The Paradox Of NBA Fandom

Conspiracy!  That’s the prevailing theme of the the media today in regards to David Stern’s National Basketball Association.  If you follow the NBA in any capacity, you’re no stranger to this idea.  It basically says that David Stern fixes the NBA draft to best serve his own needs and also that he tells the referees what teams he wants to win so as to drive the ratings of the NBA as a consumable television product.

No doubt if you watched last night’s fantastic overtime thriller between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat, you probably felt like the Heat, and in particular LeBron James, seemed to be getting more calls than the Celtics.  Surely David Stern wants LeBron and Wade in the Finals only because they’re “superstars” and because they’ll fill the ratings more than the ragged old Boston Celtics. Surely he fixed the NBA draft earlier to ensure that the league-owned New Orleans Hornets won the rights to Anthony Davis a year after they were forced to ditch Chris Paul.  Conspiracy!  Right? 

Not a conspiracy.

I don’t know at what point this transformation took place, although I’m willing to guess that Michael Jordan’s Bulls are responsible, but there’s a unique dynamic towards being a NBA fan that no other sport can claim.  The dynamic is overrun with the idea that the team with the biggest “superstar” will always prevail in a playoff series, so much so that many a NBA fan willingly equates the integrity of the sport to professional wrestling.

What makes the dynamic even more fascinating is this prevailing notion that the sport lacks any semblance of fairness somehow causes the sport to be more popular.  Logic would seem to indicate that a normal person would actually be more prone to decline the opportunity to watch a sport in which they felt the outcome was already a foregone conclusion.  The NBA exists in a parallel universe where the rules say the opposite. 

It’s as if every NBA fan tunes in to have their suspicions justified rather than enjoy the product itself.  The entertainment comes not from the game but from the feeling of helplessness.  Basketball isn’t what America consumes when they watch the NBA.  They consume the confirmation of every doubt they’ve ever had about the sport and its integrity.  It’s the Illuminati of the American sports landscape.

Where this feeling of distrust evolved from is another conversation entirely, but I can’t help but find it interesting that the refrain of the NBA chorus is that the Celtics got robbed last night and that Stern ordered the refs to let Miami win.  While those doubts filled a majority of Americans’ mind they missed the best god damn game of the NBA playoffs.  That game was spectacular.  From the comebacks by both teams, Ray Allen knocking down a clutch game-tying three, LeBron trying and failing to be a hero, and Rajon Rondo’s heroics, last night’s game was awesome.

The Celtics are deserving of absolutely zero pity whatsoever, oh by the way.  Any fan of a team not named the Boston Celtics can tell you how they’ve been on the receiving end of the Celtics getting superstar treatment in the last five years.  When KG and Perkins manned the front court, the duo got away with dirtiest most bush league style of play in the Association.  But that’s just “good defense,” so long as it has the ESPN & Bill Simmons stamp of approval.

Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky had it right yesterday when he wrote that no matter who wins, the NBA is fixed.  If Boston wins last night, Heat defenders would have claimed an ESPN/Boston bias.  If the Nets would have won the lottery last night, it would mean Stern wants New York basketball to drive ratings.  If the Thunder beat the Spurs tonight, it’s because Stern doesn’t appreciate team basketball and instead wants that selfish Russell Westbrook to win because he’s a superstar and Tim Duncan’s too humble.  Oh the humanity!  The NBA loses, no matter the outcome.

It’s time to make a decision in regards to basketball fandom. 

Either quit the NBA like a bad habit or come to the table to consume the basketball.  Superstars win basketball games because they’re better players, not because David Stern sent them to the foul line.  LeBron James doesn’t get fouls called on him because he’s the most gifted basketball player ever.  It makes no sense to continue to regularly watch basketball games when you believe that the outcome has already been decided in the back offices of NBA headquarters in Manhattan.  Think about how insane that idea is.

The NBA is blessed with the largest collection of talent in the history of the league and some fans would choose to  remember it as the era when David Stern played the role of Vince McMahon.  America should open its eyes to the beauty of the sport in front of them and I promise they’ll learn to love the game in the way they currently worship the NFL. 

