The Trouble with Basketball
So I’ve been sort of watching the NBA playoffs and I have something to say; and I warn you, don’t read this unless you’re such a basketball junkie, you could spend hours discussing the most minute technical details of the game.
Here’s what I want to say.
A couple of weeks ago, San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter Bruce Jenkins said the playoffs had taken a definitive turn because of two “monster-dunks” by Kobe Bryant. Those two dunks, he said, changed the whole course of the playoffs. Those dunks, he implied, announced that the Lakers were going to win it all.
The naïve observer might ask: how many points is a dunk worth? The answer: two. How many points for a clumsy off-balance shot that clunks off the rim and teeters in by pure chance? Two.
Too many dunks
I used to watch basketball avidly. It was the first spectator sport I got into when I got into spectator sports (which wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco in 1977) What I loved about the game at first was the grace of the athletes. But I quickly came to realize that there is nothing to the game unless there is more it than acrobatic grace. Ballet dancers are graceful too, but I personally don’t find ballet all that riveting. Why not? Because there is only one team on the floor. No one is trying to stop those dancers from performing their beautiful acrobatic moves. When they go up for spinning soars, they don’t have to worry that a seven-foot behemoth might crash into them at the top of their arc and send them writhing to the floor. It isn’t just balletic grace that makes basketball (or any sport) interesting: it’s the competition.
By now we know that Bruce Jenkins was wrong: Kobe’s two monster-dunks didn’t foretell how the playoffs would go. The Lakers were swept by the Dallas Mavericks in their next series. Why did Jenkins think two dunks by Kobe spelled doom for all of the Lakers’ upcoming opponents? Because Jenkins thinks intimidating acrobatic dunks are what basketball is all about. And for him, maybe it is. And he’s not alone.
But look: if a game evolves into one that only 14-foot guys able to leap twice their own height can play, you’re going to see a lot of dunks. I began to lose interest in basketball when I had seen my quota of acrobatic dunks. At some point, each new dunk looked like one I saw Dr. J. do 50 years ago, or Michael Jordan a few years later, or Wilt the Stilt a few years earlier, or a parade of others along the way.
All of them can dunk. Big deal.
Telepathy vs Telepathy
The real game is the competition that unfolds between two teams. What’s really riveting is the telepathy of five guys working together pitted against the telepathy of five other guys working together, all ten operating at lightning speed and making split-second decisions based on what they think all the other nine are doing or about to do, with one team trying to put the ball in the hoop and the other trying to stop the ball from going through the hoop.
My interest in basketball faded a bit over the years, because the game isn’t set up to spotlight the competition between two teams. It’s set up to spotlight superhuman individual acrobats soaring gracefully to the basket. That’s why Bruce Jenkins could announce confidently that the playoffs were over the moment he saw Kobe Bryant make two dunks.
The crux of the matter is fouls. Basketball is supposed to be a no contact sport. The players can’t just bump and shove and push and hit one another. That would be a different game. Might be a good game, but it would be a different one. In this game, defensive players have to stop offensive players by herding them off course, obstructing their path to the basket, slapping the ball out of their hands, blocking the ball once it’s in the air, forcing them to take bad shots, all without touching them. If two guys crash together, someone has committed a foul.
Level Playing Field
But which of the two has committed the foul? That’s the question. If the rules were properly set up, scoring would be just exactly as difficult as stopping someone from scoring. The rules would establish an exactly level playing field. If they did, you would see, on average, about 50 percent of the fouls called on the defense and about 50 percent on the offence. Any deviation from the average would derive from one side playing better than the other. That would be real competition.
Instead, offensive fouls are rarely called. I don’t know the exact statistics, but the ratio seems to be in the range of 90 to 10. In other words, the rules make it almost impossible for the defense to stop the offence. What fun is that?
The game generated by those rules predictably consists of one team racing up the floor and scoring; and then the other team racing up the floor and scoring. If you only want to see acrobatic dunks, you’re in hog heaven. But if you want to see competition, you’re waiting and waiting for those rare occasions when one team or the other fails to score—that is, when someone makes a stop on defense.
