On appreciating beauty: The aesthetic conflict in Golden State/Cleveland

We have arrived at the trilogy.  Three years of Warriors vs. Cavs, LeBron vs. Steph, freewheeling creativity vs. physical dominance.  The Warriors overcoming LeBron and a 2-1 deficit.  The Cavs overcoming Steph and a 3-1 deficit.  The LeBron free agency decision in 2014.  The Kevin Durant free agency decision in 2016.  It’s the most intense and all-consuming rivalry since the Lakers/Celtics dominated the NBA in the 1980’s.  And yet, there is an intense edge of negativity surrounding the finals (see here, here, here, and here).  Fans have bemoaned the lack of drama within these playoffs, while journalists and former players have complained that the decision by Kevin Durant to join the Warriors was both a cowardly move, and created less interest in the NBA product and reduced the competitiveness in the league as a whole.

We also see a return to the too-easy narratives of “good” and “bad” from the collective fan bases.  LeBron becomes a whiner, Draymond is transformed as a dirty player, the refs are poised to screw over whatever team you are rooting for, Steph is weak, Durant is a coward, Kevin Love is scared, ect.  Now, this is not unique to fandom in any sports league and of any team.  Sports fandom is based on projections, split off parts of our own aggression and fear, aspects of ourselves we are not allowed to express in normal society.  As a Warrior fan, I would be lying if I did not admit to expressing some dark thoughts regarding the Cavs during last year’s finals.  So while this is not exculsive to this series, what I find interesting is the decreased appreciation for the beautiful play from both teams, the truly outlandish individual accomplishments of the players in this series, the undeniable dominance by each franchise in these playoffs, and the likelihood of this moment representing an elevated plane of basketball not likely to be matched in this decade and perhaps for several more to come.

Donald Meltzer, a British analyst, has written extensively about the idea of the “aesthetic conflict”, that the lack of capacity to have a authentic, immediate, and powerful interaction with beauty indicates a sign of deeper, more powerful and complicated issues.  Here, we have two teams that play beautiful, compelling basketball, and it seems quite difficult for the larger NBA community to not only acknowledge this, but allow itself to be stunned and overwhelmed by this fact.  Does our incapacity to be animated by this moment in NBA history say something about our current society?  The hyper-critical nature of internet discourse, the ambivalent relationship we have to narratives, a general skepticism towards black athletes making free agency decisions for themselves all likely play important parts.  Meltzer might argue that it demonstrates a limitation of thinking, that if we were able to truly take in the beauty of what we’re witnessing, to be stunned by the magnificent play of both teams, that it may open up room for us experience deeper questions within ourselves and in our current culture.  It may be safer to avoid such uncomfortable and uncertain terrain, and dismiss this moment with skepticism and cynicism.  However, this denies us this moment of beauty, which in turns limits our connection with ourselves and each other.

While I will wish for nothing less then another Warriors championship, I will try to keep in mind the opportunity to witness beauty, to see the genius in LeBron’s passing, Steph’s immense creativity, Kyrie’s gorgeous drives, and to be inspired by Dryamond’s desire.  The beauty showcased by both teams does not come about too often.  Let’s try to be stunned, and not, as Meltzer writes, “retreat in order to protect oneself from the impact of the beauty of the object” (P.150).

Meltzer, D. (2008) The appreciation of beautify: The role of aesthetic conflict in development, art, and violence. London, Karnac Books

 

Transformation

Therapy is largely dependent on the idea of transformation.   It does not work if clients or therapists do not believe that people can change.  And yet, therapy can often be a slow and laborious process.   Therapist and client alike will feel that progress is not happening.  Transformation can feel miles away.

In the NBA, players are increasingly coming into the league as unformed potential, rather than polished certainties.  Thus, the idea of transformation is central to evaluating players and team potential.  We see it  with current NBA players like Andrew Wiggins and Giannis Antetokounmpo.  We are told not to view them as their current form, but in year 3 or 4 of their career.  This makes player projection increasingly complex.  How can you determine someone’s potential for transformation?

Klay Thompson, current 4th year player for the Golden State Warriors, has had believers in his potential since he was drafted.  He’s a big shooting guard, excellent shooter, strong defender.  Some believed he would become an all-star.  Yet, his stats have not always backed up this belief.  Advanced stats have largely shown that he has been an average starter.  A discrepancy appeared to be emerging between his potential and his actual results.  Over the summer, rumors were abound that Kevin Love, an all-star power forward, wanted to leave his team, and the Warriors were interested.  Klay was the player that Love’s team wanted from the Warriors, and there was a general expectation that the Warriors would agree to trade him.  Yet, the summer came and went, the Warriors steadfastly refused to consider trading Klay, and Love was eventually dealt to another team.  Many NBA observer were genuinely shocked and confused at the Warriors decision.  If you went by both players’ stats to-date, it was obvious that the Warriors had missed an opportunity.

