Fightball: Re-Breaking The Rules

Fightball: Re-Breaking The Rules
Graham-Wilson-3.png

It's a fight, living in New York City. Even if you don't live here yourself, then almost everyone knows someone who does or did so. Even the most mundane of tasks is a fight. The daily rush hour fight to board a subway. The winter fight through snow and freezing temperatures. Bettered only by the summer’s fight through the searing humidity and ninety degree heat. Too many people. Too little space. People should not live here. It makes no sense. Especially in the number that we do. So why do we? When asked back home about the reason why I live in Gotham, I’ve resigned myself to telling people that it’s the challenge. And why do I? Because it’s the truth. In the same way practitioners of the ancient Japanese art of Misogi put themselves through a grueling physical ordeal, it makes the rest of your life seem easy by comparison.

A classic NYC scenario unfolded only last week when a phone blinked into life on Thursday night right as Ernie, Shaq, Kenny and Charles were readying themselves for the TNT pregame show. The message from a friend of mine read, “You doing anything tonight at 8?” Fully aware of the blustery 25 degree temperature outside and partially aware of an early start on Friday my noncommittal response was “What’s going on?” The classic diversionary tactic of answering a question with a question led to a response of an invite to Fightball. (Right click, add to dictionary). Knowing nothing about this but with my curiosity tweaked I found out the location was a mere five blocks from my apartment. I jokingly followed up by checking it wasn’t all the way over on the other side of Manhattan…. It was.

So free tickets to an unknown event on the other side of town on a subzero night with a TNT double header about to tip off and the wife out with the girls. What’s a boy to do? Sensing I needed a little more cajoling, if for no other reason than my friend had committed already, he suggested it wouldn’t last that long and played to my Big Apple sensibilities, reasoning that that’s why we all live here, for random stuff like this. I have to say, were it not for the 7 train extension to 34th street and Tenth Avenue, there’s no way I would have done it and you’d be reading about the plight of NBA coaches attempting to bring an offensive philosophy to traditionally successful defensive teams this week. But with a heavy sigh and a light inquisitiveness I walked a block to the subway and set off.

So, if the first rule of Fight Club was, you do not talk about Fight Club, let's break the rules by talking about its namesake – Fightball. Upon meeting my mate outside one of the countless blank factory exteriors on the west side of Manhattan yet to be demolished for a glittering high rise, he told me that we got the tickets through a friend of a colleague’s new client. So, that’s a friend of a friend’s colleague’s client. Good. Needless to say, like the other 400 or so other poor shivering souls we were waiting out front for any of those three people to arrive and whisk us passed the queue that stretched round the block and beyond security.

My confusion and interest reached new heights when I noticed the line of people four deep and wondered how I hadn’t heard a single thing about Fightball before now. Regardless, within minutes (10 … shiver) the friend of my friend’s colleague’s client’s car pulled up and within minutes (1 … thank you) we were inside.

During those last eleven minutes I wondered no more as my buddy told me Fightball is simply 1v1 basketball without many rules. Played on a smaller 40 foot full court space, the games are eight minutes long with an eight second shot clock. I’d tuned out by the time he got round to explaining the scoring system as I’d wondered why I’d chose a small black leather jacket for this winter’s night rather than something more substantial. Tonight really wasn’t the night to embrace my inner midlife fashion crisis by dressing like a Top Gear presenter.

Luckily once safely inside the ‘rules’ were displayed on a projection screen but as the night progressed it was clear, they were more like guidelines. What awaited us was an eight player single elimination tournament with $10,000 going to the winner along with a spot in the upcoming final for a whopping $100,000. Not bad for 48 minutes of work. (8 x 3 x 2 = 48? My brother got the math genes). The dour Scott in me thought, even if this is the worst event in the world, I’ll be back on my sofa with Ernie and Chuck by the second game of the night on TNT.

