For a sport widely regarded in this country as a gangster’s paradise of thugs, new money and hip-hop, the NBA playoffs and its accompanying TV coverage oozes class. Australian sport would do well to learn from it.
Australia’s always had its NBA true believers. They get the game, they get the culture, they’re rusted-on. But there’s another, possibly larger, group of sport-lovers in Australia who don’t care for the brash swagger of American basketball. Whisper it quietly, but this group carries an unstated snobbery toward American sport generally – casting it as a fake, franchise-heavy exercise in new-money superficiality. Then again, when it comes to sport many in this group struggle to look beyond their state, let alone the Pacific. It took a trip to the US in 2012 during NBA Finals for me to stop being that guy.
Underpinning the whole NBA Playoffs presentation – from the TV coverage to the gameplay itself – is an unerring commitment to crisp minimalism.
Consider the trumpet in the intro tune. It’s deliciously regal. It’s normal to hum the tune as one strides to the bathroom with chest out, adding a sense of energy and purpose to the action. It’s a far cry from Channel Nine’s ‘Friday night’s a great night for football’. We sing that too, but it doesn’t confer the same gravitas. If those NBA trumpets could talk, they’d be saying ‘the champ is here’ and not ‘I’m here, champ’.
The people who voice the game, whether it’s the announcers or the voiceovers for the advertisements, are so velvety-smooth and stately you imagine they’re in dinner suits as they speak, a scotch by their side (neat), and a golden mic. Theirs is an understated shtick more tightly aligned to Benaud than Eastlake, lending elegance at odds with the prevailing American stereotype. This is not flash, new money, this is premium sport.
(If you’re not humming the intro trumpets as you again stride in to the bathroom, you’re probably saying ‘Tissot; OH-fficial timekeeper of the “N-B-A”.’)
And while broadcaster ESPN has its fair share of outspoken loudmouths, when you’re accustomed to lurid, moronic Sportsbet characters wailing at you both inside and outside matches, it’s a welcome change.
The Playoffs’ on-court fare is mind-bogglingly good too.
In sport’s modern age, where speed and action are king, the NBA offers small windows into those exquisite moments where time slows: the collective breath we take as the ball floats from the arc towards the basket, its rainbow shape cutting the air with perfect grace, juxtaposed against the power and sinewy movement of its protagonists. It’s apt that the act of shooting climaxes with the purest of sounds: the swoosh surely serving as one of the sweetest sounds in all sport. All clinically captured by the broadcast, of course.
It’s actually hard to think of a sport where outrageous skill is executed with such regularity. Of course all sports are hard at the elite level, but it is staggering how these guys continually sink baskets in the face of muscular, fast, 7-foot obstacles.
Unsurprisingly, the Playoffs’ slick production and ‘effortless cool’ is driven as much by business as it is by pure basketball culture. This isn’t some ideal, organic manifestation of global sport – the NBA has its dark side, too. However as Australians become increasingly familiar with the language of business and marketing in sport (‘growing the pie’, ‘new market segments’, ‘improving the product’), we also know bullshit when we see it. If the NBA is a festival of commercialism, it doesn’t appear to lose any of its heart or emotion. At Playoffs time, tempers regularly flare, players connect with their crowds, and home court advantage means something. Players definitely care. These aren’t the hallmarks of a cold, money-spinning machine.
Come playoffs time, there’s a growing body of Australian sports snobs happily seduced by American basketball. However it’s not a seduction of fashionable lust, there’s something a bit more. This feels like it could be something that lasts a little longer. This could be real.