On the NBA: Where’s the Beef?

Rivalries have long keyed the hold of pro sports leagues over their audiences. Lakers/Celtics, Yankees/Red Sox, Cowboys/49ers, Michael Jordan/Everyone, etcetera—these are highly palatable binaries for network executives. This is because rivalries cut to the heart of what makes professional sports so appealing to so many, at base-level; rivalries ignite an emotional, physical, regional, Us-versus-Them pride that’s a breath-taking form of escape for fans who are worn out with the problems of their own typical days, full of taxes and commutes and complicated people asking for conversation and affection—among many less mentionable problems. Sports only ask for your money. And in these storied rivalries, we have found cause to unite as local, otherwise-anonymous citizens, and the solidarity of rooting has brought senses of passion and inclusion to many a beleaguered person.

But in the contemporary NBA, I’m heartened to see that this solidarity seems to be shifting away from these classic binaries—away from anything like that demon always bordering eerily close to healthy competitive fervor: hatred—and more toward a common love of the game.

Last I checked, there are few real rivalries left in the league. The only which immediately comes to mind is between the Heat and Celtics. These teams seem to genuinely dislike each other, as the Celtics have routinely gotten into LeBron’s head and pushed his teams to the brink—and with Ray Allen as the new Helen of Troy between the two, Jason Terry is right to suggest that ‘fireworks’ are in store if the teams meet in the playoffs.

But what is it that thrilled or enraged us when LeBron recently posterized Terry, in the midst of aMiamicomeback inBoston? Distinct from the countless displays of his well-chronicled athleticism, the end of the sequence had the King earning a rare technical foul, as he leered over Terry’s body, sprawled onto the court, and dipped and re-grasped his mouth-guard in taunt-like fashion. Whatever the cause—genuine, strong mutual dislike seems likely—this moment was far more charged than any other of the season’s big-time dunk highlights (which are increasing as ostensible career currency as the league’s following is more and more embedded with the internet). This rivalry is real, and all the others that have been pawned off to me and other NBA fans all season are fairly laughable. This one has beef.

Is this a good thing? Again, I argue that it’s not, and that we should be pleased and heeded as fans of the game to witness, and want, something as civil as possible in our NBA experience. To play up, stoke, and root for heated rivalry (a sort of competition that goes beyond just wanting to win) is frankly mean-spirited. I do get very excited when moments like the dunk over Terry occur—or when I hear rumors of any number of things Kevin Garnett whispered to opponents, to rile them into senselessness—but it’s the better part of me that’s even more satisfied when I hear about how friendly the Heat and Thunder (likely to meet again for the title, this June) are with each other, off of the court. Calls for them to share the kind of antagonism enjoyed between James and Terry belong in the bush league.

I expect the media to continue their efforts to sell us any old game as a rivalry—that sort of thing still sells. But in a world in which the media is less and less centralized, and in which each individual’s voice is more heard than before, the grander, more nuanced picture shows us that, for the most part, these guys are pretty friendly. And this adds to my appreciation of the sport, because gamesmanship and the want to destroy walk the finest of lines in a world as talent-dense as the NBA, and I’m now saving extra admiration for the stars who can manage to walk it.

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