Friday, March 30, 2012

The Music of March Madness

The video above is to be played while you read this piece. 

More than any other sport I’ve played, basketball is about the “chemistry” that develops among the players on a team. When I say “chemistry,” I’m referring to the players’ awareness of their teammates’ intentions, their ability to coordinate to write and instantly rewrite scripts for themselves. A good basketball team thrives on its knack for improvising within a structure.

Put another way, basketball is like a jazz tune with endless variations. There’s a beat, a bass line and solos that can appear out of the blue. 

The other sports I grew up playing were baseball, football and tennis. As an adult, I took up (organized) softball and Frisbee-golf. I still play Frisbee-golf (disc golf) regularly. Consequently, I’ve played sports virtually all of my life.  

Baseball was my first love. At the top level of play, there are 25 men on a Major League Baseball roster. Still, while baseball is obviously a team sport, the players are stationed far apart on defense and rarely move out of their designated area to defend. On offense, for the most part they act one at a time at the bat, and somewhat in cooperation on the base paths. When a substitution is made the player who came out of the game cannot return to action in that contest.

First loves are always special, so none of this is meant as a putdown of baseball.

Under current rules there are 53 men on a National Football League active roster. When a play is in motion there’s a good deal of interaction among the 11 players on the field, while 42 teammates stand and watch from the sideline. Players on the offensive squad are never in on the same play as their defensive counterparts. For the most part, in practices they are coached by different men.  

Football plays last a few seconds, usually less than 10. Then everyone stands around for a while until the next play. With football, sometimes the momentum one team is riding can be palpable, but no refers to that group mindset as chemistry. 

Baseball, naturally, has a meandering pace all of its own. It's been suggested to me that soccer has a basketball-like chemistry. I don’t know since I didn’t play it much as a kid, or ever.

An old friend who also used to play basketball told me he liked my basketball is jazz thing, OK, but as a drummer in a blues band he had to point out there’s an element of blues in most jazz. Perhaps that's true, but I'm not much of music historian. Still, toward his point, I’ll say that the most basic offensive play in basketball, the pick-and-roll, is maybe that blues element of basketball.

The pick-and-roll is a two-man play. In a nutshell, it works like this: While facing the basket I’m dribbling the ball, some 18 feet away from it. My teammate is standing just inside the free throw line on the right side of the key. By passing by my teammate so closely that the man guarding me runs into him, I am forcing the defense to make a choice: Does the man who had been guarding me continue to try to keep up with me, as I pass by my teammate and head toward the basket? Or, does the man who had been guarding my teammate switch and pick me up?

Each time that happens it depends on what the defensive team has planned to do in that situation. And, it depends on the moment’s truth. No matter what the two defensive players do, if I run the play correctly there will be a split-second when there will be gaps to exploit. I might keep going toward the basket. Or, I might pass the ball to my teammate, who rolls to his right into the key and also heads toward the basket.

That play is like a basic blues riff. It’s the same notes every time … it just depends on how you play it.

In a basketball game a team only has five players on the floor at one time. Until a referee blows a whistle, usually because the ball goes out of bounds or someone commits a foul, the play is continuous. One team shoots, whether they score or not, the games moves on. The game doesn't stop for runs scored or made goals. When a good team is running a fast break all the players know the angle they should take by something akin to instinct. When the chemistry is right, stopping a well-run fast break, or a perfectly executed pick-and-roll, is anything but easy to do. 

For my musical friends, who like to follow March Madness but never really played much basketball, I hope this helps.

1 comment:

Matt Zoller said...

Duke Ellington's famous 1956 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival nearly ended in a riot with saxophonist Paul Gonsalves whipping the dancing crowd into a fury. The festival director frantically signaled to Duke to stop, but the maestro just smiled and directed Gonsalves on to 27 choruses. When a player's in the zone, get him the ball.