Downtime in sports is understandably a bad thing. Less action means more time for the mind to wander, like asking question in essays rather than making declarative statements, or staying up all night just to hear yourself think a little more. But downtime is also absolutely essential to the way we consume sports. And it's the reason this year's NBA season has been so hard to get a handle on—with the exception of one plucky Knicks guard and his game-to-game demolition of all our cultural assumptions.
The sheer passage of time is impossibly boring or endlessly profound, depending on how one approaches it. Above all else, though, it's empty space, and it's there that imagination, narrative, and accelerated feelings really take hold and fester. Football makes for killer product because it allows itself plenty of room to breathe. The games are full of pockets of inactivity; the week between games is a time for endless analysis and mood-building; the schedule length, while it mostly serves to keep too many players from getting utterly pulped, allows for the accumulation of tension. Waiting inflames; action provides release.
Baseball, despite its outlandishly long season, has similar advantages. It's a long haul, but a leisurely one. A baseball game is one of the few truly meditative diversion embraced, without incident, by pretty much anyone. Football marches the ball up the field, compounding the narrative through its pauses. Baseball lets its history, its most vague sensory impressions, and the entire exercise of fandom-as-memory swirl around its stadiums. It depends on a Proustian, and totalizing, subject in the stands, and not even one who need know how sympathetic he is. Baseball isn't compulsory, it insinuates.
The NBA, alas, is a league of action. College basketball invites us to ignore it until March Madness, which presents such a comic, whiz-bang form of competition that it almost becomes irrelevant what sport they're playing, or who is playing (if you're wondering, it's dudes you've never heard of shooting free throws in a fancy garage.) The NBA, always maligned for an overly-long season, catches grief precisely because—player laziness aside—it's 82 games, plus the playoffs, of non-stop kinesis. Sure, there are the time-outs, but the degree to which they seem like disruptions or impositions only highlights how far they are from the respite of football's pauses, or baseball's reverie. The problem isn't that there are too many games, it's that they pile on, one after another, with endless streams of baskets, dashes, and potentially meaningful moments.
While other sports cultivate meaning, the NBA is too busy flashing by to bother. It specializes in things-happening, not even discrete events, and the effect is both exhilarating and deadening. To watch the NBA properly, to follow like it like a full-fledged 21st century fan, is to eschew a certain amount of coherence. Stuff happens and it never stops. The coverage of last year's Heat was so single-minded, and so prone to selectively blow up details into talking points, that it almost brought the NBA up (or down) to the level of other major sports. Basketball's moments are often pretty darn simplistic in their power: buzzer-beaters, downright silly dunks or drives, fights. They are nearly technical in their language, and when there is an emotional subtext, it's based more on the characters involved than any real sustained story about them. The dynamic between characters, like LeBron and Kobe's meta-rivalry a few years ago, or LeBron and Durant now, is what distinguishes some above others. Otherwise, all we have is action, action as its own context, action that can be almost unforgiving as it rushes to get on to the next game.
This year, it's especially bad. We have reference points: new configurations (Lob City), teams with plans (Heat still need that title) and players rising (Kyrie Irving simply dominant; Ricky Rubio, y'all). But so much is happening, so fast, that there's no time to take stock and advance the story. If in the typical NBA season, we generally manage narrative sweep in slow, deliberate fashion—eventually, trends present themselves in ways impossible to ignore—this year, we're simply not getting that leeway. Sidebar: basketball is, first and foremost, about consistency of production, but it's measured in months, not weeks. It's frustrating, too, to hit the nominal "All-Star Break" and feel like so little has changed substantively since last spring, even if from second-to-second, play-to-play, it most certainly has. We just don't have the capacity to absorb, and process, it like we ordinarily do. It's an imperfect solution made rendered even worse.
The lone exception to this is Jeremy Lin, a player whose career is so slight that it needs all the data points it can get. Lin is filling this void in grand fashion, taking the tabloid spotlight previously reserved for the Heat or players in the midst of barely-hushed trade demands (though this year, even Dwight Howard has found his saga surprisingly listless) and finding in it a way to, quick-fast, build up a legacy. Tabloids amplify and sensationalize. That can be foolhardy when, say, thinking about LeBron's last quarter relative to the three weeks that preceded it. But for Lin, it means that each game is a statement, proof-positive of the direction he, and the Knicks, will take. Somehow, this march of information has been more forgiving to Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire than one might expect, but they have a long history of being part of basketball, of endless process that burns off as much energy as it creates. Lin, like the Heat, was born out of sensation, and owes us that cycle of discovery, resolution, and sensible forward motion.
As for the rest of the league, it may be hampered by this lack of easy angles or predictable questions. But to some extent, this is the NBA, and its unwieldy embrace of action, at their most pure. If the doldrums of sports is a season that never lets up, never translates itself into sound bites, and dares the fan to keep up with an all-or-nothing stake built in, then maybe we’ll see just how well we can do without media hand-holding. And, to crib a phrase from the league itself, how much we love this game when there’s nothing but that night’s action staring back at us.