Watching while Ignorant

I’m writing this after Game 4 of the Warriors-Grizzlies playoff series, but I don’t know who won. I watched the first half in our hotel bar, then came upstairs at halftime to help our toddler sleep, with the hope of making it back without missing too much of the third quarter. Well, it took longer than I expected, and a while ago, while she was still awake, I heard my phone ding, which I know is a notification that the game is over. But I’m keeping myself suspended in ignorance, because I was already planning a blog post about my ignorance when it comes to basketball scoring and this just enriches that topic.

I’m interested in how we think about sports that we enjoy but don’t know well. If you put me in front of a cricket match, I wouldn’t think a single thing about it—I wouldn’t have any idea what was going on; even with the benefit of a Jumbotron I wouldn’t know who was winning. But with sports that we know in a rudimentary way, we can identify the fundamental events—that team scored, this team was penalized, we’re getting close to the end of the game—but our understanding of the causes and effects of those events is insubstantial. I’ve had opportunities to watch baseball games with people who don’t follow baseball regularly, and they know perfectly well whether any given event is good or bad. But their expectations are undeveloped: they don’t have the experience to tell them what sorts of events are likely to stem off of each other, so positive and negative swings seem to happen like bolts from the blue. They tend to overreact to small setbacks because they haven’t formed a sense of proportion about the moments in the game.

And that’s how I am with basketball (and plenty of other sports too): I have no stable sense of how the game is going. When I left at halftime, the Warriors were leading by 17 points. That’s quite a large margin; if they went on to win by that much, it would be considered a dominant victory, especially on the road (they were 4-point favorites before the game). But I’ve followed enough basketball to know that what seem to me to be insurmountable leads can vanish into thin air: one team goes on, say, a 9-0 run, and suddenly a double-digit lead can be erased with a single possession. The team in the lead seems to mysteriously forget how to make baskets or play defense, and then there are a couple of threes, and… It all seems arbitrary to me, inscrutable, like suddenly I’m watching a game of chance instead of a game of skill.

Lead changes happen in baseball too, of course, but those don’t usually throw me as much. Partly they happen less often in baseball—a baseball game with only three or four lead changes will be called a “wild one,” but that wouldn’t even register in basketball. But partly it’s that I can anticipate changes in baseball, because I know not just the events but the (very rough) probabilities too. I feel like I can tell when a pitcher has been getting lucky with less than his best stuff and is being left in too long; I know when the heart of the order is coming up; I know when a team has only a very shaky bullpen to rely on. Some of those impressions of foresight are illusory, some of the time, but even just having those impressions makes me feel like I’m on top of the action.

I know, logically, that basketball games have clues to the future like these too, clues that basketball fans use to make sense of the frenetic give-and-take of the game. A subpar substitute coming in; a key defender playing with foul trouble and unable to give it their all; a player or team that’s been playing over their heads on one side of the ball or the other—I gather that these are factors, but I don’t know the players or the game well enough to identify them when they’re in play, and so it’s all mysterious and random. What basketball reminds me most of—don’t laugh—is following election returns. Maybe this is something only a kid from Berkeley would cop to, but when there’s some close election going—usually a state initiative; in California the other big ticket races like Senator are all foregone conclusions—I’ve been known to stay up late, refreshing the Secretary of State page with the results as the precincts report. And since the counties of California are so different from each other in terms of ideologies and number of voters, the “score” can change in a heartbeat. Your chosen side—a rollback of the Three Strikes law, say—seems to be cruising to an easy victory, and then the next time you tune in, Schwarzenegger is crowing to supporters about its defeat. Or on the other hand, you’re losing early on but confidently predict a reversal once LA County’s votes are counted—a reversal that never comes. A political scientist or pollster would have some idea what was coming, but when all you have is your heart to guide you, a little learning is a dangerous thing.

This is where I’m supposed to say that, while knowing a sport is fun and all, there’s something cool or exciting or mysterious about being in the dark about where it’s all going. But screw that; it’s way too stressful, especially with basketball, and it makes you look and feel like an idiot. And besides, knowing what usually happens is the only way to be properly wowed when things go differently. (I was excited when, while I was in England, the US upset Portugal 3-2 in the 2002 World Cup, but the stunned Brits watching with me got an appreciation that I, ignorant of the impossible odds, couldn’t share.) Anyway, off to go see what the hell happened in this game!

I finished this at midnight central time, but scheduled it to post at a time folks would actually be awake. Not only did the Warriors win the game, but they won it by 17—exactly the halftime margin. The sport is just messing with me now.

Image credit: Golden State Warriors by keithallison is distributed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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