How the NBA became a league for snobs
Everybody loves music. Music’s great. But everybody also knows that liking music can be a huge pain in the ass. Why? Because liking music is never allowed to just be about what music you like or dislike. The music you like or don’t is always taken to be a surrogate— for your personality, for your savvy, for your intelligence, for your cred. From every record store cliche to websites like Pitchfork, enjoying music is wrapped in projections about personal value.
In recent years, something similar has emerged in being a sports fan, and particularly in being an NBA fan.
The Miami Heat, their three prominent All-Stars, their celebrity fans, their glamorous city, and the controversial manner in which their roster was built has been the singular obsession of NBA coverage for three years now. Their back-to-back championships have confirmed the talent of their players and the effectiveness of their scheme. Lebron James, their leader and by far the best player in the NBA today, has soundly refuted the notion that he is not a a clutch performer, or that he lacks a championship mentality, or similar criticism. For many in the national NBA media, this has been a reason for celebration, given how much criticism the Heat have attracted. Yet I fear that many have expressed such a passionate backlash against this criticism that they risk creating a truly ugly fan-media divide, or more simply, being snobs.
The criticism of the Heat and James has indeed frequently been over-the-top, and often quite unfair. This is especially true of a certain strain of criticism against Chris Bosh, who has been the target of a bizarre, frequently homophobic string of insults since he joined the Heat. (Typical insult: referring to the Heat’s Big Three as “Two and a Half Men” or to Bosh as “Bosh Spice.) There’s no call for that sort of thing, at all, and it’s pretty stupid at this point to doubt the effectiveness of the Heat or James.
This nastiness has prompted many in the national NBA media to run in the opposite direction: by now, there’s a whole chorus of voices that ritually defend the Heat after every bad game or controversy. This line of defense has been most consistent and vocal at ESPN.com, the most prominent sports website in the world, and its subsidiary, Grantland.com, although it can be found on countless sports blogs and websites. In the past three years, ESPN.com has published dozens of posts totaling thousands of words that amount to defenses of the Heat against criticism. Again, I don’t begrudge them their defenses. But the tone and posture of these defenses risk devolving into snobbery.
Take this piece from immediately following the Heat’s second championship by ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz.
Basketball junkies see James as a visionary, a player that shatters every classification. He’s rendered the power-finesse axis obsolete and can conform his game to any scheme, tempo or situation. Junkies love to watch how James will ply his craft on a given possession, because the options are limitless. Thanks in large part to James, the team has been a leader in redefining positions, another peccadillo of the junkie.
Those who need a designated villain found one in James, because if you’re looking to render judgment on someone based on the five to 10 worst moments of his public life, then James is your guy. Pro sports has never featured a team that’s a more satisfying foil than the Heat for those who put contempt for a world-class athlete before appreciation.
The first paragraph is fawning; the second, pretty close to open contempt. I would ask Arnovitz if he really thinks that there are no legitimate reasons to dislike this player or this team. You’ll note that basketball junkies are portrayed as part of this movement towards basketball cosmopolitanism, where team affiliations don’t matter and we’re all supposed to merely appreciate moments and players, above such things as team and regional affiliations. Unfortunately for Arnovitz, team affiliation is an essential part of the NBA’s business model. More to the point: maybe people just like other teams?
The best guys ultimately decide the NBA championship, which is why a lot of fans think the league is sort of boring, or don’t like the “superteams” they think are a new thing but have actually existed since the league’s toddler years. The Heat have LeBron and two supplementary stars, including one of the five best shooting guards ever, and so they’ve appeared in three straight Finals and won two of them. Duh.
Are complaints about competitive balance really so inherently mockable? Again, I appeal to the economic: competitive balance is important not merely for reasons of fairness but for reasons of profit. People like to go to a Globetrotters game. But they don’t buy season tickets to the Globetrotters, and they certainly don’t buy tickets to watch the Washington Generals. Competitive balance is necessary in order to give fans from all across the country incentive to tune in to games, to attend them, and to buy all the merchandise that makes the NBA possible— and makes the careers of these sports writers possible. The new CBA is designed to help keep star players on teams that lack glamour, warm weather, or big markets. It remains to be seen how effectively it will do so. For now, an essential question for the NBA is, why would your average 12 year old from Milwaukee become a life-long NBA fan, when the odds of a Bucks championship are so incredibly low? These writers very rarely have any compelling answer to that question.
(Lowe compounds his sins, incidentally, by tacitly arguing that James is better than Michael Jordan by saying that defenses that James plays against would have been illegal in Jordan’s era. We have no idea how Jordan would have adapted to these rules, and to suggest that we do is not in keeping with the kind of sports rationalism Lowe believes he represents. That’s to say nothing of the handchecking rules that opened up the game and made wing scoring easier, which Jordan did not have the luxury of playing under. Expect Lebron>Jordan to become the treasured argument of NBA hipsters moving forward.)
