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.


At 12/26/2006 2:41 PM, Blogger salt_bagel said...

Prosperity = non-determination is spot on.

However, regarding the more abstract points, I don't think that sports stand above their parameters. In fact, I feel more that the parameters exist above and beyond our usual concepts of sport. I tend to think of the rules and lines being the essence of the sport, as if they exist out there waiting for us to arrive upon them sheerly through the laws of equilibrium. You hear about it the most when people get all poetic about the sacred geometry of baseball, and as much as the blabbing is unnecessary (like most religions), it's true that 60 feet to the mound and 90 feet to first is pretty tough to improve upon.

The same goes for all the main sports. If somebody had put the peach basket at 13 feet, we would have found the right way. To me, saying that the sport can be an entity above its own framework would be akin to ignoring a law of math.

At 12/26/2006 3:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think a lot of times one can instinctively tell whether a strong affinity exists in a particular athlete, especially when taking into account, style, personality and psychological aspects. If I remember correctly it was Barkley who said about David Robinson: "He doesn't play the game because he loves it but because he's very good at it." Explains perfectly why the former was so appealing as a player and the latter I couldn't have cared less about.

But the thoughts in your post raise some questions. Could AI be equally compelling as a football player? And if not, would it be because of factors within him (=being a basketball player at heart) or rather outside parameters (in this case less opportunities for creativity than in basketball, football equipment reducing stylistic expression etc.)? Because whether I like shot-happy guards or not, when I'm watching Iverson play basketball it's pretty hard to argue that I'm not watching a "harmonious interaction of a particular person and a particular form of competition."

At 12/26/2006 4:19 PM, Blogger evan said...

This is the most poignant and specific rationale for my love of the NBA, as well. I've been thinking lately about sports in a context of being natural.

It comes in the context of seeing what sports are inherent to humans in that it requires absolutely nothing to participate besides one's self and a medium. Swimming, running, wrestling, fighting, gymnastics are all sports which realistically could be developed by the participant without a preconceived notion on "sport." Basketball and soccer are the most natural modern sports, self-evident in an indescribable beauty which I believe bests that of baseball.

Baseball is cited as the parable for American life and ideas, seemingly from a need to preserve history and frame the present and future. Basketball has easily surpassed both baseball and football as the sport which reflects this country.

Race? Compare coverage of any recent altercation to that of the Knicks/Nuggets.

Money? NBA players are overpaid, while Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano are rewarded for their unique skills.

Amateurism and draft rights? Baseball and hockey players have a strong foundation enough to be drafted at age 16 and start play as soon as they graduate high school (or earlier). Basketball players are never ready, need college and will likely be busts if they come out early.

The NBA is the realest reflection of its fans of any major sports league in the states.

At 12/26/2006 4:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think this is found more so today (and will continue to grow) because of how kids are pushed from childhood to be All Pro's by high school."

I was just thinking about Kevin Garnett as I read this. Whenever somebody talks about a guy who loves the game, blah blah, I think KG - a guy straight out of high school.

It seems to me that basketball players are more passionate in general about their sport than, say, baseball players. Caron Butler says he owes basketball his life, essentially, AI is driven past all reason, etc.

At 12/26/2006 4:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

why suggest that prosperity is the cause of athletic meandering and not entertain the corollary- that lebron, AI, TMAC, or whoever, were drawn to basketball because of the perception of it as a path away from poverty? of course this ground is well covered, but the present figuration seems to be figuring money only as a factor for those who have it. i played more than one sport cause my folks had some money, but lebron played only basketball because the game called him organically? hmmm... seems incomplete.

and, shoals, i find it interesting that what you call "silence" over the tvz post almost brought your end. cause that post almost got me to stop reading. seemed way too much like you were searching, grasping for an existential crisis, and then, with the lack of (indulgent) response, you found one. i'm sorry- i don't mean to sound shitty. my molehills, your mountains, i guess. either way, i'm happy to see you may have worked it out.

At 12/26/2006 4:54 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

pt--i didn't actually think of qutting. i was trying to say that i was immensely embarassed by that post because i failed to do anything other than self-indgule. when in fact i had a point i was trying to make. this post here is the apology/justification for it.

about basketball as a way out. . .i've long thought that football, which gives players a clear specialized vocation and trains them for it much better and extensively, is a lot less desperate of a "way out."

At 12/26/2006 4:58 PM, Blogger evan said...

I think of guys like LeBron or Wade being called to basketball because of the nature of their personality and the self-nuturing aspect of basketball (or soccer).

Either one of them has every requisite natural gift to excel at any sport which men play. Speed, athleticism, strength, vision and uncanny timing (this is the linchpin to the success of the great rebounders and shot blockers. The difference in basketball being that they are foisted the opportunity to lead and excel from any position they occupy. As a football player, you have to be the quarterback or you're part of the support staff. Baseball has the pitcher, but they exist in specific and controlled spurts as leaders.

Basketball allowed the great athletes to become great on their own terms during development and put them in a spot which can easily afford leadership and potential excellence.

At 12/26/2006 5:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see, I see, but in my experience I find the NBA (and indeed most athletic competition) most interesting when I see dissonance between a personality and their particular competition, at least from a stylistic standpoint.

For instance Greg Oden, who, by all accounts, is a polite, softspoken, nerdy kid, but is somewhat like controlled demolition on the court. Or even a personality like Dennis Rodman, who seems content with nothing less than a leading role in life, yet finds the shadows and corners of the game within which he can lurk and contribute to a team concept.

And though I don't know much of his off-court persona (seems kinda quiet), there's something vaguely alien and mesmerizing about Luol Deng's inside/outside game, his stature, the way he attacks his competition. It's hard to describe, but I wholly enjoy watching him ply his trade.

At 12/26/2006 5:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

shoals- re: sports as way out, i'm not sure suggesting football is a more secure path than basketball really addresses my thought. all that offers is "if money were the issue, poor kids would focus on football," which, even if true, only supports that idea that the natural attraction to basketball for lebrons happens on a different plain than that on which "prosperity= non-determination."
and re: the tvz post (if you'll permit my own moment of indulgence), apology/justification appreciated.

At 12/26/2006 5:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For some reason I couldn't stop thinking about Othello (the game) when I concluded the post, might be my own internal conflict, but I haven't seen a board in a dozen years.

Whitefolks, I think you just proved that hockey and baseball players were created to play those sports, while basketball players choose their's. The fasination with Bo.
VW-vmiiky-cyber date rape drug

At 12/26/2006 5:30 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...


I will be holding an informal meet and greet tonight at the Mavericks game. Look for me in the 300 something section, H or J row. I will be wearing a custom black FD Arenas tee and have a small Cuban family in tow. The number of people will be small and the people will be small.


At 12/26/2006 10:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to be the lone voice...
Each "major" U.S. sport has its merit and each can be loved equally. NBA ball has a flow that can be art. However, its college counterpart can only be viewed as a frenetic child yearning for adulthood. The two, side-by-side, are distant relatives. But each have their own unmistakable feeling - and beauty.

Football is the art of a dangerous mass-on-mass dance, where, unlike hoops, taking a play off can mean actual death. Football can be viewed thusly: every play is a microcosm of the entire game. The cumulative effect of those micro-games equals a win or loss. And so with an average of 60 such games per week, there are 960 games per NFL regular season. Then and only then can the beauty of the NFL be compared to that of the NBA.

Baseball - ahhh, a day at the park. The battle between pitcher and catcher versus batter. To watch each player in the field make a minute move depending on pitch count, the pitch called, the number of outs, the inning, the tendencies of the batter, how many men occupy bases, how many pitches the pitcher has thrown, and the overall objective of the play, is amazingly subtle and intricate - and equally as beautiful as the jazz ensemble that plays in NBA arenas each night, or the near military precision and thunder of the NFL (why do you think the NFL is so frigging conducive to flag-waving?).

Damn, I can go on for a looooong time about each sport. I look forward to the onset of each season like with the same anticipation of sitting and finally catching up face-to-face with a close friend who I haven't seen for some time.

(I didn't check this for grammar or spelling - hope it makes sense.)


At 12/27/2006 12:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Each exists as its own culture, and whatever overlap there is must be viewed as accidental. Anyone who identifies with multiple sports is not a renaissance man—he is a being without a home."

It's possible to have a winter home and a summer home and be perfectly "at home" with each. I'm not sure the assumed picture where one inflicts a fully unified personality on the world really is that reflective of the human condition...seems to me to be reflective of a personality that spends too much time self indulgently trying to figure itself out. That said, I worry that the espn-sports-lover you have in mind is the all to banal consumer of culture that really isn't smart enough or interesting enough to adopt a properly reflective aesthetic attitude towards any of the potentially pleasant things in life.

