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The Little Parts of a Basketball Game Are What Make the NBA So Fun

From impromptu layup-line dunk contests to the sound of squeaking shoes and lip-reading shenanigans, what’s on the periphery is often the most entertaining

Ringer GIF

The first person in my neighborhood growing up who had a basketball hoop was this boy named Barry who lived across the street from me. His dad put it up for him when we were both in the sixth grade. There was a group of us — say, eight or nine kids — who lived within a couple of blocks of each other and were all no more than a few years apart in age. We’d play basketball together all the time. I can’t even imagine how many hours of games we played on that hoop. It was instrumental.

The thing of it was, though, that Barry’s dad was this very big, very intimidating guy. (The best way to describe him is to say that he was built like White Suge Knight.) And so nobody would ever even dare to go shoot around on the hoop if Barry wasn’t there, let alone try to play a game. So what would end up happening is after school I’d be at my house in my room, and I’d make sure the window was opened a bit. And I’d go on about my day, watching TV or listening to music or whatever, just waiting, listening, waiting, listening. Because here’s what I grew to know very quickly that year: A basketball being dribbled on the concrete has a very specific sound. It has a cadence and a measure to it that isn’t like anything else. And so when I would hear it come from across the street, past the burglar bars on my windows, into my room and then into my ears, I knew it could mean only one thing: Barry was out there. Which meant only one other thing: It was time to play basketball.

Basketball at any level has those little things, be it stuff you experience when you attend a game in person (watching NBA players walk around and stretch and whatnot before a game is oddly mesmerizing) or watch a game on TV (probably my favorite TV basketball-watching thing is when a game is a blowout and the announcers start talking about things not directly related to the game they’re supposed to be calling; Mike Breen and Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy are the best at this sort of thing). Let’s do more of those. Let’s do more of some of the peripheral things in basketball that are good.

The way an arena insta-fills with hope and potential joy when someone on the home team lets a 3 go. It’s so much fun and also so tense for those two and a half seconds the ball is in the air. The second-best version of this is when it’s a late 3 to put a team up (or even win the game), but the best version is when it happens after the home team has gone on a run to erase a big deficit and it’s the 3 that finally put them in the lead. (There are certainly more recent examples, but one of my favorite times this happened was when the Spurs and Nets were playing Game 6 of the 2003 Finals and the Spurs, for the first time all game, finally grabbed the lead in the fourth quarter on a 3 by Stephen Jackson that was part of a 19–0 run.) And, since we’re here …

The way an arena insta-fills with energy and awe when someone on the home team has a big play that’s embarrassing to someone on defense, like a nasty crossover or dunk. An exactly perfect example is the time that Andre Iguodala shook poor Quincy Miller so thoroughly that he had to go into the witness protection program for six weeks. Watch that clip and listen to that sound. It’s true art. (Conversely, the worst thing in the world is if you’re watching a game and you get distracted for a moment by, say, someone knocking on your door or whatever and you get up to get it and then you hear the celebration noise behind you. You have to experience those moments in real time to get the real effect. It’s the only reason I refuse to ever pause or rewind a game.)

The way some players have little routines or habits that you can grab ahold of and mimic. When my wife gave birth to our twin sons, the first thing I did when the doctor handed me one of the boys was hold him the way Tim Duncan would hold the basketball before every Spurs game. (Immediately after that, FYI, I bank-shotted him into his crib and then got back in perfect defensive position.)

The way some players decide to have an impromptu dunk contest during pregame layup lines. I will never for my entire life forget watching Karl-Anthony Towns do between-the-legs dunks before games in summer league prior to the start of his rookie year.

The way a player will solemnly tap himself on the chest twice on the way back down the court as a way to acknowledge the mistake he’s just made. This is a good way to acknowledge a mistake on a basketball court, yes, but that’s it. It doesn’t work anywhere else. If you’re, like, a lifeguard and you pull someone who was drowning out of the water and give them CPR but they end up dying, then you can’t get up and solemnly tap your chest twice as you jog back to the lifeguard station.

The way, on the most special of occasions, someone in one of the seats in the lower section will get bonked in the head by a loose ball because they weren’t paying attention. To be clear, this is funny only when it hits someone on the top of the head or maybe even on the side of the head. It’s never funny when it hits someone in the face. Remember when that one woman got hit in the face with the ball during the Hornets-Kings game? The video is above this bullet point. Watch it. It was super not funny. In fact, it was downright sad. Her glasses get knocked off her face and her hair gets knocked into the air. It’s terrible. And to make matters worse, the guy next to her for sure should’ve been able to stop the ball, but he chose not to. And to make matters doubly worse, it wasn’t even her fault she wasn’t paying attention. The person next to her was showing her something on a cellphone. (My greatest hope is that the two of them were watching that famous video of the little kid getting hit in the head with a basketball.)

The way a player will give low fives to the other players on his team after he shoots his first free throw. An interesting variation of this one is when a player is shooting a technical foul free throw all by himself and he still reaches out for the high fives like his teammates are there.

The way the fans in an arena boo while someone on the opposing team shoots free throws (or the way they’ll boo someone they don’t like every time he touches the ball). A quick story: When I was teaching middle school a few years ago, I was explaining to one of my classes about how easy it is to influence people to get them to do what you want them to do. They bucked back some at the idea (“No one can make me do anything I don’t wanna do,” things like that), so, as a way to prove my point, I ran an impromptu mini-experiment at the end of class. (This was about an hour after the initial influence conversation.)

