30 May 2013

B.S. About Memphis, MLK, and the NBA

By Shamus
Charlotte, NC

“I didn’t know that much about Memphis, but I didn’t realize the effect that that shooting had on that city.... You know, in Dallas, which was also affected by JFK, obviously, but they had the Cowboys... it’s a big city, they had Dallas the TV show... the city eventually had its own identity that went beyond that. And then the JFK assassination turned into something else and ‘Who did it?’ and people would go there to see where he [was] killed and to figure out if it was Lee Harvey Oswald or somebody else and that became kind of its own part. And that... with Martin Luther King none of that stuff happened. It was just like this sad, somber place, and what we found out was like, you know, at one point they almost knocked down that hotel because Memphis just wanted to get away from it. ‘We gotta move on... we gotta get away from this.’ And then a lot of people fought to keep it. And now they’ve kind of embraced it, but I think from what we, we... people we talked to [and] stuff we read, like, the shooting kind of set the tone for how the city thinks about stuff. Like even... we were at Game 3, right? Great crowd. They fall behind, and the whole crowd got tense. Like it was like, it was like ‘Oh, no, something bad’s gonna happen.’ And I think it starts from that shooting and it’s just that mindset they have.”



That was Bill Simmons, commenting on the 5/29/13 episode of his “B.S. Report” podcast about the city of Memphis and his recent experience there while watching San Antonio Spurs complete its sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals.

Out of context, the comment reads exceedingly strangely, with Simmons making broad, incomplete gestures about cities’ personalities being shaped by historical events and their sports teams, then drawing what seems like a jarring link between civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. being shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968 and the behavior of the crowd at a basketball game taking place at the FexEd Forum in Memphis on May 25, 2013.

In context, the observation is still pretty odd, although perhaps a little more understandable.

Simmons’s podcast often features the sportswriter and television analyst engaging in lengthy conversations with guests or co-hosts, usually without any constraints either of time or subject matter. Indeed, the opening disclaimer for the show suggests the listener be prepared for pretty much anything: “The ‘B.S. Report’ is a free-flowing conversation that occasionally touches on mature subjects.”

That adjective “free-flowing” alludes both to style and content. Stylistically, shows’ interviews and discussions are often unstructured and sometimes even whimsically governed by unpredictable chains of association suggested by Simmons and others. In terms of content, Simmons has become famous for popularizing a purposefully blinkered “fan perspective” to sports reporting, with his podcasts and similarly lengthy columns unashamedly presenting an especially subjective take on the sports world.

The Grantland website, an offshoot of ESPN over which Simmons presides, has become a hub of sorts around which many different writers have gathered over the last few years to share their own unique perspectives on sports and popular culture. With Simmons leading by example, many who contribute to the site in the form of columns and podcasts likewise frequently indulge in attempts to connect sports to the culture at large, again often doing so in ways that more closely resemble the personal essayist pursuing an individual line of reasoning and not so much a reporter simply sharing details of an event in an objective manner.



All of which is to say, for Simmons to venture way out on a limb like he did on his podcast this week and try (1) to opine with pretend-profundity about the character of a city after spending a few days there, and (2) to link an important historical event that occurred in that city just over 45 years ago to crowd behavior at a basketball game last weekend isn’t that out of character for him. It isn’t that far removed from other quasi-intellectual or just plain eccentric observations sometimes shared either by Simmons or others whose ideas appear under the Grantland aegis.

That unorthodox ideas are allowed to be explored and shared is part of what makes Grantland an interesting site. Additionally, any attempt to situate sports within larger historical or cultural contexts can potentially be valuable, especially since most sports reporting and commentary functions within an exceedingly narrow scope that doesn’t necessarily acknowledge anything else exists beyond the game and final score.

It is correct to say both Dallas and Memphis have been greatly affected (in different ways) by the assassinations that occurred in those cities. It is also correct to some extent to look upon the actions and behavior of fans at a major sporting event as indicating something of the “character” or “personality” of the town or city in which that event takes place. In both cases, though, conclusions drawn must be heavily qualified or marked as tentative, as what is being described is necessarily an act of consciously-applied generalization, usually made subjectively.

The connection Simmons drew between Memphis residents’ belated grief and misgiving at MLK’s assassination and first-quarter apprehension about their team’s performance versus the Spurs is not at all persuasive, even if his co-host Jalen Rose immediately agreed with it afterwards. It reminds me a little of “reader response” literary criticism that focuses more prominently on the reader’s perspective than that of the author or even the work itself, a mode of interpretation sometimes evoked to justify conclusions about the meaning of a work that were clearly not intended or even anticipated by the author.

It also reminds me of what sometimes gets called “immersion criticism” these days in which interpreters pursue whacked out theses that draw highly improbable connections in order to support what can be inventive or uncanny explanations of symbolic meaning.

I’m thinking of something like the recent spate of interpretations (many coming in the form of YouTube videos) of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining that posit the film to have been a “confession” by Kubrick of his involvement in a conspiratorial cover-up of a faked Moon landing in 1969. That Grantland contributor and frequent link-drawer-between-the-seemingly-unlinkable Chuck Klosterman wrote about the “obsessive theorists” pursuing the Shining-faked Moon landing idea for Grantland a few months ago is not a coincidence. That link is real, namely, the one between like-minded writers eager to locate and explore unlikely cultural connections.

I respond to that form of analysis by likening it more to art than criticism. It really is more a manner of storytelling than interpretation, albeit a form of storytelling that takes the form of explaining a story someone else has told. In the end it might incidentally reveal something about the work being discussed, but it’s much more likely to tell us a lot more about the person doing the interpretation.

That’s what I think we have here with Simmons’s odd, unconvincing MLK-NBA connection. He visited Memphis and with an open mind found himself trying to take in (perhaps hastily) something of the city’s history and character. Tourists visiting Memphis with such a mindset can potentially be influenced by many aspects of the city’s history, the life of Elvis Presley and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. being a couple of them.

Simmons found himself thinking a lot about MLK and his legacy -- and the legacy of his assassination -- and being thus immersed in that story his interpretation of the one he was there to cover was perhaps understandably affected. The observation is pretty shallow when it comes to Memphis and/or Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. It’s perhaps slightly deeper with regard to revealing something about Simmons himself, although he’d have been better served to have prefaced it with a disclaimer, a different one than the one that typically kicks off his podcasts.

You know, something acknowledging more explicitly that other meaning of “B.S.” and the possibility of it freely surfacing amid the free-flowing conversation.

Shamus is the author of the Hard-Boiled Poker blog.

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