If It Splits Like a Fortune Cookie. . .

I don't much care for Neal Pollack, but he's responsible for at least one memorable passage of basketball writing. One, in fact, that fairly regularly lingers around me. It's about the Suns and from Slate, back before that troika spelled slobber.

D'Antoni's philosophy revolves around ball movement, speed, defense in short spurts, and sense of humor. In one regular-season game, the Suns fell short after a furious comeback when reserve center Steven Hunter missed a dunk at the buzzer. Nash and Stoudemire came over, doubled up laughing, and dragged him back to the locker room. I've never seen players less affected by losing. If it's possible for a basketball team to be run by wit, then the Suns, with their intellectual point guard and their Continental coach, are that team.

I've never been convinced that Pollack got at the heart of D'Antoni, or the Suns players. If he had, this would be a one-way vortex into "men of the NBA don't care" territory. But his willingness to rationalize, even indulge, players' levity about winning or losing, tells me something about those for whom this sport cries out: You can't be an NBA fan without a sense of humor, or maybe even a sense of irony.

Look, when the game is glorious, I'm every bit as enthralled as Lil Baby Boo-Bear and Old Grandpa Snurm. For better or worse, though, it's not that on a regular basis. We all know the "flaws" of the league; the ones worth noting involve the first half of the season, the first two quarters of games, the Eastern Conference, and fickle intensity. Yet if you're resolute about professional basketball, no "superior" sport is going to woo you away because, well, they'll never be basketball.

There's probably a joke sitting here about sexual orientation and liberal arts colleges, but I'm already too bored to make it. Point is, you've got to accept the league, (some) warts and all. I'm no longer about trying to say the regular season's doper than the playoffs, or seriously suggesting everyone fill their nights with Hawks/Bobcats. I'm no longer an NBA evangelical; I can't convince anyone sane that Hawks/Bobcats is objectively worth more than the Super Bowl. And if you want this game in your life, you've got to confront the sheer silliness of it. In this era, Hawks/Bobcats is a microcosm for the entire league: as a compelled fan, you need a coping mechanism, or a slightly less polarized version of what matters in sports.

Why does this site only work for basketball? Because the NBA isn't a "perfect" sports product. It's hard to imagine having a sense of humor, except for the most bleak and self-immolating, about an NFL loss. Irony has no place in games where it makes sense to try on serious. The Association, though, has an element of the absurd to it. Accepting and embracing that is not unlike what happens with life itself. And that might be why I find this to be meaningful, not dissonant or silly.

If sports are going to overtake or consume life, they probably should mirror its form--not grossly hide and disfigure it. Maybe sports are fantasy and ideology, but if you spend two trillion hours a day immersed in something, shouldn't it at least recognize the shape of human existence? If not, you're stuck in a fairy tale, which speaks to much of what's wrong with America.


At 12/07/2007 1:05 PM, Blogger Tim said...

right on, bra. that ain't no fanhouse piece.

At 12/07/2007 1:29 PM, Blogger jawaan oldham said...

I respectfully disagree that as a fan you can't have a sense of humor about NFL losses---the way the Ravens regressed to "Waaaaa they CHEATED!!!!" kindergarten mode after losing to the Patriots was fuckin hilarious---but I will grant that you need to slather on the schadenfreude pretty thick.

At 12/07/2007 1:41 PM, Blogger stopmikelupica said...

Sounds like the contrary to Deadspin's "Let's pretend there isn't politics involved in sports."

I'm in the realistic approach to sports, so yeah, maybe that's why I like basketball so much...if your theory is correct.

At 12/07/2007 1:43 PM, Blogger goathair said...

On point, Shoals. The NBA is the only league that has ridiculous moments (and people) throughout. A Gilbert Arenas couldn't exist anywhere but here.

At 12/07/2007 2:13 PM, Blogger Andy B said...

Kind of like last night. After coughing up fourth quarters all the season the young T-pups storm back from a 19 pt deficit in the first qtr and then manage to hang around for the entire fourth quarter. If ever there was a team that deserved a victory on a single night of a woeful season it was the Wolves last night. First Big Al Jefferson on a 8-25 shooting night hoists up a 20 ft jumper with less than a minute to go to put the Wolves up by one. After a couple of traded baskets and the Hawks back up by one the Wolves run an inbounds play to Jaric for a layup putting the Wolves up aagin by one with 20 seconds left. Josh Smith comes down and sinks a tough shot on Telfair to put the Hawks up one again. Another inbounds play and another Jaric layup and with less than three seconds to play it looks like the Wolves will walk away with their inspired third victory. Joe Johnson hits another Telfair contested jumper at the buzzer to seal the victory.

What can you do but shrug your shoulders and laugh, if your a Wolves fan, while the victories pile up like Sumatran pulpwood in Boston.