Fast forward to the present, and the Warriors look brilliant.  Klay has taken off, posting career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, free throws attempted, and shooting percentage, all while playing fewer minutes this year.   The Warriors are an absolutely astounding 21-2.  Nobody wishes Klay had been traded.

Psychoanalysis is often viewed as a theoretical and clinical endeavor that casts a harsh view of the human condition.  Yet, psychoanalysis is a discipline that is actually dependent on the idea of transformation.  In Freud’s original conception of the Oedipal process, one succeeds by overcoming and transforming thoughts and feelings to parents and turning them towards peers.  Klein viewed therapeutic growth through patients transforming from the paranoid-schizoid position (where splitting and projection rule) to the depressive position (where good and bad co-mingle).  Relational psychoanalysis relies on the idea of patients transforming through the creation of new relational experiences between therapist and client.  Perhaps psychoanalysis sees transformation in a more realistic light: one has to go through quite a lot of rust and grime before transforming into something shiny and new.

What lead Klay to transform this season?  Some have argued that his time with the USA men’s basketball team this summer increased his confidence.  Others argue that it’s due to his new head coach Steve Kerr.  Possibilities are abound, yet we know little of what leads to a players transformation.  Why does Gerald Green go from 1st round pick to out of the NBA to useful bench player?  It’s difficult to explain a player who exemplifies both sides of the transformation quandary.

Transformation, in both clinical work and  athletic accomplishment, is the unexplained ingredient.  Perhaps the question should be turned around: how long can you wait for transformation to occur?

Ghosts, ancestors, and LeBron

LeBron has returned to the primal scene, his hometown, where he lost his innocence and replaced it with a finally-tuned corporate image, where he broke hearts across Akron and Cleveland, where he seemed shockingly unaware of how his casual “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach” announcement would come across, where LeBron went from beloved to hated in the span of a sentence, where he failed to win a championship for seven painful years, where he was not just seen as a basketball savior for a team who’s most memorable moment involves Craig Ehlo collapsing to the ground, but a savior with the weight of being literally born and raised in North Ohio.  LeBron, in an odd twist to his story, arrives back to Cleveland after four short, dramatic years with the Miami Heat, where he won two championships, lost two championships, and had his most dramatic failings and successes.  Why would he go back to a place where he has known only heartbreak, of disappointment, of impossible to meet expectations?  Perhaps Hans Loewald, a psychoanalyst ahead of his time (he died in 1993 at age 97), can help elaborate.

Loewald was an extremely creative thinker in a psychoanalytic environment dominated by a rigid adherence to Freud.  In his article “On the Therapeutic Action of Psycho-Analysis” (1960), Loewald compares the indestructible nature of unconscious thoughts and desires to the unsatiated need of ghosts, who haunt because they have not found peace.  “Those who know ghosts tell us that they long to be released from their ghost-life and led to rest as ancestors. As ancestors they live forth in the present generation, while as ghosts they are compelled to haunt the present generation with their shadow-life…In the daylight of analysis the ghosts of the unconscious are laid and led to rest as ancestors whose power is taken over and transformed into the newer intensity of present life, of the secondary process and contemporary objects.” (P.29)

In this provocative description, Loewald proposes a distinction between how our memories stay with us.  Ghosts are the memories that dissociated from our awareness.  Instead, they stay and “haunt”, they search for “blood”, such as memories and history. They cannot be satisfied because they are static, unchanging.  Ancestors are the memories that we are able to tolerate as part of ourselves.  They are free to live in our present as they have become part of our narrative.  They do not have to haunt because they are not dissociated away, like ghosts.  Loewald believes that we ultimately want our “ghost” memories to be transformed and integrated into our lives, to become “ancestors” that are content to live out their old age with us.

So can we understand LeBron’s decision to come back to Cleveland as a desire to reengage with his ghosts?  To stop their haunting and blood-sucking and transform them to benevolent ancestors?  His Miami Heat period often felt dissociated from his Cleveland days.  Outside of the intense backlash his move produced, there was little sense of continuity.  He went from hometown hero to international playboy, with no in-between period.  Perhaps LeBron ultimately felt the pull to deal with the ghosts from his Cleveland days, that no matter how many championships he won in Miami the blood-sucking ghosts would not be satisfied.  It remains to see if it was a wise decision- some ghosts are best left alone, and if two championships could not transform his ghosts into ancestors it’s difficult to imagine what could do the trick.  Yet, it is impressive that LeBron has chosen to come back in the prime of his career to a place that still clearly haunts him.  Perhaps by welcoming these ghosts, talking to them, dealing with them face-to-face, LeBron will transform them from dissociation into present day awareness.  Loewald states that the “analyst helps to revive the repressed unconscious of the patient by his recognition of it; through interpretation of transference and resistance, through the recovery of memories and through reconstruction, the patient’s unconscious activity is led into preconscious organization…”(P.29)  If we relate this to the world of the NBA, while LeBron may lack the safety of the therapeutic relationship he is trying to do what Loewald recommends- recovering and reconstructing old memories, through his return to Cleveland.

