The athletes are too big. How big? Between 1963 and 1983, the average NBA player grew an inch, from six feet six inches to six feet seven inches, but his weight held steady at 211 pounds. Since then, along with yet another half inch of height, he has packed on 14 pounds of muscle. The change shows. It’s startling to see footage of those spindly fellows from 1983, with their slender shoulders, their vulnerable thighs poking out of their too-short shorts.
This bulking-up process has not only transformed the game, it threatens to render it obsolete. The artistry of basketball stems from the interdependence of its parts; the players must think and move as one, not just for violent bursts, as in football, but for longer, unscriptable lengths of time. Sure, a formal system is in place—the rules, plus the team’s offensive or defensive scheme—but within the parameters of that system each player has the freedom to act according to what he sees, and to what he intuits about what he cannot see. If he knows his teammates well, and anticipates their movements correctly, the result is harmonious and often beautiful.
In the modern NBA, however, with a metric ton of humanity on the floor, there no longer remains room for five players to move. The isolation play, the two-man game, occasionally the triangle: Formally speaking, these are the best the NBA can offer. Forget the fact that the basket is too low, no longer commensurate with our capacity for jumping; there’s not even space on the court to accommodate all the bodies. For precisely this reason, many serious fans have turned their attention to the college or even the high school game. Meanwhile, the NBA is coming to resemble bloated Hollywood, trotting out its stars more as icons of human potential than in celebration of their actual performance. We like to think of our professional sports leagues as permanent institutions—hence all the talk about athletes and teams making ‘history’—but a sport with no sense of proportion, already outgrown by its own best players, is probably in decline.
Baseball faces a similar dilemma. (Only football, of the major American sports, seems immune so far. The field has proved wide enough to accommodate the advent, not to mention the ass, of the 400-pound noseguard.) The average baseball all-star has squatted, curled, and juiced his way from 199 to 211 pounds in the past 10 years, and the effects on the game have been profound. Home runs are being hit at unprecedented rates, not just by Barry Bonds but by the little guys as well. No position in sports has changed more in 20 years than second base, once the refuge of the puny intellectual (former Boston Red Sox player Marty Barrett), now usurped by sluggers like the Houston Astros’ Jeff Kent.
Because the dimensions of ballparks are irregular and subject to change, baseball would seem better equipped than the NBA to contend with the growth of its players, but in fact the trend continues toward smaller, homer-friendly parks. Strikeouts have also reached record levels, accounting for nearly a quarter of the total outs in the National League last year. And thus the elegant, seemingly inexhaustible language of baseball runs the risk of being reduced to binary code, 0 for strikeouts, 1 for home runs—and in both cases the rest of the players plant their hands on their hips and watch.
In fact, the entire culture has bulked up, and the American male body has become, in effect, a miniature-version economy; for each, ‘health’ has come to be defined by accelerating rates of production and consumption, regardless of the long-term effects. Sports itself has undergone increasing corporatization. Players and coaches no longer use the word team; they speak of the franchise, the organization, and the program, reflecting the newly accepted wisdom that the real game takes place on the phone and in the front office. So perhaps it doesn’t matter how absurdly huge our athletes become; they are fungible commodities that can be broken down into numbers and swapped accordingly. It must only be a matter of time, then, until science invents a method to combine players, as American companies now combine assets, forming, to begin with, the fearsome, four-armed, home run-hitting, strikeout-pitching, black-white RandyBarryJohnsonBonds®.
Reprinted from n + 1 (#1), an engaging biannual journal of politics, literature, and culture; www.nplusonemag.com.