Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Hardwood and the Gridiron, Never the Twain Shall Meet

You wouldn't be here if you didn't like basketball. But while basketball is my muse and my first love, I entertain flings with some other sports, too. And in this country, you practically have to. Baseball is certainly the game of the past, with America's dwindling infatuation with hitting a ball with a stick suddenly befitting of just how boring the game is. Sorry to the baseball heads out there, I don't mean to invalidate your lives. I understand what the majesty of the game means to the past of sport, I still get goosebumps when I watch The Natural, and I can appreciate why some people might enjoy a "pure" team sport. That said, baseball blows.

I wish we were at the point where basketball was ready to take over that throne atop American athletics, but that's football's to lose. It exhibits the cohesion and unity of baseball with the violence and vulnerability of boxing with the finesse and precision of basketball. But while football would seem an amalgam of the greatest traits of all of the sporting world, in reality it lacks the individualism (helmets, curtailing of celebration, simply too many players) that elevate basketball fandom from sport to lifestyle. You probably knew all that, and you probably knew that we knew all that, seeing as we're all basketball folks 'round these here parts. As long as football continues to tickle our country's fancy, it will forever remain the proverbial measuring stick to which basketball is evaluated. That's fine. I'm cool with that. But seriously, these cross-sport analogies need to end.

The most consistent and supposedly superlative of all basketball-football metaphors is point guard as quarterback. And let me tell you, it really bothers me. In some sense, I understand how the comparisons came into being; both have the ball in their hands, varying levels range from pure playmakers to "game managers,' both can facilitate or impede offensive progress, and the sacred act of the pass. What's lost in translation, though, is what exactly the meaning of the pass is. On one hand, you have the point guard. In basketball, the pass is typically viewed as a symbol of unselfishness. It is the supposedly all-encompassing stat by which the point guard is evaluated, because it indicates the point guard's ability to "run the offense." But unlike in football, in basketball every player is empowered with the ability to pass. Every player on the court is entrusted with this skill, and each is able to display their playmaking ability/deference/basketball IQ. That significantly alters the meaning of what it is to pass. Beyond that, the point guard is called upon to do other things that quarterbacks aren't necessarily depended on to do. There is no real equivalent to rebounding, or really, scoring. There is absolutely no comparison to the two-way nature of basketball, a point of contention that should rule the comparisons moot by itself. Pro quarterbacks don't have to cover someone. They don't duel with opposing players, no matter what media outlets might lead you to believe with their rhetoric. On that note, passing means something entirely different to a quarterback. To an extent it presents a similar barometer of competence, but it also represents an individual accomplishment. Leading the league in passing yardarge might be more akin to leading the league in scoring than it is to leading it in assists. It's not entirely a selfish act; the receiver gets their yards, too, but because the fundamental act of distributing the ball is so different in the two sports, the comparison just seems silly.

Furthermore, the quarterback position by definition requires some measure of leadership. This is probably because, when it matters, your quarterback will probably have the ball in their hands. If you look at the NFL champions of the last say, 20 years, consider how many were either considered the on-field or locker room leaders of their teams. Then compare that number to the point guards of the last 20 NBA champions. Chauncey and Isiah would seem to be exceptions, and Magic if you go back even further. But by no stretch of the imagination would you select Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, or Derek Fisher if you were told to identify a team's leader. Part of that is because certain leadership responsibilities are implied with "best player" status. Other leaders might be more of an emotional lightning rod, while the point guard is typically praised for being level-headed and composed. There's a level of leadership that goes with handling the ball, but the difference lies in the ability to get the ball to your best players. In football, if your quarterback is not your best player, the entire team has to work to get them the ball. If it's the running back, the hand-off needs to be precise and the line needs to block well. If it's the receiver, the pass needs to be on-point and the line needs to block well. Plus, when those players actually get the ball, they aren't given freedom of movement. They have specific paths on which to travel, and more limitations of movement than basketball players do. Coverages can shift to compensate, and denial can be a simple game. But in basketball, you can try really, really hard to deny Kobe the ball, but he's probably going to get it anyway. Be it bounce pass, dribble hand-off, or lob. You give them the ball, and you say "Do whatever you can." Sometimes they shoot and sometimes they pass. Whatever. The important thing is that they have that freedom to choose, and they have the freedom of movement with which to achieve their goal.

I'm guilty of these comparisons myself, and this wasn't meant to be a giant finger point in somebody's face. Don't worry, I'm not calling you out. It's probably me venting a bit about a pet peeve of mine, and hopefully a starting point for some discussions about cross-sport comparisons. I'm all for analogies, metaphors, and the like, and if you refer to things in broad, simplified terms or boil them down to incredibly limited, specific circumstances, they can work. But in a sport that is great because of unique styles, unlimited potential, and a very different perception of movement within a space, it seems to deny basketball its justice to boil it down to pig skins and shoulderpads.

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