Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Basketball in Pittsburgh: an Examination

Virtually no one in Pittsburgh will want to read this article – and that is precisely why it needs to be written. Basketball in Pittsburgh is a curious entity. There is, obviously, no professional team, so there is scant viewer-ship rather than fan-ship in most cases. However basketball is, obviously (again), a sport, and in a sports-craving town, it finds its way onto the airwaves more often than one would perhaps expect.

I am not content to sit and toss out the old “Pittsburgh is a football town” routine when there is evidence to suggest that basketball resonates strongly on many cultural levels, even if it is usually in small capacities. Why does the majority of Pittsburgh abhor the NBA? What factors make it difficult for basketball to grow as a sport in Pittsburgh? Has it grown more than people realize? Is it even possible to consider an NBA team playing here?

Join me for an open-ended basketball exploration after the jump.

The NFL clearly dominates the modern sports realm and baseball is boringly scribed as the nation’s pastime, but more people played basketball recreationally last year than any other major sport – and by almost twice as much. The sport’s global presence has never been more prominent and/or visible (see: USA’s performance on the international stage in the last ten years; additionally, view: roster of the NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs). The fact that the game is being played recreationally by so many people and is spreading so smoothly to other continents supports a theory I have always believed to be true: that basketball is, at its most elemental level, easy to understand/watch/play. Baseball rules are largely arcane, while the prospect of exerting so much effort without even touching the ball in football can appear somewhat inequitable. For someone looking to quickly understand a new sport on TV, or for someone who wants to participate in an activity without waiting in right field fruitlessly, basketball is the perfect sport.

Yet the fact still remains: you will more often find ten people in Pittsburgh that do not like basketball before you find one that does. Is it simple enough to say that the lack of an NBA team produces a kind of “don’t know, don’t care” dismissal of the sport? In some ways, probably. The revulsion to the sport is still curious though – ask any other city if they wanted a new sports franchise (I’m looking at you, Kansas City) and they would almost always say yes, regardless of the city’s ability to adequately support the team. With Pittsburgh and the NBA, the response would likely be lukewarm at best.

In some respects, this makes sense. In others, it clearly does not. Let us consider some various factors to gauge the level of commitment to basketball in Pittsburgh.

University of Pittsburgh Basketball

Andy Manis, AP

Pitt has been a remarkably successful program for almost a decade now. They have a spectacular home in the Peterson Events Center, a stellar string of performances in the Big East tournament, and what I would consider to be a strong fan base.

In fact, the fan base is strong enough to honestly say that aside from Super Bowl victories and motorcycle crashes, I have likely heard as much talk show debate concerning Aaron Gray and Carl Krauser in the past five years as I have heard on any other topic. Outside of Ben Roethlisberger, I think it is safe to say that the most controversial figure in Pittsburgh this past year has been Aaron Gray. Endless sports columns and radio call-ins implored him to assert his large frame and stop missing three-foot put-backs. Similarly, Krauser appeared to be holding the team and the city hostage with his break-neck pace of play and streaky shooting – a polarizing figure, to say the least. With Sidney Crosby and David Littlefield, there is only so much room for debate on their performances. With Pitt basketball, there seems to always be a debate that the city grapples with every winter.

What always strikes me about the yearly obsession with Pitt basketball is that the quality of basketball is usually…well…pretty poor. It is a team focused on a defensive, half-court game that likes to hold opponents under 60 points and not score too much more than that itself. I constantly hear Pitt fans lament how hard it is to watch their favorite team – how it is sometimes downright painful to watch them scrape and gut their way through another Big East fracas.

How would Pittsburghers respond then to rooting for a team like the Detroit Pistons, a defensively focused team that actually has shooters and can score, all the while maintaining the blue-collar attitude that our city clings to so furiously? I used to think that such an experiment would surely fail, but my attitude has gradually changed. While watching the Louisville-Pitt game in the Big East tournament this year, several individuals next to me (who, after talking with them, did not appear to be the biggest of basketball fans) noted during the game how Pitt was mixing up its zone and man-to-man defenses to keep the Louisville offense off-balance. Perhaps a simple observation, but immediately after the game, Rick Pitino remarked that Pitt would be a tough team to beat if they continued juggling their defenses as they did.

A salient point made at a bar regarding a basketball game in Pittsburgh – not as uncommon as one would think.

High School Basketball
The documentation of football talent that has sprouted from Western Pennsylvania is as thorough as it is impressive. A lengthy discussion can take place to contrast the nuances and nostalgia of Western PA football versus the less mythologized sport of basketball, but such pretense is not necessary: Danny Fortson and Ben McCauley are not Dan Marino and Joe Montana, speaking in terms of sports relativity.

