Commentary

It's not you, it's jazz and the NBA

Updated: May 12, 2009, 2:09 PM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

I was host to a poker game on a Friday night just before the start of the NBA playoffs. After my friends and I had exhausted the usual topics of conversation -- current events, women and the prospects of a playoff berth for our beloved Kansas City Royals -- I posed a question. I wondered how many of the eight young men present could name half of the teams in the NBA playoffs. Everyone there could be considered a sports fan, and everyone there could be considered reasonably well-informed. Yet only three of the eight could pick out half of the teams in the playoffs. Other answers ranged from: "I know the Lakers are good" to "I haven't watched an NBA game in a decade."

[+] EnlargeJohn Coltrane
Herb Snitzer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesThe effects of John Coltrane's music on Paul Shirley weren't what is usually associated with jazz music.

I have several theories on why this is.

1. The NBA's marketing plan of promoting the individual over the team hasn't worked out like they expected.

2. Some people can't relate to the league.

3. The only places that people care about the NBA are places where there is an NBA team.

But I think I've found another reason that only 37.5 percent of my poker-playing friends can name eight playoff teams. It only took a singer-songwriter named Zack Hexum, a Mexican bar and jazz music for me to discover it.

I've always been frustrated by my inability to appreciate jazz. I've tried -- I once bought a John Coltrane album in a used music store in New Orleans. To my mind, it doesn't get much jazzier than that. As I listened to the man widely considered to be the epitome of modern jazz, I found myself getting nervous. None of it made sense and the music put me on edge. Determined to break through the veil of jazz music's unpredictable structure, I persevered. Six listens later, still nothing. Since then, I've experimented with other artists but I've never had my desired moment of clarity. Eventually, I arrived at a two-headed conclusion. Either I was too stupid for jazz music, or jazz music was too stupid for me.

Zack Hexum is a classically trained musician who happens to share parents with a musician who may be classically trained, but who doesn't employ that training in his day job as front man of 311. Zack's ability to deal with his existence in the shadow of his brother's commercially successful but altogether awful band is admirable. I watched him fend off a drunken 311 fan for 30 minutes while he waited to go on at a suburban Kansas City bar.

Zack and I spent the evening before his gig in a Mexican bar in a less suburban part of town. As we sipped Pacificos and surveyed the crowd, we noticed that the playoff game between the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks had been relegated to a corner television. We also noticed that no one was watching that television. Of course, that might have been because the Kings left in 1985; maybe Kansas Citians are holding their NBA breaths for the day a team channels its inner Baltimore Colt and sneaks into the beckoning arms of the steel and glass Sprint Center.

On our drive home, Zack and I talked about music. It's a topic close to my heart because I would love nothing more than to be musically gifted. Sadly, my talents peaked at a fifth-grade piano recital attended by eight people. Zack spoke of his love for jazz and allowed that he understands why people don't like it. He explained that jazz is viciously abstract and that, if he didn't play it, there's no way he would like it, either.

When he made that statement, an energy-efficient, pretend-60-watt light bulb slowly came to life over my head. I was saved, I thought, because my distaste for jazz is born only of ignorance, not of stupidity. Words that are often used interchangeably, but incorrectly so. Ignorance carries with it some level of hope; an ignorant person might become educated someday. But with stupidity, there is no hope. The future holds only a job cleaning airport toilets.

In addition to making me feel better about my inability to grasp jazz, Zack helped me answer a question that had been festering in my brain. Suddenly, I understood why so few of my friends know anything about the playoffs, and why no one was watching the game in the bar.

Basketball is an abstract sport. Its players are required to adapt to ever-changing variables, and there is very little planning that can be done because the game is designed to be played with as little stoppage as possible. Football and baseball, on the other hand, are relatively predictable. The roles assumed by players of those sports are rigid and there isn't as much room for creativity. That's not to say there isn't any -- watch a quarterback navigate the pocket sometime -- but after each play, both teams stop and plan for the next situation, employing more cognition than is possible during a basketball game.

And just as people (including me) tend to like the predictability found in pop, rock or rap music, people tend to like the predictability found in football and baseball.

When I watch an NBA game, I understand the complexity of whichever play might be happening because I'm able to extrapolate from my own experiences on the basketball court. People who have never played basketball might not be able to make that leap, but not because they're stupid. They're only ignorant to the complexities of the game, just like I'm ignorant to the complexities of jazz music.

Now, before you get up from the desk/chair/toilet and start yelling about how you and your girlfriend both love college basketball, give me another paragraph.

Enough people are steeped in college basketball's monopolization of its students' free time that, whether they like basketball or not, they'll probably cheer for their alma mater in a game. Their exposure to basketball at, say, Syracuse imparts to them enough knowledge that they can enjoy a college basketball game without really understanding that game.

But when it comes to the NBA, they lose that loyal, emotional attachment. Just like I can't make the jump from My Morning Jacket to Miles Davis, they can't make the jump from the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to Darius Miles.

Because I've played basketball at a high level, it would be easy to dismiss my new Universal Theory of NBA Irrelevance as the ramblings of an overactive and underused brain. Easy, that is, if not for soccer. Soccer and basketball are strikingly similar -- free-flowing team games with goals at either end of the playing surface. There is no sport more abstract than soccer.

I hate soccer.

I've genuinely tried to appreciate the sport. I've listened to the entreaties of my European friends as they tried to explain the intricacies of the game to me. I always laughed off their explanations, telling them that their sport is a dumb one because people can't use their hands. Strangely enough, their passionate pontifications about soccer sound eerily similar to the ones I hear about jazz music.

Unless I develop a late-life habit for running around on a giant field while chasing a ball, I'll never truly appreciate soccer. The rest of the world loves the sport not because they watch it so often, but because they play it so often. Sadly, my newfound understanding of the source of their love for the game won't keep me from making fun of that game, but it might prevent me from saying typically American things like, "Yeah, well, soccer is stupid."

None of this will help Zack Hexum achieve worldwide superstardom as a jazz musician. Nor will it help the NBA in its doomed efforts to reach my friends' houses. Really, the only thing my Universal Theory has done is help me find a little inner peace. And, potentially, some for my friends. Because next time I talk about the playoffs with them, I'll know to keep it simple. No more playoff team quizzes, lots more making fun of Sasha Vujacic's hair. And later, when someone is singing the praises of Herbie Hancock, I'll be able to calmly explain why it makes me want to cut out my eardrums.

At least we'll all understand each other.


Recommendation of the Week:

"Friendly Fires" by Friendly Fires

I may be a bit late in making this suggestion. After a solid month of loving Friendly Fires' album, I saw one of their videos on, of all things, MTV. Surely, that's a sign that everyone cool already knows about this band. In the case that you're not as cool as those folks, but are cool enough to listen to the musical opinions of others, check out Friendly Fires. They're English, they make near-dance music, and they sound like VHS or Beta mixed by a triad consisting of the Scissor Sisters, Cut/Copy and Duran Duran.

No, you won't detect the Duran Duran immediately. It will take a few listens and, even then, you may not agree. But you get the idea. It's upbeat, happy and most of all (say it with me) ... fun.

(For those new to the column, I'm fond of calling music "fun." But there are worse ways to spend your time than listening to fun music.)

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. He can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley and by e-mailing him here. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. With his brother, he co-hosts an online radio show, "Off Topic with Matt and Paul Shirley."

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