Monday, March 10, 2008

Why I Hate Basketball

Slave chains are slave chains.

ELABORATION. The other day I made a passing reference to basketball as the "worst team sport played in America." I feel I should qualify and explain that statement. The qualification is that strictly as a game, basketball isn't nearly as awful as soccer. But basketball is still more immediately worse for Americans. That explanation takes a little longer, and it's a two parter. There are things I hate about the game itself, and then there's stuff beyond that. I'll tackle them in order.

The Game Itself

1. Five on the Court

The fewer the players, the more likely it is that one player can utterly dominate a team, for better or worse -- and mostly for worse. Basketball's concept of the Big Man represents more of a distortion of the team concept than anything else in true team sports. A Wilt Chamberlain or a Michael Jordan has more specific gravity on a squad than any all-pro quarterback, all-star power hitter, or ace pitcher. Even an over-hyped national hero like David Beckham is only one of fifteen on an incomprehensibly larger field of play. Which brings me to my next objection.

2. The Court

It's so small that it could be, and has been, outgrown by the sheer size of the players. A football field is still long enough that no quarterback can pass from one end zone to another. The geometry of a baseball field is still so perfectly neutral that a small man can smack a single through the gap between short and second, drive a triple into the gap between left and center field, or even lay down a bunt hit between the pitcher and the catcher. And hockey, the second most constricted major team sport, retains more separation between the fans and the players, thanks to the boards and the plexiglass wall that protects spectators from the puck and, mostly, from player aggression. None of these structural constraints still exists in basketball. Quite ordinary players can execute the slam-dunk that was never dreamed of by the game's founder, who thought the ten-foot height of the net was an equalizer, not an incentve for seeking out seven-foot anomalies as if they were great athletes. And, yes, there are still tiny dynamos like Alan Iverson, but even their greatness is no longer a function of team play, but of their unique ability to navigate a small giant-filled space all alone, like a broken-field runner in a dense forest of sequoias.

3. The Court

No, it's not a misprint. The basketball court is not a playing field. It's a theater. That's why basketball coaches are scrutinized and critiqued as if they were themselves players. They affect costumes, they stalk and pace and gesture and vocalize like actors on Broadway, and generally speaking, they are performers of a sort that would be unthinkable in baseball, football, hockey AND soccer. An obvious additional implication is that when the coach is a theatrical perfomer, his players are more than mere athletes. They, too, become -- at least to some extent -- actors, closer to WWE wrestlers than to, say, NFL prima donnas like Terrell Owens, who confines his antics to the times outside the whistles that start and end playing time.

4. The Court

If the court is so small that it's inevitably jammed with oversized perfomers, what chance do the referees have to be effective? There's no way they can be distant enough from the action to get good angles on who did what to whom. In fact, they're forced to compete with the players for the approval of the audience, and so they call their calls with more authority than accuracy. They also understand the rules of performance better than the refs in any other sport. It's more important to be quick and dramatic than correct. It's more important that the audience enjoy the show than that the rules of the game be enforced in a context where the rules are simply inadequate to the momentum of the game. That's why no NBA player is ever called for "walking," which is endemic and ludicrously unenforced. The result: the most critical rules in the game -- fouls, charging, goal-tending, and technical fouls -- are changing the results of games without any justifying percentage of accuracy. The refs have made basketball, at all levels of the sport, into roller-derby.

The Other Stuff

All of these game weaknesses have combined to make basketball an American cultural disaster as well.

1. Basketball as fashion.

The goddamn spinnaker uniform (derived from oversized prison garb) is reason enough by itself to cease watching the games. Who wants to see them flapping down the court like Victorian whores in bloomers?

2. Basketball as cultural pied-piper.

The thuggery that has become common in interactions among coaches, players, and fans is disgusting. Too much jewelry. Too many gangster vehicles, specifically Cadillac Escalades. Too many gun and drug arrests. Too many incidents of player-fan violence. At least in professional wrestling, the violence is mostly rehearsed and fake. When Artest attacks a fan or Kobe Bryant (allegedly) rapes a, uh, fan, the violence is all too real and we're all diminished and degraded. Worse, we don't seem to be realizing that fact.

3. Basketball as Organizational Model.

Star basketball players don't have to learn how to lead, sacrifice, or get along with others. They just have to throw their weight around. They can get coaches fired, supporting players traded or benched, and they can get the law enforcement organizations in their vicinity to back off. Just the model kids need if they're going to be good husbands, successful fathers, productive citizens, and efficient business partners. In fact, if you wanted to teach a kid how to be the worst possible member of a community, what better example could you proffer him than a lavishly admired basketball player in college or the pros?

4. Basketball as the African-American Dream.

Like everyone else, I've enjoyed movies like Coach Carter and Glory Road. But I HATE the overwhelming fixation on basketball in the African-American community. It is not and will never be the way out of poverty and deprivation. The stars who made the movies weren't basketball players at Duke or the Lakers. Basketball teams are tiny, and the number of people who can ever hope to compete successfully at the NBA, college, or high school level is correspondingly small. It doesn't matter at all in the global demographics of the situation that a successful basketball player can get a college scholarship based on his abilities. No matter how good he (or she) is, the chances of a college basketball player graduating with a degree are very slim, and much much much worse than that is the fact that the thousands of hours devoted to basketball by youngsters would be far better spent learning math, science, English, art, and history. The feel-good movies that are supposed to demonstrate the reality of American opportunity are, in fact, cruel vandals of opportunity.

Every time I see a movie featuring middle or upper-middle class African-Americans where suit-and-tied Dad goes out to shoot a few hoops with his sports-obsessed son, I want to shoot up the screen with a shotgun. The truth is, basketball just might be the worst thing that ever happened to African-Americans in this country, even worse than slavery itself. Why?

As I pointed out above, it's NOT a team sport;. it's a star sport. Which leads to egomaniacal and narcissistic behavior that we've seen repeatedly from NBA millionaires who should be role models but are the opposite instead.

Basketball is also peculiarly conducive to making individuals feel like better athletes than they are. It's got a pernicious "one-thing" practice delusion, meaning that you and a basketball and a net can practice all alone in a way that you won't find in any other team sport except hockey, which -- thank God -- is still mostly played by Canadians and New Englanders. It's possible to practice and practice and pactice and ultimately convince yourself that you're a great basketball player because you can sink shots from anywhere on the court. (Otherwise, we wouldn't have the scourge of all those 5' 3" nerds who want to play us one-on-one at the YMCA). But it's a lie. You don't become Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain or Kobe Bryant or LeBron James by practicing obsessively. You start out as one of those spectacularly gifted guys and refine your skills through practice and gifted one-on-one coaching. On the other hand, the same degree of devotion and persistence -- even without the million-dollar coach -- can make you a businessman, an entrepreneur, an attorney, an adminstrator, or -- if you pay as much attention to class as to B-ball -- a doctor.

4. That Ghetto-Chain Net.

I hate this image more than anything above. To me, basketball is the perpetuation of slavery. The odds of basketball freeing anyone from poverty are as bad as counting on the lottery to win a fortune. Seeing a chain instead of a net is like seeing another nail in a continent-wide coffin.

My libertarian leanings prevent me from seeking the abolition of basketball. But if we were to abolish basketball -- or if the people who claim to be trying to help African-Americans contrived to ban basketball -- the single biggest imprisoning illusion in the country would be vanguished and millions upon millions of kids would be suddenly freed to divert their energies to productive pursuits like learning, academic accomplishment, economic achievement, family creation, scientific curiosity. mathematical precision, and too many other good things to list.

Just a stainless-steel basketball net. Cool, right? No. Manacles for yet another
doomed generation, dead certain it can slam-dunk the education requirement.

I HATE basketball. I especially hate the squeegee sounds their thousand-dollar sneakers make on hardwood. Like fingernails on a blackboard. But, then, I know what fingernails on a blackboard sound like. I must be one of those white-boy geeks.

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