On that note, you really need to write more about Iverson.

At 12/27/2006 12:32 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

UT--a summer home is not a home, it's a retreat.

At 12/27/2006 8:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look, the point is that even if a "home" is supposed to include all the cultural and normative trappings within which a person can feel at ease and make sense of their life, and even if the home is a place where a person's normative outlook (their character) can easily make itself manifest, it is still a mistake to assume that human beings are so psychically unified that for each there can only be one such place. That is the psychology of zealotry. And zealots whether political, aesthetic, or moral are banal simpletons.

At 12/27/2006 8:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That said, while NBA-player might fit the bill, I'm highly skeptical that NBA-Fan is a social artefact with a rich enough set of cultural practices and normative relations to really count as a culture or a home in the first place. The player/fan distinction seems to get lost in Shoals post anyway at least as regards NBA as a lifestyle.

At 12/27/2006 12:27 PM, Blogger salt_bagel said...

D-Wil, you're finding my initial point with different words. My point was that there might not be any other sports that provide such harmonious tests of human bodily aptitude than these frameworks. As if each is a "good way" that would eventually be settled upon. I don't put hockey in this set. Also, I don't know if your name is a reference to Derrick Williams, but seeing it brought forth an urge to shake Joe Paterno vigorously.

wv: yoijiwu - there actually is a compilation of obscure funk and soul tracks chosen by RZA. It's called "Shaolin Soul" and is quite nice.

At 12/27/2006 12:29 PM, Blogger salt_bagel said...

Anon5:30: I don't think that hockey players are pre-built. I think hockey skills are unnatural motor functions you will your body to learn, preferably starting early in childhood. The required postural memory, muscle development, and visual tracking are all foreign to the usual activities of humans.

Every hockey player I've ever known is rotten at basketball. They can't jump. They can't catch. They can't throw. It's the weirdest thing, because they seem athletic, but they've sacrificed the ability to do that stuff in order to excel at the occult arts of stick-handling and computing angles while on skates.

wv: lakvi - something common to American sports, except the Finnish equivalent of it.

At 12/27/2006 1:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Haven't read all the comments, so I don't know if anyone's mentioned this, but reading this post, I'd definitely suggest checking out a book called "The Meaning of Sports" by a guy named Mandlebaum. It's a pretty interesting look at the The Big 3 American sports, and how their rises in popularity relate to overall cultural and societal trends. It's probably a little more simplistic than some of the stuff you guys get into here, but if you haven't seen it, it's certainly worth checking out.

At 12/27/2006 7:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

sometimes I have no idea what this website is talking about.

At 12/27/2006 11:04 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I'm sorry to interupt this discussion, but wow... The Knicks are trying to set a new record for most OT periods in a season. They are also officially the most exciting team over the last two weeks, between fights and crazy endings... wow....

I never thought I would see the Knicks break 140 points in a game again....

At 12/27/2006 11:09 PM, Blogger O.D.B. said...

Anyone watching Knicks/Pistons right now? I mean, sure a team has to 'hand it to the other team' a couple times in order to get to 3 overtimes, but this is ridiculous: errant fouls, errant non-fouls, missed free-throws, missed open jumpers, missed DUNKS!!! Ugliest triple ot I've ever seen.

Also, I posted this over on AOL's Fanhouse, as Mutoni had linked to the article mentioned a couple weeks ago (in which Vecsey suggested Barkley and the crew weren't critical enough of the fight because they "didn't consider it a disgrace or a black eye" among other moralizing. Anyway, here's my email to Vecsey below, and below that, his response - I'm completely serious:


"PV -

Barkley and Smith took the fight lightly because

1. That's what they do.

2. They played the sport and understand it. You don't.

TNT's is the best pre/post-game show in sport because you have
entertaining experts giving true insights. Charles and Kenny's brawl
coverage reminded me that NBA players are intense competitors and that
fights happen. It's not a disgrace to the game, it's part of the game.
My experience in sport has involved fights and yet I've never come as
close to playing with as much on the line as these guys. And I won't
even get into how ridiculous the rest of the media's reaction to
fights in the NBA is in comparison to their reaction of the same or
worse in other sports.

My favorite sports commentators are insightful entertainers, not
righteous moralizers - you are definitely not one of my favorites."


"Judging by your response it only confirms what level of IQ Barkley and Smith appeal to; I have no doubt you learn plenty from them. Just as I have no doubt you're part of Stephen A-Hole's studio audience"

At 12/27/2006 11:45 PM, Blogger Thomas M. said...

