Welcome to the debut of The Hook, a daily three-dot style NBA column by Tom Ziller.
We begin with a discussion of basketball's Holy Grail: the MVP award. Below, how recent basketball history indicates that women's soccer's new popularity isn't due to nationalism, a chat with Bethlehem Shoals and a few words on the great hypocrisy behind Colin Cowherd.
[BRANDON] KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE, PART I: THE NBA'S HOLY GRAIL
Most would dispute an assertion I am prepared to make, that the Holy Grail of basketball is not the Larry O'Brien, but the Maurice Podoloff. The former is the NBA championship trophy, the latter award goes to the league's MVP. You won't find an NBA star who will admit he values individual achievement over the highest team success. You won't find an NBA star willing to tell the truth on this matter.
This is not to say that all NBA stars prioritize their own success over that of the team, just that NBA stars are also humans, and as such can be expected to share in the human condition, in which personal achievement is highly regarded, at least in this era and this country. (International athletes represent a fuzzy gray area; nationalism and by extension collectivism is obviously much stronger in less secure and diverse nations.) Happiness is the human spirit's Holy Grail, and in the career-focused modern day, being named the best at what you do is a pretty fantastic boost for a person's happiness. Sure, there's something to be said for the heart-swelling satisfaction of group achievement. But we are wired to desire glory, and glory requires, to some degree, superlative individual performance. Blame the Spartans or the Rockefellers, depending on your historical frame of reference.
As such, as an observer of the NBA, I consider the MVP award much closer to basketball's Holy Grail than the championship trophy. Of course, they can each be a Grail; grails are everywhere, and really, what is a championship but a dressed-up, objective Most Valuable Team award? Players who can honestly tout collective achievement over the ultimate individual success are players who have no chance in Hades of claiming the MVP. Less soldiers of fortune seek that which is attainable. Brian Cardinal has a championship ring. Why not me?
Rectifying this theory -- that the MVP, not the ring, is the thing -- with the actual annual quest all NBA players take part in is fairly straightforward: the chase for the championship is simply one of the parameters of the game. That group play (that's what we'll call the regular season once the sport is truly global) and a tournament decide an objective champion (as is the case in nearly all sports, even college football, where the tournament has two participants) is part of the game's boundaries, as are the length of the court and height of the hoop.
This is why no MVPs come from bad teams: you have to matter to truly matter. You are employed and paid to bring your city home a championship. If you aren't aiding that mission, your quest for the Grail is dismissable.
And no, I don't suggest players wittingly play this game and go hard for their teams and their teams' fans while consciously (and some would say without conscience) gunning for the MVP trophy. Derrick Rose isn't thinking MVP ballots when he makes his move on a potential game-winner. He's trying to win the Bulls a game. The team concept has been ingrained into our athletes from birth, and the innate drive for personal success has been cauterized, at least to some degree. You do still get Brandon Jennings announcing that he intends to become an All-Star. Before last season, the oracle Derrick Rose announced he had ascended to MVP candidate -- not unlike Percival announcing that he sought the Grail itself.
The thirst for individual glory is real, and it needs to be recognized and celebrated as a real part of sports. Pat yourself on the back, young men of the NBA. You deserve to be celebrated.
Next time on [Brandon] Knights Of The Round Table: if our young point guards served Camelot.
NATIONALISM IS DEAD
The Women's World Cup did really strong ratings on Sunday -- the overnights said an 8.6, which would beat some NBA Finals games from the past decade. (Think Spurs-Pistons.) Cynics immediately credited patriotism and stakes, not the actual sport of women's soccer and the compelling storylines it has provided over the past few weeks, for the ratings boom.
To them I would point out that the final of the 2010 FIBA World Championship drew a 0.6, just 900,000 viewers per Sports Media Watch. That game had men, it had a big-four American sport, it had patriotism and it had stakes. And it drew nothing.
Why? Good question. The entire World Championship fizzled for the American public, despite the presence of rising messiahs Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose.
A huge part of it is competition: these Team USA games in the WWC were heart-stopping affairs, just like the Final. There was real momentum in the build-up and drama all the way down. That feeds into story, which is all that matters to a wide cross-section of the American sports fan.
