Why do people like basketball?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do people like basketball?


Dear Henry,

Basketball is a wonderful mixture of finesse and strength, style and substance, offense, offense, offense, and defense. People like basketball for so many different reasons. Here is a list of my top reasons for why people like basketball.

  • Grace and power in the air — No athletes in any sport fly with the power and grace of basketball players. Oh, sure, you could pull out ski jumping to argue with me if you wanted, but in a pure, unassisted way, basketball players fly like no one else. They jump and hang in the air in a way that seems totally inhuman and impossible to people like you and me. A powerful slam dunk jolts the viewer out of her chair with its power and audacity. Watched in slow motion, you can appreciate the incredible control basketball players have over their bodies. They’re able to twist and turn, to aim, adjust, and re-aim in mid-air. Basketball players leap with the beauty of a ballet dancer and the strength of a lion springing at its prey.
  • Personalities abound – Basketball players are the most personally accessible of all the major sports. On most teams, there are six or seven players who play most of the game. Wearing nothing more than sneakers, shorts, and a tank-top, it’s easy to see them sweat and grimace and scream and celebrate and try. Compare that with football players who are obscured by full helmets and a league that seems determined to dehumanize them or baseball with its culture that punishes emotional expression on the field or hockey where players play for 45 seconds only to be replaced by another swarming over the bench. When you watch basketball, you really get to know the players you’re watching.
  • Never more than one player away from contending – Another function of basketball’s smaller number of players on the court, is that a single player can make an enormous difference to a team’s fortunes. Even the worst teams are never more than one player away from being legitimately good. This means the fire of hope in a basketball fan’s heart may be banked for a season or two or three but it’s always ready to come back, burning stronger than ever.
  • Teamwork has its say – Basketball is dominated by super-star players with strong personalities and even stronger play. You almost never see a championship won in college or the NBA without one truly great player on the winning team. At the same time, even the greatest players can’t do it without being a part of a cohesive team. Basketball punishes teams who rely too heavily on the personal greatness of one player and rewards teams that play as a unit, moving the ball around the court until they find an open shot or a mismatch in size or skill to exploit.
  • Basketball is pop culture – More than any other sport, basketball is tied thoroughly into pop culture. From the Notorious B.I.G. rapping about having an affair with the girlfriend of a New York Knick, to Jay-Z using basketball players’ numbers as code words for the going price of wholesale drugs, to Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s wonderful cameos in Airplane, to the gobs of celebrities that sit court side at NBA games, basketball is pop culture and pop culture is basketball. There’s a particular parallel that fans love to draw between basketball and black music. It’s easy to see the improvisation of jazz and the brashness of hip-hop in basketball play.
  • Trading, drafting, and signing intrigue – If teams are only ever one player away, then player movement becomes a fascinating topic for fans to obsess over. We’ve all lived through and enjoyed (to some extent) the where-is-LeBron-going intrigue over the bast several years. LeBron is an extreme example, but every team has its dramas every year. Will this player re-sign with the team? Who will they draft? Will the draft pick be as good as hoped? One wrinkle that the NBA has as a league, which makes player movement even more fascinating to obsess over, is a salary cap structure which leads teams to make all sorts of trades for financial reasons in addition or instead of basketball reasons.
  • March Madness is awesome – March Madness, the annual college basketball championship tournament, is many people’s favorite sporting event of the year. It’s hard for anything to match its first few days when 64 teams play each other in single elimination games. If you’re a college basketball fan, you start figuring out how to wrangle watching those day-time games weeks in advance. March Madness is so great, we wrote a post just about it.
  • Players can be good in a variety of ways – Basketball is a versatile sport. There are so many different ways to be great in basketball. If you’re small (relatively) you can become a great passer like or you can throw yourself recklessly at the bigger players or you can be a great shooter. If you’re medium-sized, you can dominate with athletic dunks or shut-down defense or by facilitating other people’s play. If you’re a giant among giants, you still have options. You can develop great moves close to the basket, scoring in a variety of ways, or you might have an excellent outside shot, or you can specialize in the grittier aspects of play, setting picks and getting rebounds. There’s so many ways to be a great basketball player and they’re all represented by players in college and the NBA.
  • A supported women’s league – The NBA is one of the more enlightened leagues when it comes to many social issues, including the support of women’s sport. The WNBA is owned and operated (and subsidized) by the NBA. I know it’s not required by Title IX because professional leagues don’t take federal money but I think every men’s professional league should do what the NBA has done to support women in the same sport.

Those are my top reasons. What are yours?

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

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