BLOG: The drama of the NBA

by Quinton Skinner • Mar. 21

In depth |

The human theatrical impulse can be identified in professional sports, but not all of them. Pro football is far more spectacle than theater, its brutal ballet coming across best on the television screen. Baseball has always been identified more as literary, and the comparison rings true (long stretches of pastoral contemplation, brief flurries of intensity with plenty of time to ruminate on it afterwards). As for hockey, well, its appeal is inexplicable in these quarters, although it seems less theater than a combination of high-speed encounters executed with judicious measures of malice and a technician’s clinical subtleties.

An NBA basketball game is something different. Of course the sport is more marketable because the player’s faces are exposed, with no headgear, and with revealing uniforms that make possible elaborate digressions into current advances in tattoo culture. But there’s also an essential quality in the game’s nature that allows it to embrace theatrical leanings, not least of which is the player’s self-conscious sense that their dramas are being watched as closely as the final score.

The late Ralph Wiley wrote that, for an African American male, the nature of his individual basketball style was an expression that could only be compared to art. I always thought he was right, but it’s also a way of being on the court that is no longer restricted by race or gender. And it’s a good thing, too—probably no sport has evolved as much in the past several decades as basketball, and on the professional level, it can rise to the level of high theater.

Or not. More on that in a bit.

A typical NBA game today is riddled with gimmicks: that little blimp that drops freebies on the fans, the mascot who catapults from a trampoline to perform a time-out dunk, the gyrating dancers with those frozen smiles and thousand-yard stares. Most intrusive is the aural experience, the work of some mad designer that must have once been an innovation but which now has become standard: inane snippets of music when players are bringing the ball up the court, boisterous exhortations in cartoon baritones to cheer for the home team, punishing ads and promotions that are invariably amateurish despite the millions of dollars surrounding the entire enterprise.

But this is a game, especially if you’re fortunate enough to steal a seat relatively up close, that revels in its own drama. Players stare and glower at one another, often at their teammates. Coaches stalk in consternation, biting their lips and radiating galaxies of artery-obliterating tension. Every foul is a mini-drama in which a player has been terribly, awfully, wronged, and despite the incredible athleticism on the court there’s always the sense that the winners are the group with the stronger will, the starters and bench whose narrative came together with clean and ineluctably efficient lines.

Basketball fans loved Michael Jordan because he did things that seemed physically impossible, because he elevated the storyline of winning into a narrative of dogged superiority, and because he cobbled together a smiling, cool image that belied his gambling, pathological competitiveness, and what Bill Simmons calls his propensity to “treat his teammates like the biggest bully in a prison block.”

What also set Jordan apart was his totally unique ability to carve drama out of his sport, his actions resembling tall tales but with the pleasing friction of being real. Simmons, in The Book of Basketball, compiles a list of Jordan’s greatest moments, and for the basketball fan each evokes a scene in a larger drama that took place in the 1990s:

“The 63-point game at the Garden, the ’87 Slam Dunk contest, “the shot” against the ’88 Cavs, the “Ohhhhhh, a spek-tack -ular move layup in the ’91 Finals, those 6 threes in the ’92 Finals (along with the shrug—you can’t forget the shrug), 41 points per game in the 1993 Finals, the 72-win team in ’96, the Flu Game in ’97 and the Last Shot in ’98. He demoralized eight memorable teams in eight years—the Bad Boy Pistons, the Showtime Lakers, Riley’s Knicks, Drexler’s Trail Blazers, Barkley’s Suns, Shaq’s Magic, Malone’s Jazz and Miller’s Pacers—and none was ever quite the same.”

It’s a sport, yes, but it’s also a venue for high drama. NBA Basketball, more than any other pro sport, knows that it is a performance.

Not every game is elevated to this level, of course. In fact, most games are not. Take the current Minnesota Timberwolves: at best, you are looking at a grinding, realistic drama about life’s futility (I have taken my son to at least a half-dozen games each of the past few seasons; the last time I saw the Wolves win, it was with Kevin Garnett at forward). Dysfunction and lost heart might make for good drama, but not every single night.

Another aspect of sports’ dramatic side gets involved when a town begins to attach deep symbolic meaning to a team (see Red Sox, Boston, before their last two World Series wins) in a way that reflects upon regional character. This becomes another kind of drama, a sort of mass public attachment of meaning that can seem absurd or profound depending on one’s leanings (or whether one’s team is winning or losing).

The Minnesota Timberwolves have locked down a lifetime achievement medal for bad drama. Other than wasting Garnett’s prime, the team has veered between mediocrity and shamefulness for so long that no one can imagine another way. They are putrid. They are only of note because the NBA requires real professional teams to come here and play 41 times a year (largely, one would assume, against their will, even with the prospect of an easy win).

But the moments of drama are easy to evoke. Rashad McCants waiving for the ball, then grimacing petulantly when someone else dared take a shot. Al Jefferson’s dour, haughty expression of disdain for apparently everything around him. Flip Saunders tugging at his collar and jutting out his chin, a cartoon of discomfort. And Garnett, regally talented, strung far too tight, taking his entire world onto his shoulders night after night and learning, time and again, that it would not be enough.

And then, as always, the curtain closed for the night. Time to go home, and leave the empty seats to ponder what just transpired.

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