As you can tell, the interior was painfully well designed to resemble the aftermath of the Brooklyn Nets’ marketing department throwing up on a sound stage. Wall to wall black and white with no branding outside of the Fightball logo. As we got our bearings, someone told us its nightclub design was purposeful with the VIP’s upstairs and the rest of us fighting for courtside standing room. The melodic baseline emanating from the DJ accompanied up over to the open bar, which instantly explained the line around the block outside. Nothing will warm a New Yorker’s heart and lower their cynicism like an open bar. Especially one that only serves beer (useless for me then), popcorn and pretzels.

As tip off time approached the buzz inside grew as the crowd filled the space, yet I struggle to think if any of those in the line actually got it. It seemed to be full of people who know the organizer, DJ, players or like me, know a friend of a friend’s colleague’s client. Needless to say it had the unmistakable edge of privacy with a hint of high production value.

The lights dimmed as the players were introduced to a 30 second VT of their back story, home town, practice habits which all resembled a modern day Rocky short. Serving its purpose to jack up the crowd and perfect for the online audience, which I was told at one point during the evening, topped 10,000,000 on snapchat. A coin toss at center court decided the starting possession and the two fighters went toe to toe. Now in desperate need of the rules, I learned that each basket is worth one point, dunks worth three and shots from along the thicker than usual half way line or 2-point zone to give it the official title, worth two.

Three possessions in and the first ‘foul’ was called by the shorts wearing summer league looking official. My friend’s friend’s colleague told me that the only fouls are the equivalent of the NBA’s flagrant fouls off of the 1980’s. So more Bad Boys than Splash Brothers then. An array of different players filled the undercard from the undersized mid major division one power players, to bulky wings and spindly slashers to tiny transfer collegiate point guards. Even a Serbian baller from his country’s own 3v3 national team made the lineup but was quickly dispatched after an underwhelming debut.

Games start out at a fever pitch with the excitement of the crowd juicing up the players to fly up and down the court with the desired reckless abandon. However, as the crowd’s interest wanes as does the natural energy of the players. The dunk attempts are only really available on the fast break, which given the courts length or lack thereof, happen after long rebounds or turnovers. The physical size or talent level of players currently isn’t such to be dunking on people. Several less successful players, attempted to pound the ball inside, but the shorter shot clock and impact of one’s stamina soon put an end to that.

So you’re left with the 2-point zone being the major target for most shots. And with it the game deteriorates into a series of crossovers and mid-range step backs. Exactly what is missing from today’s NBA. The only problem is, there’s a distinct lack of physicality in that. Let alone anything that would lead to a fight. Again harping back to the standard of player, all are capable of faking a step back jumper and crossing back over to get an open lay in. But you’d never know it. As the shot clock ran short or the extra energy to do so, meant the key to unlocking the step back jumper on the next play was used only twice. Hence the use of the word deteriorates. Just ask the analytics crowd to run the numbers on a 19 foot step back jump shot. The percentages aren’t great and neither is the spectacle. But it matters not, as they almost always make it to the cutting room floor and never to social media highlight reels.

As the video intro, coin toss and ensuing battles replicated throughout the night, my cynical mind pandered back to the British Basketball and its use of gimmicks of a similar nature intent on increasing interest in any way. While Fightball has a production value and prize money well in excess of any Brit based endeavor, I feared for its future. Maybe foolishly so. Although admittedly my fears are probably unfounded given the level of business acumen and success the founders of Fightball have experienced in a variety of fields before now.

That said, with any athletic adventure, success will be tied to the quality of the talent. With a naturally overtly physical version of basketball like this, it’s difficult to imagine the upper echelon of International Pro Players risking next seasons contract by taking part for a mere $100k. The chances of a serious injury, hard fall or tumbling into the crowd standing on the sidelines must be pretty high, at least in your agent’s mind. In comparison to even the middle earners abroad the prize purse will have to jump considerably in order for Fightball to take the next step. For those without a team and local to the venue, I imagine this is a reasonable payday for an evening’s work. Especially given that they’ll invite their entourage which gives the crowd an invested reason to be there.