But a peculiar development has been unfolding for several years now, one that would appear to challenge football’s hold on relevancy in high school sports. It is difficult to pinpoint or confirm such a seismic shift, although Rick Shrum of the Post-Gazette has done a marvelous job over the last few years in mentioning it in his columns.

The development is essentially this: high school basketball games in Western PA are becoming as popular as football games.

Need to take a deep breath? Asinine, you say? Before labeling that statement as sacrilegious to all that Western PA stands for, I’d beseech you do one of the following: attend a football game then basketball game and compare the atmosphere for yourself. Peruse Rick Shrum's articles or read them in the future to see how he documents the rabid fan bases for basketball teams in Western PA.

Or you could consider the facts, the facts being that the average fan attends a high school sporting event to support the school and to cheer on friends/sons/siblings/etc. The way many high school football stadiums are set up and because of the homogeneous complexion of most teams (I don’t think I am being overly stereotypical when I say that you can expect a football team in the South Hills to have 40 white kids between 5’9’’ and 6’2’’), many times all the players on the field look the same when they are hidden under helmets and pads. Compare that with high school basketball games, where you can easily determine who is on the floor at all times, and it is easy to understand why basketball games would have more appeal to the average high school fan.

An obvious observation? Yes. But as you can tell, many of the things I have argued thus far have been obvious, making it all the more strange that Pittsburgh has such a strong aversion to basketball.

The growing affinity for high school basketball doesn’t seem to be fading, either. Lance Jeter’s performance in the 2005 Finals uber-classic is still being talked about two years later (certainly by me - I was there). DeJuan Blair’s decision to play for Pitt is almost as big for basketball in the region as his ability to lead Schenley to the number 11 spot in USA Today’s High School basketball rankings.

To be certain, Western PA high school football produces far more Division I prospects than its hardwood counterpart does. And it is ludicrous to contend that the influence of high school football in the region will diminish in any significant way. But it is reasonable to conclude that the gap is vanishing a little more with every year.

Is it just culture?
Regardless of any success stories in Oakland or on the high school courts, perhaps Pittsburgh just lacks an intangible cultural pull towards basketball. It is a hard thing to define, but if you’ve ever watched a game in (or talked hoops with somebody from) Indiana, Tobacco Road, or New York City, just to name a few places, then you likely understand that basketball exists elsewhere as football does in Western PA.

I am always interested, however, to hear and see that places like San Antonio and Portland have great fan bases and that the people really know their basketball. Everything I have read and heard supports these notions, yet it does not seem that any type of ancient rivalry or cultural bastion lies beneath such love for basketball. Instead, it merely seems that the lack of other athletic activity in the region combines with an ultra-successful program to produce a fervent fan base. This is without question not meant to belittle either region, and if there is further explanation on the topic, please write in to correct me, but it would appear that the lack of any other team in the city has been nicely matched with Tim Duncan or Bill Walton to produce a community willing to tout its team above all else (once again, not meant to disparage either region. Pittsburgh has a rough economic history and has used sports to escape such realities, as do all fan bases to some respect). During all the hysteria concerning Golden State fans this past spring, I wondered if there was something in the water under the Golden Gate Bridge that instilled basketball knowledge to all who cross it, or if enough losing seasons simply reciprocate in playoff-starved fans.

Is there too much other sports activity going on in Pittsburgh to beget an NBA fan base? Would a successful team not make us feel proud of our city? Everyone is always critical of the NBA…but if Pittsburgh was awarded a team, would they truly go unsupported?

I used to work a job right near the local courts by my house. One evening as I was closing up, a friend called and told me to run to the basketball courts as fast as I could. When I reached the courts, they were jammed with onlookers as Pitt players Carl Krauser, Mark McCarroll, and Chevon Troutman played pick-up games against whoever would line up to play. “Electric” is an overused word in the sports lexicon – it would be more appropriate to say that everyone in attendance was wired into the same current and that Carl Krauser decided to have some fun with the voltage.

People were talking about it for days – just like Lance Jeter’s shot, just like Pitt’s star player every year. It is almost inconceivable that Pittsburgh would ever have an NBA franchise, but it is far more absurd to conclude that basketball, in its own unique and Pittsburgh way, does not affect the city’s sports landscape, irregardless of how many would like to plead ignorance to it.


SeanCollier said...

Fundamentally, I think, Pittsburgh is simply not a large enough market to support a franchise in each of the big four sports.

