The NBA finals, recently concluded, pitted the Miami Heat against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Rife with storylines, these included the quest for Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden to aid the Thunder’s rise from worst in the NBA to the ultimate heights. It was also about Lebron James’ continued quest for his first title in his pursuit of becoming one of the best basketball players of all time. As we now know, the latter proved to be the dominant storyline, granting this incarnation of the Heat their first title and fully forging James’ status as the best basketball player currently playing the game.
What strikes me now, reflecting upon the match-up, is how this particular finals pitted two villains against each other. In this case, it is Lebron James vs. the Zombie Sonics, a bitter feud of egos, tormented fan bases, and entire states of disgruntled ex-fans, and what it means to passionately care about overpaid gazillionare athletic freaks throwing a rubber ball through a 10-foot metal hoop.
Allow me to break this down.
Everyone knows about Lebron James, one of the most heavily covered athletes in American sport. We know how he grew up in northeastern Ohio, how he was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, becoming a hometown hero. We know about ‘The Decision’, played on national TV, where he broke the heart of every fan who had rooted for him for seven years by announcing that he was taking his talents to South Beach. We know how he schemed with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to form the nucleus of the Miami Heat, stacking the deck with superstar players in an attempt to dominate the national discussion. We know how he choked in the Finals against the Dallas Mavericks last year, giving voice to a debate that James lacks a killer instinct. We now know that he has risen above such hatred to become a national pariah, one that now has his own NBA Championship ring.
We also know about the Thunder. How they didn’t exist five years ago, but are the remnants of the Seattle Supersonics. How the Supersonics were robbed from their original city by a greedy owner hellbent on either getting a new arena that the city couldn’t really pay for (in the middle of a recession, no less!) or getting the hell out of Dodge. How the Thunder became an entity, taking away Kevin Durant and building a strong new team in the middle of Oklahoma (you know, that basketball Mecca). How they have slowly become one of the best teams in the league through smart drafting, intense playing styles, and the super-talents of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden.
In these finals, we have two teams that should by all accounts be the most hated franchises in sports. One that stole the heart from a team in Ohio by taking its best player. Another that stole the heart of Seattle by stealing their team right out from under their noses.
So who are these fans who cheer for their teams?
In Miami, there is already an established reputation, with Dwayne Wade having won the ’06 Finals with the aid of Shaquille O’Neal and Pat Riley. Their fans were not added to when the team signed Lebron James; rather, they were given new hope as visions of titles danced in their heads. No, the people around the country who decided that they were not fans of one team, but were fans of Lebron James, willing to follow him wherever he went. These are not fans of team basketball. These are fans of one particular player who has the ability to make everyone around him look like they’re playing a different game than James. Fans of a man whose desire to dominate took him away from a team that failed to build a nucleus around him that would take him to the next level. These are fans inorganically created through a shift in how we watch basketball. More on that in the next paragraph.
Lebron’s problem is that he fits so many narratives. The story he was a part of was the hometown boy making good on his hometown team. What’s more, this was Cleveland, a city that has suffered heartbreak, depression, mass exodus, the Browns, and its river catching on fire. (Yes, river catching on fire, you read that right.) Lebron was the ‘Chosen One’, deigned to reign over the basketball world from the shores of Lake Erie as he brought respect and championships to Cleveland. There were 50-foot murals of this man downtown.
And then he went and defined his own narrative, instead of living out the story being scripted for him in Cleveland. Normally, taking control of your own fate and destiny are laudable decisions, and James would normally just be ushered out of town with a muttered ‘thank you for your services’ and a quick pat on the behind. HOWEVER, what happens when you put your ‘Decision’ on national TV is that you rub a lot of people the wrong way. A horribly wrong way in fact. Enough to make you a national object of scorn and ridicule. Suddenly, people that didn’t care one iota about basketball the day before are now hating this man for what he ‘did to Cleveland.’ Somewhat righteously, I might add. Nevertheless, the main source of ire is this central conceit: Lebron broke from the scripted narrative that was written for him. Consequently, in the eye of the public, he must suffer for having the gall to choose his own narrative.
But that situation, discussed to death over the last two years, is not my real question regarding these finals. Everyone knows to hate Lebron, unless you love Lebron. I’m not questioning who you are, as you’re either from Miami or a masochist. (I hear that these things tend to go hand in hand anyways.)
My real question is how in the hell do the Thunder have fans? Not only are they a team that was ripped away from one of the most loyal fanbases in the league, they were then dropped in Oklahoma. A team with no professional franchises in any sport; if they do follow anything, it is college football and the Cowboys of the neighboring state. Basketball is an urban sport, idolized in cities such as Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, places like Chicago that have deep-set traditions and fans who have been following the teams since they were children. To be sure, these teams had to forge their way long ago, but it was a long process aided by urban sprawl.
Oklahoma City, while (ostensibly) a city in its own rights, is not a sprawling metropolis. Its backstreets and backcourts do not lend themselves to a long legacy of basketball playing. (I’d be surprised if it was anything other than pick-up football that was favored by this state’s residents. I’d be alright with being proven wrong in this regard. Shocked, but content to be wrong.) What’s more, the fans living in that city were probably already tied in some way, shape, and form to a team of their own choosing. Probably the Knicks or Lakers, or even the Mavericks. (I’m not familiar with why people would want to move to Oklahoma City in the first place. Maybe they were told to move for the waters. (Maybe they were misinformed.)) To be then given a team that actively destroyed the hopes and dreams of so many fans living in the Pacific Northwest and then to actively root for them knowing that they used to be someone else’s team boggles my mind.
I compare this feeling to that of seeing your best friend date your ex-spouse about a year after your divorce. You loved this person for thirty five years, but now its over. And your friend, who is a nice enough guy deserving of happiness in his own terms, starts dating her. And they are happy. So happy. The happiness increases. Maybe one of them starts growing one of the coolest beards in the history of basketball. (Thank you, James Harden, by the way. I can now pick out one of your team’s players on the street. I could not say this for the current incarnation of my home state Cavaliers.) And the party never ends for them, while you are meanwhile mourning your jagged, broken heart.
So when I look over these finals, I see Kevin Durant and Lebron James dueling for rights to “Best Player in the League” status. I see Dwayne Wade and Russell Westbrook giving their all to win. I see Chris Bosh doing… something. I see Harden showing up and randomly being awesome.
But at the same time, all I see is pain. The pain of Cleveland and Seattle, showcased on national television for all to see. I see a duel that will go on for years to come, as neither team looks to be getting any worse. I see villains fighting villains for silly little championship rings while being paid as much money in one year as I might make over the course of my natural life. I see mangled hearts, broken dreams, and pure unadulterated greed.
In other words, why should we have watched these Finals? I could already watch the New York Yankees year in and year out. Why did we need more?
Because these players are just that damn good. And they proved it. Night in and night out.
And that’s why we watch the game in the first place.