(Earlier this year, Russell and I had a little viewing party for the Oscars. It was probably the single funnest LoOG thing I’ve ever turn. To return the favor, he agreed to sit down and watch Game 1 of the NBA Finals with me, exchanging emails throughout.)
Kazzy: Howdy there, Russ!
Last time we sat down together, you were guiding me through the world of Hollywood, pop culture, and awards shows as we took in the Oscars together. You served as a talented and worthy guide for my first such viewing experience and I am excited to get to return the favor, introducing you to the world of NBA basketball. We will do so with a viewing party for Game 1 of the Finals.
It’s been an exciting playoffs thus far and with last night’s result, the matchup is set and boy are we in… wait… wait… First thing’s first… Do you have ANY idea what is going on? Let’s see just how much work I have cut out for myself. Tell me everything you know about the NBA, basketball in general, and/or this year’s playoffs and championship. GO!
Russell: I am really excited to be doing this again! Even if it’s about basketball! I had a blast being on the ‘dispenser of wisdom’ side (and yes, I did just say that about the Oscars) and I’ve been looking forward to being the receiver of reciprocal wisdom since then.
Which brings us to your question. I have no idea whatsoever what is going on. At all. I do not think I have watched an entire professional basketball game in my life… or even a significant portion of one. I have no idea which teams made it to the Finals, though I think I saw something that mentioned the Heat the other day? Maybe? Right? Which means Miami? And Lebron James? Who’s apparently really, really good even if he’s a total dick? Right?
I do not know any of the other players. I do not know what the different positions are in basketball. I know that you get 2 points for making a basket, one point for foul shots, and three if you make the basket from beyond that special semicircle on the floor. And with that, we have reached the end of Russell’s grasp of basketball.
So, um… what else is there to know?
Kazzy: Well, you got a few things right… The Heat, led by LeBron James, are indeed one of the participants. And LeBron is indeed really, really good, currently making a case for the greatest of all time. I don’t buy the “total dick” narrative, but I won’t get all ranty about that right now.
The series presents a fascinating matchup. Facing the Heat are the San Antonio Spurs, arguably the best team of the preceding 20 years or so. Tim Duncan (himself an all-time great) and Co. defeated LeBron during his first championship run, back in 2007 when he was still with Cleveland. So there is some interesting history to this matchup as well as a passing-of-the-torch of sorts, as the Heat look to establish a dynasty of their own.
But, yea… basketball! Two points for a regular field goal, one for a foul shot, and three for a, well, three-pointer (the real terminology is even simpler than your own!). There are a few basic other rules but the officiating in the NBA is so terrible it doesn’t really matter. If I try to tell you that X is against the rules, you are sure to see several instances of X happening and not being penalized.
In addition to the game itself is broader NBA culture. You are in for a treat as the game you will be watching will be played in Miami. The last game in Miami featured Beiber in all sorts of leather and Flo-Rida’s manager (a fan!) getting ejected by the refs. There will be dazzling pyrotechnics (they are the Miami Heat, after all) and two of the more interesting looking people related to the sport (neither of which is Pat Riley, a master of weirdness in his own right). I’m going to let you discover those last two on your own, though…
So, before we get to pre-game introductions and the start of action, do you have any questions? They can be specific to the game itself (“What is a slam dunk?”), about NBA fandom (“Who watches the NBA and why?”), or about the broader culture that surrounds the NBA (“How do Beiber and Flo-Rida end up in the same sentence together?”). Or you can do what most people do before the game starts… drink some beers, injure your knee trying to “dunk” a balled-up sock against the top of a door frame, and say something nasty about Kobe Bryant!
Russell: There is a person named Flo-Rida? I have never heard of this person. Should I have heard of this person? And your last message gives me at least one reason to score one for the Oscars — thus far they have been, to the best of my knowledge, Beiber-free.
I have so many questions. Is there some kind of pre-game phenomenon, akin to the red carpet arrivals at the Academy Awards, that has as much importance as the game itself? Will the game be airing on network television and ESPN, and if so am I better off watching it on one channel vs the other? Are you rooting for a particular team, and if so which one and why? Should I just stick with my usual method of picking a team to support based upon which athletes I think are cuter? And how long does the game even take to play?
But really, I’m curious about the sport itself. As of now, my impression of the way basketball games are won boils down to “be tall” and “run back and forth across the court a lot.” Will I be able to appreciate what makes it great if I try? Will the feats of athleticism be obvious? Will I know when something happens that makes you jump up and yell at your house? Will I be able to suss out the strategy? Or will I just see a bunch of tall guys running back and forth a great deal?
I’m somewhat abashed to expose how terribly ignorant I am about all of this. (I take relative comfort in remembering that until very recently you were unaware that Barbra Streisand is a singer.)
Kazzy: Flo-Rida (pronounced like Flow-Rider, but cool, with the a’ at the end) is a pop-rapper who made it huge with a remix of Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round”. Aaaaaaand welcome to pop music in the 21st century!
Anyway, the pre-game show tends to be talking heads and likely holds little interest for you. You will want to tune in right at the start of the broadcast (9EST on your local ABC affiliate) to see player introductions. As mentioned, this is Miami, so it will be over the top. And will include fire. The NBA has toned down on stuff on this stuff, instituting a time limit for how much dancing the players could do after being announced because, well, the players were doing a lot of dancing. You like dancing, right?
I’ll be rooting for the Heat, which I have become an unabashed fan of for three primary reasons:
1.) All of the LeBron backlash, which was largely predicated on him not being Michael Jordan (which is to say he failed to meet a unique set of expectations he never asked for), is absurd. I think/thought he was unfairly maligned. And nothing gets at my heart strings like unfairly maligned athletes.
2.) LeBron is a truly transcendent talent. He literally might be the greatest basketball player we ever see. It is endlessly enjoyable to watch what he can do on the court.
3.) I like the way the Heat play basketball, both on offense and defense.
Folks might call me a “front runner”, which wouldn’t be inaccurate, but I don’t pretend to be a huge Heat fan as much as a unique basketball fan who is currently rooting for the Heat (among other teams who have unfortunately been eliminated).
Who should you root for? Well, the Heat definitely have the more attractive coach: Spoelstra looks like he could be Antonio Sabato Jr’s brother while Popovich makes Edward James Olmos look like a Proactiv spokesman. But the Heat also have one of the previously mentioned people who will likely draw a reaction from you for the ages. Plus they have Chris Bosh, who looks like a weird muppet dinosaur. I’ve heard it said Dwyane Wade is attractive but Tony Parker did land Eva Longoria so… I dunno. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.
Your description of the game itself isn’t inaccurate, but incomplete. Height helps. And it is one team of 5 guys running up and down the court versus another team of 5 guys. But basketball, at it’s best (and you are seeing two of the best teams), is highly choreographed. Much of this might be lost on you, as a lot of this work happens away from the ball, but the best teams have real precise systems that they employ like a chess game. And while you might not be impressed by the odd minutiae that I am (I once watched 7 minutes of Hakeem Olajuwon’s footwork on YouTube… and, no, I don’t expect you to know what any of that means), I think the breathtaking aspects of the sport will catch your attention. If you can’t get amazed watching LeBron, who plays with strength and speed and balance and balance and agility and intelligence and selflessness, then you just might be a lost cause. If nothing else, jump out of your seat if someone does a monster slam or a power block. I know I will.
That is probably as much as I can prep you for. Everything else, you’re just going to have to wait for (OOOOOO… I can’t wait until you see “Mr. S’s” suit!). I think you’re ready. And I think you’ll enjoy it. Again, I know I will!
And we’re off! That was about as much pageantry as you’ll get tonight. There used to be more, but as I mentioned, the league cut back on it because they thought it was getting silly. Which it sort of was. But it was a fun silly. But here we go!
If I may, I’d like to give you little “assignments” as we watch… things to focus on, to look for, to think about… to guide your viewing experience. For the first part here, I’ll simply advise you to make as much sense of what is going on as you can. Just soak it in. I’ll get more detailed later.
A question: This is your first basketball viewing experience, yes?
Russell: This is my first pro basketball viewing experience. I watched games in high school, but nothing much since then. This is really all new.
I am struck by how different it is to be watching a major sports event held entirely indoors. I’m used to the massive stadiums of the NFL and the World Series. I’m going to have to recalibrate my expectations. I was, for example, expecting a massive amount of flame with those intros, and had to remind myself that incinerating the audience would probably make for a morbid player introduction session. Still, I was expecting the players to run in triumphantly instead of milling around while their names were called out.
And I’m sorry, but I cannot get excited about seeing a parade of celebrities if they insist on wearing the same outfits.
Oops. The game is starting. I’ll let it wash over me, as advised.
I’m happy to be doing this with you, my friend.
Kazzy: Manufactured crowds (those T-shirts are on the seats when the fans arrive), hyper-seriousness among the players, and pop music played throughout the game… welcome to the NBA in 2013!!!
Seven minutes in… What are your thoughts thus far? DId anything stand out? Any players? Any plays? Did anything make you say, “What the fish was that?”
