From Waaaay Downtown

Artist Gabriel Orozco comments on games on Art21 by saying, “What I like about games is that a game is a thing on its own. So you have a little world, in this board or in this table, design to perfection so you can play in a landscape and when it is a good game it’s so passionate that you can really get into this world and just live in it.” I do agree with his statement, but what happens when that game becomes so large that it begins to also impact the larger world around it?

In contemporary basketball, there has been a large shift in how the game is played. The use of analytics now dominates where teams shoot more three point baskets and layups than ever before (basically because, statistically, shooting 33.3% from the three-point line is just as effective as shooting 50% from right under the basketball hoop). The polarizing large markets that dominated the league also no longer reign supreme due to the rise of social mobility increasing player mobility.

The rise of the use of analytics in sports is used by managers of teams to create the most efficient team consisting of the most efficient players based on statistics generated by those players and the rest of the league. The theory here being that by using analytics, you can get the most out of your roster, ultimately allowing your team to win the most games it can for spending the least amount of money. Analytics however is not perfect because humans are not perfect. For example, regular season numbers don’t always translate to playoff numbers. Game pressure also has an impact on how players perform. Injuries and fatigue are also an unpredictable factors that influence player performance. Analytics also doesn’t account for the fact that basketball is a team game where teammate chemistry plays an important role to winning.

The current championship team in the NBA is the Golden State Warriors of Oakland, California. They are the first NBA team to win multiple championships as a “primarily” three point shooting team. I say primarily three point shooting team not just because their three best players (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant) are three of the best three point shooting players in the league, but also because they use this to their advantage to get easier shots closer to the basket. Their shooters are so good at shooting that the defense often overcompensates in their positioning and this allows another player to slip to the basket for an easy layup.

The larger markets such as New York and Los Angeles used to have a greater ability to attract players to play in these cities. Besides the salary the player earned from the team, these cities offered other means of financial gain for the players because these cities are where the endorsements and exposure reside. That has all changed now with social media. Now the power of exposure is in the athlete’s hands. The allure of the large market no longer attracts the athlete like it used too because the athlete can now gain exposure and endorsements using their social media accounts. This dramatically changes how NBA rosters form now because players aren’t weighing that option as heavily as they used to. A player might decide to play, or stay, in Oklahmoa City or Milwaukee because they can engage with their fans online. With online streaming, fans can also watch their favorite teams play even if they live in a different city. Fans of the Golden State Warriers can now watch their games online even though they live in Philadelphia.

Artist Paul Pfieffer’s series of digital prints titled Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse engages with these issues and then some. In this series, he digitally manipulates photographs from the NBA’s vault of imagery by removing all but one player (usually a player being slam dunked on) on court and by removing that player’s name and number on their jersey. All that is left in the image is the player and the audience.

The removal of the players name and number suggests a removal of identity of the player as seen through the lens of analytics. Under the lens of analytics, the person the player is doesn’t matter as much as the statistics that player has. Pfieffer says in an interview with Art21, “It looks like his head is chopped off; all of his limbs look awkward. To me, it almost resembles the figure in a photograph of a lynching. At any rate, there’s a strange kind of inconsistency to the composition of the image. At the same time, this awkwardly composed person is standing dead center in an arena, surrounded by thousands of people who are watching—and there is no ball, no basket, no reason for him to be jumping or floating in this way” (Pfieffer). His reference to the resemblance of a lynching is haunting because sports are very violent occupations that take a toll on the players both physically and mentally just so the team owner can make money off the athlete. This is the danger of viewing individuals as merely numbers and data because it reinforces that the athlete is just an object to sell.

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