Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Beautiful Game

With the first two weeks of the NBA season already cancelled and mediated talks between the owners and players' union extending into their third day, several NBA stars announced a six-game world tour to take place from October 30 to November 9.

NBA stars playing exhibitions is nothing new to this lockout, though this tour is unique in terms of its scope. I haven't been keeping track of just how many of these games have been going on, but players have spent the offseason showcasing their skills in events ranging from the charity game at Florida International University hosted last weekend by Dwyane Wade and Lebron James to pickup games at Harlem's legendary Rucker Park, the most famous playground in the world. (Here is a short clip of Kevin Durant catching fire in the fourth quarter of one such game.)

It's hard to imagine this happening in other sports. This summer's NFL lockout didn't last long enough for it to become a real possibility, but it seems unlikely that a bunch of the world's best football players would get together for a game of two-hand touch. And I wouldn't expect to see a group of locked out major leaguers hitting the sandlot for a friendly game, either.

Some of this has to do with the unique history and culture of basketball. Some of the best and most popular early basketball teams were barnstorming squads unaffiliated with any of the fledgling professional basketball leagues that began to pop up in the early part of the 20th century. (Many casual fans do not know, for example, that the Harlem Globetrotters began as a serious competitive team, and not the slapstick outfit of today that is more entertainment than basketball.) And while the crowd at Rucker Park may have been especially deep for Durant's showcase this summer, it is not at all unusual for fans to gather at some of the more famous playgrounds for far less famous players. (Growing up in Vermont, I had no personal experience with this, but I do remember reading, in Darcy Frey's The Last Shot, of a crowd of spectators several rows deep watching a high-school-aged Stephon Marbury at The Garden, a basketball oasis among the housing projects of Coney Island.)

But a lot of it has to do with the answer to this question: If a group of football or baseball players got together for a pickup game, who would watch?

I've heard football compared to a Broadway show, with its scripted plays and high degree of specialization. Success on the gridiron has far more to do with carefully plotted strategy, workmanlike execution, and physical superiority than spur-of-the-moment creativity and individual flair, two crucial elements of the intrinsic entertainment value of athletics. For its part, baseball is like watching a game of chess or someone solve a very long math problem; fascinating for the game's true students, but a bit of a bore for the casual observer, or when -- as in an informal setting -- the strategy considerations take a backseat.

The popularity of these two sports in America, I submit, is heavily dependent on the drama of a full NFL or MLB season. The NFL's regular season last but 16 games; with each game so crucial, each play has a level of significance unmatched in any sport. A baseball manager's skill at managing his pitching staff is measured not by one game (when not all arms are available to him), but over the course of several months. Even the game's best sluggers will go multiple games without mustering a single hit; their brilliance is measured over the course of hundreds of plate appearances throughout the summer, enough time for probability to more or less take over.

Basketball has its share of compelling in-season storylines. Indeed, watching how a team evolves from November to April, jelling at just the right time, is one of the joys of following a team for a full campaign.

But basketball doesn't need this structuralized drama to be entertaining. An acrobatic dunk, a behind-the-back pass, an ankle-breaking crossover; these are entertaining plays, in any setting, no matter who performs them. Other sports have their share of spectacular plays, but not with the same frequency. Just about any time you watch a full game of high-level basketball players going at it, you'll see at least of handful of plays that are, if not jaw-dropping, eye-raising. You don't get that guarantee with football or baseball.

Soccer comes closest to matching basketball's flair and creativity. Indeed, the recent popularity of major European clubs' U.S. summer tours is probably the closest analog to the exhibition that is the inspiration for this post. (Some of that popularity can be traced to the lack of high-level soccer in this country, as well as the large immigrant population.) But soccer -- a game which I played through high school and of which I am a fan, lest you get the wrong idea -- moves a bit more slowly than basketball does, and the potential for a truly uneventful match is much greater. So while many contend that soccer is "The Beautiful Game," I contend -- as you've no doubt figured out by now -- that basketball is.

Don't misunderstand: I fully recognize that one can appreciate a perfectly-executed trap block or a smoothly-turned double play the same way I can get excited about a good defensive rotation or a bounce pass thrown at precisely the right moment on a 2-on-1 break. Recognition of the sublime in the routine is what makes a true fan. But as far as pure entertainment goes, no team sport holds a candle to hoops.

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