This week's inductee into the "Overrated Hall of Fame" is ... Basketball.
I have completed an exhaustive search for just the right word to describe this sport. I poured over my Roget's Thesaurus for hours and came up empty. I consulted the far superior Synonym Finder, a big red book large enough to serve as a door stop to a bank vault. Again, no luck. I consulted 17 Internet sites to no avail. Then, it hit me like a Shaq-foul-shot-brick. And just as with Pat Riley and his desperate but unsuccessful attempts to retain his 80s G.Q. hotness, I realized I was trying too hard. Basketball is, was and always will be: Stupid.
Everything about this game is stupid. (Disclaimer time: I will give basketball players their due in one regard. They are supremely conditioned athletes for being able to run back and forth down the court all goddamn day and night. Their stamina and cardiovascular conditioning are unmatched among the athletes in the major sports. But the actual running back and forth down the court all goddamn day and night, while admirable, is not exciting or fun to watch, and therefore it is just one more part of the game that makes it so ... stupid.)
Let's start with the ball itself. No other sport uses a ball that comes close to the size of a basketball. Sure, volleyballs and soccer balls are bigger than most other balls, but they don't have the Jupiter-sized circumference of a basketball. You could place all three balls in front of a blind man, and he could instantly tell you which one is the basketball. ("It's this big motherfucker right here. Now someone help me across the goddamn street, because I have to go make handcrafts that 14-year-old poor kids can sell door to door next Christmas.") For a game that uses a ball to require true skill, the ball must present some degree of difficulty in the catching and handling thereof. There is no challenge in catching a basketball. A basketball is just a tad bit smaller than your average beach ball. How hard is it to catch a beach ball? Just ask your five-year-old niece when you're at the beach this summer. The ball is simply to big to make any of the sports' feats that impressive. If baseballs were the size of basketballs, how many strikeouts would Roger Clemens have? About three. Okay, he does play in the same division as the Pittsburgh Pirates, so let's up that total to about 300. But still.
Not only are the balls oversized, but they also move slower than the balls in any other sport. Most ball sports use a radar gun to gauge just how fast the best athletes can make the ball move. Not basketball. During one of those bi-annual times that I suffer the great misfortune of having to watch basketball, I have yet to hear an announcer say, "That last Nash shot, with its high, loping arc, clocked in at 23 miles per hour. That goofy looking bastard can really bring it, can't he Hank!" I've seen porno movies with faster moving balls than basketball.
Even on those somewhat entertaining alley oop slam dunk plays, I can't give that much credit to the soaring behemoth who caught the pass and rammed it through the hoop. Not only is the ball huge, but so are the oversized meathooks the players have for hands. If they were pulling golf balls out of the air and jamming those through the hoop, then I'd be impressed. To make the game even easier, they put dimples on the damn thing to make it that much more catchable. Can you imagine if a baseball had dimples? Why, A-Rod might never botch another ... okay, bad example.
Because of the size of the ball and the small size of the playing surface, which I believe they call a "court," you certainly don't need any kind of strong arm for the throwing aspect of the game. Most throws, which I believe they call "passes," are done with two hands. Two! Baseball outfielders can throw a ball 300 feet in the air with one arm, and Michael Vick can throw a football 60 yards in the air on a dead run with one arm, and Tiger Woods doesn't need any arms to throw one of his hissy fits every time some spectator has the gall to sniff while Saint Tiger is in the midst of his backswing. Yet only occasionally do we see a basketball player heave a one-handed pass the length of the court, which comes in at a whopping 94 feet. Instead, these guys spend a large part of the game just standing around in a semi-circle, two-handing the ball to each other six or seven times before some poor bored bastard decides to hurl the ball toward the hoop. From a whopping 18 feet away. With two hands. That's just stupid.
I might be more impressed if they were able to perform this two-handed game of catch-and-shoot while being forced to contend with some kind of menacing physical defense, the kind of defense that brings with it the possibility of some serious bodily harm. In baseball, a middle infielder has to leap and throw a seed to first base - one handed, mind you - while some Dominican speedster tries to jam six spikes into his shin and send his knee into a new, very uncomfortable angle. In football, Peyton Manning has about four seconds to unload the ball - with one hand, mind you -before some sweaty, snot-spouting wall of human growth hormone tries to make him a permanent part of the turf. In hockey, once you have the puck on your stick, you are fair game for some toothless, 6' 5" goon from Saskatoon to knock you into the Northwest Territory if you don't get rid of that puck in a hurry. But in basketball, which is pretty stupid, you can stand around and throw the (very big) ball back and forth without fear of being headslapped, highsticked or bowled over. Should some overzealous defender even dare to slap your hand in the process of throwing or receiving the ball, whistles are blown and play is stopped, and the stupidest part of the game ensues. The foul shot, or, as it is more aptly called, the free throw.
Is there another major sport that allows players a chance to score easy, undefended points for getting a soft slap from an opposing teammate who had the nerve to try to stop the player from scoring? Imagine if baseball occasionally let Derek Jeter stand at home, toss a baseball up into the air, and then hit it with no defenders in the field. I'm guess he's going to nail that inside-the-parker every time. You screw up in football and your team loses the equivalent of more than a tenth of the field. Christ, when you go too far in hockey, they say, "Fuck you, you can't even play with your full team for two minutes if you're going to pull that shit!" But how does basketball handle fouls? Stupidly. They let you stand a few feet from the basket and throw the ball through the hoop. No defense is allowed. You just get to stand near the basket and plop one in. How difficult is this feat? A man once sunk 86 consecutive foul shots. While blindfolded. This man was not a pro basketball player. I think he was a mailman. Yet for this most mundane of sporting acts, a seven foot freak of nature, who has taken a few million free shots like this in his lifetime, is awarded a point. And then they let him do it a second time.
If basketball wasn't completely stupid, every player would make about 95 percent of his foul shots. Yet the best players often miss an embarrassingly large percentage of these free points. In no other sport would the superstars be unable to perform the easiest feat in all the major sports. The inability of Shaq and Lebron to sink almost every foul shot is akin to Roger Federer being given 8-10 free shots every match, yet having him make only four. Why, everyone would think that he - and the game of tennis - is stupid. But it's not. Basketball, however, is.
Of course, you do have to get fouled before you are allowed to take these gimme shots. But even the foul system in this stupid sport is stupid. When I do get trapped into watching some basketball, I often see some guy with the big, oversized ball charge toward the net. (Once I even saw a man dribble while doing this. And the fact that they have to bounce the ball while playing is yet another indication of how stupid this game is. How hard is it to bounce a ball? Ask that same niece I mentioned earlier.) The defenders, who to this point have played defense by haphazardly waving their arms about while the team with the ball completed a series of those infinitely difficult two-handed passes and two-handed catches, then converge on this one player, who has thankfully ended the boredom by deciding he'll try to jam this big ball through the big hoop, which is usually only three inches higher than his outstretched arm. Real tough stuff, that slam dunk thing. As the man with the ball leaves his feet, two or three defenders usually bump him, and at least two people are left lying on the ground. Whether the basket is good or not, play resumes with no whistles, which means no fouls. For some reason, this collision of 1000 pounds of manflesh is legal. Yet on the next trip down the court, a man will (finally, thank Christ!) take a shot from 20 feet away, and a defender will jump up to try to block the shot, and if by chance his index finger should brush the wrist of the shooter, whistles will be blown and play will be stopped. Because that is a foul, damn it. Which, of course, deserves two free throws. Which, of course, is really stupid.
Even without the free throws, no sport comes close to basketball in terms of how easy it is to score. In every other sport, players come by scores and points hard. In baseball, the average runs per game is somewhere around nine. In football, if you score five to six times per game, you're probably going to the playoffs. In hockey, if a team averaged five scores per game, they would be damn near undefeated and probably coast to the Stanley Cup. Yet in basketball, you usually win by scoring about 50 times. The losing teams scores about 49 times. If scoring is so easy, what is the point of sitting through two hours of it? Each game should be 90 seconds long. Sure, they can still have their 20 timeouts a piece, and the games will still be an hour long, but at least each score would have some kind of meaning. Any sport in which you can score over 50 times and still lose is not just too easy, it's too stupid.
Finally, the stupidest thing about this sport is the basketball fight. No other major sport embarrasses itself the way basketball does when the players fight. Basketball fights are marked by bitchslaps, sucker punches and the occasional foray into the stands, where more bitchslaps and missed punches occur. Think of every basketball fight you've ever seen on ESPN. Two seven footers square off, but they never actually land a good, hard, direct punch to the jaw. Instead, their arms work much like a whip might work. If that whip were being used underwater, that is. Their long arms lift and begin the long slow trek back, then their arms start the long, sluggish journey forward, buggy-whipping like some spastic piece of rubber, only in slow motion, the wrist going limp and the fist turning back just before impact, usually resulting in no more than a brush of the forearm to the face. It's hilarious. And quite stupid.
Try to think of a good basketball fight. The only two that probably come to mind are Kermit Washington's cheap sucker punch of Rudy Tomjanovich back in the Carter administration, and the Pacers vs. Fans melee from a couple of years ago. Every other fight is forgettable. Not so in the other sports. You can buy two-hour DVDs of the NHL's best hockey fights, and that's just from the last three weeks of play. Players were taken off the ice on stretchers after fights this year. Some fights last for more than a minute. Baseball fights have featured bats, karate kicks and - almost always - headlocks. I was at a baseball game many years ago when a little shrimp of a second baseman took umbrage at the way the other team's catcher slid into him while trying to break up a double play. They got in each other's faces and started yelling. The little second baseman, who was no bigger than a whisper, struck first, throwing a wicked little sucker punch that caught the catcher square in the jaw. There was an interesting aspect to this punch, aside from the fact that the little second baseman had the basketball-sized balls to punch a man twice his height and three times his girth. He did it with the baseball still in his hand, which could have proved fatal to the catcher. The catcher, a former champion high school wrestler, didn't come back with one of those rubbery, harmless NBA punches. He was so incensed that he immediately picked the other player up over his head and slammed him head first into the artificial turf, breaking the little shit's collarbone and ending his season. Now that's a proper sports fight.
I know that hardcore basketball fans could rebut all of these points and describe why Mr. Naismith's creation is the greatest sport in the world. You could cite the frenzy of March Madness, the epic NBA playoff matchups of the ‘80s, the greatness of the old Celtic and Bruin dynasties, the unmatched intensity of Olympic basketball (except for the U.S. squads, of course), the purity of Indiana high school basketball ... hell, you might even get teary-eyed talking to me about the valor of wheelchair basketball. But you wouldn't convince of this sport's worth. Because I'm not that stupid.
Ned Bitters is, in fact, overrated. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.