You got to wonder why only in the NBA there is this thing—and I call it a thing, not because I struggle to find a suitable word, but because like a creature emerging from a swamp, it has no name. The NBA is a narrative-driven force that runs on soap opera fumes. The misses, the dunks, the adversity and the stardom are precious resources that fuel the drama. These are impactful storylines that writers pray hits them whilst in the mental trenches of *whispers* writer’s block. It’s the lore of the sport; the sway of it that sews you into the fibres of its thinking.
It seems as though purists of the game still believe in make-believe, where there is this relentless wont for the perfect dismount to an end of a story. See, they have this lofty habit of needing to drape the victors in pristine veils, crowning them with the most gaudy of jewels. The athlete or the team must win in the purest way possible, which could be coming from behind from an impossible deficit (See LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016) or maybe it’s a moment where victory is seized from its captor of defeat with a game winning shot (See Dame Lillard in the 2019 playoffs).
It’s both a little ridiculous and highly dismissive to discount one’s path to a championship title purely because you didn’t like the way they did it. This isn’t a movie where they must prove to us their worth, forcibly participating in a Hunger Games type scenario, and once they have bested the allegorical confines, only then can they be worthy of the praise.
Being a superstar in the NBA, the most heinous act they could ever commit is going to team up with other superstars on another team. It’s an act punishable by exile—well, metaphorically speaking. It’s punitive because the balance of the NBA seems to hang precariously on a knife’s edge. There exists only a few bonafide superstars across the stretches of the NBA. So for one of these superstars to recognise their autonomy and decide to join forces with other superstars pushes the scales of parity off kilter.
See, the league is structured in a way that rewards superstars for their loyalty. It’s an open-secret bribe. It’s a ploy to help bridge the gap for small market teams to compete with big market teams who exist up the mountain. Essentially, these superstars will earn super rich contract boosts for choosing to remain with their team—a cutesy deterrent that has lost its potency nowadays (See James Harden, who turned down circa $50-million to quit the Houston Rockets). As good a cause as it is, there’s just one thing that the NBA cannot help small-market teams with, the weather.
The sunnier destination of Los Angeles will always trump the colder climate of Minnesota when trying to attract stars—or even free agents. Even at the mere mortal level, we humans will always prefer the restaurant that has the rarest cut of steak. We’re always going to prefer going to the club that’s more popular. We’re always going to… well, you get the picture.
An even bigger problem for the NBA, outside of trying to invent a weather machine, is trying to quell the ambitions of a superstar that wants to win. A superstar will only endure so many losses and ineptitude around him before it becomes sobering enough to decide that he wants to go join another team. Another team that has a player built with a similar Demi-God status. It’s common sense to want to surround yourself with like-minded people in life, I mean, that’s what the slew of self-help books tell us right? So why is it so criminalised in the NBA?
So, within this narrative-driven league exists an entity, growing with the presence as the ominous Death Star, the Brooklyn Nets—who have armed themselves with great talent for a run at domination [the NBA championship]. Now, if the Nets were to achieve this feat, then I’d imagine there will be that thing that will happen where people will find ways to discredit a well-earned title. Because, as mentioned before, in the NBA you can win, but you must win by checking off a list of acceptable criterias.
This thing that exists in the NBA seems more ludicrous when you drop in elsewhere in other sports. In football—the European type—, players that are symbolic of the big fish in the small pond proverb often realise the limitations of their surroundings and opt for wider, more expansive waters where their ambitions can be easily met. It’s a freedom of movement, a freedom of choice—to choose where to apply your trade, to choose the tools and weapons that will help you achieve your goals.
In Formula 1, where the record-breaking Lewis Hamilton won his seventh consecutive driver’s championship with Mercedes—the strongest, biggest, fastest team in the sport. Although, here does exist a very small minority of detractors—similar to the ones around the NBA—that attempt to discount Hamilton’s other-worldly accomplishments, claiming that, “he only wins because he is in the fattest car”. To them, he cannot be considered great as long as he drives in one of the fastest cars. They lob these lazy insults like the cheap water balloons that have a tendency to self-destruct. It’s a statement that has its own legs fall from underneath itself when you realise that Hamilton, in those seven seasons, had several teammates—who were also in the same fast car—but each failed to dethrone Hamilton, except one, Nico Rosberg.
In the NFL, this thing holds no chance of surviving within the ecosystem of the sport. Those same detractors cannot hope to survive in that environment. The NFL is a sport where your health is constantly placed firmly on the line for a shot at glory. On any given snap, something within you can break and your season can be over in the matter of moments. Players move around teams quite freely here, either for a better pay cheque or a chance at Super Bowl glory.
Understandably, winning the championship, playing the role as the great underdog is an almighty achievement. It’s an occasion where fans of the sport can procure gratification from the victory of a team that overcame the same odds that threatened to subjugate them. It’s what we love. It’s a thing that speaks to us. In movies, stories are scripted in the same formulaic way—where we are exposed to the journey of the protagonist. We go from learning about them, understanding them, emphasising with them, cheering them on, and to finally celebrating their victory at the crescendo part of the movie—when they overcome the thing that stood in their way. We love those type of stories, and it’s recipe that has been perfected for years, and continues to make film writers filthy rich.
At the other end of the spectrum, a team that wins with a team full of superstars is not sexy, it’s not transcendent, it doesn’t stir the hearts of purists. A team full of stars, are simply put, made out to be villains. They’re supposed to be hated. These villains threaten to take away the joy of Christmas. How dare they attempt to sully this critically-acclaimed story. In this specific story, the Brooklyn Nets are the big bad villains that did something so bad, so monstrous in wanting to simply get better. By acquiring former MVP, James Harden in a blockbuster trade earlier in the season, the total of MVP-winning players on their roster increased by one [Kevin Durant and James Harden)—and that’s not including the superstar player in Kyrie Irving that’s already on the roster. Essentially, the Nets are assembling the Avengers—especially with their recent acquisition of Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge (who unfortunately, recently retired).
An athlete’s playing career is short—unless you’re Lebron James, Tom Brady or Serena Williams, who just continue to taunt Father Time—so there is a small window to exhibit mastery. Discrediting an athlete’s achievements simply because it doesn’t abide by the rules and expectations that purists have for them is ludicrous. Greatness is greatness, whether it’s done by one or by many. There will always be one story that will be better than the other, yet it is still a story to will belong in history.
Purists will do all that they can to stop the Brooklyn Nets from winning. Though, the ridicule will be much more potent and satisfying if they were to fail to win, as if laughing at the mad titan Thanos for fumbling the bag at trying to eradicate half of the universe.