This is one for the NARPs (non-athletic regular people) out there. For those who have never willingly watched a televised sporting event other than Olympic gymnastics and MAYBE Wimbledon on a lazy summer afternoon when nothing else was on. This is for everyone who hasn’t played a ball sport since middle school gym class and doesn’t know the names of any athletes in the four major North American professional leagues other than Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Tom Brady.
I used to be like you. My co-editor Neel Gupta ’22 referred to me last week as “the NARPiest of NARPs.” My family didn’t watch any sports other than cricket when I was growing up, and as a result I fledged into the world as someone with a nonexistent interest in sports. (I once considered going to a Flyers game, but that’s only because I stan Gritty.) After all, the athletic world is absolutely wracked with scandal and abuse, ranging from the NFL trying to cover up CTE and brain damage research for decades to members of Swarthmore’s women’s basketball team alleging player abuse against the now-resigned head coach. In athletics scandals, there is never just one smoking gun because the whole system is the smoking gun.
My journey into NBA fandom began this summer when my friends Nicole Liu ’21 and Shail Modi ’22 invited me and Jake Chanenson ’21 to watch the Hawks vs. Bucks playoffs game with them. I cannot emphasize enough how much I griped and groaned about having to waste an hour or two watching a game of basketball, a stupid ugly stupid sport that I could not have cared less about.
That night, however, I learned a lesson. I learned something that will never leave me for as long as I live, something that I was a fool for not having seen at any point before then: basketball is good, actually. By the end of the first quarter, I decided that I was going to cheer on the Bucks because they, like me, were repping the Midwest. By halftime, I was cheering for them at the top of my lungs and watching with eyes wide like dinner plates every time Giannis took a shot. I came out of the game questioning my longtime stance on trying new things (i.e., that it sucks) because giving basketball a chance had just introduced me into an entirely new world that I was missing out on before.
The world of sports, basketball specifically, runs so much deeper than just a guy getting a ball and then throwing it and then another guy getting the ball. Behind the gleam of the court and the shrieks of brightly-colored sneakers are timeless stories that so clearly demonstrate why sport is one of the only universal languages of humankind.
Who, after all, could forget the epic life of Manute Bol, the tallest NBA player of all time at 7’7, of which basketball was only a part? Bol was born in Sudan (now South Sudan) and arrived to play basketball in Cleveland neither knowing English nor his own date of birth. His passport said that he was 5’2 because Sudanese officials measured him sitting down. After his prolific NBA career, he became a philanthropist who gave back extensively to his home country of Sudan and had ten children, one of whom, Bol Bol, currently plays for the Nuggets.
Who could forget the story of Muggsy Bogues, who grew up in the Baltimore projects with a father in prison and a brother addicted to hard drugs? At 5’3, Bogues became a dominant athlete in a sport that’s famous for tall people and reminds me every day that it’s not too late for me, also a 5’3 short king, to get picked 12th overall in the 2022 NBA draft if I start practicing.
And most importantly, who could forget when these two extraordinary men and athletes both played on the Rhode Island Bullets together and took this equally extraordinary picture that highlights the diversity of experiences in the same sport? To be clear, I don’t believe in inspiration porn whatsoever. But there is something striking about basketball’s unique ability to bring together so many people from so many backgrounds together for one common, crucial, mostly apolitical purpose: to see one group of guys (or women! Go Fever!) totally own another group of guys.
I was a fool for holding out on basketball so long over a misconception that all sports are lame and dumb. After all, I grew up in Indiana, the state that is so obsessed with basketball that we have a special term for it — Hoosier Hysteria. I grew up surrounded by bible-thumping evangelicals for whom Indiana-Purdue games were a more blessed sacrament than Easter mass, in a place where kids at my middle school would give each other death threats over which college team they supported. There’s actually a cutscene in the NBA 2K19 game where the player’s character gets traded for sandwiches from the South Bay Lakers to the G-League team based in my hometown, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Basketball isn’t simply something I enjoy every now and then — it is my birthright as a Hoosier, and as of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, I am no longer the Hoosier State’s prodigal son. I am no longer the friend who pretends to listen, nodding every now and then, when my more athletics-oriented friends talk to me about sports. I am instead the friend who never shuts up about the latest in the Ben Simmons saga or the Pacers* while my friends stare glassy-eyed at me and secretly pray that I will shut up.
If you (the NARPs to whom this article is addressed) just gave basketball a chance, I think you would find that it’s actually inspiring, enjoyable, heartwarming, and engaging. As someone whose formative years were spent reblogging “Attack on Titan” and “Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club” gifsets on Tumblr, I think that reformed Tumblr-fandom types would especially really like it. I can already imagine all of the posts referring to crowd-favorite players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rui Hachimura cinnamon rolls while calling players like Bobby Portis (who broke another player’s face while practicing with the Bulls and was subsequently suspended for eight games) and Kyrie Irving (don’t even get me started) sinnamon rolls. If the NBA ever needs esoteric markets to expand into, there’s a whole untapped demographic of people with obsessive personalities and limitless zeal just waiting.
*It is past me how the two teams belonging to the state that’s famous for basketball are so bad at basketball. The Indiana Fever finished the 2021 WNBA season dead last in the league, and it wasn’t really close. The Pacers are … not doing much better. (Chris Duarte is my King though.)