"This is Not Basketball" (July, 1959)
On the Harlem Globetrotters, Russia, trickery, and just what the hell it is we're watching when we watch sports in 2020
Welcome to Throwbacks, a weekly-ish newsletter by Michael Weinreb about sports history, culture and politics. If you like what you’re reading, please subscribe and share.
I. Too Full of Tricks
In the summer of 1959, the Harlem Globetrotters played a basketball game in Russia. It did not go well, at least at the start. For the first half, the crowd, flummoxed by this showy merger of competition and show business, sat and watched in stony silence. They loosened up in the second half, and the trip became an odd mini-success, highlighted by a drinking contest between Wilt Chamberlain and a handful of Russian men, as documented in this ESPN 30 for 30 short…
…but the performance did not exactly receive glowing reviews. “This is not basketball,” wrote a Pravda reporter. “It is too full of tricks.”
That Pravda article is an astounding journalistic artifact. I recommend you read its condemnation of America’s inherent penchant for deception and chicanery in full, especially given the rampant stupidity of our nation’s current moment; I feel like Adam McKay could base an entire television series on that article. But I bring it up now, amid this vexing quarantine summer in America, because I am having trouble figuring out how to process the sports I’m watching on television. Is it real, or is it just an ongoing attempt to distract us from our own gloomy reality?
And when it comes to sports, what in the hell does real even mean?
II. The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh
There are now two ways to view sports in the summer of 2020: The first is that sports are sports, and it doesn’t matter how they look or how they feel or what context they take on or how they wedge themselves in to some larger narrative. The idea is that we enjoy humans competing at a high level, and that nothing else really matters beyond the consumption of that competition. Such was the point made by New York Magazine’s Will Leitch this week, in asserting that perhaps the meaninglessness of sports in the moment—games entirely without context, as if each one is an episode of Law and Order that’s completely distinct from the other—have allowed us to disconnect from the seriousness that typically attends them.
Suddenly, every argument we’ve ever had about sports seems ridiculously petty and pointless; I don’t really watch the sports argument shows on television, but I imagine they seem even dumber than they already did. The notion that these games were ever anything more than games has now been exposed as its own kind of trickery. Sports were always a show, and in that way, maybe the Globetrotters were always the most honest portrayal of the American obsession with sports that we have ever known.
I get that notion. I understand that notion. But I do not subscribe to that notion. Perhaps because I’ve never much been interested in consuming sports in that fashion.
Don’t get me wrong: I went to see the Harlem Globetrotters as a child, and I found them wildly entertaining. They are also an undeniably important and groundbreaking element of the American experience. But watching the Globetrotters is not like watching sports; the Globetrotters are a brilliant showbiz act who happen to center that act around basketball. We know they are not real.
Here is the thing: When I tune into a game—any game—I want to feel something real about it. I want to understand who it is and what it is I’m consuming and what’s at stake. I want to know who the favorite is, and who the underdog is, and who the stars are, and whether the coaches despise each other, and whether this is an actual rivalry or a manufactured rivalry. I want there to be at least a pretense of meaning. I want to feel like it comports with some larger narrative about the human experience, and in turn, it can then become a metaphor for some other feeling I tend to have in normal times as a normal human being. How many times have I been watching an otherwise inessential game on a Tuesday evening, and suddenly found myself with a knot in my stomach, even as I acknowledge I have absolutely no legitimate stake in this contest at all?
That’s when sports become real to me. But when I watch these games now, I don’t really feel anything.
And this brings me to the second way to view sports in the summer of 2020: As pure, meaningless showmanship that’s attempting to trick us into believing it’s an actual competition.
This is what many of the games both in Major League Baseball in the NBA Bubble feel like in the moment: They’re the equivalent of a first-round NCAA tournament game played in Albuquerque between Syracuse and Richmond, except many of them are entirely devoid of any larger sense of meaning that a neutral-site NCAA tournament game, in the context of a larger single-elimination bracket, might have. The artificial fans and the lack of noise remove any context; the political messages on the back of the players’ jerseys and the Black Lives Matter message on the court remind us that none of this truly means anything. Even when it means something, it just doesn’t feel authentic: I watched the Blazers defeat the Rockets in their ongoing quest to slip into the playoffs this week and found myself trying to embrace the sugar rush I’d normally get in a situation like this. It didn’t really work.
This week, the Milwaukee Bucks played the Brooklyn Nets. The Bucks had already clinched a Number One seed in the playoffs and the Nets are essentially playing with a depleted roster that feels like its straight out of The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. In that game, the Bucks and Nets combined to shoot 108 3-pointers; the Nets, nearly a 19-point underdog, wound up winning. It was ridiculous. It was absurd. I guess it was real, but it didn’t feel real.
Those kinds of things happen in normal times, of course, but when they happen now, they just serve to divide us into two camps: Either you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and accept that this is basketball, or you find it too full of tricks to ever take seriously.
I also spoke to Frederick Mensch of the website MovieBytes about my (extremely fledgling) adventures in the screenwriting trade. I assume, like Barton Fink, that the best case scenario is I will wind up in a bleak hotel room writing wrestling pictures.
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