At 12/07/2007 3:06 PM, Blogger evan said...

I think that's the draw of the NBA to people that are nowhere near perfect or trying to be, themselves.

It's impossible for an NBA team (or our cousin, the NFL) to have a perfect game. In baseball, you can hold an opponent from getting on base at all and still score mercilessly while batting. The same in an NFL game where shutouts are glorious, though soccer is derided for the same. These two are held in far higher esteem than basketball ever has, though MJ was on top of the sports world at his zenith.

We see what happens when someone obsessed with perfection enters the league. We've seen MJ's dominance, most likely to the detriment of his teammates mental health. And now, Kobe has gone through tremendous mental turmoil in his quest to be a perfect player because this league can't support it.

You can't have Michael floating through space unless Connie Hawkins gets to rip through the fabric of the game and fall back to earth repeatedly.

At 12/07/2007 3:07 PM, Blogger evan said...

Shite, (NFL) = NHL

At 12/07/2007 4:39 PM, Blogger Ty Keenan said...

Can you have a sense of humor about baseball or soccer? I ask because so much of the games seem tied up in failure (or at least non-scoring) that they seem like perfect fits for the same kind of "it's like life" deal. Of course, that lack of scoring means that every run/goal matters even more, so I don't know if it works. Maybe this: you can have a sense of humor about a regular season baseball game, but it's basically impossible in the postseason. Which doesn't seem all that different from basketball to me. Soccer I don't know about; I'm too firmly entrenched in liberated fandom there to take on the POV of a hooligan.

At 12/07/2007 4:51 PM, Blogger Brickowski said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 12/07/2007 4:54 PM, Blogger Brickowski said...

A vintage Shoalsian banger, and I'm never one to miss a chance to call the NFL humorless, but let's not get carried away. It's just silly to say that "The NBA is the only league that has ridiculous moments (and people) throughout." It's certainly not my game of choice, but baseball is filled with memorable oddballs, 162 games allows for lots of humorous losses, and no matter how many games you've watched you're always going to see something new. For instance, Randy Johnson once exploded a bird with a fastball.

Plus, baseball is filled with a lot of mundane downtime mixed with occassional moments of meaning, pressure and excitement. And I don't know about you dudes, but that's a lot more similar to my life than buzzer beating heaves every 12 minutes.

That said, I really love the early NBA season and think it's been particularly great this year. With Dwight putting the East on notice, Jack resurrecting the Warriors, VINTAGE AI, Doc Rivers playing KG and em 40 minutes a night in October, the Mavericks still in disrepair, etc. (AND DON'T FORGET THE HAWKS). Also, I know it's uncouth to mention the Spurs anytime before April, but Ginobili's been amazing this season. Every night he checks into the game and completely changes it, and on Wednesday he almost singlehandidly shredded the Mavs.

At 12/07/2007 5:03 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

For the purposes of this discussion, let's pretend that tension is the opposite of humor or irony. When there's a funny in baseball, it cuts the tension. It's the exception that proves the rule.

That regular season basketball is often so loose and erratic precludes tension. So in its place. . .

I'm not saying that there's not humor or characters in football, and baseball's full of them. Structurally, though, the NBA's almost got it built into its season.

At 12/07/2007 5:37 PM, Blogger Ty Keenan said...

"When there's a funny in baseball, it cuts the tension."

I think baseball is much more a sport of lulls than of tension. If I watched several third innings of mid-summer games, the majority of pitchers would probably look very loose and erratic. I get the argument about basketball, and it probably apply best to it; I just don't think it's quite as lacking in some other sports as you seem to think.

I should also note that so many of my key life experiences have been tied up in baseball that it's now virtually impossible for me to look at the sport as anything but an extension of my life.

At 12/07/2007 5:54 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

See, this is interesting. When a bird lands on a hot dog that's stuck in a naked picture of the bullpen coach's wife, that's difference than everyone waiting for something to happen. At least to me.

Maybe, for some people, the waiting is more like a meaningless grind. Or meaningless drift. But to me, it's always felt like there was something looming. Does that say more about me than the game?

At 12/07/2007 6:14 PM, Blogger Ty Keenan said...

I think a lot of it could be explained by watching games on TV vs. at the park. On TV, the producers/directors try so hard to fill time with Life at the Ballpark that everything ends up seeming like forced joke. When I'm at a stadium, though, the rhythms just make sense to me, and nothing feels unnatural. That probably sounds retardedly zen -- and it is -- but that's the extent to which I've internalized the game.

I'll put it this way: baseball is the one sport I can watch in person at any level and still enjoy.

