(The Champ’s latest at EBONY on the bond he shared with his parents through basketball, and how his mom’s recent death changes everything.)
We’ll talk about the Steelers. He’ll reiterate they need to draft “one of those athletic Black quarterbacks” next year. I’ll say we have bigger holes to fill than at quarterback. We’ll both joke about how Mike Tomlin gets so angry at press conferences after losses that it looks like his eyes will pop out of his head.
We’ll also talk about the weather. News one of my aunts told him over the phone about one of my cousins. The deer family in his backyard. The raccoon family in his garbage cans. A new steak rub he saw on the Food Network. How my car is holding up. My job. Area crime. Obama. White people. A Roots CD I gave him. Terrelle Pryor. Cristo Redentor. If Ray Donovan is any good. My nephew. My knee.
We will then talk about the only thing worth talking about: basketball. And it will remind us why we need to talk about basketball now. Especially now. It will be a familiar conversation. We will both smile. And this will make us both sad.
To know why I love basketball is to know why I love my dad. He introduced me to the game when I was six. My birthday is Dec. 30th, the Harlem Globetrotters appear in Pittsburgh in late December of every year, and he took me to see them as a birthday present. Interest piqued, I’d watch the NBA playoffs with him, and listen as he explained where Earvin Johnson got his nickname from and why dunks weren’t worth any extra points. I’d implore him to buy basketball magazines for me—Hoops and Basketball Digest especially. He take me to basketball courts. We’d shoot around before anyone else got there; me working on my touch and him rebounding my misses while reminding me to be mindful of my follow through. Older guys would start to come. My dad would play with them, and I’d sit on the bleachers, watching and waiting for my opportunity to sweat the way they did.
As years passed, the basketball jones continued to grow. We’d shoot 500 jumpshots a day every summer. Me counting my makes, he reminding me to be mindful of my follow through. I’d grown big enough to finally play with the older guys, and he’d always pick me on his team, reminding me to shoot when I was open and hit the open man. He’d drive me to my AAU games and sit in the stands. After the games, he’d make sure to tell me I played well. During drives home, he’d let me know which rotations I missed and why it was my fault when I threw that no-look pass to that guy who dropped it out of bounds because he wasn’t ready for it. We’d watch college and NBA games together at home. He’d point out bad body language, and we’d both instinctively grunt “Eh!” when Tim Hardaway or Mark Price or Chris Jackson made someone look silly. During breaks in the action, he’d quiz me on NBA history.
“What college did Oscar Robertson go to?”
“Eh…wait…I got it. Cincinnati, right?”
High school and college were versions of the same process. We didn’t practice together anymore—he was approaching 50, and I’d just work on my game by myself—but he still came to every game and still gave me the same advice. The grunts still occurred while watching college and NBA games, but they were peppered between us pointing out where Robert Horry mistakenly “popped” instead of “rolled” after setting a pick and theoretical debates pitting a 2001 Allen Iverson against a 1989 Isiah Thomas.
He’d also make sure to let me know how much he enjoyed watching me play basketball.
We’re both adults now, living on two separate sides of the same city. I’m busy. Not as busy as I say I am. But still busy. And, for the past few years, we haven’t watched as many games together as we did before.
This year will be different though.
While the story of my dad and I can not be told without basketball, the story of my dad, my basketball, and I can not be told without my mom.
As I type this, the remnants of a fried egg and bacon sandwich sits on a plate to my left. What was once a towering piece of sandwich art has been reduced to a dozen or so desolate crumbs and two lone strands of grated Parmesan cheese. If you squint, it looks like a map of Rhode Island.
I live within a two mile radius of a supermarket and (at least) 20 different restaurants, and my refrigerator is (surprisingly) stocked. My food options are limitless. (Well, relatively limitless. I’d have to leave the radius for shark steak and, strangely, Frosted Flakes.) I chose to create and devour this sandwich because I had a very specific craving for the very specific combination of ingredients.
