Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Mo' Better Hoops": Magic, Larry, and the "Form/Function Debate" (Part 3)

(If you haven't read PART 1 or PART 2 as of this post, you should go back in order to get more clarity on this theory's origins. Thanks.)

Earvin “Magic” Johnson was a basketball player that embraced Africana “form” in basketball, and exists as the purest “formal” basketball player in the NBA’s storied history.

Magic, like my father, was born in 1959, a tumultuous year in our world’s history. Field Castro had just usurped power from Batista to begin his socialist regime in Cuba, A Raisin in the Sun premiered on Broadway, and a young Magic was born into a large, working-class family from the streets of Michigan. Johnson’s father was a factory man for General Motors and his mother was a school custodian. Magic was the sixth of ten children, and often sang on the street corners with his boys. However, it was clear to his neighbors and friends from the outset that Magic developed his persona through a genuine love of the game of basketball.

Just like my father, one of Magic’s favorite players was Earl “the Pearl” Monroe. The kid they called "Junior" or "June Bug" could be seen on neighborhood courts as early as 7:30am on many mornings. In an interview with USA Weekend, Magic famously quoted that "I dribbled to the store with my right hand and back with my left. Then I slept with my basketball." Young Earvin’s passion for basketball superseded a love shown by most kids, which propelled Earvin to unimagined success on every level of rigorous competition.

A Lansing sportswriter gave the nickname of “Magic” to Earvin after watching one of his tremendous high school games where he saw the prep star notch 36 points, snag 16 rebounds, and dish 16 assists. At first, the nickname went against the wishes of his mother, who was a devout Christian and believed it to be blasphemous. However, the “Magic” moniker stuck, and further endears fans to Earvin "Magic" Johnson to this day.

Like any top-notch basketball magician, Magic was heavily recruited by an abundance of coaches and scouts for the top collegiate basketball programs in the nation. Interestingly, Magic chose to attend his hometown school of Michigan State over the UCLA Bruins and Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers because coach Jud Heathcote promised to allow the 6’ 9’’ Magic (a prototypical height for a forward) to play the point guard position. Even in this early career choice, we see that Magic refused to confine his “formal” skills to the prescribed template for college basketball success. Often, collegiate coaches stifle the growth and free-flow expression of young athletes because of their insatiable appetite for temporary victory. (I will come back to this concept later on in my series).

Because of his fortuitous decision, Magic was able to blossom into a superior “formal” player – becoming the best point guard of all-time.

However, while Magic excelled as this purely “formal” player, functionality still existed as the premier teaching strategy in basketball. And as I mentioned in Part 1, no region of America was more heavily based in this “functional” approach to hoops than the great Midwestern plain of Indiana.

However, another great player emerged out of this functional abyss – Larry Joe Bird. Bird was born in West Baden, Indiana, a town that demographically remains staunchly White to this day (94% in the 2000 US Census). I make this statement not to criticize West Baden from their lack of diversity (after all, American is still 65-70% White), but rather to illustrate the fact that Larry Bird was birthed into a town devoid of features found in Africana traditions and meaning-making. Simply put, “The Hick from French Lick” learned basketball in an environment conducive to “functional” basketball training.

Similar to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird also had a tough upbringing. The Bird family was poverty-stricken, and Bird’s parents were often forced to make tough choices. In a 1988 interview with Sports Illustrated, Bird mentioned that “if there was a payment to the bank due, and we needed shoes, she'd get the shoes, and then deal with them guys at the bank. I don't mean she wouldn't pay the bank, but the children always came first.” While his adoring fans may have called him the “Great White Hope”, a player constructed to dominate individual of other races, Bird never saw himself as a basketball imperialist. Bird was a timid, country guy who was simply a savant of the hardwood.

However, Larry Bird did have one distinct characteristic that set him apart from his functional companions: “Basketball Jesus" was incredibly clutch. While the clutch attribute remains an immeasurable attribute to categorize (along with being “in the zone”), there was no question among basketball fanatics of Larry Bird’s ability to come through at the most opportune times.

Unlike Magic, Larry received an athletic scholarship to Indiana University. However, upon attending Indiana, Bird was harassed by current Hoosier star Kent Benson. After a tough semester, Bird decided to drop out and return home. Bird spent the next year working for the Street Department and playing AAU basketball. His game caught the attention of Indiana State, who invited Bird to attend the school.

Meanwhile, Magic Johnson was tearing through the collegiate ranks. After his freshman year, Magic was named among the top ten returning sophomores by Sports Illustrated, and went on to average 17 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 7.1 assists during his collegiate career. During his final season, Michigan State raced to the NCAA Championship game. Similarly, Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad dominated their side of the tournament bracket, setting up an epic matchup between the two titans of amateur basketball – Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. In a game that still holds the record for television viewership, Magic’s Spartans defeated Bird’s Sycamores 75-64. Johnson was designated as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and drafted first overall by the Los Angeles Lakers. Bird, already drafted a year prior by visionary Red Auerbach, joined a powerhouse Celtic franchise in the East.

And the NBA’s greatest rivalry was born.

While Bird and Magic would battle for years in the NBA, with Magic grabbing five titles to Bird’s three, a more important battle ensued in the basketball undertow. Magic’s arrival and success on the big stage invariably shook the “functional” foundation of basketball, leading to a rigorous debate between “form” and “function”. The debate raged throughout the 1980’s, with tensions rising and falling with each Laker/Celtic championship battle.
The argument saved the league from extinction, but the debate was never fully resolved until one exceptional player graced the league stage in 1985. This man showed the basketball world that the answer to the “form/function” debate was not predicated on a choice of one theory or the other, but rather a fusion of both basketball elements. When Magic famously said that "there would never, ever, ever be another Larry Bird" at the Celtic forward's retirement, he was right. Because of this next man, "functional" basketball would never again exist in its purest state in the National Basketball Association.

Enter Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
Michael A. Benjamin II


  1. I am really enjoying the "Mo' Better Hoops" series. Have you tried or thought about getting your stuff published in a sports journal/magazine or newspaper (besides The Hilltop)?

  2. I am curious to read your ideas about the modern player in terms of form and function. While some of the dominant players today playing styles fit under form the offensive and defensive systems within the nba and college game are still fairly rigid and do not match with the form style of many basketball players

  3. @zonafolife

    True, I've been trying to assess that for the past few months now, how to properly go about thinking that through. Tune in for a more lengthy response soon.