Antoine Walker and the Trajectory of Change

By What did Antoine Walker say? When did he say it? How did it help bring about the impossible? And why should leftists care?

For those of you who are following the NBA playoffs, saw the Celtics/Nets game on Saturday night, and/or read the papers on Sunday, please skip the following paragraph. For all those who don’t pay attention to professional sports (much less expect to see mention of it in a progressive political commentary), please note the following:

In the third of a seven-game playoff series, the Boston Celtics went into the fourth quarter against the New Jersey Nets losing by 21 points. What are the chances of a team making a comeback and actually winning the game under such circumstances? Very slim. In NBA history, out of the 171 teams that have started the fourth quarter of a playoff game with a 19-or-more-point deficit, none has emerged as the winner. What happened to that record on Saturday night? The Celtics broke it. They stormed through the fourth quarter, scoring 41 points, virtually closing down the Nets’ offense, gaining their first lead of the game with only 46 seconds left to play, and finally ending the game in an “impossible,” “unbelievable,” “against-all-odds” victory.

How did they do it?

According to Sunday’s sports columnists, it was Antoine Walker who turned the game around for the Celtics — not through brilliant playing (though he provided that as well) but by not accepting what appeared to be their fate. “Buoyed by an emotional plea by … Walker …, the Celtics submitted the single most incredible fourth-quarter performance in playoff history last night, ripping a sure victory from New Jersey’s hands with a spectacular, improbable, truly unimaginable 94-90 win” (Boston Globe, 5/26/02).

Still wondering why this story is showing up in a ZNet commentary?

I would be, too, if I hadn’t just read “Trajectory of Change: Activist Strategies for Social Transformation” (South End Press, 2002) by ZNet’s very own system operator Michael Albert, long-time political activist, writer, and co-founder of numerous “against-all-odds” alternative media projects.

He’s got a touch of Antoine Walker in him, shall we say. He’s cognizant of the odds but not a victim of them. Like Walker, he knows that going into the fourth quarter with a losing attitude, considering only your opponent’s disproportionate advantage and the relative miracle that will be required to turn the game around, ensures loss.

Like Walker, he knows that acting hopeless ensures a hopeless outcome.

Like Walker, Albert wants his “team” to set themselves on a trajectory towards winning. “Stop Whining; Start Winning” says the title of one chapter. Consider what a coach of a losing team says to her players. Does she “bemoan the size and strength of the opponents? Does she talk endlessly about how the schedule is horrible for her team? Does the coach list her team’s detriments and other teams’ strengths as if they are ordained by some athletic God and are unbridgeable impediments to success? Not likely.”

Paying attention to reality is essential of course, but Albert wants the Left to do what a good coach would do: assess, strategize, aim high, refuse to give up. Albert wants the Left to have a touch of Antoine Walker in us.

But “Trajectory of Change” is not about winning a game. It’s about winning social change — short-term reforms as well as the fundamental re-tooling of institutions. It addresses organizers’ most challenging hurdles, such as how to create autonomy within solidarity, how to deal with differences amongst us, and how to sustain ourselves as radical activists. Taking on these problems and solving them has extreme consequences. Basketball wins are measured by balls through hoops, but when it comes to social change, “Winning ends wars, feeds the hungry, gives dignity to the exploited, and reduces their hardships.” With so much more at stake, should it be that hard for us to rise to the challenge and aim to win?

“Trajectory of Change” is essential reading for new activists surveying the forces arrayed against us and wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into. It’s for experienced activists who could use a dose of rational argument for why hanging in for the long haul does not require a leap of faith but is actually a sensible choice. It’s for those who have retired to an identity-based corner where they settle for at least being true to their own ideals. It’s for anyone looking at the scoreboard at the beginning of the fourth quarter and just wishing there was some graceful way to slink into the locker room.

For purposes of that nonsense called full disclosure, let me say at this point, that it would be hard to care more about the author of this book, the media outlets that have gotten it out into the world, and the particular trajectory it speaks of. Michael is a long-time close friend and colleague. I write for Z, contribute regularly to ZNet, and worked for 13 years at South End Press. Not only do I have these personal and institutional links, but social change work is a central part of my life. I’ve been contributing my efforts to building a “trajectory of change” for more than 20 years. Yet even at my level of commitment, I have frequently fallen into doing the work automatically, without much thought to whether I was contributing to an overall winning strategy. I’ve been out on the court, so to speak, but only going through the paces. “Trajectory of Change” was an Antoine Walker-esque kick in the butt for me.

May it do something similar for everyone who picks it up.

Get your copy at: www.southendpress.org. Better yet, order a box full at a discounted rate. Take them with you to events. Pass them on. Challenge yourself and others to do more than “fight the good fight.”

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