I did not eat my fried egg and bacon sandwich and wish it were a Big Mac. Or a pizza. Or leftover roast beef. Or even a fried egg and sausage sandwich. I also did not attempt to make my fried egg and bacon sandwich taste more like a Big Mac, a pizza, leftover roast beef, or a fried egg and sausage sandwich. If I wanted any of those things, I would have eaten them.
But I didn’t. So I didn’t. And now I’m full. And happy.
The 2013-2014 NBA season starts today. I am very happy about this. Basketball isn’t just my favorite sport. It is my favorite non-essential thing on Earth, and I enjoy watching NBA basketball more than I enjoy consuming any other type of media.
I am not unique in my interest in NBA basketball. I am, though, (somewhat) unique in my love for and acceptance of its current form. NBA basketball is my fried egg and bacon sandwich. I do not want it to be a Big Mac.
I realize this food analogy is ridiculous. But to understand the NBA’s strange place in our cultural zeitgeist, ridiculousness seems appropriate. Necessary, even. To wit, by every conceivable metric (TV ratings, star quality, estimated sale price of teams, quality of play, transcendent beards, etc), the National Basketball Association is thriving. Yet, a very large percentage of people interested in the league’s success and/or demise remain convinced there are cavernous, fundamental wrongs at the base of it’s foundation. Basically, the league is fucked up and needs to be fixed.
This in itself isn’t ridiculous, or even unwelcome. If everyone felt the exact same way about the exact same things, we’d all work at Trader Joe’s. What is ridiculous is that its perceived wrongs are only wrongs because it’s being compared to three completely separate and completely ridiculous entities.
1. An idealized version of an NBA past that never actually existed.
2. A decidedly worse version of NBA basketball. (NCAA basketball)
3. Walmart. (And, by “Walmart” I mean “America,” and by “America” I mean “The NFL”)
Basically, for those who believe the NBA has big problems, the NBA’s biggest problems are 1. it’s not something it never has been, 2. it’s not a worse version of itself, and 3. it’s not something it never will be.
And this is why I love it.
Thorough explanations of why the idealized past never actually existed and why college basketball is inferior would venture into basketball wonk territory, and I’ll spare you from that. Today.
Instead, lets focus on Walmart.
The NFL has parity. Well, at least the perception of parity. I’m not even sure if Kansas City fielded a team last season. I think they used their football stadium for monster truck rallies and Civil War reenactments every Sunday. They now have the best record in the NFL. They will not win the Super Bowl. But, their fans legitimately believe they have a chance. This is great. For the NFL.
The NBA does not have the same type of parity. The season hasn’t begun yet, but those who follow the sport already know there are exactly five teams with a realistic shot of winning the NBA championship this year. Naturally, any conversation that brings up the NBA’s place in the sports universe will cite the NFL’s any-given-Sunday-ness as the reason for its popularity, implying that the NBA would be wise to try to emulate them. And, this is wrong.
The unique nature of basketball means that a dominant player will have more opportunity to provide an impact on the outcome of the game. (As good as Peyton Manning is, he doesn’t play defense, so he’s only able to have an effect on half of the game. Lebron, on the other hand, can conceivably play every minute.) This makes it inherently less random, and the length of the NBA’s schedule and the playoffs series format make it even less random. These dynamics combine to make the NBA the sports world’s truest meritocracy—which I love—and asking it to be more random and more like the NFL is asking a fried egg and bacon sandwich to be a Big Mac.
There’s also the argument that there are too many games. And this also is an argument that compares the NBA season to the NFL season. And this is also a ridiculous argument.
While the common point of the argument—less games means that each game matters more—seems to make sense, it also states that people who love football love it because there’s less of it. Which implies that people who love football don’t actually love football. If you love something specifically because there isn’t much of it, you don’t really love it that much. You love waiting for it, looking forward to it, and craving it, but you don’t love it itself. And, because I love watching NBA basketball so much, it doesn’t matter much to me that the season is long and every game doesn’t have the mythical import that a 16 game season might have.
