The most common debunking of the game with slam-dunking is that everything happens in the final two minutes. And while I agree with the sentiment of this statement, I do not accept that this is the fundamental ailment from which basketball suffers. The main problem with basketball (thank you for asking) is that it’s too easy for the players to score. And this is not what Benjamin Basketball intended when he invented the sport back in the 1890s.
Okay, his name wasn’t really Benjamin Basketball (sadly)—it was Dr. James Naismith. Born in Canada in 1861, Naismith took a job teaching gym class at Springfield College, Massachusetts in 1890. The following winter was particularly harsh, and Naismith, under orders from the head of the physical education department, was tasked with inventing an indoor game to keep students physically active until the spring. First, Naismith nailed two peach baskets to opposite walls 10 feet from the floor (for no reason other than this was the height of the gymnasium railings). Next, he drafted up a list of 13 rules and called his new sport “basket ball.” And do you know what the score was at the end of this inaugural game? 1-0.
There were a few variations in Naismith’s game from the basketball we know today, like only getting one point for a “goal” and having nine players per side, but the biggest difference by far was that competitors weren’t allowed to dribble the ball. This meant it was much more difficult to create the space for a shot. And a slam-dunk, if anyone had the idea to try one, would’ve been practically impossible, as it would’ve had to have been attempted from a stationary position. It is also worth noting that when Naismith invented the game over 120 years ago, the average height of a player was around 5’6”—nowhere near the average height of the modern NBA star.
My point here, in a roundabout way, is that while the rules of basketball evolved over time, the height of the hoop was never adjusted accordingly. And now we’re left with a game where competitors are able to score seemingly at will. Consequently, there is no glory in scoring and thus we are neither excited nor surprised when scoring occurs. It would be impressive for, say, a Hobbit to score a slam-dunk, but most of the guys in the NBA are over six-and-half-feet tall with a leap like a salmon.
The other day, for example, I happened to catch a New York Knicks game on television. They were playing against a man from Charlotte named Bob Katz, which seemed a little unfair, and unsurprisingly they won pretty handsomely. 125-96 to be precise. One guy on the Knicks by the name of Carmelo Anthony greedily helped himself to 62 points. It seemed like every time he got the ball he scored. It was one of the least exciting sporting spectacles I’ve ever seen, second only perhaps to the time I inadvertently wound up at the International Speed Knitting Challenge in Harrogate back in the autumn of ‘06, but that’s a whole other story. With the scoring gluttony of the Knicks in mind, I found it curious how often the players missed free throws. They seemed to miss as often as they scored. But what really annoyed me was how the players high-fived the free thrower even after he’d missed. I say if you don’t make the shot, you don’t get a high-five.
Something I’ve noticed from talking to Americans with anti-soccer sensibilities is that their primary problem with the game is that there’s not enough scoring. Ask any Brit why they find basketball boring, and they’ll most likely tell you that there’s too much scoring. I’m not sure it’s possible to find a better metaphor for the nuances between Anglo/American characteristics. Americans want never-a-dull-moment, action-packed blockbuster entertainment, while Brits prefer a slower, more refined build-up to occasional releases of maximum emotion.
When I was a kid, basketball was the only American sport that was taught at my high school. Our P.E. teacher, Mr. Drinkwater, liked to join in the games and pretend he was Michael Jordan. Old Drinkpiss, as we used to call him, took great pleasure in beating 12-year-olds half his height at a game where nobody except him knew the rules. It was around this time during the mid-1990s that basketball in Britain gained mainstream popularity. Hoops sprang up on garage doors all over the country, kids began wearing Air Jordans, and the videogame NBA Jam was a best seller. Channel 4 even had an NBA highlight show, bringing the sport to a wider audience still.
According to a recent government survey, basketball is now the second-most popular sport in Britain for 10 to 16-year-olds (soccer is first—no surprise there). However, British basketball was dealt a severe blow earlier this year when UK Sport, the organization responsible for investing in high performance athletics, withdrew all Olympic funding from the game. UK Sport’s reason, put bluntly, was that they feel the money would be better spent on sports that actually stand a chance of bringing a medal home. Ouch. I blame Mr. Drinkwater.