The Pumped Fist

Michael Sokolove, The New York Times Magazine’s apparent writer-on-sports, has a story today on the decline of U.S. hoops, or at least the overall quality of play in the National Basketball Association. The villain in the piece is the slam dunk, which he finds emblematic of the selfish, highlight-reel style of so many NBA players, stars and would-be stars alike. He also indicts the dunk and selfish play as a symptom of something deeper: the decline in basic individual and team skills among today’s players. His prescription for a quick fix: Ban the dunk. His fallback, realizing the league will never ban the dunk: Ban the dunk in college and high school, and maybe do something to stop kids from jumping directly to the pros from high school.

His argument is interesting as far as it goes. He points out that scoring is down and free-throw shooting is bad. The U.S. squad’s losses in the Olympics show the selfish American style’s vulnerability to sides well-versed in team skills. Can’t deny any of that, but I think Sokolove skips over another development that has led the pro game to where it is:

the sanctioning of rugby-style play on both ends of the floor. Basketball could always be rough — the Jerry Sloan-Norm Van Lier Bulls come to mind, and the Detroit Pistons of the late ’80s — but what makes those teams stand out was that their defensive approach was exceptional as well as effective. Now it seems like every team defends the basket and attacks it like they were trained for the job in the National Football League. Those tactics keep scores down, too, and they may have helped encourage the offensive philosophy of going for the sure score by slamming the ball through the hoop or, as the chief alternative, going for three-pointers from areas of the floor that are less fiercely defended.

You also have to wonder whether the selfish, “look at me!” kind of play that typifies not just high-level hoops but college and pro football and baseball, too, is really just a mirror of the kind of society we are: Just as for Donald Trump it’s proven more valuable to play the part of a hard-nosed successful business mogul than to actually be one, you’re only really somebody in what you do in a series brief triumphs. Sack the quarterback. Make a big sale. Cut someone off on the highway in your Hummer. Something, anything to pump our fists about.

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