In the ordinary business of markets there is more going on than just the interplay of competitive forces. What we want to talk about is that “more” that is going on.
We will illustrate with the story of a man who would become known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an athlete who holds the all-time NBA record in scored points.
“Put your best offer on the table; I will choose.” That was what Lew Alcindor, who eventually became the world-famous basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, proposed to the Milwaukee Bucks and the New York Nets, two professional basketball teams, in 1969. No back and forth, no negotiations. One offer, and one offer only, from each team.
Alcindor was a tough negotiator. “I was happy to exploit that rivalry to get the best financial offer possible,” he recalls in his autobiography.
The Bucks offered more than the Nets and Alcindor, then a 22-year-old college athlete who grew up in the New York City projects, was on his way to becoming a millionaire. Two years later, on April 30, 1971, he led the Bucks to their first championship.
What the Bucks added to their arsenal with the signing of Alcindor was his shot with an arc that was, as the radio broadcaster Eddie Doucette quipped, “so high that it was coming out of the sky”. No one before had done quite what Alcindor did. With his back to the basket, he would jump with his left foot, blocking the defender with his left arm and stretching his right arm high into the air, rolling the ball out of his hand and over his head, unreachable for any defender who hoped to block the shot. The “skyhook”. It was the kind of shot which altered the game, an innovation which forced the defence to adopt different strategies and other players to learn the shot or come up with innovations of their own.
Having stumbled upon the skyhook at the age of nine, Alcindor spent years refining his craft, bringing it to perfection at UCLA under the guidance of coach John Wooden: “We worked on it like two mechanics perfecting an engine”. But if discovering the skyhook was Alcindor’s “first awakening”, his second awakening occurred at UCLA, when he became aware he was becoming a symbol and a spokesperson for black people. “It was what I had wanted, but the pressure was even greater than it was playing basketball because the stakes were so much higher. Failing to score on a hook shot meant missing a couple of points. Failing to articulate a position clearly and convincingly could affect people’s lives.”
Alcindor realized that while the game he played gave him the chance to become rich and famous, the athleticism and the business side of his game were not the only aspects of what he did. It also gave him the chance to add a voice to the Black Americans who, in his own words, “were in such pain”. In doing so, he was influenced by his friend and mentor, Muhammad Ali, who inspired Alcindor to connect with his African roots through the exploration of Islam. Alcindor knew that many of the slaves brought from Africa were Muslims, and he knew that “Alcindor” was the name of the slave owner who owned his ancestors. By changing the name on his jersey to “Abdul-Jabbar”, he changed and expanded the identities of African Americans.
When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took part in sports, he did more than sell his services to his team. He enriched basketball with his skyhook, but he also challenged existing beliefs about how black athletes were supposed to conduct themselves and he used his platform to discuss broader issues of race and black identity through his name change and outspokenness. These contributions influenced the terms on which the game of basketball and more broadly sports operated: the access and opportunities which other black athletes had.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was special; both literally and figuratively he towered above the competition. But his story contains more general truths: when we take part in the ordinary business of life – buying groceries, selling our services, voting in neighborhood meetings, etc. – the consequences of our conduct often go beyond what is directly seen. Contributions by consumers, entrepreneurs, and athletes shape and transform the rules which govern market practices, and enrich the repertoire of possible actions.
The shared knowledge built up as a consequence of the many everyday interactions as well as the rules that govern who can access and contribute to these practices and knowledge are what we call the knowledge commons: a pool of knowledge on which others can draw and a set of rules about who can contribute. The extent to which markets develop and thrive or grow stale depends on the openness of these knowledge commons as well as the quality of their infrastructure. Abdul-Jabbar’s contributions became possible through the game of basketball, of a professional association with fierce rivalry between the teams, but most of all because ultimately his contributions were recognized by others.
In this way we can see that markets are not just sites of competition and rivalry; they are places of social cooperation and mutual learning. Abdul-Jabbar compared this worldview to jazz music from which he drew inspiration: “In jazz we share, we listen to each other, we respect each other, we are creating in the moment. That’s how I wanted to see the world, as a team.”
Markets, as well as sports leagues, thrive because there is competition. But an awareness of shared knowledge commons helps us recognize the extensive intentional and unintentional forms of cooperation and sharing that make markets thrive in the first place.
To read an introduction to Governing Markets as Knowledge Commons, please click here.