I grew up playing sports. Like many Bay Area kids, I played AYSO soccer (was horrible, by the way); I was on my middle school volleyball and soccer teams, though my friends and I would pursue our real passion - basketball - everyday. I played club tennis for five years (was decent, but again, not spectacular), and eventually in high school I’d wrestle for two years before realizing I was no good. This is all to say that I loved playing sports. But watching sports and playing sports were two very different things.
I was never very into sports as a fan. As a nerd / geek, it always felt a bit like betraying my fellow geeks if I ever ventured too far into the land of jocks. Nevertheless, I did slowly get into sports. It started in college when I dated a tennis player. Like most people, I wanted to understand and partake in the interests of my significant other, so I started to follow tennis more and more. Eventually, we’d both stay up at all odd hours of the night to catch Wimbledon or the Australian Open.
Once we stopped dating, I kept up with it briefly. It was an on again off again google search - who won what tournament, who was on top, etc etc. But this past year I wanted to understand the fanaticism that sports could bring. In particular, I received some advice that getting into basketball in the Silicon Valley, particularly given the Warriors’ rapid rise to super stardom, would not be a bad career move at all. It’s a way to connect with people and instantly bond - akin to the cliched scenes of everyone in Wall Street learning how to golf, or what have you.
I was rather curious, so I told myself I’d give it a fair shot.
Like most nerds, I immediately set up a Reddit multi with /r/NBA, /r/clevelandcavs, /r/warriors, and /r/sixers (my wife’s at UPenn after all!). More recently, I’ve added /r/lakers. I also followed the main commentary channels on YouTube from First Take to First Things First and to the more casual non-mainstream outlets like Rusty Buckets, MDJ, and many others.
Throughout this entire period, I hadn’t really watched more than one game a week excepting the playoffs, where the entire Twitter building would sit and watch nearly every match. Instead I’d follow up on every single YouTube video and reddit post. Over time I came to really enjoy my time following basketball. In particular, the following discussions were always the most fun for me.
1) Who is the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT)?
2) Who are the top 5 X (for any position)?
3) Who’s going to win this year / get to the finals this year / make the playoffs this year?
4) Who deserves the MVP this year / Defensive player of the year / Most improved ?
Generally in that order.
After about a month, it became really obvious that sports is, at its heart, reality television. And like any reality television - or just television show for that matter - what really matters is the storylines. All of the discussions I’d see in the media would surround storylines that would reference historic statistics to try and rank the greatest ten players of all time, or compare how one player was doing compared to historically great seasons, and so on and so forth. Almost none of these shows discussed the actual game of basketball or did any sort of analysis. And this generally bears itself out in the viewership and ratings as well. A channel like Hoops House, which does almost exclusve analysis of actual plays and situations, has a paltry 90k subs. Where as another channel like Dom2k which is mostly a narrative / discussion based channel (or, perhaps the worst example - Mike Korzemba) has hundreds of thousands of viewers.
The same thing was born out in the mainstream media. Nobody was discussing actual sets or plays any team ran or arguing with any nuance. In fact, I’ve seen much more nuance when it came to actual ficticious anime discussions about which Naruto character is the best / strongest / whatever (yes, I’m a geek - fully aware). Instead, what we have are paid mock personalities that just parrot the narratives and storylines that we want to hear. And that’s the best part about this reality tv show; even though we all saw the same game, multiple different narratives are being touted.
Every game, Skip Bayless will insist Lebron is the worst player in the world, and Shannon Sharpe gets to defend him. And both Lebron lovers and haters walk away feeling satisfied. Sports has become a choose your own adventure / story game, just like the media and politics and everything else.
The biggest factor that helped me to realize this was finally buying NBA 2k19. 2k has many different game modes, but by far the most popular is my career. In this, you play a single character (instead of controlling all 5 players on your team), and there’s an entire storyline about how your character works his way up from playing in China, to the G league, and eventually to the NBA. At its core, the game is just an RPG. You get to customize your position, your height, weight and wingspan, and your primary and secondary skillsets. The beginning was almost exactly like Skyrim, where you spend 90% of the time customizing your own character’s face (only to barely ever see it again, of course), and the prelude takes you through a pretty amazing storyline.
One of the core principles I’ve come to believe is that storytelling is a fundemental part of human nature. The context and situations are almost irrelevant; whether it’s Federer being the greatest tennis player of all time or whether Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback. These are just abstract. The concrete is the story behind it. Was there a superhuman comeback? A herculean effort? How can we relate?
Whether it’s politics, religion, sports, or video games - the common element we seek is an extraordinary result, and the person and effort behind it.