What is Making Me Happy: Basketball

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Basketball

It is probably time for me to admit that basketball is my favorite sport.

For years now I’ve split hairs, maintaining that while I prefer playing basketball (and ultimate) and watching football, baseball was nevertheless my favorite sport. No longer. I still like baseball and manage to short-circuit my ethical problems with football to enjoy watching it as a sport, but basketball is my favorite.

One of the handful of the most reliable things in my life over the past decade was a basketball game at 11 AM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Players came and went as people came and left Mizzou, but there were almost always enough people for a game. The games were of varying quality, which tends to happen when you’re playing pick-up, but there were enough people who had played on teams at one point or another in their life that the games we could get reasonably competitive games. We played 1s and 2s (rather than 2s and 3s) to fifteen—this is common, though, as Kirk Goldsberry once pointed out at Grantland, that scoring system pushes smart players to shoot from behind the three-point line to an extreme—with the winning team getting to keep the court agains the next set of challengers, playing until a critical mass of people had to leave for class, meetings, work, or were simply too tired to continue. Usually this happened around 1, but it could be much later, particularly on Friday.

This game meant both reliable stress relief in the middle of the day and really good exercise, at least until COVID arrived. I’ve since cancelled my gym membership since basketball was the primary attraction and I don’t know when or if I will get back to that.

The sudden end to basketball—my pick-up game, college basketball, and the NBA—caused me to reflect on how much I love the sport. The Last Dance might have mostly been Jordan hagiography, but when there was no other basketball I absolutely ate up its nostalgic trip back to the 1990s and then when the NBA returned in its bubble over the summer I found myself watching really loving the chance to watch a small group of teams (with the best players and best coaches) over and over again and getting to appreciate the little nuances of the games.

At some level, I can appreciate NBA basketball in the same way that I can appreciate ballet. The men who reach that point are spectacularly good athletes who make unbelievable leaps look ordinary even if I have a little bit of coach brain—my coaching experience only entitles me to a little bit of coach brain—that is appalled by the lack of fundamentals and lapses of focus that they display. The league uses a deeper three-point line, but the court is otherwise the same size as the college court, but I am also fond of saying that the NBA game is fundamentally different than even the college game because the players are so big and so fast. Personally, I would widen and lengthen the court, rather like international hockey plays on a larger rink.

While a single player can sometimes dominate a game more than in some other team sports, it is also fundamentally a team game at any level and one that is unusually revealing. You can learn a lot about a person by how they play on the court and how they interact with their teammates off it. It was for this reason that one of my favorite pieces of journalism from the 2016 democratic primary campaign was a report in The Guardian that tracked down people who played pick-up basketball with Bernie Sanders in the 1970s. The piece came about after video surfaced of Sanders in a gymnasium in New Hampshire just idly putting up shots before or after a campaign event, and the author tried to use that game to offer insight into his background.

And yet, as Gary Gullman movingly talked about in his comedy special The Great Depresh that I tracked down early in 2020 after listening to him on the Lowe Post Podcast, basketball is also a game that you can play on your own. You don’t need anyone to play catch with. All you need is a ball and a hoop.

I find that the act of practicing a jump shot or even putting up free throws can be a form of meditation in that it forces me to get into a flow that bring the different parts of my body and my focus into sync. Basketball is a game of repeated movements within a confined space and more than once I have identified something that is going wrong with my writing while tuning into something going on with my jump shot. The loss of basketball was thus particularly frustrating for me this year and I never got around to purchasing a ball to use on the court in my local park. That changed several days ago when my partner gave me a ball for Christmas, so, if you will excuse me, I want to go get some shots up while the sun is still out.