Michigan students can learn about the game of life through a different prism: basketball
Santiago Colas stands at the front of a tiny classroom on the University of Michigan campus and starts preaching about 459 words.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon and the professor explains what he wants out of all of his students’ personal reflection essays, just one in a litany of assignments he’ll assign this semester. The odd part, though, is the words.
He wants 459 words. Exactly.
It’s part of a complex algorithm, he tells his students in “The Cultures of Basketball,” a humanities course taught at Michigan. It is for a simple assignment, but the class seems confused about why exactly 459 words.
Later, the man most call Yago admits there is no real meaning behind the 459 other than it forces students to revise their work. This creates better word choices to articulate points.
Tucked away in 224 Tyler, a classroom in the middle of a dormitory on East Quad on the Michigan campus, is one of the unique forums on sport in any college in the country.
Colas takes a RC Humanities 334: Topics in the Humanities: The Cultures of Basketball class that could seem trivial and turned it into something anyone can learn from.
In this room no larger than the size of a freshman dorm room or a visiting basketball locker room, 24 students and Colas cram inside surrounded by white walls, small brown desks, hideous multi-colored carpeting and a single window.
On the first day, junior Stu Douglass said, most of the class couldn’t find the room. Students wandered through a maze of dorm rooms and peers coming to and from the shower to find it.
Inside, for 70 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, basketball becomes more than a game. It becomes a culture and a way of life, the prism through which larger social issues are discussed and analyzed.
As he weaves the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X into a discussion of the cut-short careers of little-known NBA players Maurice Stokes and Connie Hawkins, basketball translates into life’s broader spectrum.
He turns it into lessons to make his students think, speak and explore issues through basketball they otherwise might not have known existed.
This, Colas stressed, is the point of the class even though most signed up thinking they’d analyze the latest LeBron James dunk on ESPN.
“Basketball is such a window through which to examine all of the other issues I’m trying to bring into the game that generates so much storytelling,” Colas said later over a drink at Ashley’s. “So much social discussion with race and class and now globalization and international relations and economics. The pro game generates that even more intensely.”
Colas has taught for 20 years, joined the Michigan faculty in 1992 and taught Spanish and Latin American literature classes and in the Romance Languages and Literature departments.
Yet he started to think when the typical e-mail came last semester asking what Colas wanted to teach in the winter session. Basketball had been the prevailing focus through his life, from his youth through his undergraduate years at Wisconsin.
A thin man not blessed with extra height, everything he thought about weaved around the game until he was 22 years old. He selected Duke for his post-graduate work because of the powerhouse basketball program as much as the education.
This summer, when the self-described former mediocre high school point guard started playing pickup basketball again on the courts of his hometown, St. Louis, he rediscovered his love of the game.
His blog, Go Yago!, had always been about basketball. As he began to play again, he viewed himself more as a shooter than a pass-first point guard. The reasons behind it, and how it shaped his life view, started to consume him.
Soon, every thought revolved around basketball. When the e-mail came, he pitched this class not expecting it to be accepted. The pitch focused heavily on the racial aspects of basketball, exaggerating how much it would be part of the class.
To his surprise, Michigan green lit the course with no argument.
“I exaggerated about that aspect of it to begin with to make it a little more plausible and it went through no problem. So I was faced with a ‘got what I wished for situation,’” Colas said. “So I had to figure out how to create a class that was more than a bunch of dudes sitting around talking about basketball.
“I was not interested in that, not what I do in my spare time and not what I love about the game.”
He devised the class to be a little bit of everything, which is how a class about Stokes and Hawkins evolved into a discussion about storytelling, potential and why people are intrigued about stars that made it and ones who had their careers cut short.
“We talk about different things you just don’t really associate with basketball, like today with all that stuff,” said Douglass, also a guard on the Michigan men’s basketball team. “He makes you think about it differently.
“Being a fan also, you think you’ve heard everything but there’s a whole other side to it.”
The other impetus for the class came the book "Free Darko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History."
Colas called the book some of the most intellectual writing he’s seen on basketball and uses it as a starting point for almost all class discussions.
“We made a conscious effort to make it easy-to-digest,” said Nathaniel Friedman, one of the authors of the book under the pseudonym Bethlehem Shoals. “I don’t want to say we were thinking about a textbook all along, because I never thought about it. But unlike the first book where we were talking about players people knew and the league today, we would have to present it in a way that was easily digestible to people.
“I think that all along that it was somewhere in our minds that we had to make this very user friendly in terms of presentation and how we frame things.”
It sparked a relationship between Colas and Friedman, both on Colas’ blog and in person. Friedman will come to Ann Arbor from March 14-16 to speak to the class and also give a public lecture at the university.
In using an author who is so Internet-friendly, it allowed Friedman in some ways to be part of the class as he responds to posts on Colas’ blog about issues discussed in class.
Sitting in a horseshoe in the cramped room helps facilitate discussion. It is also the only way to fit all the desks inside the room as Colas starts class with the 459-word edict.
Colas, wearing a black-and-white warmup jacket, jeans and a waffle flannel shirt as he leans back against the whiteboard along the wall, feels comfortable in these surroundings.
This despite having a class that is much different than anything he’s taught before.
Eight Michigan basketball players, including Douglass, are in his class. So are a women’s basketball practice player, team managers and a men’s basketball reporter for the Michigan Daily, the school’s student newspaper. More than half of the 24 students — 21 men and three women — have something to do with basketball at Michigan.
The rest of the class is made up of purely basketball fans, so it led to an interesting dynamic for Colas, who had taught few athletes at Michigan before this semester. He turned it into a productive one. Sitting in the class, the basketball players — particularly Corey Person and Matt Vogrich — participate more than others.
“But once we started talking and developed a common ground, I felt fine,” Colas said. “You’ve got players in there and that changes the vibe.”
Colas shows YouTube videos of Stokes and Hawkins — with most in the class, including freshman basketball player Evan Smotrycz, in awe of Hawkins’ abilities.
“What,” the students exclaimed as Hawkins rebounded with one hand and threw a perfect outlet pass. “It’s ridiculous.”
Hawkins and Stokes both had careers that never reached their potential — Stokes due to disease and death and Hawkins due to a point-shaving accusation — but it created the larger theme of careers that never were or not as big as they could have been.
From there, he makes the comparison to pop culture with Heath Ledger, to politics with John F. Kennedy and race with King and Malcolm X.
The constant debate with Colas invokes in the laid-back atmosphere the professor craves.
“Having a laid-back teacher when you’re talking about a laid-back topic like basketball, where you can have an opinion on basically everything someone says about basketball,” Vogrich said. “Having a teacher that lets you talk and is open to discussion is perfect.”
Colas said this has been some of the best teaching and writing of his career.
Michigan likes it, too. He’ll be teaching the class again in the fall as he transforms the viewing of basketball into more than a game.
To Colas, that’s the point.
“It really is to me about helping students think better,” Colas said. “For me to help them think better, they have to get practice thinking and talking and having me critique their discussion. Over the course of the semester, they start to develop.
“I think they get it by the semester. They don’t immediately and some get it sooner than that.”