Editor's Note: After last Thursday's Warriors vs Magic contest, The Diss' e-mail list blew up with opinions about the Warriors' Hack-a-Shaq strategy. This article is the first of three originating from that discussion.
Sporting aesthetics exist in the absence of statistically measurable output, which is why soccer is a distinctly aesthetic sport and baseball is not. Basketball exists somewhere in between.
In America we prize winning above all else. After all, you play to win the game. But if that’s the case, why bother watching? Isn’t knowing who won sufficient?
But of course winning isn’t the only thing we pay attention to. We don’t only want to know who won, but how they won. How did it look or feel when they won? We notice the aesthetics of sport.
Among league offices that make up the rules, there seems to be a consensus that fans want to see more offense. In the last ten years we have seen bandbox stadiums built in baseball, breathing on quarterbacks penalized as unnecessary roughness and the elimination of perimeter hand checks. Scoring is the rising tide that lifts attendance and TV ratings. Jack McCallum wrote 07 Seconds or Less about a Phoenix team that never made it to the NBA Finals, and didn’t write about a Detroit team that won a title because his publisher thought “22 Seconds for Rip Hamilton to Curl Around Screens” wouldn't sell.
Like all other art forms, Europeans are far ahead of us in understanding aesthetics. Jose Mourinho’s 2009-10 Inter Milan side was derided for “parking the bus” against Barcelona in the Champion's League Semifinals. Never mind that these “negative tactics” beat the widely acknowledged best team of the last 10-20 years; what he did was an insult to the beautiful game.
I bring this up because, in a bizarre twist, Mark Jackson is basketball’s Jose Mourinho. Two nights ago he decided to employ the Hack-a-Shaq strategy on Dwight Howard. I am not interested in how this was a statistically losing strategy or how he broke Wilt Chamberlain's record for free throws attempted, but how it felt like to experience basketball this way. Did it seem like basketball, or did it evolve into something else around free throw 27? Was it a candidate for most boring game of the year (college ball notwithstanding) or a unique drama? Would you have experienced the game differently if the Warriors had won?
I love how a game of basketball develops a certain pace and rhythm, dictated mainly by the styles of the teams involved but also the referees, fans and arena. Watching the Warriors over the last few years, you only notice defense because of its absence, why is why I was so compelled by Thursday night’s game. For one of the first times I can remember, defense was the most powerful force in a Warriors game. I’ve been to 20 or 30 games at Oracle arena in the last few years, and I cannot even imagine what it felt like to watch Hack-a-Dwight in person.
It’s easy to forget that you belong to the same species as Dwight Howard, but after Thursday night’s game I feel like I can relate to him. All I could think about were his, distinctly human, feelings. Did it hurt for the Warriors to repeatedly pick on his weakness? Is he embarrassed that he is such a bad free throw shooter? Was he anxious every time the Warriors grabbed his arms? Is he a prideful man?
One of the things we like about sports is that they are a confined universe that we can pretend to fully understand. Unlike life, sports are played with a set of fully defined rules, arbitrated by referees to ensure fairness. We describe an entire year’s worth of effort with a couple of numbers. If we are lucky, we get to witness a unique moment or play, but most basketball games are like other basketball games. Thursday’s game was profoundly unique, and for that I thank Mark Jackson.