During our 30 day challenge in January, I read The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons and found my professional sports paradigm flipped on it's head. Until 3 weeks ago I, like most Americans, considered the NFL to be the premier entertainment experience in all of sports. After all, no other sporting event comes close in terms of attendance, viewership, and revenue. However, as I read the life's work of someone completely enamored with the game of basketball something shifted within me, and I emerged a greater fan of the NBA than the NFL.
- Watched an entire NBA game in the past 9 months (last watched: Game 7 of 2013 finals),
- Chosen a favorite team (coming soon)
- Played fantasy basketball since 2005
- Ever followed an entire NBA season
Thesis: It's all about the storyWe watch and enjoy sports for a variety of reasons: the inhuman athleticism, unparalleled skill, transcendent teamwork, and unconquerable drive to win, but these qualities are more or less displayed in all sports. I'm not going to argue whether or not a Vince Carter's highlight reel is more exciting/impressive than Randy Moss' (watch them both, I'd go with VC), because much of that boils down to personal preference. I will argue the NBA consistently produces far more compelling story lines than the NFL.
I cannot understate the importance of "story" in sports. Whether you realize or not, story constitutes the majority of our interest in sports. An unfamiliar sport, without knowledge of athletes, teams, coaches, history, rivalries, strategies, etc (i.e. all elements of story) provides very little appeal, ask anyone who "watches" no other football game except the Superbowl every year. Like books, movies, television, music, theatre, and all other forms of media, sports are simply a unique vessel for the many elements of story we crave: triumph, defeat, adversity, sacrifice, revenge, redemption, heroes, villains, and legacy. In sports we enter into a microcosm of human existence that is real. Sports are the original and best version of reality TV. (Side note: Can you imagine an ESPN that showed highlights and reported scores but left out all drama, speculation, emotion, commentary, and controversy? They would lose 92% of their airtime material.)
So why is basketball a superior medium for story than football? I'm glad you asked.
We all know rivalries make sports better and you can find rivalries in any sport. What makes basketball special? For team rivalries, in the NFL you can play another team in a given season (postseason included) between 0-3 times, in basketball: 2-11. By sheer volume alone, the NBA creates a better setting for rivalries and the possibility for inter-conference rivalries (by playing every team at least twice). Open and shut, and that's not even the half of it.
Take for instance the greatest player rivalry in the NFL in the past decade: Manning vs. Brady. Their rivalry causes countless heated debates, regularly draws massive viewership, and always airs in primetime. We love watching Peyton Manning play Tom Brady. Funny thing is, the only time Brady and Manning come into contact with each other on a football field is for the post game handshake.
Peyton Manning has never actually played against Tom Brady. Manning regularly plays against New England's Defense while Brady does the same against the Bronco's (or Colts) defense. They watch what each other does from the sideline and afterwards hit the field and try to outperform one another in completely different circumstances. This is no different than Muhammad Ali watching Joe Frazier destroy "Joe Schmo" then immediately going out and dominating "Jim Schmim" even worse. What does that prove? Is Brady really 10-4 against Manning, or was Brady better against Indy/Denver's D than Manning was against New England's 10 out of 14 times? A truly great rivalry happens when Ali and Frazier get in the ring, that's what we all want to see. (This is why the Pacquiao/Mayweather situation is such a travesty.)
This is why player rivalries carry so much more weight in the NBA. Russell vs. Wilt. Duncan vs. Garnett, Bird vs. Magic. Jordan vs. Isaiah & Ewing & 'Nique & pretty much everyone. NFL rivalries can't hold a candle to those, especially if you require them to be between an offensive and defensive player (you know, so they actually play each other). Take the best player rivalry in the NBA currently, Lebron James vs. Kevin Durant. These guys play the same position and guard each other up and down the court. Lebron dunks over KD on one end and the very next play KD can cross over Lebron for a step back 3. Back and forth, each with the responsibility to score and stop the other from scoring.
You'll notice 3 things in the video above:
- They are on the court at the same time
- They impact each other's play
- They touch each other
2. 15 vs. 53
- Filled my closet with Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Nate Burleson, and Adrian Peterson jerseys
- Used Daunte Culpepper's "get ya roll on" as my official backyard TD celebration for the 2004 season
- Watched this video over 20 times:
- Cried at the end of the 2003 Cardinal's game (kept the Vikes out of the playoffs). To be fair, I was 15 at the time and probably at the height of my emotionally unpredictable stage.
The connection we feel to a story depends on the depth with which we understand it. The real limitation of any NFL team is how little of their journey we can reasonably grasp in a season. How deeply can you relate to a team of 53 men plus coaching staff, when you are hard-core, if you barely know the names of the starters? Whether we realize it or not, this produces a shallow and fleeting connection to any given team and it's story. It's the difference between casually reading the Great Gatsby for the plot points and intentionally contemplating Fitzgerald's literary devices and underlying message.
By contrast, in the NBA if you don't know the names, positions, and specific roles of every starter and 1-3 bench players on the Bulls, it's probably best you don't consider yourself a Bulls fan. A small team size creates an opportunity to truly identify with the team as a whole. There's something innate about connecting with a group of 4-5 people in storytelling, for example:
- Harry Potter- Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Snape, Voldemort
- Star Wars (I-III)- Anakin, Obi-Wan, Padme, Villain
- Star Wars (IV-VI)- Luke, Leia, Han, Darth Vader
- LOTR- Frodo, Sam, Gollum, Gandalf, Aragorn
- Hunger Games- Katniss, Peeta, Haymitch, President Snow
- The Office- Michael, Dwight, Jim, Pam, Andy
- Wicked- Elphaba, Glinda, Nessa, Fiyero, The Wizard
- Seinfeld- Jerry, Elaine, George, Kramer, Newman
- The Dark Knight- Batman, Harvey, Rachel, Gordon, Joker
(My proposal for a better football league is to take a page out of NFL street's book: make games 7 on 7, everybody has to play both ways (except for QB's, similar to baseball's DH spot), and cap rosters at 21. This would boost scoring, make running the football relevant again, and force coaches to use 80-90% of their players since teams would actually need subs. Then we might actually have a chance to know our favorite team)
Continue reading: Reason #3: The Finals vs. The Superbowl