Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Game of Basketball

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Basketball makes a simple first impression – shoot ball through hoop, prevent opponent from doing the same – but possesses complex, ever-evolving intricacies that can captivate participants for a lifetime.  It can be played in various formats, from traditional five-on-five to one-on-none.  Young and old, male and female are welcome – separately or together.  Entry costs are minimal; no special (expensive) equipment is required, just a ball and access to a hoop.  Full or half court is fine.  The location can be as glorious as an NBA arena or as quaint as a high school gym, a well-worn public playground or a modest pallet and rim mounted to an oak tree. 

Few sports have transcended borders and bridged differences like basketball.  Dr. Naismith’s game, started humbly with a peach basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts, first grew into America’s game and is now, with players like Rui Hachimura from Japan, Luka Doncic from Slovenia and LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, a global treasure.  Michael Jordan was ahead of his time when he referred to the sport as not just “basketball” or “the game” but as “The Game of Basketball.”  The phrase acknowledged basketball as, in the simplest of judgments, “just” a game, but the formality of Jordan’s phrase, and the proud inflection he used speaking it, hinted at much more.    

With that said, January was a difficult month for the basketball community.  On January 1, former NBA Commissioner David Stern, a catalyst for the NBA’s growth in the 1980s and basketball’s global appeal, passed away.  He was 77.  Morgan Wootten, the storied DeMatha High School basketball coach, died on January 21 at the age of 88.  And finally, Kobe Bryant, along with 8 others, tragically perished in a helicopter crash on January 27.  He was just 41 years old. 

Collectively, the sport lost the NBA’s most important executive, perhaps its greatest high school coach and one of its iconic players.  But basketball tells only part of the story of these three legends.
Stern was complex.  He could be combative and condescending, but he was also intelligent, ambitious and possessed a grand vision for basketball that few could have imagined, let alone realized.  Without David Stern, would Hachimura or Doncic be in the NBA?  What about former stars like Yao Ming, Mano Ginobili and Dirk Nowitzki?

For me, Wootten’s impact is personal.  I once attended his famous basketball camp.  It was a brutal and fantastic immersion into basketball’s fundamentals - the triple threat offensive position, the “reach for the peach” shooting stroke, developing the off-hand and defensive positioning (get your base…butt…low) – and personal discipline within a team concept.  Here’s what fascinating about Wootten: he chose to coach high school basketball at DeMatha for nearly 50 years, shunning more lucrative opportunities at higher levels.  Wootten clearly chose fit, happiness and the chance to impact young lives over anything money could buy; countless men from the DMV region are glad he did.   

And then there’s Kobe.  Why?  He had so much left to do.  Smart.  Thoughtful.  Driven.  Competitive.  Kobe taught us the power of self-confidence and determination; he was proof of the correlation between hard work and success; he embodied the importance of continuous growth and curiosity.  However, Bryant wasn’t without flaws.  In 2003, he was accused of sexual assault.  Bryant was acquitted, admitted to the extramarital affair and apologized to all involved.  It was a terrible situation of his doing, and part of his legacy.  But nearly 17 years later, Bryant’s rededication to his marriage and growth as a father is commendable and undeniable.  An amazing second act seemed in the offing; it will forever be unfulfilled.         

Stern, Wootten and Bryant.  Executive, coach and player.  Three very different men.  Three very different roles.  They are linked, though, by profound social impact through a common profession.  They are linked by “The Game of Basketball” – a grand pursuit, one disguised as unimportant recreation, that trivializes human differences and binds the globe through shared passion.  So play.  Dribble.  Take a few shots.  Work up a sweat.  Wherever and whenever you can.  For as long as you can.  Stern, Wootten and Bryant would want it no other way.

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