Are you feeling drawn to any of the teams, for reasons related to attractiveness or otherwise?
When Wade dunked it on that first possession after the steal at the very start of the game, did you at least think, “That was pretty cool”?
Keep soaking it in. Let’s just let you marinate in the first quarter.
Russell: So, here are my first quarter thoughts:
1) What the holy hell is the point of having people offering commentary if I cannot understand a blessed word they are saying? Seriously, the commentators might be saying the most profoundly beautiful proverbs ever known to man, and I’d have no clue. I cannot decipher what they are saying.
2) I think I am rooting for the Spurs. The first moment where I said “wow, that was truly beautiful” was watching them moving the ball from player to player.
3) My impression is that the Heat is a team of wonderfully talented individuals, but the Spurs seem to move in concert much better. That could be completely insane, but that’s how it looks to me.
4) I feel like I am missing so, so much. For example, here is your question:
“When Wade dunked it on that first possession after the steal at the very start of the game, did you at least think, ‘That was pretty cool’?”
I did not notice that at all. It flew right by me.
Crap! The game is starting again! I feel like I am missing so much! It all goes so fast, and in such a small space. I’ll wrap up and look back at the TV with this note — I am impressed with what magnificent athletes these men are, but I cannot shake the sense that much more is going on than I can perceive.
Kazzy: First, some fun…
Do you recognize Ray Allen, #34 on the Heat? He played opposite Denzel Washington in the movie “He Got Game”. His character’s name was “Jesus Shuttlesworth”. True story.
What was your reaction to Chris Andersen, the mohawked-tattooed white guy on the Heat? He is the first of two folks who I would have paid to see your initial reaction to. I can’t imagine he didn’t get your inner-spinster spinstering.
To the game… I’d say all your reactions are right thus far. Both teams are renowned for their ball movement, but the Spurs really, really excel. It’s not surprise that they’re in the Finals given this skill.
Basketball has become a bit of a niche sport in the post-Jordan era. Their commentators really know their stuff and do not play to the lowest comment denominator. So you avoid Joe Buck explaining to people like my mom what a first down is… which is good for folks like me and bad for folks like you. But the game is really just too fast paced for anything else.
Which you’re seeing! These guys are absurdly elite athletes! There are a number of star NFL players who were college basketball washouts. Basketball requires a really unique blend of physical talent and I’m glad you’re able to see that. At its best, the game is played with a real grace. These teams both have it.
Okay… to help you figure out what is going on, here is your next assignment: watch some off-ball action. What I mean by this is watch guys on offense who do not have the ball. This seems counterintuitive, and it sort of is, but you’ll get a much better feel for the seeming chaos. Pick a guy on each team (I’d recommend LeBron on the Heat and Manu Ginobili (the Balki Bartokomous looking dude on the Spurs) and just watch what he does on offense whether or not he has the ball. Watch how he moves and how he works off his teammates, often themselves without the ball. It’ll be hard…. your eye will be drawn to following the ball… but see if you can manage it, even if just for a few plays.
Back to the game! Miami is making a big run!
Russell: OK, I am trying and failing to develop a coherent notion of what is going on. I feel like I should be able to create some kind of whole out of what I’m watching, instead of a series of rapid-fire impressions. But rapid-fire impressions are what I find myself juggling in my brain.
1) I find the sea of white in the audience intensely annoying. I do not know why, but every time they go to a wide shot of the audience it gets on my nerves.
2) Chris Andersen is the man with the tattoos and mohawk? I find him really obnoxious, and I’m having a hard time figured out if I just find his tattoos excessive or if he’s really as obnoxious as he seems.
3) I’m beginning to get the impression that the Heat is just full of really, really great players. I know it must be the most banal, simplistic analysis ever, but I am impressed how well they simply manage to get the ball into the hoop.
How are you keeping up with all of this? I feel like I can’t look down to pick up my drink for fear of missing something!
Kazzy: 1.) That is why they do it. I believe a hockey team started the tradition a while back and other teams have since adopted it. It is intended to be disorienting.
2.) He is a provocateur. He is a role player, an energy guy, and part of his role is to be a bug for the other team, either via his defense or just being annoying. And he got labeled as a crazy guy, in part because of some real drug issues (coke or heroin, I don’t remember), and I think he has since taken on the moniker and ran with it.
3.) Moreso than just really talented players, which they do have, the Heat are also really, really good at putting everyone in a position to succeed. So Shane Battier, a role player, is only asked to do the things he is really good at, so he looks really effective.