It is a bit of a fallacy that ghosts and ancestors cannot coexist.  We cannot transform everything into awareness, and in a particular vantage-point, feeling haunted can become a motivating factor.  Ultimately, there needs to be room for both to live within us and around us.

Dwight Howard and fear of breakdown

Dwight Howard[1] is beginning anew, again.  After a combustible year with the Lakers, his free-agency began and ended with confusion and hesitancy, much like his prolonged exit from the Orlando Magic.  Twice now Dwight has appeared uncertain where he wants to play, and how he wants to be portrayed by the media and the larger NBA fan-base.  Each time he has left a team and a city, there is a sense that he is running away, leaving behind a chaotic mess.  Angry and hurt feelings from all parties involved abound.  Why does this same dynamic keep recurring?

Donald Winnicott, the British psychoanalysis and pediatrician, developed an idea he described as the “fear of breakdown”.  Winnicott believed that some patients, overwhelmed by fear and hopelessness, become frozen with unthinkable worry over experiencing a breakdown.  This breakdown is un-defined, but becomes a central aspect of treatment.  Winnicott believed that the patient’s fear is actually “the fear of a breakdown that has already been experienced”.  The patient’s overwhelming anxiety of breaking down, whatever that means to the individual, has already happened to them when they were very young.  They experienced a “primitive agony”, but it was so threatening to their existence they were unable to integrate it into their consciousness.  They are haunted by the ghosts of their previous breakdown.  The patient will continue to be overwhelmed by the fear of breakdown until they are able to experience what they have already lived through.  Paradoxically, the patient will maintain this paralyzing fear of a breakdown in order to try to unconsciously process their previous, yet split-off, breakdown.

So, what does Dwight fear?  What is his breakdown?  We, of course, have no idea.  Yet we do get a sense that he is running from something.  When leaving Orlando and Los Angeles, Dwight struggled to layout his intentions and desires.  He wanted to stay loved by the fans, yet be allowed to leave them without any repercussions.  He feared being hated, yet his tendency for severe indecision left fans in two separate cities despising him.  Will this be any different in Houston?  Dwight appears to be unable to tolerate feeling disappointed, or being disappointing.  His tendency to run from these moments only increases their intolerableness.  Winnicott felt that the patient must find a way to experience what has already occurred.  One way for this to happen is in the transference, by the patient finding the analyst incompetent and hopeless.  Through surviving the analyst’s futility, patients can get in touch with their previous breakdown, without completely breaking down themselves.  Does Dwight try to create a breakdown, seen in the frantic nature of his indecision each time he has to decide where he wants to play, as an attempt to integrate what until now has been dissociated?  Following Winnicott’s idea of the patient re-experiencing a breakdown through the transference, Dwight needs to live out his fear of breakdown with teammates, owners, fans, and not run away, to tolerate disappointment and being disappointing, and realize that he has already survived his worst fears.  If he’s able to experience this without needing to abandon everything and leave, he may find that his fear of breakdown isn’t as overpowering as he imagines it to be.  Which might be the key to Dwight becoming the franchise-changing player he aspires to.


[1] Quotations in this post come from Winnicott’s article “Fear of breakdown”, from the International Review of  Psychoanalysis, 1974, p.103-107.

LeBron James is beloved again: What it says about NBA fandom, and the importance of following the script:

The Miami Heat 2012-2013 season was legendary.  27 wins in a row.  A dramatic come-from-behind NBA finals victory.  Revolutionary offense, overwhelming defense.  And an important change happened- they were no longer hated by the NBA community.  Hate, both for the Heat and particularly LeBron, overshadowed everything that happened to Miami after The Decision.  Now, LeBron has morphed from the villain (which he never played well) back to the beloved GOAT.  Why did this change occur?  The short answer is that Miami defeated the Thunder and then the Spurs in back to back championship series (America has always loved a winner).  But I think there are deeper issues, tied to dynamics inherent in sports fandom, how we react to change, and how frightening it is when the script we’ve come to rely on is challenged and a new reality emerges.

