Basketball and jazz have always been brothers, bound by their seemingly unscripted methodologies and the virtuosic frontmen who orchestrate them. Hours of study and practice time, years of music theory and muscle memory — these decade-long pursuits often boil down to a few seconds worth of improvised brilliance. Watching LeBron commandeer a fast break is not unlike listening to a Coltrane solo. They both come and go with such blinding speed and skill that we forget their origins in practice and in theory. During those few dizzying dribbles and measures, it’s possible to see an entire life’s work. From chaos, order is wrung — each note guided by impulse, each movement wrought with individuality.
The sport of basketball, more than any other, feeds off the surplus of spontaneity and self-expression its players inject into the league. No wonder the sport’s signature play, the dunk, is celebrated more for its ability to channel a player’s personality than its actual effect on the scoreboard. Imagine a second-inning single in baseball stirring a crowd to the point of eruption.
Individuality is the lifeblood that sprung Michael Jordan’s legendary career. When you recall the great careers of Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana, or Greg Maddux, how many specific moments do you remember? One? Maybe two? Jordan has at least a half dozen, almost all of which can be expressed in two- or three-word phrases. If you don’t remember specific plays, then you remember his mannerisms, poses, celebrations. Jordan’s pantheon is built upon those indelible moments — the ones when nothing stands between him and you — when he is himself.
No NBA would argue that these moments take away from the game. In fact, many would tell you they are the game. Basketball players don’t play with pads or helmets, after all. They don’t need skates, or bats, or clubs, or rackets. Unlike other athletes, they have nothing to hide. They are themselves.
So why then has the David Stern-led NBA done everything in its power to limit this sense of individuality and spontaneity? In 2005, the NBA overhauled its dress code — its most restrictive code of player conduct to date. Prohibiting players from wearing sunglasses inside the arena was one thing. Banning upside-down NBA-licensed headbands was something else entirely. As the NBA drains its players of their signature expressiveness in favor of a cleaner image and a more accessible brand, it has lost touch with the very soul of the game.
The next step for the NBA’s cleanup project: penalizing players for “overt” reactions to referee calls. Read: completely outlawing the display of any negative emotion on the court (laughing, included).
This plan was rolled out in the fall, and Ben Mathis-Lilley, writing for New York Magazine, argues that it has been a success:
“The NBA has essentially decreed that any displays of nonpositive emotion are against the rules—a policy that’s tyrannical, absurd, and totally effective in making the game more fun to watch.”
By limiting distracting shots of the ubiquitous “Tim Duncan Face” and other negative displays of emotion, Mathis-Lilley argues, the sport becomes more satisfying for serious fans who crave more on-the-court action.
But it’s the NBA’s greatest strength that Mathis-Lilley and Commissioner Stern continue to overlook — the powerful force that catalyzes the game of basketball above all other team sports — emotion. The importance of emotion is evident with how quickly one team’s 8-0 run can either silence an entire building or propel it into pandemonium, forcing the opposing team to call a timeout to regroup. In no other form of team competition do the theories of momentum, hot and cold streaks, and mind over matter better apply. Emotion, whether stifled or encouraged, will always loom large in a sport where only five individuals can face each other at a time, confined to the relatively minuscule boundaries of a basketball court.
Invariably, the e-word is thrown out by many writers and commentators without merit, and almost by default, to explain the unexplainable. The words “passion,” “drive,” “heart,” and phrases like “team of destiny” and “the will to win” take emotion one step further, toward the realm of mythology and cliché. But however meaningless the word is rendered, “emotion” still has its concrete place in sports; and nowhere is it more present then in the seconds after a referee’s whistle.
Fouls, and technical fouls in particular, are the cruel interruptions that remind each player throughout the game that their existence on that basketball court is contingent upon a construct of authority. From David Stern down, the NBA must follow a strict set of agreements, contracts, mandates, regulations, and rules in order to maintain its cohesion. In between, the beautiful game of basketball takes place. Thus, foul calls tend to manifest as tyrannical (and arbitrary, especially in basketball in particular) chastisements issued by old predominantly white guys to young predominantly not white guys. The moments after the whistle tend to elicit the highest levels of emotion, for many reasons, if not solely because of the jarring, awakening effect they have on players’ senses during the flow of a basketball game.
When a player is shaken from the flow of the game, and forced to abruptly stare into the ugly face of authority, a whole slew of emotions may ensue. However, in that moment, each player is instructed not to pass judgment, not to feel angry, not to take it personally — to repress whatever feelings he may have and move on.
The results are mixed. Many players have become numb to the whistle, and all the split-second impulses that come with it. I suppose we should applaud the players who have learned to be quiet. But should we applaud any less for those who still feel something? The emotional outbursts that players are taught to suppress are also the ones they are taught to use — to fuel a scoring drive, to intimidate others on defense, to take over a game. You see them in Dikembe Mutumbo’s wagging finger, Kobe Bryant’s gritted teeth, and Michael Jordan’s outstretched tongue.
These tics in players’ body language reveal to us that they’re human. Blake Griffin’s dunks, as otherworldly as they appear, reveal to us his emotion, his rage, his disregard for humanity, and finally his humanity. He focuses every single emotion in his body, channels them through his legs, upper torso, arms and fingers, and sends them along with the basketball in one whiplash motion through the hoop.
Whether it’s the emotion of a dunking Griffin, a showboating Artest, a smug Kobe, or an outraged LeBron, any and all of it needs to be included in our conception of what we call basketball. This emotion does not detract, or distract, from the game. It is the game.
“The absence of on-court negativity leaves the game to speak for itself,” Mathis-Lilley writes.
I am left to ask, What game are you talking about? The one where players score points, accrue rebounds and assists, and go home with a win or a loss? You and David Stern can watch that game. I’ll be watching the game where people go to war against each other, asserting their dominance, scrambling to keep their sense of pride, laughing, sulking, stumbling through adversity, and ultimately walking off the court, minds and bodies heavy, spirits high or low, back to the locker room.