Whenever the NBA schedule is released it is the equivalent of Dante’s Inferno and the Seven Rings of Hell. It is an 82 game schedule over a six month period of time mired in ridiculous details of who, what and where. It is snowy nights in Minnesota, barbecue in Memphis and back to back games in Utah and Portland. The league has its public relations down to a science immersing everyone with Christmas Day specificity which means no one is talking about the influence of money and privilege and the perception the NBA is on the take.
Every year it is the same conundrum infecting the NBA: teams that deserve visibility are forgotten. Teams that deserve isolation are celebrated because they pay the bills. In this the NBA has convinced everyone- even those who resent entitlement- they are exceptional and generous and not just a bunch of landowners that hoard revenues.
The NBA schedule was released last week and the Los Angeles Lakers, a projected 30 win team, is scheduled to play on national television 20 times, fifth most of all the teams in the NBA. The usual acerbic tone that is part of the national dialogue when talking about the Lakers has a lot of foaming at the mouth and resentment as if sports is just sports. And not economics.
A team with an aging Kobe Bryant, an average Jeremy Lin, a washed up Steve Nash, an entertaining Nick Young, a slow Carlos Boozer is hardly worthy of the status the NBA has given them on ESPN and TNT platforms. The Lakers are the most hated team-surprise, surprise- and the most loved team all over the world even in far flung places like Croatia where Zach Lowe of Grantland pointed out Kobe Bryant jerseys are everywhere. Still, the disgust about the Lakers is an ether hanging in the marrow now that they lack relevance. Or is that part of the myth the NBA weaves only so it can unravel it bit by bit?
Will Kobe pass Michael Jordan on Christmas Day in Chicago to be the third leading scorer in NBA history? Will he slay Dwight Howard? Can he score 25 points a game? Can he score 30? Can Jeremy Lin recreate Linsanity? Will Julius Randle be as dynamic as he was at Kentucky? Can Byron Scott come home and create Showtime? Can he be Pat Riley?
What drives sports is the opposite of what drives the rest of our complicated and often troubled lives because in professional sports social realities, at least for a couple of hours, are outliers. So it is a manufactured world where racial biases and cops shooting teenagers don’t exist, neither does homophobia or Ray Rice-ing your wife or too much liquor. Personal flaws live in the private realm unless outed by some other agenda that fans really don’t give a shit about. Sports in general, basketball in particular, is one of the rare places where achievement is glorified to its most aggregate form. It matters what you do and the fantasy comes down to who you are. Are you a leader? Are you a fighter? Are you a quitter? Are you a procrastinator? Are you a winner?
Attraction never wanes, never. Even on a mediocre team the lighting is never broken. When dues have been paid and great is in front of your name privilege has its rewards. Kobe on television is not just Kobe on television, it is Kobe 18 years in the NBA on television, it is Kobe 5-time champion on television, it is Kobe coming back from a body breaking down on television, it is Kobe 36 years old where-did-the-time-go on television.
This is the bastardization of the NBA as designed by former commissioner David Stern. Other professional sports value their stars but don’t bless them until eternity the way the NBA likes to do with their romantic tales of aging superstars taking their last gasp of professional oxygen.
The constant cry that the Lakers are garbage is a shared vision, I suppose. But the truth is no one seems to know how to turn them off, to just walk away from the television or not buy tickets. Last year they were third behind Miami and Oklahoma City in attendance on the road. That was the same year they won 27 games. And profited a league high $100 million dollars.
The problem for the NBA is when the illusion is the curse and then it is all absurd, when you pick and choose who you want everyone to love. The fans co-opt the game, they sign their name to it, they nurture it, they friend it, they raise it, they parent it, they idolize it, they pray about it, they cry over it; a good part of it is theirs. Steal that from them and you steal their allegiance and their pride.
It is an oversimplification to credit the Lakers mountainous numbers of fans as to why they are on television opening night while Lebron James is not. The answer to that question is the answer to all sports questions which begins and ends with what Shakespeare understood when he first began writing plays: do you have a story?
The Lakers and the Rockets and their self inflicted drama fit the small screen, whether it be a healthy Kobe, an injured Kobe or an old Kobe. Or the idea that for the first time in two years Dwight has to look in the face of the one person he tried to get the Lakers to amnesty just so he could have all of the Lakers affection to himself, that will be like Daniel in the lion’s den. Throw in Jeremy Lin facing his old team and the general manager that gave him away for free. And James Harden coming back home and Nick Young being Nick Young. Houston is an enigma and the Lakers are the Lakers and stir it all up and you have an opening night people will watch in Southgate and in Beijing.
In the end, the concluding narrative suffers from transparency. The NBA and all of its partners are driven by finance and profit and to a certain extent greed. They take their most marketable players and ride the backs of their popularity and intensity and talent and the reason is quite simple. No man goes out back in the yard and burns all of his money just to prove some sort of point about equality. Besides there is no such thing in the NBA. All teams are not the same.