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Thursday, October 2, 2014

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.” -

Byron Scott

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.

Hakeem Olajuwon

 

I played basketball to try to get my parents from working so hard.

James Worthy

 

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-

Drake

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. -

Oscar Robertson

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.

32 comments on “Why We Love the Game

  1. cgreene

    Nicely written, John. I still think the main issue with a player run league is not the money or even the city. It’s that there is a history that comes with being a fan that will need to be rebuilt. That will take a long time. Knicks fans are connected by the history of the team. Also marketing has more impact than one would think.

    On another note: did anyone see Magic Johnson call out LeBron in a major way at a speech he made? He said LeBron will NEVER win a championship and that anyone who thinks he is a great player better yet the best player is completely wrong. He was very harsh. I must say that the NBA has a history of stars being friendly and respectful for the most part even in rivalries. Ewing and Jordan and Oakley were all pals. LeBron really must have pissed the old guard of the NBA off in a big way. He continuously gets called out by Magic, Barkley, Bird etc. Kind of insane.

  2. Jim Cavan (@JPCavan)

    Good stuff, mane.

    I too have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about what it is exactly that draws us to this beautiful game — typically in the context of arguing with someone else as to why basketball is superior to whatever sport they like. The self-expressive, often jazz-like improvisation, coupled with precise geometry; the intimacy and intensity of a 90-foot space — I think you really captured that.

    While I fear the loss of a season just as much as the next man, I’m starting to come to grips with the possibility. I’ve always been a pretty big college ball fan, so whatever solace is worth taking, that’s where I’ll find it. No, the players aren’t nearly as talented. But while I think arguing over which is the purer manifestation of the sport risks hanging on semantics, one thing I’ve always loved about the college game is the intensity and relative cohesiveness with which teams play. Having grown up in Michigan, I’m a huge Michigan State fan. As far as styles go, you won’t find any more polar opposite approaches than Mike D’Antoni and Tom Izzo. But I think the contrast in styles — both beautiful in their own way — is just another example of what makes this game so damn fun.

    Realistically, I doubt we ever see a kind of rogue league on the order of what’s been discussed, and we certainly won’t ever see something that rivals what the ABA brought to the table. All I know is that, if we lose a full season, I’ll take the game where I can get it.

  3. dsi

    I like it.

    That said, I continue to believe that this bad joke of a negotiation will end in the very near future. The first games will be played between December 1 and December 15. The owners are pr*&ks, but they’re not stupid; they’re not going to damage the long-run value of the league by destroying this season…especially after last season’s huge success. The mediator was brought in so the owners can save face.

    Second, if the owners are dumber than I think, ESPN should sponsor a short season. The top 12 players in the ESPN ranking are the captains. The next 48 are “draft eligible.” They captains play rock-paper-scissors (on national TV) to decide on a draft order, and they create “core rosters” of 5. Remaining players are assigned as “rotating” to specific teams. ESPN keeps just enough to cover its expenses (thank you, ESPN!); of the remaining, one-half gets split (evenly) among all the players, and the rest of it goes to the championship team.

  4. dsi

    Yea, that was pretty naive of me. Shoe companies? Hell, force the the friggin’ government to sponsor it. They did it for the banks. And “it’s all going to be paid back…”.

  5. jon abbey

    Bill Simmons with one of his better recent efforts about alternatives to the NBA:

    http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/7123705/locked-nhl-arms

    I’m not going to start watching hockey myself, but am excited to read more books, watch more movies, maybe more college hoops and even college football. in a weird way, I’m kind of rooting for the whole season to be cancelled, maybe I can break my lifelong dependence on the NBA a bit.

  6. jon abbey

    also, the new ESPN magazine has what seems like a pretty good plan for a player’s league called the NPL, but the article doesn’t seem to be online yet. they don’t say anything there about ESPN having a non-compete clause in their deal with the NBA, and I assume that wouldn’t apply if there wasn’t actually a NBA season going on to compete against anyway.

  7. dsi

    OK, here’s my top 4 alternatives to the NBA:

    1) MAKING LOVE TO MY WIFE. Yea, I know, kinda routine after 20 years. But, like the NBA, every night is another shot at a great performance.

    2) “SEVEN”. Great flick with Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, and Kevin Spacey. Like a close NBA playoff game, it builds perfectly to a insanely tense end-game that makes you jump up and scream “OH SHIT!”

