What is Making Me Happy: Olympic 3×3 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 semi-regular feature.

This week: Olympic 3×3 Basketball

I like watching the Olympics. I don’t have the TV on constantly during the competition, but I just appreciate watching feats of athletic excellence. This year, though, I had a hard time getting excited. Not only have I found that my willingness to engage in over-the-top displays of patriotism has waned from years past, but we are also still in the middle of a raging pandemic. The tape-delays don’t help, either.

Nevertheless, I have found myself flipping through the Olympic coverage the last few mornings. Today I watched all five heats of the women’s 1500M freestyle qualifier. I would have tuned out sooner, but Katie Ledecky was in the in the fifth heat and I wanted to see her swim in the event she holds the world record in. She didn’t set a record, but it was worth it.

The other event I tuned in for was the women’s 3×3 basketball. I’ve seen two matches so far and I’m in love with this event.

I’ve mentioned my love of basketball here before, so my infatuation with this new event should come as no surprise, but there are some changes to the sport that might offend purists.

Each 3×3 game lasts ten minutes or first-to-twenty-one, scoring by ones and twos. The entire game is played on a court slightly larger than a usual half court, but with a 12-second shot-clock that begins as soon as the defending team gets the rebound or takes the ball out of the hoop after a made basket. In either situation, the ball has to get cleared past the three-point line. Shooting fouls or every defensive foul after in the bonus results in one foul shot.

I came into the Olympics not sure what to expect from 3×3 basketball. I like the rules overall — these are certainly recognizable to anyone who has played pick-up — but was it going to feel like a gimmick?

Having seen one entire game and parts of two others played only by the USA team, it does feel a little bit like a gimmick, if I’m being honest. It is not a full 5×5 basketball game that evolves over nearly an hour of game time with active coaching and sophisticated defensive schemes. Instead, this is a fast-paced, physical, free-flowing game with almost no stoppage even as the fourth player on the team rotates onto the court. Officials do call fouls and other infractions, but the ethos is to let them play.

And here’s the thing: I don’t care. I love it.

This is still basketball, with basketball skills, many of the same basketball rules, and basketball plays that you would see in any game, but opened up to favor well-rounded players and with a shot clock that ensures that the game flows back and forth. You can’t play with an offensive liability who can’t handle the ball in this event and the spacing encourages movement.

At the same time, the thing that makes this so compellingly watchable is the length of the games. The two teams are racing both a clock and their opponent to a finish-line. To my mind, the combination makes this event the perfect length for a tournament — each game lasts a little less time than a 1500M freestyle race, for instance — and all-but guarantees that there will be dramatic moments in each game.

As much as I enjoy the US team, my only complaint is that theirs are the only games I have been able to watch.

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.

Noonball Metrics

I love basketball. I like a lot of sports, including baseball, but there is just something about basketball, which I have been playing the vast majority of my life and have played, refereed, and coached that draws me back to it. I even once came to a philosophy concerning how I approach academia and my dissertation while ironing out an issue with my shot while shooting free throws one morning. One a little more spiritually minded might say the reverse is true now that I am a better shooter than at any other point in my life. I digress, but this is something that points to a great thing about basketball. In baseball you really need two people in order to even play catch. You need more for batting practice, and even more for a game. In basketball, one person with a ball can dribble around. With a hoop s/he can work on shooting. With two there is one on one, four is two on two, six is three on three. At four on four makes for a full-court game.

For the last few years, I have been playing in a competitive pickup game three days a week, from 11 until people have to leave–sometimes going as late as 2. We start once we have ten (provided we expect ten to show), on a first-come basis. People come in and out of the group, but there has been a consistent fifteen or twenty guys who reliably play. The game is 1s and 2s to 16, and the winners get to stay on to play the next team, with guys waiting on the sideline having first dibs on forming the new team. There are certainly shenanigans that take place in this game in terms of schoolyard tricks, people who either do not or can not play defense, and showboating, and it will sometimes devolve into shouting matches or people just lost on the court. However, I like the game because it is frequently of a high quality, running some semblance of an offense that varies between a fast-break secondary break, motion, and high screen and roll, with players who generally like to pass and work together, at least as much as can be expected without a coach. When it is all working it can be quite fun to see guys (who will admit when they arrive that they spent an hour that morning watching Golden State highlights) try make a pass they saw Steph Curry make.

Grantland ran an interesting story last year that talked about pickup basketball and the three pointer, in which it made the case that playing by 1s and 2s makes the deep ball worth significantly more than almost any other shot. Basically, players using that scoring system should basically only ever shoot deep or shoot layups because any shot in-between is statistically worth so much less. This is true in the game I play in, too, and there is always a sizing up period for new players to determine if their jump shot needs to be respected. The next step for the metrics would be to chart steals, turnovers, and rebounds (or, really, offensive rebounds given up), though these stats probably have a less-universal applicability.

The game I play in is very competitive. Some might say too competitive, since most days there is at least one shouting match about whether someone pushed someone else (they did, this is pickup), or who touched the ball last, or whether there was a travel. We even have had a few confrontations about moving screens, to which at least we can say there are enough screens to have this happen. But what has been interesting is to watch how the defenses develop.

Since there is actually some offense rather than just one on one play, the defenses have to keep up. Just like with offense, this works better when the teams are made up of players who know each other and who communicate and are therefore able to switch or trap opposing players, as well as knowing which shooters you can’t leave open. There is plenty of sloppy play on any given day and plenty of players who could be coached up, but just like with players willing to run a team offense, it is nice to see players play a team defense.

