Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Talkin' Hoops

Over the last month-and-a-half, I find myself constantly reading basketball blogs, pouring over old basketball articles (under the guise of primary research for my thesis), and constant discussion about the current state of the NBA, as well as historical issues such as Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller, Kobe vs. Michael, and the historical context of the current era of officiating. It suddenly dawned on me, that despite my own belief that baseball was my favorite sport, and the Browns were my favorite team, I think I like talking about hoops most. And I want to figure out WHY that is. Of course the very simple answer to this question is: I am from Cleveland and I live in Los Angeles, and representatives from those two cities are currently favored to meet in the finals of the field of sixteen's (now seven) tournament.

But I think there's more. As a bartender in the City of Kobe, ahem, Angels, I am privileged to talk to a lot of pretty dedicated hoops fans that have experienced some pretty heady moments in NBA history. Also, it should be noted: LA fans get a bad rap as being fair-weather—I am hear to say that—at least Lakers fans—are some of the most knowledgeable, dedicated, and educated fans of any team I have met. They are the anti-Boston sports fans. Conversations with this group (leaving out the occasional irrational Kobe nut) often leave me satisfied and informed about the perspective of West Coast hoops fans.

I apologize for that brief transgression. As I was saying: as a bartender, I have been lucky enough to have some pretty intense conversations in the last few months, conversations I feel that I have rarely been able to have at such a consistent level about baseball and SURELY about football. Here is my theory on why:

Baseball is about statistics, and results. Opinions, even empirical evidence rarely can trump the veracity of statistics. Conversations about baseball—at least those I tend to become involved in—are often comparing the use and utility of particular stats. How important are stats like RBIs and wins, when OBP, slugging, IP, and Ks seem to be better barometers of production? Discussions about baseball are mathematic and definable. To use an academic analogy, baseball is a hard science, say chemistry—elements have defined atomic weights, predictable behavior around other elements, and tend to follow certain physical laws that are pretty easily defined. Hoops is not like this. Hoops is a soft science, like say anthropology. You can apply similar methods to analysis, but at the end of the day, the both the results, and the methods of analysis themselves, will be open to interpretation.

Football on the other hand seems to be about excess and sensationalism. We are rarely impressed with historical context, we rarely discuss cultural significance, there is very little room for non-traditional thinking, and, really, discussions about the NFL tend to be mind-numbingly narrow. That is not to say I do not LIKE the NFL, it is merely a weird trend you can call the American Idol phenomenon. Like American Idol, the NFL inspires plenty of discussion and conversations, but these conversations, regardless of age, education, social status, or any other mitigating factor, tend to me remarkably similar in breadth and relevance. Conversations about last months draft were astoundingly similar in any circle. Furthermore, we tend to be impressed, not by ability, intelligence, or grace, but by size, speed, and strength. We are impressed by 6'4" linebackers who run forty yards in less than four-and-a-half seconds. We are impressed by 6'6" inch receivers who can outrun a cheetah. Unfortunately, conversations I would like to have—conversations about the social and racial implications regarding the self-lionization of the players, conversations about leadership, conversations about alternative perspectives on the game—are rarely, if ever, welcome. I find this incredibly frustrating, that every conversation regarding the NFL, is compressed down to a simple analysis with very little room for external thought.

Which brings me to the NBA. So much about the NBA lends itself to informed and substantial discourse that a short list here will not nearly do justice, but let me try. Issues in the NBA span such a broad spectrum of education, analysis, and society, that every conversation you can have can be different. The game cannot be explained simply by numbers so that arguments over who is better at what, seem to all have, at least a small amount, or validity. The two month playoff system (which can be exhausting) lends itself to a two month cavern of nationally televised games in which casual fans participate, and hard-core fans are submerged. The games are played by players with no hats or helmets so that every corn-row, braid, smile, sneer, tear, and cringe are exposed with virtually nothing to get in the way. The game is played with an indefinable grace that makes the play of some of the league's stars so tangible yet unquantifiable that the only externalization available is discourse and verbal awe.

The obvious example of this phenomenon is Lebron. Lebron is doing things that many people have not seen before. This is interesting, because if the game were analyzed like baseball, this would not be the case. Lebron's numbers are similar to Oscar's, Bird's, Michael's, and a few more guys. But he is doing it differently. What exactly is different about Lebron compared to his predecessors? THAT is the discussion. Is it his size, his determination, his youthful exuberance, perhaps his game's influence by other players, his individual rivalry with Kobe, his team's rivalry with Boston, his own historical significance, his responses to criticisms levied on him by the press in the last five years. All of these play a part in the formation of Lebron James. Then, subsequently, there is discussion about his game on the court. His style, the way he has a weird ability to hit half-court shots, his Dr. J dunks, his Magic-like passing, it's all up for discussion. In baseball, it's numbers; in football is structured rigidity that takes away from the overall substance of any conversation or participation in any contextual analysis of the game, in basketball, it's about the individual, the team, the history, the culture, and then, after all of that, there's still a champion.

Why is it that the best basketball players are judged by how many rings they've won, while football players and baseball players are judged by individual achievements? Why is it that the personality and charm of the basketball player is so much more important than the dullness and litany of other sports (presented beautifully by Kevin Costner in Bull Durham in the cliché speech on the bus)? The answers to these questions are as great as the answers to questions about the game itself. Basketball, unlike other major team sports, is simply a matter of discussion.

1 comment:

JK all the way said...

I like your analogy of the sports to academic subjects. It just seems that Basketball is so much more accessible (in terms of understanding the game, being able to play the game, knowing someone that plays etc), than the other sports that can more easily connect people to the sport. I like your comment about being able to see the players, every detail of them, which is not the case in baseball or football. Fans may become more "intimately" involved with basketball players because they simply have more "access" to them.

It would be interesting to see what people in a European country would say about conversations about Soccer players (where the sport and the players are more accessible to people) vs. cricket (or another sport that I can't think of) where the players are not as accessible, and it is harder for people to access that sport.

Last comment. When watching the cavs play against the hawks (by the way I'm completely a casual fan), I found myself saying, "I don't care what Lebron's personal numbers are, he should be judged by how well he can motivate his teammates". Would I have said that about a browns or Indians player (which I can't think of one person now)? Not sure, but there is something more intimate about basketball having 5 players on the court instead of 11 or 9. And also, in baseball and football, offense and defense are separate (sort of) whereas basketball it is more continuous. Not sure where I'm going with that one, but nice post.

-JK all the way-