Klein, perhaps the most influential psychoanalyst after Freud, describes two basic stages in life that everyone goes through: the paranoid-schizoid and the depressive positions. These stages are supposed to take place very early in the infant’s life and occur before the Oedipal stage, the key moment in Freudian developmental theory.  The paranoid-schizoid position is the first, and most startling; it proposes a world of extremes, where things are either completely merged, or attacked.  The infant splits the mother into two – the good mother who protects and nurtures, and the bad mother who ignores its cries and allows the infant to suffer.  In reality, mothers contain both good and bad, yet the infant cannot bear to know that the same mother who protects it is also the mother who torments it.  Frustration cannot be tolerated, as it is a threat to existence. The paranoid-schizoid position describes life in a polarized lens, where danger lurks everywhere, bad things must be kept apart from good things and life exists in black and white. The depressive position, which develops only after the infant has become able to integrate good and bad, seeks the grey, the in-between of life.  It arises when the infant discovers that the two mothers he has been dealing with are in fact the same- the mother who protects is also the mother who torments.  This realization is depressing (leading to its name), and destroys the infant’s fantasy of a perfect mother.  However, it allows the complexity and frustration of the real world be tolerated.  The depressive position ultimately carries a less exciting reality- there isn’t the perfect mother waiting for us, and there isn’t an evil mother we can direct all our bad actions and thoughts too- instead we have to grapple with an inconsistent, limited, and ultimately frustrating world.

So, what does the paranoid-schizoid and depressive position have to do with the fans’ attitude toward LeBron?  Sport fandom naturally exists in the paranoid-schizoid world.  When I watch my Warriors, I rarely have a nuanced position.  Examples include the absolutely fact that the referee is clearly biased, David Lee is useless, and Kobe Bryan should be immediately ejected for smirking.  In these moments, I do not recall the dubious call that helped the Warriors, or that David Lee has some strengths and deficits.  This is normal.  Sports taps into unprocessed and raw emotions: hate, love, despair, and exhilaration.  Sports narratives almost universally stay in the paranoid-schizoid position. 

LeBron’s narrative was as the savoir of basketball, blessed with the scoring ability of Michael Jordan, the court vision of Magic Johnson, along with the marketability of Shaq.  Suddenly, the best player to enter the league in decades had the potential to fulfill all of the often naïve ideas of the “right-way” to play ball. LeBron was polite and approachable- the anti-Iverson.  He represented the ideal of a perfect player; the superstar who made teammates better without the “attitude” of many of the best players of the post-Jordan era[1].  We made him what we wanted, based on our own fantasies of the perfect modern-era basketball star.

Once LeBron demonstrated a more complex and nuanced personality by declining to resign with his hometown team and announcing the decision on an hour-long TV special, NBA fans responded with shocking speed, switching from loving to hating him without a moments pause.  No room for nuance or complexity?  Hello paranoid-schizoid.  

NBA fans, when forced to consider a different LeBron, one with his own motivations and his own idea of success, responded by eliminating any sense of their previous adoration.  The script they had created for him, the nice, approachable, dominant superstar, became muddled.  They could not see LeBron’s decision as holding both selfish and selfless purposes (after all, he decided to take less money to play with his friends and try to win an NBA championship, decisions that fits much of the “right-way” ideals).  His pass-first mentality suddenly went from a positive to a negative- he was suddenly seen as scared of the spotlight, selfish for not wanting the ball, arrogant and stubborn.  Instead of questioning the script they had created, fans simply decided that LeBron never actually fit in it.  He became all-bad, representing everything that was evil with modern sports.

Three years after “The Decision”, LeBron is still fundamentally the same player and person he was in Cleveland.  He’s the game’s best player, a mash-up of an ungodly amount of talent and a natural unselfish tendency.  There has been some evolution- he’s increasingly efficient in his offense, has become perhaps the most dominant perimeter defender, and, likely the most important change, has become much more comfortable handling the extreme pressures directed at him.  He still avoids the dunk contest, and could probably average 40 points per game if he wanted too.  After two consecutive championships, NBA fans are coming back to the original script- LeBron is the GOAT, an unselfish version of Jordan, a likable Kobe, the anti-Iverson.  This shift does not represent a movement towards the depressive position for NBA fans, instead indicating that sports narratives are designed to confirm what the collective fan unconscious already wants to believe.  Part of the reason the paranoid-schizoid position dominates in sports plot-lines is due to how complicated and disappointing the depressive position is.  Sports allow us to avoid the grey and stay in a black-and-white, good and bad world.  LeBron isn’t the savior or sinner we described him as, and our inability to see him as both only limits our understanding of him. 


[1] This “attitude problem” was particularly intense for the older, white, middle-class fans of the league who did not understand Iverson, and were uncomfortable with urban black American.