The All-Star Game is Bullshit
that is the worst basketball game ever played...a tough game to sit through, I'm not gonna lie.
—Western All-Star Coach Mike Malone
In The Grasshopper, Bernard Suits defines playing a game as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”
Basketball gives us an unnecessary goal (put this ball through that hoop) and tons of unnecessary constraints (without traveling, or dribbling out of bounds, or fouling...) that we choose to accept when we play.
The point of all these unnecessary obstacles is to make our experiences of playing (and watching) basketball worthwhile. The rules of basketball give meaning and significance to what happens between the lines.
That’s why no one brings a ladder so they can ‘dunk’ for hours on end. As C. Thi Nguyen notes, “Getting the ball through the hoop or holding Monopoly money in my hand is worthless outside of the constraints and structure of the game.”
Now, one unnecessary obstacle that gives basketball its basic structure is...defense.
If we're dedicated to the game of basketball, we can learn to love drilling and improving our skills, with or without defense. But in a great basketball game, the other team’s defense makes scoring significantly more challenging. It wouldn’t be that interesting to watch prime Shaq score two hundred points against a helpless third-grade squad—at least after the novelty of the first few overwhelming dunks. Even Shaq might have to add a bit of extra challenge to stave off boredom. (“I bet I can dunk ten times in a row.”)
The All-Star Game isn't much better.
Twenty-seven players were named All-Stars this year. That's about 1 in 300,000,000 human beings. We're looking at the cream of the crop, the very height of human talent at a game that is all about cracking the other team's defense with skill, movement, and teamwork.
But because no one wants to get injured or embarrassed in an All-Star Game, there's hardly any defense to beat. As a result, the All-Star Game is basically a glorified layup line featuring the best players on Earth. Instead of a competition, we get a three-hour warm-up drill.
This year it began, as always, with a run of uncontested dunks. But once that got boring, players started adding a bit of extra challenge for themselves by shooting threes from further and further away, voluntarily taking worse and worse shots to keep themselves interested.
At some point, it’s not real basketball anymore.
I get it. Players want to win championships, not All-Star Games. They can't afford to get hurt in a pointless exhibition scrimmage. But because they don't care about winning or even competing, the All-Star ‘Game’ isn’t just boring—it’s bullshit.
On Harry Frankfurt’s influential account, “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.” Even if the bullshitter happens to get things right, it's just a fluke, because the bullshitter doesn't really care about getting it right. He's really worried about something else, like looking cool without exerting himself.
But he usually tries to pass off his bullshit as genuine. In a bullshit philosophy paper, the author pretends to engage with the relevant constraints: saying something true and interesting, engaging the literature, making an original contribution, and so on. But they aren't really. And it’s not just that they're trying to do these things but failing—that's just a shitty paper. If the paper is truly bullshit, it's because the author never made the effort. They just produced a phony counterfeit.
A bullshit basketball game is much the same. Players pretend to engage with the relevant constraints of playing and breaking down real defense, but even this pretense is flimsy. What we see is not just a lack of second and third efforts—it’s a lack of almost any effort at all. This indifference renders the charade of competition transparently phony. And so the whole game falls apart.
It’s a shame, really. An electric shoot-out between two competitive teams packed with world-class talent could be a lot of fun. Even a whiff of defense might elicit some beautiful high-level offense. But nonexistent defense invites lazy, half-hearted play. We end up watching some of the most driven players in the world take a night off from their relentless pursuit of competitive efficiency.
That's if we even watch at all—apparently this year’s game was “an airball in the ratings.”
And that's no surprise. We hope for a fun basketball game (or at least a fun fourth quarter). But we usually get something closer to an uncompetitive game of H-O-R-S-E. You shoot, then I shoot. We jog up and down the floor. The buzzer sounds and we go home. It’s a game without the central constraint that would make it worthwhile: players genuinely trying to win.
The All-Star Game is a layup line masquerading as a game. And that’s just bullshit.