug 2004 Salon

Borges on Basketball

by C.E. Chaffin

As a basketball fan I have played the game, studied the game and occasionally been astonished by it. Yet after 45 years of devotion, just seven years short of a 52-year Mayan calendar (after which the world begins again and the past is forgotten), I recently witnessed an occurrence like no other in memory, namely the miraculous shots of both Tim Duncan and Derek Fisher with one second left in the fifth game of the 2004 Western NBA Semifinals. Neither team should have won in that second, and neither did, as the Great Aristotle (Shaquille O'Neal) observed: "One lucky shot cancels out another." Yet it was a moment for gods, not men, capricious gods who took the liberty of toying with the integrity of my favorite sport, and I mainly blame Kukulkan the Serpent God of the Mayans for this divine travesty. The event sent me into a depression for days, while fans less enamored of the sport's history and integrity merely rejoiced in the spectacle.

As Herr Doktor Schauspiel has commented in his Wissenshaftliche Beobachtungen, 1873, it is not the outcome of a game we enjoy so much as the process, and the very nature of that process is of immense importance because we come to expect, as fans, certain parameters outside of which a game ceases to exist. If every golfer on the planet hit a hole-in-one at the same time, could one believe in golf anymore? No, golf would cease to exist as a game, just as if a soccer goalie were to kick a goal from the distance of his own goal it would inherently violate the statistical probabilities of soccer. As Jose DeSilva observed in his Partidos, Juegos y Jugetes (1944), "Games are not to be toyed with." Likewise the fine historian, Fetterbach, an Americanophile, maintained that if Custer had won the Battle of the Little Big Horn, war would by and large be meaningless. Custer had to lose to make war valid. In a world of infinite probabilities, where an army of monkeys eventually composes King Lear on typewriters, such exceptions may be allowed. But for men's actual lives such speculation is nonsense. Stephen Hawking reminds us the universe is some 13 billion years old; I sincerely doubt that is enough time for our simian brothers to produce Shakespeare. To argue that such an achievement is inevitable, given sufficient time, is to extend the presumption of probability to the furthest infinity, while infinity can always choose to defy probability. "Lies, damned lies, and statistics," as Disraeli said, though some prefer to attribute the quote to Mark Twain, which probability would support, but for that very reason I defy probability and attribute it to Disraeli (who has fewer quotes extant in the language). Further, if humans can only measure time from a beginning, and that time is estimated at 13 billion years, and apes and anthropoids have been around only a short while, who can say that if monkeys and typewriters were transported back to the beginning there would be sufficient time? The anthropic principle declares that the only conceivable reason for the universe to exist is for man to observe it. Idealist philosophers maintain that if there is no consciousness to observe an object or process, it does not exist, as matter has no inherent existence without the notice of mind. As the experiment with the monkeys could only be observed out of time, time would cease in any case (as Eliot wrote, "Only through time is time conquered."). We have no direct knowledge of a consciousness out of time to observe a timeless experiment. Enough to say that Custer had to lose and monkeys will not compose Shakespeare.

I am trying here to establish a background for the miraculous shots alluded to above. These shots appeared to happen, but on closer scrutiny likely did not. Now, they cannot be recalled from history, but as Eliot wrote, "History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors / And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions, / Guides us by vanities. / Think now / She gives when our attention is distracted / And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions / That the giving famishes the craving." If I accept the shots as history, my expectations as a basketball aficionado must be adjusted to label the impossible only the improbable, thus undermining my hard-earned conception of and admiration for the game.

For those who missed the event, with one second left, falling to his left with Shaquille O'Neal leaping above him, Tim Duncan of the Spurs threw in a one-handed shot that was pure net. Then with only 0.4 seconds left, Derek Fisher of the Lakers caught the inbounds pass and in one motion, turning to his left, while suspended in air, sunk an off-balance baseline jumper to win the game. In that moment he was defended by a left-handed Argentinean, Manual Ginobli, who raised his left hand, forgetting that Fisher was a southpaw as well. The reader will easily see my stupefaction in thinking I had witnessed an extraordinary violation of Newton's universe.

To restore my faith in basketball, I feel impelled to return to its origins, though I will attempt to confine my remarks to humans, whose earliest existence has now been pushed back to some 75,000 years ago according to a recent discovery of shells modified as jewelry on the East coast of Africa. In so doing I choose to ignore games lower animals play, though chimps have been known to aim fruit at targets and dolphins can be trained to perform a type of basketball (though it is doubtful they would have invented the game without human intervention—but is it impossible? Could they have tossed squid through apertures in coastal rock?).