I realize the title is (somewhat) misleading. It outright says that the post will explain my love for NBA basketball, but the bulk of the post is devoted to one of the reasons why people who don’t love it don’t love it. This would seem to be a very insecure expression of love.
But all explanations of love eventually sound insecure. Not because the person in love is trying to convince themselves, but because any attempt to articulate and deconstruct love is going to fall short.
Basically, I love NBA basketball because it’s NBA basketball and not anything else. Which doesn’t say anything. But actually says everything.
A little over two weeks ago, as my entire family was gathered at Sunday dinner, discussing the plans and preparations for my sister’s upcoming (June) wedding, she (my sister) unexpectantly broke down in tears and rushed out of the room, running upstairs. My parents and I looked at each other baffled, each of our faces simultaneously stuck on “Was it something I said?” mode. After the shock wore off, my mom went after my still hysterical sister, whose cries could be heard downstairs.
After a few minutes, my mom returned to the dinner table, alone.
“The wedding is off”
“Wait! What? What happened?”
“Rick broke up with her this morning. Said he didn’t want to marry her. Apparently didn’t give any reason for it.”
This news, while shocking, wasn’t necessarily surprising. They (Rick and my sister) met in college, and dated for eight years, and eight years is a hell of a long relationship gestation period. I know there are exceptions to every rule, but it’s been my experience that “eight years of dating” = “yeah, he doesn’t really want to marry your ass.”
I think my sister sensed this as well, but she still tried her damnedest to believe in their future together. She’d invested so much energy, so much time, sweat, love, and tears into this relationship she wouldn’t allow herself to think otherwise. Also, she wanted to have children—multiple children—and she was aware that as she got older (she’s 33), she honestly didn’t have much more time to be able to do that. Quite frankly, she needed this relationship with Rick to work.
As I mentioned earlier, I had an idea that this was coming. But, there was no urge to remind her or anyone of this. Instead, I was filled with rage. I thought about all the pre and post-wedding preparations my parents made, and the stress that put them through. My dad even developed an ulcer. I thought of all the people—friends and family—who’d saved up and altered their schedules to attend the June wedding. I thought about all the awkward conversations my sister was going to have to have for the next several months when co-workers and acquaintances who haven’t heard the news yet will ask her about Rick and the wedding. I thought of how she always wanted to be a wife and a mother. Even as a kid, she’d joke about wanting to have enough kids to field her own basketball team. Yes, she can still get married and yes, she can still have kids—despite what the media might tell you, a 30-something woman breaking up with a man isn’t a death sentence—but realistically, the chances of that happening are much lower now than they were even five years ago.
I wasn’t the only one filled with rage, either. Since hearing the news, my parents and I have both struggled to juggle the surreal ambivalence of wanting to be supportive for my sister and wanting to shed Rick’s blood. Some days, I’m so consumed with antipathy that I think about what I’d do to Rick if he ever had the misfortune of crossing paths with me. I know these feelings will eventually pass, but right now it’s all I can think about.
I imagine most people would also feel that strange combination of feelings—anger, confusion, disgust–if their loved one was hurt in a similar way. I’m sure you’d feel even more strange if the man who broke up with your sister so suddenly was being celebrated nationally—hailed everywhere as a hero—for basically the same reason he broke up with your sister so suddenly. Perhaps this reason makes him a pioneer, a vanguard, a spearhead to newer, better, and more progressive America. But, while bravery and a willingness to stand alone, to do what others haven’t done are part of its definition, “heroism” also implies a certain selflessness, a benevolent altruisticness, and knowing what this man did to your sister and your family, you’ll never be able to call him a hero.