Along those lines, with a need for increasingly large payouts comes greater pressure on the referees and rules that they enforce to be slightly more stringent. But that takes away from the brand of Fightball being designed to produce faster, more intense and physically demanding game. The winner on the night in question, did so by understanding the rules or lack thereof. He simply hit the elbow of his opponent on the majority of jump shots in the 2-point zone. Reducing an already low percentage shot to almost impossible. Obviously not a flagrant foul by any stretch, but also not the overtly rough and tumble throw downs that the game’s name implies.

That tactic is all well and good, but the consistency of the officiating throughout the night was fine for the present level. But ironically, I can imagine the first Fightball fight, actually being between a player and referee rather than between two players. Should this approach to the rules stand the test of time, then it in effect removes the majority of shots from the 2-point zone if a player is closely guarded. Which on a smaller 40 foot court, the chances of which become much greater. Leaving only one point shots closer to the hoop and any dunks. The latter of which harps back to the need for taller and or more athletic players who are capable of dunking and have the stamina to do so after several minutes of nonstop beating. But taller players will struggle with transition and the eight second shot clock while lacking the ball handling skills needed. Eventually, Fightball will deliver on its promise of pitting the world’s toughest and most athletic against each other. Only when the interest and prize money grows to match its ambition.

Fightball promises All Highlights, All the Time and it delivers in the same media savvy way most successful shows filmed in that same Manhattan studio do. If you’ve ever watched the Tonight Show, host Jimmy Fallon welcomes the audience with a “You made it!” Implying the toughest thing to do is actually get a ticket and it is. Judging by the line outside, Fightball is developing the same mantra and more importantly, the same following.

TV massages social media to package the best bits of every 60+ minute late night show into snapshots. The same way James Corden has shot to fame with his Car Pool Karaoke snippets on you tube, Fightball packages the best of its best for its followers. And rightly so. As with any TV show live taping, the lines, the security, the warm up act, the retakes all combine for a tedious few hours in person. But a memorable few seconds online. Its digital footprint, much like the NBA’s is far bigger than those who actually watch an entire game or those who stay up past midnight for the Late, Late Show on CBS. Fightball knows this and is making the most it.

The single biggest improvement to the in situ experience at a Fightball event would be to make it, as promised more like a nightclub, where tedious time gaps never appear or need to be filled. It’s a par-tay! Fightball still comes across as an event more akin to a TV taping than a (ware) house shin dig. It suffers from the same issues. The floor needs to be mopped, the times outs to rest the players, drinks are spilled on the court, confusion between referee and scoring table.

Yet, understanding where the Fightball concept came from and what gap it intends to fill can only lead to thoughts of the demise of the once popular and-1 tour. Having spawned a generation of newly motivated ballers the mix tape tour has played its part in shaping today’s game. Twenty years ago the biggest highlight was to dunk on somebody and the greatest embarrassment was to be on that poster. Nowadays, crossing someone over or nailing a 40 footer in the face of a defender is the highlight worthy pinnacle. The resulting defender losing their footing, being spun around or having their ankles broken are the shameful image of that screensaver. The least highlight worthy player of his generation, Steve Smith even has his own ironic countdown every week with the under the rim plays.

Fightball seems to be intent on taking us back long ago in a game far, far away. When the X-Man Xavier McDaniel and his hard hits were more watchable than Dirk’s deft touch. Possibly its success outside of dollars and cents will be judged on where the top flight goes from here.

All in all, Fightball is a show as they claim. It displays skill to a certain level given the limitations of a 1v1 game compared to 3v3 or the more traditional 5v5 and all the factors missing such as help defense, screening, off the ball player and the list goes on. It displays endurance and doubtless more so in the players who make the finals each night. But that is one level destined to leap upwards as the quality of talent improves. As promised, it also displays passion. On the part of the players, an obvious by-product of having a six figure pay day on the line. But in the same way from the crowd, hyped up by their carefully crafted minimalist surrounding, the DJ, musical guests and an endless supply of free beer. You’d be jacked up too.

The question will be in time, if the social media dependents watching from afar will retain the same passion. Or if the actual nature of snapchat will mean Fightball eventually disappears from view in the blink of an eye. It’ll be a fight to attract their attention. It’ll be a war to retain it. Especially if one day you do not talk about Fightball.