“This is not to say that basketball is a religion. It is better than a religion.” —Dave Hickey
This March, as they do every March, young men will be weeping in public. They will weep alone, on their knees, or huddled together in groups, held close, heads on shoulders, stroking one another’s hair. Tens of thousands will witness this spectacle in person, millions more will watch from their homes on TV—and some will even weep along. “It’s a sad day for these guys,” one of the pundits might say. “But this right here is what college basketball is all about.”
For years, I’ve felt that just this sort of passion is one of many ways in which men’s NCAA hoops● is superior to the NBA. The teams play defense, they box-out, they work the ball, they run systems; the style of play cultivates an ethic that prizes unselfishness, intensity, dedication, and solid coaching. In the NBA, conversely, players trot up and down the court with one eye on their stats line and the other on their paycheck. Coaches have about as much impact as the cheerleaders (possibly less), and the only thing that might make players weep is the salary cap. Simply put, I’d argue, the NCAA game is better basketball.
I started talking this way in high school, at the peak of my admittedly modest hoops-playing abilities. From the older kids I looked up to, both on the court and off, I learned to regard the NBA as the equivalent of Top 40 pop music, while the NCAA was more like underground hip-hop or the DIY punk scene. Real ballers appreciated a game that hadn’t become muddled by corporate greed, one that valued highly strategized systems based in fitness and discipline. My friends and I were serious about the game, waking up for 6 a.m. practices, running stairs, and jumping rope after school, weight-training at home; we had nothing in common with seemingly indifferent millionaire superstars. And if the crying fits that marked the end of a school’s bid at the NCAA tournament were any indication, college athletes cared as deeply about the game as we did.
As I entered my twenties and my years of playing at a competitive level ended, what attracted me to the college game changed. Now that I was the same age as most of the athletes, when a graduating class lost in March and collapsed in tears, I recognized what I was seeing. The vast majority of seniors would never go on to pro careers. Since they’d been kids, basketball had been the focus—and for many, an exclusive source of identity—in their lives. They had been living the dreams of boys, and when the final buzzer sounded, it effectively signaled that the dream was over; it was time to become men.
I’d grown up knowing an NBA where potential legend Derrick Coleman was barely showing up to games●, while in the NCAA, Bo Kimble of Loyola-Marymount was shooting his free throws left-handed in honor of deceased teammate Hank Gathers. The NCAA esteemed dignity and class, while pros seemed clueless and out of touch—both with the game itself and the real world. Then, when I was in my mid-twenties, Latrell Sprewell underlined all of my distaste for the NBA’s brand of clueless capitalism with his outlandish statement about the difficulties of feeding his family on $7 million a year. If nothing else, this confirmed my allegiances to the comparatively grassroots NCAA, and they remained strong until last year, when as always, I tuned in for March Madness—pretty much in its entirety. But for the first time, the experience felt slightly empty.
A few months earlier, at my girlfriend’s suggestion, I had YouTubed a 2005 interview of Kevin Garnett, then still a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, by TNT’s John Thompson, roughly basketball’s equivalent of James Earl Jones. Despite yet another standout season from their star, the T-Wolves were struggling to make the playoffs, and this—losing—provided the focus of Thompson’s line of questioning. About four minutes into the interview, John Thompson asks, “How beat up are you?” and Garnett starts to respond, but suddenly his voice hitches. He holds up an index finger to the camera, biting his lip, and says, “I’m losing, I’m losing, I’m losing.”
Kevin Garnett has always been electrifying as a player, but the following five minutes—his answers choked through tears, “Big John” all supportive and patriarchal—are as riveting as any of his on-court highlights. I thought a lot about that video immediately after watching it, and continue to think about it now; the emotional access and vulnerability had an undeniable effect on me. Here was a guy, like those college athletes I admired so much, who deeply, sincerely cared about the game. It was a display of honesty that I never would have expected from the slick, predictable NBA.
With this in mind, as I sat through another 63 games of the NCAA tournament—its requisite upsets and last-minute victories and future draft picks strutting their stuff like hogs at an auction, before, finally, one team (I honestly forget which one) went on to win the national championship—each round felt as though I’d seen it before. Even the supposed Cinderella story of Davidson shared an aching familiarity with similar squads of previous years: that small school nobody has ever heard of, clawing its way past higher seeds on sheer guts and determination. The year before it had been George Mason, exactly the same way; in 2009, it will likely be another batch of unlikely giant-killers.