I’m sure by now you’ve deduced that my story about my sister was a bit of an allegory. If you hadn’t figured it out, well, my story about my sister was a bit of an allegory. I wrote this from an hypothetical perspective of a hypothetical family member of Carolyn Moos—the woman who Jason Collins dated for eight years, proposed to, and broke up with a month before their wedding.
I didn’t write this to discredit or dismiss the bravery it took for Collins to make his recent admission, nor am I so myopic that I can’t see how an act like that has the potential to make a positive impact on thousands, even millions of lives. I also am fully aware that I have absolutely no idea about the inner workings of Collins’ and Moos’ relationship, and I couldn’t even begin the fathom how it must feel to spend decades trapped inside of a box, forced by societal constraints to live a lie.
I am, though, aware of how much of an influence perspective has on perception, and the Collins’ case—and the prevailing reaction to it—is an perfect example of that. A big part of the reason why Collins is being lauded as a hero is because he told his story first. Think of how much different everything would be if our first news about Collins’ sexuality was told by a scorned ex-fiancee who wanted to set the record straight after being led on for a decade.
There also lies the uncomfortable fact that his “heroism” is predicated on the fact that he very likely deceived and even hurt people—people very close to him—for a very long time. Lemme put it this way: If Collins was “Rick the civil engineer who just broke up with your sister a month before her wedding” instead of a guy who’s really, really, really good at playing basketball, and the story of Rick finally coming out was told from your sister’s perspective, I doubt you’d throw many positive-sounding nouns and adjectives in Rick’s direction.
Yet, Collins’ position as a professional athlete has made us assign a heroism to an act—publicly admitting that you’ve been living a lie—that isn’t really all that heroic. Yes, you cannot discount the role societal expectations played in Collins’ life, as I’m sure he did not set out to delude or hurt anyone. And yes, what Collins’ did—either intentionally or unintentionally lead a woman to believe their relationship was something that it wasn’t—has been done by men everywhere (me included). My eyes are filled with planks. This is exactly my point. If you take away the “firstness” and the homosexuality and just look at it as a “man spends decade deceiving woman who was in love with him” perspective, what separates him from the thousands of men (and women) reading this today? Obviously, being shitty at relationships doesn’t mean that you can’t be a hero. Just not when the heroism is directly linked to the shitty behavior.
You could argue that since Collins himself wasn’t completely sure of his sexuality—in his own words, this realization was “baking” for 33 years—it doesn’t really count as deception. Basically, deception isn’t truly deception if you’re genuinely deluding yourself. This is a valid argument. I don’t agree—a person unsure of their sexual preference telling someone they want to get married sounds like true deception to me—but it is valid. You can also argue that anyone hurt by Collins’ lie is America’s fault for forcing a man to think that he had to live that way, not Collins’. This is also a valid argument. I don’t agree—while America may have made it very difficult to come out as gay, America doesn’t force you to get into long relationships with women (What’s wrong with just not seriously dating anyone?)—but it is valid. But, the argument that context makes Collins a hero, that the impact of his admission supersedes any possible collateral damage caused by him living a lie, isn’t.
I applaud Collins for being real with himself, for having the courage to be free, for being the first active male athlete in one of our major sports to stand up and tell the world that he will no longer pretend to be something he isn’t, for having the balls to be the first member of a club that will likely grow much sooner and much larger than we think, for “outing” himself when he apparently didn’t have to.
But, as we rush to praise him for being first, we can’t forget that it came with a very human cost. If this still makes him a “hero” to you, fine. I understand. We all have our own definitions of the word, I guess. For now, though, I’ll be safe and just call him a “man.”
***The Champ’s latest at EBONY discusses why he prefers the pro game to the college game***
Like millions of other sports fans,Â I spent countless hours following and/or watching the first couple rounds of the NCAA tournament last weekend. And, like much of the tournament-following country, I found myself falling in love with Florida Gulf Coast University, a school that managed to pull off major upsets against both Georgetown University and San Diego State University, schools heavily favored to beat them.
