It’s the structural differences between football and basketball (more specifically the difference in the structure of the scoring) that explain the often difficult task it can be to traverse back and forth between both sports as a fan. In one way the sports are similar; both are team sports that rely on the efficient functioning of the team as a collective, but also allow for sublime individuals to create purely individual moments that can decide whole matches. Lionel Messi zig-zagging through an army of defenders to score a winning goal is such a moment, as is Kevin Durant hitting a deep three-pointer to win a game in triple overtime. The issue is that Messi can score that winning goal in the first half, such is the comparative rarity of goals in most football matches. Durant can only hit that vital three-pointer to actually win a game in the dying seconds, the identical shot he hit in the second quarter, while making up a small fraction of the final points total, didn’t mean anywhere near as much. One goal in football , scored in the first minute, can win a match. The opening basket in a basketball game is merely a formality; it means nothing in terms of the outcome. This is why basketball is derided by football fans, they balk at its seemingly endless monotony, the constant back and forth of mostly made and occasionally missed shots. “The last minute of a basketball game, sure, that’s exciting, but the rest of is like watch paint dry” is the sentiment often repeated. In the other direction, predictably, basketball fans complain about the scarcity of goals, that a 0-0 draw is the epitome of banal. There are two scoring languages being spoken here, apparently untranslatable.
But the problem boils down to the opposing paradigms under which the concept of scoring exists in each sport. In football, the way you score a goal doesn’t make it any more important as a tally on the scoreboard. Whether it’s a wondergoal, a scrappy hack from close range, a miskick, a lob from the halfway line, it has no effect on how useful a thing it is to have done. They all count, as they say. Scoring is something you do to powerfully change a game, and because it is so hard to do, and therefore so rare, the way it happens matters a lot less than the fact that it happens at all. Sure, it looks better on a highlight reel, but you don’t really get much satisfaction from scoring a jaw-dropping gollazzo in a 2-1 loss. But a miskick (see Bacuna’s goal against Norwich) that ties or wins a match is better than any 30 metre screamer scored in vain. Scoring in football is so preciously and euphorically singular an act, like seeing Halley’s Comet or peeling off a yoghurt lid cleanly, it becomes clear why football fans can’t comprehend the rapid-fire scoring in basketball as acts in which to invest. Scoring means something different.
In basketball, for the majority of the game, a tug of war match is being staged, tiny pulls happening every 24 seconds or so, often, but not always, building to a crescendo of a single shot at the buzzer that cumulatively holds every iota of importance each of the previous baskets has meant. At this point, a score in basketball approaches the significance of a goal in football, hence the final moments becoming the most accessible for football fans. But until then (if it even gets to that point at all) scoring means something else entirely. It is an act of continuation for a game, an expectation for each possession. That means that a basketball player can assume the responsibility for that expectation, and can actively look to score by himself. So for a player doing this, scoring so frequently (with each basket meaning little early in the game), the waythey score becomes, if not more important, at least more interesting. It might be an incredible crossover, then an elegant ascent into the air, with perfect technique, the splayed and beaten defender looking up at the majesty of it all as the ball splashes through the net. Or an ultimate expression of power and dominance, an emphatic slam dunk over the top of a defender, futile in resistance, a ‘posterising’ slam as they say. These moments make the NBA a blockbuster Hollywood production, and yet they still all count the same as the rest, 2 or 3 points. But because of their glory they stand out as bigger than just the numerical allotment they are rewarded with. Basketball truly is a showman’s sport and these moments are the currency, not the points. And there can be dozens of them a game. The scoring itself is so common that to make it special there needs to be the eye-boggling flashes of brilliance to go along with them. Until those closing moments, scoring doesn’t mean points; it provides a vehicle for the performance of athletic miracles. It’s no coincidence that the superstars of the sport also happen to be the players most capable of consistently producing such miraculous feats. Indiana’s Paul George only averages slightly more points and assists, as well as less rebounds, than Golden State’s David Lee, but George’s ability to astonish you with incredible plays makes him a superstar, whereas Lee, reliable but unremarkable in his business, isn’t.