What Game are We Playing?

Published: December 7, 2011

I thought this was a team in a basketball league, but I’m questioning this most fundamental assumption. For two successive offseasons, fans have celebrated the possible arrival of a player as if they had won a title. This seems so contrary to the basic nature of sports to me that I have to ask: What in Dante’s kitchen is going on?

As I start this post, I’m looking for that cogito, ergo sum moment to happen sometime before I hit publish. I want my doubt erased.

We are supposed to get about 30 people to play a game, 10 more to coach, 10 to officiate, and 15,000 – 20,000 to watch, and another several hundred to keep them herded, hydrated, and happy.

One ball, two teams.

Sharing . . . not an option, caring as it might be.

That is life when it is stripped bare. Scarcity. Demand exceeding supply. That is why sports are appealing, I think. People, as individuals and as groups, love conquerors. Sports are proxies for this, some more convoluted in connection than others. History and psychology are rife with examples. This is where bandwagon fans come from, yes yes? Tearing down colors for another’s or for none just as soon as the eyes turn elsewhere . . . flags . . . jerseys . . . so similar . . . it’s a tribal thing, yes yes? It’s the commoditization of victory, of pride, of loyalty. It’s the selling of `winner’. Who’s buying?

Sun Tzu, one of the greatest military minds in history, along with Wellington, Caesar, and Alexander, was more of an economist, however. The Art of War is a book more about economics than militarism. It is in a military guise, sure, but that’s not where the wisdom stems from so much as where it is applied to. Joining the two is the source of his insights in many cases.

Despite his place in history, it is often overlooked that he said the greatest generals were those that won fights without winning. Through proper strikes, timing, logistics, spies, an army could win a war . . . a war . . . without firing an arrow so long as their knives were sharp. So, this military genius says real winning happens outside of the game.


Circling back to basketball, is this why people are fascinated with trades? Is this why the Heat’s personnel moves were so polarizing? Was the move some new weapon? Are we in an arms race? An 80-miles-from-Cuba-n missile crisis? They can strike every major American city but Seattle from their position, after all, in a cruel bit of trans-temporal zemblanity.

I have never been one for poring over trades, player data, team data, etc. in an effort to gain weapons in the fights our teams fight. I’ve always considered these to be flights of fancy, imaginations at play, a dehumanizing caricature of real life events with no regard for the real effects the trades have on the players and their lives and families.

That may be an oversight on my part. Sun Tzu would say so. Sun Tzu would say that teams should do everything they can to win the war, not just the battle, and that the battles are won before the fights. So we should be trading, signing, drafting. We should be doing everything we can to surround ourselves with money, talent, experts, technology, facilities. We should be going buck wild trying to win this war.

The powerhouses, the perennial winners, the classic teams, have all of these things and more. This come as much from their longevity than their success, with some cause-effect going the other way, too.

Another correlation with these powerhouse teams is the fact that they are in the so-called large markets. These markets have attracted the more people in the United States either over time (New Amsterdam) or in recent history (Dallas, Atlanta). Some teams in these markets have been maligned for their success and derivative attracting power. Who’s to blame them for their attracting power? These jobs have a prestige . . . think teaching at Greendale Community College vs. teach at Harvard . . . that was earned over time and will remain with them until they rest on their laurels too much, and it may remain even then. Besides, millions of other people feel the same way that some of these players do.

As Sun Tzu would say, the ground is not equal, and those with the advantage of ground have already won.

After going through this, I think there is more to trade fantasy than hoping for some effective artillery in this Hundred Years’ War of ours. I think it’s more about validation. If we could get this great player to choose us, or if we just `have’ him, then we are strong. It says something about the community as a group and as individuals. Conversely, their departure has the opposite effect. Once one invests emotion, pain comes from the inevitable separation . . . think break-up. If the thing invested in is hard to replace, so much more so . . . think break-up.

It’s clear after thinking through all this that folks are completely justified in their rejoicing like they’ve won a title before opening tip. I really think this is where I’d come to in this. I really thought . . . maybe hoped . . . that I’d come to the conclusion that this other game was somehow lesser, that is was `wrong’ to play that other game. I didn’t.

Nevertheless, I don’t care.

I don’t care a whit.

I want to see competition. I want to see teams play. I want to see struggle. If it’s David and Goliath, I’m fine with that. I’m fine getting my teeth kicked in . . . or having my team’s collective teeth kicked in. Most people want the title, they want the destination. I’m weird, I guess. I want the journey. I want the story. I want to see the characters develop. I want the comebacks, the drama, the heartbreaks. I want to feel each and every defeat that sweetens each and every victory.

Sadly, over the past year-plus here in New Orleans, the games raging off the court have been far more meaningful than those on the court. Even more sadly, these aren’t playing to become great, but playing to exist. Our great game has been to win the privilege to possibly be the worst franchise in the NBA . . . rather than a non-franchise or a disenfranchised region . . . rather than fighting to be the best like less than all the rest.

We’ve been playing the attracting game, the buying game, the branding game, the attendance game, the PR game, the finance game, the tv game, the relocation game, the contraction game, the CBA game, the cap game, the tax game, the trade game, the ownership game, the waiting game, and on, and on.

So many games, none of which involve a basketball even if they involve basketball.

If this all works out in favor of a team here in New Orleans, hopefully we will have what we need to start playing the same game as everyone else. A good owner, or ownership group, will doing things like build a practice facility, will be more than a bean-counter, more than a checkbook, and more than happy-go-lucky money vacuum. They will start to milk us, the fans, the city, and the region, for everything we’ll give in advertising, public money, and direct and indirect payments. Time will tell who we get, their talent level, and depth of dedication. They will not only make this job as attractive a place to work day-to-day as any other in the NBA, but will also work on making this team a real part of the city.

The clock will start again next year on this team trying to get more than 5 consecutive years of professional basketball here, a mark set by the New Orleans Jazz (see you in the start of 2017 if we aren’t locked out then). Once there is a mandate from the people, an owner may feel confident laying money down to take this team to the top level when the opportunity arises.

In the meantime, we don’t have the luxury Sun Tzu supposed. We have to compete. We have to compete on the court 82 times a year in regular season competition (usually), and we have to field a business team each and every day.

This ownership change will change the game without a doubt. How it changes remains to be seen. I just want a couple of years where I can worry about the ball going bouncy-bounce rather than earning before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization.

You can keep the titles and the superstars.

Give me my team and my game . . . just the one . . . just for a little while. Let me be a fan for one blessed game. One.

Win or lose.

I’m fine taking a break before getting into any of these other games again.


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