To begin at the beginning, what makes a man throw a rock? First, for food, knocking down coconuts or squirrels; second, for aggression or self-defense; third, perhaps on a whim; fourth, for practice, which could eventually produce a competition, or game, separate from hunting. Yet what boy has not set up a bottle on a wall and tried to knock it down from a respectable distance? A similar occupation, "kick the can" is culturally ubiquitous. But when did man conceive of throwing rocks into buckets or kicking cans into goals? Was it the serendipitous miss of a squirrel that first landed a projectile in a squirrel hole? Or is this preoccupation with missiles and receptacles really only one of Freud's phases of psychosexual development, as Johann Wiederstufe maintains in his Untersuchungen im KinderSpiel? (Hamburg Verlag, 1967). Such a foundational question is beyond the scope of my essay and remains a concern for the scholarly anthropologist.

It is commonly assumed that the Mayan and Toltec game of ulama resembles modern basketball, but this game is more a hybrid of soccer and basketball. Its main similarity to the modern form is that a ball had to be thrown through a hoop. Yet neither the hands nor feet could be employed in this endeavor, making scoring nearly impossible. Games ended when the first goal was scored, and the time sufficient to score a goal could presumably extend for days.

The earliest field for what later became ulama (also know as pitz or tlacho) was discovered in Chiapas and dates back to 1400 B.C. It is presumed originally that the game involved advancing a hard, heavy rubber ball across an opponent's line using only elbows, hips, and knees, and perhaps the head, as feet and hands were forbidden. By 800 A.D. the game had evolved into something more elaborate. In fields as large as the one discovered in Chitchen-Itza (545 feet by 273 feet), two stone hoops were erected approximately 20 feet above the field at either end, and two teams strove to toss the ball through the opponents' hoop. The hoop was positioned sideways, like a teacup handle. Teams had as many as eleven players plus a captain, although the magical properties Mayans assigned the number 13, as in their 13 underworlds, and the 13 days left over from their 52-year calendar (very unlucky days, I might add) leads some to speculate that teams were tridekian. Players wore heavy padding around their hips, a pad on their left knee, a sandal on their left foot, and various headdresses and jewelry. (Interesting that both Ginobli and Fisher are left-handed.) Traditionally the losing team was sacrificed to the gods, though some claim the captain of the winning team was offered up as well. Some hold the winning team was given all the spectators' clothes while others maintain the winners could only appropriate the clothes of spectators they actually chased down. The aerobic capacities of these athletes of antiquity must have been stupendous if the latter is true.

It is hard to imagine the level of difficulty afforded by the prospect of tossing a heavy rubber ball of at least three pounds through a small opening 20 feet above without the use of one's hands or feet. That it was done is certain, as carved stone friezes around the ancient ball courts illustrate. What I find most interesting is that the hoop was considered a portal to another world, that if a ball passed through it passed to the gods.

Unless the laws of physics were suspended, it is natural to assume that the ball returned to earth after passing through the hole outside of time, but there are many ways to explain this apparent conundrum to the satisfaction of the Mayans, namely that it returned as a different ball, a transformed ball, or alternatively that it didn't return at all. As demonstrated by Professor Glechenkeit's Hypnotism and Visual Agnosia, it is entirely possible for a room full of people, if properly influenced, not to see an elephant

The Olmecs, who made ulama possible by the introduction of rubber, we know little about, despite the excellent monograph by Jacques Forte describing his dream regression into their ascent over Chiapas (shortly after the discovery of ether, which he used in his experiments). They were a short, squat race with somewhat Negroid features (according to portraits of themselves in sculpture, another art they taught highlanders). We do know the Olmecs introduced rubber and advanced stonemasonry to the central bowl of Mexico, later human sacrifice, so at least they provided the means for a stadium, a ball, and a punishment. They also brought cotton, so they had a hand in the clothes industry that purportedly supplied the victors their prizes.

As the Olmecs were too short to play modern basketball, and there were no donkeys or wheelchairs then in Mexico (the Aztec civilization never invented the wheel and burros were imported from Spain), they couldn't play the mounted forms either. (For an excellent article on mounted forms of basketball, best known in the United States, see Dr. Thorogood's paper on "Basketball without Limits" (American Journal of Eleemosynary Athletic Events, 1956). Their Olmecs' mixed descendants, also of short stature, compensated by making the hoops 20 feet high, eliminating the advantage given to the tall which modern basketball enjoys.

