The good news is that we are watching the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs. These are two beautiful and brilliant and fascinating basketball teams, playing in an NBA Finals as interesting as any in recent memory. The Spurs, radical-pragmatic Dad Jazz collective that they are, have rounded into a perplexing, half-boring and fully dazzling maturity. The Heat are the Heat -- the team that beat a similarly excellent Spurs team in last year's Finals, and more importantly the team that's fortunate enough to employ LeBron James, the best basketball player that most humans alive will ever watch.
The bad news, as usual, is everything else. This is the whole stagy superstructure and the manufactured controversies and endless Hot Take trench warfare, down to the queasy winking micro-redefintions of the luxury sedan and weirdly ugly man-on-puppet perversities during the commercial breaks. They render what's best about it somehow subsidiary to the stupider spectacle that blurts, bullies and implores during the commercial breaks. The smaller, authentic thing on which all that is leveraged groans under the strain.
We deal with this, or mute it or flip over to "Chopped" on the Food Network, where some unlucky chef is presenting monkfish (or something like that) with a Jolly Rancher glaze (or something like that) to a panel of skeptical judges. That dish, in a sense, is what we're served when we watch the NBA: a good and nourishing thing slicked with a sugary garbage reduction and plated as appealingly as possible given the time constraints.
And those are these NBA Finals, and every other. The basketball, luckily, is good. No one who cares about basketball needs any prompting to watch this, or any excuse to talk about it; we will all tend to talk about it in our different ways, because we are different. This is not a problem for us. We know how to do this. The problem comes when it's no longer us talking about any of this.
Say, for instance, that LeBron James suffers debilitating cramps after playing basketball in 90 degree heat. He can't go back in the game, can't even stand up, and his team's lead evaporates. This is a story, inarguably: it's a thing that happened to the best basketball player on the planet in the NBA Finals. There was something fearsome and almost admirable in how quickly the discourse found the worst possible way to talk about this.
Just sayin' pic.twitter.com/glwEGveXE5— SportsNation (@SportsNation) June 6, 2014
A very good start. Then the TV CHUDs, both the Grandiose Melting Ice Cream Cake and Definitely Knows Better versions.
Elite, well-conditioned athletes never cramp. I never did at Michigan or Ball State. #getinshapeBron— Jason Whitlock (@WhitlockJason) June 6, 2014
Ps. I hope MJ was watching. #midol— Michelle Beadle (@MichelleDBeadle) June 6, 2014
And the #Brands, what have the brands to say about all this?
@ryanbkoo The person cramping wasn't our client. Our athletes can take the heat.— Gatorade (@Gatorade) June 6, 2014
There is strength in the silence. The best response is made on the court @KingJames. #powerthrough— POWERADE (@POWERADE) June 9, 2014
Delicious. These #takes have electrolytes.
We are here, now. We have made the greatest basketball player of his generation and the very promising NBA Finals in which he is playing, into a series of dim memes, born weary and screaming and unlovable, all of which converge on LeBron himself. All this basketball, all this weird collective beauty by the Spurs and everything else, collapses into a referendum on one famous person.
We can engage with this, if not quite change it. Vote in a poll, if you like. If you're willing to hold for a while, you can shout at Bloater and Meatdad on 770 The Game about all this, and they will shout back at you. And when James comes back in Game 2 and plays like LeBron James, and his team wins, that performance becomes a response to the response. When the Heat lose the next two games, decisively, the question is not how or why, but Would Jordan Have Let This Happen or How Did LeBron Fail. People argued on television about LeBron leaving the floor during Game 4 because he had to take a dump.
So: we did it, whatever this is. Now what?
The Cramp Game
This particular bit of bullying fatuity is not unique to LeBron James. It's a hack move older than most anyone reading this. Dave Egan did it to Ted Williams in Boston, Dick Young did it to Tom Seaver in New York, and Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer is doing it to Joey Votto as we speak. It is just about the only thing that Skip Bayless even does anymore, and while he's probably the foremost practitioner of this particular craft there are also some obvious issues with an art form counting Skip Bayless as an Old Master.
There are reasons why this sort of thing keeps happening; in the case of LeBron, as Evan Hall notes in VICE, there's the basic problem of conceiving of a person with superhuman talent as actually human. This maybe makes this sort of casual dehumanization easier, if no less objectionable or more interesting. Mostly, though, I imagine that this sort of perseveration keeps happening because it's easy. Bayless' relationship with LeBron -- as with previous Bayless bitch-totems -- is akin to that of a remora hitching a ride on a shark, but it's most like the ill-tempered symbiosis between TMZ and drunk famous people leaving Los Angeles nightclubs.
There's a basic dank unhappiness to the way TMZ operates, a sense that everyone on both sides of every engagement doesn't think much of the other, and would much rather be doing something else. Everyone performs this displeasure -- one side badgering and rooting for a gaffe, the other answering to make the questions stop -- and the result is displeasure in turn, with an implied LOL Nothing Matters GIF whirring over it all like an invisible watermark.
This, too, is a business transaction, but there's no human light in it. The idea is to generate a sort of low-intensity bump of disgust, a little blip of bleak emotion in a noisy void. Whatever the end result is, it is the opposite of beauty, something like the inverse of creation or creativity; it is not trying to evoke any good feeling. It's a thing, all right, consciously manufactured and sold. But you wouldn't confuse its creation with artistry, or confuse the result for art. It surely has nothing to do with basketball.
This all pretty much sucks as a way to look at or talk about a person or a thing. It's both limiting and limited, but mostly it's small, and hugely lame. It's also wildly insufficient where the NBA Finals and LeBron James are concerned. There are just too many other ways to enjoy what the game -- these games and these players, but in general -- shows us. What James does is so remarkable -- he is a human being the size of Karl Malone who plays with the virtuosity of Michael Jordan -- that it seems silly to talk about it as if it's anything else.
The Spurs paint their masterpiece
Only the Spurs could follow up a historic performance with an even better night. Now they return home with a commanding 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals while the Heat are left with nothing but questions.
This isn't to say that the only way to watch basketball is with reverence or awe, or that the only way to appreciate LeBron is to appreciate him. No one that cares about basketball needs to be told how to care about it, and you can of course feel about LeBron however you want.
But that's just it. This kayfabe outrage and sour posturing doesn't really serve anyone who likes basketball, if only because it is specifically designed not to enhance the experience of watching or caring. It is something else, something simpler and effectively decoupled from the thing itself. Bayless, who is not worth paying attention to except as an exemplar of this, made the game plain recently by breaking his peers into pro- and anti-LeBron camps, as if he were a controversy about which Senators and spin doctors could pound out talking points. It's not about LeBron James and what he does, so much as it's about defending a rhetorical position on LeBron James.
As fundamentally dull as low-info barbershop who's-better-who's-best bickering or the high-bro pantheon parsings are, they are at least about basketball in some way, and resemble discourse in some way. The meme-ing of LeBron James does not even have that much going for it. It takes a great basketball player out of his vivid living context, and drops him into a shooting gallery next to Pharrell's Big Dumb Hat.
This is a shitty thing to do to a person, at a basic level, to strip away what's distinctive and beautiful and human and then hang a target on the embalmed thing that's left. But, in the case of LeBron, it's also a colossal waste. Why bother with all that, when you could be watching LeBron James play basketball?