Now that the NBA season is officially underway I can’t help but wonder how long the 2010 offseason will remain in our collective conscience. I spend most of the offseason filling the void created from a lack of basketball by sitting on the couch with my dog watching the Atlanta Braves not concerning myself with offseason moves until late August.
This offseason changed those rules. This year I was never allowed time away from basketball, there was no natural flow to the offseason and instead of burning me out before the NBA season even began (the side effect I expected) my excitement level has reached a high I never thought possible.
I was sitting on my couch resting after a pick up game with friends when an incoming text simply read “LeBron to Miami.” I had decided not to watch the hour long interview for no other reason but a lack of interest. My friends in downtown Raleigh know me as an obsessive NBA fan, for most the only one they know, so there was no doubt I would get a few messages on the fate of the 2010 basketball season. Watching an hour long special for what I could needed three minutes seemed superfluous, besides the real stories are always in the aftermath.
The endless attention leveed upon LeBron James, Cleveland, and Miami was to be expected, but what surprised me the most was the vitriolic response by a sports media thought to be fair and without bias. The drastic windfall of popular opinion going against James and in defense of Cleveland over the next few weeks seemed lacking in the temperament normally reserved for quality journalism.
In fact what we were seeing was major sports journalism reporting through the lens not of a journalist, but a fan. For the last few months of the offseason major sports media, like most fans, sided with the understandable pity fans felt for the city of Cleveland and thusly allowed themselves to become lopsided at a time of controversy when balanced reporting is needed most.
You see, if tragedies were written on the experience of the sports fan it would begin in fair Cleveland, where we lay our scene. The Shot, The Drive, Cliff Lee, and CC Sabathia only create the short list of Cleveland’s sports battles. The problem is LeBron, while being a hometown boy, is a name not deserving of this list. Tragedies befall those who invite them and had Cavs management created a clear, ambitious system where LeBron was allowed to flourish with the proper role players this discussion would not be necessary. No matter one’s personal opinion on the way LeBron left, his reasons for leaving, mainly the belief that moving to a bigger market and winning championships would ultimately expand his global brand, had been building for his seven year under inept management decisions during his tenure as a Cavalier.
I’ve spent many nights in dark bars discussing the eternal struggle between art and commerce. Art is created not just out of beauty and passion but out of the struggle to bring out the parts of us we keep hidden. At times it is meant to offend, hurt or insult its audience because there is no other way to create the desired effect. That being said, artists need to eat and thus begins the fickle relationship with what seems to be art’s diametric brethren, commerce. Unlike art, however, the deepest struggle between basketball and commerce lay not in the heart of the athlete but in that of the fan.
Basketball can be transcendent and it can be beautiful, but basketball cannot be art. We buy the tickets, the jerseys, the TV packages and in such action a relationship with commerce is formed. In the modern age of professional sports, after free agency allow players proper freedom, fans have come to understand that it is the front of the jersey that matters. The names on the back will always come and go. In sports the struggle with lady commerce is manifested when she is forgotten and we mistake freedom of movement for betrayal.
Basketball’s power, much like the power of all sports, is derived not from its daily exhibition but in its relationship to who we were. Basketball is the sport of boys and girls, of fathers and sons, and childhood days of innocent desires. As passionate fans our love for basketball began on the playgrounds of youth only to mature throughout a lifetime. One reason we watch professional sports is because in the act of cheering for the teams of our youth we are connected to a time more carefree, not weighted down by the mundane necessities of adulthood.
LeBron left Cleveland to join his friends Dwane Wade and Chris Bosh but the major factors in his decision were business related. In what many viewed as choosing a team for such cold reasons, LeBron sacrificed the hopes and expectations of his hometown fans in a very controversial way for the sake of that practicality.
It is in juxtaposing LeBron’s business decision with its visceral reaction where we understand the tenuous line between commerce and basketball. In the first few months there was very little major media focus on the disappointment in Cleveland, the celebration in Miami, or the future of two organizations heading, because of one man, in two different directions. Instead there were editorials on what was seen as justified, hyperbolic rage of Cavs fans, talking heads relegating LeBron’s future legacy to second class status and an interesting sympathy for the scathing letter from Cavs owner Dan Gilbert questioning out right his former employee’s character as a person. In essence the sports world was attacking the character of a player who put business in front of a false belief of loyalty because we allowed the childhood innocence of basketball to usurp a practical, individual business decision.
But when dark clouds settle in for what seems to be the long haul there appears the proverbial silver lining. Last year, Kevin Durant became the youngest player to win the scoring title. He took leadership of a second rate USA team during the FIBA World Championships to take the gold medal all while signing a five year extension with Oklahoma City (the smallest market in the NBA). This move will allow Thunder management to build a team around him without concern of the star’s immediate departure. He agreed to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated only if his teammates could join him, and he now seems destined to be anointed the next great hope.
LeBron James will still dominate our consciousness this season, but it will be Kevin Durant’s year to earn the title of NBA’s Golden Boy. However, I cannot help but wonder whether the silver lining really is the first sign of brighter days ahead or the sliver of false hope which ultimately leads us down the same dark path again.
It is not fair to say that the entirety of sports media acted the same, but when I sit back and view the last few months I cannot help but find the words of many unfortunately outweighing the rationality and reasoning of the few. I can only hope that when the next big controversy comes a long, and it may not be for a while, that we allow ourselves to take a step back from being a fan enough so we may view such a story with the depth of reason it deserves.