I asked three kids from three different parts of the classroom to run a menial errand for me, and I told them when they got back to wait for me outside the door. (I told them we might be taking a quiz and didn’t want them to interrupt.) When they left, I explained to the remaining kids that what we were doing was proving what I’d said earlier about influencing people. I said what we were going to try to do was try to make each of the students sit in a different seat than the one he or she had gotten up out of when they left class, without telling them that’s what we wanted them to do.

To do so, I explained, we were going to boo each person when they walked toward the wrong seat and cheer for them when they walked toward the seat we wanted to them sit in. Easy stuff.

So the kids come back from the errand and one of them knocks on the door and I answer it and I tell the first kid to come in and the others to wait outside. He walks in and everyone is looking at him. He starts walking toward his seat, and everyone starts booing him. He stops and looks at me and I look at him and the rest of the class laughs a little. He starts back toward his seat, and everyone starts booing again. He takes a step in a different direction, everyone starts clapping and cheering, and right then he figures out what’s happening. He starts walking all over, searching for the cheers and trying to avoid the boos until he eventually finds the seat he’s supposed to sit in. He sits down in it, and the class goes nuts. I let the second kid in, and she figures it out even faster than the first kid. Then I let the last kid in.

He walks in, sees everyone is looking at him, starts toward his now occupied seat, and everyone begins booing him. He ignores it and keeps walking. He gets to his chair (which the first kid who came in is now sitting in) and just stands by the other kid. Everyone in the class is booing. He doesn’t move. The boos get louder and louder. He still doesn’t move. The boos keep growing and, I mean, we’re talking about boos for at least a solid 45 seconds straight. And he’s looking at me and I’m looking at him and he’s looking at me and I’m looking at him and then — and I couldn’t even believe this happened — he very loudly and very clearly goes, “Man, what the fuck?”

The whole class went quiet. They were all looking at me waiting for me to do something. And, really, what could I even do? I couldn’t very well send him to the office for cussing because the only reason he cussed was because of the experiment. And really, he was a sweetheart of a kid and I liked him a bunch so I wouldn’t have sent him to the office even if he’d just cussed for no reason at all. So I just went, “Sometimes experiments don’t work, I guess.” And that was that.

At any rate, I tell that story to say: Booing is effective, until it’s super not.

The way refs make calls when they’re feeling very excited or into the moment. It’s kind of adorable when they get all wound up.

The way a player will point to someone on his team after a made bucket as a way to acknowledge an assist. There was a study in 2015 that established that the most successful teams in the NBA were also the teams that had the most high fives and fist bumps and so on during a game. I’ll bet there’s a similar correlation between the best teams and the number of Thank-You Finger Points that occur during a game.

The way a coach calls a timeout when he’s upset with his team. There are a couple of different ways they do it. The most enjoyable one (when it’s not the team you’re rooting for, anyway) is when he walks, like, 10 steps out onto the court in disgust before he gets around to calling the timeout.

The way an opposing bench tries to not react when they’ve just watched a mega-dunk happen against someone on their team. It’s called the Stifle, and you can read more about it here. And since we’re already talking about opposing-bench-related things …

The way a player will turn around and look at an opposing bench after he’s made a shot right in front of them while they tried to distract him. Always a treat.

The way shoes sound on the court. It’s the no. 1 basketball noise of all the basketball noises. Walking into a gym and hearing it (or turning on your TV and hearing it) has a certain therapeutic quality.

The way a player will interact with fans for a second after he’s just dived into them trying to chase down a loose ball. A good one is that time when JaVale McGee was playing for the Nuggets, tried to save a loose ball, and ended up in the first row of the stands. He put his arm around an old woman, looked at her, kissed her on the cheek, and then sprinted back down the court to get on defense. When the cameras went back to see how she was doing, she had a big smile on her face and was wiping tears from her eyes.

GIF of Jimmy Butler saying, “What the fuck was that?”

The way you can sometimes read a player’s lips and know what he’s saying. If you were to gather every one of the little parts of watching basketball that make it great and so much fun (which we definitely did not do here; we’re missing about 200 more), the thing where you read a player’s lips and can figure out what he’s saying is hands down, far and away, no question about it, the very best thing. And it doesn’t even have to be a cussing thing (although reading someone’s lips when they’re cussing, like last week when Jimmy Butler said, “What the fuck was that?” to Taj Gibson after Gibson tried a full-court shot, is always great).

The other night, for example, when the Kings and the Pelicans were playing, Zach Randolph and DeMarcus Cousins got into an altercation. There was a tiny amount of pushing, and that was fine. But the part that’s going to live on always is what happened afterward. The two lined up next to each other during free throw shots, and Randolph, who is perfect in every way, said to Cousins, “Where I’m from, the bullies get bullied. In my hood, bullies get bullied.” And, definitely, it was excellent because that’s such a fucking gnarly thing to say DeMarcus, who is a wonderful NBA bully. But also it was great because even if you weren’t able to read his lips and catch it at the time, you were able to go back after it had been deciphered and see for yourself if that’s really what he said. And that’s just such a satisfying feeling, for some reason.