Basketball Over Everything: I Love This Game

Quite a bit has happened since I wrote about basketball.  The All-Star game was played, I saw Nicole before she went to Arizona, and I played basketball for the first time in the new year this past Saturday.  All three of these events don’t seem related but in terms of how I have viewed the NBA recently they are.  At the beginning of the month my favourite sports writer Bill Simmons wrote a column about PED use in sports.  It was a slap to the face for me and made me realize how I wanted no part of thinking about the truth, I just wanted to enjoy sports without it looming in the back of my head.  Nicole also read the column and we have had many discussions about this topic.  She isn’t stupid, she knows that this topic makes me feel uneasy.  Between the two of us, she is the more grounded thinker by kilometers, and while she loves discussing and speculating, I can’t say I dislike it but I would love if it didn’t exist.  Of course, when we hung out at the airport we had this discussion and we both threw out names and even talked about weed use in pro sports.  I’m not sure why the topic bothers me so much, maybe it’s because I don’t want the extra baggage, or that our perceived heroes aren’t as perfect as we believe them to be, or maybe it’s because I can’t give anyone the benefit of the doubt anymore without being accused of having my head in the sand.

NBA All-Star would begin the next day and to be honest, I skipped it.  I love the NBA, love basketball but All-Star weekend not for me.  I caught the highlights of all the events but didn’t feel like I missed too much.  I caught the final quarter of the All-Star Game and was ecstatic that my favourite player CP3 won the MVP.  However, the feeling of the PED talk from Friday still lingered even in the fourth, especially on this play.  Maybe that’s why I am having such a tough time dealing with it – because it’s such a complex issue.  I hate the complexity because I’ve lost the trust in it.

Pick-up basketball is a weird beast.  I hate going to a gym on my own and play with a bunch of randoms.  It has nothing to do with the skill level rather it just becomes a 1-on-1 fest, with no movement and just watching terrible drive or fade-away 20 footers over and over again.  I feel like I’m fun to play with during pick-up games because I like to pass, no matter how long it has been since I’ve played I know that my ability to see the game and anticipate will never go away.  In high school, I lived in a gym on the weekends, and there was a group of us who always played, it was the best.  Those days are long gone and I might go play once a month if that.  This always confuses people, if I love basketball so much why don’t I play more?  I guess deep down there is a part of me who understands that I pushed as far as I could with basketball and I don’t need to prove anything more.  There is the other part of me who is still competitive and would love to play everyday still but it’s just not there anymore.  After All-Star weekend my (extremely talented at life) friend Francis Arevalo asked if I wanted to go play pick-up at UBC sometime in the next week.  Last Saturday was the first time I touched a basketball for about two months.  Even though I don’t play anymore I still practice my follow through without a ball, it’s just habit, and at this point in my life it’s therapeutic because it’s something, barring a terrible injury, I will always having control over.  I trust that I will be able to still pass and read the game so I should get through the time we play without embarrassing myself.  First thing I notice when we are shooting around waiting for enough people to play 3-on-3, my handle is completely shot.  I can still dribble and do all the moves but with no fluidity and all at once I hate myself for not playing anymore.  Once we started playing, it was fun.  Francis and I have similar approaches to the game, we like passing and cutting and setting the other guy up, it’s probably a point guard thing but I think that’s how basketball should be played.  To me the pass is the most beautiful thing.  The movement helps with finding timing and developing a sense of what the other players like to do.  Once you find it, it’s like communicating without talking. Basketball becomes a secret language between teammates.  We played for two and a half hours straight of 3-on-3 and 4-on-4.  The games were competitive, nobody went overboard for calling ticky-tack fouls for the most part, and it was fun.  After those two and a half hours though, the lower half of my body felt like death.  I even joked to Francis that I need to do that blood recycling thing Kobe does just to play pick-up.  We both laughed and for the first time this month I didn’t think of PEDs when I thought about basketball.  The only thought I had was about how much I love the game.  Through all the baggage the guys on television might have it’s not the only place the game exists.  When Francis and I were getting our stuff to leave the gym, a player from UBC’s Varsity team came in wearing his warm-ups and headphones to get some shots up before the game, we watched him shoot around for a bit and talked some more about the work people put in to be good.  As I watched this guy shoot, I thought back to when I was growing up and I was convinced no one loved basketball more than me, back when I’d tape Jordan games and re-watch them countless times, and I could shoot on my drive way until it got too dark.  Nowadays, I still love the game but understand it’s bigger than my VCR player and drive way.  The game is too big, maybe it always was.

It’s Like I Have ESPN or Something – Nicole

Do you know why a (potential) PED issue in any pro sport, but especially the NBA, is especially dangerous?

Because of the exact spirit of sport Irving is alluding to – because of the love messing around on the court/field/ice that lives right above your belly, the allegiance that pulses a dull, calm, proud ache when you watch 12 year old kids playing the sport you love, that feeling of twitching legs and swooping shoulders when you involuntarily defend against the movements of a player on TV coming in on the rush, and the perfect sense of belonging that blankets you when a piece of sports gear feels exactly right in your hands.

PEDs eat at that.  They gnaw away at the validation, the zen, the perfect acceptance we, we the everyday sports player/fan folk, find in sports.  PEDs make it so that we are no longer playing the same game as them – as those talented few who hold up what it means to be elite.  If excellence in sport is dictated by PED use, it looses any semblance to sport that is divorced from PEDs.  That’s an issue.  That sucks.  If the pinnacle of basketball talent ascends to this peak only by pumping their bodies full of chemical performance aids, what it is to play that level, that game, that breed of basketball, becomes significantly different from the basketball Irving loves.  It robs the basketball that is played in community centre gyms, on outdoor park courts, or on a billion driveways – basketball proper – of the wonder, the magic, of transcendent players.  It’s not about the exhausting argument that PED use perverts a noble and pure sporting pursuit (as we hear every single Olympics) – rather, PED use creates two distinct sporting entities: a game of greatness, and a completely delineated game of mediocrity.  By doing this, PEDs sucks the sport-sustaining life force, the intangible stuff that draws Irving to the court and me to shooting tennis balls against a wall, right out of all sport.  It makes greatness chemical and sticks all other iterations of a game in a barrel with all things average.  And then shoots into that barrel to squash any magic left.

Now, Irving and I and people our age and older, we might be able to manage this spectacular mash of PED created sport suck.  But you know who doesn’t have the history, the already rooted-somewhere-under-my-ribs sport love?  Kids.  Who will grow up navigating a world of two basketball sports, two hockey sports, two swimming sports?  Kids.  And what will these kids learn to associate with the professional designation of greatness, with the magical sports stars they see framed in the light of major league success?  Oh, PEDs.  In the sporting world kids will drown in, how will they learn to fill the gigantic sneakers of their sports idols?

Wait, that one’s real easy to answer: PEDs.

We have a problem.

Irving Chong (@Irving_Chong) and Nicole (@_nicoliooo) are co-creators of This is Why we Can’t Have Nice Things even though it doesn’t make sense why they’re friends.

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