The prize for winning the Rufus on Fire Basketball Fiction Contest was a gift code to Amazon.com and the opportunity to chat hoops via email for publication on the site. Victor McConnell's story, "Shooting Threes and Eating Candy", was the winning entry, so we exchanged emails, talking hoops and a few other topics.
David Arnott (Rufus on Fire): What's your earliest memory of basketball? Do you think it's affected how you view the game as an adult?
Victor McConnell: I can't pin down my first basketball memory. Maybe it was the games of 21 with neighborhood kids in elementary school. My father was not a sports fan, and so sports weren't really a part of my early childhood.
I do remember the first time I watched the NBA finals with any real awareness. Bulls-Lakers in '91. I was ten.
Without a powerful, looming first memory, I can't draw any grand, down-the-road conclusions about what my early days with basketball did to me. Sorry for that.
However, I do recall wishing I were someone else, not an upper middle class white kid, during some of my early pick-up games at the Y... Like any kid, I guess I wanted to fit in, to be cool.
DA: I'm interested in your comment about wanting to be cool while playing basketball. When I was a kid, I never played pickup basketball; I was a baseball player, and it was always in some kind of sanctioned league. Can you pinpoint what was cool and respected about certain kids in your pickup games?
A tangent: that reminds me of my one real moment of basketball glory. It was after practice in 7th grade and the whole team was practicing free throws. Free throws were one thing I was confident (well, ok, cocky) about and so, thinking no coach was watching, I shot a free throw as a hook shot (and made it, I must say). Unfortunately, our coach had walked back onto the court at the moment and witnessed the act.
He immediately declared, "Well, we weren't going to run today [which was a lie], but that's changed thanks to McConnell goofing off."
The tradition with after practice running was that one person would be selected to shoot a free throw before each suicide - if they made it, it subtracted one suicide.
Everyone lined up along the baseline. I was, of course, shamed and angry. But then the coach called on me, saying that McConnell would shoot all of the free throws today since it was his fault. I was elated.
He said we had ten suicides. I sunk the first five before missing. We ran one suicide and then lined back up. I made the next three and Coach was smiling by that point. He picked up the ball and rolled it out to the three point line to try and disrupt my timing. I don't know if he intended for me to shoot it from there, but I did anyway and sunk it. Then one more from the free throw line and practice was over and glory was mine.
Funny the clarity with which I can recall that. A youthful memory, burned deep by the process of redemption, I suppose...
Alas, that was a high point rather than a springboard. By high school I concluded that I was a better baseball player (a dubious conclusion, as I was no superstar there, either) and bid farewell to organized basketball.
End of tangent...
So, as to what was cool and respected... I guess athletics itself was (and is) cool and respected. Displays of physical dominance and prowess. And while there was occasionally neighborhood football games or even boxing, basketball was the choice for pick-up games.
As a kid I remember seeing the older crowd playing at the Y. Upon reflection, they were the ones who seemed cool and respected. They had it all: lean musculature, peer respect, athletic skill... and clean, hip shoes.
I never was all that adept at keeping my shoes clean. In sixth grade, I remember staring at Lamont Hawkins' white, shiny shoes and saying "Lamont, how do your shoes stay looking so new?" He looked at me like I was a fool. "Always walk on the sidewalk, man!"
So... you were a baseball player as a youth? And now you run a basketball blog? Explain that trajectory.
(incidentally, I remain a baseball fan and am more excited about what the Rangers are doing, at the moment, than the Mavs)
DA: Yup, I was a baseball kid through and through. I played baseball from ages 4-18, when a college with no intercollegiate baseball and a crappy club team, a torn shoulder, and a messed up knee all combined to stop me from playing for good. It's a little weird to put it this way, but I've loved baseball and the San Francisco Giants longer than anyone or anything other than my parents.
Growing up in San Francisco in the late 80s through the 90s, I wasn't drawn to the Warriors more than any other NBA team, and my folks were completely uninterested in pro basketball. I first really started paying attention to basketball with the Brevin Knight teams at Stanford, and while I paid attention to the NBA through my high school and college years, I came to NBA fandom much later than most other fans; that was when I moved to Charlotte as an adult.
All that's to say that if you don't understand where I'm coming from when I talk hoops, take into account that I was a baseball fan first and I came to the game later in life, without being immersed in many of the myths and received wisdom that other fans my age take as givens. For instance, I think that's a major reason why I have little issue conceiving of the game as discrete actions which flow into each other, instead of a steady stream of action. Baseball is a series of actions which flow into each other in a given play, but it's easier for people to separate those actions than it is to acknowledge the different parts of a basketball play.
Is there anything about being a baseball fan, or a fan of another sport, that you find affects your basketball fandom? (Is picking up Pudge again like the Sixers grabbing Iverson again this season as the eighth man?)
VM: Yeah, my baseball career petered out my freshman year of college. I walked on to the team briefly and then left it for other physical pursuits...
The SF Giants, eh? I was on a study abroad in Fall 2002 in Barcelona and struggled to find a bar that would stay open for the World Series. During Game 6, I (along with a half-dozen other Americans) found myself begging a bar owner to stay open for the finish. Unfortunately, they insisted they had to close and kicked us out in the 8th inning, just after we'd seen the Angels comeback. Must have been a gut wrenching night for you. I was pulling for the Giants...
It was a privilege to watch Barry Bonds hit for that 5-year stretch. I always treasure watching someone do something if they are the best in the world at that thing. And when they are doing it better than any human being in history (as I believe Bonds was from 01-04)... Well, it can't be ruined by steroids or personality, for me... (but this is a big subject)
Well, I was always drawn to baseball stats, and the clarity that they provide (or, in some cases, claim to provide) has certainly informed my overall fandom. I remember writing a paper about Ty Cobb in elementary school. I think I chose him because he had the highest lifetime batting average (I didn't yet know that I should have been looking at OPS+ or wOBA or something).
And numbers remain an integral part of how I follow sports. Actually, I don't watch nearly as many games as I used to, for I don't have a TV. With basketball, I don't really have the statistical skills to decide whose system is the best. But I enjoy reading about them and seeing what conclusions they come to. And I'm quite curious about what metrics the teams utilize behind closed doors, since the data available to the public is more limited (compared to baseball). But my curiosity is a fairly casual one...
Learning about Cobb also likely served to teach me at a young age the Charles Barkley dictum: "I am not role model." Of course, Barkley is a far better role model than Cobb, though I did hold Cobb's drive, his competitive zeal, even his pathos, in high esteem. And then I grew to fully realize the extent of his racism, xenophobia, and proclivity for violence. I remember feeling pained and a little let down when reading a racist Cobb quote that derided basketball.
"Is picking up Pudge again like the Sixers grabbing Iverson again this season as the eighth man?"
It is similar in the sense of "franchise icon returns home in a secondary role." But Pudge is, I think, further removed from his prime than Iverson. Also, Pudge claims to be willing to accept a backup role. AI, not so much (not yet, at least).
I also think that Pudge might be more beloved across the entire fanbase than Iverson. Incidentally, it is amazing how inflammatory AI is. There are few players that polarize mainstream America and the blogosphere (see: Free Darko v. Wages of Wins) the way he does. I remember when Hoop airbrushed his tattoos away... When Iverson found out, his response was wonderful: "Hey, you can't do that. That's not right. Hey, I am who I am. You can't change that. Who gives them the authority to remake me?"
DA: All right, let's wrap this up with one last question, a traditional one. Who's going to win the NBA championship this year, and why?
VM: I don't know. If it were my job to make picks, I suppose I would just arbitrarily choose one of the 3-4 favorites. But it's not, so I won't pretend.
Thanks to Victor for his time, and here's hoping he keeps publishing, because he's clearly got thoughts worth reading.