Let’s take a moment to appreciate the untrained eye.
This eye wanders; views the totality of an outcome rather than the process. The untrained eye is crystal clear and has not a single, cherry red, burst blood vessel stream framing the pupil. It watches and, sometimes, it squints to steal a snapshot of a singular moment to file away for later. I’ve wanted to write something about this for a while (see title). After feigning a loose interest in basketball for my whole life, I suddenly found myself drawn to professional play a few years back. It was all visually appealing enough to hold my attention for the duration of a single game, and I’ve always wondered, why? It’s probably early enough, in my journey toward an ultimate state of NBA nirvana, to record how I once managed to watch and appreciate basketball with an untrained eye, and how you can too. There was no guide to this thing in the years I began. We are not handed instructional books that rank and scale talents throughout the league and across the years. The best one can do is, by chance, stumble upon some chick’s journal entry outlining the ways in which you can watch NBA basketball, if you’ve never watched basketball before.
So how do you begin to watch something on the tube that you’ve never seen before in any significant capacity? Well, I approach it similarly to a new television series. You begin the experience vaguely aware of the characters. You may recognize a few superstar cast members, but this is an otherwise new collection of faces, and like the cast of your favourite dramedy, every single role is a key cog in the production.
Naturally, surrounding the stars are supporting actors, extras, producers and equipment folks. But unlike a television series, what is refreshing about NBA basketball is the absence of exposition. The first 6 episodes aren’t spent tirelessly and tediously establishing plotlines, double crosses and foreshadowing. No soliloquy or scheduled side mission (though, we do get plenty of filler episodes). Over the course of the typical 82 game regular season, storylines are organically forged on the court. Players play in a way that establishes themselves as the main character in their own bildungsroman. We are witnessing a sort of spiritual education. There are men playing out of unbridled passion, some out of pure vanity or a quest for worldly possessions, some to honour deceased loved ones, and others to end cyclical poverty. On a nightly basis, you get to witness the manifestation and transformation of these purposes.
When settling into a new series, we patiently allow the writers of any given production to build characters from scratch as a way create true payoff in the finale and a true connection between the viewership and characters. The process is identical to the relationships NBA fans build with their favourite players. Over the course of a single NBA season, or perhaps even several of them, the visceral elation that stems from seeing a person whose growth you’ve witnessed in real-time since their adolescence finally crossover into tangible successes is very real. That enjoyment doesn’t require rooting for a continuously successful team; you could root for a head honcho chasing his 3rd ring or the gifted kid that’s leading his squad to their first playoff berth in years. The sweetener of the annual saga isn’t imaginary and neither is the pain of witnessing injury or failure! Exhilarating stuff, albeit often times morbid. So, not unlike your favourite HBO limited series.
Now you know how to approach the act of watching and the mental ambiance one should establish, but what do you look for in an NBA basketball game? Thankfully, this is the easy part because, in my incredibly biased opinion, basketball is very watchable and doesn’t possess the prolonged scoring droughts and swaths of land space within the typical soccer game. There are 2 hoops, 4 quarters, 48 minutes and a rectangular boundary painted onto the outermost edges of the hardwood flooring. On this court, a few hundred of the most kinetically intellectually qualified and professionally trained duke it out until the final buzzer amidst a dizzying display of footwork, ball handling, dunks and long distance shooting all cloaked under the chill and welcomed shadow of Black Americana cool. Swagger, angles, celebration.
It’s simply a dance requiring constant motion, a constant give and take. When your team of choice is trying to score; the opposition engages in the play by defending. This process involves mirroring the ballhandler’s speed and physicality, limbs flailing to contest shots and contain slinky guards. This process repeats within the 48-minute run time, and the pendulum swings back and forth every dozen or so seconds. Before you know it, there’s a minute left in the 4th quarter and you’ve seen several the highlights that will litter your social media timelines live. Good basketball is a yin and yang of offense and defense, with the best teams of the league possessing an elite balance of both.
You’ll have to trust me. The details of the rules become easy to grasp once you comprehend this concept’s ultimate relationship with the desired result: winning. Winning comes to the team that strikes the best balance between the offensive and defensive binary on any given night. I have friends who are television enthusiasts with no idea of where to begin with the sport, though they listen intently when I find myself divulging the details of the night’s game or play. So, considering this, I hope to light the spark and fan the flame of interest for any of those looking to delve into this realm of cultural production. Grab the popcorn and immerse yourself in the display of human capabilities, man.