If it wasn’t raw emotion and theatricality that set college ball apart from the NBA, then what was it? Even my own past arguments of commercialism were fundamentally flawed—at least the pros see some dough. Universities get rich off their basketball teams while the kids playing, in some dubious legislation geared toward maintaining the “integrity” of the college game, are forbidden from cashing in on their school’s success. To keep them motivated, they are dangled the carrot of the NBA, but are then suspended entire seasons for actively pursuing professional possibilities while still students. Understandably, the most promising athletes respond by leaving school early—if they even go at all●—which, the guardians of college hoopdom desperately claim, somehow fails to dilute the talent pool. Considering this, as well as the NCAA’s countless product endorsements and multimillion-dollar TV deals, corporate greed becomes a weak argument against the pro game.
Any argument that the kids in college train harder than the pros similarly ignores the facts. Countless self-motivated NBA stars spend hours upon hours of extra time in the gym, and many spend their summers fine-tuning the weaker aspects of their games. So, with the money and work-ethic issues out the window, what’s to like more about the college game than the NBA? In search of an answer, if even on some basic, aesthetic level, I started thinking about what attracted me to the sport of basketball in the first place.
My metamorphosis from casual fan to the kind of guy who wears a “My girlfriend or basketball?” T-shirt would have started when I was 11, in the sixth grade. Puberty was beginning its first vicious forays into my body, and for the first time I began to recognize myself as a creature who aged. While adolescence didn’t exactly prompt an existential crisis, its symptoms did make me awkward, ungainly, and ashamed. In a school system that seemed designed to humiliate kids when they were most vulnerable (why else would I get called to the board whenever a random erection started blooming in my sweatpants?), the classroom did little to make me feel better about myself. But then there was basketball, and basketball was freedom from all that.
Back then my favorite players were all showmen: Clyde Drexler, Larry Nance, Kenny “Sky” Walker, Spud Webb, Magic Johnson, Dominique “The Human Highlight Film” Wilkins. On the playground, my friends and I never emulated the dependable pick-and-roll of John Stockton and Karl Malone●, but instead enjoyed recess-long “lay-up competitions” styled after the NBA’s slam-dunk contest (alley-oops were my specialty). Three-on-three provided a chance to wow one another with no-look passes and Michael Jordan-inspired leaps from the foul line, legs spread-eagled, tongue wagging. By the time I was 12 years old, I lived, breathed, and dreamed basketball, and I spent that entire summer on my driveway practicing Isiah Thomas-inspired spin-moves and crossovers. If it rained, I had a mini-hoop in my basement, where I’d work on post-up moves, playing through entire imaginary games in my head. Basketball was everything. And I hadn’t even joined a team yet.
But in the seventh grade, if you liked a sport, it needed to be sanctioned. Since my friends and I liked basketball, the assumption was that we would move inside from the playground and try out for the school team. In that claustrophobic tin box of a gymnasium, we learned the importance of something Mr. Hunter, our coach, called “fundamentals.” Mr. Hunter was a genuinely nice guy but a strict traditionalist when it came to hoops, and he scolded me and my pals for what he called, disparagingly, “hot-dogging.” A lay-up was to be done overhand, accompanied with a ceremonial lifting of the knee, banked in off the square—not double-pumped, and certainly never finger-rolled. Those of us who capably performed this and other conventional maneuvers made the team. Those that couldn’t were cut, which killed the interest in the sport among a number of my friends. Deemed unworthy by the powers-that-be, they rarely joined even our casual pick-up games again.
On our school team I began, tragically, to learn the game—and subsequently to develop a complete misunderstanding of what basketball, at its core, is really about. Absorbing the ideology of organized basketball led me to the erroneous notion as a teenager, and then an adult, that the staid, systematic college game is superior to the pros. I base this assertion not in principles developed over time, but in the very precepts upon which the sport was founded. While the majority of college teams employ structural rigor lacking from the NBA, basketball was designed to celebrate freedom, not impose systems.● The sport’s founder, Dr. James Naismith, himself once said, “Basketball is a game to be played, not coached.”
The problem with organized basketball is inherent in its name. In order to be organized, you need an organizer—or at least organizing principles—something clearly counterintuitive to James Naismith’s intentions. And before I was taught otherwise, coaching and fundamentals were the opposite of what I liked most: the highlights. Seeing point guards like Kevin Johnson or Kenny Anderson beat a guy with a move you’d never seen before—a move that didn’t look rehearsed, or planned, but a spontaneous reaction to circumstance—was the ultimate in escapism. The replays would capture the genius of it in slow motion: A guy had just invented something, and you’d watched it happen in real time. Most thrilling of all, what the player had done had nothing to do with his coach, who was likely wringing his hands on the bench.
