My radio, believe me, I like it loud
Before I get started with my actual post, I feel compelled to make an introductory statement or two. First of all, while it was an intimidating enough prospect in and of itself to join the ranks of the Masters of the Klondike as a certified “lil’ dude” (or, as I like to call the new generation of FreeDarko-ites “The Bastards of the Klondike”), both Rocco Chappelle and ForEver Burns have so thoroughly impressed me with their personal, insightful, and well-thought-out pieces, I felt it necessary to introduce what I intend to do with my posts on this blog, as much to justify it to myself as to the rest of the blogosphere. As is immediately clear, both Rocco’s and Burns’ pieces take on a micro-level examination of two particular players to say something somewhat bigger about the NBA and the game of basketball in general. I will very rarely be composing such a micro-examination (mostly because I am thoroughly incapable of doing so) and thus, you will most often find me painting the canvas with much broader strokes, making wildly expansive claims that will probably be pretty easy to disagree with and find exception to. But, I am hoping this won’t detract from whatever ridiculous argument I may or may not be making and will incite some sort of commentary in the comments section. So, without further ado, let me say something potentially ridiculous that might be pretty easy to disagree with…
I know it’s a pretty darn obvious thing to say, but listening to an NBA game on the radio absolutely sucks. Of course, most sports aren’t very fun to listen to on the radio and nothing a radio play-by-play guy can convey will ever really capture the nuanced beauty of the real, live, visual action (Baudrillard is cringing) that the many cameras and angles and slow-motions on TV provide us with. But, let me state right now that this isn’t going to be some laudatory rant about how the NBA is the worst sport to listen to on the radio and thus, in a sly inversion, proclaims that the NBA is the best sport because the pace, feel, and style of the game are all so incapable of being captured with language. But, let’s face it, you really can’t capture the pace, feel, and style of the NBA with language. There simply isn’t a vocabulary for it.
Why is this?
The obvious FreeDarko answer is that this is so because, more so than any other sport and/or any other league, “the NBA is a league of style.” To re-phrase the old Elvis Costello quote blasting music critics for attempting to talk about something that there isn’t a clear vocabulary for: “play-by-playing basketball is like dunking about architecture. It’s really a stupid thing to want to do.” Of course, the broadcasting of games on the radio is a necessary evil and, quite frankly, I’d be pretty annoyed if I couldn’t listen to the Sixers game while I was in my car on my half-hour journey into Philly. But, while I certainly believe Todd McCallaugh when he states that Iverson just made “a fabulous drive to the hoop, taking on all comers,” it’s impossible to really get a feel of any particular play—let alone a whole game!—through radio. Again, it’s worth reiterating that I realize that this is the case for virtually all sports. But, for those unaware of the Freedarko ethos: the essence of the NBA is “style”—the “how” instead of the “what”—and nowhere is this more apparent then when you’re listening to the game on the radio and are only granted access to the barebones “what” of each and every play: “Webber 16 footer, assist Iverson”; “Iverson with a spectacular play”; “Korver pump fakes, steps back, shoots a three and is good!” (The Korver quote is obviously a fictional one because Korver doesn’t make threes unless he catches and shoots, seemingly without looking at the basket or much of anything else, but you get the point).
What one quickly realizes while listening to the game on the radio is that “style” doesn’t just function aesthetically in the NBA. This is where the old-head NBA viewers (like my dad) get it so wrong. They claim that the game is “too flashy” and “too individual” and “fundamental-less,” etc, etc, etc. It’s all just a veiled way of criticizing what we love about the game: it’s insistence on “style.” But, what these criticisms fail to take into account is that, in the NBA, “style” isn’t just “style for style’s sake.” “Style” has a very real purpose and affect/effect in each and every single game of the NBA and, more often than not, helps dictate the outcome. (Side note: What’s not altogether clear to me is whether “style” has always been a necessary part of the game, or if it has only emerged recently. We at FreeDarko often link it the omnipresence of “style” to the increasing influence of “hip-hop” and “black culture” on the sport, but it might be worth investigating if “style” has always been at the very forefront of the NBA while the recent onslaught of “blackness” has only made the importance of “style” to the sport that much more obvious through the explicit “otherness” of “black culture.” But, I digress.)
