Tuesday, August 5, 2008

HustleJunkie: Basketball with the Naked Eye

Graydon Gordian is the author of 48 Minutes of Hell and a contributing writer for Hardwood Paroxysm. His HustleJunkie column runs every Tuesday here at HP. He enjoys long walks on the beach and harassing referees mercilessly. His topic this week is the NBA Live Experience.

Before television, a prize-fight was to a New Yorker the nearest equivalent to the New England town meeting. It taught a man to think on his seat.
-A.J. Liebling

The most valuable part of attending an NBA game is the ability to address the players on the floor directly. If I sit alone in my apartment, I can yell as loud as I want, but it is unlikely Kirk Hinrich won't pick up his dribble or Ginobili won't make an ill advised pass in traffic just because I plead with them to do so. If I attend the game live, I am able to impart upon the players the wisdom of my reflections. Sometimes I keep my instructions simple: "Damn it, let's go!" Or, if yelling at Tony Parker, I like to phrase it so that it's more easily digestible: "Vas-y, Tony!" Unlike many NBA players, Parker is very responsive to my suggestions. He always y allait.

I find this is the most effective advice one can give to influence the outcome of games. I am prone to issue imperatives such as "Get some rebounds, for Chrissakes!" or "Make your free throws, God damn it," but these commands have already reached a level of detail and sophistication that the players are unlikely to be responsive to.

Sometimes, even the coaches themselves are in need of my insight. "Come on, Popovich. You don't think having at least one of the big three on the floor is a good idea?" The fact that he has studied the game of basketball intensely for decades misguidedly gives him the belief that he need not consider my thoughtful proclamations.

I'm not even going to touch upon the golden tongue with which I address the refs.

Clearly, my council is essential to the success of my team. I am continuously shocked when they are able to eke out a win without the benefit of my presence. And yet the NBA, along with the video and audio technicians at every arena across the country, seems to be conspiring against me. Rather than allow space for my voice to be heard, they choose to drown out my commentary with a constant sensory bombardment.

Obviously NBA players lose out on something special when they are robbed of their ability to easily hear my commands. How are they going to know to “make a damn shot” without me informing them of their need to do so? But to be honest, my ability to verbally communicate with the guys on the floor isn’t my primary concern. Not when I can’t hear the guy sitting next to me.

In my formative years I not only played the game of basketball, but attended both professional and college games often. My father would take me to the Frank Erwin Center to see the Texas Longhorns or to the Alamodome to watch the Spurs play. Neither is a particularly good venue: in the era of Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin, the Erwin Center was often only half full. Imagine how uninspired the crowd was during the halcyon days of Chris Mihm. And the Alamodome may in fact be the worst place to watch a basketball game in the history of the sport. A cavernous concrete football stadium built to hold 65,000, they would drape a gigantic blue curtain across the 50 yard line, poorly disguising the 30,000 empty seats. It was amidst the mediocrity of these locales that I received my education. You see, those arenas, however underwhelming they may have been, did have one huge advantage over any current NBA arena in the country: they had moments of silence.

In these quiet moments, in which no spectacle was there to distract me, my father taught me the particularities of the game:

Did you notice they switched from a man-to-man to a zone? Why did you think they did that? Notice the footwork of the guys consistently pulling down rebounds. Look at the lateral movement of the defenders who don’t get beat off the dribble. See the high release point of his shot? That’s why he doesn’t get blocked.

The games were not just about mindless entertainment. They served as a space for discussion and debate. I’m not trying to hold them up as the New England town hall meetings A.J. Liebling refers to in his brilliant piece “Boxing with the Naked Eye.” The most important power we ever touched upon in conversation was the power forward. But the verbal back and forth encouraged under my father’s tutelage had value in its own right. It instilled a sense of reflection, and an appreciation for the game at a level beyond the final score.

On the other hand, the producers of today’s games show little interest in allowing attendees the peace of mind to compose a single thought, much less a concern for genuine thoughtfulness. The noise is so constant, so overwhelming, that any attempt to discuss the game going on is squashed. It’s not merely that the production team has chosen to turn up the volume on the Space Jam soundtrack during timeouts while you’re simultaneously being encouraged to root for the digital donut over the cup of coffee and the bagel because you’re in section C. As you probably know all too well, music actually occurs while the game is going on. The spectacle has become total.

I wish I could say that the poor quality of the NBA live experience was not unique to pro basketball and that the disease of endless distractions had infected other pro sports as well. But regrettably enough, the NBA is singularly guilty of such severe shortcomings. Other major sports have done a decent job defending the integrity of the public sphere they create. For me it seems counterintuitive: football and baseball are both played at a much slower pace than basketball. As such, I would imagine the leagues would have an interest in intensifying the experience. Instead, out of respect for the game, the NFL and MLB have shown restraint, while the NBA has shown none.

What’s saddest is that much of the spectacle is directed at those who would benefit the most from a little peace and quiet: children. Aside from the obvious fact that children don’t need to be force fed anymore stimulation, they are the least informed about the game and parents could use the time to pass on the tradition of discerning fanhood. When I have children one day, I hope to instill in them a deep appreciation of a game I love. I’m just not sure how I will do so if “everybody clap your hands” is playing so loud I can’t hear myself speak.

Despite my supposed cynicism, I remain optimistic. Stern has touched upon the subject directly in the past, as have coaches, and bloggers. This is also not the first time I have addressed the subject either. My hope is that by addressing this topic forcefully and frequently, we can affect real change in the way professional basketball games are presented to a live audience.

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