As one of the NBA’s longest and most mobile defenders, Bosh makes the Heat’s high energy, helping, switching, ball-pressuring, turnover-generating defense possible. He denies both options in typical pick-and-rolls. You can’t have all those bodies flying all over the court with an immobile big like Kendrick Perkins back there, and you can’t generate those LeBron-defining fast breaks without all those turnovers. The instant the Heat ditch Bosh they’d instantly be in dire need of a mobile, dedicated, trusted big man — preferably one who could hit a jumper when they try to double off him.
In other words, the instant the Heat ditch Bosh, they’d need another one, and there aren’t too many guys like that.
And while Bosh hasn’t been a featured scorer in this uniform, that part of his game is ready to resume at any time. He was once a premier NBA post scorer, remember.
Chris Bosh is a great example of how reactive so much of this style of opinion has become: fans criticize Bosh, therefore, I must defend him. Again, the flavor of a lot of the criticism of Bosh is ugly and uncalled for. But criticism of his game? Totally fair. By any statistical measure, he contributes significantly less than he did to the Toronto Raptors. That’s to be expected, to an extent, but his decline in rebounding in particular (a desperate team need) has been remarkable and unfortunate. And for Abbott to assert that he could simply resume his old scoring ways “at any time” just reeks of the kind of evidence-free assertion that writers like Abbott usually criticize. How does he know that? Is there really no reason to think that Bosh as declined?
These are just a few examples, but all of these writers have written similar things in the past, as have Michael Wallace, Tom Haberstroh, Brian Windhorst, Israel Gutierrez…. Each writes for ESPN.com. And the larger sports media world has largely embraced the same arguments, such as at Deadspin or in the commentary of longtime Heat defender Jeff van Gundy. That’s to say nothing of the Miami media which of course is legitimately partial to the team. Over the past three seasons, and accelerating recently, those of us who are not Heat fans have had to endure endless arguments that criticism of them is unsophisticated, unsavvy, mainstream, and stupid.
Part of what makes this all so dispiriting is that so much of it is written by smart, committed writers. Take Abbot, the founder of TrueHoop. By my lights, he’s one of the handful of best sportswriters working today— intelligent, passionate, and accessible. I love that he both celebrates the game as it is and yet constantly looks for ways in which it could improve. So it’s consistently depressing for me that, when he discusses criticism of the Heat, as he very frequently does, he sounds lecturing and impatient, sighing about all the fans who have failed to live up to his standards. It’s a strange failing for a guy who’s so thoughtful. Lowe, meanwhile, is a savant for conveying complex basketball dynamics to people who lack an eye for all of the intricacies of the modern NBA game. (People like me!) I’m very glad he’s got the forum he has at Grantland; that depth of analysis is rare and valuable. But like his Grantland compatriot Bill Barnwell with NFL football, Lowe often seems to write with open-mouthed contempt for the average NBA fan. Either there’s a profound lack of self-awareness there, or a really ugly indifference towards basic respect for people with whom you disagree.
The most elementary question here, and the one I would ask Abbot, Lowe, et al, is whether fans have the right to like or dislike whatever teams they want. That’s what’s at issue here, in the final analysis. Look: I recognize how good of a team this year’s Miami Heat were, although given that they didn’t even lead the league in point differential, calling them one of the best ever is a stretch. I recognize that Lebron James is the league’s best player, and I don’t doubt that he will finish his career as one of the ten best players in basketball history. And as I said above, much of the criticism of this team has been unfair and unfortunate.
But I’m not a Heat fan, and I’m not a Lebron James fan, and I frankly resent the notion that I am somehow deficient as a fan of basketball for failing to love a team and player that I don’t naturally. James’s game is, to me, as passionless as it is effective; he’s a transcendently gifted basketball player who for me is not a source of inspiration. Watching him, for me, is like watching a ruthless basketball death robot, all efficiency and execution and domination, without the human factor I crave. I personally find his game is lacking grace, as I found in Michael Jordan’s, or art, as I found in Allen Iverson’s, or manic effort, as I found in Dennis Rodman’s. I’m not evangelical about that; I have no interest in convincing others that it’s true. It’s simply my own aesthetic relationship to a prominent basketball player. So too with the Heat as a team. Yes, there is something amazing in having three such talented players starting games together. But that is also, for me, why the Heat bring no joy. It’s not fun for me to watch a team of far superior talent beating up on overmatched opponents. Some people find that compelling, and that’s fine. The difference is that I’m not telling anyone else what or who to like. If we are to take basketball seriously, we should cultivate individual commitments to the game, not undermine them.
