Thursday, March 3, 2011

One on One

My beloved NBA takes a beating from time to time. Too many cornrows and tats. Too much flopping and whining. Too much of it not being football or baseball. I'm OK with the NBA not being for everyone, but I'm not OK with one criticism in particular: that too often it's just a game of isolation--of one-on-one.

(Author's note: there is no question that the phrase "one-on-one" has been tarnished over the years--first by the cheesy Robbie Benson movie, and then by the cheesy Hall & Oates song. Please don't let that cloud your vision of this very important sports topic)

Do people realize that one-on-one is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of sport in general? Is there anything more basic than going "mano-a-mano" ("hand-to-hand", as in combat, for those of you who are not bilingual)? Where would sports be without epic one-on-one battles like Ali vs Frazier, Federer vs Nadal, Tiger vs Phil, or Russell vs Wilt? Yes, many of those classic matchups occur in individual sports, but I would argue that team sports are as much about one-on-one as individual sports are. Let me explain...

Some fans have a problem with the NBA too often becoming a game of one-on-one. Do those fans have a problem with the one-on-one matchup of pitcher vs batter in baseball? Why don't people complain about the one-on-one matchup of receiver vs cornerback in football? Or pass-rushing end vs tackle? Why is "one-on-one" a dirty phrase in basketball, but not in any other sport? In fact, perhaps the most basic premise in team sports is the idea of winning your individual battle, isn't it?

In a football game, each player tries to win his little battle so that the play will work. It's a team sport, but each play is just a collection of small one-on-one battles being fought. And, if the battle plan works, it ideally leaves a running back in a one-on-one battle with a safety. We love that, don't we? Yet for some reason, fans ignore the series of picks and passes sometimes necessary to set up the NBA player in a position go one-on-one.

Aren't we all thrilled when Adrian Peterson gets into the secondary with one man to beat? Aren't we all thrilled when it's Cliff Lee vs Alex Rodriguez--one-on-one--in the ALCS? Why can't we be OK with Kobe going one-on-one with Ray Allen in crunch time for all the marbles?

NBA one-on-one gets a bad rap. Why? Is it because people just like to pick on The Association more than the NFL or MLB? Is it because some basketball fans have a puritan view of what they think the game should look like--all Princeton backdoor cuts and so much passing that the ball never touches the court? Truth is, if you watch enough NBA action, you'll see all of that--great passing, backdoor cuts, pick-and-roll, and yes, isolation. But the exaggerated view of "In the NBA four guys get to one side of the court while the star isolates on the other side and simply works one-on-one" seems to be a widely-held belief. Even still, for the sake of argument, let's just say that exaggerated view was accurate--so what? There is a beauty to one-on-one in any sport that fans should appreciate.

We jump out of our seats when a player gets a breakaway in hockey or soccer--when it's just that player one-on-one against the man in goal. For so many NASCAR fans, it's all about their favorite driver vs their most hated driver. Cycling generates the most interest not when two teams are duking it out, but when two team leaders are isolated on a mountainside, duking it out. A footrace may start with 8 or 800 contestants, but it almost always finishes as a battle between two.

Sports is all about one-on-one battles. Even team sports. We embrace the beauty of one-on-one in every sport but basketball--yet basketball is one of the only team sports that just two people can play--basic one-on-one. That can't really be done in baseball, football, soccer, or hockey.

It's time to cut the NBA some slack regarding too much one-on-one play. I'll address the cornrows issue after my next trip to the barber shop.

cc: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson