Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Wag the Fandom: A Midsummer Night's Joint

There are two types of basketball fans, those who go to games and those who don’t.

It’s not a particularly accurate statement but it’s the kind of hook that can serve to illustrate a message.

What is the message? There isn’t just one, there are many. Wag the fandom!

And don’t forget the hook—bolster it, express it, worship it, pervert it, turn it into software and sell it by the bushel, baby.

One type of fan may go to as many games as he or she can afford, immersed in the live experience and feeling part of a community—celebrating the wins and feeling the abject misery of the losses, shouting themselves hoarse and knocking fists, hands, hips and spilled drinks with surrounding bodies.

Another fan mostly stares at a screen or multiple screens and is obsessed with social media. This fan may or may not attend the occasional game in person but crams in as much action as possible through the cyber experience.

There’s also the media types who may be part of the live experience by attending games on a regular basis in order to write/comment/observe, or may stare obsessively at a screen on order to do same.

Chronicling the game takes shape in many forms, including traditional global behemoths, city beats, national fan sites, networked oligarchies, team fan sites, boutique highbrows, egghead analysis and sublimely ridiculous basketball confessionals. For anyone who feels as if they have fallen through a crack, do not worry—the crevices aren’t all that deep.

As a collective, you can simply lump all human parts together like modeling clay—talking heads, old-school writers, college kids who are way too smart for their own good and basketball freaks and geeks of all colors and political/religious/economic persuasions—all part and parcel of the same soulful stew, contributing to an experience with an untold worth that in turn caters to the teams themselves and their estimated $30 billion gross annual value.

But while fandom is an intrinsic part of it all, there are still other equally important components. Such as players and coaches and executives, and owners and league operatives and sources—don’t forget the sources. These are the nameless shape shifters, from team personnel to snake oil salesmen and from “league officials” to friends, family and fans!

But the sources typically can’t have names—not in sports or anything else media related because that compromises the integrity of the message and the message is sacrosanct, no matter how ludicrous it is.

Journalism’s word is binding and that’s why the granting of anonymity is taken so seriously. This is important stuff and players’ careers, their earnings and the lives of their families depend on truth, accuracy and fair play.

Let’s examine a case study while protecting the anonymity of all involved.

A particular freewheeling player is coming off a career year and has been rewarded with a four-year deal, the final year of which is a team option. The money is good but nothing in the superstardom range. It may be $5.5 million per year.

We will call this player “Bill.” He is now our friend and we want him to succeed, even if he sometimes annoys us with his capricious shot-chucking ways.

Bill is at practice and he jams a finger. Most humans know how painful and commonplace this can be. It screws up everything. For hoopsters it is a routine occurrence and is often treated in a cursory way—ever seen the twisted, gnarled hands of professional athletes?

Our finger-hurting pal shows up to work and has an off night which is not surprising as he is a rather streaky fellow, even when healthy. Undeterred by the throbbing pain, Bill lofts up 13 attempts, connecting on only two. He laughs it off after the game and chuckles good-naturedly when a member of his entourage makes a trade reference.

A weary media member who arrived too late to get any actual worthwhile quotes, decides to tweet out the trade joke, omitting any elements of humor. The “possible trade of Bill according to an unnamed source” receives minimal attention on a slow night.

But an editor of a large fan site instructs a writer to pen 800 words about Team X Searching for Trade Partner for Bill, adding some helpful tips: “Use your unique perspective and expertise to make a credible argument that will convince your readers!”

As it turns out, the fan site is not alone, with several other media platforms milking the same message. It is assumed that this minor blip will be nothing but programming filler.

Two nights later, Bill’s finger is still swollen and stiff with a nice knob forming at the intermediate phalange of his index digit. He loves his social media and has laughed off the rumors but it’s another lousy game and he’s still jacking up rim-clangers. It’s starting to get into his head.

One of the traditional behemoths decides the little story could benefit from a few million extra hits and augments it with video auto-play commentary. There’s “what-if” pontification and a new unnamed source.

It is the third game since Bill’s boo-boo occurred and the team has headed out on a mini road trip, appearing on a cold winter’s night at a Really Big Arena where opposing fans have picked up on the gathering story and are only too delighted to add to the communal joy experience. Our erstwhile Volume Scorer forces up a rather large arsenal of air-balls and other wounded ducks as boos rain down from the rafters.

