Bill Russell, I respect you. You won more NBA titles than anyone in league history. But your skill as a prodigious shot blocker wasn't what turns me on about the game of basketball. Most honest hoops fans would agree.
While important to winning basketball games, blocking shots doesn't have the same allure and aesthetic beauty as tracking the ball as it moves through the air, hearing the thousands in the crowd go "woo...," and seeing the net flutter, coil, and almost jitterbug as the ball drops through and bounces to the wooden floor. The sight of this is like the prettiest girl at the prom.
As beguiling and, yes, as "hot" as it looks, the swish sounds even better.
If you've ever played basketball and shot a swish, you know how nice that sounds. It's the sound of success, fine-tuned accuracy, like nailing a final exam with a grade of 104 (you got the extra credit question right also). The swish sounds like a quick rope burn, a half second snap of fresh air, a statement of ???take that, look what I did.' Shooting a swish gets the opposite sex more interested in you; a bank shot might also but not to the same level of intensity. Even a swish by an opponent is something to behold. It impresses, dazzles, makes one say to oneself: "Look at that guy. He shot a swish. He's worthy of respect and admiration even if I personally don't care for him and don't want to go out for pizza with him."
Yes, a swish is like standing on a beach on a bright perfect day and feeling the wind blow against your thighs and lower back. The swish is the clean air of the outdoors that allows seagulls to float around seeking food from near a jetty. The swish is the violin you hear sometimes in your imagination, the piano you hear in Billy Joel's Piano Man, the boardwalk French Fry, the New York Giants missing the football playoffs.
The swish is basketball ecstasy, nine lives of nirvana. No rim, no backboard, just net and that incomparable breezy noise that, I believe, is the biggest reason the game is popular. Around the world, the sight and sound of the swish draws more and more people to the game and this will continue for centuries.
By contrast, the blocked shot doesn't swish anything. It's just a hand and arm meeting for dinner with a round ball. No whoosh noises, just skin on leather, a tap or swap. Taps and swats don't tingle and jazz like swish noises. While an effective play, it doesn't light up the scoreboard or move the needle in a tangible way that can be immediately posted for all to see. It's like back-office operations within a corporation, not direct customer interfacing.
I contemplated the blocked shot and the swish as I watched the NBA TV special the other night featuring one-hour interviews with Russell, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. Why is it that Michael is regarded as the greatest player ever when Russell won five more NBA titles (11) than he did?
One reason is the swish. Jordan swished countless more shots than Russell. He was a scorer. Jordan enthralled because he made so many more swishes and shots that may have touched the rim and gone in than almost anyone who ever played. So many. So many. And watching him and waiting for him to do this always brought satisfaction because he always delivered to us those experiences. It's the ball flying through the air and finding its way to the bottom of the net that captivates our attention more than anything else about basketball. Nowadays is there anything more fun to watch than Kevin Durant firing a 30 footer? His have a better chance of swishing than probably any other shooter in the world. He's a shot swishing machine; and high-volume manufacturer of good sounds using nylon. There is no one now I would rather watch shoot a basketball than him because he makes so many long range shots.
Before him there was Jordan and before Jordan there was Larry Bird. He nailed bombs all the time, often swishing them. A few years ago at the college level there was Jimmer Fredette, who launched bombs-away buckets for BYU as America sat transfixed. IN New York there is Joe Johnson of the Brooklyn Nets. He is so worth watching because he's got that shooter gene.
Although I respect them, I have never been a big fan of the Michigan State basketball teams. Consistent national powerhouses for sure, they never seen to have a lot of players who shoot lots of swishes. Built primarily on defensive intensity, which is important but not all that interesting to watch, they don't provide enough eye-candy for the viewer who wants to see the ball, more than anything else fly through the stadium and rip through the nylon. This is why the half court shooting contests during College Game Day captivate us; it's long range shooting. Last night I watched Michigan State play Indiana and, as usual, got bored. The Spartans didn't have enough guys making outside shots. No fun.
Heading into March Madness, I'm rooting for the teams with the best shooters to advance as far as possible. One caveat: I'm not rooting for Seth Curry of Duke. He's a great shooter and swishes a lot but I don't root for Duke. They've won plenty of basketball for one lifetime.
Look out for Creighton's Doug McDermott. Likely a First -Team All American and averaging 22 points per game, McDermott fires swishes from all over the court. Check out Scott Wood from NC State, a legitimate long range shooter. Track Brady Heslip from Baylor who takes gaggles of long range shots that go in often.
Basketball at its best is all about ripping the nets from downtown and then cutting them down a few weeks from now on one shining Monday night in Atlanta.