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Basketball: The 'Ultimate Contradiction'

In basketball, as in life, we may dutifully celebrate the aggregate, but we'™re always spellbound by the exceptional.
In basketball, as in life, we may dutifully celebrate the aggregate, but we'™re always spellbound by the exceptional.

Basketball offers its fans the ultimate contradiction. On the one hand, it's the sport that most depends on its stars. On the other, it's the most intimate — even organic — of all the team games, with its players more fundamentally involved with one another. Both of these opposing realities are rooted in the same base.

After all, basketball has the fewest players — five — and usually only a couple more substitutes play substantial amounts of time. Short or tall or whatever position, basketball players all must handle the ball, play both offense and defense, work together. Switch is the revealing basketball word. At least for a while, you must become me, and me you.

By contrast, football teams are a sum of many completely alien specialties; baseball hitters and pitchers are different creatures. Hockey and soccer both have goalies altogether separate from their teammates, and they're likewise divided by field geography or wholesale substitutions.

Ah, but a basketball team is a nest.

Yet precisely because there are so few players, and they're close to the spectators, skimpily attired, unmasked, uncapped, basketball players are so visible. It's easier to connect with them. More hoop heroes are known just by their first names, like the regulars in the tabloids.

This is as true now with Kobe and Melo, as it was with Wilt and Elg way back then. Fans pay to go see the stars and are disappointed when they don't perform spectacularly.

But then, inevitably, the same hoop cognoscenti rhapsodize about how it is really the intricately integrated team play that we true basketball fans come to see. It is a harmless deceit, but a universal hoop hypocrisy.

Never, perhaps, has this conflict been so evident than now, in the NBA finals, where the sainted brotherhood of basketball purity, otherwise known as the San Antonio Spurs, are playing the LeBron Heat.

The Spurs, of course, also possess a wonderful player, but he is the rare spotlight-aversive star, who is simply known as Tim Duncan — which is, in fact, his square name.

With Tim Duncan, little out-of-the-way San Antonio has won four championships, so everybody effusively praises the Spurs' legendary teamwork while simultaneously criticizing shallow fans — not me, of course — but all those other philistines, who are blinded by individual showoffs.

Whoever shall win the championship this year, the paradox in the sport will never subside. It is a game of wonderfully fluid interaction among a handful of players — no sport has ever been celebrated better than by its signature phrase: give and go — but in basketball, as in life, we may dutifully celebrate the aggregate, but we're always spellbound by the exceptional. We swear by the Spurs; we are mesmerized by LeBron.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Deford died on Sunday, May 28, at his home in Florida. Remembrances of Frank's life and work can be found in All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and on NPR.org.
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