As for the meaningless drift, when I was younger I used to think that baseball was great because the down time was filled with so many strategic issues blah blah blah. I still appreciate, notice, and dig into those things, but now that I'm older I appreciate the rhythms more. So I'm somewhere between analysis and passive enjoyment. It has meaning, but that might only be the case because I've given the sport so much over the course of my life.

At 12/07/2007 6:54 PM, Blogger The Electric Zarko said...

There is definitely an element of the absurd or hilarious to soccer. It does trend to the fatalistic/dark/sarcastic mainly because resignation is a major part of the sport.

And obviously soccer has differences in tension because "the season" is different from the various one-and-done tournaments or tournaments with group stages, etc. Most of the humor seems to come from the domestic seasons, for obvious reasons.

wv: kbmmr - Kobe attempts to diffuse another trade-related question.

At 12/07/2007 10:50 PM, Blogger Caleb Tyler Adam said...

I'm with Ty on this one.

See, basketball has only recently become my favorite sport. I played baseball and football in high school. Never liked football (too militaristic/ engaged in traditional conceptions of masculinity), but played because I went to a small school, and I was big, and it's what you did. Baseball, I loved, though.

I can't help wondering if my drift from baseball to basketball has to do with the fact that I play basketball almost every day, and that it's a better TV sport, at least for me.

See, I think basketball is not like life, but is like what we wish life could be. Endless creativity. The best players really do seem like savants, or artists - whereas in baseball the best players (a-rod, peavy, even my boy prince) seem to be workmen - skilled laborers, but not artists.

However, as Ty said, when you're at a baseball game, it IS like life. You sit around, you have a ($7) beer or two, you engage in hours of inanity and breaking balls with friends, and 3% of the time something inspiring, transcendent, or heartbreaking happens.

A guy I know named Oden, who makes cabinets for a living, differentiated between craftsmen and artists as such: "A craftsmen does things in a perfect way. An artist does things in a new way."

At 12/08/2007 12:31 AM, Blogger Jason Kim said...

happy hanukkah!

you guys need to check this out.


At 12/08/2007 6:27 AM, Blogger Justin said...

Hawks/Bobcats can be the highlight of your week when it's your only night off from work and you've got Emeka facing up Smoov on the same fantasy frontcourt. This happened several times last year and, working nights, I was so thrilled to be able to watch that I didn't care how many times Ty Lue dribbled the ball off his leg out of bounds, or how few actual plays Bernie Bickerstaff knew off the top of his head (all of which involved Adam Morrison standing 25 feet from the basket waiting for someone to notice him and growing more and more downtrodden).

At 12/08/2007 9:16 PM, Blogger Andrew said...

"In this era, Hawks/Bobcats is a microcosm for the entire league: as a compelled fan, you need a coping mechanism, or a slightly less polarized version of what matters in sports."

I watched the Clippers and Bucks the other day... I guess we got it down here (Melbourne, Australia) because Bogut was playing... or maybe it was the broadcast into China because of Yi... anyways, I was absolutely rapt in the game. Start to finish. I have absolutely no affection for either team, other than home town Bogut, but found myself unable to go to bed until I found out who won... with no particular fan-affiliation with any team in the lig at the moment, I just love watching pro-ball... and sometimes it takes that sense of humour to really enjoy the game. Yes, I was aware of watching two entirely mediocre basketball teams play, and I think, some how, that actually made it more enjoyable...

At 12/08/2007 11:47 PM, Blogger rebar said...

which teams are the most self-aware and funny? which aren't?

it seems to me that everything done in the Association is done with a private seriousness. While we might joke around about games or stats or players, and while the players might make cracks themselves or simply end up slightly more ironically inclined than your average linebacker, every person who truly loves the game loves it seriously, using the humor as a coping mechanism and enhancer of what we love about it. It's like this. We are a bunch of grunts at war. While every single one of us is scared shitless, even the officers, we simultaneously make a joke out of the whole thing to allay our fears and prevent becoming like that which we abhor most (take your pick: football coaches, spurs, fascists, etc). Underneath the irony there is grim determination, recognition of hardship, and brotherhood. for me at least, the things i find funny about the game and the way i react is simultaneously tinged with a sense of the tragic. this is why bucks-clips can be an epic game, why i crack jokes and simultaneously shake my head in disappointment when golden state loses to the mavs, and why i respect every player in the Association even as i vilify some of them and disregard others. it's the rare player that can truly step away from it and peep the game from a fan's point of view (so to speak), taking the tragic with the joy-inducing. some slide too far, into either nihilism or humorless competition, but my favorite players are the ones who manage to balance the extremes, whistling after losses, starting book clubs, becoming dominance itself in the offseason, acquiring an aura and swag all their own.

At 12/14/2007 12:39 PM, Blogger Rob Dauster said...

hey, i been reading this blog for a while now and it inspired me. i started one, come check it out. not as much nba, more variety of sports



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