For the entirety of human civilization, myth and story have been an inseparable part of existence. They are a stand-in for understanding, for those elements of our world that cannot yet be explained within the constraints of contemporary knowledge. Weather, human creation, the interactions of plants and animals: until science had built tidy boxes for these complex systems to be put inside, their truths were held in stories. The intent of science is the advancement of knowledge, an utterly worthy goal. But as it continues its ubiquitous crawl, the importance and dissemination of stories is inevitably chipped away.
The interaction of science and story has played out for me in a very personal way when it comes to basketball. The ways in which I watch have evolved tremendously over the past two decades. I was initially drawn to the aesthetic aspects of the game – the feats of athleticism, the on-court manifestations of a player’s personality, the theatrics and dramatic resolution of competition. Initially, I came for the stories. But gradually science has crept into my relationship with basketball and a thirst for the tidiness of proficiency has colored what I see, what I pay attention to and what I appreciate. I find that I’m continually watching basketball less and less to be entertained, and more and more to understand.
This struggle between story and science is not just my own, it is the immediate state of professional basketball coverage and analysis. There will almost certainly be more argument, unkind words and hurt feelings, but ultimately a balance will be struck between the two, because it has to. Basketball is a game with moving parts and measurable elements. As technology advances our ability to explain what happens on the court will continue to grow and as a group of humans. But we will never be able to stamp out mystery entirely. Because the thing that we can’t quantify is the relationship between what happens on the court and what happens in our own living rooms; the way we feel about what we watch. This balance is not so much a static equilibrium but a constant dance of accommodation.
This weekend, I made several personal adjustments of my own with the opportunity to attend the Hall of Fame Enshrinement Celebration at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. I’ve lived less than an hour’s drive from the Hall of Fame for nearly three years, but in all that time I’ve never been there. My lone trip to the hall was in 1998 while I was making a college visit to the University of Massachusetts. I don’t remember many specific details of that experience other than a general sense of disillusionment and disappointment. But then again, I was a junior in high school so disillusionment and disappointment was kind of the status quo. The entire building felt lifeless and devoid of emotion, which I suppose is often a characteristic of historical museums. The collection of photographs and signed jerseys seemed to do a wholly poor job of representing the emotional gravitas of the game I knew.
I applied for a media credential to attend the Enshrinement Celebration this year, not because of any particular excitement about the inductees or the festivities as a whole, but rather because of my geographic proximity and the opportunity to try something new. As I made the drive down to Springfield my previous experience at The Hall was very much on my mind.
The first event open to the media was a press conference on Saturday afternoon, introducing this year’s twelve inductees – Roger Brown, Guy V. Lewis, Russ Granik, Gary Payton, Richie Guerin, Rick Pitino, Sylvia Hatchell, Oscar Schmidt, Dr. E.B. Henderson, Dawn Staley, Bernard King and Jerry Tarkanian. Each inductee was brought to the podium with a roll-call reading of their statistical achievements and accumulated accolades. But as the numbers drifted by, they began to blend together, a running monologue of numeric white noise. My eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to the monitors above the dais, showing still images of each inductee’s career. These images captured none of the substance but all of the ethereal qualities of what each had given to and received from basketball – Payton’s head-cocked sneer, Staley’s steely gaze, Tarkanian biting through a towel, and Schmidt rising up to rain a jumper on some hapless international foe.
There is this strange relationship between numbers and the preservation of history at a place like The Hall of Fame. There is no well-elaborated and detailed statistical requirement for induction but somehow the collected accountings of your career must carry a certain weight. Arguing about the exact nature and limits of that weight is one of the most popular pastimes in any sport.
In their short remarks, each inductee (or their representatives in the case of those being inducted posthumously) hinted at what basketball meant to them. Most were unduly short, choosing to save the gravy for Sunday’s formal induction ceremony. But each was clearly struggling with the weight of the moment, grappling with how to incorporate their perspective on their own personal stories with how this very extravagant reflection of how the public perceived them. Each was introduced with resume that they had carried with them on their way to The Hall of Fame, but those were just the frameworks of lives lived, the outlines of a story.
After the press conference I found myself standing near Payton’s table listening to him explain to Gary Washburn and David Aldridge about his on and off-court chemistry with Shawn Kemp and the close group of friends who had accompanied him out of Oakland and managed to make lives for themselves with a hand from Payton. Bit by bit he was handing over his story to people who’s job it is to help shape and relate that narrative to the public, preserving it for perpetuity and ensuring that the mythic elements remain.
Payton said he never thought of himself as a Hall-of-Famer until he joined the Los Angeles Lakers in 2003. The national media began to repeat the mantra of the Lakers having four future Hall-Of-Famers (Payton, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal), and his place in basketball lore apparently dawned on him for the first time. I asked Payton if he’d ever been to the Hall of Fame before this weekend, and he said he’d been once before, quickly, while he was playing with the Celtics. It was clear from his answer that being here as an inductee was an entirely different animal.
I asked Gary Payton if he ever paid much attention to his numbers while he was playing.
“To be honest I never looked at the box score. I was too busy thinking about what I was going to do after the game.”
Cue signature Payton grin. What’s ironic is that he mentioned specific numbers several times in answers to other questions.
“I knew I could go out on any given night and get twenty points, ten dimes and four steals.”
But those numbers were somewhat abstract. He wasn’t referencing specific actions or even specific games or accomplishments. They were a vague attempt to explain how he saw his own ability, in the same abstract way that numbers are used to support and celebrate the greatness of some players or exclude from formal recognition the greatness of others.
On Sunday afternoon at the formal induction ceremony, as Payton went through his speech, from family, to the friends who accompanied him out of Oakland, to the players he played against and alongside, it was clear that he was following a dramatic structure.
“I bared my soul on the court. I played hard because I wanted to win every time.”
I latched onto Payton’s story over the weekend because I had been there to watch so much of it play out over the last two decades, but this was a thorough celebration of story. From Roger Brown’s long-awaited recognition, Jerry Tarkanian’s navigating family and profession as an Armenian immigrant, and Bernard King’s physical rehabilitation; we were being swept along with the arcs of narratives.
Oscar Schmidt, one of the greatest scorers in the history of international basketball, did a glorious job of clarifying the contrast at the end of his acceptance speech.
“We lost against [the] Soviet Union with the great Sabonis in ’88. And I was the best scorer. I did records. But on that Olympic Games, that game, I missed the last shot. And that game remains here. That shot remains here.”
(As Schmidt says those words he motions to the side of his neck.)
“Because I was a terrific three-point shooter. But on the last shot, I was much guarded and I could not shoot from three. I go inside . . . and I miss the shot. No foul. And we lost the semi-finals.”
For the man who scored 49,737 points in his international career, the shot he remembers most was the one that didn’t go in.
This weekend numbers were used in an attempt to quantify that which can’t quantified, that which doesn’t necessarily need to be quantified. This whole affair was about personal meaning, for the inductees, their families and the fans and media who watched them. As each is honored we’re celebrating not just their accomplishments, but their story. The numbers aren’t the story. They’re details and accents, context and punctuation.
Context and understanding are not necessarily the same thing. A story can be enriched and extended without taking it all the way to its thoroughly unmystical unraveling. The numbers just hint at what we’re really about. You don’t need a museum to honor and celebrate statistics, we have spreadsheets and websites for that. But there is room to celebrate it all – the way we count the game and the way it makes us feel.