There is a secret history of NBA basketball lurking so obviously in the corners of whatever brightly lit, overcrowded, and garbage-filled memory palaces we’ve reserved for sports as to render us dumb. It is a somewhat sad day when these hidden narratives, these fonts of wide-eyed near-conspiracies, begin to coalesce into reality, as basketball is, to me, a beautiful sport, one of vision, balance, tactility, and hearing; the arc of a jump shot or the devastation of a crossover executed at the right moment only matched by the soft sound of the net or the feel of a perfectly inflated ball bouncing through a barely humid twilight. One can imagine Pete Maravich (before he became Pistol Pete, mustachioed star of the New Orleans Jazz) dribbling outside the window of the family car as his dad drove down the block, not only as a vaguely insane way to practice, but as a way to anchor himself to reality. A very American way to anchor himself to reality.
As a teenager, I bruised my dad’s ribs in a game of one-on-one to show him he was playing defense illegally, that I indeed had a better understanding of the game, of physics, of rules, and, ultimately, of life. I watched He Got Game with this collision in mind, as Jake and Jesus Shuttlesworth (played by Ray Allen, arbiter of the most pristine jump shot and impossible smoothness, akin to mercury spilled onto a table) aggressively check the ball into each other’s stomachs.
These are familiar and important myths; spaces where impulses toward anger or violence are mediated by boundaries, along with the assumption that you need to make it look good. It is as close to dancing as sports can get. Hockey could be compared to figure skating, except any time the line into fanciness (or femininity) is crossed, a player will find themselves violently checked onto the cold ice, left to ponder this physical manifestation of the lowered subject-position. There is no tackling in basketball. Style and grace is encouraged. This means that Michael Jordan is the greatest player of all time not because he has the most impressive statistics or most championships, but because he looks the best doing it (and perhaps because he was most willing to turn his body into a brand).
But we, like Jesus Shuttlesworth and perhaps Pete Maravich, have not found answers in these spaces. Because our collective myth — NBA basketball — is a misleading and confusing labyrinth, seemingly bereft of meaning beyond the usual player love/hate debate or surface-level conspiracy theories. Unless we are willing to dig deeper. And dig we shall.
The 2017 NBA Finals pits the Golden State Warriors against the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James enjoys a kind of character renaissance; where we were once burning his effigy in the streets, we are now willing to entertain discussions of whether he can be mentioned in the same sentence as Michael Jordan. This is an important turn if we are to understand the secret history of the NBA. I love LeBron James, just as I love Allen Iverson, Rasheed Wallace, Metta World Peace, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Latrell Sprewell. These are players with tremendous ability and intelligence, a sense of physical and tactical nuance that drifts gently onto certain deserving bodies like some mystical ether. Yet they are also players frustrated with the system they are forced to operate within. The NBA is an owners’ league. Owners are multi-millionaires. Multi-millionaires tend to have their hands in some very basic economic and political string-pulling. This is why this history is dangerous.
Indeed, Golden State’s recent rise has come out of nowhere. It is a team founded on structure and analytics, taking shots from the right places at the right time, a system computed to generate the most points per possession, along with a defensive scheme coded to force the offense into the least desirable position. Of course, this is how many teams operate, tweaked and tested based on their personnel. But the Golden State Warriors are easy to frame as a poster boy for this style of thinking because they are based in the Bay Area, tech-capital of the United States.
This was an appealing team before their first championship — a team of smaller, skinnier, stranger players than normal. The supremely coordinated Steph Curry and Klay Thompson can shoot from anywhere on the court, excellent defenders and creative passers like Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala create space and take pressure off of their gifted offense. They are undersized, but tough and smart. Yet soon enough, the Warriors got too good. And then they got Kevin Durant and his transcendent offensive talent. It certainly began to seem unfair, especially when you consider how San Francisco, a city steeped in tradition and history and physical beauty, has become the gaping maw of tech-fueled liberalism (and maybe the augury of the alt-right), the #1 place to get a $25 pizza and sing Gavin DeGraw with your coworkers at karaoke before you return to an apartment that only a peon of these murky and vaguely malevolent operations could afford. At the same time, gentrification spilled more and more into Oakland, the team’s true home. Now with the Raiders departing, we can fit the entire Bay into a neat and well-managed singular cultural narrative, rather than acknowledge these complicated, diverse, vibrant, and often difficult histories. The transition from the underdog 2007 character-driven Warriors led by Baron Davis (and his absurdly vicious dunk over Andrei Kirilenko) to the stacked machine of 2017 runs parallel. We accepted this story and it became very easy to hate Golden State as we continued our drift toward the bad decisions of the near-left.
Here, our hero emerges. Whereas with Golden State we saw the triumph of “team,” Ohio native LeBron James materialized as the sole savior of Cleveland’s pro sports championship desert. Conveniently enough for this secret history, Ohio is a state tortured by the decline of industrialization in the United States, the “Rust Belt,” as they say. When white middle-class workers are feeling as disenfranchised as ever, desperate for distraction, the hope of an NBA Championship provides a powerful opiate. This is the subconscious shaping of our current ideology: that we may indeed be able to return to an (inherently false) American greatness. That these jobs will come back. That Cleveland is not needing a real change, but a simple tweaking and the return of a familiar home-grown heroism. When Cleveland won last year, it was the false return of the Midwestern middle class and a harbinger of the confusing orange-hued nightmare we would soon find ourselves in.
