You Can Grade Me Shorter
Many things are perfect about this game, but it has one glaring, painful flaw: it demands your complete attention. While football promotes its fair shares of starts, stops, pauses and replays, basketball is more or less non-stop action. It’s virtually impossible to watch out of the corner of your eye, feigning sureness that you’ll bolt up in time for a key play, or grasp the ever-shifting on-court dynamics. Believe me, I’ve been trying, and would have a much easier life were this possible. Unfortunately, I can’t half-spectate a game without feeling like I’m missing most of what draws me to the sport in the first place. The score is the bottom line and the commentary good for accentuating key points, but you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that I’m all about the mangy process.
If I seem a little fanatical about this, it’s only because I’ve become deeply insecure about it as of late. When I find myself doing some other shit during the first half, it takes me longer to give myself in full to the game and I end up enjoying the whole experience less. The obvious alternative is to tune in only for some respectable fraction of a contest, but to me that is a fate worth than death’s most fiery umbrage. It’s the same kind of evil thinking that leads to the “I only watch the NBA after the All-Star Break” faux-snobbery, or the infinitely chumpish “wake me up when the playoffs start.” In part, I want to justify the last few years of my existence by saying this league is worthwhile no matter what the weather. At the same time, though, this kind of disregard for detail, this emphasis on climactic moments, is one of the more starkly lame things about American desire.
A few years back, I heard this feature on NPR that tried to explain soccer as a metaphor for life in the non-American world (citation, please?). While my countrymen see the game as slow, rambling, and almost arbitrary, its ebb and flow fits the model most human beings have for the relationship between existence and good fortune. Goals occur seemingly out of nowhere because life itself delivers blessings as if from above; a sudden spike in contentment, be it romantic, financial, or professional, is not a linear extension of all else that transpires in the realm of the ordinary. This is not to call soccer fans unambitious, or preoccupied with their own, mundane doings—instead, it’s asserting that they have a more accurate sense of the relationship between toil and transcendence. There was also a connection drawn between basketball, in which the flow of production and pay-out are nearly desensitizing, and this pragmatic view of the rhythm of bounty.
That this has stuck with me when I could give a fuck less about soccer shows how enticing a conceit it is. Naturally, though, I’m not in favor of latching onto theories that denigrate the sport that shelters me, especially not when they come from a political perspective that I’ve tried to carve out of the Association. It’s also not that hard to draw a distinction between events that warrant that the mystical treatment and those that might be connected to the less auspicious course of our lives. Clearly, everything is connected and no split second transpires for itself alone. Yet there’s also a difference between a family resemblance (“I’ve waited my whole life to meet someone like you”) and concrete correlation (“These last few years have been spent preparing to meet you in person”). Intention or longing may make a miracle all the more sweet, but they also do a lot to dilute its otherworldiness.
As a child of this brave nation, I have trouble embracing a version of humanity in which self-determination, especially that of a socio-economic nature, is a farce. It would indeed be marvelous if I didn’t have to bear this in mind, but it happens to be one of the main ways that meaning gets built within U.S.A. walls. Even someone seeking to drop out of the rat race and lubricate his dreams has to negotiate this terrain, if nothing else in acknowledging how drastically his lack of (or alternate version of) consumerism affects his identity.
Most key moments in the middle class American life-narrative are marked not only by ritual, but by some sort of major expenditure. Weddings cost a ton, engagement rings aren’t cheap, having children involves a bigger home, sending them to college drains your savings, and aging in twenty-first century ensures that your offspring get no inheritance. No shit this isn’t everyone’s life, depending on race, class, and any number of personal variables. But if you want to achieve these milestones, it’s easiest and most culturally intelligible to do them through the lens of purchase. In America you spend money to actualize these occasions, and a failure to do so puts their legitimacy in jeopardy. In these transformative moments, people often find themselves preoccupied with the financial aspect, or the idle consumerism that this money is speaking through. The rest of life, then, with its daily routine, work, and paychecks, is all just leading up to one’s ability to take one of these steps. You make money not to make more money, but in order to get along with your life through a handful of key purchases.
In the fetishization of March Madness, the Playoffs-only dabbler, the post-All-Star wailer and the second-half slacker, I see only the desire to reduce basketball to as few atomized acres of significance as is mortally possible. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but to me this outlook positively reeks of football. In that most mainstream of sports, scoring is scarce, and yet the entire game’s action is an attempt to gain traction for this production. Picking up yardage is in itself meaningless, except insofar as it has some bearing on an eventual score; the most sublime catch is forgotten if the drive fizzles. The tension between offense and defense is a mood of stasis, with the storyline awakening only when inching clearly becomes an inching toward accomplishment. You see the poetry of an honest, pragmatic grind, I see a dismal ode to being-through-large-scale-consumerism.
This vision of things, however, assumes a version of American civilization that ceased to exist about fifty years ago. Major purchases speak only to an identity founded on the most basic class distinctions, wherein a man is defined by what kind of house he can afford and how luxuriant a burial he receives. There is little or no room for individuality or nuance, as two prominent businessmen with drastically different tastes will still ultimately be judged by their similar choice in McMansions. If a black lady in Queens and a wealthy old socialite in Houston both have Louis Vitton bags, this model refuses to acknowledge the overlap, focusing instead on which one had the money to send her kids to college. Soccer’s metaphor defies the doldrums of class strata, but football embraces a way of reifying them.
These lesser purchases, however, are where we find an identity based in culture, which in America is an open market of freelance commodities and personal collage. Understanding American identity in this manner—admitting the role consumerism plays, and yet refusing to construct a thundering script for it—is about as honest as one can be about what it means to be a part of this society. While difference exists, it doesn’t preclude similarities. And this ever-shifting system of individualized statements comes not to cleave us apart, but to let us speak a common language as we elude complete and total identification with others. What’s more, how we make use of these benchmark purchases—how we fill the home, how children are raised—is a function of these smaller truths.
That, my friends, is why mankind must observe the NBA in all its impeccable might. Games may be decided in the waning seconds, but it’s in the production throughout the “meaningless” quarters and games that its texture is assembled. Although runs may be paths to nowhere, they serves as vignettes informing the final reckoning; if football endorses the exceptional nature of infrequent production, basketball screams out for the value of every acquisition, letting them be judged as their own windows out onto the contest. The medium of basketball is not tension or desperation, but a free-flowing exchange of statements, ideas, and interactions, a textured mass whose climax is more of the same. And with all of them resulting in definite production, it’s not as easy to justify wiping away the memory of them. In fact, the fourth quarter doesn’t give meaning to the rest of the contest; it’s only as meaningful as what’s preceded it. By virtue of their economy, football games are eternally close and continuous, whereas a basketball game can come down to a seemingly incongruous finale. That this sort of game strikes us as unsatisfying proves that the first three quarters’ scoring can and should be inseparable from the outcome without being subordinate to it.
Perhaps the NBA may read like an endless accumulation, a disjointed fury of production. Though to see that this mess is its own unity, rather than believing that it’s the prelude to an eventual clarity, is to see why this sport alone will suffice for FreeDarko. I’ll freely admit that I live through purchases of one kind or another, but am smart enough to see how the small and medium-sized ones are form of expression—as opposed to the hegemonic wrath of the house, wedding, and funeral.
Note: in these terms, nothing is more FreeDarko than the automobile.