Briefly, On Watching Basketball and Advertising

I’ve been watching the NBA playoffs this year. The matchups have been good, but not great, and some of the teams that I’ve wanted to advance – San Antonio, I’m looking at you – haven’t done so, but still, professional basketball is professional basketball. Even when it isn’t great, it’s still pretty damned good.

Basketball is a game that I love and a game that I lost back in February. Although I wouldn’t call it entirely settled, I’ve basically come to accept that I’ll never play the game again. I’ve spent a few months being bummed about that. I worked very hard to make myself into a serviceable player and that got dashed in the blink of an eye and a turned ankle that just sort of stopped getting any better. I’ll likely never play again.  At first, my only solace was having finished my time playing with a blocked shot, a fitting end as blocking shots was always my favorite part of the game. But now that I’m watching more basketball, there’s a distinct pleasure that comes from aggressively consuming the game as a fan.

I’m from West Virginia and free from the shackles of specific fandom. I’m free to like whatever teams or players that I’m interested in, so I can watch Tim Duncan continue to put up numbers well beyond the age at which he was supposed to stop being useful and I can enjoy Steph Curry’s emergence as the game’s greatest shooter and I can watch Anthony Davis loom over the rest of the league and I don’t have to pick a favorite. That’s the best part of all of this.

But another good part is the league’s abject and outright weirdness. This might be wrong – it is probably wrong! – but basketball strikes me as the weirdest of America’s big three sports, particularly culturally, especially recently. Perhaps nowhere is this more striking than the game’s diversity. Whereas football is ritualistic and militaristic, a game wherein outliers exist only to be ground down into cogs that work within the broader machine, and baseball is disciplined, a game wherein players police each other via a vast number of inexplicably unwritten rules that barely make any sense, basketball is more free-flowing than ever, a game wherein the only thing that seems to seriously matter is your ability to function as a teammate regardless of your other characteristics. This isn’t me saying the game is perfect, but it was telling that basketball was the first of the major American professional team sports to feature an openly gay player whose role was that of an aggressive defensive specialist and that his presence on the court was mostly evaluated on his ability to perform that specific role.

The other night I was watching and noticed a quiet commercial playing. I had been fooling around on my phone during a commercial break but the silence made me look up. The commercial was of two women learning sign language. At the end of it, it is revealed that these women are adopting a deaf child. These women sign that they’re going to be this little girl’s new mommies, and that they’re so happy to be doing this. And the little girl says that she is so happy too. Here it is:

Wells Fargo Commercial: Learning Sign Language

I watched this several times before nudging my wife. “Look at this commercial,” I said, and she watched it, and thought it was sweet, but went back to bed. It is, after all, for a bank, and there’s something a bit off-putting about being sucked into a minute-long promotional pitch for a gargantuan financial institution. Later, my daughter saw it, and noted how sweet it was, and I told her, “It’s incredible.” And she was bored in the same way that my wife was.

Their boredom though isn’t unexpected. Maybe there are more of these kinds of commercials. Maybe the ideas contained within aren’t all that shocking. What’s incredible to me is that this commercial is airing during a basketball game. Or maybe shocked is the right word? Maybe it’s both.

I’ve watched a lot of sporting events in my life. Too many probably. I know more about sports than anybody really should, and even though my focus these days isn’t as laserlike as it used to be, I can still get by in most sporting conversations. The point is that I’ve never seen a commercial like this airing during a sporting event. That it is airing during basketball might simply be a trick of the schedule and it might be a mistake. I can imagine that in a month from now, we’ll hear about people contacting the FCC to complain about it. Married women? Adopting a deaf girl? DURING SPORTS?

Those people and that reaction are disappearing. Slowly for sure, and not as quickly as I’d prefer, but there are fewer of them now than there were even five years ago. Basketball apparently isn’t afraid of the message contained within. As for the commercial itself, I’m a huge sucker for it. I find it beautiful and moving and continue to do so even after seeing it many many times and I simply ignore the part at the end where I’m asked to care about a bank. Because I don’t care about a bank. But I do care very much that the sport I love to watch is apparently more than open to the idea of this commercial airing during its games.

