Basketball, like any emotionally rewarding experience, is better shared. Regrettably the male(s) in one room watching the game while their spouse(s)/girlfriend(s) languish unattended in another part of the home, is a cliché that too often drives a wedge into the relationship. Yet basketball is a fascinating sport—mixing many of the ingredients of great dramatic presentations. There is deception and intrigue; a battle of wills, both individual and group; a graceful ballet interspersed with clashes of brawn; emotional highs and the depths of despair; and all this wrapped in a colorful extravaganza where hopes are buoyed and dashed and the elation and anguish are written across the close-ups of faces dripping with exertion and tightened by the stresses of the moment. What’s not to like?
Dateline: September 25, 2012––5 days until the start of training camp!
Sadly too often we fail to include our significant other in what could, perhaps should, be a meeting of the minds and hearts. This week I shall endeavor to alter this dynamic by providing a primer on how to watch basketball better. While there are some general guidelines, these are far more meaningful if there is a framework within which these generalities can be applied. What follows is the effort to present the big picture with the support of all the snapshots that make up the collage.
I have written elsewhere of the sad effect of ESPN on basketball, and basketball viewers. My discourse this week will try to plant the seeds for you to become the anti-ESPN—seeing the games within the game and not just the decorations upon the cake. The first, biggest, and most complete step to broaden your appreciation and understanding of basketball is to STOP WATCHING THE BALL. If this seems counterintuitive, let me offer the words of perhaps the greatest player ever (and no it is not Michael Jordan) and then some additional points to ponder.
In an interview by NBA.com:
NBA.com: When you watch a game in person or on TV, what are you focusing on?
Russell: I watch where the players set up. The really good players do as much without the ball as they do with the ball. In fact, they do more without the ball than they do with the ball. They don’t need the ball a whole lot. I enjoy watching to see how they set themselves up to get the ball where they want it and how they want it. And that takes as much skill as it does to go one on one and in a lot of situations, it takes more skill because you have to coordinate it with the guy who is passing you the ball.
ESPN’s version of the game recap is to show you a dozen made baskets, mostly consisting of a jump and dunk (pushing the ball through the basket from zero inches) or the release of the ball and its two second flight and passing through the basket. Weren’t you pretty sure that the ball was going through the hoop? I would suggest to you that the far more entertaining action took place the five to ten seconds before ESPN’s clip of each shot began; and that’s what I want to help you watch. That holds the beauty of the game, and understanding those dynamics will open up an entirely new appreciation of the battle of wills.
The point of the game is to put the ball in the basket. Ideally you do this in the easiest way possible. This effort is complicated by the fact that in the professional game you have only 24 seconds to score, or at least hit the rim of the basket, or the defensive team is awarded possession of the ball. From a fan’s perspective this is great—the entire act of a dramatic production compressed into less than half a minute (I wonder if opera and the theater might see a surge in popularity if their acts were shorter).
With no interference (defender), it is generally easier to get the ball into the basket from one foot than from two, from two than from 10, and so on. Also, simpler is better (easier). This isn’t gymnastics or platform diving, there is no degree of difficulty bonus. Actually there is an exception. Back in the 1970’s the three-point shot was introduced. Beyond an arc roughly 22 feet from the basket, a made shot is awarded three points instead of two (you have to admit a 50% bonus is pretty alluring). This has been the biggest change in the game in the some 110 years since PE teacher Naismith nailed peach baskets to the gym walls to keep students occupied in bad weather. It has opened up the game which had become some kind of huge wrestling match near the basket as everybody tried to get closer and closer to make shooting easier. Still even from long range, it is easier to shoot if there is not a defender with his hand in your face—the KISS principle still applies.
The point is, all the maneuvering and moving and bumping and shoving is an effort to allow one of your players to shoot the ball without interference. ESPN prefers to show you the “impossible” shots, basketball coaches (and teams) thrive on the easy ones. In my estimation the whole full-contact ballet in an effort to create an easy shot is much more entertaining and extraordinary than that ESPN highlight “can you believe it” miracle (that it went in).
Tomorrow we’ll begin talking about how team’s free up players by impeding their defenders. What to look for, and how to decipher the nuances of the games within the game? I think it will change your experience of basketball viewing.
Boston, and all points beyond