A Three-Point Delight: Finding Joy or Moneyball in Pick-up Basketball
Positivism and advanced analytic metrics have made their way onto the basketball court. In the past five years, professional, and now also amateur basketball teams have begun to use analytical metrics (real +/-, player efficiency rating, per 100 possessions) in order to design the “team of the future.” Teams that have embraced these advanced statistics, predicated on high-efficiency and fast-pace play, and the increased use of the three-point shot as the main method of attack on offense. General Managers with teams such as the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors have used this game-plan to much success, and have openly described their team, as in the case of the Golden State Warriors, as being “light years ahead of the competition.” Basketball is now seen as a math problem: players’ ability is understood to be measurable, while success is tied to a formula. Increasingly, teams have looked to play smaller, more skilled players as opposed to traditional line-ups composed of bigger, more physically demanding players. This small-player oriented style, dubbed as the “small-ball” style, allows teams to rotate line-ups of players that have similar physical builds, where multiple players have the same height, weight, and wingspan.
This way of playing has trickled down to rec-league, or pick-up basketball. For my ethnographic experiments, I have chosen to observe, participate, and write on local Ottawa pick-up games. I focused on exploring how these analytical metrics, including the practice of “picking-up” players that fit the math formula, affects a person’s embodied experience of playing basketball. I will be representing this through two specific lenses that relate directly to positions found in professional basketball: that of the “general manager” and that of the “player.” As “general manager,” my observations will come from basketball analytics, such as field-goal percentage and three-point percentage. Much like would be done by a scout, basketball games and their players will be described only through these number values, stripping players of their emotional investment in the game and any other descriptive details. What’s more, I won’t use the players’ names or backgrounds; they will be known only through what they display on the basketball court. As a “player,” I will be writing about how the player’s emotions impact the game of basketball. Although I will use pseudonyms to protect players’ identities, I will seek to illustrate the personal bond developed between myself and teammates. I will look to their stories of basketball that lead them to play the way they play now. More specifically, I will look at the emotion of joy as a conduit in the direction of which basketball players can focus their efforts.
Moneyball: General Manager
In rec-league basketball, the goal of a team is to win. When a team of players win, they can continue to play on the same court while the defeated team must wait until the next available court opens up. General managers sought to design teams that could stay on the court for as long as possible. Therefore, these team designers would look for players with athletic builds, long wingspans, and most importantly, the ability to frequently score on the court. Team designers would also be looking for dominance, and for ways to best stretch out dominant play for multiple runs. This resulted in the same kind of players on rec-league teams, with familiar teams from week to week consistently staying on the court for long periods at a time. In response, some players would abandon their old team players to try to build a new team to match the winning team from that week.
I formed a team of four players who could play offense and defense, shoot the ball with a good efficiency percentage, and had the physical attributes necessary to move well along the court. Player’ heights ranged from 5’10 to 6’3, with weight ranging from 160 to 200 pounds. Our offense ran on a rigid scheme, such that we had no player close to the basket, with our players standing closer to the three-point line. The only time players would move to the basket is if they had a clear opening, with little defensive pressure, so that they had an open lay-up. By running and passing the ball quickly, our team could poke holes in the defense and expose the other team’s bad defensive players. Since teams had been designed in a way that would help hide their obvious weaknesses and flaws, players had to stick to a rigid structure of play. Our defensive tactics managed to force approximately two turnovers a game. As seen in the video recording, teams used classic, audible defensive cues to indicate coverages and the scheme for that particular possession. Looking to win the game, players recognized that building a team of athletic players who fit the mold of skill and efficiency led to the best opportunity to continue playing successfully.
Players also looked to expose weaker defensive players in specific locations on the court. For example, most our points came from the high right side of the three-point line, with 63% of our points coming from this region. Therefore, our team would run plays for specific offensive players to get them a clear, open, and set shot. With winning as the goal for our team, players would avoid shooting in close games to let our best player take the last shot, as we thought he would have the best opportunity to score. While plays with a lot of passing were not required to win games, plays where each player touched the ball at least once were more than 50% effective in generating a basket. Ball swings, where the ball is passed along the 3-point line semi-circle from one end to the other, were specifically successful. However, when a play failed to generate an open shot for one of our players, and our team was tightly guarded, there developed a hierarchy of which players could shoot the ball. Aggressive players, who tended to shoot the most in a game, would demand the ball over other, more passive players. These aggressive players would try various dribble moves in an attempt to create enough physical space between himself and his defender before shooting the basketball. These shots would rarely go in. While this directly contradicted the passing style of play that was so successful earlier in the game, my team members spoke about the need for these aggressive players to “take over the game”, as if they were playing without any teammates.