By the time I put on my uniform for the inaugural game of my first-ever season, instead of “hot-dogging” my friends and I now valued crisp chest passes and a proper defensive stance; the creativity we’d once emulated in our lay-up competitions had been effectively replaced with learned behavior.
As the WWF, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, began tapping into a generally adolescent, male desire for over-the-top showmanship, so the NBA began promoting itself as a league that celebrated spectacle and the spectacular. This was the hard sell, and I bought it: I still own a 1988 Sultans of Slam poster, featuring nine of the game’s top dunkers, and a video called Dazzling Dunks and Basketball Bloopers, hosted by the inimitable and occasionally histrionic Marv Albert. But by the time I put on my uniform for the inaugural game of my first-ever season, instead of “hot-dogging” my friends and I now valued crisp chest passes and a proper defensive stance; the creativity we’d once emulated in our lay-up competitions had been effectively replaced with learned behavior. The NBA was fine as entertainment, but not to be considered a good model for serious players. As a result, I began to forget everything I’d found fun and liberating about basketball when I’d fallen in love with it only a year before.
Organized basketball indoctrinates kids early. They are taught the mechanical movements of offensive and defensive systems, which prescribe who occupies which place on the court and where each player should go, as well as where—and often how—shots should be taken. It imposes an infrastructure and logic on a game that already has a sufficient logistical system in place. Unlike soccer and other team sports, in which the ball is routinely loose in the field of play, the beauty of basketball is the inherent control afforded to whoever has possession. The rules of basketball are its grammar; as is the case with language, those rules can be bent through understanding and manipulation, but ignoring them outright results in anarchy—imagine a team that wildly threw the ball down the court and ran after it, as is prescribed by the dump-and-chase style of hockey.
That coaches stress systems and discipline beyond these rules is not surprising, however, since the sport operates largely within the realms of academic institutions: first in grade school, then high school, and finally in college. As creative writing has fallen in recent times under the jurisdiction of universities (think of the innumerable master’s degrees in fine arts offered around the country), so has basketball become the property of the academy.● Enforcing structure and convention then provides a means of controlling players, evaluating their success, and ultimately stifling their creativity.
Basketball is most pure, and best exemplified at its essence, on unsanctioned playgrounds across the nation, where the game becomes liberated of institutional limitations. As it was when we were kids, blissfully ignorant of systems and how the game “should” be played, there is real beauty in streetball’s celebration of individual creativity and freedom—within the rules of basketball, to be sure, but without the superfluous structures of formal oversight. And where does this playground aesthetic—the wild, unchecked instincts of children, really—shine brightest but the NBA?●
Today’s National Basketball Association boasts a truly mind-boggling number of legitimate superstars. While USA Basketball sent 12 of its best to the Beijing Olympics, consider the guys left off the squad: Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Amare Stoudemire, Boston’s Big Three, Allen Iverson, Joe Johnson, Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, Tim Duncan, Jamal Crawford, Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, Brandon Roy, etc., etc., etc. The Americans conceivably could have fielded two—possibly even three—teams that, if not capable of playing well enough together to win gold, certainly would have boasted a depth of talent inapproachable by even the best Europeans, Asians, or South Americans combined.●
Since I was a kid, I have cheered mindlessly, every year, for the Montreal Canadiens, Minnesota Vikings, Toronto Blue Jays, and the Football Association’s Southampton Saints. But when it comes to basketball, I’ve always liked players, not teams. Unlike my tendencies for allegiances in other sports, when it came to the NBA, I owned merchandise from the Knicks, Spurs, Warriors, Pistons, Celtics, Magic, Hawks, and Bulls, as these were all teams with players I liked. I would watch any game that was on, provided it offered some sort of marquee matchup: Charles Barkley versus Larry Bird, Golden State’s Run-TMC● against Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan.
The NBA has much in common with Hollywood, in that a single star can often supersede everyone else involved—from the other players to those behind the scenes. Like the movies, and perhaps unlike any other team sport, the NBA game celebrates individual showmanship and brilliance. Football relies too much on team play, the field of soccer is too huge for one midfielder or striker to dominate it completely, and hockey shifts are too quick for a single player to make an impact on every play. Baseball is a game of turns.
