The Ballad of ‘Ojos Locos’ and the story we get to tell
Marc Gasol had a crazy look in his eye.
In the opening minutes of his Memphis Grizzlies’ home opener, the Spanish behemoth saw his team trailing by 17 points to a bunch of kids. Andrew Wiggins was dunking and drawing fouls. Zach LaVine and Karl-Anthony Towns were hitting jumpers. These Timberwolves — the ones whose preseason hype Gasol couldn’t have avoided reading about if he tried — were up 20-3 on his home floor; home of the Grit ‘N Grind.
For a player in Gasol’s class — All-NBA, NBA Defensive Player of the Year, emotional leader of a perennial deep-playoff contender — that this start to a game and season was unacceptable went without saying. He didn’t even seem as much frustrated as he seemed fired up, like a bully on the playground who just took a sucker-punch and welcomed the opportunity to brawl.
Over the next 1:17 of action, Gasol scored 5 points and assisted a Mike Conley three-pointer, trimming the 17-point deficit to 9, and setting the game on a competitive track. The Grizzlies ultimately won by 4 points. Down the stretch, their execution was sharp, like a team that had played in the conference finals in recent years. By contrast, the Timberwolves looked more rattled, like a group learning its way.
I bring this game up not to recap it — Zach Harper already did that yesterday — but because I think it captured the two different ways that NBA basketball games should be enjoyed.
The first way is narrative. What was the story of this game? Narrative interpretation of NBA games is traditional and often criticized by bloggers. It emphasizes select plays and moments, especially those that happen in the final minutes of the game. A buzzer-beater shot carries disproportionate weight in the eyes of fans compared to, say, collecting a dozen rebounds or playing 36 minutes of great defense.
But even if it’s (sometimes) misleading, narrative is a vital part of fandom.
First and most important, without stories the NBA is a bunch of millionaire strangers running around throwing an inflated sphere through an elevated ring. By itself, that isn’t very interesting. There needs to be added meaning, and that meaning comes from narrative. Teams, history, player personalities and reputations, and the drama that unfolds throughout the course of each game.
Second, it isn’t practical or even possible to remember and discuss everything that happens in a game that spans about 100 possessions and 48 game minutes. In order to derive any lasting meaning from what we just spent two or three hours watching, we need to condense and simplify. Right or wrong, that means explaining the result of the game by a handful of moments instead of every single one of them.
Third, the story of the game sometimes actually does explain the result better than a detailed autopsy of every single possession. In the Wolves season opener, Gasol and the prideful Grizzlies absolutely took the opening minutes as a “first punch,” and cause to buckle down and get serious. Watching the game as a Wolves fan, I obviously enjoyed the 20-to-3 run to open the game. But the anxious side of me was pretty sure — not certain, but pretty sure — that it would not be a start-to-finish blowout. The Memphis response to that opening Minnesota punch, along with their sharp, seasoned execution during Winning Time, was the story of the game and it was a story that made sense. That the Grizzlies had veteran experience and savvy, and that they kept their poise better than the young Timberwolves did is not an unfair characterization of why they ultimately prevailed.
Narrative is key. A hot take is better than no take at all.
The second way to enjoy games is to focus on everything that happens. For some reason this seems by definition “dorky” in the context of the NBA. I’m not sure exactly why that is, but it might just be rooted in the history of the game’s media coverage and fan experience. The stats and analytics component also cannot be ignored. “The NBA is a fourth-quarter game,” is a mantra repeated so many times that it’s assumed to be true by people who don’t know any better. Compare this to the NFL where the idea of sitting down and paying attention to everything that happens is pretty much the norm.
There are some practical reasons why NBA games are generally viewed more casually than football or other sports. The game is fluid and provides few breaks to come up for air. It is more difficult to carry conversations while paying close attention to basketball than many other sports. Also, there are 82 NBA regular season games compared to just 16 in the NFL. That is simply too much time to lock into sports action for most people with other interests.
But if time constraints are an issue, watching 20 entire games closely would be a far more enriching fan experience than watching 80 fourth quarters. Writing this to A Wolf Among Wolves readers is probably preaching to the choir, but there is so much more to a game’s result than the closing minutes of action and a skim of the box score. Informed fans of the modern NBA are aware of per-possession stats that better measure basketball performance than the traditional ones. The concepts carry right over into fandom: paying attention to everything — once you try it — is more fun than paying attention to the summary.
For me, this realization set in from two experiences:
Watching the playoffs with interest and reading blogs.
Obviously, playoff games are important and intense. When your favorite team’s entire season is on the line, you find yourself more easily engaged from the opening tip through the final buzzer. A big second-quarter run by the bench feels like a key to the win. Maybe the opponent committed too many early-in-the-quarter fouls, sending your team into the bonus for tons of free throws. Maybe that rookie wing who can’t help but gamble for steals actually stayed in his lane tonight and played decent defense. After the game, relieved that your NBA-fan season lives to see another day, you’ll find yourself remembering things far outside of the traditional, crunchtime-centric narrative. And after you’ve gone through that emotional playoffs roller coaster, you might just want to do that more often in the regular season.
Reading blogs (especially this one!) and participating in social media is another great way to enjoy entire basketball games. My first real experience with internet basketball writing was Britt Robson’s column (at various outlets, now MinnPost). Not only did (still does) Britt write intelligently about all facets and segments of a Timberwolves game, but he interacted with his readers brave enough to chime in with a counterpoint in his comments section. Those conversations pressured me to pay closer attention to game action so I knew what I was talking about the next time I had an opinion to share. Some writers and sites are more engaging on Twitter, and others are more comment-sections driven. But there are plenty of avenues to discuss the NBA intelligently, both during and after games.
Bringing this back to Wolves-Grizzlies, there was a lot to like about that game outside of the end result and dominant narrative. Wiggins lived at the free throw line. Kris Dunn, in his first game as a professional, made some nice plays. Towns struggled enough with his shot in the middle of the game that you kinda/sorta came away thinking, “If KAT turns in his usual performance, the Wolves win at Memphis, even though Conley, Gasol, and Z-Bo all played well.” That context is richer and more enjoyable than, “Same old TWolves.” This isn’t to downplay winning as much as it is to remember that the players are the only ones actually competing. Fandom is something different.
Anyway those are your existential fandom thoughts on this Friday without a Wolves game. They are back in action tomorrow night at Sacramento.
If you’re not already watching games start to finish, I encourage you to give it a try.