The FIBA World Championship didn't have a whole lot of story from the Team USA side: the Americans basically beat up the competition, avenging a 2006 loss by LeBron James and company. KD is famously quiet, Rose is even less bombastic in front of a camera and even the most exclamatory members of the squad were neutered by Coach K and his right way. (Remember the dearth of Russell Westbrook dunks.) Story matters above all else. The Women's World Cup team had it. Our World Championship team did not. Nationalism has little to do with it.
WORDS WITH FRIENDS: BETHLEHEM SHOALS
I chatted with old writing partner and friend Bethlehem Shoals about our expectations and disappointment with the spectacle of the NBA lockout. You can follow Shoals on Twitter (@freedarko) and Tumblr.
TZ: Back when the lockout began, you were the only other person who seemed remotely excited about it. I think one of us compared it to free agency in 2010. Almost three weeks in, have your feelings changed?
BS: I said that? I guess I was thinking about the ways a lockout would feel like some world-transformative event within the NBA. Free Agency 2010 seemed destined to be so much more than just players changing teams. In the end, it really wasn't. The lockout has ended up so much bigger than basketball than it's ended up totally irrelevant to the sport—even its politics. All we have is suspicious financial data and owners intent on covering their own asses. There's not even a culture war, or question of product strength, to discuss. This is is JUST about the owners, all of whom are beyond irrelevant. Except for Dan Gilbert and his new duds, of course.
TZ: I think that shift to anger at the owners explains my detachment from the story as exciting or important -- maybe that's what we had intoned earlier, that this was a hugely important thing, not necessarily exciting. But my change of heart isn't to do with the story becoming larger than the NBA or the politics of the NBA, rather that everyone seemed so quickly to embrace the idea that the owners of full of s--t. I expected more of a fight.
It'd be like the 2008 presidential campaign if Obama had opened up a 60-40 lead in the August polls. Just a bit anticlimactic given what we had rared up for.
BS: I think you're dead-on there. It's become about a--holes with money lying. There's no basketball-related, or basketball-as-culture-, or culture-as-basketball, discussion to have. This belongs on CNN, not ESPN (if they're even covering it anyway).
Actually, we thought that the 2010 free agency would be about changing in the balance of power; the Heat and their promised revolution were a late development. I guess, in the short-term, it exceeded expectations. We thought we were getting a new-look league, instead we had a new understanding of basketball. This promised some sort of important referendum on the Heat (and such), but the Finals unraveled that, so it turned into a very mundane debate on salaries. And from there, it turned into who was paying whom. Not bigger than basketball, I guess, but so rudimentary to having a professional sports league that it precedes the athletes playing or meaning anything. It's like Simmons said "if I could get revenue sharing I could fix this darn lockout, and none of these other issues would matter".
TZ: I think the biggest revelation of the lockout has been the league being willing to fight back. I assumed the union would be in much better shape than in '98, but I've been surprised to see the league go on the offensive, especially after Nate Silver's huge piece. Maybe that's a bright spot of this being an otherwise mundane accounting quarrel to date.
In case you missed it, Colin Cowherd declared that Roger Goodell is the father many black NFL players never had. You may remember this Colin Cowherd from such adventures as "blaming Sean Taylor for Sean Taylor being the victim of a home invasion murder" and "determining that John Wall is not a leader because he knows how to Dougie and also because his father is dead." Three strikes, Colin.
This man has made a habit of espousing reprehensible and, frankly, stupid opinions on the airwaves of the Worldwide Leader. If he were a white athlete, he would be pilloried relentlessly -- and justly -- by ESPN talking heads. But because he is under ESPN employ, he will receive his welts only from those outside Bristol on account of ESPN's strict "don't disparage your cohorts" policy.
It's an amazing hypocrisy, and it's inexcusable. We all know Cowherd is an incredible dolt, but not enough attention is paid to the fact that none of the smart, incisive writers at the four-letter can address what is a major sports story, and has been for some time. There are a number of ESPN writers I would have loved to see address the Wall story. But thanks to a misshapen corporate policy: radio silence. It's as sad as Cowherd is pathetic.
The Hook runs Monday through Friday.