Basketball, a Fantasy Land

This is the fourth in a series of weekly articles designed to introduce readers to sports which may be unfamiliar to them.








SPECIAL TO THE MOSCOW TIMES


I am an aging, stumpy, overweight journalist with a sedentary lifestyle and high blood pressure.


My opponent, Vasya, is a strapping, long-armed stud brimming with the vim of young adulthood, driven by the single-minded desire to stuff the ball I'm cradling down my throat.


In strictly physical terms, this is no contest.


But strictly physical terms do not include my "Wiggle Rump Fake." Huffing and puffing, I drive to the left, nearly tripping as I spin to the right; Vasya is there with me, a confident grin taking shape on his youthful features as he realizes he can effortlessly shadow my every move.


Then, suddenly, incongruously, in defiance of all laws of nature, I come to a full stop -- except for my ample rear, which twitches rapidly twice, leaving the unavoidable impression that I am about to jump.


Taken in by the decoy, Vasya proceeds to leap halfway to Mars in a graceful but fatally misguided effort to prevent my shot. While he's still on his way up, already light years away from the play, I switch the ball to my left hand and nonchalantly flip it into the basket for two points.


In your face, Vasya!


Basketball.


It is still largely the simple game that was invented when Dr. James Naismith nailed two peach baskets to a gymnasium balcony at a Springfield, Massachusetts, school in 1891.


Naismith needed an indoor activity for the cold winter months, a game that many could play, but required less space and as little equipment as soccer.


By hanging the baskets high off the ground, he sought to promote finesse and agility over size and strength. The concept was, and remains, simple -- manuever the ball to a position from which it is possible to throw it into the basket. The only limitations, beyond the playing surface's rectangular boundaries, are the means of moving the ball -- it must be bounced or passed, never carried -- and the extent to which a defender can inhibit an offensive player -- as in soccer, he cannot use bodily contact.


In 104 years, the game has grown to revolve around players with a variety of skills: dribbling -- moving while bouncing the ball -- passing, shooting, defending and rebounding missed shots. There are five traditional positions: two smaller, more agile guards; two stronger, taller forwards and a center who is the human equivalent of a skyscraper -- but the standard professional team is increasingly staffed by five all-purpose players.


If, as a colleague has written in these pages, soccer with its ups and downs and flurries and lulls is a metaphor for life, then basketball is a fantasy world where no deficit is insurmountable, no team is unconquerable, no challenge is unrealistic.


Not only can I occasionally conquer Vasya on the hardscrabble outdoor court near Belorussky Station (although usually he whups my butt), but the unheralded, undersized Villanova Wildcats upset the heavily favored Georgetown Hoyas in the 1985 U.S. college championships. In the second half, the Wildcats missed only one shot. Fantasy.


The seemingly overmatched Brazilian team, led by a guy named Oscar, somehow outdueled the American juggernaut in the 1987 world championships and became national heroes. When the unheralded U.S. soccer team nearly played eventual champion Brazil to a tie in the 1994 World Cup, everybody acted as if the Americans had tried to do something wrong. "Those things don't happen in real life," the purists said. "They only happen in fantasy."


If the essence of sport is emotion and competitive spirit, then no game has a purer mixture than basketball. Where else could a player engage in a verbal dispute with a critically acclaimed filmmaker while single-handedly devastating the opponent? A madman's dream, you say. But that is just what Reggie Miller, a guard for the Indianapolis Pacers, did during his team's 1994 playoff series with the New York Knicks, carrying on a vicious diatribe with "Malcolm X" director and New York fan/front-row fixture Spike Lee while Miller's long-distance volleys rained down over the helpless Knick defenders.


And the action is nonstop. The main complaint I hear about my favorite sport from my soccer-bred brethren is that there is too much scoring. True, an average NBA game may have a final score of 120-118. But don't forget they are counting by twos. Sixty positive results in 48 minutes of play for each team. Plenty of action.


Truth be told, there are plenty of reasons for a nonfan to utterly despise basketball, and many of them are related to the National Basketball Association, the premier U.S. professional league. For all the appeal of a soaring Michael Jordan drive to the hoop, or an impossible behind-the-back pass by a Magic Johnson, or a crunching power-dunk by a Shaquille O'Neal, the NBA has alienated some with its brash, trash-talking, swaggering image.


Nowhere was this more palpable than during the last summer Olympics, when the U.S. Dream Team collection of NBA stars, despite obvious prowess, turned off a number of fans with an attitude that, as one Italian friend put it, "smacked of ugly American imperialism at its worst."


I asked Vasya what he thought of all that. And do you know what he said?


In their face, David!


(Next: Robin Lodge on cricket.)