I’ve been wondering where the game is going, looking into the future. I think we all saw the curtain going down on the hip-hop culture that infused the game upon MJ’s arrival, once he entered the Hall of Fame with his gangsta speech not too long ago. The hems on the shorts have gone downdowndown and the noise went upupup, and even though guys like Stockton, who entered the place of honor himself, still played the same game, the package expected from fans forever changed.
But now there is no Jordan to accompany all the noise anymore, not a Stockton to provide the counterpoint. And the stars of today need to be placed within a game experience that matches today’s sensibilities. The league has attempted to personalize the experience by allowing viewers at home to hear the ramblings of coaches in the huddle and in the locker room. That has not provided much of an injection of excitement for me. Hearing Stan Van’s screeching howl as he blurts out obvious points of emphasis, brings something new to the overall presentation, but I’m not sure I want it. I think it’s time for all the noise to go down a notch, especially when it comes to the canned plea for everyone to clap their hands. Some subtlety in the audio department would be welcome over some stretches - something along the lines of the organ at MSG say. And then let’s look at where the whole package really needs attention. Not the audio, but the visuals.
About a year ago I watched transfixed as a choreographed mass of bodies moved across an enormous LED screen in the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Games. Over the last couple of weeks the new stadium in Dallas has been presented as something of a gem, with the ginormous screen being the biggest selling point. It’s becoming pretty clear to me that the way forward for the NBA is to play upon a big LED screen.
I can’t think of another sport, outside of maybe tennis, that is going to be able to take advantage of such a technologically advanced playing surface. I’m picturing an overall effect not too different from what we see today, with simply a digitized image of today’s courts beneath a sheet of soft plexiglass. The Celtics could actually go back to a digitized version of the old parquet floor of the “Gahhdins”. But superimposed upon the regular surface, could be any number of stats, visuals, and effects to suit the flow of the game. I think it is possible that such an advance could actually prove to focus the attention of viewers on the bigger picture of the game, where they have for so long been spoonfed the zinger highlights while otherwise distracted by a circus atmosphere with a beat you can dance to. And if people haven’t been distracted by the noise of the music and the announcer and the young people throwing t-shirts into the middle of your seating section, then they simply can’t pull themselves away from their own little, hand-held screens.
What could pull people away from the allure of their own little gizmos better than one big explosion of a gizmo? Make the thing touch sensitive. Place chips in each jersey or wrist band, and a chip in the ball, and let the technology determine two and three-point shots, whether the ball was released in time at the end of the clock, and whether a defender’s feet were outside the semicircle on a charge call. Getting the picture? It’s all about the picture. Present a player’s shot chart all along the way. Use the half of the court that isn’t in use at any particular time for an infinite number of purposes (yes including advertising). Keep all the fun stuff happening right there in that little rectangle. Frame it all right there and let our eyes collectively feast upon it.
Of course it could make people see the whole thing as they would a video game. But I’m resigned to losing a good deal of the human aspects of all sports for all time to come anyways. We are becoming more like machines every day. At least this way we can all be tuned into the same wavelength again for a short period of time. There was a time when technology played a very small role in sport. In a race, time would be measured to the closest tenth and then hundredth of a second, and an actual tie was entirely possible. There were things called dead heats, where neither the measure of time or the human eye could claim a winner. The official in charge of determining whether or not the competition went beyond human limits in terms of it’s closeness, performed an act that tied us all together within our human limitations. Now we leave it to machines entirely. My human eye would have called that one gold medal race of Phelps’ a dead heat. He was behind at the very last moment, and appeared to just match his opponent at the latest possible chance. It’s entirely possible that his opponent actually touched his computer-sensitive pad ahead of Phelps by some ridiculous sliver of a fraction of time, but Phelps approached with greater force and ended up applying the necessary push to activate the pad before the man next to him. It was an insult to the eye, and a diminishing what is human in gamesmanship. But that is where we are going nonetheless. If we were to have our athletes performing upon our collective screen, while putting our individual cell phones and blackberries away, then we might yet make something of our diminished roles. At least we would be present again without needing to be treated like trained seals and agitated monkeys. And maybe we would see the game in a way that suited the times while connecting to a past history that predates the slam dunk competition, when the art of the thing was all about the movements of five on five.