Monday, April 02, 2007

Meet me at the crossroads...

Hello there. I enjoy reading Bill Simmons's articles for their wit and perspective, and especially for The Sports Guy's concentration on basketball. I think he's often on-point, and when he's not, he's at least funny about it, and he has a pleasant humility and candor that is often glaringly absent from the rest of ESPN's (or any other network/news source's) writers.

It came as a surprise to me that I found myself offended by the most recent installment of The Sport's Guy's Basketball Blog. I wasn't offended for what Simmons thought would be the most obvious reason (the racial undertones of the fundamentals/athlete argument he makes). Rather, I thought Simmons expressed a fallacious viewpoint that is common among basketball pundits; that there exists a "divide between traditional fans and the budding generation that was weaned on Slam Magazine and me-first 'superstars' like Stephon Marbury and Vince Carter (neither of whom has played on a 50-win NBA team, by the way)."

This argument, in my eyes, is patent nonsense, and it has been made by every generation of old man or woman who doesn't like seeing those damn kids/rookies/niggers playing a sport in a way that they don't think is sensible. Every time there has been league-wide change in the NBA, pundits have objected similarly. When they invented the shot-clock, there were objections, when they widened the lane, there were objections, when they let blacks play, there were objections, when they put in the three-point line, there were goes on and on. Now it's too much dunking and strutting here, we need to contract the league there, there's not enough scoring anywhere, and blah, blah, blah.

Sometimes, people are right to take exception to change; for instance, moving the three-point line in a decade ago was a stupid rule change. However, most changes are brought about because of their necessity...Red Auerbach drafted the first black man because he wanted someone who could play, not to make a social statement. People started dunking more often because it brought the crowd into the game a hell of a lot more than anything else, and owners started getting dunkers on to their teams to fill the seats. Guys strut because it humiliates their opponents and gives them a psychological edge (Larry Bird, the patron saint of fundamentals, is notorious for this). There's almost always a reason this stuff happens.

Sometimes it backfires. Basketball players are mobbed with recruiters when they're in high school, are huge stars in college, and get paid millions in the NBA; they are constant centers of attention. Sometimes they act out their difficulties in the arena, sometimes out of it. Sometimes they shoot too much because they have too much pride, and sometimes they monopolize the attention on themselves by expressing their own personalities on the court rather than acting as part of a team. The thing is, that happens on every team in every sport at every level, and it always has. The way things are expressed just changes with the culture.

Basketball has had cocaine scandals, showboaters, fistfighters, and complete assholes, for sure, but the only ones who last in the league last because they have something redeeming. Skill is not enough (just ask J.R. Rider). The Vince Carters and Stephon Marburys of the league are excellent players, and on the right teams have both been on the verge of winning, even if neither has won fifty games.

Simmons was motivated to write by watching OJ Mayo's final dunk in high school, in which he showboats, gets a technical, and doesn't give a damn. The crowd goes nuts and eats it up. This, Simmons claims, is one of many signs that "basketball is headed for a crossroads of sorts, personified by the fact that Kobe Bryant's recent streak of 50-point games received far more national attention than the incredible Suns-Mavs game two weeks ago."

This is no crossroads. Nothing's new about the sport of basketball. Teams that are fun to watch are only sometimes the ones that win but they are always the ones that sell the tickets. Likewise, watching someone score 50 points in a game for four games in a row is more fun than watching a game that is essentially meaningless but extremely competitive, and that's why Kobe received more attention. What he did was historic. Mavs-Suns-in-the-middle-of-March was not; there's a few really tight games in the NBA every month.

To wit: Just a few years ago, the Kings played fun-to-watch, fundamental ball, made a boatload of cash, and got spanked because they didn't have the personnel to cope with Shaq (or the money to pay off the refs). Last year the Mavs did the same thing. The NBA isn't always about how you play the game. Sometimes it's about the player who, despite being an egomaniacal asshole, is unstoppable on the block, or unguardable on the wing.

It's not even about team spirit; Kobe and Shaq hated each other and constantly warred. They won because no one could stop either one of them. Of course, sometimes, the superior team wins (the last Detroit Pistons championship team being a good example) but sometimes, players like OJ Mayo, who strut, dunk, showboat, and hog the ball, are keys to winning teams.

When that happens, everybody who's on the verge of getting old like Simmons mourn the passing of an era, and demonize the new players who are embarrassing the sport. They say things like "Just look at what happened to LeBron's all-around game when he reached the pros -- blessed with an inate passing gene that gave him the choice between becoming the next Magic or the next MJ, he said 'Screw it, I'm going for my points' and went the MJ route. I will always be disappointed about that choice." It's a load of garbage. Who the hell is LeBron going to pass to? Worthy? Kareem? And since when does someone who never played point guard and never averaged 10 assists a game, even in high school, become the next Magic?

Kids these days who enjoy reading Slam Magazine and watching highlights of people dunking on each other and showboating are no different than NASCAR fans who watch for crashes or hockey fans who watch for fights. They might like the dunks, but most also have teams they care about that they don't want to see lose. That's why so many Knicks fans abandoned Marbury last year.

Winning will always take precedence over the culture of coolness in sports, even though sometimes they will be one and the same (MJ). The only crossroads basketball is at is one where it's unclear if its media empire (ESPN et al) is distorting the sport so much that the casual fan now cares less about the players and more about what people have to say about them.

(Yeah, I know I'm one of those I'm a hypocrite, what do you want from me?

No comments: