Monday, February 12, 2007

Basketball and America

Here on the reservation where I live and teach (I also grew up here, although I am not native) basketball is a very big deal. While we have never produced an NBA player, the kids at my school worship Shaq and Kobi and Dwayne, and play the game whenever they have any free time, such as before classes begin, after classes end, and during the noon hour. We are not very competitive in football, wrestling, or in track and field events, but we go to the state basketball tournement nearly every year, and we win the state championship in our division about twice each decade. If my students cared as much about reading and writing as they do about passing and dribbling, I might well be mistaken for a master teacher.
There is no ancient sport among the Shoshone or Arapahoe people that resembles basketball. As nearly as I can tell, the local people found their passion for the game back in the 1930s, when church leagues were formed on the reservation and the game was offered to young people who had nothing else to do during the long Wyoming winter. Today the game is played year round; inside from November to the end of March, and outside from mid-spring to the first snows on the scores of rural courts built on concrete or compacted dirt everywhere across the Wind River Valley. In addition to the organized school teams, there are adult tribal teams for both men and women, and these adult games are as heavily attended as the ones played in the local high schools.
Thisweekend the NBA All-Star game will be held in Las Vegas. Nearly all of my students will watch it, and they will come to school eager to try out some the fantastic moves they saw. One excited boy--Toni by name--told me last Friday: "The NBA is a reflection of modern America." I was hoping he had read that somewhere (I am pleased if my students read anything they are not forced to), but he said somebody on sports radio had said it about the All-Star game. As much as Toni enjoys believing this proclomation (he does certainly enjoy saying it), I am not certain what the radio commentator meant when he uttered the axiom.
Is the NBA a reflection upon modern America because both the game and the country are changing so rapidly? Speakng as an aging baby boomer, whose youthful idea of a great team was shaped by the Bill Russell Celtic squads, I can assure Toni that the game as it was played back in the 1960s is not the game I see played today. If the great Celtic teams of that era could climb into a time machine and travel into the present to play the Miami Heat, the current champions, the Heat would literally run over them. If the Heat traveled back to play the Celtics in the 1960s, they would all foul out in the first quarter, as everything they do on the court was then considered illegal. Technically, what the Heat and other modern team do is still illegal, as the NBA rule book still has rules against traveling, palming, charging, shoving, and shooting one's opponents with an automatic weapon, although it is only the weapon rule that is (sometimes) enforced. Everything else is free form and beyond the control of any authority.
Back in the age of dinosaurs, when I was a high school player, I remember our coach showing us a training film featuring Oscar Robertson, the Michael Jordan of that day. At one point in the film, Oscar dribbles a ball in slow motion as he admonishes the audience: "Always touch the ball with your finger tips. If you touch the ball with the palm of your hand, that is palming, and the other team will be awarded the ball." When the real Michael Jordan took the ball at the top of the key and made his first move toward the basket, I doubt he ever dribbled it with anything other than his full palm, but then he would also pick up the ball and travel with it for the last four of five steps before he dunked it through the hoop, so I guess calling him for palming would have only been petty.
Is that what the radio commentator meant? The NBA is like America because there are now no rules that get enforced, and there are mountains of money to be won and worlds of hype to draw in the suckers? What will Toni think if he ever learns the truth?

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