    3) LIVE MUSIC. Do I need to explain this? Thought not.

    4) MASTURBATING. Why not? It’s gotten me through thirty summers of baseball.

  8. njasdjdh

    jon abbey:
    Bill Simmons with one of his better recent efforts about alternatives to the NBA:

    http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/7123705/locked-nhl-arms

    I’m not going to start watching hockey myself, but am excited to read more books, watch more movies, maybe more college hoops and even college football. in a weird way, I’m kind of rooting for the whole season to be cancelled, maybe I can break my lifelong dependence on the NBA a bit.

    That piece also features one of the most offensive statements I have ever seen a mainstream writer make as Simmons says the NBA players “lack the intellectual capacity” to make a good deal. So, there’s that as well. Not sure how/why that was allowed to be published but, yeah.

  9. njasdjdh

    Given the furor Gumbel’s comments caused I’m sort of depressed to see how Simmons seems to be skating by (with the exception of Ziller).

  10. Brian Cronin (@Brian_Cronin)

    Great statistical analysis on Amar’e at Hardwood Paroxysm!

    Thanks for the link, Mike. Excellent stuff (I especially liked the confirmation about something I thought was happening, that Amar’e was getting away from his strengths on offense – being around the rim – and going to too many jump shots).

  11. Brian Cronin (@Brian_Cronin)

    And yeah, I liked Simmons’ article for the most part, but I continue to dislike his “everyone is equally to blame” position. The players just plain ol’ are not equally to blame here.

  12. d-mar

    Looks like based on all the reports and tweets they seem to be getting close to an agreement. They’re supposedly very close on BRI and the mid level exception, which are 2 biggies.

    I know I’m supposed to be angry at both sides and be looking for other things to do this winter, but when all is said and done, I want my NBA hoops. Hope we hear something positive soon.

  13. daJudge

    John, thank you for such a well written cool piece. I really enjoyed it. To me, the Knicks are not the entire basketball world, nor is the NBA for that matter. I grew up in the City and love the Knicks big time. Now I live in a very rural area and, like politics, all sports are local way out here. So my over fifty league, my open league, high school hoop and my secret allegiance to St. John’s (everyone loves ‘Cuse in this godforsaken County) supplants the NBA to some extent. Where I live, the biggest quandary for most is not seeing Jimmer play. Maybe some of those missing the ultimate hoop spectacle could focus on the more local/intimate aspects of the Game, including getting your lazy butts out there and working on that old jump shot. By the time it starts dropping, the NBA will be back in business. Myself—I need to play, but I don’t need a player’s league, at least yet. Thanks again John.

  14. Will the Thrill

    I think it’s clear to see that Amare’s drop in TS% is a result of taking too many jump shots. It’s also clear to see that in the second half of the season he was playing without Steve Nash or even Raymond Felton who actually run the pick and roll. Now Billups is running the point and he can’t physically run the pick and roll so Amare was getting the ball at the elbow standing still more than he ever has in his career. I just believe that it is not because of his age or a mental issue, I believe that the point guard playing with him is a much larger factor.

  15. Brian Cronin (@Brian_Cronin)

    While I agree in general, Will (heck, I am sure I have said as much in about a gazillion debates on this site on the topic – “gazillion” might be an understatement, really), do note that while things got worse when Billups came in (or when Felton left, whichever way you want to phrase it), Amar’e was already headed to a career low in TS%.

    So yes, I agree that if Paul or D-Will joined the Knicks (or even Nash), Amar’e would suddenly resemble old Amar’e once again.

  16. Brian Cronin (@Brian_Cronin)

    Looks like based on all the reports and tweets they seem to be getting close to an agreement. They’re supposedly very close on BRI and the mid level exception, which are 2 biggies.

    I know I’m supposed to be angry at both sides and be looking for other things to do this winter, but when all is said and done, I want my NBA hoops. Hope we hear something positive soon.

