|Patrick Redford: Talkin' About Praxis
What Gramsci can tell us about the slippery, difficult business of building a team.
We donít know this for sure, but Antonio Gramsci almost certainly never played
basketball. The famed linguist and critical theorist was beset by spinal injuries as a
child and lived his entire life with a severe hunchback. He was under five feet in
height, and Italy didnít even adopt basketball until after World War I, by which time
Gramsci was busy enough hanging out with Vladimir Lenin and developing the
communist party in Italy that it seems unlikely he had time even for a game of
three on three.
This is not to say you canít balance hoops and political public-figurehood -- there is
a sitting President proving this as we speak -- but there is no evidence Gramsci
ever played sports. Still, Gramsci has more to say about basketball than we might
expect, with one aspect of his analysis especially illuminating with regard to todayís
NBA. We talkiní, of course, about praxis.
Praxis is its own sort of meta-theory, an assessment of the process through which
theory moves off the page and into meatspace. Gramsciís philosophy on the subject
concentrated on political hegemony and struggle, and upon the particular
juxtaposition of historical events within their epistemological contexts. Praxis, for
Gramsci, was an unfogging and classification of the schemas, narratives, and
theories of history that affected everyday political life. Itís sprawling and contingent,
but less abstract than it seems.
Running an NBA team, for instance, is a constant attempt to reverse-engineer this
process. A front office builds a tenuous architecture of facts -- what players do, how
they do it, who they are -- and try to derive a unified theory of why certain players
succeed while others plateau or fizzle. There is a lot of money to be made, for
teams and the people that build them, in being able to ascertain if a prospect is
more Kwame Brown or Roy Hibbert. NBA teams are built with a plan, not along an
explicit template, and the whole process is dynamic, and dependent on effective
After the Lakersí first three-peat, the common refrain was that a championship team
needed a perimeter scorer, preferably anchored to a big-butted post player. San
Antonio reigned supreme for a while; that time, it was because they had three stars,
that was how it was done. The prototype has done nothing but change since. With
each successive champion doing it differently, each theory of how winners are built
erodes a little more.
Detroit and Dallasí championship squads were both ersatz, one immobile and strong
and the other built on florid offensive virtuosity layered over a stout interior
backbone. Designing a winning team isnít math or science or art or Magic: The
Gathering; neither is it a matter of grabbing X amount of star players and then
smashing them into your opponentsí like action figures. Praxis shows us that itís all
of this and more. There are the tougher to calculate variables of chemistry and luck
and health. The entire process is messy and alchemical.
In the 2013-14 season, weíve seen the complexity of this play out less on winning
teams and more on those presumed to be tanking the season. This practice isnít as
radically simple as, say, Robert Sarver pencilling in his Suns for 11 wins and
scurrying off to look at $150,000 refrigerators. It happens on two different time
scales, and at distinct echelons of an organization.
Initially, the teamís management makes a conscious decision to get young,
swapping valuable and well-compensated veterans for picks and rough-edged
youngsters, or simply not trying to sign any good players. This is actively working
to make the team worse, but itís removed a layer from losing basketball games. If
all this putting together of parts is done with an eye towards the future, those parts
are still competitive elite athletes in the present; as such, they arenít simply going
to roll over and play dead. Late in the season, when final standings are nearly
cemented, teams will actively sit their best players and make Aaron Gray shoot
three-pointers, but that all comes later, above the groundwork laid in the seasonís
first four months.
Phoenix and Philadelphia both came into this year clearly intending to bottom out,
in hopes of building a new team around one of the prospective stars available in the
2014 draft. Instead, both teams have been far more competitive than their apparent
(and intentional) architectural flaws...CONTINUE READING AT THE CLASSICAL