by Amy Miller
Lately I’ve been filling out Nielsen diaries—lists of what I watch on TV, to be returned to the Nielsen company, presumably to determine which shows are hits and which are misses. But the Nielsens picked a boring time to monitor what I watch, because it’s May, and every night it’s pretty much “NBA playoffs…NBA playoffs…NBA playoffs.”
There was a time when I didn’t like the NBA. Years ago, I was a basketball purist—I watched only college ball. And every spring, after the frenzy of March Madness, I couldn’t bring myself to switch over to the NBA; after watching those college athletes play their guts out all through the NCAA tournament—which, for most of them, was the peak experience of their lives—well, after that, those guys in the NBA seemed like big, lazy showboaters.
But then I got drawn into the NBA playoffs one year, and I got attached to a few players, like Tim Duncan and Steve Nash, who were just as articulate in interviews as they were gifted on the court. So I kept tuning in to see them, and the list of players I admired grew and grew—Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Baron Davis, Manu Ginobili. Now I have my bicoastal-hometown favorites—the Warriors and the Celtics—and my personal faves, the Spurs and Suns. And sometimes another team breaks onto the list, like this year’s fast, young OKC Thunder.
And just as I love the aesthetics of baseball—the slow pace, the arc of the human body as the shortstop makes a throw to first—I’ve found a lot of things to love in basketball, too. Here are four of my favorite things about it.
1) The athletes don’t wear many clothes.
All sports are cults of personality—for most fans, it’s all about the players and their ups and downs, and who we like and who we don’t. But the cult of basketball is more intimate than that of, say, football or baseball, because we get to see so much more of the athletes’ bodies—the shape of their knees, the tail of a tattoo snaking up past a collar, the scratches on their arms from those under-basket melees. And because they don’t wear hats or helmets, we get to see their faces the whole time—every expression, from sour contempt for a teammate who blew the play (think Kobe Bryant) to fierce, foaming, crazy-good competitiveness (think Kevin Garnett).
For me, being able to see all this makes for a more personal connection to the players. Sometimes it’s too much intimacy; occasionally a player looks too undressed out there, like I’ve rung somebody’s doorbell and caught him in his underwear. But for the most part, it’s splendid to really see great athletes. And to address the obvious: Frankly, I’m surprised more women aren’t NBA fans.
It doesn’t matter if that player has missed every freakin’ free throw the whole game—still, the other players walk over to him, touch his hand, and give him a heartening word or two. How often I wish life were like this. Missed deadlines, crappy sales figures, and a-hole customers could all be washed away if co-workers would just go over and touch each other’s hands and say, “It’s OK, we’ll get the next one.” I know that’s un-American, but I can still dream.
Lots of sports feature jumping, but basketball is packed full of height-defying feats—hundreds of them in every game. And not all of them are part of the play: That iconic shot of Michael Jordan leaping in the air, the one that came to emblemize basketball’s airs-above-the-ground mystique, was taken after his game-winning shot against the Cavs in the 1989 playoffs. Basketball is full of mid-air maneuvers, many of which happen so fast that you can only see them in slo-mo replay. It’s like springboard diving without the water—bodies arch and twist, and still the guy with the ball manages to toss it up into an arc that goes in the basket, game after game. And the shot block—which requires the defender to jump even higher than the guy who’s trying to make the basket—is one of the most exciting and underrated plays in all of sports.
This season alone, NBA teams have players from countries including—among dozens of others—Cameroon, Turkey, Montenegro, China, Israel, Latvia, Venezuela, and Iran. A few years ago, there were times when the Suns had no Americans on the floor at all. Soccer’s the only other sport I can think of where you can see athletes from so many far-flung nations, all competing at the professional level. Just the exotic names—Goran Dragić, Luc Mbah a Moute, Hedo Türkoğlu—are enough to suck me in. It’s like a menu in a particularly intriguing restaurant. And I love to hear players taunt each other in Serbian.