Writings About Music

Human Counterpoint: The Music of NBA Basketball

During my childhood and early teenage years, sports were more a part of my life than music. Football, where I played quarterback, was easily my best sport. After moving from North Merrick to Wantagh on Long Island at the beginning of sixth grade, and meeting the young athletes there, I have a strong memory of a new friend running out for a pass from myself, and I kept signaling him to go deeper and deeper. At one point, he grew tired of this, and not believing anyone could throw the football that far, stopped in his tracks. Feeling challenged to prove myself, I proceeded to throw the ball way past him as he looked in disbelief. When I reached seventh grade, however, I was very strong for my age, and believed that if I was to engage in tackle football, I might inadvertently cause serious harm to someone, so I regretfully gave up my best sport. What was extraordinary about the effect of this decision came when I was pulled out of class one day by none other than the varsity football coach who had somehow learned of my quarterbacking ability. He urged me to reconsider, but to no avail, despite the considerable pressure and even intimidation he applied. It was unheard of - a seventh grader turning down the varsity football coach's request to reconsider "retirement".

There's a saved record from Little League showing how my batting average was .735 one year, including a remarkable number of home runs for the number of games played. Added to that, my coach from that time once told me how he never saw anyone attack the ball the way I did when hitting, and he had coached for many years. Even so, my new sports focus became basketball because it was more fun and easier to play in an impromptu manner. Following eighth grade, whatever potential I had was lost due to a sequence of injuries. First, I severely sprained my left ankle on a contested brakeaway layup. After a lengthy recovery period, I proceeded to break my right ankle on the very first day back at practice. Even though I returned to playing basketball, including being named captain of the junior varsity team, where I played guard, these two injuries seemed to deprive me of my greatest asset, which was an unusual aggressiveness and initiative - I had become too tentative.

Much later, after moving to Los Angeles, and while recovering from another injury, I began watching the NBA playoffs due to boredom, and found myself entranced at the high level of play. My favorite player became Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs. He seemed to possess more energy and determination than anyone else, and the impossibly creative angles he forged, both on offense and defense, were absolutely “Bartokian.”

Even after recovering and not confined to bed, my fascination with NBA basketball continued, and I gradually became cognizant of how musical this sport was at the pinnacle of attainment.

Perhaps this insight was prepared by my study of Indian classical music because my vantage point recognizes two main elements that appear interchangeable: the two teams representing offense and defense become raga and tala, which translates to mean melody and rhythm, or Shakti and Shiva, and both teams move back and forth from these opposite identities with dazzling flash.

The extreme rush of fluid counterpoint explodes from the beginning of an NBA contest whereby five (the number symbolizing Shiva) players from each team coalesce into a stream of thrilling energy informed by tension and repose, complexity and simplicity. Byzantine, living formal structures flow from the improvisatory actions of the players with wondrous unpredictability in a manner equivalent to the contrapuntal behavior of pure melody and rhythm found not only in Indian classical music, but also much of jazz. In my own music, which is influenced by both these musical forms, extreme panning is employed that may be compared to how ten players fill the entire spatial spectrum of the court with their interwoven exertions.

Instrumental timbres or tone colors may be implied by the individual styles and temperaments of unique players, from the deceptive polytempos of Andre Miller; the executioner-like, cold-blooded inevitability of Kobe Bryant; the liquid shape-shifting melismas of Dwyane Wade; and the ferociously overwhelming consummation of LeBron James, to name just a few of the many magnificent NBA practitioners.

Analogies abound, but a few that come to mind are shots from beyond the arc by Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry resembling expressively sustained tones; wizardly dribbling from Jamal Crawford and Chris Paul embodying changes of lay (tempo) and polyrhythms; and soaring dunks by Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook evoking the landing on sam, which is the first beat of any rhythmic cycle.

Just as there are innumerable ways to articulate and shade individual notes and phrases, including dynamic graduations, there are myriad differentiations found in manners of passing the ball, shooting foul shots, faking your opponent, footwork, etc. Kaleidoscopic realms of untapped potential gather interest for practitioners and observers in both basketball and music.

Basketball games are played to be won, of course, and the highly developed interplay between melody and rhythm in Indian classical music is known as "lila", which means play. And just like basketball, where defense may take the initiative from offense, rhythm often supersedes melody, and the two elements are so closely wedded as to appear interchangeable.

Music and basketball are generally enclosed under the umbrella of entertainment, and individual audience members define the level of perception.

The greatest Indian musician of all is reputed to be Narada, who casually tossed priceless gems offered as an inducement to perform for the legendary Mogul ruler, Akbar, into a rushing river, explaining that he only sang for God, and would not consider compromising with a performance for humans of any class.

Basketball players are amply rewarded financially, but I believe that ultimately they are performing in their hearts for the same instinctual love found in music-making, whether or not it is defined as God, or the basic instinct to fill out life in a full and positive manner.

- Michael Robinson, April 2013, Los Angeles


© 2013 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist and musicologist. His 177 albums include 151 albums for meruvina and 26 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University.