Sporting Rhetorics

(Pretty soon someone’s going to call me out on my clichéd titles-that-say-two-things-at-once bit, but for now I find them amusing.)

I haven’t watched basketball in the last few years, but now my team is in the finals — and I am officially suffering from Lakers fever.

It’s interesting to return to the NBA scene after having submerged myself in studies of rhetoric for a good chunk of time. It’s not that I’ve knowingly studied anything specific to the rhetoric of sports or suddenly acquired x-ray vision, but I’m back with fresh eyes at least. I’ve been away long enough to begin to notice what’s different or just simply notice more of what is. I even began taking notes during tonight’s Game 2 of the championship series (which may have been a self-protective device to help me get through the 22-point lead the Celtics had over the Lakers for a painful while there).

I’m struck by the layers upon layers of rhetorical activity, layers that can be applied to any televised sport I’d expect. There’s something of a formula followed by these sporting events: the pre-game show, the coach pep talk, the opening ceremony, the timeouts and commercial breaks, the half-time show and accompanying athlete-of-the-day feature story (not to diminish Leon Powe’s very touching narrative), the 30-second post-game interviews, and the post-game highlights and reflections on the 12 o’clock news. And let’s not forget the actors (I mean “agents,” and, no, I’m not about to perform a Burkian pentadic analysis even if this situation is begging for it): the referees, the athletes, the coaches and support staff, the crowd, the camera people who get knocked over by flying athletes, the behind-the-scenes folk who run the media on the big screens and play the Harlem Globetrotters-esque music whenever the home team has the ball.

So what did I learn? Kobe Bryant has matured since I last watched him. Derek Fisher is back, and I don’t remember whether I already knew it or not. Kurt Rambis is still an assistant coach. And Kevin Garnett is still one heck of a player, is on the opposing team, and is still recognizable to me (I really should stop gloating). I also realize I don’t know the jersey numbers of even a handful of players on the Lakers. And I should consider glasses. Or a bigger tv.

But before all that, there was the opening ceremony. I’m not just thinking about the performing of the national anthem or the introduction of the starting players. I’m thinking of the sounds of hip-hop. It’s more NBA than tennis shoes named after basketball stars. At first I wondered what song had been adopted, but then I realized it sounded like a score (I really didn’t intend that pun) but produced specifically for NBA games rather than a movie (which I could be wrong about, but I don’t think so. It sounded too smooth and much too long to be the introduction to a song). I’m also thinking of the ceremonial mashup of some of the best-remembered moments and players in NBA history. It evoked a euphoric feeling. I was proud for having watched some of them myself. It was epideictic. The game is something greater than a mere game. Heroes are involved, and great things happen.

And then we get the commercials. But we’ve all seen the craziness that is the Superbowl. This occasion doesn’t compare, but I hope the allusion says enough. They add to the excitement and to the rivalry. If we didn’t realize “there could be only one,” the half-faces of star athletes competing for the screen is enough to remind us. In fact, the ad series is fascinating within itself, and someone needs to write about it.

Let’s not forget the pep talks. All the good sports movies have ‘em. So do the war movies. They do their own magic: The coaches know the players, they know the situation, and from the soundbites played tonight, they apparently don’t talk strategy at that point. It’s all motivational. The Celtics coach invoked an athlete who said his team won a championship because they “played normal really well” (or something to that effect). The Lakers’ coach, on the other hand, prepared his team for the Boston crowd: “Don’t let the crowd sway you,” he said (or something like that). Interestingly, they both seem to be saying the same thing: Calm and easy does it. Don’t be affected by circumstances. (These thoughts, of course, got me to thinking about audience. To what extent do they shape events? Hm.)

We can also look at eras in terms of technique. Aside from the scratchy video footage, the tucked-in shirts and shorter shorts, the leaner bodies, and the different hairstyles, the playing of the game happened differently in the past (that must be one of the most enlightened statements I’ve ever written). Obviously, I don’t know enough about sports to explain this idea coherently, but I noticed, for example, that free throws were happening with rarely a player lifting his feet off the floor. I remember most players giving a little hop and some jumping perhaps a foot or more forward. Maybe trainers believe there’s more stability in feet that don’t leave the floor. I wonder. But the feel was certainly different. That much I can say.

(Postscript: A friend just corrected me about free-throw techniques. Apparently no players usually jump forward, but I remember there being jumping of some sort. Perhaps I’ve only imagined it, but at the least it seems like players now barely let their heels leave the floor.)

The last point I want to make has to do with interpretation. Early on in this game Kobe earned two fouls. They were pretty surprising calls. After the coach took Kobe out of the game, one of the commentators said, “How can two questionable calls change the course of the game?” Interesting. The commentators began arguing about what the rulebook says about certain calls, and eventually one of them said that if the refs were to call everything by the book, the game would be interrupted with calls of traveling during every possession. More allowances should be made for championship games, and the players who brought the team to the finals should be allowed to play in them, he argued. I can sketch out this conversation further, but I’ll just add that it was interesting when one of the commentators (perhaps the same one who wanted the foul-out rule abolished) complimented Kobe for his technical foul — he was making a point, the commentator thought. “You’ve got to appreciate the fire,” he said.

I’ll stop here because it’s kind of embarrassing that I’m trying to talk sports. To this day I still don’t know what the difference is between a team foul and a personal foul. I need to Google that one. . . .

Judging Greatness

Either I’m on a roll today, or I’m just wasting time. But I came across another interesting something on my way over to Yahoo! to check the weather (in hopes the temperature has crawled above 30).

How do we judge greatness? This question was taken up by Yahoo! Sports as they tried to ascertain how great the Patriots team is. The conversation starts out straightforwardly enough, but then someone asks how the Patriots compare against any professional team in the history of sports. Sure, the question should require a logical-enough answer — athletes run a certain number of yards, throw a certain number of passes, and score a certain number of points. The comparison gets more difficult, it would seem, when we’re talking about different sports, but the members of the conversation seem friendly enough toward the direction of the talk. The Patriots apparently (I really don’t keep track of this stuff) have a perfect record this season, but are they “great?”

I’m not surprised at their answers, but I’m not fond of the idea. It takes a team having all-star players in addition to a stellar record (wow, all these astronomical analogies) in order for a team to be great. In other words, image seems to play a “great” role. It doesn’t seem to matter whether a team of athletes come together to work like a machine. We need to see someone who climbs above the rest, a representative of the team. A face. A name. Individual stats. But how does an athlete get into the Hall of Fame? How much does it come down to image and how much does it rely on the actual numbers related to their performance? Do they have to win the crowd or just win the game? Hmm. I would say winning the crowd. The crowd hears the stats, but they also have to love the player. And yet loving the player without the logic of stats is not enough. Okay, I hope you get the point. I’ll stop before I drive myself in circles.

I’ll be honest, though. The only reason I clicked on the link to this video is because I saw the title, “Best Sports Team Ever?” along with an image of Michael Jordan. “Oh, no, no,” I thought. “If they’re putting the Chicago Bulls up there, they’d better add the LA Lakers. . . .” They didn’t. I’m hurt. Didn’t the late 80s have some of the best games when Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and so many others hit the court? I’m going to complain now. Clearly folks who are trying to properly represent sports history are suffering from a selective memory 😉