Christ Vecsey, stop beating around the bush.

At 12/28/2006 12:15 AM, Blogger Sam Reiss said...

well said
only thing is the resources for baseball seem to be a lot lower than hockey. you can get by on the one crappy glove and dont necessarily need cleats, not in many parts of the world. and only one guy needs a bat and a ball.

keep up the good work

At 12/28/2006 1:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

maybe it's just the jack johnson/beach bum attitude that i tend to take towards life, but please forgive my simplicty towards this thread. i too, like many on this site, gain pure enjoyment from our beloved association. that being said, the nba represents a free flowing connection between personal well being and a "greater good" (ie; team) concept of excellence. that being said, i think we all tend to look for a deeper meaning than our heroes may mean to exhibit.
i guess what i'm trying to say is, are we trying too hard to configure something that we gain so much pleasure from to conform/justify the "true" meaning of the sport? again, i'm very high and i could be simply grasping for staws as a form of message board masturbation.

At 12/28/2006 1:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One more thing...yes, comparing the simplicity of this thread w/ my overall care-free outlook on life is noted by self. when it comes to subjects that i care greatly about, i become nearly unapologetic while also being self aware of said self contradiction.

At 12/28/2006 10:02 AM, Blogger Brown Recluse, Esq. said...

vescey is new york post to the bone gristle, meaning he doesn't know what he's talking about and he's full of shit. not that anyone needed me to point that out to them.

At 12/28/2006 12:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

salt_bagel - sorry about that... wuz too tired to understand your comment... no, not D. Williams, it's my first and last...

o.d.b. - Vescey's a hack and a jerk. I mean damn, he writes for the New York Post, that says it all...

At 12/28/2006 4:02 PM, Blogger Gentlewhoadie Apt One said...

Anyone who identifies with multiple sports is not a renaissance man—he is a being without a home....I'll go one step further: this sports dilletantism is a function of affluence and prosperity. With privilege comes non-determination and a view of sports that reflects this

Uh. No. I call bullshit on pretty much all of this. Crass generalization alert.

I like baseball and I like football and hockey and soccer. They are different sports for different seasons. I like them for different reasons. They are experienced differently.

I like salad and cake. I like Clarence White and Main Source. I like blondes and brunettes.

At 12/28/2006 4:19 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

that part was supposed to be about multi-sport athletes. though i think that some fans' inability to differentiate between sports comes from this participatory experience.

At 12/28/2006 4:38 PM, Blogger Gentlewhoadie Apt One said...

no, i got that. i was referring to playing the sports, but used "like" rather than "like to play." that's the seasonal thing.

I see what you're saying- hockey and, say, swimming, are inaccessible because you need to reserve time, get expensive equipment, etc., Football is the same way, but that seldomly stops low income people from playing it. Generalizations about baseball and income/race don't really hold, although they might if you only look at the US. Many many people come up playing different sports at different times, enjoying them in different ways.

I think people get pushed into one sport or another because, at a certain level the time commitments are just too great and coaches push people to make choices. Once it is clear you can go pro, there are other metrics to consider- namely those of money, physical size, career longevity.

If you have the physical prowess to play any sport, financially it makes sense to play basketball or baseball- careers are long and salaries high. However, there are only 12 to an NBA team- very few really cash in. The NFL has the largest number of players but it has the shortest career length, low pay and the health reprecussions can be great. Baseball is the safest bet, but if you are a major physical specimen, chances are your domination in other sports exceeds your dominance in baseball, leading you to get pushed elsewhere.

When I wrote for the Post-Gazette sports section, the high school players who popped up were generally stars in a number of different sports, but the ones who stuck with basketball and went D-I were the tall guys, who were forced to choose and took their opportunity where the competitive field was smallest, barriers to entry were highest and their physical attributes were best suited.

At 12/28/2006 6:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i had to say it somewhere so ill say it here- was able to snag courtside tix to the bulls last night and 1) luol catching that layup instead of just swatting it was a sight to behold and 2) tyrus scares me and i like it. I'm afraid he's going to go up for a rebound and hit his head on the jumbotron one day

At 11/16/2007 8:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog and loads of comment! Was an interesting read! Thanks!

At 7/01/2019 10:50 AM, Blogger Faiz Ismail said...

The article is giving me an idea to see your determination for the basketball. This is one of my Kickboxing Gloves favorite game.


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