One aspect of the game that makes basketball unique is that it is “a game of runs.” Sorry to have to resort to employing such a clichéd phrase, but it’s true. Every single fan of every single team watches his team blow big leads regularly and often mistakenly thinks that only his team is the one that consistently blows 8, 15, or 22 point leads. While, of course, there are varying degrees of how often this “blowing of the lead” happens depending on how good your team is (for example, the Sixers have a penchant for blowing leads late that rivals a 16 year old’s penchant for blowing loads early), the fact of the matter is that it happens to every team pretty frequently. It’s the nature of the game. It has happened in the past and will continue to do so into the future. Likewise, we are all much too quick forget about the times that our team was losing by 8, 15, or 22 points only to win the thing in dramatic fashion (for example, I can’t remember the last time the Sixers did this. Two years ago, perhaps?). Again, it’s simply the nature of the game. Very rarely do two teams exchange buckets consistently for the course of 48 minutes. If they did, I suspect the game would be pretty doggone boring, but we can save that for another discussion. The point is that basketball is “a game of runs.”
And so what encourages “runs” in the NBA? Well, this is question with a lot of different answers: Maybe it’s the 6th-man who sparks a run when comes off-the-bench and thunders down a ridiculous alley-oop dunk. Maybe it’s a suddenly stiffened defense. Maybe it’s a 4 point swing that turns a potential tie into a two possession game that steals all the momentum back for good. Maybe it’s the lights going out mid-game for 2 minutes. Whatever it is, it’s not something you can really forecast, predict, or really even describe until it’s already happened. It’s just a feeling that you are aware of when you’re watching the game. It’s a feeling in the shift of the game’s dynamics that you can only appreciate when watching the game. It’s these shifts in momentum that often decide games but, unfortunately for radio, it’s these shifts in momentum that are most lost in radio broadcasts.
What’s more, it’s these shifts in momentum that are most obviously the product of what we here at Freedarko call “style.” Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but I think we can safely say that it is very rarely sheer basketball ability alone that pushes a run forward. It isn’t just that a team is suddenly making more baskets than the other team although, of course, this is usually the case. It’s a very palpable-yet-inexplicable shift in dynamics that isn’t motivated by much of anything except momentum itself. The runs often come from out of nowhere and dissipate just as quickly. But, again, it is my contention that these runs are, more often than not, the product of little more than a single player or several groups of player changing the shape of the game not necessarily through “what” they do, but in the manner in which they do it. Or, in a word, “style.”
Now, it’s worth noting that if we here at FDHQ were all just “style” fanatics, this blog would be all about AND1 mixtapes, streetball legends, and/or our favorite rappers/basketball players (the freedarko “slashies,” if you will). But, the major difference between the AND1ers and the streetball legends and the NBA players that we worship is that the AND1ers and the slashy ‘ballers are only capable of using “style” for “style’s sake.” Sure it can be beautiful and awe-inspiring, but what separates most of these players—many of which obviously have the skill, athleticism, and ability that NBA players have—is this inability to turn “style” into a weapon that can really change the course of a game, time after time. It’s one of those indescribable traits that a player either has or doesn’t have. “Style” is a cunning beast, too, frequently attempting to disguise itself as being other traits--“competitiveness” or “hunger” or “dominance” or “will”—but when you see it manifested in the truly great players who not only “have it” but simultaneously “embody it,” you know that all of its guises are false ones.
And so this is radio’s great failure and the NBA’s great triumph: with the radio, we are only allowed access to the “what”--the box score and the basic play-by-play—never allowing us to experience the very thing that makes the NBA the unique sport/league it is: “style.” And, when listening to a game on the radio, you can’t help but realize just how important each and every stylistic nuance is to each and every moment of each and every game. Listening to a game on the radio certainly sucks, but—just as a black-graphic-bar that’s supposed to censor nipples on television ultimately draws more attention to the hidden nipples instead of actually hiding them—listening to a game on the radio, ultimately draws attention to the fact that the NBA is a game of “how” much more than it is a game of “what.”
**EDIT**: I originally meant to link this phenomenal highlight video of Amare's pre-cursor, Mr. Shawn Kemp, but I forgot. Anyway, here it is. Amazing stuff.