What Replays Show
The other day, watching a playoff game, I noticed something irritating. Replays rarely show the play that just ended, which was almost always a play in which someone failed to score. Instead, they always go back to the last spectacular, successful offensive play. They show someone driving to the hoop for a lay-up or pulling up for a twenty-foot jumpshot that drops through the hoop clean.
Here’s my problem with that. When you watch basketball you instinctively watch the ball. Therefore, you’re almost always following the guy who has the ball. Therefore, when he scores, you see him score—and you see exactly how it happens. You don’t need a replay. You saw the play.
But when there’s a defensive stop, it’s always because of a bunch of stuff that happened away from the ball. It happened because the defense was anticipating brilliantly, because guys were moving into strategic positions, setting picks, herding ball handlers to untenable spots, cutting off lanes, boxing out, switching off. All of this defensive brilliance ends in someone failing to score, but we rarely see quite how the stop was achieved. We were watching the ball.
There is one simple fix basketball could adopt. It wouldn’t fix the whole problem, but it would help. The refs could call fouls based strictly on what happens at the moment of contact between two players. It shouldn’t matter who the players are, who got whom in the air, or who committed to what lane at what point. The player who initiates contact commits a foul: period. Crash into someone–your bad. End of story. That’s simple, clear-cut and unambiguous. To judge who fouled whom, you need only see the two players involved at the moment of contact.
Instead, in basketball, almost every foul call is a judgment call. It could go either way, and it’s almost impossible to keep feelings out of judgments. (That’s more or less true in life, as well.) I myself can say quite sincerely that the team I favor never commits a foul. I just don’t see any. It’s always the other guys. So obvious! If I happen to be with someone who’s rooting for the other team, they see my team commit every foul. It’s astounding. It’s like they’re blind or something.
That ambiguity—the fact that every foul call is a judgment call—gives the referees too much power to influence the outcomes of games. I’m not saying they’re taking payoffs. (I wouldn’t know.) I’m saying there are always irresistible emotional reasons to favor one team over another, and I don’t just mean the home-town boosterism found in all sports. I’m thinking about the dramatic story that develops around each crucial game, especially in the playoffs.
The refs see and feel those stories in the same way as the general basketball-viewing public. In the playoffs especially, there is almost always some match-up everyone wants to see in the next series. That desire almost always reflects the widespread obsession with acrobatic scoring machines.
The Magic vs. Jordan Syndrome
I’m remembering, for example, the 1991 semi-finals. The Lakers were facing the Blazers in the west. Chicago was playing the Pistons in the east. If the Lakers and Bulls when, we would see Magic Johnson versus Michael Jordan in the finals. Magic was nearing the end of his career but he was still awesome on the court. Michael Jordan was rising to greatness in Chicago and finally coming into his own. The Pistons had won the championship twice in recent years. People were tried of them. And they were a cadre of bruising bullies known as The Bad Boys: they were not popular with the fans at large. The Blazers had Clyde Drexler who was good but not as good as Magic, not as good as Jordan. I know how everyone felt. I felt it too. I was hungry to see Magic and Michael Jordan go head to head. Were the referees exempt from feeling what all the rest of us felt? I don’t think so. Did the Blazers and Pistons really have a chance that year?
Hey, I was rooting for the Lakers and Bulls but I’ll be the first to admit: I saw the better team go down in each of those series, and it left a bad taste. The losers lost because of the way the games were called. I’m not saying the referees threw the games. It wasn’t that they called fouls inconsistently. It’s just that a referee has so much discretion. And there are whole styles of refereeing, each of which favors one style of play over another. The ref can, for example, blow the whistle the instant any contact occurs; or he can, as the cliché goes, “let them play,” calling a foul only when the banging gets severe. Some teams thrive on speed and outside shooting. Their game won’t be affected much if the referee calls fouls closely. Some teams win by driving to the hoop and banging under the basket for rebounds: they’re at a disadvantage when the referee blows the whistle as soon as lots of bodies are crowded together pushing and jostling. Even when the referees call fouls the same way for both team, they’re favoring one team. The ambiguity of the rules guarantees it.
I know there are people who don’t like professional basketball. The standard joke is: each team should start with a hundred points and the game should be one minute long—because only close games are interesting and only the last minute of those. That criticism would not apply if the game were reformed to put defense and offense on an equal footing and spotlight the competition between two teams instead of the acrobatics of playground stars.