As March’s exhilarating gale breathes across our proud land, the NCAA basketball tournament, its gears ever revolving, again offers itself to the masses as inspiration. Bands of young men, functioning as unitary beings and sharing a collective goal, contradict science’s wildest notions of man having evolved as a primarily selfish creature, whose only motives consist of hunting, foraging, and procreating to preserve his own lot. Although I too am stirred by this yearly celebration of competition through community-building, at no other time am I so frequently reminded why I far prefer the pro hoops game to college’s morally superior version. The college game itself is an aesthetic nightmare: The emphasis on half-court trapping inhibits the point guard’s capacity to freewheel, and the extended 35-second shot clock and the permission of pure zone defense (where, instead of covering a single player, each defender boyscoutedly covers his assigned area of the floor) limit scoring opportunities. Additionally, parity in the NCAA is due to mass mediocrity, not mass excellence, which then also allows for too much single-player dominance. Said single player—akin to the peach-fuzzed early bloomer on your little-league team—often excels in merely one domain (e.g., 3-point shooting, low-post defense, quickness, height) rather than actually being more talented than the others.
More broadly, the NCAA is a league of core American values: cooperation, hard work, sportsmanship, mutual respect. The NBA is a League of Talent, first and foremost. Of course, this divide also overlaps with the even more obvious distinction of pro players hooping for pay and college players hooping presumably for intrinsically motivated reasons. And if late-20th-century psychology taught us anything, it’s that children who begin receiving external rewards for behavior that is already intrinsically motivating come to enjoy the behavior less as a result. The focus in pro hoops thus switches to questioning whether the players are “earning” their money, to justify their awesome lifestyles. And so my whole long-winded equine-necrophilic pro/college distinction is really just a means to say: Because the pro game doesn’t explicitly provide us with warm rah-rah slices of ethical birthday cake, motormouthed pundits, sportscasters, and fans alike feel the need to inflict pain and punishment on the Association as if to somehow justify the unstoppable fantasticness of a league that is basically the sports equivalent of the human dopamine system.
In the ongoing attempt to manufacture morality and justice out of nothingness, not even the NBA’s most precious babes are safe from becoming the subjects of pseudobiblical parables. LeBron James, 21st-century wonderchild/result of Michael Jordan-Magic Johnson petri-dish secret government experiment/all that is good in the world, has struggled for much of this season in the fourth quarter of close games. Recently, during one of these occasions, a TNT commentator remarked that “LeBron’s gotta step up and be the guy in the fourth quarter; he’s the guy with the million-dollar endorsements and the sneaker commercials.” In other words, because LBJames is the recipient of prize and pleasure and fame, he should also be made to suffer pressure and endure responsibility for a team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, that is a structural mess, lacking consistent point-guard play, reliable outside shooting, and the presence of its second-best player, Larry Hughes, due to injury. We hear these arguments in sports all the time, that because of one’s amassed status, income, or reverence, he or she must undergo scrutiny. Thus: When Maria Sharapova falters at the Australian Open, it is a direct result of her spending too much time posing for magazines; Tiger Woods’s long game begins slumping, and he is blamed for spending too much time cuddling with his supermodel wife; Alex Rodriguez’s shortcomings in postseason play are always mentioned in conjunction with his status as the highest-paid player in baseball. Sports consumers appear obsessed with reconciling an athlete’s star status with imperfection. But because pro basketball is the funnest, most hedonistically enjoyable sport of all, this insatiable need to see another’s good fortune balanced with misery, when applied to hoops, just feels plain wrong.
Clearly, it is the other pro sports leagues, and not the NBA, that are in greater need of such moralizing treatment. Baseball is an opera of self-destruction, sustained over the past 100 years by the ingestion of red meat, alcohol, tobacco, and steroids; and accompanied by the occasional public brawl resulting from one player chucking a round stone 90 miles per hour at another player’s head. Even baseball’s patron saint, Pete Rose, has been blackballed from the Hall of Fame for betting on the game. Football—without even getting into the peripheral issues of touchdown grandstanding, rampant off-season drunk driving and domestic-abuse charges, and yearly million-dollar contract disputes—is an inherently violent game. And hockey is perhaps the most brutal of all, with one-on-one fistfights functioning as sideshows to the already pulverizing main event. Yet it is the NBA that constantly faces attacks on the purity of its character. The dress code, the nixing of Allen Iverson’s rap album, the incessant “NBA Cares” commercials during televised games, the recently imposed age limit in response to high-school freak-children spicing up a Wheat Thin league, Ron Artest’s season-long suspension as punishment for beating the piss out of a single instigating spectator (again, note the high, almost necessary frequency of violence in other sports). These are all continued attempts to moralize the league, a league that is not immoral so much as supramoral, one that in its immensity of flair should defy being subjected to questions of whether or not such flair is “right.”
The NBA game operates on players simply out-talenting each other, and hence should preclude any need to watch its brightest stars suffer or to learn the ethical lessons so necessary to NCAA ball. Although these principles of righteousness are ultimately superfluous to the pro game, they emerge nonetheless, unfortunately, perhaps most recently/overtly as the motivation behind the “play the right way” credo that became NBA dogma immediately following Larry Brown’s 2003 Pistons’ slow and methodical decapitation of the flashier Hollywood-perfect Phil/Shaq/Kobe ego-driven Lakers dynasty. To again psychologize unnecessarily, popular hoops wisdom emphasizes prevention and avoidance goals—what players/teams “ought to” do. Pro hoops, on the other hand, is based on appetitive motivation, promotion and approach goals—what players/teams “ideally can” do. Defense, sportsmanship, turning the other cheek to an opposing player’s taunts, jersey-popping, or rim-hanging. The NBA prescribes these behaviors in order to make us spectators feel less guilty about the fact that what James Naismith crafted out of a peach basket, and what Michael Jordan would eventually alchemize, is athletic crack. And, as with every narcotic, if the stuff makes us feel that good, then the stuff must be illegal. We are supposed to experience relief and righteousness when watching the disciplined and puritanical San Antonio Spurs trounce the wonderfully disorganized, enigmatic, and offensive-minded Seattle SuperSonics. But as we spectators are mortals as well, suffering in all other facets of life and perpetually drowning in the oceans of time, I say give me young Johan Petro dunking over well-tempered Nazr Mohammed and pounding his chest in naive arrogance, or give me nothing at all.