November 5, 2010

The Dawn of Basketball/Culture

Post - WWII, baseball is the most literary of our national sporting pastimes, starting with the sunny optimism of our boys, freshly home from victory in the killing fields of Europe and the Asian Pacific, running around on manicured "diamonds" in celebration of hard-won leisure, morphing into "America's pastime" mainstreamed and immortalized by the radio (and later TV) voices such as Vin Scully and Ernie Harwell, on into the everyman social reflection of the sixties and seventies, up through the fall from its pastoral garden of eden (via the forbidden fruit of steroids) in the 90's and aughts.  Baseball generated the most soulful (if not the best) movies, from The Pride of the Yankees to Bang the Drum Slowly to Bull Durham; some of the most interesting memoirs (Ball Four in particular); and generally maintained the most folkloric position of all American sports . . . even from an outsider's perspective, like the story of Doc Ellis's LSD no-hitter.

My beloved Fire Joe Morgan (I eulogized it here) most acutely documented the downfall of baseball or, more accurately, the downfall of baseball culture.  Sports in general is a refuge for brain death, and (as FJM documented) nowhere is that more apparent than in the mainstream baseball press or, as the FJM guys argued, even into baseball management itself.  At center stage these days is baseball culture's baffling rejection "moneyball", or analytically based analysis of the sport and its players, as something inhuman and counter intuitive.  The best we can hope for now is Ken Burn's sepia-toned homage to baseball as folkloric cliche . . . perhaps not the worst thing in the world given the subject, but should it be the best?

Basketball is now emerging as the new flagship of sports/culture, driven primarily by the blogosphere: writing about basketball seems to be more interesting and of a higher caliber than writing about any other sport.  Fearlessly combining sabermetric statistical analysis (originally championed in baseball by pioneer Bill James) with the current pop culture savvy of the hip hop and Pitchfork generations, even the average basketball blogs (such as 8 Points, 9 Seconds, my favorite Indiana Pacers blog*) set a high standard for sports writing.

The current pinnacle of basketball writing is Free Darko, a blog that analyzes basketball and culture through its own idiosyncratic lens.  Rather than decry the cult of personality, Free Darko embraces it, analyzes it, and uses it to map basketball onto culture (and culture onto basketball).

I plan to do some writing of my own on basketball, most likely after the holidays.  In the meantime, bookmark Free Darko, and check ESPN's True Hoop for good mainstream writing as well as plenty of links to other hoop blogs.  And, by all means, check out the "Free Darko presents" books:  I have a copy of The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, and I will be picking up a copy of The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History very soon.
*  The titles themselves are usually interesting sports/culture ciphers, opaque to outsiders but immediately identifiable to the fans.  The title 8 Points, 9 Seconds refers to one of the most identifiable "great moments" for the Pacers, when Reggie Miller scored 8 points in 9 seconds to steal a 1995 playoff game against the Knicks.

No comments: