February 13, 2005


Clang! (MICHAEL SOKOLOVE, 2/13/05, NY Times Magazine)

Behold the slam dunk, the pulse-quickening, throw-it-down, in-your-face signature move of the National Basketball Association. The dunk is a declaration of power and dominance, of machismo. In a team game, an ensemble of five players a side, it is an expression of self. In a sport devoted to selling sneakers, the dunk is a marketing tour de force, the money shot at the end of every worthy basketball sequence. (When you see the shoes in the 30-second spot, what is the wearer of those shoes always doing?) Next weekend in Denver, the cultural moment that is the N.B.A. All-Star Game will take place, an event set annually amid a weekend of concerts, lavish parties and showy displays of fashion. On such a big stage (and with defensive standards momentarily relaxed), the game itself is sure to be a veritable dunkathon, a string of self-satisfied throw-downs by the league's biggest stars. If I had my way, at the conclusion of the game the dunk would be taken out of commission. Banned as a first step toward rescuing a game that has strayed far from its roots, fundamentals and essential appeal.

The addiction to the dunk is emblematic of the direction in which basketball -- like all major pro sports, really -- has been heading: less nuance, more explosive force. Greater emphasis on individual heroics and personal acclaim, less on such quaint values as teamwork and sacrifice. Basketball's muscled-up, minimally skilled dunker is the equivalent of baseball's steroid-fueled home-run slugger or the guided-missile N.F.L. linebacker, his helmet aimed at anything that moves. It is all part of a video-game aesthetic being transplanted into our real games: the athlete as action hero, an essentially antisocial lone wolf set apart from teammates, dedicated to his own personal glory and not bound by much of anything, even the laws of gravity. (Last month the sports media giant ESPN entered into an $850 million partnership with Electronic Arts, the video-game company that turns real-life athletes into digitized figures, further blurring the distinction between flesh-and-blood athletes and the superhumans we have come to expect in the sports arena.)

In November, an ugly incident, a brawl between N.B.A. players and fans in Detroit, led some commentators to conclude that pro basketball is populated by thugs. (My online search of the keywords ''N.B.A.'' and ''thug'' a month later produced more than 400 hits.) But the fight was an aberration; N.B.A. players are, in my experience, as gentlemanly as (or more so than) athletes in other pro sports. The N.B.A. doesn't have a thug problem; it has a basketball problem. Its players are the best athletes in all of pro sports -- oversize, swift and agile -- but weirdly they are also the first to have devolved to a point where they can no longer play their own game.

Unbelievable as it may seem, you can make millions in today's N.B.A. without having even one semireliable way to put the ball in the basket -- no jump shot, no hook shot, no little 12-foot bank shot. In fact, the entire area between dunking range and the three-point line, what used to be prime real estate for scoring, is now a virtual dead zone. (The three-point shot is the other one of the N.B.A.'s twin addictions, but more on that later.) Richard Hamilton of the Detroit Pistons, last year's N.B.A. champion, has been just about knighted for his ability to consistently sink the ''midrange'' jumper, which used to be an entry-level requirement into the N.B.A. -- if you couldn't do that, you had to find another line of work. But not anymore. This generation of players is so young, so green, so unschooled (four years of college is now exceedingly rare), so raised on a diet of ESPN highlights that many have nothing but so-called N.B.A. bodies.

The inability to teach 18 year old professionals and soon-to-try-and-be-professionals basic skills is certainly a problem, but coaches and the league bear much of the blame too. When everyone connived to pretend that the Detroit Pistons of a few years ago were a great defensive team, even though all they did was foul people on every play, they denigrated their own game.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 13, 2005 6:43 AM

The death of the mid-range game is a myth--virtually all scoring in the NBA comes from between eight and 18 feet.

As for the Pistons, the reputation they have for being a great defensive team means that referees allow them to slap, hold and mug offensive players without being called for a foul; and at the other end, to push and climb over rebounders backs for offensive boards.

But it wasn't the Pistons who ruined the NBA. The NBA mostly survived the Bad Boys; however, Pat Riley's Knicks teams of the 1990s popularized the slow, grind every possession, bore-the-fans-to-death style that still dominates the league. The NBA committed slow suicide by constantly putting them and their football games with the just-as-dull Miami Heat (also coached by Pat Riley) on national TV; it was as though the league hated their fans and wanted to drive them away.

Posted by: Ben Lange at February 13, 2005 9:34 AM

To Riley's defense, he simply saw what the league allowed the Pistons to get away with, and coming over from the Lakers, knew that he did not have anything like a Showtime cast surrounding Patrick Ewing. So he made brutal slowness and strategic fouling into an asset, which David Stern could have stopped at any time with a revisal or tighter enforcement of the existing rules. That he didn't may have been because he was blinded by the Bulls-Knicks rivalry at the time, or he just didn't want to be tagged as racist by Spike Lee for dissing his Knickerbockers.

In reality, the birth of the NBA's problems date all the way back to the late 1970s and the arrival of Julius Erving into the league after the ABA merger. His spectacular dunks were the beginning of what would turn into the ESPN highlight reel -- Darryl Dawkins was the prototype 21st Century NBA player. But the difference was Erving could do other things and, like Michael Jordan 15 years later, worked on improving his jump shot so he was more than just a one-dimensional offensive player.

Bird, Magic and Michael helped hide the growing basic-versus-spectacular skills problem in the league for almost 20 years. But getting someone nowadays to hit a 15-foot jumper is about like getting someone for the migrant worker or restaurant bus-boy prefession -- the business owners have to go outside the country to find someone willing to do the job, which in part explains the explosion in European role-players within the league over the past 6-7 years.

Posted by: John at February 13, 2005 11:10 AM

Last night while I was at the Duke-Maryland basketball game watching Shelden Williams take three steps and throw an elbow (no call, natch) on half of his possessions, I almost involuntarily shouted, "This is supposed to be basketball, not the NBA!" As Coach Knight once observed, I would rather watch frogs copulate on television than an NBA game.

BTW, doesn't the fact that they play music on the PA while the ball is in play on every possession tell you that they know good and well the game isn't enough to keep people attentive?

Posted by: AC at February 13, 2005 12:31 PM


The teams go to Europe because it is the one place where white kids play basketball.

One of the nicest unintentional by-products of being Jewish is not having to feel slighted or upset when there are no White players on the court, diamond, etc. There are hardly any Jewish players and we are often raised to eschew sports as something 'the Gentiles do.'A childhood which involved piano lessons, chess tournaments, Mensa meetings and museum trips instead of Little League, Pop Warner and Peewee Hockey, had its disadvantages but while I do love some spectator sports, I never wanted to be like a professional athlete. I no more wanted to 'be like Mike' than like Secretariat.

Basketball is a terrible game. If a 7 foot freakazoid can't dunk a basketball, there's something wrong with him. Fundamentals are just terrible, and nobody can do simple things like hit a free throw. Maybe if they just raise the basket to 12 feet or so, it will change.

Posted by: Bart at February 13, 2005 1:16 PM

I stopped watch professional basketball when they stopped enforcing the double-dribble, traveling, and turning the ball over rules. The fact that our professionals couldn't compete in the Olympics shows how far the NBA has degenerated.

Posted by: jd watson at February 13, 2005 2:01 PM

College basketball is superior because of the emphasis on fundamentals and the allowance of zone defenses.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 13, 2005 9:50 PM