Why the Basketball Game from ‘The Office’ is Genius Writing
Art and Experience: One of the greatest moments inside The Office was its epic basketball game. It was genius writing and direction. Find out why.
We’re only a few weeks into this quarantine and while I have loved watching a ton of new films and TV shows, I miss sports so much. I am a die-hard Philadelphia sports fan, so in my limited lifetime, I’ve seen my fair share of wins and losses.
But aside from Super Bowl LII and the ’08 World Series, the sporting event that shaped me as a human being is probably the basketball game on The Office.
As we continue down a road with no sports, I turned to my favorite sitcom of all time to feed my yearning.
See, the game played between the warehouse and the upstairs office was rife with rivalries, personalities, and some of the best writing ever on the sitcom. We learned so much about every character and the tone of the show that it’s impossible to ignore the brilliant screenwriting at work.
Also, the incredibly deft direction and cinematography that compliment it.
So watch the game below and let’s talk after the jump.
Why the Basketball Game from The Office is Genius Writing
So what happens in this episode?
Basically, corporate wants people to work Saturday. Michael’s employees don’t want to do it. Neither do the people in the warehouse. So they play a basketball game to decide who will come in on the weekend to work.
Season One, episode five of The Office was simply titled Basketball. It was written and directed by one of the show’s creators, Greg Daniels. Aside from being a hilarious episode full of incredible jokes and one-liners, what makes this episode genius are three major pillars of the show.
One of the most important things about writing a sitcom is the promises you make to the audience.
In a workplace comedy within its first season, The Office was defining those promises to the audience. These are the things you come to expect from future episodes and the jokes and stakes that define why people watched every week.
Let’s go through all three of them and see how they affected the episode and series.
1. Michael has a weird obsession with the warehouse
If you’re a fan of the show you’ll know that Michael has an obsession with the warehouse. He thinks everyone down there is very manly…but also beneath him. Michael represents the white-collar and blue-collar divide.
And he’s not subtle with this viewpoint.
You can see it in this exchange:
Michael: All right, managing by walking around. This is our warehouse. Or, as I like to call it, the whorehouse. But don’t you call it that, I’ve earned the right.
Ryan: Fine, don’t worry about that.
Michael: And here we have “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.” Come on over here. Hey, this is Ryan. He’s temping upstairs.
Lonny: What’s up?
Michael: And this is the foreman. Mista Ra-jahs.
Darryl: It’s not my real name.
Michael: No, it’s Darryl. Darryl is Mista Ra-jahs.
Ryan: Darryl Rogers?
Darryl: Darryl Philbin. Then Regis, then Rege, then Roger, then Mister Rogers.
Michael: [laughs] And that is Lonny. And this is Roy. Roy dates Pam. You know, the uh, the best looking one upstairs.
Ryan: Yeah, yeah.
Michael: You still getting it regular man? Huh? I mean, I can tell her it’s part of the job! Rapport!
If you read a lot of weird sexual tension in this exchange, you are probably right. The show thrives on Michael’s rapport with these “real men” while also making himself appear to be a “real man” as well as their boss.
It’s a lot of fun and dictates the relationship between him and Darryl for years to come.
And it shows why Michael’s selfish style of play makes sense. He wants to impress them with his skills but at the end of the day, his style of play is what leads to his team suffering.
Sounds like that may echo what happens in the workplace too…
2. No one in The Office wants to work
One of the tenements inside this show is the lack of work that gets done. Sure, the series goes out of its way to say the time they spend actually working is productive, and that Scranton is one of the most important and successful branches, but no one there likes to get stuff done.
Just ask Stanley and his crosswords. And his basketball skills…or lack thereof.
So when the basketball game at lunch becomes a huge competition, it’s no surprise everyone leaves the ringing phones to watch.
Michael is at the forefront of this Pied Piper action.
But not everyone shares Michael’s zeal for winning. His workers just like fun. And not working. They have nothing to prove to the warehouse.
Michael: Are we ready for the game?
Everybody: [half-heartedly] Yeah.
Michael: I… yeah, yeah. I know, grumble, grumble. But you would follow me to the ends of the earth, grumbling all the way. Like that, uh, dwarf from Lord of the Rings.
Michael: Nerd. That is why you’re not on the team.
Dwight: Just trying to be helpful.
Michael: Uh, [in a nerdy voice] “I’ll help, Elwyn Dragonslayer, uh, ten points, power sword.”
Jim: That’s him.
Michael: OK, so, let’s put together a starting line-up, shall we? Stanley of course.
Stanley: I’m sorry?
Michael: Um, what do you play? Center?
Stanley: Why “of course”?
Stanley: What’s that supposed to mean?
Michael: Uh, I don’t know. I don’t remember saying that.
Jim: Uh, I heard it.
Michael: Well, people hear a lot of things, man. Um… other starters… Me, of course. I heard it that time.
Phyllis: I’d like to play if it’s just for fun. I played basketball in school.
Michael: [ignores Phyllis)] Um… Yeah. Who else? We have Jim. We have Ryan, the new guy, right? Untested. Willing to prove himself now. A lot of passion, a lot of heart.
Ryan: But, I’m getting paid to skip lunch?
Michael: Yes, this is business. The, uh, business of team building and morale boosting. Uh, who else?
Oscar: I can help out, if you need me.
Michael: I will use your talents come baseball season, my friend. Or if we box.
Kevin: I have a hoop in my driveway.
Phyllis: I have a sports bra.
Michael: No, no, ridiculous.
Dwight: Michael, look. [Dwight throws paper at the garbage can]
Michael: Close. All right, uh… Me, Stan the man, Jim, Ryan and Dwight.
Michael: Sorry Phyllis.
Dwight: Can I be team captain?
Michael: No, I’m team captain.
Dwight: Can I be team manager?
Michael: No, I am the team manager. You can be assistant to the team manager.
Dwight: Assistant team manager?
Dwight: OK, we’ll see who’s working this weekend then.
Michael: Jim, you’re in charge of the vacation schedule now.
Jim: Oh my God.
Michael: Threat neutralized.
What I love about this section is how poorly Michael judges who might help the team. As you know from the clip, any of the people who wanted to play might have given them a fighting chance.
But at its core, this scene exposes that you have a group of people who are willing to do anything to get out of work. Especially on a Saturday. They have less to prove than their boss, but more to gain.
3. Jim wants to impress Pam
The final tenement of this episode and sequence rests in the love story that defined our times, Jim and Pam. The Office rides or dies with Jim trying to impress Pam. And the basketball episode let him get right in the face of this issue.
Not only did Jim get to square off against Roy, but Jim got to do it by being the opposite of Michael. He shares the ball, hits the shots he needs, and becomes a fearless leader. Jim also gets scrappy, fouling hard, getting a bloody lip, and playing his heart out. This is the stuff Michael was desperate to do and never got his shot.
As a show pillar, Jim and Pam get sorted out in a few seasons. But for the first few, this is what made us come back. We also see Pam’s stride shift here, rooting for both guys and even favoring Jim at times.
It became a stalwart of the sitcom and gave us a love story to believe in for years to come.
If you miss sports as much as I do, check out the video from The Ringer for the basketball game breakdown.