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John Roughan: Sports events need more focus, less spectacle – New Zealand Herald

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Sport needs downtime for thinking. That’s what the players were doing when they went into a huddle at each time-out: blocking out the din, writes John Roughan. Photo / Photosport

Basketball is not a sport I know, I’d never seen a match until last Sunday. My grandson, now 8, has begun learning the game at The Breakers’ base on Auckland’s North Shore and
They gave them more than that. They gave them a souvenir singlet for a short match with another team, then they had the children form two lines to high-five the big boys as they took the court in a darkened stadium to an accompaniment of flashing lights and a great deal of din.
When the lights came back on, the buzzing kids were returned to their families. Our seats were nearly at the top of the top tier, which is exactly where you want to be if you are 8 years old. We had a wondrously high experience in more ways than one. It was my first sight of sport as show business.
I’ve seen the pre-match and half-time entertainments at rugby matches and heard music belted out for a few bars between overs in one-day cricket internationals. This was on a different level.
The game played to relentless noise, created by cardboard clackers given to the crowd as they entered, and whipped along by a guy who prowled the stadium with a microphone. When The Breakers had the ball the crowd was roaring with him, when the opposition got possession, the rouser’s electrified voice rumbled around the stadium, “Dee-fence. Dee-fence, Dee-fence,” and the crowd took up the chant, belting the clackers on their thighs in unison.
During breaks in play, of which there are many – either team can call a time-out anytime they want to regain composure – cheerleaders and “mascots” in animal suits come cavorting on to the court. The cheerleaders, of both genders, are veritable acrobats, flinging the girls frighteningly high in the air and catching them comfortably.
None of this had a discernible influence on the players. The Breakers’ dee-fence was deficient in the first quarter and their shots were not going in. The deficit proved too much to recover but the game got exciting near the end when they were just a couple of shots adrift. My grandson and his mates were on their feet, belting their clackers, shouting with the crowd, in a state beyond excitement.
Watching him, it occurred to me that two generations ago, at the age he is now, I was assiduously compiling a scrapbook on the All Blacks’ 1960 tour of South Africa, as I had for the British Lions tour of New Zealand the previous year. Rugby already captivated me and I’d never seen a big game, not even on television. There was no television.
I remember the excitement of seeing a game at last, with other kids in front of a crowd in 1961 when France played Southland. My grandchildren have seen a Super Rugby match at Eden Park, but you need to remind them.
The event presentation that day was a lively occasion too, the big crowd waving Blues flags distributed at the gate, Beauden Barrett to watch, a sound system to work us up, but my granddaughter was bored and my grandson enjoyed the hot dogs.
At the nearest high school, basketball is said to be now the most popular game. I heard the school was struggling to raise a rugby team a few years ago. Does this matter?
It wasn’t until we left the stadium last Sunday that we realised a 40-minute game had been spun out to two hours of entertainment and not a moment had been dull. You had to be impressed but I was uneasy too. The entertainment had overwhelmed the sport.
I came away not knowing much more about basketball than when I went in. Sport, like life, needs its dull moments, its downtime, for thinking, reflecting, planning, recovering the energy and resolve to work and succeed. That’s what the players were doing when they went into a huddle at each time-out: blocking out the din.
As a spectator I needed to be with them. Instead, I’d been enjoying a circus.
I love watching long sports, five-day cricket tests, five sets of tennis, I still miss the long rugby tours. Long sports give players time to think, plan, recover, change their fortunes in the course of a struggle and spectators can, if they concentrate, see these things happening before the scoreboard changes.
But sport is going the other way. It is being reduced to a highlights reel, 20 overs of big-bash cricket, rugby sevens – 10-minutes of runaway tries – tennis tie-breaks, penalty shootouts, contrived conclusions. They are entertaining but sport can be so much more.
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