Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol. 3 No. 2 — The game was memorable but no one saw it

Have you watched The Last Dance, the 10-episode ESPN series about Michael Jordan's career and the 1997-98 NBA season? I have and might even watch it again. Revisiting the NBA of the 1990s was diverting, but what impressed me most about the show had little to do with Jordan’s phenomenal career or with the Bulls championship run.

I was most intrigued to learn that the 1992 Olympic Dream Team played a memorable, highly competitive scrimmage in Barcelona as they prepared for competition. No audience. No TV. Just top players trying to outdo one another.

It’s one of the few things that I’ve seen or read about lately that fired my imagination, a game played without the overhyped intrusions of crowds, television, commentary, and persistent replays. It was a game played only to be played.

As various players described the game, I could hear the echoing bounce of the ball on hardwood, the voices of players shouting instructions or taunts, the squeak of sneakers, the unfolding of a game played in what I’d like to think of as isolated purity.

I knew a guy in New York, an avid basketball fan who grew up in Cincinnati, where he worshiped at the altar of Oscar Robinson. He told me that one day he was passing a playground and he recognized a bunch of former college players who were engaged in a heated game. Something about the game seemed private and my friend wondered whether he would be trespassing if he found a seat and watched. So he asked the players if they would mind if he hung around and watched them play.

The agreed and I think he actually returned to see these intensely played games several times.

You get the gist, the players were playing for the love of the game and he was watching for the love of the game.

When I lived in New York City, I often saw great playground basketball. I was much younger then and I might be able to get into a game or two but I’d have trouble staying on the court because the losers always walked and I was never good enough to command major time on the court, which is reserved for winners.

But I still remember watching guys do exceptional things, flashing moves as memorable as anything I’ve seen from NBA players. I’m not saying they were as good as NBA players, but every now and again, a superior talent would rise above even the very good ballers.

I wondered where those playground stars went when they weren’t on the court. What were their day jobs? What was it like to soar above a rim and then return to the banalities of ordinary life?

Before the coronavirus shutdown of the NBA, there was talk of playing games in empty arenas, something that still may happen. I read that LeBron James said he wouldn’t like to play in such games. I wondered why the fans mattered so much that he might refuse to play without them.

To me, there’s something appealing about reducing the game to ... well ... the game. And I hope that if games without crowds do occur, teams will resist the temptation to supply crowd noise and other distractions. Let’s see what the games look like without the industrial-strength trappings of contemporary athletics.

And that returns me to The Last Dance and a practice game at a long-ago Olympics. Perhaps there still can be moments in which something unfolds without the need for anyone to consume it, players playing only for themselves and for one another.

I once saw Dave Brubeck rehearsing with one of the groups he formed late in his career. I was there as a journalist, writing a story about Brubeck's scheduled appearance. I had a similar feeling at the time, musicians appreciating what they were doing without the need of further adulation.

It makes me hopeful to know that such moments exist. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t see that scrimmage in Barcelona. I didn’t need to see it. It now lives in my imagination as something timeless, something as perfect as anything I've actually seen, a game that wasn’t doubling as a platform to sell products or support anyone's brand. Just a game. Sometimes, that's enough.

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