It's still sports when the clock stops, right?
By JP PELOSI
Yes, basketball free throws are slow.
They are certainly not for people who toss back double espressos while charging through Twitter. Think about it: In the time it takes Tim Duncan to shoot a pair from the charity stripe, the quick-typing can share their dismay in 140 characters and brew another shot of espresso. Maybe two, even.
But free throws, at least to me, remain a compelling facet of the game. The act demands poise and focus, and also requires players to specialize — in shooting! (A novel idea, I know.) Maybe, just maybe ... if players can't consistently make a 15-foot freebie, it's time to get 'em off the floor.
'Guys gotta make their free throws,' right?
In this year's NBA playoffs, coaches have typically left their worst shooters on the floor in crunch time, watching them absorb foul after foul only to fumble free throw attempts like Hugh Grant in, well, everything. In fact, some players' inability to consistently covert (read: at all) has prompted even more fouling. See, e.g., Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets and DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Beyond the poor aesthetics, though, the reemergence of the "Hack a Shaq" strategy has also managed to slow down the overall pace of games this postseason.
Fans are divided. Purists love the strategic element of it all, while those concerned with "entertainment value" are beside themselves. The latter can be found collecting petition signatures and calling their local members of Congress to get basketball's rule book amended. Those folks, however — perhaps just outraged for outrage's sake — are missing the bigger picture.
Listen, good shooting isn't just about swishing fall away threes like Steph Curry; it's also about surprising your opponent by luring him into a position that lets you strike. It requires thinking, deception and savvy, as much as it does a beautiful follow through.
If you need evidence of this, simply watch the Rockets' James Harden, runner-up for the league's MVP Award this year. He's made an elite NBA career out of drawing fouls! Watch him toy with defenders, dribble incessantly and draw a remarkable amount of contact — or not. Either way, he's probably getting to the free throw line, as recently noted by Albert Burneko for Deadspin. Harden is good for around 10 trips to the line per game, but it sure seems like no one appreciates how much skill that takes.
I certainly do.
Consider, for a moment, why we watch sports. Whether on the field, on the court, or over the ice, two sides come together in an organized fashion before tumbling toward each other with surprising urgency. Players thrust forward and into the fray as if for a moment, their very freedom is to be determined by the game's outcome. As the action shifts, combatants step in and out of chance — like gamblers trying to read the dealer's face at a back jack table — and we're compelled by their machinations. Some would even argue that it's this intrigue and strategy, borne of the desire to outwit an opponent, that is at the root of our favorite sporting moments.
And yet, now, in an era that tends to filter the experience of life through an Internet browser, everything about sports is made so much smaller (and more immediate). Tiny pieces of arbitrary information are fired at us by giant content services like BuzzFeed, Yahoo and The Huffington Post, producing "everything" at every minute of every hour. The result is that larger sports narratives are too often reduced to fleeting moments. What we are left with are eye-popping headlines and looped clips of a fan spilling his beer while catching a fly ball.
Surely, no one has time for free throws amid such chaos.
Look, I get it. There's an ongoing challenge for media outlets to fill up 24 hours' worth of content space. That is the beauty and horror of online publishing; it never sleeps. But while writers and editors devote so much time to gossip magazine style segments and aggregating TMZ scoops, we sports fans are left feeling like our plane has been hijacked, and then diverted to a place we never signed up for.
It's not just in basketball, either. Stoppages for free throws have no place anymore, it seems. But then again, neither do nine innings of baseball. Come to think of it, it's happening outside of sports, too. It's the reason why we can't, you know, have movies with characters who don't possess super powers.
And it's not just the web that revels in #FastTakes. Popular TV and radio have become notorious contributors to this state of play. For example, there's SportsCenter, ESPN's flagship offering, where a dazzling mix of graphics and sound overwhelms the viewer in a permanent cacophonous disarray. The viewer doesn't know whether to follow the ball, break out the glow sticks and pacifiers, pull up IMDB to decipher the anchors' movie references.
None of this would be such an issue if the general trend wasn't headed at breakneck speed toward unbridled sensationalism. ESPN is no longer a worldwide leader in sports, it's become the default setting for everything that is wrong about coverage.
I know, it's easy to be nostalgic for the sports shows or columns we miss, but maybe it's something deeper? Maybe, just maybe, they were also good? I remember listening to football games on the radio with my dad as a six year old, for example, and few things beyond Star Wars were better. The wonder of any sporting narrative when spoken — without imagery — is that there are no distractions. I'd lay there in the late afternoon, thinking about the ball being thrown, or kicked, or ricocheting between players, and wonder how the game might end. Who would make the one play that would send the broadcaster's voice to a crescendo?
The excitement of those radio calls came from being fixed in a moment, and I am not ashamed to say that I miss these occasions. Sadly, they are just so much harder to come by given today's never-ending jumble of rapid reactions.
Which, forgive my ambling, brings me back to free throws and the sudden distaste for them. Yes, we all want the "best product," but must we always cater to those among us with deficient attention spans?
All sports have their slower moments; be it the change of pitcher in baseball; the huddle or timeout in football; or setting up a free kick in soccer. And there are many, many sports fans who still appreciate such BREAKS IN THE ACTION(!) because they're connected to in-game strategy or a prompted by a tactical move, and therefore, are not only necessary, but intriguing.
Sure, interludes and considered moments might not arouse somebody desperate to share a zany GIF with their followers, but they help to form the plot lines of the best stories in sports, both the epic sagas and the real page turners.
So keep doing what you do, James Harden. I will be watching every single free throw attempt, and I won't be the only one.
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