In the final minute of last night's Nuggets win over the visiting Thunder, Rocky the Mountain Lion was trying, again, to drain a half-court shot while facing the opposite hoop. He'd been doing it for two full time-outs and hit rim twice. A stunt, like everything else he does, except he couldn't bring himself to stop once the horn blew and the cheerleaders pranced back to the ends of the court. The ref had told him he could only do one more and the crowd, bemused, cheered him as he planted his feet and tapped his fingers against the ball. But as he lowered, ready to give it one more shot, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook grabbed the ball out of his fuzzy hands as he was walking by and handed it to the ref. This was, after all, a five-point game between division rivals. But the implication here is that Rocky was impeding serious man work. That work was, ummm, tossing a ball at a net.
When you watch the NBA on TV, you get a very carefully tailored product. This is, after all, a game, a modern-day circus show where everyone can come and watch biological freaks perform acts of strength and agility. They will play until they stop being superhuman and then we forget about them. When you think of it like that, Rocky and the Kiss Cam and the halftime show are all parts of the show, and important ones at that.
You don't get that on TV. Partly, of course, it's the presentation -- with the exception of a perfunctory crowd shot or a zoom on a cheerleader's abs as they cut to commercial, what you see is confined to the actual sport. Then they cut to the post-game show and they rehash the game and then different people do it again later on SportsCenter. Last night was 80's night at the Pepsi Center; Rocky did a Michael Jackson dance montage that involved multiple pairs of tearaway pants. There is nothing about that anywhere. Not that it's a huge breaking news story or anything, but there is endless commentary about the game in every medium imaginable. And, society's subjective reality aside, this game was not infinitely more important than Rocky's pants.
In the professional sports as circus analogy, it is certainly true that the actual games are the star attraction, the flame-swallowing tight rope act, and the mascot, fan games, etc. are the juggling clown undercard. But that only works if the main attraction is actually trying to appeal to the crowd. NBA players are not stupid -- they know where the money is. So they mug for each other and the cameras and mostly ignore the crowd. Highlight reel dunks are awesome live, but not as awesome as a complete-game sustained effort. It may sound cheesy, but it's just better entertainment if all ten guys on the floor are doing whatever it takes to win rather than waiting for their scene in this recorded drama.
Granted, this is particularly a problem with the current Nuggets team. Its star player has made it very clear he's gone and he knows the fans have already started to treat him like he's gone. So Carmelo is particularly unresponsive to the audience in the building with him. And half the rest of the team knows they could be used as accounting chips in a massive deal. You can understand if they aren't exactly feeling like putting the team ahead of themselves.
As the TV product gets better, it makes less and less sense to actually go to a game. You say you want to see these guys up close? You're much better off with a flat screen and an HD feed than even really good seats. So it becomes the Pepsi Center's job to figure out a reason to make people come to the games. The bulk of it is done for them -- the act of attending professional sports is a hallowed tradition in American society. But that will only get people in the building a certain number of times and in a certain quantity. For the rest, you need the trappings, the mascots, the theme nights, the cheerleaders. Last night's game was a very good one -- close, a come-from-behind victory for the home team against a contender. But I'm telling you: The couple who were ready for the kiss cam and she stood up and he planted one on the back pocket of her jeans got as loud a cheer as anything that happened on the court.
Last night's halftime show was a performance by Kurtis Blow. This was bittersweet for me, a diehard music fan, because Kurtis Blow is a fucking legend. He was the first rapper to put out proper records, the first one with a gold single ("The Breaks"). And there he was on nostalgia night, with one son as DJ and the other as hype man, performing to the backs of people filing out to take a piss, asking the crowd who their favorite basketball team is and somehow managing to not crack a hip break dancing.
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I understand how this works to undermine my point -- if this guy can't get people excited then that's the ultimate proof that all that matters is the game anyway. But what it really says is something about the self-perpetuating mythology of sports. What Kurtis Blow probably should have done was accepted a court side seat to 80's night and had them show him on the jumbotron during time-outs with a PA introduction. That would have fit into the choreography of the game. Instead, he was given center stage at the exact moment when the choreography says everyone should go stand in line for hot dogs. When novelty was presented to the crowd while we were already attentive, we found ourselves as entertained as by the game.
Amid the never-ending proselytization on the self-evident importance of sports, lets not forget that, in the grand scheme of things, there's no difference between Russell Westbrook shooting a basket and Rocky the Mountain Lion shooting a basket.