If you could talk back to a talking basketball, what would you say? No Idea? Good, that’s what we’re here for.
[If you’ve been watching the NBA playoffs (if not, what the hell?) you’ve seen the league’s “Talking Ball” commercials. It’s a ball, an eyeless, orange orb, talking about a famous NBA Finals moment. Sometimes it's with an ex-player, sometimes the ball's by itself. Either way, they’re scary and just ridiculous. So, for the next week (and hopefully longer) we’ll be celebrating the NBA Finals with our own Talking Balls. We’ve gathered up some of our favorite writers, but more importantly, our favorite NBA fans to tell us what NBA Finals ball they’d want to talk to. It’ll be hilarious, tragic, and heartbreaking. Things will probably get weird too, but be sure to check back each day and join us for “Talking to Talking Balls Week.” You’ll have fun. I promise.
To kick things off, Bethlehem Shoals tells us why these balls are so damn absurd.]
The NBA is great at “memes,” or what used to be called conceits. We should expect no less of the only major league yet to realize the value of opening up its game footage to YouTube viral pirates the world over. Their “Amazing” campaign successfully tried its hand at NFL Films-style pomp, while wisely choosing rhapsody over opera; more importantly, it spawned a thousand online imitators (and parodies). This season’s Human Bobblehead spots, while not quite as portable, were every bit as smart and direct.
This postseason, though, things have run ground with—please, no giggles here—the Talkin’ Balls spots. These are, again, remarkably straightforward, easily replicated by the league or fans. The problem is, each situation, and the personalities involved, do way too much to color the proceedings. It’s not just that basketball voiced by the likes of Hank Azaria and Charlie Murphy is an outright silly idea. Inanimate objects coming to life is a staple of bad advertising. When the balls collide with actual players, or our memories of them, the results range from baffling to crass.
Look around you. Now, imagine that your pets can talk. That’s a major motion picture starring the Mall Cop guy. Your infant? That’s the nauseating E-Trade campaign, which simply refuses to die. Your computer? A 2001 parody, done twelve-thousand times over. And, as Patrick Dorsey noted, talking objects are hardly a new idea in sports. What makes these balls special, in theory, is that they haven’t suddenly sprung to life. They carry history within them, were sentient throughout, and can tell us about it. The assumption being that either the players themselves are too busy, or that our own perspective is somehow less true, or at least incomplete without hearing from the ball of the moment.
Unfortunately, the balls stay true to themselves, and pretty much just tell us what it’s like to be a ball. They give us details of flying through the air, of what a last-minute possession looked like from the thick of the action. In the end, though, these are still balls. They are stupid. Making them anything else, or any more insightful, would blow the concept wide open. There’s an admirable stubbornness in there, maybe even a germ of absurdism. It’s certainly in line with a certain brand of “yes, we’re sticking with this, and that’s the gag” humor. The problem is, the ball is neither stupid enough to be funny, nor smart enough for us to want to listen.
Some of these problems are addressed in the ads that pit a ball against the man who made it famous. It’s misleading to suggest that these were intended to correct anything; that’s not how ads get made, and plus, these more elaborate ones are best understood as an expansion on an idea. They are nearly somber in tone, or at least glossed by nostalgia and “Amazing”-style ambiance. Dr. J and Magic Johnson, each in their own way, sure seem eager to reminisce with an old friend. Actually, these sound like a former stud catching up with an ex-mistress. Presumably, this reunion is the grounds for the pathos, the added seriousness. Except the balls—even as they remain differentiated by their celebrity voice-overs—bring little to the table.
Magic mugs, and charms. Erving is a mix of gravitas and wonder, as his perspective on one of the NBA’s most famously inventive shots is revealed. The ball is cowed, if balls are capable of such things. It is utterly passive, contributing little more than pat wisecracks and occasional reminders of details that only a ball would remember. Ultimately, though, it’s a prop, albeit one that injects an element of confusion into the players’ testimonials. Magic gets something to look at, an audience that allows him to tip from giddy to silly. Erving comes off as gentle, apologetic, as if the sheer beauty of that play had made for mutual trauma. Such is the price of the basketball sublime!
Needless to say, these ads would be much better without the ball-as-interloper. But then they wouldn’t be consistent with the meme, which is likely part of the NBA’s agenda here. As flawed as the Erving and Magic spots are, though, nothing compares to the Michael Jordan, 1996 one. The seriousness is turned up to 11, the ball suddenly assuming an emotional intelligence that previously seemed to come from the live humans. Jordan is shown on the ground, weeping, after winning a title dedicated to his murdered father. The ball is at a loss for words, presuming that it somehow shared in this moment with MJ. It doesn’t take much to see why this is a bad idea.
As several folks have noted, this ad is also inaccurate. Jordan’s iconic post-game reaction came with the trophy, not a ball. Not only has the ball become more human than ever, and yet somehow less humane. It’s also inserted itself into history in the least amusing way possible. That’s the stuff of comedy; imagine if the simplest ads had a ball presuming to know more than it did, getting stuff wrong, or otherwise showing us the limits of a talking basketball. Instead, it’s in the most sensitive moments that the ball’s limitations—and those of the campaign—become most glaring.
But hey, at least the meme goes on.
More from “Talking To Talking Balls Week” at the Good Men Project: