There is a lack of relatability with the modern NBA player, bringing it back to the blacktop could be the ideal remedy
Earlier this week, the MLB played its second annual Field of Dreams game. This game is played at a baseball diamond in Dyersville, Iowa; which is where the iconic movie that the game gets its name was filmed. This game might be the smartest PR move that the MLB has done in years, it is good fun that both players and fans enjoy. We have seen a similar stroke of genius in the NHL with the Winter Classic, where a professional hockey game is held in an outdoor arena. These successes have made me wonder about two things. The first is why are these events so popular. And the second, what if the NBA did something like this, what would that look like? And more importantly, would it work?
Before even thinking of how the NBA could implement something like this, it is important to understand why the Field of Dreams game and Winter Classic are successful. There is a nostalgia element at play with both events. When adults think back to when they were kids and played baseball or basketball, they don’t think of proper arenas where they played amateur games. They will often romanticize and pine for the days of playing hockey on a frozen lake or playing baseball in the street or on an empty field. This is what these games tap into.
They offer fans the quality and skill of the professional game with the ambiance and feeling of when everyone fell in love with the game, as a kid playing with friends. There is something different about playing under the lights of a field that has nothing around it. There is no bustling downtown with a million things to do. There aren’t a million corporate sponsorship ad placements as far as the eye can see. This game, for this one night, is about the game and the game only.
And more than anything, it seems that fans these days crave that. Sports have become so transactional and cold. There is something to be said about the warmth that is provided by feeling that just for that night it was about the passion of the game that all these players are engrained with that may be forgotten when fans look at their contracts and endorsement deals. This sort of passion could do wonders for many people’s image of a league like the NBA, where the perception by many fans is that players are entitled primadonnas with too much power. A sense that there is no love of basketball but only a love of personal worth and creating a brand.
Sound of the City
Unlike the idea of playing in the middle of nowhere like baseball, basketball is very much an urban sport. Kids in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia grow up playing in the parks. And when they are not in the parks playing they are going to historic venues like Rucker Park in Harlem, Venice Beach Courts in California, and Jackson Park in Chicago. These courts are where legends are born in streetball and where it is just about basketball.
These courts reward toughness, in-your-face defense, clutch shots, and aggressive driving to the basket. There is a sense of proving yourself to the viewers that you belong, that you are good enough to hang on these courts. It is a rite of passage of sorts for players that may play organized basketball, but they maybe just aren’t built to handle it at the Rucker or Dyckman. This is the essence of basketball, a marriage of toughness and art that is reminiscent of the streets that are so close by.
This basketball purity is what the NBA needs to adopt for its own grassroots special showcase. Imagine watching Ja Morant or Anthony Edwards tear it up at Rucker Park. Imagine Zion Williamson thundering a dunk at The Cages in Chicago. There would be electricity that an NBA game simply could not match. And because there is such little spacing in between the people and players on the court the vibe would be different. This would show fans that these players are still in love with the game and more importantly the culture of basketball. This format could even replace the All-Star game festivities with a 3-on-3 tournament, the dunk contest could be re-energized by taking local legends and having them participate as well. The potential to tap back into the city culture of basketball would be a huge win for the league.
Why the NBA Needs This
Despite what some may have you think, NBA players generally love the game. They play in pro-am leagues like the Drew League to showcase their abilities, they will do pick-up games at gyms where they are working out while they are preparing for the season. This love of the game is forgotten in the modern NBA where terms like load management and the reality of contract disputes have taken center stage. The majority of people feel like this generation of NBA players don’t love the game and that they are simply gifted and cashing in on that gift in the league.
Games at inner-city parks would change that perception. Everyone can envision a time when they were playing pickup basketball and trying to emulate a move they saw on TV from Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson. Those moments where you are dribbling the ball on the hot blacktop trying to find an opening. Then you take it and make it, a feeling of euphoria that cannot be described. If there happen to be people watching, then that feeling is magnified. There is a love and appreciation of the game and the artistry to do incredible things with a basketball.
In a summer where Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell trade scenarios have dominated the conversation, where Kyrie Irving’s long-term demands insist that he miss over 20 games per year, it would be refreshing to see players back to where it all started. Back to the playgrounds, proving that they belonged as they proved all those years ago. A game at a park could remind so many of us why we fell in love with basketball in the first place. The frantic motion, the sizing up of an opponent, and the bravado to sink a shot right in his face. There is something about the sound of the jumper beautifully swishing, the sight of making your move and crossing up your opponent, and seeing connected spectators in awe of every move.
The NBA has lost that a bit over the years. Players have shown that they are comfortable playing in these smaller environments because they have a love for the game. Baseball has brought about an innovative idea, and it is time for the game of professional basketball to take that idea and make it it's own. Here’s hoping for an NBA city classic series of games sometime shortly, an injection of passion that the game could desperately use.
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