a league apart

words: david roth

On the most basic level, it is a weird and objectively not-good choice to watch a preseason NBA game given that, at basically every moment of every day, there is a near-infinite number of things that might be a better use of your time. There are like six different reality shows about pawn shops and every one of them will make you a Marxist in 45 seconds. There are cop shows that are dourly fascist and ones that are kind of winkingly, hornily fascist, and there are Hallmark Channel movies in which youngish actors flirt chastely and learn the true meaning of whatever holiday is nearest on the calendar. On multiple channels, an alarmingly cheerful person stands in a spotless sun-drenched TV kitchen, absolutely fucking bellowing with delight while glugging oil into a skillet. There’s postseason baseball, even, which is actually good.


Very little of it is actually good, but it’s tough to say that any of it is exactly as meaningless as a preseason basketball game. There’s no excuse for watching. But lately I have been really feeling like I need to.


The preseason is a mirage. Players look better or worse than they are; fans react in ways so floridly overstated that online game threads read like a blow-by-blow log of an emotional breakdown; the absence of anything resembling actual incident—a game or play or outcome that matters for more than the time it takes to watch a video of it and scroll on—whips up weird speculative squalls on whatever topic is nearest at hand. Everyone except for Marcus Smart, who is busy diving for loose balls as if the lives of his family depended on it, hums along in energy-saver mode; Every team is playing basketball like the Knicks, and the Knicks are playing defense like they’re wearing cross-country skis. Someone who looks like Elliot Smith—it’s actually Milos Teodosic, the scruffy 30-year-old avant-gardist that the Clippers brought over from Europe to replace Chris Paul—is whipping full-court underhand outlet passes in an exhibition game in Hawaii that tipped after 1 a.m. on the east coast.


It is a peculiar enough thing to want all this, to want the inconsequential and shaggy stuff, the dippy speculation about the Nuggets frontcourt rotation, the goofy false dawn of an Early October Breakout Game from some spindly and overmatched teenage wing player. It is another to feel an actual need for it. Some of that is on me and my own personal suite of idiocies and highly dubious viewing habits. A lot more of it, though, is on everything else—every awful thing that is not the NBA, and not like the NBA.


It’s too much to ask a sports league to be an antidote to the poisons loose in everyday life. It’s too much because a sports league is just a sports league, which is to say just a cartel selling a game, mooching tax revenues to build oafish glassy fieldhouses that they name after banks. But it’s also too much because building a consequence-free paradise that exists somewhere parallel to and safer than the actual world is not what sports are supposed to do. There is a great deal of bad faith and totally shameful wimpery in the dim ongoing proxy war over Keeping Politics Out Of Sports, which has centered most recently on a handful of NFL players protesting against police violence and impunity and a mass of fans and media wailing at that gruesome reality’s intrusion in their Sunday afternoon viewing. But what’s most embarrassing about the pushback is the fundamental childish misapprehension that it reflects—the idea that sports are somehow not real, and just a zipless TV diversion like any other.


As smarter people have observed, sports are a TV show. But not the sort of dippy wan television show that the people lodging these complaints want to watch. They are the opposite of that, and the part of the games that are best and most valuable are improvisational and immediate and inherently unpredictable. That is exactly what’s valuable about them, and it is also why the parts of every game that are scripted—the booming bullshit sessions in the studio, the canned deadball banter, the stilted thirsty brand-intrusions at every break and along every seam—are invariably the least interesting and most obviously inessential. Those last bits are the part that can be controlled, or at least roughed out in advance, and as such tend to be skippable; the game itself, the wild thing on which everything else is leveraged, is not like that at all, and wherever and whenever the league has aimed to bring it to heel it has invariably failed.


The NBA has largely abandoned that effort. Basketball, just as a game, is more open and fluid than football or baseball, with more space in it for both individual expressiveness and distinctive and different team styles. It’s not just that there are these newfangled physical marvels studded throughout the league—LeBron James swooping and rushing in a body the size of Karl Malone’s, Kristaps Porzingis starting and finishing fast-breaks at 7’3”, Stephen Curry adding six additional feet of territory that needs defending to the offensive half of the court, Kevin Durant being Kevin Durant. Every sport has those, but where individual stars stretch the game’s possibilities, basketball has grown right along with it. Systems respond to players and players respond in turn, individual and collective elevate each other; the Houston Rockets aren’t much without James Harden, but Mike D’Antoni has also found ways to let Harden be greater than he’s otherwise ever been. This doesn’t sound revolutionary, but the combination of humility and creativity it requires is rare in other sports. Because the game moves at the pace it does and allows as much free space as it does, there is more room for players to be seen; both the parts and the whole are more visible, and their relationship is more easily understood.


Some of this is just the result of a basketball game’s arithmetic: baseball players don’t really do anything until the ball is in play, and there are so many contingent and hugely important moving parts on every football play that it is easy to get lost. But basketball has also evolved, little by little and then seemingly all at once, into something more protean and dynamic, somehow both leveling the players’ individual roles and making each individual player more vital and connected to the collective. Just watch the Golden State Warriors or the San Antonio Spurs for a few minutes.


All of this can be understood as a bit of value-neutral technological progress. The rise of positionless players like Draymond Green solves the problem of How Do You Find A Useful Player For Every Role On The Floor just as surely as putting a smartphone in your pocket solves the problem of, I guess, How Can You Constantly Feel Stressed Out And Awful. But there is also certainly a politics to it. When a basketball game works, it is not just an appealing unit of entertainment but an example of people working together, beautifully and intuitively, toward a common end. Individual imperative and brilliance are not erased or even completely subsumed in this so much as they are made a part of the broader work.


Of course, contra the visual evidence Spurs offense working at full symbiosis, this is not a worker’s paradise of collaboration, and there will be cynicism and exploitation and lockouts and the other familiar managerial radicalism that warps pro sports leagues and every other thing in contemporary American life. The beauty of it is, as beauty often is, a happy accident; the next lockout over another two percent of league revenues is, as it often is, the reality that matters most.


The NFL was sent into paroxysms of recrimination and reaction by a modest and respectful and still quite small protest movement; the delusion that the league had created for itself, in which it was somehow a nation state within America that was more American than America itself, could not handle even a polite acknowledgement of the broader world. The NBA, as a corporate entity, seems similarly wary of such a protest; Commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo in late September alerting teams to that similar protests during the national anthem would not be tolerated. J.R. Smith, Cleveland’s resident goofball party-buddha, responded both sarcastically and earnestly on Twitter, with a tweet that read, in its entirety: “Yeah Ight.”


Leave aside the fact that it’s J.R. Smith and look at the dynamic of this—a boss issuing a memo telling employees not to express themselves so as not to create some notional threat to the bottom line, and a response that dismisses it and reveals its pettiness. This is a demand made in the real world, and a refusal made for real-world reasons.


For all the escapist thrills it throws off, the NBA does not and cannot offer escape from that reality. But it can help us see the shape of it and the challenge it presents a bit more clearly. Think about which side of that binary seems more sympathetic. Think about which side you would rather be on, the one making a high-handed demand or the one refusing because there are so many more interesting and important things to say. The NBA is a league in which the players have not so much seized the means of production as realized what they are worth, and how powerful they are. It’s not a revolution, really; right now it is tangy tweets and unapologetic statements on the record, charitable donations and public refusals to countenance old bullshit and the Warriors turning down an invitation to the White House that might never have arrived. But simply in contrast to every other sclerotic and compromised thing, it feels revolutionary. It feels necessary.