|Posted by paul on December 26, 2012 at 7:25 AM|
I generally assume that most basketball fans have at least played playground ball. If you've done that, you know the game at least in some ways as well as anyone, in my opinion. The heart of the game is still on the playground, down at the local hard-top court with bent rims, baking sun when the weather is nice, sloppy puddles when it's not. The heart of the game is where the people are. Thank God. Let it always be so.
One of the things you learn in your backyard even, and down at the playground for sure, and at the local sweat-smelling hardwood floor too, is that basketball may be a non-violent game, generally speaking, but it certainly isn't a non-contact game. Common sense would tell you this, of course. You can't have 10 guys in a confined space without lots of contact. I think of basketball as the most ethical game because of this. In basketball, you must define your approach to the most fundamental question of ethics - where does my rightful claim to my own space in life begin, and where does the other person's rightful claim begin, and how do these claims relate?
As you move around on a basketball court, you aren't just changing location. You are also claiming space. You have every right to do this, as a human being, and basketball acknowledges that. You also have an obligation to respect the other person's space. And you have an obligation to compete for space that is highly prized (eg, near the basket). This is life. Basketball is the game that, in my view, comes the closest to life. Games like football and boxing and hockey mimic life at its most violent. They are obsessed with violence and thus they distort the reality. They convey the notion that violence is the key to success in life. Basketball conveys a different notion. Basketball says that you are who you decide to be. You are faced with the ethical problem of defining your own space, and your relationship with the space of others. How you solve that riddle is who you are.
The most basic distinction that shows up right away is between players who are mostly interested in figuring out what they can get away with, where others define the game and players take advantage in whatever way they can; and players who are mostly interested in defining the game themselves, who love the game and shape it with their vision of what it can and should be.
Because no one in life is as pure as the driven snow, every player has an element of this in their game, of figuring out what they can get away with. The sharp elbow in the middle of the scrum. The shove hidden in the action. Intimidation is part of the game. Maybe in an ideal world it wouldn't be. I wonder sometimes if Kevin Garnett would have been a better player had he not become so interested in intimidating somewhere along the way in his career. What if he relied less on the hidden shove, and more on actually claiming position - would he have had a greater career? Perhaps so. You could possibly say that about my early idol, Dave Cowens, too. But I still think both of those guys remained very much on the side of the angels of basketball, because they were always more motivated by playing the game the way they thought it should be played, by defining the game with their play, than they were with figuring out what they could get away with. And I don't think they ever tried to hurt anyone, or if they did they regretted it. To me, Rondo is in the same class. He grabbed a player's head one time, early in his career. To my knowledge, he's never done the like since. These guys may rely on intimidation, or in Rondo's case, attempted intimidation, too much, but they respect and love the game.
Dwayne Wade, of course, defines the opposite. This is a guy who was once highly respected, but who has developed a nasty reputation for deliberately hurting other people, because he gets away with it. I won't belabor this point. I know that most media and many fans continue to defend Wade. They choose to create and inhabit a fake reality, one devoted to hype, to the template laid down by the likes of ESPN. But the fact that Wade is a very skilled player makes his devotion to thuggery even more despicable.
I was nauseated yesterday to see this fawning interview on ESPN with Wade's nasty teammate, Shane Battier:
Battier has a bit of the air of an intellectual, and he tries to back it up in this video with a lot of talk about the idol, the unholy grail, of these days, 'advanced stats'. Advanced stats are fine. I don't doubt that they can help folks do a very old-fashioned thing, which is scouting your opponents tendencies and your own. Shane is quite the intellectual fadist. He says here that use of 'analytics' (nice high toned way of refering to statistics) is a way to "mitigate risk". Yeah that's a reference to risk management theory, which is related to behaviorism, which is a belief system that interpretes human behavior mechanistically. Nice posing Mr. Intellectual. But I'd take your intellectual pretensions a bit more seriously if you didn't have a permasneer painted on your face, yanno?
Battier's permasneer is kindof appropriate, though. Pretentions aside, he is a player of limited ability who uses a very old 'skill' to keep his career going; he specializes in dishing out physical punishment to more skilled players. That's my take anyway. He's taken what guys like KG do, gone further with it, and made it his niche. His specialization. It's ugly. It's cheap. But you can have a big of grudging respect for the guy. He's doing what he needs to do to stay in the league.
But Congratulations are due to Mr. Battier now. Last night he graduated from cheap tricks to Wade-level thuggery. I'm talking about the play late in the Miami-OKC game, where Westbrook was driving to the basket, and Battier hit him in midair, clobbering his head, snapping his head back, and driving him into the stantion. Of course, Westbrook then went after Battier, and the media (our own Flannery was in on this, on Twitter, and used it to take yet another cheap shot at Rondo) sold the story that Battier was simply 'going for the ball', and that Westbrook is a hothead who had no business objecting to a solid basketball play. So far I haven't seen anyone pointing out that a person's head is not a basketball, and top athletes can probably be reasonably expected to be able to tell the difference, even in the heat of action. Accidents do happen, but some accidents aren't so accidental. Did Dwayne Wade intend to rake Rondo's face as he took the key shot in ECF game two last year? Well, gee whiz. Golly. Call it recklessness if you want. I call it more than that. Go for the ball, don't go for the head. You can tell the difference, if you WANT to.
So, welcome to Team Thug, Shane. I'm sure there is a secret handshake you get to do now, or something.
Am I a hypocrite for deriding Battier, after praising Sully for hammering Wallace on a drive to the basket? Ah, no. What Battier did was dangerous and could have injured Westbrook. What Sully did was not dangerous. A properly sent message is not dangerous. In fact, a properly sent message will de-escalate violence. Violence escalates when one side knows that it can misbehave with impunity, either because the other team will not defend itself, or because the refs will protect the wrongdoers. Miami knows they can get away with almost anything. Case in point, I don't think Battier even got called for a flagrant foul. Sully did.
Got to love the NBA, and its fawning media courtiers.