The National Basketball Association’s attendance and television ratings have been in steady decline. One prevalent explanation is that the game doesn’t fit well into the lives of younger people, what with their shorter attention spans and ubiquitous online alternatives. Another traces the problem back to a real but hidden racism that discourages whites from following a sport so dominated by blacks. A third account of dwindling fan interest is that the game has become overly simplified and is unable to provide a sense of complexity substantial enough to attract and keep audiences. In this view, the game has devolved from chess to checkers; they are both boardgames, but neither appeals much to fans of the other.
While each of the three accounts likely carries some truth, the third, in my opinion, offers the most explanatory of them, but it does so while severely underestimating all that has been lost in the game’s transformation. As it turns out, it is much more than ‘complexity.’
More than one-hundred years ago French sociologist Emile Durkheim was interested in knowing what it is that holds groups together. What is it that provides their members with a sense of belonging? His conclusion? The interdependence of social roles, or the way in which the expectations guiding individuals’ behavior integrates them into a cohesive whole. These limitations on a person’s discretion to decide on their own what they’ll do and when, are restrictions that benefit the greater good. For that reason, Durkheim wrote, “We disapprove of those men whose unique care is to organize and develop all their faculties…without sacrificing any of them, as if each man were sufficient unto himself, and constituted an independent world.” The concept of ‘sacrifice’ is key. Since at least the myth-making of the ancient Greeks, self-sacrifice for the common good was the mark of the hero. In fact, ‘hero’ comes from the Greek word for ‘sacrifice.’
The game itself once demanded sacrifice from its players: point guards had to give up their desire to score a lot of points; centers had to relinquish whatever inclinations they may have had to ball-handle or to shoot from outside the paint; forwards couldn’t race downcourt for an easy layup but had to block-out an opposing player under the rival’s basket. These roles may have diminished one’s opportunity to showcase a variety of skills, but they enhanced the team’s ability to perform at its optimal level.
Watch clips from any random Boston Celtics game from the 1960s. Pay attention to the paucity of unnecessary dribbling used to get the ball up-court; check out the movement of the individuals as the plays unfold; count the multiple picks and follow the ball as it finds the open man with the best available shot; observe the blocking-out under the basket. Notice that each team member is constrained from doing what they wish, even if it is something they are relatively good at. In this context, each is aware that he is giving up something for the team, and each is aware that the others are doing the same. Referring to Wilt Chamberlain, holder of most NBA scoring and rebounding records, Celtic coach Red Auerbach continually reiterated that basketball is not a one-man game. He asserted, “[t]hey said you have to use your five best players but I found you win with the five who fit together the best.” Fans shared that understanding.
Today’s NBA feeds -and feeds off of – the individual. It outlawed ‘hand-checking’ to allow a single player to monopolize possession of the ball; it widened the lane and then widened it again to allow him to drive to the basket with a high probability of scoring, thereby controlling the ball and the fans’ attention for longer periods of time; it created a three-point line to encourage him to take largely uncontested long-distance shots. Pay attention to the other four men as they stand and wait for the ball-handler to drive to the basket or to take a long distance jumper. Younger fans, raised to believe they should not succumb to limits, are awed by the spectacle. Indeed, the league’s only recent bump in fan interest is attributable to the showmanship of Stephen Curry and, to a somewhat lesser degree, LeBron James. Unfettered by role expectations, Steph and LeBron are the ‘position-free’ celebrities the league has become: the men who cannot and should not be contained.
Durkheim also wrote about how a representation of a group – as opposed to an individual – serves to generate social cohesion. Association with the symbols of the group and participation in its rituals, binds individuals to their shared ideals. The group and the symbol are united; the fans and the team are one in their values. Indeed, with basketball, fans may become a “sixth man” and in that role actually influence the game’s outcome, sharing in the agony of defeat or the ecstasy of victory.
In 1965, the Boston Celtics played the Philadelphia 76ers in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference championship series. With five seconds remaining, the ball belonging to Philly, and Boston up by a point, the Celtics knew it was imperative that they not allow the Sixers to score. With center Wilt Chamberlin having garnered all of his team’s previous ten points, prevention was a tall order. Each defender was assigned a man to guard. The sell-out crowd held their breath. As the ball was thrown in from the baseline, guard John Havlicek, facing and focusing on his man, turned at the last possible moment and deflected the ball to teammate Sam Jones. Jones, who was dribbling out the clock in the front court, passed the ball to the nearest open teammate as soon as a 76er player approached. The game was effectively over yet he still made the unselfish play. He didn’t hold onto the ball for the attention it would bring; nor did he throw it skyward for dramatic effect. Boston won. The crowd descended upon Havlicek. Their exuberance and pride were palpable. Even today, it is impossible for someone who shared in that social event to watch it and not feel a part of something greater than oneself. In my own case, I am transported back to a small house outside of Boston, sitting with my brothers and father, in front of a small, grainy television screen. At the moment of victory, we were at one with the gods; our values of hard work and perseverance and sacrifice won out. Half a century later, recognizing that the win was due to the team and not him, Havlicek said, “…I just did what I was suppose to do.” In doing what he was supposed to do, Havlicek was our hero.
The old Boston Celtics clarified and bolstered our values and provided us with a shared past. The team gave us men who accepted the limits of their assigned roles and who thereby sacrificed for the general good. It gave us our heroes. As a whole, today’s NBA offers us superstars who know no bounds, who cannot be compartmentalized or contained, who are position-free, fluid, able to reinvent themselves on each and every possession, who always want the ball, who must take the last shot. They are celebrities, the sports world’s version of Madonna, and, like her, they need only a single name. The great Celtic Bill Russell once advised us to “[c]reate unselfishness as the most important team attribute.” That sentiment falls flat today, except in the collective consciousness of those old enough to remember the many far-reaching benefits that virtue brought to those around it.
Are the challenges facing the NBA due to the shorter attention spans of millennials? Probably, somewhat. Are they due to a latent racism? Maybe. Can they be traced to the simplification of the game, it’s loss of complexity? Likely. But it is most certainly related to a more profound phenomenon: its diminishing ability to bring us and to hold us together, to provide opportunities for us to transcend the self, to remind us that heroism as sacrifice is a virtue, and one we ourselves are capable of attaining. The NBA has lost its capacity to bestow our lives with meaning.
By John Hearn
John Hearn has authored a number of books, essays, and short stories. He lives in Jamestown, New York. Reach him at email@example.com.