There are a lot of things that are not up for debate on the topic of Trey Burke. He is fun to watch. He is really good at basketball. He makes his teammates better. His demeanor is so stoic and poised that “Valium mask” is a better descriptor than “game face,” and last week, he not only hit one of the most legendary shots ever, he also had the most impactful series of clutch plays by any single player in tournament history. He has many impressive statistics and accolades associated to his name, with more being added daily. If that’s your thing, they are on the internet. Knock yourself out.
There is an important question that the boys on CBS probably will not debate or hyperbolize. If they do, they’ll totally butcher it. Given last week’s NCAA tournament results, and all the fervor Trey and his team riled up by getting to the Final Four, given the fact that, in sports, nothing is promised but everything, in time, is determined, given my allegiance to his school and my above-average enthusiasm of the guy, I, with help from on article written by the late David Foster Wallace, will attempt to tackle a question. The question is not, what is Trey Burke? The question is what can Trey Burke be?
It starts with the oxymoron caught in concrete on top of the ivy-clad phallus that is the Michigan Union, a university hangout originally built for dudes. There are two statues up there. On the left is the jock, on the right, his opposite, the nerd. The tour guide, usually a chick, will tell you that combined, they stand for the local ideal, the Michigan Man.
This old myth greatly informs the University of Michigan’s brand, and the school pulls from its deep pockets accordingly. The brain–research–and the body–athletics–are two of the school’s biggest yearly expenses at $1.27 billion and $130 million respectively. Most days, people don’t look up and consider the statues as they strut the wide, tree-lined sidewalks of Ann Arbor on their way to the library or gym, as they have already taken and profited from the advice that the symbols stand for: “do your home work, get some exercise.”
But the statues also stand against. The jock stands resolutely against the conglomerate of fourteen midwestern universities with Division 1 athletics known as the Big Ten. He is most acutely standing against the contrastable, nearby schools, Michigan State and Ohio State. The nerd is his back up muscle, the x-factor, the Michigan Difference.
Sports permeate the B1G world’s real life interactions. Academics do, too, but consider this scenario: you bump into someone who went to another B1G university, what do you talk about? What is the tone? Where does the conversation take place? Do you talk again on another occasion? The answers could go sports, jocular, office, yes, before and after every big game. They could go sports, hostile, bar, no, I fled before the brute got violent. They could go academics, wonder, dimly lit coffee shop, yes, via perfumed letters hand-written in cursive. They could.
I literally drank the kool-aid on September 1st, 2007, when I witnessed in person my first Michigan football game ever. Shortly after entering the great stadium, I thought, “Wow, there is something to this.” As I watched the game that would end in the Victors’ defeat to Appalachian State, my first college friend, a senior and lifelong Michigan cultist, educated me: “When Michigan State plays Ohio State you cheer for a terrorist attack.”
Days later, the professor of my freshman seminar on Friedrich Nietzsche unlatched his valise and explained that a Dionysian experience was an intoxicating, high energy affair that unified a crowd of people on a carnal, non-cerebral level. Staring at an opposite wall, his intellectual accent faltered as a smirk wound into his lecture; the perfect example, he said, was a Michigan football game. I made a mental note about sports being simulated Fascism. I did not mull the connection any further. Hail, hail to Michigan.
We, the Cursed Class of UM student fans, were born angry, confused and sad. These insecurities have contorted us into callous, elitist jerks. We are products of our environment. Chief among our sins, is bringing a nerd to a jock fight, especially when that fight takes place north of Toledo, against our own statesmen. You have to draw a line somewhere, and I choose to draw it at the Ohio border. Let us not talk about Ohio any more as its simple utterance has a way of polluting the skyward nose. The pure state of Michigan is what matters, and all Michiganders, no matter what banner you fly, should say “Yes!” to Trey Burke. Call that the thesis.
Here’s a true example of typical, reprehensible Wolverine behavior: it is Friday night in Ann Arbor and Michigan State plays the worst Michigan team in history tomorrow at noon. Spartans abound. They are bewildered by the lack of cows and cornfields; the bicyclists ride in the street not the sidewalk, and there aren’t parking lots every thirty feet. There is generally an absence of everything that makes East Lansing awesome. The Staters are enjoying, with some trepidation, promenades that are pleasantly short and scenic; the cars, oddly, yield for the humans crossing the street, and when they step into a party, the host, a stranger, welcomes them with an empty cup and asks only that they have a good time. Sparty is experiencing culture shock, but they are good and drunk, fearless and very confident that they will crush the pathetic embarrassment that is the 2008 Michigan football disaster. But whenever a thick-faced bro rocking a green and white rugby shirt, cargo shorts, basketball shoes, and a Fred Durst hat sees another of his type, they chant, “Go Green, Go White,” and pull along their tiny girlfriends, who are dressed like popular middle schoolers. We felt threatened, weak, ashamed. Our territory was being trampled by this herd from Moo-U, and our first line of defense, our jocks, were more clowns than cowboys. We could have responded by repeating once more the timelessly dull rallying cry of our team, “Go Blue,” but its heartless echoes would have been devastating, confirming exactly what Sparty’s bold showing was indicating. We sucked. Instead, we opted for a high voltage cattle prod. We invoked the nerd. “Can’t Read, Can’t Write,” we shouted. “I love attending my great and prestigious school,” and, “I am going to have an awesome, high paying job with benefits!”
It was wrong. Being a sports fan is a Dionysian experience, in which you rise and fall with the performance of your team. If your team sucks, and the experience is too painful, you unplug. Instead, we members of the Cursed Class, took the fight into our own hands, firing verbal sack taps at all opposing fans. To incorporate irrelevant factors into the conversation of college sports fandom, for example the colleges themselves and the towns they exist in, is an unequivocal, uncalled for low blow. I feel lucky to have walked away unharmed; smug words are to Wolverines as flying fists are to Spartans.
Anyway, it is all subjective. My school is not necessarily this, your school is not necessarily that. It comes down to preference. For example, look at our respective non-sporting Dionysian rituals: Hashbash and Cedar Fest. Do you prefer smoking weed in the shade of a tree in protest of our pernicious and unacceptable drug policies or do you prefer drinking an office cooler of god-awful vodka and rioting senselessly while teargas rains from the sky? Do you prefer burning a couch while crushing a beer or recycling a couch while chomping granola? It’s a matter of personal taste.
There is an alternative to the Fascistic paradigm in which we fans participate in sports. It is the lens of a museum browser, a lover of beauty, an admirer of skill. It is a mindset that both seeks out simple pleasures and relishes deep, solitary contemplation. This, my freshman professor, would call an Apollonian view. If you would sooner burn the block M than fly it, then watch the Final Four game versus Syracuse with Apollonian eyes, and perhaps you will find that Trey Burke, our übermensch, is a vessel of such beauty, both superficial and profound, that you will catch yourself transfixed to the television, lost in aesthetic pleasure and existential wonder, and that’s when you realize that you have forgiven and forgotten. It is possible that someone in the room will say “Go Blue,” and, to your dismay, you are alone.
Burke is a simple man. A vocational hooper, he recently announced that he has one or two more games in a Michigan jersey before he stops balling for free. As is the way in life, both serendipity and his own practical decisions have led him, and us, to this point of climax. He wears maize and blue because his home state did not recruit him, Darius Morris got a job offer in Los Angeles, and, Penn State is, well, Penn State. His legend will be painted into the narrative of tradition, romance, and integrity that is enshrined in the glitzy Chrysler Center renovation with its water features, trophy cases, and heroic plaques, but it should not be lost that Trey was just a basketball player on a mission to make it. He ended up at Michigan.
Watching Trey in real life is better than watching him on the television. From the couch, you say, “Man, he is good.” From the stands, you say, “Man, I want to be a better person.” The two dimensional, sideline perspective exists as basketball’s standard TV viewing experience because it is optimally convenient. Minimal effort is required by the viewer, and he is compensated with minimal return. Similar to Pong, the paleolithic video game, the TV perspective centers around the ball traveling from left to right, inevitably ending up in one of the two hoops. We are okay with this set up because we are good Fascists. The corporal weather we experience–the unrelenting tension, the rushes of adrenaline and despair–from seeing our colors inch closer to victory or slip back to defeat, one, two, three points at a time, overpowers any Apollonian impulses to empathize with, appreciate, or deeply consider the spectacle and its human participants. If the teams played in the pitch black with a glow-in-the-dark ball and tricked-out rims, we’d still be on the edge of our seat as the radiating orb moved fast up court. We’d still go nuts when the ball is launched from way out and we hear the unmistakable “Chuh!” of the neon net splashing.