As for construction of the magnificent stadiums as at Chitchen-Itza where the Mayans later played the Toltecs, it was not necessary to raise a bond issue at that time. The natives, no doubt inspired by their bloodthirsty gods, simply worked in shifts while others tended the maize fields. (If fear of human sacrifice had persisted in New World culture, it is conceivable that Los Angeles might have a pro football stadium today.) Why natives would attend the spectacle, knowing the victors would get their clothes (or some of their clothes), a not inconsiderable expense in pre-industrial times, is not known. Perhaps the joy of the losing team's death made the price of admission, namely exiting nearly naked, eminently worth it. Since their world ended every 52 years, these victories or losses were only of an age, therefore likely an event not to be missed. And in thinking about a world that began every 52 years and had no history to speak of when a new cycle began, think of the unfortunate player whose career lasted through this change and so was forced to be re-signed at a rookie salary.

As an authority on early Mexican culture, Dr. Fernando De Gutierrez has said that the problem of the earliest form of beisquetbol was the difficulty of scoring a goal. It is probable that some players died of exhaustion before a goal was ever scored, but it is not known whether replacement players were allowed, or how many players from a 12-man team were allowed on the field at the same time.

Now Dr. Louis Gonzalez, in his excellent monograph "Jugadores Imposible," maintains that there had to be some ceremonial resting period for the inveterate players of ulama; yet it is impossible to tell from the jungle ruins of Yucatan whether one was allowed. He speculates that perhaps the losing team was so exhausted that death was a mercy, and the winners fared little better, facing a long recuperation. I prefer to believe that there were rest periods, but how the crowds were entertained during these intermissions without dancing girls in spandex and acrobats in gorilla costumes dunking from a trampoline raises another question.

Before returning to my central theme, ergo did the shots I thought I witnessed actually happen, and in what time and space, I should mention that the origin of modern basketball has been attributed to Dr. James Naismith (though some claim an apocryphal origin in Kansas prior to Naismith), who nailed up two peach baskets at a YMCA and told players to throw a ball in them, originally a soccer ball, which makes for a nice piece of Jungian synchronicity. Later the basketball attained a diameter of approximately 9" while the hoop was standardized at 18". The basket likewise became an open ring with a net to insure the orderly descent of the ball after a made basket, although with modern athletes I have seen this precaution confounded by dunks that bounced off their own heads and afterwards caromed into the stands.

Let us suppose that the shots did happen, or appeared to happen. But is it not possible that, as Borges points out in his "A New Refutation of Time," speaking in relation to Berkeley and the idealist philosophers: "However, once matter and spirit—which are continuities—are negated, once space too is negated, I do not know with what right we retain that continuity which is time. Outside each perception (real or conjectural) matter does not exist; outside each mental state spirit does not exist; neither does time exist outside each present moment." There is no time because if time is only a succession of moments, there is only the present, and if one daydreams in the present (as Chang-Tsu famously dreamed he was a butterfly) and does not focus on one's surroundings, that time never existed because there was no matter (or space) to confirm it. Heraclitus noted that we can only observe time by what changes.

If we follow Borges' argument thoroughly, it soon becomes apparent that Duncan's miraculous shot over O'Neal, which did not hit the rim but passed through the timeless ring of the Mayans, could not have occurred. If it had hit the rim, it would be a sign the gods had not snatched it. The same can be said of Fisher's shot, adding that he had no time to think about the shot, acting only reflexively, therefore could not observe it, thus the shot did not exist for him, and further, since it also landed perfectly in the net, it is plausible to assume that the basketball again passed to the timeless world of the Mayan gods, and what returned to the court was only a divine simulacrum, or golem of the real ball, just as the ball put in play after Duncan's shot and passed to Fisher could not have been the same ball Duncan launched.

For basketball to be a valid pursuit, these shots could not have occurred. Had they not occurred, the Lakers would have won anyway (as they were leading by one point before the last second). Sadly, after the first miraculous shot the Spurs leaped into each others' arms, certain of victory, while after Fisher's more miraculous answer, they looked as deflated as a punctured basketball in an inner city gutter. Subsequently they lost the next game and the series, but they would have lost the fifth game in any case, which renders both shots meaningless. I speculate it was Kukulkan, in conspiracy with Berkeley, who 13-billion years ago, already out of time, received both shots just as he traditionally did in ulama. To think otherwise is to dishonor soccer, ulama, and basketball.


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