If there was ever a story that encapsulated the true essence of March Madness, it would be their emergence, a tiny school in the middle of Florida thatÂ didn’t even exist two decades ago. This—the idea of every team, whether from Texas or Transylvania Tech, having a legitimate chance at their One Shining Moment—is what makes the tournament so compelling, so unpredictable, so variable, and so fun.
And it’s exactly why I’d choose the NBA over college basketball in a heartbeat
The first NBA game I remember watching was a Sixers game in the spring of 1986. I forgot exactly who they were playing, but I recall (well, I think I recall) Dr. J hitting a buzzer beater to win. I also recall getting a spanking (my last ever, btw) that day for peeing in the front yard. It was a memorable day, I guess.
In the 26 years since, I’ve watched thousands of NBA games. If you include the playoffs, that number is probably somewhere between 2000 and 2500. Basically, I’ve been a diehard NBA fan longer than many of you reading this have been alive.
I’m bringing this up to provide background and credibleness (I know I could have used “credibility” there, but credibleness just felt better) to make my (eventual) point.
We enter the 2012-2013 NBA season with each of the following things being true:
—More than any other recent season, 2012-2013 should serve as an example of why the competitive dynamics unique to basketball in general and the NBA in particular work.
Due to the length of the season, the amount of possession in each game, the series format of the playoffs, and (most importantly) the fact that it’s the only major sport where your best player can affect the entire game for the entire game — each things that increase the probability that the best team will eventually win — the NBA is a true meritocracy. It’s not that the best players are usually on the best teams. The best teams are the best teams because they just happen to have one (or more) of the best players. This means that you have a general idea in November of who will be the four or five best teams in May. Actually, “general idea” isn’t strong enough. You just f*cking know who is going to be good and who won’t.Â Because of this, it does not have the “any-given-Sunday-ness” of the NFL or the perceived anarchy of the NCAA tournament.
As you’ve probably guessed, I love the fact that it’s split into clearly defined tiers of “legitimate shot,” “competitive, but no legitimate shot this year,” and “no f*cking chance.” Thing is…you love it too. Yes, you do. Stop trying to deny it.
As much as (some) people gripe about the NBA having no parity, more people are interested in it when there are “super” teams with narratives and superstars with story arcs. Aside from diehard fans (read: people like me) no one is interested in the NBA when it has an NFL-esque competitive balance.
How do I know this? Well, in the few seasons when you did have legitimate parity (ie; 2005 when the Spurs beat the Pistons in the Finals or the entire 70′s — 10 years, 9 different champions), nobody f*cking watched or cared! Nobody! But, when you have teams like Jordan’s Bulls or Magic’s Lakers or Bird’s Celtics or even Shaq’s Lakers, you motherf*ckers watch. And, in a year where you have four “super” teams with a legitimate shot at a title (Heat, Lakers, Thunder, and Celtics), you’re going to see another interest/ratings boon.
—There’s a fifth team (Spurs) that was the best team in the league last season until the last three weeks of the playoffs. They’re returning their entire team, btw.
—Aside from the six teams already mentioned, there are at least 15 others that could either be considered “legitimately good” or “legitimately interesting.” The Knicks are neither, and that’s a legitimately interesting fact in itself.
—There is a NBA basketball team in Brooklyn. A basketball team that might actually not be not good. I think this matters too.
—Between Lebron, Wade, Bosh, Ray Allen, Kobe, Nash, Dwight Howard, Metta, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Kevin Garnett, Rondo, Paul Pierce, Durant, Westbrook, James Harden, Derrick Rose, Dirk, Melo, Jason Kidd, Duncan, Tony Parker, and Jeremy Lin, the season begins with more “name” players (in this sense, a “name” player is someone who can appear in a commercial without the commercial’s script needing to say “Hey, professional basketball player Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers, what are you doing in my car?“) than every other major sports league combined.