To Play with Joy: Player
The smell on a Monday morning, of a basketball gym that has been freshly cleaned and is ready for the day’s slate of games, is one of the most exciting feelings for a pick-up player. Hoisting up those early shots, welcoming friends back you haven’t seen since the week before, and reforming bonds of teamwork and comradery over a few games of basketball were defining features of this rec-league. I grew close with all players, even if they were not my teammates. When I first joined the league, I was worried that my small frame would render me “unchoosable” among a crop of players who seemed stronger and more athletic than me. Yet, as I would come to learn, it is the joy of being a part of a team that determines your ability to be successful on the basketball court. Being joyful while playing basketball meant that our players not only understood that individual sacrifices were necessary, but actually felt elated while contributing to their teammates’ successes. While I could not completely avoid the innate physical nature of the game of basketball, which at times turned me into a liability, my team and I could outsmart, outhustle, and outwork our opponent. Rather than individualizing every action on the court, players would remove themselves for the collective action and goal of the team.
My teammates were Ray, Professor T, and, William. They had all enjoyed basketball from an early age and each had a specific reason for being on the court. They spoke with passion and nuance about the game, as if they were grizzled, professional veterans, describing the game beyond basketball jargon and terminology. Ray told of how Yao Ming’s entrance into the NBA made him feel comfortable as a Chinese man to pick up the sport. He credits Yao’s skill and passion for the game as the sole reason why China is now one of the NBA’s biggest markets. Professor T. used to be a basketball coach himself in Europe, where passing ability and team play is encouraged, rather than the flashy dunks or dribbling exhibitions that are staples to the American version of the sport. Professor T. often acted as a mentor for the young players, speaking to them after games about areas of possible improvement and enlightening them on how they could reach their full potential. William was the youngest of us, just turning 17, and was easily the most skilled. “Trill Will,” as he was known by all those he dazzled, he had everything a college scout would be looking for in a potential prospect. William remained incredibly humble however, suggesting that where he found the most joy was “here, with my band of brothers. I see no bigger stage than the one we play on every Monday.” Despite his young age, William spoke the most about playing with joy. He always played with a smile. Something that may have served as an irritant to our opponents, was nothing short of invigorating for myself and our teammates.
To describe the emotion of joy becomes easier through the lens of basketball. Joy within basketball is the free-flowing feeling of overcoming your opponent through playing in a way that gets everyone involved and welcomes the intellectual maneuvering of shifting defensive coverage to make your opponent look silly. Joy, in this sense, is highly competitive, perhaps an attribute you would not use to describe the emotion. Yet, Joy in this sense remains whimsical and elating, suggesting that being competitive in a game and having fun are one in the same. To play with joy requires a specific kind of player. You must move gracefully up and down the court, welcome intense conditioning requirements, and be “pass-happy.” Our team welcomed the challenge. Each of us played to our strengths; our teammates covered up our weaknesses. Despite our differences, we moved as a unit, trusting each other to make the right play at the right time. It was if the court itself was a wave, pushing us forward, with fierceness and determination. We built trust through practice and repetition, such that playing with each other became second nature. We did not simply learn about our teammates, we began to think like them by moving the ball to spots on the court where they were the deadliest.
These spots were specific to each of us, yet the mold of joyful basketball was designed to find each player in his spot. Location mattered for all of us, as we wanted to score, but do it in a way that had the best opportunity for a basket. One of these occasions happened recently. William was bringing the ball up the court, passing to Professor T. who was located at the top of the key. William likes to shoot from the corners, so Ray and myself each set strong picks so William could have the space necessary to shoot the ball uncontested. Professor T. hit him with a swift chest pass that found William right in his shooting motion. The swish sound could not have been more pleasant. By sacrificing our physical bodies for the joy of William’s shot, both myself and Ray showed that William’s joy was shared with and through all of us. Despite the physicality necessary to play, we welcomed the chance to sacrifice ourselves; we were joyful about it.
This exercise in ethnographic writing taught me about the multitude of ways in exploring a particular topic. Here, by choosing something that is close to me and has been a part of my life since a young age, I can examine my own journey in pick-up basketball as well as the journey of others. By reading and participating in discourse around anthropological ethnographies like Renegade Dreams, The Life of Cheese, and Life Beside Itself, my knowledge of voice, emotion, and analytic strategies continues to grow. It is not that one playing style, observation style or ethnographic style has more value than the other; it is that these particular kinds of styles elicit specific representations and (partial) truths of the players on the basketball court. My goal here is to not select a style of play or writing over another, merely it is to do the same thing that we as anthropologists must acknowledge in our own writing: the multifaceted ways we can approach a topic and the frames of knowledge we use to ground our research. Without the various readings that we have done this semester, my ability to recognize this unique positionality as well as the usage of terms (e.g. partial truths and frames of knowledge) to describe my writing would be shallow. Through this ethnographic experiment and this class as a whole, not only can I acknowledge others’ capacity for anthropological writing, but I can confidently find my own voice, tone, and format in the production of my ethnographic work.