The NBA playoffs and the regular seasons of Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer have been giving us lots of games to watch. In the breif intervals between them, Bill Littlefield has assembled some thoughts about the attractions of those games.
Why does the basketball team that’s having success driving to the hoop suddenly start taking shots from the perimeter? Shots we could have told them would clang off the rim. How can the soccer player who’s worked so hard to create space twenty yards from the net kick the ball twelve feet over the crossbar? How can anybody who has practiced for so many hundreds of hours be so inept at the critical moment? How can a major league hitter…a guy who’s been playing baseball seriously for twenty years or more…take a called third strike? Guys who peaked in Little League know you don’t do that. With two strikes, you choke up and protect the plate by chopping at anything close. It’s something you learn about the same time you master the one handed use of a fork. It is all harder than it looks. We know this, of course. Over coffee in the off-season, we acknowledge the obvious with a smile. Of course we do. If it weren’t harder than it looks…if it weren’t impossible for all but a few gifted and hard-working devotees, many of whose lives and personalities are stunted by dedication to their games, we wouldn’t watch. The difficulty is a big part of the point. They do things we can’t do. But we don’t think that way as we watch. We roar at their stupidity. Why go to the jump shot when you’ve built a twelve point lead with the pick-and-roll? Why not take the split-second necessary to settle the pass and whack the ball into the net, rather than rushing the play and lofting one fourteen rows into the stands? Why stand frozen, giving the umpire an opportunity to call you out on a close pitch? What a bunch of idiots. The coach, the striker with the ball at his feet, the hitter without an idea…what a collection of clowns. How can people being paid so much to play a game be so bad at it? We can see what they should have done, and just how they should have done it. This illusion isn’t just part of the fun. It’s at the core of the fan’s experience. The juxtaposition of the mad notion that we know better…madder still, could have done better…with the wonder we feel at the spontaneous art athletes create when they get it right…It’s that tension that makes the games matter, isn’t it? And it will have us tuning in to watch the idiots…or the geniuses…again tonight.