You can go to seminars. Watch inspiring Ted talks. You can study storytelling from Homer to Homer Simpson until you are yellow in the face. But we all have plenty to learn from the NBA. I just spent my best sleeping hours watching Game 3 of the Finals and the storylines are too many to count.
Over here in Europe it is hard to explain to people. They are used to the pathetic low levels of entertainment that soccer offers. They don’t mind watching multiple extremely boring games as long as once in a while someone dazzles them for a few minutes or scores a goal once every forty minutes. They put up with rigged matches and applaud Juventus, happily forgetting the unbelievable scandals that sent that very same team out of the picture a few years ago.
Every sport gets better when you know the storylines, the players, the drama. The NBA however is the only sport that makes sure you can’t miss them. Let me illustrate my point with just the most recent posts from the official NBA Instagram account today as I find them:
On the left a pretty straightforward “match up” type story. LeBron versus Curry. If some post Jungian psychologist wanted to frame this, we would say it is the anticipation stage of the story. Dramatic graphics, blue versus red, this is an eternal struggle as a poster. A black man with white clothes is keeping the ball away from a white man in dark clothes, their bodies locked, their wills at odds. The two greatest players of our time with the word “AT” between them.
Each player in the NBA has a tiered set of myths. LeBron is not just about his “legacy” or “Greatest Of All Time”. He is “chasing the ghost” and “returning to Cleveland” as a modern day Ulysses. On the right he is flying, the illusion of invincibility of the dream stage in any story as the hero has some success but…not quite. There is always something more. Like the endless supply of StormTroopers that Luke Skywalker shoots, the endless levels of a computer game.
The NBA excels in making stories out of older players too. Here we have LeBron, alive, in colour, next to a faded retro Bill Russel. Michael Jordan still makes millions from selling shoes on the back of this sort of myth making. And even much lesser players are kept around contributing to “the big NBA family”. Today I choked up as with a few simple gestures the NBA made a fuss about a person in charge of TV something or other. That’s how good they are!
In fact today as we watched, the sportscaster said “wow, those two are setting the stage to take a role in the future here”. He was referring to two players with microphones, another NBA first whereby we can listen to the players during the game. It really brings the action, the passion and the human stories to life. These two players, according to the sportscaster, will likely take a place as commentators. Indeed there are many great players now entertaining us, analyzing moves and making sure we understand what is happening. Shaq a prime case study of such a transition. On the left “4XMagic, legends reunited”. Players don’t drift off and disappear as happens in other sports and other leagues. If you make it to the NBA, you can be here for life, simply changing roles in the story. It is like DC or Marvel characters, ever weaving narratives along the way. The Warriors’ coach was a sportscaster before becoming a champion. Before that he was a champion with the Bulls as a player. It never ends.
In fact the NBA is so amazingly good at making stories of everything that all the social responsibility things they do seem relatively “normal”. LeBron can donate a hundred million for children from rough areas to study and we don’t even flinch. After all he is himself David Copperfield or Aladdin or some other mythological hero in his own story of rags to riches. You can watch a feature film about it. He produced it. And that was before the unbelievable way he brought the title to Cleveland after so many years. Rocky Balboa revisited with a very real “local boy” aspect, he deserves the statue even more than the one erected for Stallone’s film hero.
The NBA hardly allows a single bit of information to flow to social media or any other media without making sure it can be framed within stories. Steph Curry, the amazing little boy that nobody took seriously, like the Lord of the Rings bringing a title to a team which was at the bottom of the league for so many years.
The NBA produces so much content that fans can produce their own mini movies simply repurposing video. Some of them are quite good actually. Other fans produce short films with “footage” from games they edit together into a story or a video clip.
But they do so much more. I was amazed at the insightful comments of my younger son until I discovered the source of his basketball wisdom: short clips on Instagram which are converted with graphics reminiscent of NBA 2K showing how a team or a player executed a particular play. And it’s not just the spectacular stuff. Any and every aspect of the game are brought to the forefront. A particularly good example is the replay. While other sports like soccer avoided it like the plague (probably so that they could more easily rig matches), replay became integral to the NBA. They branded it, they gave it a story. Much like the frustration stage in a good story, when the hero struggles, is treated unfairly or is confronted with a seemingly unbeatable enemy. The referees go to the monitor. They wear big headphones so they can concentrate. We see it all, nothing is secret or vague. In fact now in the TV coverage they added a new character; the wise man who knows the rules and explains what is at stake. Again branded, this mini story within the main narrative ;the replay center brings a happy end to that particular scene with justice. We all saw that LeBron wasn’t stepping on the three throw line so here is one extra point for you retrospectively.
Most of what the NBA does is then copied in other sports. Only it is hardly ever quite as good. A large part of this has to do with the sport itself, the rules and the setup from its beginnings. An even larger part has to do with the fact that the players actually enjoy these roles we assign them. They participate. They embellish. They have their own marketing teams adding and playing with the themes. Some of the most creative adverts and brands around them are constantly building on the story lines.
If you have seen Space Jam or don’t know the story of Michael Jordan, his foray into baseball and his triumphant return, you have seen the Odyssey, Orpheus or the Ramayana. It is a classic story, a true story, an amazing story where the rise is followed by the frustration stage. His invincibility was lost, nightmarish enemies and threats appear and in the climax of the plot all hope is apparently lost. Like LeBron’s Cavaliers losing 3-1 in the finals. I lost good money betting against my Cav-fan son that they couldn’t turn it around. It had never been done by any team, let alone against the most amazing super team of all time. But in the resolution, Jordan, LeBron and the other NBA heroes get out there and overcome the odds. They are super heroes and we have witnessed and felt what ancient Greeks felt in a good tragedy.
A lot of people try to copy the NBA. And so they should. So we all should when our job is communicating. This is ten adults in shorts bouncing around an inflated piece of leather after all. If you don’t watch it, if you don’t take in a little of the plot, you will just say it is “boring”. The fact that they have me awake at 4am enjoying the drama shows I am hooked. The fact that the TV ratings are through the roof and revenue from all NBA related goods above the roof prove I am not alone.
Human beings try to assign meaning to puffs of clouds, to random numbers and to events in their lives related to the stars. Some say that is what God is. Our desperation to add meaning to the mystery of life. I’m not sure about all that. If there is a God, I am starting to suspect he too is copying storytelling techniques from the NBA.