Lebron James, Dwayne Wayne, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce are all almost guaranteed NBA Hall of Fame inductees. These professionals are considered some of the best in NBA history and I had the honor of watching them play on January 10th, 2014. The game was electric, and the level of intensity was truly like that of no other game I’ve seen. Miami was lead by Lebron James who is considered to be one of the Top 5 players of all-time. He had the all-time leading 3-point shooter at his side in Ray Allen. Battling these stars were Kevin Garnett (14-time all-star, one-time defensive player of the year, one-time MVP) and Paul Pierce (10 -time all star and NBA Finals MVP).
Much later on, almost a year later I attended my first basketball game at the University of Michigan. The team played against Syracuse University on December 3rd, 2014 and defeated them in a very close game. I saw some great and young talent in players such as Caris Levert and Zac Irvin. I saw some exciting basketball, but it was a very intense game. The game had a close final score, but I didn’t really see it as a nail-bitter or a game that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. Moreover, the crowd didn’t seem all that into it. Sure, there was the maize rage and some students in the stands but it certainly wasn’t packed by any means. Many seats on the floor were empty and it was relatively quiet for the most part. It wasn’t like the NBA game at all, and the differences between the professional and the amateur games couldn’t have been more evident.
Eric Dunning’s Dynamics of Modern Sport discusses the seriousness in professional sports in comparison to that in amateur sports. Dunning writes, “the success goal had come to take precedence in their hierarchy of sporting values over the goal of participating primarily for fun.” This was most applicable in the games that I saw. Granted, Dunning was talking about professional teams playing against amateur teams, the concept still applies. The professional game I saw was played with more seriousness and intensity than the Michigan game. It was a nail-bitter that was serious from the tip-off until the final seconds, while the Michigan game was more lackluster and lacked real intensity. The players in the Nets-Heat game that I saw were playing for everything. They were playing for their contracts, their pride and reputation as some of the greatest, their endorsement deals, the playoffs, their city, and their fans. One could argue that the Michigan and Syracuse players were playing for those things as well. In response I would say, they might have been, but not at the same level. And why? Because they’re just kids. Most haven’t even been in the conversation of being drafted to the NBA while some of the Heat and Nets players are being discussed as possible Hall of Fame players. The college basketball teams have a lot of room to mess up and still make the NCAA Tournament as over 65 teams compete in it. The players in the NBA have 8 spots to compete for. If the NBA players mess up what happens? They could lose future contracts and their jobs. What happens to the college players? They sit on the bench or are off the team but they still haven’t lost their occupation as their primary function in being at a university is still being a student. Furthermore, are players like Lebron and Kevin Garnett considered some of the greatest in the world? Yes. Are Caris Levert and Zach Irvin looked at in the same light? Not in the slightest. There is a such a discrepancy in talent that it is only natural for there to be differences in the seriousness that the game is played with. Additionally, there is much less room for error on the professional level. The laid back and lackluster nature of the college game was most evident by the Michigan basketball team giving up what at one point as a double-digit lead. The Nets vs. Heat game was back and forth the entire time and had almost every fan holding their breath. There is no question that there is a level of seriousness played with on the professional level that is naturally and inevitably lacking on the college level merely as a result of the different nature of the two different sporting levels and the difference in talent as well.
Dunning goes on to talk about the spectators and that when a large number of spectators attend a sporting event that it becomes a spectacle. The game is “played for the spectators and not the direct participants. Enjoyment from playing becomes subordinate to the production of crowd-pleasing moves.” This couldn’t be more applicable for the games that I witnessed this year. The Heat and the Nets played a nail-biting game with full intensity and one that when back and forth the entire time. You could see that there was such a high-level of intensity that the game was being played with and both teams seemed to want to win at all costs. That is what the crowd wants. They want the close game; they want the best basketball they’ve ever seen; they want the highest level of intensity possible. That is exactly what the two NBA teams gave them. On the other hand, the Michigan game didn’t draw as large of a crowd. The game went from one team having a decent size lead to the other having a decent size lead for most of the game. The kids were just having fun. They played with the fun and spontaneity that Dunning wrote about the professionals lacking. They made the cool dunks; they did the complex handshakes with one another; they smiled; they did things as they went. It was different for them and the crowd wasn’t nearly as big or as into the game as the NBA one. These guys played for fun and for themselves. They just went out and had some fun and won the game. They didn’t play with the same level of intensity that the Heat and Nets did and that’s because they’re amateurs. They are playing for fun; they are playing to be spontaneous; they’re playing with a lot less on the line.
Caris Levert and Zach Irvin are amateurs right? Yes. Lebron James and Kevin Garnett are professionals correct? Yes. That is the difference. There is no way to dispute that the games are simply different when the professionals are playing and when the amateurs are and I was able to witness it first hand. It wasn’t so evident to me at first, but after reading Dunning’s work on modern sports, the differences were most clear and most notable as well. The two are different, very different.