A Basketball Writer Who Can’t Ball

Bethlehem Shoals’ relationship with basketball exists solely through watching and writing about the NBA, and he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with that.


I’m not very good at basketball. There’s just no way around it. It’s not false modesty, no self-deprecating assessment on how I perform in a weekly YMCA game. I just don’t even bother. I can’t shoot, have no lungs, and can no longer rely on long arms and bounciness like I once did, narrowly, in my younger days. You do not want me shooting a free throw with anyone’s life on the line. I played in eighth grade; mostly, my job was to grab rebounds and push people. I idolized Pistons-era Rodman, but then again, at age 14 that kind of role is only so important. I was fazed out as soon as size, strength, and controlling possessions became anybody’s priority.

There’s nothing all that interesting here, except for maybe the fact that I’m only 33 years old and have no serious health problems. In a country increasingly defined by sloth, hopelessness, and short-sightedness, I just might be the American Dream. Except there’s one crucial detail missing: If I had to get at all specific about my job, I’m a basketball writer. An NBA writer, to be exact.

At least in the arts, there’s an old adage about critics being failed writers and musicians. The truth is a little more slippery. In music, many brainy artists write, and vice versa. Some of the finest critical essays about authors come from other authors. In sports, “those who can’t do, teach” manifests itself in the form of less-than-brilliant ex-pros who find great success as coaches or managers. But there, you still have folks who managed to play the game at the highest level, and in many cases, did so in a way that involved analyzing and unpacking the action in a way that those with raw talent don’t need to bother with. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the professional coaching class of football, which makes a certain amount of sense in a sport where much of the strategy is hatched from a perch high above the stadium.


The problem is, I really do like basketball. I may not be able to get much out of it by playing it, but watching it is an important part of my life. If it weren’t, this career of mine would be worth very little.

Athletes like to say, in anger, that writers who haven’t played the game can’t really understand what they go through. Certainly, they’re more amenable toward journalists who have played, or at least have some familiarity with athletes, at any level, of their generation. If it sounds like I’m skirting race here, I am. That doesn’t mean writing about sports is a matter of privileged information or a special perspective. Just getting it out there that, at least for the athletes themselves, author and authority might well run counter to each other.

It really shouldn’t matter that I’m bad at basketball, and haven’t really had much to do with that world … ever. I was never a jock. I’m not even sure I liked sports for much of high school and college. In fact, for me, writing about sports started to click only when I realized that it didn’t have to be circumscribed by the world of athletics, or understood in terms of who did or didn’t “get it.” Sports are out there for public consumption, as a public act, in a realm of meaning that impacts us in many ways. There’s a lot to say there, and at the same time, knowing your limitations is more important than understanding the limitations of sports. I probably shouldn’t be interested in basketball at all. But I am, and I’ve come to terms with how far I am from the sport itself.

The problem is, I really do like basketball. I may not be able to get much out of it by playing it, but watching it is an important part of my life. If it weren’t, this career of mine would be worth very little. In this respect, the NBA Lockout is a tremendous drag. I know, this would be the off-season anyway. How many die-hard fans, though, look at the Summer Leagues as some of the most deliriously interesting, weird, and info-rich ball of the entire year’s cycle? This year, we get none. Kevin Durant lighting up the Rucker just isn’t the same. It’s fun, but it’s one man’s exceptional play, not the full weight of the sport floating up above me. It’s not communing with basketball.

Now, I know that sounds like a silly thing for me to say. After all, I don’t play. I can’t play. My relationship with the sport exists solely through the play of others, as a spectator. But sport is in the details. Durant was fireworks; the summer leagues are like sifting through a massive, often incoherent, archive of information. It’s that kind of immersion that, to me, unites the best players with the most ardent observers—even the basketball-inept ones like me. With no NBA in sight, I’m thinking of going down to the gym and taking part in some light weeknight run. If basketball won’t come to me, then I guess I have to go to it.

—Photo jaqian/Flickr

About Bethlehem Shoals

Bethlehem Shoals is the NBA Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. He was a founding member of FreeDarko.com. and is currently raising funds for his new project, The Classical.

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