Amid all the fun of March Madness and the NBA’s fantastic fight to the finish for best in the West, let me take a timeout to be serious. Basketball is, after all, a game.
However, I’ve always loved the idea of basketball as a metaphor for life. There are many universal themes that play out on the court, perhaps none more indispensable than the value of teamwork. On the most fundamental of levels, basketball has the capacity to unify those who are otherwise somehow divided. Teams rise over individuals.
One classic example comes from the 2004 NBA Championship where a collection of relatively unknown talent by the name of the Detroit Pistons beat a Los Angeles Lakers team featuring four future Hall of Famers because the Pistons simply played better team basketball.
In basketball, one player matters enough to make a difference but not so much that he cannot depend upon his teammates. In that way, I think life does mirror basketball. Individuals absolutely matter and contribute to success, but ultimate, championship-caliber success occurs within the framework of the team. Only in this case, the team is your state, your country, humanity.
Another idea that populates basketball courts is equality. OK, so every basketball player is not created equal (I’m talking to you, growth spurt I never enjoyed). But every player is treated as an equal. White, black, short, tall, rich, poor, thin, fat – it doesn’t matter when you step onto the court. You may be judged as you approach the court wearing your old school Converse high tops, Stockton-esque short shorts and Worthy-quality Rec-Specs. But if you can ball? Well, then image, status and social upbringing are irrelevant.
Play out the metaphor with me now. If basketball is life, and you only need to be able to play basketball to be treated as an equal with respect and dignity, then it should follow that you only need to be able to live to be treated as an equal with respect and dignity in the real world.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The fact is that discrimination is a part of everyday life. Racism, sexism, and ageism exist. In varying degrees, but prejudices exist virtually everywhere.
Yet if you can ball, you’re accepted on the court whether you’re primarily a scorer, a passer, a rebounder, a defender or some combination of these traits.
So if you can live, why aren’t you accepted in society regardless of your particular skill set? Why would anyone not want that?
Two final points:
1. Over the course of the past two nights, ESPN aired “Black Magic,” a documentary directed by Dan Klores. The two night event tracked the progression of the civil rights movement through the eyes of black basketball players whose stories have gone largely untold up until now. Richard Sandomir of The New York Times reviews the documentary.
2. Barack Obama delivered a speech earlier today addressing the issue of race in America and in his candidacy for President. Obama played basketball in high school.
Jodi Kantor’s piece on Obama, published in June 2007, ties it all together:
“Now, Mr. Obama’s friends say, basketball has been his escape from the sport of politics, but also a purer version of it, with no decorous speeches, no careful consensus — just unrestrained competition.
‘He can be himself, it’s a safe haven, he can let his competitive juices flow and tease his buddies,’ Mr. Nesbitt said. ‘It’s just a relaxing respite from the every-moment and every-word scrutinization that he gets.’”
Basketball as a metaphor for life? Watching how the struggles in basketball mirrored the life struggles of the main characters in “Black Magic” suggests that’s not too much of a stretch.
Basketball as a purer version of politics? Coming from a basketball-playing Presidential candidate, it makes sense.
A metaphor for life and a purer version of politics: That’s a lot of pressure to put on a little game that Dr. James A. Naismath created just to give his phys-ed students something to play between football and baseball seasons. But it’s not too much to ask. And neither is change, which is a final component of the basketball as life metaphor.
Just as the game has changed and improved in time – the shot clock, 3-point shot and lack of a peach basket come to mind – so too can we as people change for the better. It’s not always easy to step out onto the court. Basketball is not an easy game. But it’s a game worth playing. So play. Live. Vote. Change.