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Dispatches from the present


Twilight of the Highlight Idols


When you’re living under an oligarchy, it’s easy to call for reform—revolution, even. When things get more democratic, decisions get harder, and you might learn about yourself.

So goes the life of an NBA fan. For the past ten years there have been two dominant powers: the Golden State Warriors and whatever team LeBron James was on. (In the last few years, it’s become apparent that the former can be rephrased as “whatever team Stephen Curry is on.”) Many of us fans lamented the inevitability of it all. Some up-and-comer might be having the greatest season in team history, but come spring, LeGrinch would spoil their fun. But as those oligarchs have aged, things have gotten more fluid. In this year’s playoffs, the field is wide open.

Take two extremely similar first-round matchups. The (LeBron-led) Los Angeles Lakers versus the Memphis Grizzlies and the Warriors versus the Sacramento Kings. In each series, we have on one side an underperforming superpower: faltering, lower-seeded, but with enough flashes of brilliance for us to get that old taste of inevitability. On the other side, we have a thrilling new face: young and fun—energizing fans who’ve become too used to failure. (Ignore that they have opposing takes on this role. The Kings embrace the lovable losers angle while the Grizzlies take on more of a “we don’t give a fuck” rebellious angst.)

To the sort of fan that I am—without a true team allegiance, in love with the game itself—things should appear straightforward. Root for the up-and-comers! This is just the paradigm shift we’ve long asked for, right? Yet I find myself unabashedly rooting for the Lakers—the most successful franchise in NBA history with the most successful player in NBA history. I find myself not rooting for, but at least unable to root against, the Warriors—the smug juggernauts with Silicon Valley assholes filling the stands. This is not simply the sort of “I want them to win” rooting that I could be convinced out of. It’s the kind of “they are the protagonists” rooting that infects every aspect of viewing the game. It is the Lakers’ and Warriors’ offensive sets and defensive switches and lineup rotations that I am paying attention to, while the Grizzlies and Kings become merely the resistance and responses to those sets, switches and rotations.

Am I just an apologist? A small-scale casualty of what Adam Smith called “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments,” the disposition to sympathize more with the powerful than the powerless? Is this what Stockholm syndrome feels like?

Let’s see if we can find a more flattering portrait. Over ten years ago, the podcast Radiolab was doing an episode on games, and they got to talking about our tendency to root for the underdog. But then on came the basic bitch’s iconoclast, Malcolm Gladwell, who argued the opposite. “I’m distressed by the—by the injustice of the person who should win not winning,” he said. This is combined with a “deep distrust and unhappiness with luck.” He himself shifted to basketball, referencing Villanova’s 1985 upset of Georgetown in the National Championship. “There is no way—you could play that game a hundred thousand times and Villanova would still win only that one time,” he moaned. “I mean, I just thought, this is not—it’s just not right, it is like—it is a violation of everything.”

I sympathize. I love an underdog, but only to a point. I am, as I said, a fan of basketball over and above being a fan of any team. So what I want to see is basketball competition at the highest level, even if its outcome isn’t shocking. I mean, the game itself is spontaneous and random and often shocking—isn’t that enough? Why do we need the results to be as well?

But this doesn’t explain why I found myself rooting for the Lakers, despite everything. LeBron is often brilliant, but more than ever shows his age (or at least, a decade late, shows that he’s no longer at his physical peak). There’s no obvious argument that the Lakers or Warriors winning represents some repudiation of luck. Indeed, it seems like I’m rooting for LeBron or Steph because their winning—at this age? against this team?—would be further evidence that they are so great, not because their greatness is evidence that they should be winning. This, after all, is Smith’s point. Our sentiments get corrupted because we start to conflate things that should stay apart: the good feelings that accompany imagining ourselves successful and the good feelings that accompany imagining ourselves virtuous. Maybe I’m conflating the feelings of admiration that I’ve so long felt for LeBron’s and Steph’s success with the similar but distinct feeling that they ought to have more of it.

I don’t deny it. But I think there’s something more. Early in their series with the Lakers, Grizzlies instigator Dillon Brooks commented to the press on a fiery exchange he’d had with LeBron earlier in the game. “I don’t care. He’s old. … I poke bears.” Brooks is, even he knows, an insect compared to LeBron. He was betting that he’d be an insect picking over the bear’s corpse, rather than one squashed underfoot. He bet wrong. The final game of the series—as the Lakers dominated and Brooks again struggled—felt like divine retribution. LeBron was no longer the fastest or strongest guy on the court, yet he exerted a command and control that made it seem as though only one team could conceivably win the game. This, I realized, is not a story of an old champion proving that he’s still got it. It’s a story of a guy realizing that the bear he’s poking is actually Zeus.

That is the allure of all-time greats like Steph and LeBron. Watching Curry dragging his overmatched Warriors over the Kings in yesterday’s decisive Game 7—in which he set the record for points scored in a Game 7—there was a sense not only that his shots were not being stopped, but that they could not be stopped. As always, he relentlessly ran around when he didn’t have the ball, weaving in and out of traffic, seeking the moment that his defender would give him an inch of space. In the fourth quarter with the season on the line, the Kings were too focused to let that happen. So, Curry would lean at some awkward angle or shoot with a quick enough release that it looked half-accidental, launching the ball so high as to exit the TV screen, and swish it through anyway. After one of these pivotal shots, color commentator Jeff Van Gundy was at a loss to explain the strategy involved. “And then,” Van Gundy paused, “the thing that only he can do.”