I came to love basketball later in life. Unlike baseball/softball, and even football, I never played basketball as a kid, and by the time I was introduced to it in high school, I was simply dismal at basic things - shooting, running plays, rebounding. The only thing I was good at was a ferocious defensive presence, which worked best when there were no referees around to catalog how many fouls I was committing. So I had no physical experience of the game, really. Basketball was not in my bones or muscles.
Thus, for me to become the big hoops fan that I am, the game had to enter through the always-open portal of my mind. And there it has settled in and remained in many a stream of thought.
It began with a partial season-ticket package that a few of us had during graduate school in Berkeley, to the Golden State Warriors at the old (R)Oracle. This happened in the late 1980s, during the Run TMC era. It was a fun team, with interesting personalities, at a time in my life when I was changing, too - coming out, starting my professional career, moving to SoCal for a space. The seed was planted but did not yet blossom into more than casual fandom.
When I met the love of my life, Peggy Macres, in 2002, she was really into basketball - both women's and men's games. My mother, too, had developed a passionate devotion to the UConn Husky women's team; my Mom had played the game when she was in high school. So basketball was all around me, and I started to notice things I had not noticed before, the details of the game.
Then came 2003-04 and the remarkable run by the Huskies with Diana Taurasi. When the (later disgraced) State Senator Thomas Gaffey suggested elevating Taurasi to Connecticut Official State Heroine status alongside Prudence Crandall, I had to think fast, and recognized that this was not an either/or question. They are both crucial to the history of
women in Connecticut. I noticed that wherever I went in the state in 2003, adult men were passionately discussing women's sports. Taurasi had helped change a long-existing dismissal of women's achievements. I grew up in Connecticut, and I know the taste and flavor of Connecticut misogyny - and it was dissipating, at least slightly, before my eyes.
Next up was the 2004 NBA Finals. While Golden State was still my team, when it came to the post-season, which they never reached, I adopted new teams. I was tired of seeing the Lakers win all the time, but assumed that it was just inexorable fate that they would. During Game One of the Finals that year between the Detroit Pistons and the Lakers, I was driving along State Route 1 between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay when the game started. The announcers must have been particularly skilled on the radio broadcast, and/or my knowledge of the game was improving. I could see it happening in my mind's eye - Detroit's muscular
defense, the frustration setting in on the Lakers, the pace slowing. Then the announcers articulated what I was feeling when one of them said (and I paraphrase) "If you are not at your television, get there as soon as you can. What we are seeing is something entirely unexpected." I had known it before they said it. I got home, where Peggy confirmed - and we watched the rest of the five game series win (very nearly a sweep for Detroit) with wonder and joy.
In the meantime, I had a new favorite player. Tim Duncan. In the combination of his erudition with the clean play of the San Antonio Spurs as a team, he and they became my basketball tutors. I know that many fans found the Spurs teams of that era boring. I found them delightfully instructive. It also meant that Gregg Popovich came onto my radar - this would yield later insights. The Onion, my favorite news source, also took a memorable shining to Duncan, with classic headlines and storylines.
Golden State was still my team. But the Golden State Warriors of 2001-2013 were a sad sack team that could achieve nothing. We defined "long-suffering fan base." Well, except for 2007! Monte Ellis, Matt Barnes, Baron Davis, and the take-down of arguably the best Dallas Mavericks team of the Nowitzki era in the first-round of the playoffs. The dream died quickly after that, but it sure was fun while it lasted. And it provided the hope we would need to keep going.
Monte Ellis making a shot. Baron Davis and Mark Cuban. A life-long-suffering fan.
Of course, the whole world knows how my story will have a triumphant ending - an epic, still ongoing. After years in the doldrums, the Warriors made some remarkable draft choices, started to blossom, then merely survived Mark Jackson as a coach (his compulsory religiosity turned me off) and then emerged with Steve Kerr leading Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Igoudala as the core group (later joined by Kevon Looney). We were watching avidly. Again, some ESPN commentator confirmed what I was seeing when he said "Even if you have to stay up late, watch this team - something's happening here." Analysts had mocked Mark Jackson when he said that Curry and Thompson could be the greatest backcourt of all time - but he's proven himself a prophet in that at least!
Beauty had arrived. Beauty in so many dimensions. Poetry, counterpoint, speed, intellect, teamwork. Curry and Kerr led a radical redesign of the game to open up the floor. The Warriors moved away from the dominance of mere muscle, size, and height, reconfiguring basketball into a game that anyone could play. And with this came two other dynamics which make me love basketball so much: its consistent pressure in eroding sexism and racism.
I first heard the term "woke" in popular culture from Gregg Popovich, back around 2015. I was already doing anti-racist work as an academic and activist, so the term instantly made sense to me. But hearing this specific term first from Popovich has lingered with me, ensuring that my mind would always connect white people"being woke" with basketball.
Consider how any white player at the NBA or WNBA level (hereafter W/NBA to include them both) knows that they will work with Black coaches, and vice-versa. If you are a talented white player, but hold onto racist attitudes, you are unlikely to make it. By contrast, the other major sports in the United States (MLB, NHL, NFL, Nascar) all have unregenerate players who voice repugnant views, or support racist politicians. The W/NBA has no room for Dixie Walker (the Brooklyn Dodgers player who represented the white racist segregationist opposition to Jackie Robinson, as in this picture where he looks away [top row] during the team picture in 1947).
