With the NBA finals now behind us, I began wondering about why I don't write more often about sports (aside from brief asides about Steve calling me autistic and a lengthy examination of Barry Bonds and Roger Maris).
Sports fascinate me, and a large number of other people, but I can't really put my finger on why.
Part of my fascination with sports relates to me being a stat geek; I like how the world can be ordered into numbers, and sports thrive on numeric representations of reality, an objectification of the subjective.
But perhaps my larger fascination is with the concept of potential, and how rarely it is actually fulfilled. Kevin Garnett is one of my favorite players, but as good as he has been, he has never been the player I wanted him to be. In 1995 Garnett dominated the high school All-American game (brought to you by McDonald's, of course), showing a shot and a handle that were alien to other big men.
I wanted him to be something we had never seen before, a seven-foot shooting guard. But somehow he settled in at power forward. Other players came along that had potential to be this hypothetical creature, the really tall shooting guard, but Lamar Odom also became a power forward and Tim Thomas ended up sucking.
Magic Johnson, who dominated before all these other guys came along, seems to fit the bill, but he was a completely unique entity, not a prototypical guard stretched to a ridiculous length. Still, it was that uniqueness that has made him an enduring enigma.
While I have an appreciation for the players who are truly unique, like LeBron and the Big O (Oscar Robertson, not Oliver Miller) and the long forgotten Fat Lever, I have a larger appreciation for players who sort of fit some preconceived notion but are slightly atypical. For example, Charles Barkley is on some levels a prototype power forward: he could post up and was a rebounding machine. But he was also fat and shorter than some of his shooting guards, like Dan Majerle. He both fits and transcends (or perhaps mutates) his position with the game.
I truly believe that sports can offer some degree of insight into the human condition, such as in some of the writings of David Halberstam. All attempts to translate sport into some higher definition fascinate me, even when they are written quickly and fall short of their own substantial potential (perhaps not unlike this post you are currently reading). Hence my fascination with some of the more esoteric sports bloggers.
FreeDarko is a basketball blog that seeks to expand on sports as some way of achieving cultural understanding. They work from an initial ethos of "liberated fandom," a concept where sports are appreciated on all merits, not just wins and losses. For example, we can appreciate Lamar Odom for the fact that he is a unique player, though not necessarily a great player. They believe in an appreciation of form and style more so than specific outcomes. Awhile back they had a post where they compare Kobe to Jay Gatsby. They define what makes basketball players either bourgeois or proletariat in relationship to the basketball world, integrating factors such as race and athleticism. While it isn't technically brilliant writing, the ideas intrigue me.
I like finding links between concepts that seemingly have nothing in common, such as sports and life in general. And I think this idea helps to explain why so many people are fascinated with sports. Deep down, we feel that they somehow reflect life, or some imagined pseudo-reality, and we draw ourselves in more deeply as we try to understand this perceived reflection. Perhaps in sports we see some sort of refereed order we have difficulty finding in our own lives.
Also, sports can help us deal with our own misgivings about our own failed potential. On any given day, a mediocre player can be as good as a great player (Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall share the record for 3-pointers in a single game). We like to feel that these bursts of brilliance may be possible in our own lives.
And like the singular pulse of one performance, we are fascinated by the idea that a player can just pull it all together for an anomalous prolonged streak, like when Brady Anderson, who otherwise never hit more than 24 homers in a season, jacked 50 in a year (though some wonder if steroids might have been a factor). We may be mediocre in life, but perhaps this year is the year. It all comes back to that concept of realized and unrealized potential.
There may be some degree of evolutionary respect that leads to our love of sports, but I don't think primal urges fully explain our passions. I was discussing this concept with Katy the other night. If sports are only a manifestation of long-gone unsheltered survivalist days, we would be most fascinated by sports such as sprinting and swimming, sports that require minimal equipment and echo time-treasured physical needs, such as the ability to escape some angry animal or catch some other tasty animal.
But most people's favorite sports, such as futbol and basketball, are largely mental constructs. Physicality plays a role, but only as it intertwines with defined skills. Perhaps this reflects some sort of human need to order the world into strict rules.
Of course, I've skipped over the idea of pure enjoyability here, such as lazing in the sun on a summer afternoon while drinking a beer and watching people whom I have no personal connection to swinging chunks of tree at clumps of cow hide.
But I believe, or want to believe, that for most people it goes beyond that. And for those who write about sports, the act of writing allows them to elevate these games, for both themselves and their readers, beyond a plane of simple entertainment. On some level, the simple application of words applies meaning.
As for myself, though--as a man who apparently does see some larger meaning in sports--why don't I write about them? Sports, with their numbers and rules, are built upon a world of specificity, a specificity that perhaps I don't want to embrace in my writing. It is much harder to transform the concrete into the abstract than the abstract into the abstract. Perhaps I'm too lazy or lack the insight to create such transitions. Or maybe I just drink too much when I watch sports, and lose the meaning I thought I saw.
Also, the permanency of writing plays a part. As sports statistics are recorded for posterity, so are the words we commit to paper or cyberspace. No one wants to be thought of as the Mario Mendoza of writing. We are scared of waving our pens in the air and going down swinging.
In the same way that a baseball player can choose whether or not to swing at a pitch, we choose whether or not to write about something. The best hitters often don't force the issue, they let the game come to them. Perhaps I have yet to see the right pitch.