***This list doesn’t even include fringe name people (Amare, Gasol, etc), perennial all-stars who lack the status/charisma to ever be a name person (Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Al Horford, etc), average NBA players who are fringe name people in pop culture circles because of women they’ve f*cked (Matt Barnes, Kris Humphries, Daniel Gibson, etc), soon-to-be name people (Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Anthony Davis, etc), and people who everyone assumed would be a name person by now (John Wall, John Wall, John Wall, etc)***
—Speaking of “soon-to-be name” people, this season will give me the chance to continue to gloat about the fact that I purchased, assembled, and manned the wheel of the “Kyrie Irving will be a superstar” bandwagon two years ago.(No, I will never tire of reminding everyone that I called that shit was he was still in high school. Thanks for asking, though.)
—One top 10 all-time player (Kobe) has a chance — if everything goes the way it could potentially go for him — to move into the “Best career of all-time” conversation, while another top 15 all-time player (Lebron) has a chance — if everything goes the way it could potentially go for him — to continue his path towards being included in the “Best player of all-time” conversation.
(The difference between the “Best career” and “Best player” conversations? If you look at his total career — rings, records, longevity, etc — Kobe is already one of the four or five most accomplished NBA players of all-time, and will continue to climb up that chart. But, I’ve seen Magic, Bird, Jordan, Hakeem, Shaq, Duncan, and Lebron at their absolute apexes. And, a peak/prime Kobe just wasn’t better than any of those guys. This is not an insult, btw. There are worst things in the world than being the 7th or 8th best basketball player the Earth has seen in the last 30 years. If you disagree, fine. But, just know that you’re wrong. )
—Lastly, this season will allow me to continue to develop my theory about the main difference between a peak Lebron James and a peak Michael Jordan. (Not interested in making a career comparison between these two. Jordan is unquestionably the greatest player of all-time, and in order for Lebron to be in that conversation, he needs to accomplish much, much more. Just interested in comparing these two at their absolute best and figuring out whose best was/is better and why. For Jordan, this was around 1992/1993. For Lebron, this is now.)
Anyway, Michael Jordan was as close to a perfect basketball player as we’ll ever see. He had the perfect body, build, and temperament. Was extremely fundamentally sound while also being a perfect basketball athlete. He even had close to perfect form and follow through on his jumpshot. From a basketball standpoint, he was basically flawless.
Yet, despite the fact that he was a “perfect” basketball player, he did not play perfect basketball. There were times when you’d watch Jordan play and you’d think to yourself “Hmmm. I know he just dunked on like seven guys, but he probably should have passed it there.” Obviously, the result would still be favorable, but just because a decision turned out well doesn’t mean that it was the right one.
Lebron, on the other hand, is not a perfect basketball player. He is extremely skilled, but he has some conspicuous flaws. His jumpshot — although improved — remains erratic, and his footwork — although also improved — will never be as fluid as someone like Jordan or even Kobe. Also, from an aesthetic standpoint, there are parts of his game that will always leave some fans dry. He doesn’t trick or shake people as much as he overpowers or “outdecisions” them.
But, like Magic and Bird before him, he’s capable of playing perfect basketball. There were entire games in last year’s playoffs where he made the right decision every single time he had the ball. And, while Magic and Bird each had athletic limitations, Lebron has none, allowing him to control the entire game in a way that, really, no one has ever done.
Michael Jordan is still the best basketball player I’ve ever seen, but I’ve never seen anyone play better basketball than what Lebron did last summer. Basically, choosing between who you think is better at their best depends on whether you prefer a perfect basketball player or someone who plays consistently perfect basketball. All things considered, I’d choose Lebron, and I’m looking forward to this season helping to show why.
When you take all of this into account, I have to say that this has the potential to be the single best NBA season I’ve ever seen. And, if you’re my age or younger, it may be the best season you’ve ever seen, too. It’s ok to disagree with me, btw. I won’t hold it against you. Some people seem to enjoy being wrong.