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.

A Metaphorical Wall

I like metaphors, sometimes. A metaphor can be a non-sequitur, overly-wrought, or otherwise distracting, but sometimes they are simply good to think with.

A few years ago, I got caught up comparing my academic progress to my basketball jump shot At the time my jump shot wasn’t falling and, at the same time my academic progress felt stuck in neutral Literally and figuratively, I couldn’t put the ball through the hoop. I thought about this connection every time I played basketball, particularly as practice began to pay off with my shot. Little by little, I worked on balance, grip, form, release point, as well as making each of these pieces work together and repeating the whole process the same way each time. My shot never became perfect, and never will, but I developed into one of the better shooters at my regular game. The obvious question was how this related to my academic progress, and I came to realize that, much like my shot, this progress consisted of multiple moving pieces that required a) harmonization and b) consistency. An imperfect metaphor, to be sure, and an academic career is more akin to a basketball game on a team where you are the star, but this comparison helped settle down some of my anxiety and uncertainty and gave me the sense that I knew how I could go about bringing the discrete pieces into a coherent whole.

I have been thinking about a different metaphor recently. Writing is constructive, in a fundamental way. Every piece of writing is building an edifice out of words and ideas in order to convey some piece of information, argument, or entertainment. The blocks consist of evidence and ideas, fused together by word choice and turns of phrase. Well-built, the edifice will be able to withstand weight, but if the walls are assembled in an incoherent manner, they will fall at the slightest touch.

Enter peer review. I’ve had a mixed history with this process, as a lot of people have. “REVIEWER 2” might as well be an academic boogeyman, a harsh, anonymous critic who exists to tear down articles everywhere. Reading criticism of one’s own work is often uncomfortable, and even careful and astute reviewers can come across as cruel judges shining a spotlight on inadequacies. And tone is just the tip of the iceberg, with stories of reviewers who don’t understand what the article is trying to do, whether out of obliviousness, willful ignorance, or lack of clarity on the part of the author, and submissions that go unacknowledged for years.

In the metaphor of the wall, peer-reviewers are fellow architects come to inspect the layout and construction. Some look at the wall as just that, finding the flaws and push it over to let the pieces fall where they may. There is really no way around the fact that those reviewers suck. But there are also inspectors who draw attention to weaknesses and contradictions, not to be mean, but because they want the edifice to withstand pressure. Instead of surveying the wreckage wondering where to even start again or whether to work on something else, the editing process involves pulling out braces and rearranging pieces to create the strongest final product.

I have had the good fortune to have had a fantastic experience with peer-review in all of my recent submissions, but that has only caused me to reflect further about this metaphor. My editing, it seems, involves inserting dowels, applying braces, and rearranging the blocks until they fit just right, not out of a sense of vanity, though I hope the final product looks nice, too, but so that it can withstand as much pressure as needed.

Dream Team – Jack McCallum

There have been US Olympic basketball teams composed of NBA players since, but, according to Jack McCallum, there has only one Dream Team. That team—Larry, Michael, Magic, Scottie, Charles, Stockton, Malone, Ewing, Robinson, Mullin, Clyde the Glide, and Christian Laettner—represented the United States in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the first time that NBA players were allowed to participate. The outcome of the tournament was never in question since the average margin of victory was more than forty points and they never called time out, but how the team came together and what their legacy was were stories unto themselves.

The NBA underwent a massive growth in popularity in the 1980s. Despite some racially-motivated fears about it being “too black,” the uptick was fueled by better play and stars such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Borislav Stankovic, a former Serbian basketball player and then administrator in FIBA, wanted to tap into this newfound popularity in order to grow basketball into a global game that could challenge soccer. For this he needed NBA players in international competition, but, in order to do this, he needed to change the rules governing amateurism in FIBA. In some ways, though, this was the easy part, because he then needed to get NBA buy-in and, after that, to wrangle NBA superstars into effectively volunteering their time and likenesses for the Olympics.

In the “Dream Team,” Stankovic was more successful than he ever could have hoped. What had been originally proposed as a team with half the roster composed of college players coached by person from the college roster turned into a team with single token college player (Laettner) and coached by a man with two NBA championships. Its roster didn’t have some very good NBA players so much as all the top stars excluding only Isiah Thomas, whose exclusion despite his coach guiding the team provides a significant amount of the drama in the book.

The Dream Team took the 1992 Olympics by storm, with the most competitive game they played being an intra-squad scrimmage in Monaco, but the combination of the personalities involved and the drama of the Lithuanian basketball team that famously received financial support from the Grateful Dead, made for plenty of drama. The Dream Team, in particular, was composed of larger-than-life characters, gods of the basketball universe, but this was no mere collection of the best players in the world. It was also a uniquely mature and experienced team where Magic Johnson had already retired once because of his HIV announcement and Larry Bird had just finished playing his final NBA season.

But what of McCallum’s contention that this was the one and only Dream Team? It is hard to imagine a team with a greater level of star-power on it, though later USA basketball teams have come close without quite the same dominant results. The differences in part come from the divergent legacies of 1992. International basketball players saw the Dream Team as not just particularly athletic, but also impossibly skilled in all facets of the game and worked to emulate them, demonstrating fulfillment of Stankovic’s vision; in contrast, US basketball players saw their on-court dominance and took it to indicate American invincibility in basketball, without recognizing either the unselfishness or determination that manifested in legitimate practice and Jordan and Pippen deciding that they were going to utterly annihilate their future teammate Tony Kukoc because of an imagined slight that really had nothing to do with the Croat. The United States still had a preponderance of basketball talent, but it was not talent alone that drove the Dream Team to such dominance.

McCallum covered the NBA in the 1980s and therefore was also one of the journalists covering the team in Barcelona; Dream Team weaves these recollections together with interviews he conducted in later years and reads like an extended feature article. The book is immensely readable, though, and the NBA players come alive on the pages, so much so that I found myself going back and watching old highlights of Larry Bird while reading. This is probably not a book for someone who is not at least a causal basketball fan, but for anyone who is, Dream Team needs to be necessary reading for a glimpse at the seed for the modern, globalized NBA.

ΔΔΔ

I have once again fallen behind on posts here, or, perhaps, I have had a little more time than usual for reading since, in addition to Dream Team, I have also finished Mo Yan’s strange novel The Republic of Wine and N.K. Jemisin’s excellent The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms since my last post. I haven’t decided what I am going to read next, but I am nonetheless looking forward to it.

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.