(Yes, yes, money talks and all that, but there are lots of advertisers ponying up for spots in NBA games. Presumably if the league wanted it gone, it wouldn’t be airing. But it is airing. Meanwhile, I’m struggling to imagine this airing during an NFL game. It might, of course, but it’s just as easy to imagine that it might not. Frankly, it’s easier to imagine that it might not.)

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5 thoughts on “Briefly, On Watching Basketball and Advertising

  1. I generally tend to think of it in terms of live music experiences:

    Football is a Sousa marching band. Relatively simple, heavily orchestrated, and the discipline to never waver from the precision your coaches taught you is paramount.

    Baseball is like going to see Lilith Fair. It’s something you mostly want to do on a sunny day, and often you find your mind wandering at times during the middle. But every now and then, there are moments that make you want to stand up and cheer, and by the end you realize you’ve had a kick ass day.

    Basketball is jazz. So much of it is improvisation that those who are very casual watchers often don’t understand that the improvisation takes place within a well orchestrated structure, and that a team that has a player that lacks the ability to play within that structure turns it into a unlistenable noise.

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    • Well, that’s a very interesting analogy, one that dovetails with my ambivalence towards both jazz and basketball: the structures of which you speak write are perhaps too subtle for me as an untrained observer to discern, so it often does seem like nothing but improvisation.

      It’s easier for me to see structure in basketball than jazz, though. Passing lanes, setting up an offensive line right around the perimeter of the three-point line, probing and feinting — I can readily see these tactics when I watch basketball. I’m less able to understand why there are things like key changes and tempo shifts in jazz. Plus the chords and harmonies often sound weird and dissonant and therefore unappealing.

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      • It’s probably best to approach jazz, even though this isn’t always the formal structure of the pieces themselves, from the perspective of the theme-and-variation structure. Usually the players present a theme at the outset in a typical lead-rhythm-bass arrangement, then take turns doing improvisational takes on the theme (variations in classical parlance), and then restate the theme together at the end. Obviously all manner of wrinkle to that exists, but that’s the classic jazz structure. In terms of the whys of chord changes, as a jazz fan and one-time-apiring (not jazz) musician, I genuinely think you don’t need to worry about that in order to enjoy and appreciate the music – it’s rewarding if you want to get into it, but it’s not at al necessary to enjoy jazz.

        Here’s a link on the form I describe (I didn’t know the terminology): http://www.jazzinamerica.org/LessonPlan/8/2/203

        As for the more modern forms that depart fully from that structure (and are usually the most dissonant and atonal), I won’t try to relate those to you. You need to be won over by more classic jazz for those to have a chance to speak to you (except of course when that happens not to be the case in any given instance, which is not this instance).

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  2. I enjoy baseball but every time the Jonah Keri podcast pops up on my play list, I groan a little bit. And don’t get me wrong, I think Keri is one of the better guys in the business today and I’ve read one of his books. But somebody talking baseball for 55 minutes? No thanks. And yet I get excited when an NBA After Dark podcast comes on… even though it’s just a bunch of quasi-comedians discussing NBA players’ Instagrams and dating lives. I don’t know if it is because the NBA skews younger than the other major sports or draws from a more urban population (and I mean that in the true sense of the word… not as code word for black folks) or whatever. But I think if you are watching basketball today, you are probably more politically liberal than the fan bases of other sports.

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  3. Got a chance to watch the video this morning and read your post.

    First, the commercial: wow. I have long been an admirer of well-done commercials as a sort of art form. To be able to tell a story and evoke strong emotions in a short timeframe is a powerful thing that I think too many people take for granted because of its corporate associations. Additionally, I sometimes worry that my support for gay marriage and equality is something I only feel because of societal pressure and it’s not real. The fact that I choked up at the end of this commerical makes me brlieve that my feelings are true and I am thankful for that.

    Second, the association with the NBA. While I’m not a watcher of pro basketball, I do think you are on to something here, and that is a positive that shocks me just a little. I assumed that conservatism towards gays in the black community would drive the NBA’s willingness to associate. Clearly I was wrong. Does this mean that blacks are softening their stance or something else? Curious to explore this idea a bit more.

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