It doesn’t help that James has frequently been his own worst enemy. The Decision has been discussed to death, and the elite opinion has shifted from criticizing it and James to declaring it off-limits and putting the blame squarely on ESPN. I too am eager to move on, although humiliating a vulnerable fanbase on national television is the definition of a big deal. But even beyond that, James has repeatedly stuck his foot in his mouth. After Marc Gasol won Defensive Player of the Year, James complained publicly about it, arguing that he was more deserving. Maybe that’s true. But what possible good does it do for him to say so? It merely makes him seem whining and petulant. He can’t possibly believe that he didn’t receive enough individual praise this season! He said publicly that he could win the NBA scoring title every year. I honestly don’t think that’s true, given how gifted guys like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant are at scoring. But suppose it is true— so what? In sports, you don’t get credit for what you could do, you get credit for what you accomplish, and these statements sound like sour grapes. Is it really out of line for me to find them objectionable? If you Google around, you’ll find that James has constantly complained to the media about his treatment, his reputation, about anyone questioning his greatness. Why? If you’re great, just play. The media has engaged in praise of James so intense it’s almost embarrassing. He has nothing to complain about. If you don’t find these things worth criticizing, that’s fine. But don’t act like I have no legitimate reason not to like them, or if my bringing them up shows that I’m some unsophisticated mouth breather.
It’s worth saying: all of this defense might not be merely judgmental and uncalled for, but actively counterproductive. As Michael Brendan Dougherty of The Slurve has pointed out, perceptions of a fan-media divide can become self-fulfilling. The more that fans feel disrespected and looked down on by the elite media, the more intensely they will react against teams they perceive to be media darlings. The idea that lectures will change the mind of fans of other teams seems to me to defy human nature. After all, part of the anger against the Heat has stemmed from a feeling that everyone was working against Cleveland and small market teams in general. The feeling was not merely that Lebron James was abandoning the Cavs but that the league was abandoning its small, snowy cities. For members of the national media to band together to defend the Heat only plays into this narrative. All of this is bound up in the lament of small market teams, a vexing and sad problem. Lowe once wrote that it was strange that the Indiana community was slow to embrace the Pacers. As someone who currently lives in Indiana, it doesn’t strike me as strange at all. These people are passionate about basketball, but they are afraid that they won’t be able to keep the core of the team together, or worse, keep the team at all. And they feel alienated by the NBA media— precisely because of things like this divide over the Heat. Can you really blame them?
I don’t want to sound too harsh. I am not alleging “bias” here, really. Indeed, I don’t think that these sports writers set out to defend the Heat. Rather, I think they grew tired of the constant, empty, unfair invective that is directed against this team, and allowed themselves to overreact. They are overall quite passionate, quite smart, and not intending to do harm. I merely think that they have failed to really think through how ugly a fan-media divide can be, how filled with class implications and elitism such a thing can become. They mean well. They’re just operating in a media environment that increasingly reflects real, growing class and cultural divisions in America.
A larger question is this: how far can sports rationalism be taken before the very purposes of sports are undermined? In the past several years, I have read people complaining about sports fans and their “irrational tribalism.” Irrational tribalism? That’s what sports are! And not by accident. Indeed, irrational tribalism is the purpose of sports. Sports are entertaining in large part because they are a subject about which we can develop irrationally passionate feelings where the stakes are very low. As someone who writes about politics constantly and who studies educational research and policy in my day-to-day life, issues that are pregnant with meaning and importance, I am happy to have a cranky, passionate, and somewhat irrational relationship to sports. There’s nothing wrong with that. After all, we’re talking about large men running back and forth on hardwood, repeatedly taking inflated leather and putting it through a metal hoop. We’ll never achieve perfect rationality in analysis of that, and we wouldn’t want to. After all, irrationally passionate fans like myself are absolutely essential to the NBA’s business model.
I am not asking anyone to abandon their defense of the Heat, or to change their minds about the fairness and fun of this team. I am only asking for the right to my opinion, and for recognition that being able to like and dislike whatever players and teams you want to is an absolutely bedrock right of every sports fan. More, I’m asking these writers to be conscious, to think a little bit more about the rarefied territory afforded to people with a national audience. This kind of fan-media divide can become really ugly, and that would be a shame, given how amazing the level of talent and play is in the NBA right now.
Sports are for fun. They shouldn’t feel like going to school, or like eating your vegetables. Let the haters hate and the supporters defend, but leave judgments about sophistication and moralizing out of it.