Basketball is the best, but only if you let it be.

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Video: Brazil Trounced The USMNT 4-1 Yesterday, But There Is Hope I Promise

Short story is that we’ve never really seen a US team that can attack and possess the ball like the current team. Bad news is that our back line was really sloppy and we’ll have to improve mightily with that defense to start hanging with the big boys. The untold story of this game is that the US missed at least three easy goal attempts which could have tied or won the game.

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A Sports Dork’s Nirvana

Something special happened last night. The San Antonio Spurs achieved a feat that we get the pleasure of witnessing no more than five times a year in the sports world. It happens so rarely that at time fans and athletes alike forget that it even exists in sports.  Coaches preach of its virtues and try their damnedest to instruct their teams in the way of attaining it.  Most fail.  Last night, during the third quarter of a playoff game against the Oklahoma City Thunder,  the San Antonio Spurs achieved athletic perfection.  Watch (scroll to the 1:46 mark of the video, if it doesn’t start there automatically):

It began around the 11:06 mark in the third quarter and lasted until about the 5:15 mark.  During that span, the Spurs were a breath-taking juggernaut, scoring 25 points on 9/11 shooting including a startling 5/5 mark from the three-point line.  The spacing, cutting, and ball movement among the Spurs players was something that led many a NBA analyst remarking that he had never witnessed passing at such an elite level.  And what’s remarkable about the passing is not only each player’s ability to read the defense and make the correct play, but also that the passes arrive in exactly the spot that a shooter needs it in order to take a good shot.  Remember that a half second can mean the difference between a wide-open three and having your shot blocked on a close out, given the speed of NBA players (think: Westbrook). 

Every Spurs read and subsequent pass was perfect during this stretch.  It all culminated in that excellent behind-the-back pass from Manu Ginobli to Tony Parker in which the Thunder’s transition defense was so taken aback by the wide-openness of Parker that they let him take the three without a single player running out to challenge the shot.  Parker took his time, squared his feet, and knocked it down.  Of course he did.

The three readers of this site know by now that my favorite sports article of all-time is a David Foster Wallace’s “Federer As Religous Experience.”  At its most simplistic level, the piece details Wallace’s fascination with the greatest tennis player in the world at the peak of his powers.  Better than perhaps any individual who ever attempted to do so, Wallace is able to describe what it is that makes witnessing Federer so powerful to a sports fan.  He discusses the impossibility of his shot-making and the brilliance of his decision-making.  The genius of the piece, to me, eventually defines what’s appealing about watching competitive sports played at a level like that, to which Wallace writes:

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.  The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.

What Wallace describes is athletic perfection.  We’re attracted to it because it happens so rarely.  We delight in it because of the sheer impossibility of it all.  For about six minutes last night the Spurs were able to achieve that.  To be honest, I could not even tell you the last time I witnessed it on a basketball court.  I’ve seen it happen in soccer multiple times in the last three years with Barcelona and Lionel Messi.  The St. Louis Cardinals found a little bit of it in their World Series run last year.  Eli Manning seems to find it once every five years or so, but only when his team is trailing late in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl to the Patriots.

To a sport dork like myself, it’s why I devote so much time to consuming sports content every day.  Although I admit that I do take a sicker, darker pleasure in seeing my home-town teams succeed, there is nothing purer as a fan of sports than witnessing something like that.  I’m reduced to being a fan of the game itself which is really what it should be all about in the first place.  It’s also far easier to reconcile the countless hours spent watching, reading, and studying.  For most people a championship every decade or so suffices.  For me it’s these sporadic glimpses of greatness.

I guess what I really want to say is that if you’re any kind of a fan of basketball or sports in general, you should be tuning in right now to watch the San Antonio Spurs to see how long this lasts.  They have a legitimate shot at sweeping the entire playoffs, a feat which has never been accomplished.  More importantly for you though, you might get to witness a breath-taking stretch like occurred last night.  When you finally are able to let go of living and dying with your team and enjoy the purity of rooting for great sports, you’ll learn to love the games in ways that are infinitely more rewarding.

Trust me, I’m a sports dork.

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