While management in the W/NBA is not as diverse as it could (and will eventually) be, it is moving in that direction far faster than the other major sports. No one can enter into the W/NBA worlds without knowing, accepting, and celebrating the fact that their world will always be multi-racial and multi-cultural and international. WNBA players often supplement their income by playing abroad (as the world learned through the staged imprisonment of Brittney Griner), and the NBA could hold a mini-world peace summit from their rosters (while there are no South American players currently there have been outstanding ones in the past, such as Manu Ginóbli from Argentina, and Anderson Varejão and Leandro Barbosa from Brazil).
Furthermore, it is obvious to all observers (including detractors) that the W/NBA style of basketball is influenced by African diaspora cultures. The game constantly riffs on the line between planning and improvisation, allowing creative deployment of carefully honed skills with joyous enthusiasm, all within a kaleidoscopic dynamism incorporating virtuosic individuality and collective teamwork. Basketball at the professional level is a dance, or, more cogently for me, like be-bop and avant-garde jazz music. Basketball is now what jazz was between 1940-1980 - a racial meeting ground, where your skills create your ticket into the game. The style is exuberant, cutting-edge, perpetually exciting, constantly blending the physical and intellectual sides of human expression.
The women's game features passing, less bullying/jockeying in the paint, more space and teamwork then the men's game. The advances in the Women's college game especially in teams like UConn, Stanford, South Carolina, Notre Dame, and Baylor, has resulted in the continued (if still too stingy) support for the WNBA. The name recognition of WNBA stars like Sue Bird, Taurasi and Griner - and even the miracle of a woman's league surviving and thriving over more than two decades with games on national television, are major accomplishments. Put it all together and I think we're collectively underselling the progress that has been made. The WNBA now has those things that make professional sports so important to us fans - heritage, eras, records (meant to be broken), draft pick positions, and continuity.
Currently Caitlin Clark is drawing attention for her exploits in the woman's college game at Iowa. Five prominent champion male athletes all took the time to watch her games and comment on her ability. I don't think this sort of cross-gender notice and acclaim would have happened in 2000 or 1975. Basketball itself seems to remain dynamic in terms of race and gender, moving with the times. I do fear that the trans-gender issues could trip up the progress, but aside from that, the W/NBA and Women's college game appear to be on the progressive track.
A reflection of our society - change through individuals and collectives, simultaneously - is happening in basketball. I still love baseball and football, but in comparison to basketball, they seem slow - both in tempo of the game and in their social consciousness. Baseball engages the mind so thoroughly, with the tension of a perpetual chess match, but the body is not as fully integrated as in basketball. Football is so tied to militarism - in metaphor and in sponsorship, in the symbolism of conquest and the nearly-exclusive maleness of the game, that it can't enable utopic futures. Beautifully executed football plays reflect a different era, that of industrialism (where many football teams were located, near factories, like Green Bay). So an aesthetically pleasing football play is like watching a machine with many moving parts. And the action stops constantly. It has a jerky game rhythm. Baseball is a slow but predictable rhythm. Basketball, by contrast, explodes with intensity and, even though there are set plays, they are so often broken up that they become something more aspirational, more like a suggestion than a battle plan. One-on-one matchups constantly shift, too. It is all so kaleidoscopic - a term that I can't think of how to apply to baseball or football.
Steph in a screen shot I took in 2021, wearing a 1619 project hat.
Those who haven't lived with him in close proximity don't realize what a gem we have in Steph Curry. A man who respects his wife and her work, who loves his daughters, who made this Public Service Announcement about Black History Month, who wears a 1619 Project hat, who made this PSA about mentorship with then-President Obama, who shares commercials with Sue Bird and other WNBA stars. Yes, I know he's been a NIMBY about affordable housing in Atherton California where he lives. Perhaps he's been too silent when it comes to tolerating Draymond's excesses. But really, he's smart, he's kind, he takes joy in other people's accomplishments, he's a competitor who leaves it on the court, and he changed the game. He improvises like no one else, and democractized the game by making long shots that did not require a linebacker body type, but just practice and artistry.
Plays are rehearsed and planned - but they often break down. Improvisation - even group improvisation, like original New Orleans style jazz - have to play a part. As someone who got to watch the genius of Steph Curry as it developed and unfolded, I suggested that he deserves at least an honorary degree in physics for his innate understanding of angles and the flight of a ball from a body already in motion.
A final note on the dynamism of basketball. Recently we watched the Warriors hosting Denver (January 2024). Golden State led late, but Denver came storming back and won the game on a three-pointer from Nikola Jokíc. It was disappointing - devastating even - but it also demonstrated a key aspect of basketball's dynamism: the score is never final until the final buzzer. Anything above .3 of a second on the clock, and the score can change. The drama of the game never ceases. I have seen teams fritter away big leads in so-called "garbage time." It is not over until it is over.
Now, the W/NBA leagues are not perfect. There are problems with "load management," with playing to draw fouls, with the excruciating end-of-game free-throw-fests, with egos and rudeness. Athletes, as a group, are like musicians - their finely honed skill does not mould them into perfect human beings. That being said, the joy that basketball can bring at its best, the interweaving of mind and body, the sheer creativity, and the lasting personalities (especially at the W/NBA levels), make for a memorable immersive experience for a fan.
And if your experience of the W/NBA does not rhyme with mine, here is my wish for you - I hope that you live to see your team go through a magic cycle of great people, great players, and great coaches as I have enjoyed with Golden State over the past few years.
January 9, 2024