The NBA Playoffs: Peak Sport

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.

Sam Perry

@sjjperry

Papa’s come home! LeBron’s Cleveland Redemption

Four years ago, LeBron James left his family to “buy a packet of smokes” and never returned.*

Like a father escaping overwhelming domestic demands and frustration over his inability to put food on the table for his family (a championship), James’ simply skipped town on Cleveland.

And like any good mid-life crisis, LeBron’s abandonment coincided with him turning his lusty attentions towards the hot new girl down in payroll. She was a sensuous latina, she promised him the world, and her name was Miami.

Miami gave James fame, success and any everything he had ever dreamed of. But upon reaching his career zenith, James slowly awoke to a realisation that the key to life can’t be found in the accumulation of $100 bills and championship rings. It is about something more: love.

And the only true time LeBron had been loved was back in those early days, surrounded by his adoring family – they people who loved him simply because he was himself. So he headed to the Greyhound station to commence the long and lonely journey home.

Meanwhile, Cleveland was struggling as a single mother trying to make ends meet. She looked after the kids best she knew how, held a job bagging groceries at the local supermarket to cover the bills, and tried to ease the pain of a broken heart with a succession of failed relationships with various dead-beat meth heads and petty crims – but they were no substitute for her childhood sweetheart.

I miss papa's fiddlin'
I miss papa’s fiddlin’

But then one day there was a knock on the door.

A little more than four years after LeBron James had deserted Cleveland in the most public of manners, he was now back. Daddy had returned home sober with all the winnings he made from the track– and the family unit was whole again.

*  *  *  *  *  *

The LeBron James returning to Cleveland story has been described as a fairytale, but it’s not. It’s more than that. It’s a religious tale. A tale of redemption. It’s about a young man having a spiritual realization, that money and glory aren’t necessarily the be all and end all. That the quest for dollars and success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

There’s something more to life. And that something is love. The love of our friends, family and the admiration and trust of the people in the town you grew up in.

Love is all you need. Man.
Love is all you need. Man.

LeBron James gives us all hope. Hope that despite our discretions – be they cheating on our wives or girlfriends, going to jail for defrauding your employer or punching someone with a broken schooner glass – we can all find redemption.

Indeed, you can be the most selfish person in the world, abandon friends and family in pursuit of hedonism, money and personal glory. Not only that, you can do it all on live TV, waving your abandonment in their faces. But all can be forgiven. It just takes is a bit of humility (a trait not often seen in American athletes), admitting you made a mistake, and a Public Apology.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Daddy’s return has done a lot to heal the family’s old wounds from that violent abandonment, but the scars will take longer to disappear. LeBron has to find full-time employment, nail a promotion and stay off the demon drink. Then and only then, will he finally be able bring home that delicious Christmas turkey Cleveland has been hungering for.

Then we can talk about fairytales.

By Ben Shine with Dave Edwards

*This is a silly metaphor. In reality, LeBron seems like quite the family man.

NFL Prospect Michael Sam Might Be Gay, But Is He Good At Football?

There was some huge news out of the US today: Missouri college footballer Michael Sam announced to the world that he is gay.

I’m only being slightly facetious when I write that this is “huge news.” Because, assuming he gets drafted this US Spring (and I believe it is likely he will) he will become the first openly gay player in the NFL – a sport watched by millions of Americans, homophobic and liberal alike.

There are a couple of reasons why this is good for the NFL, and America, in general. Obviously it challenges the conventional stereotype of the NFL player. It throws down the gauntlet to NFL teams to institute a cultural change within their ranks. There will be gay players. You will need to be cool with that.

Sam has the potential to be a critically important figure in the gay rights movement. On the other hand, he could be just a footnote.

It will all depend, now, on how his career progresses.

Unlike NBA veteran Jason Collins, who came out recently, Sam is young, and at the cusp of a potentially long and distinguished career. Collins’ bravery in coming out has been somewhat diluted by the fact that he is, to be honest, just not a good enough player to make a serious impact.

The 34-year-old is currently without a team – and it’s hard to be a key public figure for a gay rights movement when you’re unemployed and on the NBA scrap heap.

"So when did you first know you were gay?"
“So when did you first know you were gay?”

Some suggested at the time that Collins was simply trying to draw attention to his own free agency, in the hopes of scoring another NBA contract. If this was his goal, unlikely as it seems, then it failed.

It’s a somewhat similar story for NBA prospect Royce White, who was recently waived by the Philadelphia 76ers. White, a Rara Avis if ever there was one, suffers from an anxiety disorder. His battles have been well-documented by Chuck Klosterman on The Public Apology’s sister publication, Grantland. He has been incredibly outspoken on the issue of mental illness among athletes.

White called on his former employers, the Houston Rockets, to implement a mental health protocol, according to Klosterman, which hinged on White’s personal psychiatrist deciding when he is fit to play. However, the NBA is a big business – and White’s output was deemed not worth all the hassle. After all, he had issues with flying – not ideal given the absurd number of NBA games per season – and has a history of panic attacks during games.

White never played a minute for the Rockets, and he’s languished ever since. Sadly, risk triumphed over reward.

An NBA player in a fedora? That'll do me.
An NBA player in a fedora? That’ll do me.

Sam’s career trajectory from here on in will be interesting to watch. He has already done “the hardest part” for a gay professional athlete – before even turning professional.

However, this article here indicates that Sam will face some serious hurdles – both on and off-field – now that he has come out. One NFL assistant coach called it “not a smart move,” and one that may impact his earnings potential. It seems that many key figures in the NFL believe the sport is simply not ready for an openly gay player.

Of course, in an ideal world we would be so cool with this so that he wouldn’t feel the need, as a young NFL draftee, to publicly announce his preference for men. But this is the world we live in – and we need more Sams before that can be a reality.

Here’s hoping he doesn’t turn out to be a draft bust.

By Dave Edwards