When Orlando Magic superstar Dwight Howard was given his league-leading seventeenth technical foul of the season during last week’s Garden matchup with the Knicks, it wasn’t a surprise—Howard tied for the league lead in techs last year. What’s notable is how little everyone else has been acting out: Since the league slammed players into terrified silence with an early-season barrage of T’s, outbursts have been few and far between. The NBA has essentially decreed that any displays of nonpositive emotion are against the rules—a policy that’s tyrannical, absurd, and totally effective in making the game more fun to watch.
Some background: Since the days of pioneering ABC executive Roone Arledge, the people who direct sporting-event TV broadcasts have believed that casual viewers are hooked by human drama more than by the tactical details of games. So networks make a point of focusing on players, coaches, and fans’ faces—Fox’s Super Bowl broadcast used more than 50 cameras, most of them devoted to close-ups. For their part, NBA players have provided the cameras with plenty of colorful expressions. Like all athletes, they can respond disapprovingly when referees make a dubious call, and—perhaps seeking an emotional outlet in a league that had already cracked down extensively on physical confrontation—they had seemed to only get more exaggeratedly exasperated each year. It got to be distracting. You felt like you were out on the court with the players and—because of the way the camera lingered on the guy making a sour face—they were all jerks. At this point most basketball fans can perfectly mimic Tim Duncan’s palms-up, wide-eyed, utterly disbelieving response to unjust foul calls (i.e., fouls called against Tim Duncan).
The NBA’s solution was to simply outlaw disagreement. Among the acts the league now prohibits: raising one’s hands incredulously, jumping in frustration, making displeased gestures (“air punching” and “pirouetting” are both singled out), moving toward an official after a foul call, and moving away from an official after a foul call in too demonstrative a manner. Anything that reads as displeasure can draw a T. It’s gotten so that players instinctively tense up at the sound of the whistle, as if expecting an electric shock.
And yet it’s also made the NBA much more satisfying for serious fans. The absence of on-court negativity leaves the game to speak for itself. Basketball being the world’s best combination of kinetic spectacle and creativity (sorry, soccer—you came in third, after a tough loss to ballet), that’s a good thing. The sport reaches peak excitement when plays are improvised collectively and back-and-forth exchanges of brilliance build on each other—as others have observed, the best moments in a basketball game each seem climactic until they’re topped a few seconds later. Anything that keeps the focus on that action is good for viewers, if maddening for the athletes being asked to engage in intense physical activity while maintaining an emotional state of calm disinterest. Now that the players have made that sacrifice, maybe the league will do its own part to aid the flow-state experience of its fans by eliminating TV timeouts.