It happened one night. During just another NBA game, on Jan. 3, while the Houston Rockets were in the process of beating the visiting Utah Jazz 104-102, uh, this friend of mine suddenly asked himself, "What have I been missing all these years? How could I have been so blind?" This friend isn't sure if his epiphany occurred after a thunder-and-lightning drive to the basket by Karl Malone, or a shot blocked from out of nowhere by Akeem Olajuwon, or one of John Stockton's 24 assists in the game, but he does know he walked out of the Summit that night a changed man. He had become a pro basketball fan.
Big deal, you're saying. But this revelation came to an unregenerate, not to mention degenerate, baseball fan, a man who loved his sport to the almost total exclusion of all others. He has three Rotisserie League teams, and he knows almost everything there is to know about everyone in baseball from Don Aase to Paul Zuvella. Once upon a time he casually followed the NBA, but he quit around the time Harthorne Nathaniel Wingo did. On his scale of importance, the seventh game of the NBA Finals ranked just below the Hall of Fame game, that midsummer exhibition played in Cooperstown.
So it came as a surprise to those who thought they knew him when this friend came back from an extended stay in Houston talking about how underrated Otis Thorpe is, and how the Rockets need to get back quicker on defense and—get this—how much better conditioned basketball players are than baseball players. He began poring over NBA boxes with the same zeal he devoted to baseball boxes. His friends knew he was in trouble when they spotted little white paper squares on his clothing, a telltale sign he had been punching out NBA All-Star ballots.
"All this time," he confided to anyone who would listen, "I bought the canard that NBA games are decided in the last two minutes, as if the players just go through the motions for 45 minutes or so and then turn it up a notch. But that's not true. They play hard all the time. Sid Fernandez wouldn't last a minute in the NBA. And they do the most amazing things with basketballs. I saw Magic Johnson throw a bounce pass on the run to James Worthy that must have broken 45 degrees sharper than anything Bert Blyleven ever threw.
"When a tight NBA game is finished—whether the home team wins or loses—there's this breathless feeling in the crowd that you just don't get in a close baseball game, unless maybe Kirk Gibson limps to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth of the first game of the World Series and hits a game-winning home run."
At this point, it should be revealed that this friend is a professional sports journalist who has covered baseball on a regular basis. "If you want to know the truth, when the games are over, basketball players seem to be better people than baseball players," he continued. "They're easier to interview, more thoughtful, more quotable. I had to talk to Thurl Bailey of the Jazz, a guy I didn't know from Adam, after a crucial shot he'd taken had been blocked by Olajuwon, and he was funny and insightful and generous with his time. I have the feeling there are scores of Thurl Baileys in the NBA. If he were in baseball, he would be as revered and unique as Don Baylor is.
"I'm not sure why this is, why basketball players are generally nicer than baseball players. It's not simply a matter of a college education; football players are college educated, too, and they're even less cordial than baseball players. Maybe it's because basketball players perform in their shorts—they know there's no way to hide from their responsibility to the outside world. I do know I would like to take a few of the more obnoxious Los Angeles Dodgers into an NBA clubhouse to show them how they should conduct themselves.
"The cultural differences are downright refreshing, too. After years of hearing baseball players talk about cars and the Oak Ridge Boys, it came as something of a shock to hear athletes talk about President Bush's cabinet and John Coltrane. I actually heard someone use the word utopia correctly in a sentence.
"Please don't be disappointed in me. I still love baseball above all other sports. I may love it more than even A. Bartlett Giamatti does. Now, though, I'll have something to follow between the Instructional League and the day in February when pitchers and catchers report."
Sooner or later, the pro basketball fan inside me...I'm sorry, did I say me? I meant my friend. Anyway, sooner or later the overnight NBA fan in him will come into conflict with the baseball fan—probably in late May when he'll have to choose between watching a Knick playoff game or a Mets-Dodgers game. His friends can't be sure what he'll do when the time comes, but right now this sports fan is busier than he used to be this time of year.