Love and Basketball: Understanding Hall & Oates's "One On One"

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Today is Valentine's Day, a time for love and romance. Sports leagues, however, do not kindly stop for the holiday, or even acknowledge it. Athletic competition inhabits a world of direct conflict and short-order discord; its gestures towards love are clumsy and unconvincing. So it's up to the artists of emotion to bring their sensibility to sports, if there's to be a working marriage between the two.

Sometimes, sadly, it turns out just as poorly. Hall and Oates' 1982 hit "One on One" is one of the most famous songs combining love and sports: it was featured in one of the NBA's most famous commercials and employs its basketball metaphor so aggressively that it could be about the sexual tension between two teammates. On other hand, that metaphor is so imprecise in practice that it suggests a neophyte's understanding of the game. The following line-by-line analysis attempts to discover what could possibly be happening in the song's basketball world.

I'm tired of playing on the team

It seems I don't get time out anymore

The biggest and most consistent problem with the song is its definition of "time out." While any basketball fan would consider the phrase to be a stoppage of play, the team context suggests that "time out" is in fact playing time, in the sense that being on a team with a deep roster restricts Hall's minutes. He's tired of playing with Oates and would prefer to be a star on his own.

What a change if we set the pace face to face

No one even trying to score

It's at this point that the entire basketball concept begins to break down. Pace is a major factor in a team's style of play, and perhaps the previous "time out" is in fact a coach's timeout, at which point Hall and his coach (who's also his love interest?) will change their strategy for the game. Also note that this idea makes no sense if "time out" refers to playing time, because there is no need for a player not in the game to set the pace, unless that pace involves his ability to fit in lots of congratulatory pats on the back during the aforementioned coach's timeout.

The reference to not even trying to score makes no sense if the team has also tried to speed up the game—a faster pace leads to more points. Hall must want to slow down the pace to something impossibly slow, then, in which case they must be playing anything other than NBA or NCAA women's basketball, the only two American organizations to use a shot clock at the time.

Oh oh I can feel the magic of your touch

And when you move in close a little bit means so much

Ooh yeah, you've got to understand, baby

Time out is what I'm here for

Hall likes a game with quite a bit of contact. If "time out" refers to playing time, then he wouldn't even want to play in a game without that physicality. And yet it might still be a matter of sitting on the sidelines during a stoppage in play, because the exact meaning of the term still hasn't been made clear.

One on one I want to play that game tonight

One on one I want to play that

One on one I want to play that game tonight

One on one so slow

Finally, Hall explicitly says that he wants to play pickup one-on-one ball, leaving the organized structure of the team for something a little truer to the game he feel in love with in the first place. And yet he wants to play it slow, without scoring, which seems against the very concept of the format. One-on-one represents basketball in its most baldly competitive form, pitting one player against another in a clear test of which player has more skills and talent. There's no reason to play a physical brand of one-on-one if no one wants to score. Why wouldn't the two players just set up some rebounding drills?

You can't tell me you don't miss me, girl

I think I might know you too well

Wonder what you'd say if you knew that I was coming tonight

Want to? I want you can't you tell

He will be visiting the playground unannounced, so it has quite possibly been some time since he's played outside of the team format. This lack of notice suggests that he feels removed from that past game, to the point where he'll only feel comfortable again when he's there. His main reason for going, though, is to play this girl, who became such a regular opponent that he knew her moves and tendencies too well. In some way, then, Hall seeks a competitive game, one that can continue to challenge him. This statement contradicts the previous point that keeping score isn't the point.

He somehow wants both proof of his value as an athlete and to play for the love of the game. Those goals aren't mututally exclusive, but the participants have to agree on what kind of game they're playing. When the player organizing the game in the first place can't figure that out, those goals become dreams rather than likelihoods.

One on one I want to play that game tonight

One on one I want to play that

One on one I want to play that game tonight

One on one so slow

In this new context of indecision, the chorus takes on a newfound measure of sadness. Hall continues to refer to "that game," but he can't even decide exactly which game he wants to play. There's a desire for a certain form of basketball, and yet he can't articulate it. How can he ever find someone to play with when he can't figure out what he wants?

That's all you need to know now

But what is the other player supposed to know? Hall has failed to explain himself. It's as if he expects the girl to understand him perfectly while an obvious communication breakdown exists. It's a form of denial, almost as if he wants to absolve himself of blame for the game's failure before it even starts.

'Cause if it's really right there's nothing else

Now the meaning becomes a little clearer. What Hall wants is for the importance and format of his game to become immediately clear to the other player. It's a basketball version of fate. Except, as noted previously, he's already played with this person and had things turn out poorly. If fate were the answer, things would've worked out in the past. It's a childish response to a real problem, one that needs substantive effort to fix.

One on one I want to play that game tonight (repeat until fade out)

And yet Hall never acknowledges that need for mature consideration, instead focusing on his desires and hoping they come true. They're never answered: the song ends with no game, not even a meeting between the two players. He wants more, but that want isn't enough without putting in the work to make it a reality.

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