Basketball is the most difficult of the traditional American sports to write about.

The ball moves too fast to describe. There are not just a half-dozen important plays; there are hundreds. Sometimes, dazzling bits of showmanship follow each other in a breathtaking series of acrobatic events that shifts constantly from one end of the floor to the other.

Take this, for example: Kevin Johnson steals a ball. He drives across midcourt and passes behind his back to Danny Ainge. Before Ainge can make the lay-up, the shot is blocked by San Antonio's David Robinson. The ball is snatched by Spurs guard Avery Johnson, one of the swiftest guards in the NBA. He dribbles at top speed to the other end of the court, and drives for a shot. But it is blocked by Charles Barkley, and the ball heads back the other way. In a well-played game, plays like these unfold on one another without end. There is no way to record them all.

The only way you could possibly study the game thoroughly would be to put it on tape. Then you could watch it the following day. But even then, you'd have to be willing to stop the action every few minutes and digest what had taken place. I've tried doing just that. But life is too short to do it constantly.

Last week the Suns nearly lost to both Detroit and Minnesota. I replayed the fourth quarters of both games, trying to see where to place the blame. I couldn't find it.

Sure, it's easy to spot shots you think a player should not have taken. But this is a league of shooters. They get paid to make impossible shots, and often do.

But how do you account for defense? Watch Chuck Person of Minnesota throw in 20 points in the opening period against the Suns and you understand that he was just unstoppable.

Watch Joe Dumars throwing up three-pointers in the final period with Suns players right in his face and you understand that he couldn't be stopped, either.

Many times it's necessary to play a sequence two or three times to actually digest what happened and what led up to it.

There are magical moments in these games, even in the blowouts, such as the Suns had the other night against Dallas.

At one point, late in the first half, Mike Iuzzolino, hardly a household word, dribbled the ball up-court for Dallas. He was guarded by Dan Majerle. I realize I have said that wrong. He was "hounded" by Majerle. Majerle was like a big cat, moving and swinging his arms at the ball. Majerle's chin was out aggressively. He moved two steps to the Dallas dribbler's one. It was such an incredible use of energy. Majerle never got the ball away from Iuzzolino. But seconds later, Majerle leaped in the air and intercepted another Dallas player's pass. He was on his way to the basket, hanging in the air and holding the ball with one huge hand and then finally laying it in successfully.

The lay-up was spectacular-looking, but it's something well within Majerle's ability. The really great play was the series of maneuvers he had just performed on defense. Many times it's the plays that go undetected that actually wear down the other team and that provide the difference between winning and losing. Go out for a hot dog and you may miss the play of the game.

A few years back, Terry Pluto of the Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal and Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe teamed up to write a book called Forty-Eight Minutes: A Night in the Life of the NBA.

They picked a game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics and dissected every play. They not only watched it again themselves, but interviewed every player in the game, asking each about key plays. The book, which details only this one game, is 367 pages long.

Do you understand now why the reports you read in the daily newspapers about the Suns' games might miss mentioning what you considered the key play of the game?

Danny Ainge, perhaps one of the most valuable Suns, was then playing for the Boston Celtics. Here is how the Cleveland coach described Ainge's tendencies for his players in preparation for the game:

"Ainge prefers to drive to the basket, and he is capable of taking the ball all the way or passing off at the last second. He will take the outside shot.

"He is a little impulsive. Once in a while, he gets carried away with his shot and takes it a bit too much. He has a very aggressive personality, and sometimes, he'll try to take the game into his own hands.

"Ainge on defense: This is where Ainge's aggressive personality works so well for him. He is like a terrier that gets right up into your pants leg. He'll pressure you full-court, he'll hound you everywhere and he's hard to shake. He's always pushing and grabbing and hanging all over you. He fights you for every inch."
If you have been watching Ainge play recently, there is only one thing you might add. His outside shot has become even more dangerous.

You see what I mean.
It's one thing to report that Dan Majerle made eight three-point shots or that Kevin Johnson made three steals and nine assists or that Richard Dumas scored 22 points. But unless you saw the game in person or on television, there is no way to understand the degree of difficulty involved in any of these individual feats.

If Barkley is credited with 15 rebounds, how many of them were balls for which he leaped high and fought with two or three other players? How many came to him easily, when the ball bounced off the backboard to him alone under the basket?

If he gets 30 points, how many were easy tip-ins? How many were difficult post-up shots in which he physically battled his way to the basket against two or three men?

And how many times did Barkley glare at the referee and intimidate the ref into giving him a foul shot the next time around?

All of these things are there if you watch the game. But you can't afford to take your eyes away for a second. You might miss the best play of the season.


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