I’m following it all. But as a long-time watcher, there is a certain amount of anticipation I have for what is going on. And I can make use of the announcers.
Which brings me to my next assignment… once you get back into the flow of the second half, see if you can start to anticipate anything. Can you figure out where the ball handler might go with the ball before makes the pass? Do you see a guy streaking to the hoop or running to the corner to get wide open? In a sense, you want to expand your peripheral vision of watching, so that you see more of the play and thus things seem less out of nowhere.
Russell: So after watching the halftime show, I have concluded that they were speaking in Urdu. That would explain why I understood essentially nothing of what they said.
And I’m supposed to ANTICIPATE what’s going to happen next? Dude. That’s a tall order. But I’ll give it my best shot.
Oh, and a question — what makes some roughness a foul and so much that seems exactly the same… just part of the game? I don’t get why some things lead to a call from the officiants and others that look no different getting no reaction at all. What am I missing?
Kazzy: The state of officiating in the NBA has long been a joke. There are various conspiracy theories that the league seeks to promote certain players and teams through biased officiating. This was complicated by claims by a former ref that he was on the take with the mob and that several controversial games were indeed rigged. All that said, there are many fine lines between what contact is legal and what is not based on a myriad of factors I can’t even begin to describe. Just trust that your overall assessment is correct and that calling fouls is very hard.
Further complicating the matter is the emergence of flopping, which is when a player dramatically exaggerates contact. The league began fining guys for it this year, but only after the fact. Some folks think it is legit strategy while most find it a scourge. That will actually be one of your assignments: analyze any and all flopping and determine it’s Oscar-worthiness. We’re getting multi-disciplinary here! Should we see the much coveted double-flop, where both players fall down like they’ve been shot after barely bumping into each other, you’ll have to do an entire separate essay just on that play.
Russell: So watching some of the highlights during the halftime show only makes me realize how much I miss. When they focus right in on some of the passes and shots, I see how truly amazing the athleticism is. But it goes so, so fast and happens in such a small area of the screen during the actual game I feel like I miss almost everything that’s noteworthy.
I’m trying to see something in the positioning of the players who aren’t holding the ball, and thus far I haven’t been able to suss out anything revealing. What I most admire is when one of the players passes the ball in mid-air, which must require a truly phenomenal understanding of his position in space relative to his teammates. Remarkable. The defense is totally escaping me. I am utterly sure there is a lot of strategy to it, but damned if it doesn’t just look like “be really tall and stick your arms out” to me. And I keep seeing things that totally look like fouls to me, and the play continues with nary a peep from the officials.
Man, some of those three-point shots are amazing.
I think I’ve just seen some flopping? Some dude (a quick Google check of the name I tried to decipher from his jersey reveals it was Ginobili) just fell down with what didn’t seem like much contact. The officials didn’t do anything, so maybe I’m right? And just now he did the same thing AGAIN but this time they’re calling it a foul. I can make no sense of this.
And with that, the quarter is over and it’s back to you. Has this game been totally awesome so far? I can’t tell if this is truly magnificent or a relatively straight-forward, run-of-the-mill NBA game.
Kazzy: Ginobili is a known flopper. So what you saw likely was flopping. And if it stood out to you, it was probably a poor job. No Tony Award for him!
This has been a pretty great game. It’s been a tight battle; no team has let yet by double digits. Teams are playing well on both sides of the ball; efficient offense and effective defense. I wouldn’t call it a magnificent game, but it’s not run-of-the-mill. These two teams and their coaches (especially Popovich, San Antonio’s long time maestro) are elite in a way that any game between the two of them is going to be a good one.
I’m glad that you’re able to see and appreciate the athleticism. That is, to me, one of the real draws of the NBA. When you add in the fact that all of these guys are obscenely large, it is even more remarkable. Remember, even the “little guys” out on the court, the ones that sometimes look like little bugs running around… they’re all at least 6-feet tall. And the big guys are big… REALLY big. I’ve stood next to some legit 7-footers and they’re huge. Seeing them move so gracefully on the court is a real marvel.
Fourth quarter action! We’ve got a tight game between two great teams. Just soak it in. No assignment! Let’s hope we have a finish that rivals what we’ve seen thus far.
Russell: Yes, I would call that flopping some pretty obvious scenery-chewing.
Ouch! Some guy just took a foot to the face.
They’re showing a slo-mo replay of a block by Chris Bosh (thank God for Google) and it was truly impressive. As are many of his three-point shots. Is he a really big star? I’d never heard of him until tonight. And do all the players play both offense and defense? They all seem to run back and forth.
Tony Parker (who is very cute, it must be said) looks TINY. Thanks for the reminder that he would tower over me in real life.
I’m sure, if I were invested in either of these teams (or the sport at all), the super-tight score would make this really intense. To me they’re just numbers.
Oooooh, some dude on the Spurs just came flying by a member of the Heat and knocked the ball from his hand. THAT was cool. And now they’re on top after seeming to trail the whole time. Good. I like the Spurs (except flopper-guy). And apparently Tony Parker is playing really, really well per the commentary.
And that was a really great shot by Green.
The Heat seems to be kinda falling apart here at the end? They seem to be suddenly not making all the impressive shots they were making at the beginning.
OK, wow. Parker making that last shot from basically lying down was impressive. He seems to have come out as the big star of this game, right? Because… yes. The Spurs won, which I attribute entirely to my half-assed rooting for them.
Alright, amigo. Tell me what made this really special. What were you yelling about? Are you bummed the Heat lost? I’ll share my last impressions after I hear your thoughts on the final score.
Kazzy: Holy crap, what an ending!!! That Parker play was simply unbelievable. When he went down to the ground, I thought for sure the Heat would hold them scoreless there and have a chance to tie or take the lead. But Parker simply made it happen.
The Heat did sort of fall apart. They looked gassed. They were coming off a tough 7 game series against a physical Indiana team, while the Spurs swept their prior series and had 8 or 9 days off. I think that showed in the 4th quarter.
Parker is an elite player, which you got to see as he took over in the 4th quarter. He doesn’t always get the accolades, but he is really, really good.
I was disappointed that the Heat lost, but more in a, “I would rather have seen them win” sort of way, not an “I love this team more than I should and will be in a bad mood for days after they lose” sort of way. Probably a reflection of not being an irrational, die hard fan of theirs. But this was a great game and was a good start to what should be a highly interesting series. If the Spurs go on to win, that Parker play will be one of the highlights they show years from now. AND YOU SAW IT!!!
So, now that you’ve watched an entire NBA game, what is your takeaway? Could you see yourself watching more? Do you see what the appeal is? Does it all seem a bit silly? What did you learn? What did you love? What did you hate? And, perhaps the most important question… which team had the cuter athletes?
Russell: What’s my take-away? Hmmmm…
I guess it’s this — I’ve never thought that sports were stupid, per se, even though I’ve never understood the passionate intensity (and still don’t) that people have for the teams they love. I mean, as bummed as I was that Helen Hunt won as Oscar, I wasn’t tempted to set a car on fire. But having watched the game, I can understand why people would enjoy it. The athleticism is remarkable, and I can grasp the appeal.
That said, my feelings are of appreciation, but not affinity. There were a few moments where I was struck by the beauty of the sport, like very early in the first quarter when three of the Spurs passed the ball to each other with such easy grace it was pretty wonderful. But there was no moment where I thought “I must watch more of this.” I was frustrated because I knew there was so much more to enjoy, but it just went so fast and looked so small on the screen that I never really caught it.
And it didn’t seem silly, but it wasn’t as grand as I was expecting. I’ve watched the World Series and the Super Bowl enough times to have a sense of them, and this seemed smaller and with much less pageantry. I was surprised by that.
What did I hate? I hated the flopping so obvious even I could detect it. I hated that I couldn’t hear what the commentators were saying most of the time, and that their commentary was clearly intended for people who already loved the game and had nothing for people newer to the experience. (I don’t think I’m entitled to have my hand held, but pretty much everything they said was worthless to me.) I hated the sea of white t-shirts in the audience.
Which team has the cutest players? Hmmmm. Chris Bosh has striking features, but Tony Parker is adorable. So I’m going with the Spurs.
In the end, I’m still the guy who loves awards shows. The Tonys are on this weekend, and even though I’ve seen not a one of the productions, I’ll watch just for the sake of the show itself. This hasn’t made me into a basketball guy. But it’s made me appreciate why other people could be, and I feel like I understand something that’s always eluded me a little bit better.
And of course I loved sharing this experience with you, with you in the “expert” seat. It’s been a genuine pleasure, and I’d hope we can find some other way of keeping this exchange going.
Your affectionate chum,
Kazzy: It was a blast. I appreciate your willingness to do this. I do have to apologize for one thing: I built up the appearance of another “mystery guest” who never did show his face… or his suits. So, I’ll simply point you to this Tumblr of Craig Sager, who does sideline reporting for NBA games and insists on dressing like a 70’s porn producer. If you thought an NBA game couldn’t become a more bizarre viewing experience, well, it just did.