To the uninitiated, it can sound strange to hear people talk about basketball this way.
“It’s been really interesting to watch the intellectual journey the Portland Trail Blazers have taken,” ESPN writer Kevin Arnovitz said on an episode last season of the basketball podcast The Lowe Post, describing the team’s long-term strategy in a lower-revenue city.
While it may seem that Arnovitz is analyzing basketball the way critics describe a great artist or a deep thinker, Arnovitz’s remark is actually standard fare for a cadre of basketball analysis. For many NBA fans, myself included, the advent of robust statistical analysis in sports, podcasts, the internet and Twitter has meant that following basketball these days means submerging oneself in an ideal world of analysis. Of course we’re talking about basketball here — any healthy fan understands that the stakes are low. But these low stakes actually make following basketball great. For many, being a basketball fan means voluntarily suspending one’s disbelief and diving into an ideal and exciting universe in which the objective is purely to understand basketball. This project of knowing is at once safe (basketball is ultimately just a game) and it is incredibly rich. To really know basketball, one has to acknowledge that there is no one way of knowing basketball. Understanding basketball means taking into account statistics, intuition, personalities, strategy, luck, physical gracefulness and swag.
Contrast this unadulterated world of understanding with the real world in which analysis is high stakes, there is an infinite amount of material available for examination and anti-intellectualism abounds. It is easy to see why one would want to tune out the broader world and spend one’s commute immersed in an analysis by the former lawyers Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux, who draw regularly on regression analysis and break down the nuances of NBA personnel decisions.
In this parallel universe of basketball analysis it’s not uncommon for people like Bill Simmons to talk about “what we’ve learned.” In this revealing turn of phrase, it is significant that Simmons wants to learn about basketball. It’s also illuminating that Simmons refers to a “we.” This is because the world of basketball hermeneutics (or interpretation) exists in a veritable public sphere. In large part thanks to Twitter, one enters the world of analytical basketball fandom with the understanding that the best analysis will prevail (admittedly this public sphere may be somewhat of an illusion since some analysts have larger platforms than others).
Still, in the parlance of political philosophy, the openness of basketball analysis creates what Jurgen Habermas calls a “a public sphere.” In Habermas’s public sphere people “disregard status altogether” in order to come together to “engage in rational-critical debate.” Both historically and currently, an ideal public sphere has never existed in the political world; I can’t think of a situation in which all citizens can put to the side his or her political status and engage in a debate about politics governed by pure reason. But thanks to Basketball Twitter and podcasts, NBA fandom offers a glimpse of what could be.
Of course analytical basketball fans enjoy the sport for more conventional reasons, too — aside from the most heady fans, people who follow basketball still care about whether their team wins. The same people who dabble in the world of high-brow NBA analysis also care about the sport in a stereotypical talk radio fashion.
And basketball remains very much about the players. One of the virtues of basketball is that since there are only ten players on the court at the same time, individual exploits matter an incredible amount. But this dynamic — in which one player can take over a game or series — actually enriches the quest for a totalizing understanding of the game. Understanding basketball isn’t only about dry math; one must take into account the players’ heroics (and their capacity to choke).
In fact the significance of individual players makes the process of understanding basketball more dynamic. Think of LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Steph Curry as giant paradigm smashers. Through their ferocious heroics, they defy the squirly math geniuses.
Understanding basketball also means understanding art — there is little that is more poetic than watching Steph Curry put a defender back on his heels with a dribbling foray — and understanding basketball also means understanding drama. After the defender stumbles, the crowd holds its breath to see whether Curry’s shot will go in.
Put it all together and analytical NBA fandom offers an escapism that is rich and immersive. Of course this is a universe that should be entered in moderation, but these days a little escapism is certainly warranted. Bring on the 2017-2018 NBA season.