The Last Dance was the easy part.
With the culmination of the 10-part ESPN/Netflix epic, a few of my nearest and dearest have asked me how they can transform their status from amateur viewer into fully fledged NBA fan. As with every sport, the path to returning to the hardwood is a tricky one but with there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel with an appetite to finish the season. Despite some misgivings about safety and drawing much needed attention from the anti-racism movement sweeping the world, the NBA is set to restart on July 31st with the creation of a literal bubble of basketball at the Disney campus in Orlando. In the words of NBA sage Adrian Wojanowski – The NBA’s back.
Could it be a more perfect time to get into Basketball?
My love affair with basketball first started not with the beautifully produced TV series but an Olympic group stage game in 2012. What was essentially a friendly between the USA and Nigeria, the game was uploaded on a tin-pot YouTube channel with commentary by some non-descript English badger that was clearly the only guy they could find in the BBC with any semblance of the lingo and an American with dodgy hair and even worse fake tan who had plied his trade for 2 seasons in the Israeli league (anyone who watched Sky’s NFL production in the pre-Chapman era can probably relate). What it lacked in competitive balance it more than made up for in sheer awe at what these guys were doing. What I witnessed was superhuman, these mostly unknown athletes who combined size and skill, touch and flair that seemed like ultimate embodiment of athletics.
Like a bored quarantined population and an eccentric zookeeper with a silly name – I was hooked.
I wanted to know anything and everything about these literal freaks of nature and the alien world that spawned them. Fast forward 8 years and I’m the guy setting the alarm at 4.30 am for an inconsequential regular season blow out in November who has difficulty sleeping without the reassuring tones of an NBA podcast to send me to sleep.
But how do we become you Ed? I hear you yelling into your screens.
Come with me.
1 – Play the game
Watching the ease and regularity with which Scotty and Mike glide to the basket and contort around the rim almost makes it seem normal. It is not – it is incredibly difficult.
Following my sojourn with Olympic basketball, I returned to the autumn term at school – 10-pound basketball I had bought on eBay and oversized Hakeem ‘The Dream’ Olajuwon 1994 Houston Rockets jersey in tow. Managing to coax a few buddies into forming a regular game, we went from what seemed more like a dodgeball/wrestling hybrid to a level of relative competence. Fundamentally, truly loving any sport does not come from watching millionaires dance around a perfect pitch on Sky Sports. It is the jumpers for goalposts football game, the corridor cricket with a broom and a bin – it’s the game itself. There is nothing sweeter than somehow managing to swish a ball with the world’s ugliest jump shot and making a complete dick out of yourself when blocking your equally weedy opponent’s shot whispering – ‘’get that shit outta here’’. It also gives you a reference to how special these guys are. Turns out the 10 feet (the height of the hoop) is pretty darn high and the actual distance of a 3 pointer is by no means a stone’s throw.
As if by magic, Basketball along with Golf and Tennis is one of the few officially sanctioned sports to play at the moment – maybe Dominic ‘Dagger’ Cummings was going to Durham to work on his step-back jumper. We also forget the abundance of hoops there are dotted around the playgrounds and gyms of the UK.
If Kings Sutton, Oxfordshire has one – chances are yours is not too far away.
2 – Watching full games
Like any sport, watching a 5-minute highlight video simply does not do justice to the actual nature of a game. Its worth bearing in mind that the very best shooters in the NBA will probably miss every 3 out every 5 long balls that they take and hitting half your shots is a good day at the office. As hard as it is to believe that every time the ball left the massive hands of Michael Jordan it isn’t an automatic bucket, that’s the reality. Watching full games lets you appreciate the cadence and rhythm of the sport and actually puts good defense into context.
Thanks to the content void left by the hiatus in live sports, the NBA’s YouTube channel has these in droves. Banging out a few of these also lets you see the fluidity of the style of the game itself and how much this has changed. Today’s NBA, that lives and dies by the 3 pointers, almost seems like a different sport to the ruff and tumble of the 1990s. It also gives you a sense of history and the lore of the NBA. Professional Sport is defined by its superstars – past and present. People such as Shaq and Lebron dominate the global sport discourse but what is it that makes them unique and special?
Rewatching old games helps colour in the gaps, displaying information such as: what the positions are, the fouls and violations and generally the cadence and idiosyncrasies of this beautiful game.
My recommendations: ‘Splash Bro’s combine for 62 points’ – ‘Ray Allen Hits series altering 3’ – ‘Kobe takes over in 2000’
3 – Dunks, Denials and Documentaries
Of course, who actually has time to religiously bang-out 2 hours of game tape a day (granted – probably more of us than usual). Sometimes you just want to see athletes doing cool stuff with a basketball. Fortunately, YouTube again has got you covered. Crack open a cold one and search ‘The most rude humiliating plays in NBA history’ and the world doesn’t seem so bad. Beyond this, the whole concept of the All-Star Weekend, a festival of hoops where the elite of the NBA, as well as local heroes and hip-hop royalty, descend on a city for 3 days, seems almost made in a lab for quick digital consumption. From the 3 point contest with the premier sharpshooters to the infamous dunk contest (give Vince Carter in 2000 a quick google) and the cherry on the Sunday – the All-Star Game itself – where the league’s best suit up for an exhibition game.
If the extracurricular aspects of the Last Dance are what puts lead in your pencil then there is a healthy archive of documentaries to sink your teeth into which deep dive into corners of the NBA ecosystem. The ESPN 30 for 30 series including titles like ‘Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks’, ‘The fab 5’ and ‘Bad Boys’ are blockbuster. Team produced films of a specific championship year are good value aswell as the more gonzo documentaries like SonicsGate, a film detailing the uglier corporate side of the NBA and the franchise system in general.
There is no right answer here – jump down that YouTube rabbit hole, give in to the algorithm and see where it takes you.
4 – Harnessing the media
Instead of reading me, a 6-foot 4 keyboard warrior who has played a grand total of 3 competitive basketball games in his life, it may be worth ingesting the content of people who actually do this for a living.
Everything is bigger in America and the NBA media has become a circus in of itself. To the chagrin of traditionalists, part of the attraction of the NBA is its rapid dealing, transactionary nature. The age of player empowerment has expediated longer contracts, and be it via trade or free agency, stars are more reticent to stay in one place. Think of it like a constant transfer window except with a far larger gossip column stoking the fire – a glance at NBA twitter will show this insatiable infatuation with player movement. Unlike sports like Football, the intricacies of the league rules and the salary cap as well as the sheer volume of possible movement make the media an essential ally to traverse the everyday of the NBA.
With the advent of the podcast as seemingly the medium of the future and the diversity and quality of talking heads in the sport is something to behold. Some personal favourites include (the) Bill Simmons’ Podcast, Celtics fanboy and ESPN star turned Media Czar (watch out for his Sunday night shows with Ryen Russillo), ESPN’s The Lowe Post and Bleacher report’s The Full 48.
The proliferation of audio has not left behind the role of the writer and quality written content. The job is so central that there is a seat in the Basketball Hall of Fame for the royalty of NBA writers. Scrolling through some longform pieces on The Athletic and other stalwarts like ESPN can make that tube journey or extended stint on the throne that much more enjoyable.
5 – Pick a team.
Obviously, part of fandom is having people to root for, and crucially, against.
The S Word will shortly be publishing a complete breakdown of each team and whose overpriced jersey you should be buying come payday.
Just a warning – make sure you pick better than me.