Modern sports broadcasting incorporates snippets of experimental camera angles into game coverage. When the coverage switches to a new, interesting camera angle that adds insight, context, and, literally, depth to the experience, the typical couch potato goes berserk until the status quo is restored. Change is inconvenient, and adapting to it takes effort, but there is justice here. More work is rewarded with a sweeter payoff. From the new angle, say forty-five degrees behind the action in the top, back, left corner of the court’s prism, the seat I typically have at the arena, length and breadth are equals. You physically see one more dimension, which immediately gives you a heightened appreciation for Burke’s athleticism and craft. It all takes on new meaning. The length and quickness of his first dribbling step, then his second dribbling step. The ridiculous power of his jab, stepback jay. The grace with which he hangs in the air, against a backdrop of seated fans, as he contorts his undersized body to protect the ball from the looming big men and finishes at rim with a finesse that should look more desperate. The seamlessness between dribbling moves as the shot clock ticks down and he starts going into a part NBA, part street, trade-markedly Burky mentality and you know you are about to witness something interesting and as he goes and does something, the person sitting next to you starts slapping your leg like a drumroll and then Burke has done something and everyone leaps and screams. Burke is no longer a big-headed, fireball-chucking animation from NBA Jam, but a complex humanoid that glides expeditiously through time and space, bending the laws of physics to impose his will by draining impossibly hard, acrobatic shots and completing passes for easy assists that can only be justified as magic. It gets a little silly. Burke is NBA 2K12. Except that Trey executes his avatar’s play better than any controller-wielding god ever could. That’s the other big advantage of the 3D perspective; from behind Burke’s head, it’s fun to make-believe that you see what he knows.
Michigan runs a high pick and roll, which gives Trey a lot of options. One option is to rub off the pick, take one dribble, and pull up for a Trey. He can accurately shoot these from pretty far out, and they have become famous, but he has many more weapons. He routinely rubs off the pick, takes a quick penetration dribble and pulls up for a sweet jumper at the elbow. If a big man steps up he’ll drop it off for an easy layup. If a wing defender cheats, he’ll kick it out for a three. If no defender commits hard enough, he’s finishing at the cup or getting fouled. If things get hairy, he has a whole panel of eject buttons: a floating runner in the lane, a short baseline step back, a plant pump fake get fouled. Sometimes he’ll just run out of bounds, leap and somehow get it to an open man. If there is one statistic worth mentioning here, it’s Burke’s assist to turnover ratio: 3.12. For every ally-oop, kick out three, or bounce pass to dunk assist that Burke records, he turns it over once. His turnovers are not frustrating to watch. They are refreshing.
Trey has a great grasp on common sense basketball. Opponents, however, have a game plan: keep Trey out of the middle. More often than not, rubbing off the screen, he’ll get double teamed, and then things get very interesting. He has the best guard defender marking him on one side and a giant center on the other, his nearest teammate is disappearing between the two defenders as they form a rapidly approaching human corner. If he can, he’ll create space with a back-up dribble or two and find the open man, but if this unfriendly convergence happens within the key, there are usually more opponents involved. Suddenly, he is surrounded. He takes a wide, low stance and continues to dribble as the walls close in, then he is gone. As an Apollonian spectator nothing is better. No oop, no Trey, no steal and dunk. Think about it metaphorically. He is alone in the dark, suffocating. He saw it coming. He could only prepare. It should be hopeless. The other team should be sprinting away with the ball, but he’s still in there, thinking, waiting, protecting himself as he looks for an opportunity. Checking his environment for light, for hope, devising a plan. After a few moments, which seem like several seconds, something in the enemy mob gives. The ball escapes to an open man, or someone balks and Trey emerges once again to manipulate our physical reality.
There is a simple truth in this escape. We were terrified, he wasn’t. And then it makes sense. There is only one explanation. Trey Burke is a nerd. A nerd that has logged countless hours devising hundreds of Boolean equations that conclude in a positive result for his team. A nerd that, like an architecture student, sat down and drew and redrew his house until the lines were straight and the shots fell. A nerd who increased his vertical four inches between his freshman and sophomore years. A nerd who became so deft at trusting his instincts to buzz in and answer the trivia question correctly that he no longer thinks when he performs. He no longer celebrates when he succeeds. His place in the world is tangible. He has a job. He is a nerd that plays basketball, and will soon compensated monetarily for his effort. For those that fetishize Michigan sports lore, it is tempting to call the synthesis of nerd and jock, the ideal, the Michigan Man, but this is incorrect. Trey Burke is superman, and everyone can cheer for superman, especially when he looks this good. Anyway, I hope it is exciting. Watch and learn.