In basketball, a single player, regardless of position, can get the ball every time down the floor. And while traditionalists lament the selfishness inherent to this style of play, I’d argue that this is exactly what makes the NBA so exciting—as a kid, I loved seeing the main attractions, and I’m no different now. The Wizards are going to let Gilbert Arenas be the fulcrum of their offense on every trip; Steve Nash is going to have the ball in his hands 70 percent of the time. I was almost disappointed when the Miami Heat drafted Michael Beasley; there’s something amazing about an otherwise mediocre team that pins every possession on one superstar, and I loved their complete reliance on the obscenely talented Dwayne Wade.
“Where Amazing Happens,” the league’s new slogan for 2008, speaks to this celebration of spectacle and suggests a forum for artistry and self-expression that the college game, with its rigid systems and structure, does not. Sure, Phil Jackson runs his patented triangle offense, but just as it was in Chicago in the days of Michael Jordan, the Lakers’ playbook is built around the exceptional talents of a single player. This is clearly Kobe Bryant’s team, and the offense facilitates, rather than contains, his massive talents—what college offense, these days, would allow a single player to throw up 81 points in a single game?●
We live for these highlights; we love being awestruck by what human beings can do. People like me, who boast no particular alliance with a city or team, are especially lucky, in that we can watch any game of the regular season or playoffs only for displays of artistry. And what I find most encouraging about the NBA is that often the most special, jaw-dropping moments occur not in the All-Star Game, that always-lackluster showcase of unimpeded missed dunks, but in moments where the defense has stepped up, and the league’s great athletes are forced to make great plays. Two of the most replayed highlights of league history, Dr. J’s twisting windmill around Kareem and Michael Jordan’s floating, left-handed switch against the Lakers, came at crucial moments in respective NBA finals. The moves were not simply for show, but needed to happen.
In last year’s NBA finals, I was happy to see Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett finally win the championships they’d all coveted for so long, but I found the series a bit of a letdown. Only one highlight stands out for me, and it belongs solely to Kevin Garnett. Garnett’s performance in the finals, and even throughout the 2008 playoffs, was sub-par by his usual standards, but in Game 6 in Boston he provided a single moment of sublime beauty.
Here: From a high pick-and-roll with Paul Pierce, Garnett takes a bounce-pass at the foul-line, elevates, and, twisting in the air to shoot, finds himself face-to-face with lanky Lamar Odom, who comes hard with the body, knocking Garnett backward. Somehow, the Celtic maintains his balance, holds Odom off with his left forearm, hovers, pumps the ball in his right hand, waits for Odom to land, and finishes the shot—more of a one-handed throw, really—off the backboard before landing on his ass: Count the bucket, plus the harm, and the crowd goes nuts.
As ABC replayed the shot in slow motion, the impossibility of what Kevin Garnett had just done was even more stunning. The strength, the poise, the sheer athleticism! What I appreciate about it, and probably why the highlight stands out to me, is the move’s unlikelihood: Like Dr. J sweeping and winding under the basket, or Michael Jordan nearly parallel to the ground as he finished his scoop-shot, Garnett ignored the fundamentals (two hands on the ball, square up to shoot) and simply let his body take over. You can coach resolve, you can work on power, but creativity is something innate. And Garnett had made a wonderfully creative, albeit somewhat ridiculous move, and I cheered along with everyone else, even though I was alone in my living room.
The Celtics went on to win the game and the series, clobbering the Lakers by 39 points, the greatest margin of victory in a decisive game in finals history. The first player ABC’s Michele Tafoya sought out for comment was Kevin Garnett, whose answers alternated between nonsensical screaming and gracious solemnity—like a drunk realizing and forgetting that the cameras were on. But, below the World Champions cap he kept yanking down to cover his eyes, was Kevin Garnett crying? Was this seven-foot monster●, who had just realized his lifelong dream (“I’m certified! I’m certified!”) crying—again—on national television?
I’m not sure. I’ve argued about this with a number of people. But I hope so. I hope Kevin Garnett was weeping like a baby. Because, ultimately, what are the stars of the NBA doing but living out their—and all fans’—dreams from childhood? For those of us not blessed with the drive, confidence, and skill to not only play our favorite sport for money, but be one of the best in the world, there’s something oddly nostalgic about watching the sport. What I like most about NBA basketball is that it transports me back to being a kid: I jump up and down and scream and shout and am amazed, and from its best, most visceral moments still comes that electric thrill of being awestruck by what these phenomenal athletes can do. So I almost need Kevin Garnett to have been crying. It would be nice, after all, to be reminded that the person who hit that beautiful, absurd, physics-defying shot is amazing, amazing, amazing—but, like me, also only human.