It’s been a difficult month, to say the least. While people across the country reckon with the coronavirus pandemic and the myriad stresses it’s put on all of our lives, I’m well aware it’s a comparatively minor issue that those of us who plan our days around the familiar rhythms of the sports calendar are looking for ways to fill the time.
TV networks have done their best to sooth our withdrawal, dipping into the archives with marathons of old games. And like many of you who are cooped up inside, I have given in to the nostalgia and devoted my share of spare time to getting lost in standard definition broadcasts of games long ago. As the days pass, bringing with them horrific COVID-19 statistics and inspiring stories of those on the frontlines working to help us get through this, my living room has been filled by the comforting sounds of basketballs dribbling and sneakers squeaking. This is March, after all.
Last weekend I got my March Madness fix from CBS SportsNet’s broadcasts of UNC-Georgetown from 1982 and Duke-Kentucky from 1992, marveling at the fashion choices and graphics packages alike. Traveling back in time was jarring, most notably for the minimalist presentation during the action.
So let me get this straight: You have the technology to put a clock on the screen, but use it only sparingly?
But it’s been fun to watch the games as they were presented at the time. I was 4 years old when Christian Laettner hit that turnaround jumper at the Philadelphia Spectrum, but I can’t say I remember much about watching the game.
At first, last weekend, I thought watching a game without a clock on the screen would be a nice reprieve. A breather from thinking about the passage of time at all. That lasted about 10 seconds, before I started feeling anxious. We are products of our environment, which is a convenient way for me to blame my addiction to looking things up on my phone while I watch sports on our collective short attention span.
It has been five months since most of us complained that TNT put a blinking shot clock in the key during NBA broadcasts, and maybe someday I’ll wonder how we survived without it.
It doesn’t seem like it would be very hard for networks showing these old games to keep the original graphics intact but overlay a modern score bug onto the screen so that we aren’t forced to remember the score every possession. Would people prefer it? Honestly, I go back and forth. I put the question out on Twitter and the poll came back 51%-49% opposed. Very scientific, I know. (And follow me on Twitter so my polls get more responses, by the way.)
But Thursday night, as I clicked over to NBA TV for Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference Finals, I saw the downside of slapping modern graphics on an old game. I tuned in pretty excitedly for a game I’m almost certain I watched when I was 10. The Jazz were playing the Rockets, with both sides wearing those perfectly ‘90s uniforms on the Rockets’ delightfully overbearing court. The game featured five Hall of Famers: Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, John Stockton and Karl Malone—those last four also members of the Dream Team. It also had a future NBA coach in Jeff Hornacek, and plenty of other memorable players like Bryon Russell, Mario Ellie and Greg Ostertag, ripped straight from my personal Peak Video Game Playing Era.
But what’s that in the corner of the screen? A graphic with a sensible, modern font size:
UTAH vs HOU: 1997 WEST FINALS GM 6
JOHN STOCKTON COMES UP CLUTCH
Ummm… spoiler alert! I recalled, thanks to that reminder, that Stockton hit a buzzer-beater three to send Utah to the Finals. It’s a highlight I’ve seen over the years, but not one of the NBA’s more famous moments of my lifetime. So you could be forgiven if you’d forgotten, as I had, the exact way this game would end. NBA TV not only reminded me Stockton would come up clutch right at the opening tip, but left the reminder on screen for the duration of the game. Apparently it was John Stockton’s birthday Thursday. Happy birthday, John. Nice shot.
As I was tweeting out my commentary on this episode, at that very moment, ESPN Stats and Info shared this doozy:
Folks, what are we doing here?
Now I get it. Bryce Harper’s victory in the 2018 Home Run Derby was a mere 20 months ago, and remained fresh in many minds. I would not have reacted negatively if NFL Network had tweeted out, “We are replaying the Chiefs’ Super Bowl LIV victory over the 49ers.” But suddenly a pet peeve had developed and this column was born.
Don’t spoil the games.
I realize, of course, that this is a bit silly. Last weekend I watched—and enjoyed—two college basketball games even older than those ’97 Western Conference Finals, and I already knew exactly how they ended. They just happened to have two of the most famous shots in college hoops history, courtesy of Michael Jordan and Christian Laettner.
But Game 6 between the Rockets and Jazz was a little hazier, and I can’t imagine everyone tuning in knew exactly how this 23-year-old basketball game ended. A series is different from a winner-take-all game. Even if most viewers know the Jazz win the series to take on MJ’s Bulls, many could plausibly think the Rockets would defend their home floor and force a Game 7. And it really would have been more fun not to know.
In fact, a friend told me he watched that Duke-Kentucky game with his 8-year-old son, who had no idea how it ended—and that part of his enjoyment of the game was living vicariously through his son’s genuine state of suspense. Now that’s what we really miss about watching live sports.
Realistically, plenty of games on TV in our current state will come pre-spoiled. If we operate under the assumption that every game being re-aired among other classics has been chosen for a reason, it likely falls into one of two categories: Outstanding achievement or important moment.
I saw people tweeting about other games that are identifiable specifically because of the end result. This is the case if you settled in during MLB’s #OpeningDayAtHome to watch Felix Hernandez’s perfect game. Even if you can’t remember what’s so special about an August Mariners-Rays game, it doesn’t take long to figure out what’s happening. Others are chosen because they are big moments, like NBA Finals games or Final Four match-ups. And in plenty of cases the outcome is famous or memorable enough that any reasonable viewer will know what’s going to happen. Case in point: This week I watched C.J. McCollum score 30 as Lehigh upset Duke and watched Steph Curry score 40 as Davidson topped Gonzaga.
But there’s still room for some mystery in this world of ours. After Stockton’s buzzer-beater, NBA TV jumped ahead to Game 3 of that season’s Finals between the Jazz and Bulls—where, by the way, the original NBC broadcast still hadn’t figured out how to put a score and a clock on the screen all night, instead flashing it meekly in the brief moments point guards brought the ball up.
So…Game 3…1997…let me think. Is this the flu game? (No.) Do the Jazz win this one? (Yes.) Do I have enough uncertainty for it to be enjoyable? (Absolutely.) Did John Stockton tune in to enjoy his birthday marathon? (We may never know.)
After watching Curry torch Gonzaga, I stuck around to catch Davidson’s next game against Georgetown. Steph had only 5 points in the first half, which was pretty disappointing. But hey, it’s just like our old version of life where sometimes you tune into a 2-seed against a 10-seed and it’s a dud. Of course, then he scored 25 in the second half as Davidson pulled ahead. Again, even if you don’t explain the ending, we know there’s a reason these games are on TV.
Those two games with not-quite-certain endings were among my more enjoyable re-watches of the week. On Opening Day I also caught about half of the Yankees-Indians season opener from 1996, which I knew was on because Derek Jeter would homer in his MLB debut. But I didn’t know when, and I had less idea who would win. So it was as suspenseful as a real baseball game when Kenny Lofton tracked down a ball in the gap and Bernie Williams went deep a couple innings later. It was nice not to know.
While this is basically the best extended time hardcore sports fans have ever had to go back and watch classic games from their childhood, from before they were born or maybe from before they became sports fans, it’s also a great time to recruit new fans. Whether it’s the 8-year-old seeing Duke-Kentucky with a parent, or a non-baseball fan who thinks, “You know what, I’m desperate enough to watch the 2018 Home Run Derby right now if it’s on ESPN.” (A sentiment one coworker actually expressed to me.) So why remove all the drama by announcing that Harper wins?
Even in the non-sports world, people are catching up and bingeing on all kinds of things. I have friends working their way through everything from Top Chef to Survivor to The Sopranos. It’s been 10 months since the Game of Thrones finale, but it feels like a particularly rude time blast out spoilers. So why should a basketball game from the ‘80s or a home run derby from two summers ago be any different?
Sports leagues and networks should be using this time to recruit new fans, and we should all encourage that behavior. Any new baseball fan cultivated during this time of widespread social distancing could hopefully lead to one more ticket sale, jersey purchase or MLB app download once things are back closer to normal and people are spending money again.
These are unusual times. We’ve never lived through anything like this, but at least it came in the era of peak TV and streaming wars, with massive catalogs of sporting events too. I hate to think about how I would have entertained myself during the Spanish flu in 1918.
So go get lost in an old sporting event. Join in with friends and watch them together from separate households. But if we’re smart about following guidelines from experts, we’ve got plenty of time before this epidemic passes. So let people get to the ending at their own pace.