Only seven cities in the country have teams in all four within the city limits - New York, DC, Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, Detroit, and Philadelphia. The other "four-sport" markets have a much more populated greater metro area to utilize - San Francisco, Boston, Dallas, Miami, Phoenix, and the Twin Cities.

Every city mentioned here has a significantly higher population than Pittsburgh, and many cities with populations above Pittsburgh's don't even have teams in three of the four major sports (San Antonio has only the Spurs, San Diego has only the Charges and Padres, Jacksonville has only the Jaguars, Indianapolis only the Colts and Pacers, cities such as Austin, Ft. Worth, and El Paso, none at all.)

Frankly, the three franchises Pittsburgh does hold are probably only still here because the community is so sports-minded and the team is so entrenched - if Pittsburgh were Columbus, the Pirates would've left before McClatchy bought the team, and if the Washington Senators and Brooklyn Dodgers could relocate, it's a miracle that the Pirates are still here.

Pitt basketball generates a good deal of buzz, and much more than any other team in the state - comporable even to the attention paid to the 76ers, who are met mostly with indifference. I do believe that's the best we can expect to do.

tecmo said...

No love for the Pittsburgh Xplosion? Aw...

tecmo said...

And I went to high school with Ben McCauley. He was a few years younger than me. He's remarkably good at ping pong, as I found out first hand.

And that Lance Jeter game...classic. I watched it on tv, trying not to shit my britches when he tied it with the long 3 and won it with the bomb.

SeanCollier said...

I forgot that the Xplosion existed until I was browsing the "Pittsburgh Sports" subcategory of Wikipedia, honestly. Don't they pay you to go to those games?

/I'm sure they're talented and all
//In that plucky semi-pro way
///Like the Wild-Things
////Probably better - it doesn't take much

Pat said...

Haha, you know I did actually consider the Xplosion when I was writing this piece - would have been tough to fit them in without completely derailing my argument.

And just for the record I completely agree that Pittsburgh probably couldnt support a 4th major franchise just because of population logistics. I refuse to believe that an NBA team wouldnt be supported though. You cant tell me that no one would care if a Pittsburgh team continually lost to a Cleveland team. LeBron James would probably become the most hated athlete in town almost instantaneously.

Sean - your point about other cities having populations is a good point and actually augments my argument. There is no inherent basketball knowledge present in those areas. They just happento have one franchise and tons of peolpe, hence the "one trick pony effect" that produces good basketball fans. I was just trying to tackle the whole "Pittsburgh doesnt udnerstand basketball" thing and show that you dont understand basketball because of where you live.

thanks for the comments guys

mookieproof said...

1. The NBA sucks.

2. Pitt has historically been an underachieving team that plays a fairly tedious brand of basketball.

3. Pittsburgh, unlike Portland or San Antonio or whomever, has a long history of other sports clubs. A new NBA team would be more like an arena football or indoor soccer team rather than a Pirates or Penguins.

4. To put this delicately, the NBA has an image--no doubt an unfair one, given the Cincinnati Bengals' roster--that is perhaps out of tune with Pittsburgh sensibilities.

5. Also, the NBA sucks.

Cheers to your blog!

Seth said...

Nice post. At least you don't live in Hampton Roads, or the "Seven Cities", as we are trying to coin. We are the largest metro area that doesn't have a team, In fact we are larger in population then Cincinnati and they have two franchises.

I have argued with my friends about what sport we should approach and feel the NBA is the way, especially with the thug areas we have that have given the world Allen Iverson, Michael and Marcus Vick- at least we can answer that fanbase.

Plus an NBA team means you need 9 players- that's it. Get lucky in the lotto the first couple years and grab some waiver wires and you have a team. Football takes too long and baseball won't work in this day and age unless you're in a major market. (As you Pittsburg people know by experience. )

So my point is at least you have the Steelers, Pens, and Pirates. It prob will be impossible to get that 4th franchise but I think the NBA is ideal for a smaller market team (like Norfolk/Hampton Roads/ 7 Cities) to put all of their eggs into like San Antonio.

Pat said...

Seth brings the knowledge, as always. Basketball probably wouldnt work in Pittsburgh, but in an area like Hampton roads, with b-ball background and nothin else going on? quite possibly could. maybe too close to D.C., but would be interesting to try. it would certainly give you something more to talk about than the skins would (love blow, sorry cuz)

Seth said...

Ha- the low blow is watching Dan Snyder's product every year. But then again we are all 0-0 so the false hopes may begin.

On a side note; you would think people in my area would get behind the Wizards. I think the uniforms are just too damn ugly, and the logo and mascot are a shame. Hibachi.