In short, I like this game a lot.

I’ll conclude, though, with my five NBA players I’d most enjoy see playing pickup basketball of the type I like–that is defenders who try and will put their bodies on the line, but aren’t going to block most shots, everyone can shoot threes, and are willing passers with a willingness to throw absurd passes. I considered either Karl-Anthony Townes or Anthony Davis for my fifth spot on the grounds that either would feast with the other players passing to them, but eventually decided against them because they didn’t fit my “shoot all the threes, block no shots” vision for pickup. My five are Manu Ginobili, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Boris Diaw.

The NFL, NCAAF, Tithonus, Ganymede

I’ve been baking today, almost a week after the NCAA football championship game and the day before NFL playoffs. The baking is neither here nor there, but it has allowed my mind to wander and one of the topics I’ve been idling on has been why I like NCAA football more than NFL football, and generally why I prefer college athletics to the professional equivalent. Along the way I was struck by a mythical parallel, which I will get to in a moment.

The first issue here is why caring about one rather than the other matters in the slightest. Other than college football being the inspiration for innumerable think-pieces about the corruption of the academy, this doesn’t matter. Football has, for a variety of reasons that I will point to in just a moment, been the most contentious of these sports for academics and for the public at large and, as ESPN’s Keith Olbermann puts it some people just have a college football gene, while others do not. There is overlap in the fan bases, but NFL and NCAAF are consistently among the most popular television events in the country–not to mention that fantasy sports are a billion dollar industry that the leagues are trying so hard to get into themselves that the NBA commissioner has spoken openly about legalizing gambling on sports. The sports are popular. I grew up watching and playing sports and often find that watching sports is the only activity I can focus on at the end of a long day of writing, even if I want to read a good book. But sports are also big businesses, government-sanctioned monopolies, and, like many other big businesses, they rise above moral ambivalence into the realm of moral bankruptcy.

The popularity of both the NFL and the NCAA are really only rivaled by their corruption. The NFL has, arguably, been in the worse straights of the two over the course of the past year. There was scandal surrounding Ray Rice’s punching of his fiancé, caught on elevator video, that the NFL so thoroughly butchered in its handling that Rice could reasonably claim to be a victim; another incident with Adrian Peterson’s “disciplining” his children, the NFL 49ers relationship with local police such that one helped cover up a domestic abuse issue, which is just part of the NFL’s domestic abuse epidemic. The league has also been under fire for years for its failure to address its concussion problem and it has a collective bargaining agreement created such that the players who are literally placing their health on the line every week have only minimally guaranteed contracts. In comparison (not exactly a contrast), the NCAA allows schools to offer non-guaranteed scholarships to players and has created a business model where the schools and the institution profit from the players’ likenesses. Under the curtain of “amateurism” these players are minimally paid (though not in real money), work full-time schedules, while also being expected to be full-time students and cannot have agents or sell autographs or memorabilia without being made ineligible, which, for most, is a major hurdle to actually reaching the professional ranks and profit from the skills they spent the majority of their young lives honing.

[note: I am not here to vilify everyone affiliated with the institutions, since many, if not most, are probably funny, intelligent, thoughtful, caring individuals; the same cannot be said of the institutions and what they support. To wit, the NCAA just restored previously vacated wins for a former PSU coach who was at best negligent when it came to an extended issue of child abuse.]

I am not here to debate which of the two is more moral or a better experience. People spend a great deal of time griping about the problems with sports and how much money athletes make, even though, by nearly every account, athletes in every sport make too little of the money. But why might people prefer college football to the NFL, even though the injury issues of football are the same at every level? There are many reasons, including the lack of a local professional team, but I think there is something a little more subtle, that is the difference between Tithonus and Ganymede.

Sports are considered a young person’s activity. They consist of games of physicality, conditioning and skill. Even for those physical marvels whose bodies are big, fast, and strong enough to play on the highest level, their bodies peak in their mid-twenties. Most are done with the game by their early thirties and those who played into their forties are few and far between. No NFL player has ever played past fifty. Aging curves for other activities are far different and there are only a few where the highest proportion of any age group practicing it is in elementary school–for instance, learning the alphabet. Playing sports is a young man’s game any way you cut it, and there is an almost unconscious association of those few who go pro with doing a youthful activity. The emotions of watching sports as a child also burn brighter, and it is easy to recall youthful impressions of players and have athletes as childhood heroes.

Now for Tithonus and Ganymede. Both are figures from Greek mythology and they are the two paradigms for immortality. Tithonus was the human lover of Eos (Dawn), who is immortal and therefore fearful of watching her beloved grow old and die. Therefore she appealed to Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality, but forgets to ask for eternal youth, so Tithonus ages in perpetuity and shrivels into immobile, inconstant old age, and eventually becomes a cicada. In contrast, Ganymede is abducted by Zeus and becomes the cupbearer of the gods because Zeus granted him both immortality and eternal youth. In this metaphor, the NCAA system is Ganymede, the NFL Tithonus, while the audience is the older figure who wants the beloved to last forever. The individual players themselves age, grow old, and retire, as do all people, but the players on college teams are perpetually youthful and it is possible to forget that the same injuries that ravage their bodies in the pro game are already taking place, but the effects don’t appear until they have moved on to a different league. New players come into the professional league, but when players leave it is because they are done with the game.

This is not a rational decision to prefer one paradigm to another, and neither is it a moral judgement, an indictment of players, or analysis of the styles of how the game is played. It is merely an attempt to articulate one of pieces of underlying infrastructure that appeals about college athletics.