Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Basketball and Self-Interest

I’m a basketball fan. It’s a beautiful game. Watching the players move as a play develops is fascinating. And the athleticism is amazing.

I still remember the first time Michael Jordan caught my eye in the mid-‘80s. He was on the baseline and he jumped toward the basket. At the point that most humans begin their descent, he continued ascending.

Two things I hear all the time during broadcasts bother me.

1. Giving back. Basketball players talk about giving back to the community, meaning their charity efforts. This implies that they have taken something from the community in the first place. The money they took in salary and endorsements was a trade. Owners pay players because they expect to make a profit. Fans buy tickets to be entertained. Basketball players have taken nothing they need to give back.

Someone like Magic Johnson provided so much value to so many millions of people when he played that it is an injustice to imply that he owes anyone a damned thing. It is we who owe him gratitude for providing with his play the concrete image of human greatness. People struggling to pursue goals, sometimes overwhelmed by doubt of their eventual success, could look at Magic Johnson and see that values can be achieved on this earth.

Because altruism and collectivism dominate our culture, every NBA game has commercials full of basketball players doing social work, usually with children. It’s fine if they want to do spend time inspiring kids. There is nothing wrong with that -- although I suspect that a lot of players don’t really care about children, they just do these photo ops to improve their image.

Pictures of basketball players doing social work are not inspiring. Charity is insignificant compared to a their achievement on the court. When they play the game, that is when they give the most value to the world.

Those charity commercials disgust me. It is as if NBA players feel they have to apologize for their greatness by humbling themselves. “If we read to children and feed bums, will you leave us alone and let us play basketball?”

That is how the morality of sacrifice twists our culture. We make midgets out of giants.

2. Selfless play. When a basketball player passes a lot, he is called “unselfish.” Is it selfish to want to win the game? If passing helps a team win, then isn’t it just as selfish as shooting?

Some players such as Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson shoot a lot because they are great scorers. They put the round ball in the cylinder. Getting the basketball to their hands, especially at crunch time, helps win games. Players pass to them because they want to win.

Players who shoot too much to the detriment of the team are not selfish, they’re bad. They don’t last long on the team. They don’t get big contracts. They don’t win. What is so selfish about shooting too much when it does not help a team win? In the long run it is self-destructive.

It is ridiculous to hold passers as some sort of moral exemplar -- St. Lamar of the Hardwood, who sacrifices himself so that selfish Kobe can get all the glory! All elements of the game should have one purpose: to win the game. The educated basketball fan knows that a pass can be as important as a score.

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