Why We Love the Game
My greatest gift that I have in life is basketball- Isiah Thomas
As we begin the third week of October it appears that much of the 2011-2012 basketball season will be lost. There are a number of very real economic consequences which will accumulate from the loss of games, not only from the number of employees that have been let go from their franchises, but also from the decrease in business for numerous restaurants and stores close to arenas. Livelihoods are threatened. Much more rides on this lockout than just a game. And yet, while many fans of the NBA will make this observation and sympathize with those put out of work, I imagine that the loss they will feel the most will come when they are unable to root for their team as the winter months stretch onward. This symptom is found within all of fandom: rational humans who understand that there exist far more important issues and problems within our world will devote countless time and energy to following a game, led more by their heart than by their head. To be a true fan is to appreciate what the Knicks’ much-maligned former executive realizes: the game of basketball is a gift.
And so what is the response when this gift is taken away? What can possibly fill the void in an adequate manner? To figure out a solution requires an understanding of why fans love the game of basketball and the NBA. I was prompted to think about this question by Zach Horst’s article defending the view that a player-led league would fail to carry the interest of true fans. The article prompted a heated debate among commenters (some of whom disliked the use of the phrase true fan, others of whom disagreed with the thesis of the argument.) I believe that a separate basketball league could succeed in attracting fans as long it could understand and act in a way that recognizes what constitutes fandom. It would need to understand what drives passion to such irrationally high levels. It would need to understand the sorts of things that make fans frustrated. It would need to understand why we love the game.
“Dribble, pass and shoot. I always thought it’s the way the game was supposed to be played.” -
Appreciation for the beauty of the game of basketball is a good place to begin analyzing why fans can be driven to such irrational devotion. The reason why fans would choose to concentrate on basketball over other sports must be found within the game itself. The precise geometry required for success, the way in which the game lends itself to showcasing incredible athleticism, and the concept of five players working together as one; all contribute to an appreciation for the game. The degree to which a person cares about the previous three factors is an important factor in determining if they favor the professional or college game. College enthusiasts obstinately repeat Scott’s sentiment that there is a “way the game [is] supposed to be played.” Fans of the NBA may be more likely to appreciate the incredible athleticism necessary to be a star in the league, while harboring frustration that college fans believe that a lower shooting percentage could somehow represent a purer form of the game (I think it’s obvious what camp I fall into.) While fans often think of offense when describing the way the game should be played, it is equally important that defense is active and of a high-quality. When defense breaks down too frequently, it becomes too easy to score, and contributes to the perception that those playing the game do not care about its result (a perception we will deal with in a moment.) This is one of the first issues an outside league would have to overcome, but it is not true that only the NBA could convince players to play defense. If the league was structured in an organized manner, fans could be drawn to the quality of basketball just as if it were the NBA.
I’m a fan myself and I’m frustrated just as much as them when we get beat. -
Steven Gerrard (Yes, I snuck a soccer quotation in.)
Even more important is that the games manufacture a heightened sense of importance, so that fans act as though something is life and death when in fact it is entirely the opposite. This is exactly why the exhibition games do not fill the need for basketball. (They are, by definition, fairly empty of meaning, except insofar as they can reinforce beliefs we already held, such as when d uring a recent exhibition Carmelo’s three-pointer with a second left to tie the game confirmed our sense that he is “clutch.”) Fans need to feel hurt and frustrated when their teams lose, and they need to feel elation when their teams win. This emotional connection is built up through repeated traumatic and ecstatic experiences. The best way to begin creating these experiences would be for the players in the new league to exert visible effort each and every play toward the eventual goal of a championship. As a general rule, the enthusiasm a team’s fans have for its success or failure cannot noticeably exceed for a long period of time the importance a team’s players place on the game. When teams appear to have lost the will to win, (Hello, several Knicks’ teams from the mid-2000’s) fans’ energy and interest is slowly sapped from the game. This is something separate from simply losing a lot of games; many fans have stuck with their teams through downtimes, often in support of young teams which lost incredible numbers of games. So long as the players are giving their all, fans can remain invested in the team’s success. Creating a large end-of-season playoff would provide the do-or-die mentality necessary to motivate the players effectively each and every game. It would also help to create the searing memories that cause fans to form intense attachments to a team.
Basketball is in my blood. It is my obligation to try.
I played basketball to try to get my parents from working so hard.
A potential league could fail if it did not appreciate fans’ distaste for overt commercialism. When Zach wrote that it was unlikely anyone would care about a game between Kobe’s Denver Citibank Armadillos vs. Lebron’s Akron MetLife Wildcats, he certainly was correct, but I’m not sure he was correct in analyzing why people would not care. Fans of the NBA do not appreciate when players play the game for money because that reason does not line up with why fans love the game. As with many things in life, it is not enough to enjoy the same thing as someone else; fans would like to believe that players share the same reason for enjoying the game as they do. It is widely assumed that anyone who does not play “for love of the game” will fail to exert the same effort as someone who does love the game. One might wonder if this is a fair assessment. Consider the two quotations above. Who will be more motivated? The player who loves the game, or the player who works so that his family can enjoy a better life? Playing a game one loves is easy. Doing anything that you do not enjoy so that you can benefit others should be recognized as both difficult and noble. We glorify those who work rotten jobs to support their families in other areas of society; in sports, we vilify those who lack love for the game because we cannot imagine not loving the game ourselves. To put corporations in the teams’ names would bring the raw commercialism of professional sports too close to the surface for fans’ sensibilities. Much as the lockout is currently doing, it would remind us that money is more of a force in the game than we would like to realize. However, it is not as if a renegade league would have to take this step, so this is not a fatal flaw. Amend the statement to, “Would you watch a game between Kobe’s Seattle Sharks vs LeBron’s Akron Admirals?” and I imagine a number of fans would be quite interested.
All I care about is money and the city that I’m from-
The easiest way to appeal to fans would be to draw upon the instinct Zach identified in his article and depend on fans “supporting their city.” Our support for our city is not merely a random allegiance due to where we happened to have been born, but rather a product of our memories and experiences within that city; an attachment of a similar kind as the one created over time with a sports team. Using the draw of “Support Your City!” as an initial hook, a renegade league could then let the Shakespearean drama that is basketball draw fans in on its own. Basketball is one of the most personality-driven sports. There are no helmets hiding players’ facial expressions. There are regularly moments when players are called upon to to rise to the occasion and come through in the clutch, moments which will undoubtedly result afterward in psychoanalysis of “who exactly a player is,” and questions about their ability to perform under pressure. There are a wide-enough range of personalities that every casual fan can find a player who they identify with to support; while some appreciate Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose’s quiet drive, others are drawn to Carmelo and Kobe’s prima donna swagger. Finally, it is important to remember that while the players are important-incredibly important- like any good character in a dramatic story, to be fully appreciated they require the right plot and stage.
Basketball is basketball. -
What barnstorming exhibition tours prove is that there needs to be an organized league in place for fans to care about basketball. What they do not indicate is that the NBA is the only league in which this could occur. While the reasons I identify above are not necessarily exhaustive, I believe they provide a good picture of what makes a person a fan of basketball. To the extent that a new league could satisfy what fans are looking for in the game, it could find success. However, what I hope most of all is that today’s meetings help ensure that we never reach the point of seriously contemplating the creation of another league. The NBA is coming off one of its greatest seasons ever. The story lines have never been more intriguing, the star power has never been brighter. It would be a shame to lose the gift of something we love so much.