It reminds me of Derrick Rose magically landing on the luck-laden Chicago Bulls amid rising political ignorance in the very neighborhood where Rose grew up. Or the triumph of the unlikely Detroit Pistons and unsung hero Chauncey Billups (a journeyman NBA talent who just needed to find the right situation, who never gave up) as the auto industry came crashing down. Joe Dumars, a former Pistons All-Star, returns in the form of their President of Basketball Operations, perhaps serving as a subtle buoy for the black working class of Michigan as the crises in Flint and Detroit loom. Dumars worked alongside executives until 2014. This is not to say these are bad cities. Rather, it is that our perception of these cities is painted over by the simplicity of professional sports narratives.
Now in order to better understand our hero LeBron James, it’s important we briefly return to 2010, the year he left for the Miami Heat. This was a major moment, akin to Allen Iverson rightfully deriding the pageantry of practice, writ large. LeBron, along with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, decided to move to Miami. After all, it is beautiful, fun, and strange. It is a place, if I felt frustrated by home and work, by uninspired coworkers and bosses, I would move to. Especially with friends.
Yet this move was framed as selfish and sacrilegious by the media and fans alike. Cleveland was understandably hurt. But what about us? The collective-NBA-unconscious hated Miami and its fans. They showed up to games late! They were too busy partying! They wore (semi) fashionable clothes! This is sports, this is sacred. This was difficult because it revealed that the NBA is a lot like the WWE. Individual games are, mostly, not fixed. But the currents are far greater and far stronger than that.
The powers that be were able to harness the fans’ outrage and feelings of abandonment and frame the whole thing as an argument against players’ rights. Employees should not be able to work in a fun city with friends. The age-old trick is leading fans to believe they are the employers — and it was awful that our players, our employees, could deceive us by flitting off to South Beach. Of course, NBA players are part of the NBPA (National Basketball Players Association), a particularly strong workers union with a fair amount of leverage. But by framing the Miami Heat as selfish and undeserving, owners subtly undermined the public perception of unions in general. (Interestingly, we view Kevin Durant’s move to Golden State through a similar lens.) In a kind of magical transference, fans lamenting the loss of LeBron were participating in the ideological undoing of their own rights.
This is especially terrifying in a league that is nearly 75% black, and unfortunately par for the course in the U.S. We cannot accept a black man as a role model, as a near-perfect example of moving from poverty to riches with a sense of morality and loyalty (with the usual mid-20s lapses everyone has). Michael had a gambling problem. Magic had AIDS. Kobe was selfish. Shaq was lazy. Wilt was a womanizer. Even with LeBron James doing the “right” thing and returning to the Cavaliers, our lack of recognition and reparation has led us to a present where people still scrawl the n-word onto his home.
In that first brutal season, facing the constant venom of fans across the country, the Miami Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks, a team whose only identity is that of their outspoken white owner, Mark Cuban, and their quiet superstar, Dirk Nowitzki. (We forget Jason Terry had an incredible and arguably more efficient series than Dirk.) This acts as another subtle reinforcement of employer-over-employee during a season that could have been a great turning point in NBA players’ ability to control the league. Even LeBron’s nationally televised announcement where he said he would, “take [his] talents to South Beach” sounded like someone talking about a much-needed vacation. But work should not be a vacation. It should be work.
So now LeBron is on a team full of coworkers he dislikes, chugging along in a pretty ugly city he can maybe call home. We are left with one team to root for, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Golden State is too good, too rich, and too far into a disconcerting character-less future. We get to unknowingly root for the continued return of our lost (or rather non-existent) greatness until we need a new distraction.
There is a sad lack of criticism regarding professional sports in the United States. The sort of new journalism espoused by Grantland and Bill Simmons swooped in to demystify actions on the court and to give sports to “smart” people who went to college. But still, this simply focused on the distillation of statistics, creating often class/race/gender-based divides between people who “really got it” and people who just rooted for teams. We should think of greater questions like: why did the Jazz move from New Orleans to Utah? Could it be to displace jazz, to ascribe banality and whiteness to a politically empowering “Black Music,” as Amiri Baraka put it? Why did the Minneapolis Lakers move to Los Angeles? Could it be to distract people from our slow crawl to consistent drought? Why does New York never win? Why does Boston always win? Why do we study movies, television, literature, art, and politics with this kind of rigor and depth but leave sports to some kind of rarified air?
But basketball is poetry, it is myth, it is an intuitive bodily understanding of physics. It is precisely the things we are looking to squash. So while I am sorry to do it, it’s time we pull the curtain on all of it and find a different basketball to mark out our own time, our own rhythmic anchor to our impossible condition.