I’m not a sports fan. I know very little about any of it. Yet, for over a decade now, I’ve had a love affair (albeit an uninformed, fickle one) with basketball and the NBA. It all began with Allen Iverson 12 years ago. Or maybe even before that, now that I think about it. My father, a former high school quarterback, watched sports avidly and enthusiastically throughout my childhood.
“What color uniform is your team wearing?” I’d ask when he watched a football or basketball game. I halfway paid attention to the meaningless formations, gestures and language of the men on the field and of those describing the game from above. There was an entire world there, one with its own rules, passions and meaning. Though I never got into any of it, I think its mystery and ubiquity struck some nerve. It was theater, dream and ceremony.
As I grew up I managed to play no sports, never attend a high school game and ignore professional games entirely as well. My elementary school gym teacher cried because I’m 5’11 and refused to play basketball. I briefly played intramural soccer in college because the cute filmmaking boys needed a token girl on their team in order to qualify. I wore a dress and almost made one goal. I’m trying to paint a picture here about how very non-sporty I am. But then something weird happened. In 2001, the Lakers and the 76ers were in the finals. I was living at home after college and repeating my childhood line of questioning toward my dad about which color uniform his favorite team was wearing and so on. His answer was that he wanted the 76ers to win (maybe they were the red team or the black/gray team? I can’t remember). I became intrigued by the short player running around the court (Iverson at 6’1), and by the bizarre, grammatically questionable poetry of the announcers (“What a hesitation!” they’d yell, their voices full of passion–“From downtown,” they crowed triumphantly as the inexplicable phrase transformed the court into a city with a downtown I’d never visited or lived in). I was hooked. I liked rooting for the team not slated to win, learning the character arcs of the players and beginning to translate the drama unfolding on those late spring evenings as the finals transpired.
My dad, an early to bed, early to rise kind of person, often went to sleep before the end of the games. I took to drawing cartoons with summarizing captions to let him know what he’d missed. He loved them and year after year this became a tradition. I drew the face mask of Rip Hamilton and worried about his fragile nose every time he hit his face. I drew Rasheed Wallace, unable to control himself, earning technical after technical, charmed by his belligerent tantrums. I became entwined in the idiosyncrasies and personalities of both individual and group. Places where uncertainty arose I paraphrased to the best of my understanding. Various violations (3 second!, 24 second!) and defenses (zone!, suffocating!) were interpreted through my distracted, poetic, sensibilities. My dad read these basketball love letters and laughed uproariously. I was an archaeologist, trying very hard to decipher this new found land of “teardrops,” fast breaks and men who shoot lights out.
I found myself telling people I liked basketball. Somehow the fast pace, geometry and poetry of the sport overtook me. I still didn’t know the rules (whatever a triple double is, or being in the paint, I couldn’t tell you). But I’d found my entry point. I was someone who cared about the nuance, the inconsequential details (Kawhi Leonard has a Porsche but he likes his Malibu more), the language, the dance, if not the outcome or stats or actual rules. I picked my teams based on the handsomeness or temperamental proclivity of the players. My interest picked up during the easier to keep track of semi-finals and finals.
Which brings us to the 2013 finals. The Spurs and the Heat are playing. One of my most important hints for anyone interested in finding their entry point to watching basketball is to watch with someone who both knows a lot and is infinitely patient. So I sat down with my brother-in-law, who adheres to both counts, to watch Game 1.
“What color is the uniform of your team?” I asked, my standard first question.
“White, black and red ,” he said (and here I thought you could answer with just one color…but it depends if you’re playing home or away!).
We watched in silence for a couple moments. I asked another question, and another. He answered and answered.
“Who is that?” I asked. It was Kawhi Leonard. I liked his cornrows and serious, quiet face. While we watched I looked him up and read articles about his “wing span” (poetry!) and the gigantic surface area of his palm. I have a history of liking my basketball players to be stars, but not the biggest ones. He fit the prerequisite. I stopped playing on Instagram and put my phone down to focus on the running, jumping and strategy of play.
“Which team is he on?” I asked, forgetting what I’d just been told about uniform color (this is why you pick someone patient to watch with).
“The Spurs,” my brother-in-law said.
“I think I want them to win then,” I decided, notebook open on my lap for observations and doodles about this particular incarnation of basketball’s final ritual. It’s a close game, back and forth, being played in Miami, which puts the Spurs at a disadvantage. The psychology of that is interesting.
“Are they booing?” I ask at one point, “That’s so mean!”
My brother-in-law laughs at me. He tells me that this particular finals season is exciting and tense because the Spurs and the Heat are two teams of stars pitted against one another. The Heat have “the big 3” of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Spurs stars are older, an OG Big 3 if you will. Who you root for depends on a lot, and says a lot about you too.
Tony Parker ends up making an amazing shot right at the end of the game, some crazy messy looking thing where he falls and stumbles more than once. “The King Of Clutch,” headlines proclaim in the morning. LeBron, with arms like tree trunks, wearing a turquoise shirt, says the possession was, “the longest 24 seconds I’ve ever been a part of.” I love the phrases being thrown around in the wake of this first game. A gorgeous spin move, a shot like a “dagger.” Everything is a duel, a choreography, a compression of time, a clock ticking, a monosyllabic, minimalist haiku of a recap by the performers of this lovely spectacle.
Barbara Ehrenreich writes about sports as modern ritual in her book Dancing in the Streets. She examines ecstatic collective celebration, the intuitive, universal response and cathartic release of energy. I’m amused and intrigued by my inclusion in this universal response, and it seems against all of my natural inclinations, but each year I watch, finding each time, an unexpected entry into this world that isn’t my world. Ultimately I’m an outsider. Real sports fans or anyone who knows anything about basketball would cry at my fair weather, changing, confused, anthropological, quizzical, vaguely boy crazy approach. But I watched with excitement as the Spurs won Game 1 and sadness as they disastrously lost Game 2. I’ll be watching the rest of the games too, wondering about Bird Man’s purple neck tattoos, and Tim Duncan’s 37 year old “agelessness.” I’ll jot down phrases in my book. “The wide eyes of Tim Duncan…” I write, drawing a cartoon face beside it, his cartoon eyes wide, feeling that I’m participating in something kind of fascinating after all.