With the NBA season on hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic, there are a lot of uncomfortable questions on the table.
Many of them are logistical — whether it will be possible to resume the season, under what conditions doing so would be responsible and how this might impact future seasons. Those issues are small ones, of course, compared to worldwide concerns outside of sports.
Within sports, we're facing some questions that don't have tangible answers. One of the big ones is simple: What does basketball mean to us?
A week ago, it probably would have seemed like an obvious, pointless question. It’s a distraction, sure, but far from the only one — watching every episode of The Simpsons or reading Crime and Punishment or learning how to play guitar are other good ones.
The memories are still there, and many of us can draw upon them easily. I can watch Jameer Nelson, Delonte West and St. Joe’s beat Chris Paul and Wake Forest in the 2004 NCAA Tournament and recall the thrill of watching a team from here impress a national audience. I can watch Julius Erving glide and dip and soar and wonder what that would’ve been like to experience firsthand. I can watch Allen Iverson walk into Staples Center in an Eagles jersey and walk off the floor with 48 points, a win in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals and ready to tell the world that “everyone had already counted us out.”
Being a fan is vicarious. We extract happiness when people who wear clothing with a certain logo painted on it accomplish their goals. That’s always been an odd, silly, fundamental part of sports, and the distance between participant and follower has now grown, in a way. There’s no live basketball to follow, so we’re left to remember when there was and how much we enjoyed it.
Of course, the athletes and coaches and general managers aren’t doing much different from us right now ... other than probably being more diligent about a home exercise routine. Some of the players are watching their own highlights. We’re all just waiting.
The community aspect is another element we’re missing. At four or five Sixers games at Wells Fargo Center this season, they’d struggle against a zone defense or make a bunch of careless turnovers and fall behind. That would prompt a brief conversation on press row about whether they would come back to win.
The consensus after a while became, “Well, yeah, they will. It’s a home game.”
You can’t quantify it, but the collective energy of around 20,000 people who desperately want the Sixers to win — and will let the players know if their effort isn’t up to standard — matters. There’s something unique about being in that kind of environment where, as a small part of a whole, you feel like you can sway the outcome of something that many other people also care about immensely.
The whole activity doesn't have any inherent meaning but in the moment you believe that, if it can inspire that much passion in that many people, it has to be important.
Even if you weren’t able to attend games in person or weren’t any good as a player, basketball was such a large world. There were so many avenues into it. You could obsess over the salary cap, study the sets and schemes, get a kick out of the trash talk and bravado.
Now, we can think about things that basketball had given us a perpetual excuse to avoid, reflect on the role it played in our lives and consider how our relationship to it might change when it returns.
Or we can just remember that game from 2006 when they kept playing and playing late into the night, Kyle Korver hit a game-tying three at the end of the second overtime and the Sixers eventually beat the Celtics.
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