What Does Basketball Mean?

A few years ago the urge came upon me to cultivate a form of entertainment that didn’t involve writing or reading. Movies and TV don’t do it for me, and I have a weird relationship with music that disqualifies it as pure “entertainment,” so I decided to see if I could become a sports fan. Sports seem to give a lot of people a lot of pleasure. I found the only sport I could muster enthusiasm for was basketball. I played it in highschool, and enjoy it as a form of exercise, but had never even watched a whole NBA game all the way through. So I watched one all the way through.

I liked it. But things were opaque—the commentators were confusing—research was necessary. So I turned to NBA journalism.

At the time, there was a website called Grantland, full of the most stupendously good basketball writing. It was an experiment in fan-centric writing, the performance of fandom, which is a kind of writing that has become ubiquitous and unavoidable and boring but felt to me, then, exciting and new, and I also had lucked into reading about basketball just as analytics was beginning to transform the sport, so there was a spirit of science fiction-y inventiveness among the geekier basketball writers.

Very soon, I was reading basketball journalism instead of watching basketball games. There was pleasure in reconstructing what had happened just from the triangulation of breathless recaps. I became something of an amateur expert on defensive schemes, with opinions about advanced statistical categories (PER anybody? VORP?), favorite players, and the relative merits of various teams, without really watching much basketball.

Last night was the final game of the NBA finals. I watched the game, for once. This morning with my coffee I read about it. Several opinion pieces talked about how they regretted that the off-season—when players are traded, free agents courted by the teams that could sign them, and rookies chosen in a lottery system—has come to hold as much or more fan interest than the finals. During the finals a number of major injuries happened to very important players, and several of these players are free agents this summer, so, said these opinion pieces, the imminent off-season gave the last game of the finals “more meaning.”

I kept running into that phrase. This or that aspect of the NBA gives this or that other aspect “more meaning.”

Being incorrigible about things like this, I couldn’t help asking myself: but what does it mean for basketball to “mean” anyway?

I suspect three fans could give six answers.

Like most large scale activities requiring many people—people to play, people to referee, people to provide the capital for teams, people to watch, people to write about the people who play, and lots of other people besides—basketball doesn’t mean anything; individuals, instead, mean things by it, incorporating it into their lives in various ways, enjoying it as spectacle or story, profiting off of it, communicating their allegiances and identities through it. It’s a game in the widest sense—in the sense that language is a game, too—a field in which meanings accrue, because of a well-defined set of rules and agents and actions and outcomes…

What am I getting at? I suppose I am contemplating an obvious thing, which this morning’s basketball commentary reminded me of in a fresh way: that the value of so many things which passionately involve us and around which we build whole communities is hard to locate or pin down, and that if you pursue this question of value in a serious way, it leads in an ouroboros circle, and ultimately confronts you with an alienating vision of unmoored, foundationless busyness. It reminds me of a scene in the strange epic fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, in which a beggar covered in a swarm of flies suddenly proves to be nothing but a swarm of flies in the shape of a beggar, which breaks apart on contact.

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