Against the Endless Maze of Sport
Some months back, I did a post explaining why Townes Van Zandt is not basketball. No one seemed to care at the time, and I nearly retired over the silence; unbeknowst to all, I was actually attempting to explain what the NBA means to me. In retrospect, what I probably should've done is explain why I would expect TVZ to be basketball, since therein lay the highly personal dimension of the argument.
Fast forward to the day we call now, where I'm cold at year's end and half-assedly taking stock of my life's work. Away from cable since Friday, I've witnessed precious little basketball and been thinking about the sport even more abstractly than usual. You've heard the FD standpoint repeated like a saline mess: stars, style, psychology, and whatever else sounds angry. All involved frequently think of this as a particular kind of fandom; myself and Silverbird coined the term "liberated fandom," a fascination as passionate as the homer but as free to range as a "student of the game."
Yet a few days ago, Joey of Straight Bangin' fame uttered the following quote in a Gmail chat:
"It's hard for me to even explain my NBA and basketball passion at this point. It just seems to be an organic extension of my life in a way that other sports just aren't."
Bingo indeed. For as much as I consider myself relatively aware of other sports, I can't really say they beckon me in quite the same way. Whatever draws me to the NBA has nothing to do with some generalized category of "athletics enthusiast;" in fact, I have no belief whatsoever in the endless maze of sport upon which ESPN is premised. Last I checked, all this great games of our race were different and special in their own way. While the competitive impulse may reside in us all, and the human will finds satisfaction in physical exertion, a sport is more than the sum of its parameters. Each exists as its own culture, and whatever overlap there is must be viewed as accidental. Anyone who participates in multiple sports is not a renaissance man—he is a being without a home.
What might upset some people about this line of reasoning is the American invention of ur-sport. From the child enlisted in year-round competition as a rite of passage, to the college allegiance that makes for instant fandom, we're trained to believe that all sports belong to us equally. Since I've already set some hairs 'a bristlin', I'll go one step further: this sports dilletantism is a function of affluence and prosperity. Maybe you know this, but soccer and basketball require little equipment and organization, whereas resources are required to stage, and often participate in, a game of football, baseball, or hockey. With privilege comes non-determination and a view of sports that reflects this, from the participation of youth up through the spectatorship of adulthood.
If all sports are from a common essence, than the men and women who play them are distinguished only by physical attributes. Rarely are we encouraged to consider what a difference there must be between a person who loves the game of basketball and one who feels himself most perfectly realized thrugh football. Case in point: LeBron could be in the NFL right now, but he's opted for the NBA. What led him in that direction? Is it a coincidence that T-Mac, one of the Association's great daydreamers, has made public a fervent desire to go MLB? While often size and strength make this decision (see Gates, Antonio or Peppers, Julius), these athletes have within them an unmistakable affinity for one game. Or at very least, they draw on different parts of themselves.
In ignoring this, however, we leave ourselves only the option of dehumanizing them. Either they are sub-human dimensions and digits, or they are inhuman gods who embody the most noble properties of the sport's culture. What I fuss over, though, is something in between, a grey area that reader Ben F. described as "not complex enough to be real and yet definitely complex enough as to descend from a level of perfection." I never think for a second I will know athletes as real people, but I insist that in their accomplishments we see the harmonious interaction of a particular person and a particular form of competition.
What is FreeDarko? At least for me, it's my relationship with a sport that I feel uniquely compelled to follow. I'm not saying I'm suited to play it, or that I have anything in common with those who do. But in the same way that they intentionally inhabit the basketball universe, I swear by the NBA because of who I am. FreeDarko is more than a mere stunt because, like those players, I think there's a place for me in it.