It’s a nationally televised game and a color commentator mentions the trade rumors. During the post-game presser, questions are coming at Bill and his coach—a guy who sometimes likes the sound of his own voice a bit too much. The team’s PR guru grits his teeth and pulls the plug.

The team’s general manager, "Joe," is well aware of all that is happening but he’s a veteran of these idiotic wars and considers it all bullshit. He has more pressing things to deal with, like a Megastar who will be a free agent at the end of the season—said centerpiece being a hell of a lot more important to the world than Bill.

A writer at an egghead stats-based site has been observing this nonsense from afar—living in Iceland as he does. After a day spent coding for a new game about baby sea turtles trying to cross a coastal highway, our scribe just needs to decompress. He believes he has found some interesting patterns cementing his existing belief that our finger-jammed hero is nothing more than a one-dimensional ball hog with a ludicrous usage rate. This turns into a scathing treatise filled with shot charts and analytic logic and the inescapable conclusion that the entire organization stinks from the top down. Most importantly, Bill must go!

Mount Quoranocco forms a lonely peak from which rains sluices down, gathering speed in a myriad of tiny streams and joining forces with runoff from neighborhoods, streets, yards, golf courses and factories, filtering into storm drains and carrying the collected polluted water into a giant discharge pipe that emerges from the side of a sandy cliff, spewing the frothy stuff into an otherwise peaceful ocean inlet.

"Ben," the owner of Team X and a man who made his fortune as an industrialist, is sitting by the window wall of his beach house, staring quizzically at the sewage spilling from that cursed pipe into his beloved ocean cove. The irony of the origins of his wealth and the gray damaged water do not escape him.

But there are other things on his mind as well. While Ben may be the only person in his entire organization who has never jammed a finger, he has formed definitive notions about the dynamics of business and sports and how that correlates on the court. He also had somebody create a special software analytics model at an exorbitant cost that he has been using to examine the chasm between where his team is and where he thinks it should be.

Ben also just finished reading the Icelander’s article. He picks up the phone and calls his GM.

Meanwhile, Bill has taken to wearing a part-time split on his wounded finger and the combination of rest, ice treatments, various drugs and the ability to semi-compartmentalize pain has resulted in a slight improvement.

Joe takes the call from his owner and is told to explore the trade market. This news is leaked immediately, of course, because by now, a very prominent writer who can deduce all transactional information within fractions of seconds with a 99.9 percent accuracy rate, is on the job.

But after a few days of calls, it becomes apparent there are no serious takers for Bill’s multiyear contract—the exception being a lottery-bound team who offers up a 23-year-old center with artificial knees who has yet to make his rookie debut, three years after being drafted.

On December 22, Bill scores 32 points off the bench, including all seven of his downtown bombs. His team still loses. The following night on a back-to-back, the guy with the healing finger defies all known logic with another 32 points, along with two steals, no assists and no rebounds. Basketball twitter melts and an editor instructs a writer to crank out 800 words about Why Team X Must Surround Bill With Worthy Teammates, adding, “Use your exceptional abilities to convince your audience of the credibility of your argument and make sure you reinforce the message every three sentences.”

Two days later the Superstar demands a trade to “any team possibly contending for the playoffs” and Bill’s up and down journey falls completely off the map after only getting as high as No. 37 on the All-Sports Media Syndicated Ratings Data for the second two weeks of December.

There are fans who go to sports events and those who don’t, and players who either play the “right way” or have no interest whatsoever in matters of subjective correctness, or in owners whose career successes have more in common with carcinogenic runoff than any actual tactile experience with a spinning orb on a rainbow trajectory toward an improbably small and distant target.

The sources and messages and interpretations, along with aimless wordsmithing can matter a lot or not at all, and who will really remember once the next evolutionary step of Frogger is released, 20 years later, this time starring baby sea turtles? 

Wag the fandom!

Somewhere a car floats around a corner with the music bumping and the windows dark. A 7-foot junkie is busted in Gold Bar with a stocking over his head, and a man who once roamed the sidelines in richly colored synthetic blends lies quietly in a sterile room, imagining the road ahead.

There’s no reason to reinforce the hook now, it was just a midsummer night's joint.


  1. Wicked, wicked post Dave! Truman Capote is somewhere smirking , & quite subtly giving you a sly, `well done´ wink :)

  2. Great read Dave, thanks - Purple