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Baffoe: NBA Playoff Press Conferences Have Become Art

By Tim Baffoe--

(CBS) While I've used this space to assert that sports are political, I get how having that acknowledged can be irksome to people who would prefer a safe space away from their quiet everyday concession to the world's problems. How about a bridging of sports to another field that is way easier to agree on? Art.

Philosopher Ruth L. Saw claimed many years ago that sports are such. Her classification of what qualifies as art includes: "4. (a) Things made for some useful end or some end other than contemplation, but which nevertheless arouse delighted contemplation. (b) Performances carried on for some end other than contemplation, but nevertheless arouse it, e.g., sports, military tattoos, ritualistic ceremonies."

Besides the grace and beauty of athletic accomplishment beyond most of our abilities and the Greek tragedy of seasons, games and sometimes individual characters in the sports world, like my political argument, much of sports' artistic merit exists off the court, field and ice. No greater has this been evident than this NBA season's playoffs.

Besides the overall thrilling play in these series, it's afterward that the performance art has been even more blatant and carried on very much for contemplation. Press conferences following these games have become less informational and more stage for expression, and this emerging genre has been nothing short of amazing.

The big bang of it all came last week with Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale venting on game officiating.

David Fizdale Freakout by Gregory Anderson on YouTube

That rant on microphoned canvass has it all. Passion, catharsis, the defining demand "Take that for data" as commentary on the struggle of an evolving advanced analytics game at odds with something romantic. Fizdale's audience in mind is neither the present reporters nor the circulations they write for. He's only thinking of rallying his troops. But if we claim his art is only for a small group of intimates, then we violate the notion that once an artist creates something, it belongs to everyone. I like to think that while I don't play for the Grizz, I still get to appreciate Fizdale's creation.

Ditto that of Russell Westbrook on Sunday. Westbrook took a different spin with the "no 'I' in team" platitude to create a unique piece.

What's especially important here is that Westbrook shows how art can be difficult and even offensive. Indeed most great art -- "great" being resonating -- is those things. Was Westbrook unfair to Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel? Sure, as the question Tramel asked was totally fair if not important (if press conference questions can really be important, but that's another philosophical conversation). But Westbrook's podium work here is no less artistic and beautiful in its own provocative way.

These NBA playoff pressers -- a genre that is often painfully tedious and dull in other sports -- have been wonderfully hijacked by these coach and player artists. They've taken the banality and jammed it into a cannon and sprayed it in unconventional and uncomfortable directions for both selfish purposes and enduring ones. And if they bother people, so what? It's a fantastic kind of Maude Lebowski forcing the audience to flush its safe hypocrisies. We want interesting press conferences, and we can't then be mad when we get them. Ironically, Westbrook gave Tramel a likely-popular column or 20 that Tramel wasn't expecting.

That's good dang art right there. Especially because it tears us between loving it and hating it.

Tim Bontemps of The Washington Post notes:

This is the yin and yang of Westbrook and why he has become the NBA's version of a Rorschach test. Everything about him — including his postgame news conference — can be interpreted in multiple ways. For some, stepping in front of (Steven) Adams to answer that question was a sign of leadership, of him lending some much-needed support with the Thunder on the brink of elimination. For others, it was an emasculation of Adams, a player who was given a $100-million contract extension before this season because he's seen as a long-term fixture next to Westbrook who is perfectly capable of answering an eminently reasonable question.

Not all art in a movement can be impressive, though. Take Fred Hoiberg (please). After the Bulls loss to the Boston Celtics on Sunday, Hoiberg was as gall-darnit angry as most have ever seen.

Fred Hoiberg Complains Refs Are Letting Isaiah Thomas Get Away With Carrying by The School Of Sports on YouTube

Yet Hoiberg's artistic expression here feels artificial, if not forced. It's like he saw the traction Fizdale got and decided to get a piece of that, even if Hoiberg's end goal is noble and won him some of the locker room gallery. It's all very Fred.

670 The Score's Dan Bernstein reminds us where we've heard this sort of thing before, while Stephen Noh writes in The Athletic: "For Hoiberg to state that Thomas used the dribble move on every possession was a gross exaggeration, although Thomas did score very frequently off it. The bigger issue for the Bulls is that they didn't have any quality defenders to stick on Thomas. Hoiberg sounded frustrated, more than anything, after the Bulls squandered two chances to win a third game in the series at home."

But, hey, maybe Hoiberg's work at the podium inspires beyond rickety veteran guards. And it's certainly worthy of discussion because even Hoiberg can be provocative. Art's greatness is in its subjectivity as well as its ability to conjure emotions in us the consumer. Be they primal urges inspired by Jimmy Butler politely threatening Marcus Smart a la the WWE brand…

… or Paul George invigorating us with soap opera appeal.

The canvasses have extended beyond the court. In "arousing contemplation" at these podia, NBA players and coaches are proving that sports are art by definition and not just in the traditionally aesthetically pleasing sense. As a wanderer in this new exhibit, it's definitely "arousing delighted contemplation."

Tim Baffoe is a columnist for Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.

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