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Feb. 7, 2011, noon

YouTube and basketball memories: FreeDarko’s Pasha Malla on fandom, curation, and democratized media

Editor’s Note: Last week, I read The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, the second NBA book produced by the people behind the NBA blog FreeDarko. (The first, The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, was really good too.) If you’re not familiar with FreeDarko, Deadspin founder Will Leitch described its writers as like “overcaffeinated, overeducated philosophy grad students who decided they could learn a lot more from NBA LeaguePass than from their professors. They saw Nietzsche in Zach Randolph, John Coltrane in the triangle offense, Moses in Moses Malone.”

It was the book’s final chapter that got me thinking beyond basketball and to more Lab-like matters. In it, writer Pasha Malla describes how YouTube’s endless seas of NBA clips, old and new, allow fans to recontextualize basketball history, challenging established narratives and creating a space for fans to push their own impressions of events and personalities. That sort of democratizing force has impacts across all media, including for news organizations.

I’m very pleased that the folks behind FreeDarko and the book’s publisher, Bloomsbury USA, have let me reprint that final chapter here. —Josh

As its name suggests, the Shot — Michael Jordan’s series-winning buzzer-beater against the Cavs during the 1989 playoffs — is iconic: “As the ball nestled through the net,” confirms NBA.com, describing an image we all can easily visualize, “Jordan pumped his fists in jubilation, completing a video highlight for the ages.” In time, the endlessly replayed Shot became representative of MJ’s transformation from showman to champion and a metonym for the very idea of legacy — it’s not just how dominantly you play the game, but how you’re remembered.

Yet this version of the Shot is also, to some extent, a fabrication. The original CBS telecast cut immediately (and in retrospect, bafflingly) to the reaction of then Bulls coach Doug Collins; Jordan’s celebratory histrionics only surfaced later, in archival footage. If the NBA is to be believed, the popularized version ranks with the moon landing and JFK assassination among the great live moments in American television history; this redux has become our memory of something most of us, watching Coach Collins tear around our TV screens, never saw.

The Shot was featured among the NBA’s “Where Will Amazing Happen This Year?” spots during the 2009 playoffs — as was a LeBron James dunk, a Manu Ginobili layup, and an alley-oop to Andrei Kirilenko, each slowed down, flipped to black-and-white, and soundtracked like the sad parts from Amélie.

The spots were solemn, bursting with meaning, somehow both stark and expansive, saying nothing and everything about these players and the sport they played. To call the clips highlights would be misleading; apart from Dr. J’s staggering reverse layup, few were aesthetically or athletically “amazing.” Rather, taking the Shot as a blueprint, they served as shorthand for larger narratives — of teams, of individuals, of the game itself. The goal of the campaign was to station these moments firmly, proprietarily, as commercials for an NBA product. As the Association has manipulated the import of Jordan’s ’89 game winner, so was this a perversion of nostalgia, wrenching moments out of context and playing them back as advertisements — effectively co-opting the personal experience of players and fans to reaffirm and sustain the NBA product. They also presented the potential for posterity as incentive to stay focused for all two and a half months of the playoffs: Don’t change that dial, the ads suggested; you might miss out on what we later decide is history.

Since the whole business self-referentially recognized the league as the locus of “Where Amazing Happens,” subsumed into this corporate agenda was the individual. Consider what the less blatantly commercial focus would have been had the choice of interrogatives been not “where” but “who.” Not only would celebrating the people who made these moments happen have rescued poor Manu and Andrei from the generic, stuff-of-history, NBA-sanctioned Jordan model, but it would have also acknowledged that the Association’s true organ of experience is much more human than what can be captured by a branding strategy.

The WWAHTY? campaign suggested that having experienced these scenes for yourself, awash in your own set of feelings, was secondary to the teleological packaging. But any fan’s enjoyment (or misery, or bafflement, or envy) is always colored by his or her own subjectivity. We bring to professional basketball, and project upon its athletes, our own hopes, desires, fears, anxieties, and (sure, failed) dreams. For the league to try and tell us which moments are definitive and epochal seems not only counterintuitive but ignorant of the two-part engine, far beyond the NBA executive, that drives the game in the first place: players and fans.

But there’s hope, a place where we find individualism — the “who” ignored by the league — rekindled, a place that reemphasizes the relationship between the great (and, occasionally, not-so-great) athletes of the NBA and those who obsess over them, a place that puts the power back in the hands of the people: YouTube.

It’s on YouTube that WWAHTY? has spawned a legion of imitators. In the same style and with the same background music, these homemade approximations reclaim the subjectivity ignored by that thoughtless campaign. Take, for example, DWade3TV’s version, which ends with “Where Will Amazing Happens [sic] This Year?” superimposed in Arial bold italics over Dwyane Wade celebrating a regular-season game winner. Similar DIY spots have been created for Vince Carter, Derrick Rose, Joe Johnson, Allen Iverson, and countless others who didn’t make the “official” cut but who do have legions of slighted fans who in turn have done something about it.

Much like the knock-off “Abibas” high-tops you might find in a Chennai market stall, there’s something wonderfully fallible and defiant about these clips when contrasted with the NBA’s slick production. And while it’s sometimes hard to tell when the irony is intentional and the defiance inadvertent, it mostly doesn’t matter. What’s most important is that YouTube affords fans a venue to curate what they, not the league, consider “Amazing.” Rather than having history defined from on high, this unauthorized alternative of who and what (and where) might be the only venue for this sort of agency. Most important, it serves as an archive of collective memory, a much more comprehensive document of what professional basketball means to its fans than the league’s various CliffsNotes versions.

Basketball is a sport of continuous motion, or unbroken action, of games that must be seen from the start for that final buzzer-beater to make you leap screaming off the couch or hang your head in disgrace and shame. But the era of the highlight, as with all similar packaging of real-world content, forever changed the way the NBA was consumed. SportsCenter, as a convenient example, has since its advent in 1980 made the summary of games a project of fragmentation, and viewers have come to accept this as a means of understanding what happened around the league on any given night. What summarizing games in snippets misses, of course, is all the tension and nuance of the original: We get the final score and the big plays but, regardless how hysterical the accompanying narration, none of the feeling of the game itself. That feeling is, of course, always subjective, and nothing that can be transmitted without the totality of all forty-eight minutes (and all those off-the-clock minutes in between). While it was surely just as emotionally riveting at the time, who besides the odd nostalgic Cavs fan remembers Craig Ehlo’s apparently series-clinching layup only seconds before Michael Jordan made the Shot? (Check it out on YouTube!)

But if fragmentation has become the process by which basketball is replayed, and so remembered, at least on YouTube what the game means to actual human beings, as opposed to the league or the networks, is being restored. Beyond the WWAHTY? rips, here fans celebrate and share not only the amazing, the remarkable, and the sublime, but also the banal and the ridiculous. It’s a long, long season, and maintaining engagement often means having to nerd-out on the details; what’s “Amazing” about the NBA, to many of us, certainly isn’t limited to its career-defining moments. There aren’t many of those, anyway, and the crystal-ball project of trying to identify them as they happen, without the value of hindsight, can be spurious, if not impossible. The Shot, after all, didn’t become the Shot until Michael Jordan the guard became Michael Jordan the ultimate triumphant megastar and the NBA decided it was the birth of a legend.

“Amazing,” for YouTube user marik1234, is “Nate Robinson breaks Jose Calderon’s ankles.” In this seventy-nine-second clip, Robinson sends poor, hapless Calderon flopping to the floor with a ruthless crossover, is fouled on the ensuing drive, and has his shot swatted away. It’s a dead play, without any of the narrative weight we associate with the Shot — and never the stuff, for myriad reasons, of a WWAHTY? commercial. Fifteen years ago it would have been forgotten, lost and deleted from the league’s official record. But marik1234 has ensured that the moment will live on — if not for eternity, at least long enough that a staggering 1.5 million viewers have watched the clip since its posting.

If that number is any indication, YouTube represents a new kind of communal mythmaking, one that resists the great dictatorial hegemony of the NBA administration in favor of something approaching democracy. Like any democracy, it’s flawed (unfettered access can make the site something of a crazy train), but taken as an archive, hoops-on-YouTube offers a much more comprehensive understanding of how the game is played, watched, and remembered than those limited moments sanctioned by the league. And, fittingly, each post mirrors the remarkable self-expression so prevalent in professional basketball: Think what we learn or can at least speculate about marik1234 from his post — every portrait is a portrait of the artist, after all.

There’s an assertion of autobiography, of stamping one’s existence onto the world, in any creative gesture — be it a Nate Robinson crossover or curating (appreciating, recording, editing, posting, sharing) that crossover for mass consumption. YouTube is about fans appreciating the game on their terms: It allows the masses to contribute to the larger narrative of the NBA beyond the league’s savvy marketing and even the players’ own attempts at self-definition. YouTube renders meaningless the whole “this broadcast may not be retransmitted” legalese, a fitting demonstration of the limits of the league’s jurisdiction over personalized experience, as well as how backward it is for a corporation to claim our game as their property. In a culture with increasingly fewer opportunities for the individual to trump the institution, YouTube has become a platform for fans to assert themselves and what they feel to be their personal relationships with the game and its players.

On one hand, YouTube represents an even more radical descent into pastiche, with seemingly random moments and insignificant games elevated to the same level as the ones that really made a difference. But if any official record of NBA games (or careers) is a fall from the paradise of fan subjectivity, then these bits and pieces become — however unwittingly — an attempt to restore the notion of individualized experience. After all, one fan’s insignificance is another’s “Nate Robinson breaks Jose Calderon’s ankles” — or “Nate Robinson breaks Steve Blake’s ankles,” or “Nate Robinson breaks ankles of a boy in an exhibition in Málaga.”

Who knows if YouTube will ever succeed in overthrowing its own ontology — there are scores of old games sitting on there, and none are as often viewed as the so-called mix tapes that abbreviate the careers of Clyde Drexler or Dominique Wilkins into a sequence of money shots, most of them dunks. However, what’s key isn’t that the wholeness of game-as-text be restored, but that the complexity and totality of the game’s emotional truths are creeping back into fandom, and that fans now have a venue to share them.

While, if the Shot is any indication, the NBA’s branding engine seems content to feed us an image we never saw as a way of remembering a moment that only gained significance in retrospect, at least the curations of marik1234 and his thousands of fellow archivists are helping create an alternate, potentially more honest record of the sport as it has always been played and consumed. And if fans continue to corrupt the league’s attempts at memorializing professional basketball — as they have with the WWAHTY? rips — YouTube will not only challenge, but possibly even replace, the “official” document of what moves, frustrates, confuses, and amazes us about the NBA.

Pasha Malla is the author of The Withdrawal Method (stories) and All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts (poems, sort of). His first novel, People Park, will be published in late 2011.

Reprinted from FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, published by Bloomsbury USA.

POSTED     Feb. 7, 2011, noon
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