The Rebirth of a Game

The Rebirth of a Game

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The Rebirth of a Game

Basketball in my home state goes way back, straight to the beginning. The University of Kansas (KU) hired James Naismith, the inventor of the game, as its first basketball coach in 1898. The fledgling sport caught on, and has gained force ever since. KU was also the scene of the emergence of Wilt Chamberlain, who dominated the game like none other. At the same time that “Wilt the Stilt” was breaking out, Kansas State University (KSU) had a basketball coach by the name of Tex Winter. While not as well known as Chamberlain, Winter’s contributions to the game of basketball may have been even more significant. Ask any Bulls or Lakers fan where the “triangle” offense (and resulting championships) came from.

So, with my birth in 1979 in a small town in Kansas, this was the world I stepped into. Naismith, Chamberlain, Winter, and others had been incorporated into a basketball pantheon by the public. They were part of the public consciousness, but only in a supporting role. The game of basketball itself was lifted above them all, the true source of the passion. Before I was ten years old I had seen this passion at its peak. The NCAA Tournament of 1988 turned out to be a great showcase of Kansas and Big 8 basketball. The team I loved, KSU, made an improbable run in the tournament, winning their first three games. This set up a Sunflower State showdown between KSU and KU in the round of eight. The game ended up being a blowout, with KU dominating. KU went on to win the national championship in exciting fashion, beating Big 8 rivals Oklahoma in an exciting championship game. As an impressionable eight-year-old, I soaked up the emotions. The hopes and expectations, the ecstasy and the heartbreak. These feelings stuck with me.

When I reached seventh grade, basketball took a different role in my life. I played on my junior high basketball team and absolutely loved it. From November to March, my life revolved around an orange ball. From seventh grade to eleventh grade, this was winter to me. I was a true student of the game, learning and improving constantly. I became fairly good, and even won some awards my eighth grade season. During my freshman year in high school, I once scored 29 points in a junior varsity game. When I stopped growing at 6’, however, it became fairly clear that there was no future in it for me as a player.

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During my junior season in high school I suffered an ankle injury that kept me out of basketball for a month. With time to reflect on my life, I decided to stop playing for the basketball team. This gave me more time for other pursuits, and I surrounded myself with academics and other pastimes. It was not easy to step away from a sport that had been so important to me, but I did.

For the following five years, my only experience of basketball was watching an occasional NBA game on television. I was thoroughly unimpressed by what I saw. It seemed to me that every game boiled down to one superstar for each team scoring all the points and celebrating excessively. I think most of the players were caught up in an attempt to emulate Michael Jordan, probably the best individual basketball player of all time, but basketball is a team game, and the concept of a team was entirely lacking in what I saw in the NBA. Another thing that dismayed me greatly was the dominance of perimeter players. Teams seemed quite content to have a vast majority of their shots be 3-pointers, and the NBA had very few legitimate post players. Battles around the basket have always been my favorite part of basketball, and I found the lack of an inside game disheartening. Karl Malone and Shaquille O’Neal were the only two players I can remember seeing play well in the lane during this time.

These were just observations in passing, though, as I didn’t watch the NBA regularly. I would generally catch a game here or there when someone else was watching, or when I had nothing else to do. Two years ago, watching a game on a lazy weekend, I saw something that affected me deeply. I don’t remember who the other team was, but I know the San Antonio Spurs were playing, and their star Tim Duncan was, well, being Tim Duncan. Seeing him play the game made me think to myself, “Now that’s basketball.” Duncan seemed to be everything I thought the NBA was missing. San Antonio games began to hold more interest for me, and I would watch them if I saw they were on and I had the time.

After watching a number of regular season games and a run through the 2002 postseason, I have decided that my first impression was right. Tim Duncan is everything the NBA was missing. In an era of tall players playing on the perimeter, Duncan is truly a force to be reckoned with under the basket. With his 7’ height, this may seem obvious, but one only needs to look at Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks (7’) or Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves (6’11”), both all-stars, to see that height doesn’t translate to interior play as it once did. Nowitzki and Garnett both play the perimeter, and score by driving to the basket or shooting the outside jumper. Duncan, on the other hand, is a master at playing with his back to the basket. At 260 lbs., he relies more on skill and finesse under the hoop than on brute size or strength. Shaquille O’Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers (7’1”, 338 lbs.) may be slightly more dominant under the basket, but he relies on brute strength and sheer size for most of his success.

Most players in the NBA with Tim Duncan’s offensive prowess tend to shoot the ball whenever they touch it. This explains some of the ridiculously high scoring averages to be seen around the league. Duncan, on the other hand, puts his team first. He has an uncanny ability to find an open shooter, and is not afraid to pass the ball when he knows he doesn’t have a great shot. His awareness on the floor and his unselfishness make everyone on his team better. Even when he does something tremendous on the court, an incredible shot or amazing pass, his focus remains on the game. He doesn’t tend to celebrate anything during the game, but maintains his focus. When he does celebrate, he has every reason to, as it is generally after a victory. Duncan’s ability to play the game in a modest fashion is extremely refreshing in an age of instant glorification, where any brilliant play seems to result in an equally inventive instant celebration. As far as I’m concerned, a smile at the end of a victory says much more than any gesture or dance.

In each of the last two NBA seasons, Duncan has been named Most Valuable Player of the league, so it’s clear my views of him are not entirely unique. The members of the media who selected him for these awards recognize the undeniable fact that he is a dominant basketball player. Despite receiving these awards, Duncan has actually received less attention from the media than he deserves. I think he’s quickly proving that it’s possible for the best player in a league to be underrated. It’s bizarre to think that a player of Tim Duncan’s caliber would not merit the national spotlight, but bizarre is not something the NBA shies away from. In the modern entertainment world, the NBA has to work to maintain ratings and revenue. Apparently the modest way Duncan dominates the game can’t compete with flashy, selfish play and overblown celebrations for attracting fans and dollars. While I can understand the financial concerns of a professional sports league, it’s sad to see the NBA lose sight of the foundation on which it was built.

The NBA might provide the proper mix of basketball and entertainment for a typical fan, but I feel the entertainment aspect is too much of a focus and detracts from the game. Perhaps the game has not been strong enough in recent years to attract fans on its own merit. Perhaps the NBA executives have lost sight of what is good about the game. My recommendation to them is to take a good, hard look at Tim Duncan, who is well on his way to joining the likes of Chamberlain, Winter, and Jordan. We are witnessing the emergence of an undeniable force, an incarnation of the game of basketball so pure and powerful as to demand respect from all fans.
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