Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On Sports

I was lying in bed last night, unable to fall asleep, and I thought about a woman to whom my sister had introduced me. (Don't worry, DR isn't that kind of blog.) I've met the woman, who's a med school classmate of my sister's, once or twice, and while we hit it off fairly well, it's become obvious recently that nothing's going to happen.

My sister told me once that the friend knew nothing about sports. They were at a bar with some classmates one night and the group started talking about the Chiefs' recent victory over the Raiders. After a while, the friend said, "The Raiders...wait, wait, shut up, don't tell me. I know this. The Raiders...New Jersey, right?"

Now, I don't know this woman very well, but she came off as an informed, intelligent individual in our brief interactions. And as I was lying in bed last night, I started wondering how I'd answer if this woman, or any other similarly ignorant person, asked me why I enjoyed sports so much.

There's a certain intellectual satisfaction in giving the academic answer, the "Sport reflects humanity's drive for greatness and the unattainable pursuit of perfection" response that echoes Classical Greece. But, well, The Academic Answer is also The Douchebag Answer, and I don't think I could say that with a straight face.

It would be more honest, less pretentious to shrug and say, "I don't know. I enjoy them, and the why never really comes up." But that's more a capitulation than a response, and it wouldn't satisfy our hypothetical interrogator. Beyond all that, it's not really accurate. Because thinking about it, there are specific, concrete reasons. Those reasons are just different for each sport.

There's a lot to love about baseball, of course. Strange as it sounds, though, I think what appeals to me the most is how unapologetically languid the game is. Baseball is the cool, low-maintenance girlfriend every guy dreams of having.

"You need to check your email? Don't worry about it, man. I'll be on in the background. Get back to me when you're ready."

"Need to pick up a pizza? S'all good. Go ahead, miss an inning. I've got nine of the things. Besides, statistically the odds are against them scoring. You probably won't miss much. Pujols is due up in two innings though. Be back in time for that. Oh, don't worry. I'll DVR it for you."

Baseball is also America's proudly intellectual game. Oh, sure, the scouts and the "baseball men" don't like it, but there's a rich, nerdy vein running straight through the middle of the game. And I'm not just using Bud Selig as proof. The fundamental mechanic of baseball is a combination of the mental and the physical; it's pitcher and hitter trying to out-muscle each other, sure, but they're also thinking along with each other, playing a game.

If baseball's the openly intellectual game, football's an affair that obscures its nerdiness behind a wall of blood. Huge men, impossibly huge men, running impossibly fast, collide in ways that would break a normal human being in half. They scratch and claw and desperately strive to open the space where, for brief moments, skill and athleticism can explode.

Football shocks and awes the viewer into forgetting the game's complexities. It's a smart game, but you have to work to see the dynamics. Peel back the cacophony and the Xs and Os leap into motion, like those scenes from A Beautiful Mind, only without the schizophrenia the lead actor pretends to have or the psychosis the lead actor actually has. There are blocking schemes, running schemes, passing schemes, zany schemes. Coaches devise a thousand different variations on the same rushing play. Intelligence is football's secret shame.

It goes without saying that high-level football is rife with athleticism, but we tend to see that athleticism in quick bursts. When Percy Harvin broke this play, it was like a bolt of lightning:

Blink and you miss it.

Basketball, on the other hand, is an orgy of athleticism. It's a wide open, relatively uncluttered playing area. Contact is discouraged, even penalized if you don't play for Duke. So the full range of human potential is possible on the basketball court. You can see those great moments developing. You can watch LeBron James circle the perimeter, slice through the defense and haul in an alley oop from Mo Williams. With the normal camera shot offered in most telecasts, every step of the play, every player involved, comes into view. When it's run well, basketball is a muscular ballet.

And I love the flow of a basketball game. Team A hosts Team B, and for a while they trade baskets, go back-and-forth. Then Team A slams down a dunk and stops Team B on the defensive end. Then they run down the court and drain a three. Team A's fans are getting riled up. All of a sudden, Team B can't get the ball over the half court line, and Team A is shooting like they've made three buckets in a row on NBA Jam.

This goes on for five minutes before, out of nowhere, Team B hits a three. Team A takes the ball down the court, but their shot rims out. As Team B runs its offense, the fans are still raucous, but a little less so than they were a minute ago. The aura of invincibility has been pierced. They stomp and shout, but less out of confidence and more to scare away the impending comeback.

Those are the big ones, but not the only ones. High-level volleyball plays on the human mind's capacity for pattern recognition: bump, set, spike. Bump, set, spike. So the viewer gets lulled into this sense of security, and it's pleasantly shocking when someone subverts the pattern by hitting the ball over the net in two shots instead of three. Or when a player passes up the spike for a subtle loft shot over the extended arms of a defender.

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