Play On: Get Off the Couch, Get On the Court

At the end of any year, the news fills up with them: top ten recaps of depravation, mania, and outrage. The sports world is no exception. From sex scandals (Tiger Woods, Rick Pitino) to collegiate payola (Reggie Bush, Cam Newton), the look back at this year-in-sports seems more rife with downfalls than it is with uplifting stories. There’s nothing about this that’s surprising. Year in, year out, the same kind of controversies emerge; only the players change.

In this season of reflection, it’s depressing to note the predictability and tenor of what’s come to characterize the work done by modern sports media. In both blogs and mainstream outlets, coverage ranges from the purely statistical to the abjectly prurient. In either case — whether it’s crunching shots-on-goal percentages or digging through a call girl’s cell phone records — there’s rarely a thought for the big picture. What, really, do sports mean for a society? More to the point, how do they mean?

The larger point, often, is lost, as bloggers and beat writers fall over themselves in a great scooping contest. Frankly, it’s enough to turn a sports fan off entirely. The only alternative seems to be watching the games with the mute button off and the laptop shoved under the bed.

It was such a grinchy mood that had me driving, the day after Christmas, through chilling rain toward the 15th Annual Les Schwab Invitational. Faced with another holiday-inspired blitz of sporting sound and fury, I was retreating instead to memories of youth, of winter mornings spent in a junior high gym. Frost would cling tightly to the trees in the courtyard as, indoors, the burnt odor of the heating system pushed through the air ducts above.

The unmistakable squeal of rubber-on-laminate echoed through the chill, as my teammates and I ran: from the baseline of the basketball court to the free throw line, then back, to the half-court line, then back, to the opposite free throw line, then back, and then — lungs burning with cold — to the far baseline. These “ladders” seemed at the time like some divine punishment, wrought by the coach for an imagined wrongdoing. Through the cold and the sweat, though, the smiles on our faces as we crossed the last baseline is what I remember most vividly today.

For us, this was a kind of fun. Why else do it? The complications and pressures of win-loss records and sponsorship contracts were as far from that gym as many other aspects of real world. In the 8th grade, we stood merely on the threshold of adulthood, and so we still found pleasure in the career of our play.

It was such a feeling — long-lost and tinged by an chagrined awareness of this nostalgic self-indulgence — that led me to a suburban Portland gym the day after Christmas. A tournament was being held, and the high school down my street, Jefferson, was playing a city powerhouse, Lake Oswego. Lake Oswego is a league favorite, the alma mater of NBA standout Kevin Love, who’s currently turning heads as an interior threat on the otherwise terrible Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s also known in Portland as one of “those” schools, whose students live in McMansions and park Audis in the school lot.

Jefferson, on the other hand, was recently slated for closure until some last-minute school board maneuvering averted its fate. Its teachers are stressed; the students are disadvantaged. Still, the storefronts in my neighborhood are no less enthusiastic with signs and banners when a big game such as this was scheduled.

This would be it then, I told myself, settling into the bleachers: a true David and Goliath matchup whose athletes were as-yet untouched by the corruptive influences of the modern collegiate and professional sports world. No hectic highlight reels. No innuendo and snark-filled blog posts. I would return to sports’ unspoiled roots.

Then I began to look around. At a casual glance, at least 15 corporate banners hung from the gym rafters, advertising everything from local salons to Nike shoes. This last banner lead me to notice that, indeed, both schools were wearing matching pairs of Air Jordans. Event coordinators wandered the sidelines during the pregame warm-ups, speaking urgently into headsets and twirling laminated credentials that hung from the lanyards on their necks. Was this the face of high school basketball? What had become of my sepia-tinged memory exercises?

The buzzer sounded to end the pregame shootaround. Lake Oswego — tall, athletically built, entirely white — strolled out center court. Jefferson’s much shorter, exclusively black players hung back for some last-minute advice from their coach. Then the game was on.

Jefferson began with a flurry of activity, driving hard to the basket on offense and leaping to intercept passes at the defensive end. Lake Oswego, who seemed to be taken aback by their opponents’ hustle, stuck to a rigid series of set plays on offense which left them out of frequently out of position after a missed shot. As a result, they trailed after the first quarter.

How might that quarter counteract years of sporting narratives that characterized black athletes as “naturally” gifted, yet lacking in the laudable work ethic that allowed an inferior white player to “bring his lunchpail” and compete at the same level? Here was Jefferson, overcoming a clear physical disadvantage by bringing their own blue collars to the contest. As the game wore on, though, Jefferson’s frenzied pace of play slid from productive hustle into sloppy carelessness. Lake Oswego methodically took advantage and Jefferson’s fortitude began to crack. Players came off the floor with obvious frustration on their faces, only to return to the game and try to win it single-handedly.

As they inevitably turned the ball over or missed a wild drive, I thought back to another popular lesson instilled through sports: the importance of the team over the individual. Endorsement deals and pay disparities aside, it seems mandatory to offset hero worship, inspired in fans and the media by the most successful pro athletes, with a frantic insistence on teamwork. While countless examples of individual talents deciding the outcome of games do exist, it seemed that a concrete example of the importance of team play was taking shape before my very eyes.

At the end of the day, Lake Oswego ran comfortably away from the initially scrappy, eventually disorganized Jefferson side. I saw stereotypes unraveled and then seemingly stitched back together again. As I made my way to the door, though, I realized that what I’d watched had been, as always, more than just a sporting contest. The purity of the game remained elusive.

Shot through with considerations of race, class, teamwork, and individualism, even this local high school affair was more than the sum of its parts. As a sporting event, it was a cultural expression, subject to commercial pressures and social forces. It was, in short, as much a part of the “real world” social system as any other collegiate or pro event. Moreover, it was just one of millions that take place, throughout the country and around the world, every day.

Perhaps, then, there is no “pure” game. Regardless of how fervently we’d like to believe that sports is a distraction from the divisions and shortcomings that mark our everyday lives, instead it always represents a kind of return to those same conditions. On the other hand, such a realization involves a question of attitude as well. For, as easy as it is to see difference in sports, to find frailty and fault, in the final accounting we must not forget the crucial distinction between sports and play.

Sports, in their standardization of teams and rules, moves toward the commodification of a purer human instinct. It therefore corrupts the sense of joy that can inspire a smile amid windsprints in a 40 degree gym. That joy, of course, is play, and sports would cease to be without it. At the end of the day, that sense of play is what keeps us coming back. In every contest, no matter the sponsors, no matter the athletes, some kernel of play exists. It is this bright core, however dulled, that endows sports with their sympathetic value. Regardless of the context, we can look to a game and share the sensation of leaving, however briefly, our mundane physical selves. It’s in and for that moment of recognition, truly, that we are sports fans.

The effect might be likened to a high school basketball contest. In it, a loose ball produces a scrum of bodies. The confusing jumble obscures the ball from view; the game seems to stop. Eventually, though, impossibly, a lone player emerges from the pack. Ball in hand, he glides down the court, opponents at his heels. Then — against the glare of flashbulbs and without a thought for the watching souls who, somehow, are running with him in their minds — he leaps. He rises.