Basketball Culture 101: The Echoes of the Game

[Editor's Note: Patrick Hayes is a writer with the ESPN TrueHoop Network Blog PistonPowered. For this project, Hayes chose one of the most venerated books in the annals of basketball writing, David Halberstam's Breaks of the Game. Like the best early writers in any genre, the themes that Halberstam so expertly culled from the drama of the 1979 season have become cliché by virtue of their timelessness--individual versus collective, apathy versus intensity, and the complex racial relationships at play between a mostly white audience and mostly black performers. Here, Patrick  traces these themes in the writing of today's commentators, and assesses the progress made since Halberstam's iconic work.-Beckley]

When Buzz Bissinger published his screed, ‘White people hate the NBA, I tells ya!’, last week, sports and non-sports sites alike predictably picked it up. Poorly researched opinions are so hot right now:

But a major problem with the NBA, one that is virtually never spoken about honestly, is the issue of race. I have no hard-core evidence. But based on my past experience in writing about sports, I know that whites ascribe very different characteristics to black athletes than they do white ones. I also make a habit of asking every white sports fan I know whether they watch the NBA. In virtually every instance, they say they once watched the game but no longer do. When I ask them if it has anything to do with the racial composition, they do their best to look indignant. But my guess is they felt very differently about the game when Larry Bird and John Stockton were playing.

Any time someone fearlessly writes about race — and say what you want about Bissinger’s conclusions, it’s clear that he wrote this column without tiptoeing around any of the points, however flawed (read a great deconstruction), he wanted to make — we tend to treat it as if that writer is breaking some new, important ground that no one has ever considered before.

In this case, the meme that the NBA sits at some perilous point, on the fringe of collapse because the league can’t possibly be viable without the support of the general white suburban fan who possibly prefers football or hockey or baseball anyway, is nothing new.

The brilliance of David Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game isn’t simply that he chronicles one of the most interesting teams in NBA history, the late 1970s Portland Trail Blazers, but that he also provides a firsthand account that shows the arguments for why the NBA would fail were exactly the same in 1979 as they are in 2011.

Halberstam: “Just as the camera had caught and transmitted the true intensity of old-fashioned rivalries in the earlier days of the league, so it now caught with equal fidelity the increasing lethargy and indifference of many players in regular season games, a lethargy and indifference now seen by a largely white audience as at least partially racial in origin.”

Bissinger: “When I wrote the book Friday Night Lights about high-school football in Texas, I saw the racial stereotypes of some whites up close—their firm belief that white athletes admirably succeeded because of hustle and hard work and brains, and black athletes succeeded solely on the basis of pure athletic skill. In other words, white athletes virtuously worked their tails off whereas black athletes simply coasted because they can.”

Halberstam: “It was not just that they had won, but the way they had won, unselfish in a selfish world and selfish profession. … There were hundreds of telegrams and letters thanking the coach and the players for helping their programs and making it easier to coach basketball the right way.”

Bissinger: “Although basketball is supposed to be a team game, it has become more one-on-one in the NBA than a boxing match. The style has changed and it is a definite turnoff.”

Halberstam also touches on a still common point that Bissinger doesn’t deal with in his column: that fans were being turned off by escalating salaries, guaranteed contracts that crippled teams if the player didn’t provide production commensurate with his salary and bitter player-team disputes that often led to star players changing teams.

Exhibit A was Bill Walton in Portland. His departure from the Blazers was acrimonious, with Walton leveling serious accusations that the Blazers medical staff misdiagnosed his injuries, causing him greater injury as a result. There were whispers in Portland, meanwhile, that Walton was simply creating an exit strategy of sorts to get out of Portland and return to his home in Southern California, which he ultimately did by joining the then-San Diego Clippers.

After Walton’s departure, the Blazers, once a championship-level team, now had an entirely new set of issues. The pecking order had changed, so Maurice Lucas, perennially unhappy with his contract and now the team’s biggest star without Walton, became even more unhappy with his significantly below-market-value deal. One of the key players acquired as compensation for Walton, veteran Kermit Washington, had finally found happiness in San Diego, settled down with his family and wasn’t happy to have to uproot again and move to Portland. Portland’s coach, Dr. Jack Ramsay, had to adjust to losing a player in Walton who fit his system perfectly, and using a replacement center in Tom Owens who, according to Halberstam, Ramsay believed to be soft, not to mention he wasn’t near the passer Walton was.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Carmelo Anthony wanted to play on the East Coast, specifically with the Knicks. He was under contract with Denver, and because of the saturation of coverage that was heavy on opinion and light on what was actually going on behind the scenes, it appeared that ‘Melo was forcing his way out. Denver, who built its identity around Anthony, is now forced to make due with assets, not a single one of which are capable of giving remotely close to what Anthony produced, that will drastically reshape their franchise. And observers of the league, fans and media alike, are pissed that a player like Anthony who means so much to his franchise can simply decide he no longer wants to live up to his contract and force his way onto a new team.

The lesson, of course, is that stories of the so-called failings of the NBA are greatly exaggerated. In the late 1970s, iconic stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, then later Michael Jordan, helped the league reach new heights of popularity, bolstered by a strong class of not-quite-iconic stars like Hakeem Olajuwon, Dominique Wilkins, Isiah Thomas, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, David Robinson, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler and others. In 2011, the NBA might have an even greater depth of star power than those 1980s and early/mid-1990s teams boasted.

The richness of basketball has changed over time, but surprisingly, not much changes in the criticisms of the game. It’s too individual. Players don’t play hard. No one plays defense. That actually says more about the critic than the game, however. The physical gifts of professional basketball players are so rare, so artful and employed with such grace that it’s hard to comprehend how these athletes accomplish the difficult so effortlessly. Because the Culture of the game can’t be easily explained, the critic relies on the cliché, which has less supporting data as the game has evolved.

Although styles certainly change with time, the principles that made the Culture of Basketball relevant in 1979 are what continue to make it relevant today. Basketball fans love the game for its individuality, its creativity and the unique on-court interpretations of the game by a diverse set of brilliant stars.

The same principles that made Walton’s Portland team so beautiful to watch are what draw fans to current teams. Durant’s Thunder are a triumph of youth, overachieving in the face of a belief system that teaches veterans are a necessity to winning teams (and even having the veterans on the team cracking up on the reg). Bryant’s Lakers are the perfect mix of a headstrong coach and a headstrong player each giving some deference to the other’s style while still preserving their individual identities. The James/Wade Heat are not villains, but out to disprove the notion that superstar NBA players are too selfish to share the spotlight with star players of equal talent. The Garnett/Pierce/Allen/Rondo Celtics stand defiantly as the mouthy antithesis to the false perception that the NBA is simply a finesse league. And the Duncan/Popovich combo exhibits the heights that could’ve been attained in Portland had Walton and Ramsay, at one time the standard for big man and coach being so completely in tune with each other, stayed together longer. The true beauty of the Culture of Basketball, oddly enough, was summed up best in Bissinger’s final paragraph: “revel in a game that is embedded more than ever with beauty and grace and strength and acrobatics.”

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Check out more of HoopSpeak’s Basketball Culture 101

This HoopSpeak project is based on the University of Michigan course Basketball Cultures. Click to read the enlightening thoughts of course’s professor, Dr. Yago Colás

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