Tuesday, April 7, 2009

On Ginobili's Injury and Candace Parker's League

First off, some unrelated links that I think are important reads:
48 Minutes of Hell has been doing a fantastic job of providing some reflection and analysis on the Manu Ginobili injury, and ended up saying a lot of what I was thinking. These two posts in particular are excellent, one looking towards the long-term future, the other looking towards this year's postseason where the Spurs will be true underdogs for the first time in forever. Timothy Varner points out something that I think has been easily ignored or forgotten all season, but is absolutely true -- that the Spurs this year, a down year, are still one of the top five teams in the league:

Take this year: there hasn’t been a single stretch when the Spurs were firing on all cylinders, but I’d still pick them, sans Manu Ginobili, in a 7 game series against every team in the league, save the Cavs, Lakers, Celtics and Magic. That’s an incredible statement, I know. But it’s true. Let it sink in.

Expectation is crazy, huh?

As a basketball fan, the biggest takeaway from this unfortunate news is not the lessened competitiveness of the Western Conference playoffs, but missing out on seeing one of the more exciting players in the league. Even this year, in and out of the lineup, with his effectiveness coming and going from game to game, Manu Ginobili has been a fantastic watch. He accomplishes all of the things you want from a 2-guard, but the style with which he does them is completely unique -- the long strides and giant step-backs, the herky jerky direction changes in the paint and occasional run-ins with giant elbows, the oddly angled and even more oddly timed but perfectly placed passes to wide open teammates, to say nothing of the precise work off the ball and the unexpectedly effective team defense and charge-taking. Anyways, get well soon Manu! In addition, though, the new narrative for the Spurs' season is wide open. We know the Spurs won't give up, so it should be interesting to see how they do for the rest of the year.

And finally, Rethinking Basketball has a thorough and thoughtful discussion about the framing of women's sports, with the background of the recent ESPN The Magazine cover story on Candace Parker (as well as the editorially questionable decision in the first paragraph to focus on Parker's breast size, among other things). You should really take a look at the entire post at Rethinking Basketball, but I'll draw attention here to the things that stood out to me:

Q addresses and deconstructs the rather flimsy argument that is often directed against professional women's basketball -- that people want to see the "best" and most "spectacular" athletes and basketball players and will therefore always choose to follow the men. My gut reaction whenever I hear that is to point to the popularity of men's NCAA basketball, which is neither the best nor particularly spectacular in terms of athletic plays. Instead, as far as I can tell, the widespread appreciation of NCAA ball is based on arriving at the sport on its own terms, understanding that is an entirely different brand of basketball, not to be compared with the NBA. And that pretty much describes my feelings about the WNBA as well. Q goes deeper and looks at the historical validity of the claim that people follow the NBA because it is spectacular:

There was a time when the idea of professional basketball being marketable was laughable. There was a time when the idea of black professional basketball players was laughable. It's not like people watch sports purely because they are spectacular. By most accounts, the ABA definitely had the NBA beat in the "spectacular" category. In the end, it comes down to people buying into the narrative a sport presents.

It wasn't generic high leapers and quick movers who made the NBA what it is today, it was the Magic-Bird rivalry, the Michael Jordan myth-building, and so forth. The challenge for women's basketball in a sexist society, though:

It just so happens that the stories that work best are those that resonate with people's existing sensibilities...not ones that challenge their pre-existing ways of thinking about the world. That's quite a hurdle for women's basketball to overcome...

The underlying tension in anything written about Candace Parker is the fact that the WNBA has been placed on her shoulders, more or less. Will she, not only as a basketball player, but also as a pitchwoman, be able to sell the WNBA? And to whom? A big part of the question of the viability of professional women's basketball, I think, is the question of who the audience is. It seems sometimes that the WNBA has tried to market itself to existing consumers of the men's game, which, given the above discussion, isn't the only option.

Anyways, the discussion of at Rethinking Basketball is an important one. Q makes the important point that accepting female athletes involves expanding our defintion of womanhood:

The challenge then is not to sell women as athletes separate from their gender but to learn how to include "female athlete" within our entrenched understandings of femininity. That is going to take time and conscious effort on the part of those who write about and frame news about female athletes.

One starting point, of course, is to stop comparing female athletes to their male counterparts. But beyond that? How do women as athletes, as basketball players, become a part of popular culture?

I did, by the way, eventually get interested enough to read the ESPN piece itself. It's a good enough read, but it expresses doubt both about the ability to sell women athletes in team sports (I'm not totally clear about why it's easier to sell women athletes in individual sports, but the success of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Danica Patrick, et al seems to indicate that that is the case) and about being able to make Parker an icon when she plays a sport that few people watch. My response to the latter point is: Lance Armstrong. How many Americans actually watch cycling? Yet we all know exactly who he is when he's pitching some random product on the television. I'm not saying I'm in favor of people not watching basketball, but it does seem like Parker could become an icon without a huge increase in the WNBA's following (I'm assuming that the rest of the WNBA would hope that she brings the WNBA with her).

On a completely unrelated note: did you see the Magic-Rockets game tonight? I think Marcin Gortat played Yao Ming better than Dwight Howard did.

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