My grandfather, who raised me, got me into sports, and you’ve never seen a more irrational fan. The major sports’ leagues hated Texas, he said. There was a coastal bias. Every dynasty was a dynasty because of some malicious intent from the vague powers-that-be. It wasn’t just sports; this was politics, business, and social structure.
I'm rationally picking and betting Nuggets in six, that's the official prediction. That's the one to cold takes me on.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 13, 2023
In my heart I believe Lakers in six because good things don't happen to teams like the Nuggets vs. the Lakers.
It’s of course not wholly true, but the NBA has often felt that way. The marquee teams seem blessed by the Basketball Gods. It’s the fact that stars want to play for those teams, but sometimes it might feel like a little help from the whistles. That ref advantage may not always feel true, but the 2006 Finals is every Mavs’ fans personal Kennedy assassination, with Ed Rush as a CIA spook and Dirk as our fallen Prince of Camelot. Just ask Kings’ fans what NBA conspiratorial thinking looks like.
In reality, the power imbalance is something more ephemeral. College basketball fans often talk about the mystique associated with Blue Bloods–a vague psychological advantage that comes from knowing you’re supposed to win, as opposed to wondering if you can. As Christopher Walken said in Catch Me If You Can, the Yankees do not win because they have Mickey Mantle. It’s because everyone is too busy looking at the pinstripes.
I take pride in being an unbiased observer of basketball; as someone who writes about it, I consider it a duty. Yet, it’s impossible not to engage in the old-fashioned fandom I was raised with. It’s why I find myself rooting for the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, to an extent that rivals any series that doesn’t include the Dallas Mavericks. I believe you should too.
I’ve been surprised by the objectivity of basketball twitter. Lebron winning again would be a great story, they suggest, or for that matter the Lakers, considering the way their season started. I personally find it despicable– they’re the Yankees of hoops! I’d feel just the same against the Celtics.
Maybe it’s a sense of leaving the old ways behind; our flawed past is, sometimes rightly, out of fashion. People of my generation have suggested sports hate is silly, and “not respecting the greatness” of Lebron James is retrograde. I am not ready for that sports’ world. Maybe I’m just an old soul.
Lebron went to the Lakers to win; he’s one of the smartest players of all time, and he knew such mystique and wattage matters. To dislike him is ultimately silly. He’s charitable, and his worst quality is probably being corny. He’s also a model citizen in a way that’s beyond impressive once you take his fame and visibility into account. Yet with the Heat, he represented the opposite of an underdog. They were the team built to win “not four, not five, not six”, a box office phenomenon. It’s easy to forget in our time of player empowerment, but The Decision was a watershed, and was no different than Kevin Durant’s years later. For the Mavericks to win their first title against that, and for it to reawaken in purple and gold?
I have a friend who is an avid Spurs fan and believes in rooting for Lebron and the Lakers’ appealing narrative. A Spurs’ fan should hate them even more! He’s also one of the more rational people I know, and he often pulls me back from more emotive reactions to things. Visceral and from-the-gut logic has become a kind of cultural faux-pas; we’ve seen what happens when science and facts are put at the mercy of feeling, afterall.
The NBA makes it impossible to forget such little-man syndrome. Superteams can be created, economics remain an advantage, and the weight of cyclical history feels like a metric ton of cruel inevitability.
This is part of why the 2011 Mavericks were wonderful. The Dirk Mavericks were always uncool, and I can’t remember a consistent 50-win team taken less seriously as a contender; by the time they won, no one believed in them. I had animosity for the Spurs, our interstate rival, for most of the time period, but looking back they were the perfect distillation of the “built not bought” team. If they were playing the Lakers, or the Heat, I rooted for them.
The Nuggets remind me of those teams. Smaller markets. Not storied franchises (at least before Dirk and Duncan arrived). Led by quieter superstars, built in their image–goofy, humble, innocuous. Even their role players are workmanlike; does anyone know anything interesting about Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? Perhaps, in time, like the Warriors, they’ll become the enemy.
The NBA isn’t fixed; the idea is inane. The Spurs run would have never happened. There’s just a kind of psychic energy that builds from a thousand micro-events–respect for Lebron, Jack Nicholson on the sideline, a refs’ own casual family member asking “who are the Nuggets?”—into an advantage. In my understanding of basketball, the stars get a whistle because they’ve become stars and earned respect. It was built into the fabric of the sport, only furthering the narrative of young challengers toppling prior regimes. I’ve always been okay with this. It gives the sport narrative shape.
I remember how kids in elementary school loved Jordan, and it made me feel out-of-place–didn’t we root for underdogs in sports movies? People like to be on the right side of that narrative shape. To embrace greatness, root for it, be in its presence because it confirms some sense of order and creates a model for people to project themselves on. My friend, the rational one, said during The Bubble that “with everything going on in the world, Lebron and the Lakers winning feels right, like a sense of normal.” As if America loves greatness, loves its dynasties, and perhaps some of us embrace the lie that it’s defined by the little guy (which all of history says is an illusion). Maybe, for better or worse, I’m predisposed to a little chaos. Maybe I’ve always felt like an underdog. Maybe I was raised by an old-fashioned regionalist who makes little sense in our connected, rational world.
Or maybe I just didn’t like it when Lebron James made fun of Dirk being sick, right before our Prince took the narrative for himself, and maybe I’ll always root for an usurper to the throne.