    Those reports were encouraging, agreed, but the luxury tax stuff and the Bird Rights (plus sign and trades) stuff is by far the biggest hurdle. By far. That’s where the sides are furthest apart, with the players wanting things to stay the same while the owners sound like they want to blow it all up. This is the stuff that is most important to the Knicks, as stricter rules on these issues would more or less cripple the Knicks going forward, as they would be hard pressed to get that third star with this arrangement. Heck, if things get really strict, cap-wise, the Knicks might have to consider using the proposed amnesty rule (where teams would be able to waive a player and only have 25% of their salary be counted toward the salary cap) to waive Amar’e! Or at the very least, deal Amar’e to another team, as two players making $40 million when you can’t go over the cap to re-sign your own players and you can’t do sign and trades…well, that is not good. Hopefully Bird Rights (and sign and trades) remain and the luxury tax is not so onerous, because the Knicks really need those to there for Melo/Amar’e to be viable going forward.

  17. knicksgirl

    Great piece! Well written and refreshingly heartfelt compared to most of the articles currently circulating about the NBA.

  18. jon abbey

    njasdjdh: That piece also features one of the most offensive statements I have ever seen a mainstream writer make as Simmons says the NBA players “lack the intellectual capacity” to make a good deal. So, there’s that as well. Not sure how/why that was allowed to be published but, yeah.

    actually he says that they’re “saddled with limited intellectual capital” (why would you use quotation marks and paraphrase on something like that? lame), and since he’s interacted with many more players than you or I, maybe he’s right. Kevin Garnett is certainly a good example for his position.

  19. John Kenney Post author

    Players continue to come off far better than the owners. Sad to see more games inevitably canceled.

  20. BigBlueAL

    Its not about whose fault is it or whats fair, fact is the players are going to have to accept the owner’s deal or else there wont be a season period.

  21. BigBlueAL

    At least Billy Hunter mentioned James Dolan as one of the owners willing to make a deal. For once we cant blame Dolan lol

  22. njasdjdh

    jon abbey: actually he says that they’re “saddled with limited intellectual capital” (why would you use quotation marks and paraphrase on something like that? lame), and since he’s interacted with many more players than you or I, maybe he’s right. Kevin Garnett is certainly a good example for his position.

    I wasn’t paraphrasing, my memory was off. Regardless, my point stands.

  23. jon abbey

    would you be equally offended if he said that the owners were “saddled with limited physical capital”? just curious, I hate kneejerk political correctness and there are a lot of really stupid professional athletes (I have no real opinion pro or con on Simmons’ original statement).

    and yeah, it’s looking less and less likely we’ll ever see Billups in orange and blue again (under contract for just this season) unless he takes a really small deal to come back.

  24. latke

    The players need to compromise on the luxury tax issue. It’s something they should have immediately jumped on. Let’s say the NBA broke even in terms or real money last season. Local TV deals are a huge financial boom for NBA teams, so it makes sense that there is huge income inequality. Let’s say then that top 10 markets are in the green to the tune of $400 million, and just for the sake of argument, the bottom 20 are in the red for that same $400 million. Even with the 5% BRI cut the players would likely take were the owners to offer it (57% to 52%), if we distribute that cash back evenly, it is only $100 million dollars.

    Now, most of that giveback is going to line the pockets of the teams that are already in the green, since they have higher salaries, so if we are generous and say the bottom 2/3s of the teams get half of the $100 million, we get $50 million. That’s nothing compared to the $400 million in losses. It’s maybe enough to get a few of the borderline teams narrowly into the green.

    Now, you could tell these teams to just spend less, but many of those teams are already at or near the current NBA minimum for total salaries. And if they don’t invest in players, they’re never going to be competitive, which means they won’t fill the stands or improve their television deals. It’s a real problem, and in my opinion the only legitimate problem that the NBA has.

    I think if the players stop looking at the NBA as a whole as the issue and instead look at it on a team by team level and make an offer with the revenue sharing that gets a good chunk of the smaller market teams a big payday, they’ll get a deal done.

  25. jon abbey

    Simmons with a follow-up tweet just now, FWIW:

    “Could anyone else who twists my “limited intellectual capital” comment around from yesterday’s column please note that I’d have the same concerns for NHL/NFL/MLB players? Athletes are trained/conditioned to play sports, not save their sports economically.”

  26. Brian Cronin (@Brian_Cronin)

    At least Billy Hunter mentioned James Dolan as one of the owners willing to make a deal. For once we cant blame Dolan lol

    I know! How sad is that when Dolan is one of the “good” guys?

  27. Zach Horst

    John, just got a chance to read your article now. Great job – really loved how it was laid out! You seemed to have spent a lot of time on it, and it serves as a very interesting perspective.

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