Andy Warhol believed that we were all just superstars waiting to be discovered (same for the WWE). When Sly Stone declared everybody a star, the sentiment was more or less the same.
Around the NBA, though, this distinction has never been more contentious than it has been during this postseason. From Mark Cuban's ill-advised dismissal of Russell Westbrook (and the Thunder's fiery retort) to Jemele Hill's cutting remarks about James Harden, we've seen denying a player superstardom emerge as the ultimate slap in the face.
You can imagine why it stings. For Westbrook and Harden, who have faced their fair share of criticism throughout their careers, it's utter invalidation. Superstars belong; they are the firmament of the league. Stars, on the other hand, come and go, rise and fall, and are under constant review so we can determine if they've burned out yet. In the recent history of the NBA, mere stardom is a slap in the face.
The irony? Writers, fans and even players throw "superstar" around in everyday usage without giving it much thought. If there's a judgment that occurs on any level, it operates according to the the old, "I know it when I see it" guidelines. At times, "star" and "superstar" are used interchangeably, or avoided altogether if there's the slightest hint of ambiguity. Certainly, no one's offering up a definition that would allow us to separate the great from the very, very good.
That's because superstardom isn't just subjective, it has as much to do with our perception of players as it does their value on the court. For example, being a perennial All-Star is almost an incumbency. Once a player has achieved that standing, only a major drop-off can unseat them. Superstardom isn't entirely directly tied to postseason success either. Otherwise, we would have to entertain the possibility that Chris Paul could be the best point guard to ever play the game, yet not register as a superstar.
Not that anyone asked my advice, but if we want to develop a real working definition of the term, we have to look at several key factors:
The identity of an NBA player extends well beyond their on-court ability. They aren't just performance machines, they're celebrities, public figures for whom charisma is key. Whether they're giving interviews, appearing in commercials or just expressing themselves via in-game celebrations, trash-talking or interactions with teammates, players come across as multi-dimensional human beings. (Note: There's a fine line between personality and persona). Bonus points if they're actually likable or accessible. Westbrook's presence is undeniable but as often as not, he's strident or prickly. However, that quality can cut both ways. Just ask any cultish DeMarcus Cousins die-hard about that.
For those of us close to the sport and to the casual fan only dimly acquainted with the finer points of today's NBA, there's a sense that some players are on the cutting edge of basketball while others hew more closely to older models of the way the game is played. This isn't so much a rejection of tradition as it a question of who seems fresh, contemporary and utterly essential to the current trajectory of the sport. A large part of the popularity of Stephen Curry and the Warriors isn't just their dynamic style of play, it's also the sense that every time they take the floor they're doing things we haven't seen before. That sense of discovery -- of now-ness -- certainly makes a difference in a player's overall appeal.
3. Entertainment Value
Some guys are just plain fun to watch, while others come up sorely lacking in the department. There's no accounting for taste, I suppose, but part of what makes Cuban's comments on Westbrook so laughable is that Russ is arguably the most dynamic player in the league. Dirk Nowitzki is a marvel of basketball mechanics, but compared to Westbrook, his appeal is largely cerebral. What allowed Jemele Hill to go after Harden like she did was in part because no one likes the way James Harden plays the game of basketball. When it comes to defining real star power, the overall visceral thrill of watching a player in action simply cannot be overstated. It's arguably the only way for an athlete to transcend his native fanbase.
This one gets a bit circular, if not redundant. One way of identifying superstars is to note who gets endorsements, appears in league-related materials and has the highest-ranking jersey sales. But thriving in a major market still matters, as does getting nationally televised games (which equates with being on a good team, usually). Social media can make a hell of a difference, whether it's through the player's own channels or in the way that fans embrace him. And yes, once a player gets that first burst of brand validation, it becomes self-perpetuating. When a player achieves top dawg status and stakes out territory for himself, it's only a matter of time before more opportunities (and greater visibility) naturally become available.
This was apparently Cuban's point: We can't just look at the last few years of the NBA to gauge who looms the largest. Someone like Dirk or Tim Duncan deserves plaudits not only for what they can do on the court, but for how long they've been able to do it. But if visibility is a case of the rich getting richer, you can easily apply its inverse -- the old, "if a tree falls in the forest" quandary -- to even the most august legacy. Longevity can underscore superstardom. If exploited properly, it only adds to the mystique. It's not so clear, though, that sustained excellence is in and of itself enough to generate traction, especially since we can only really assess it toward the end of a career.
* * *
So where does that leave us? I've talked to people who believe that superstars are self-evident, transformative, face-of-the-league candidates looming even larger than potential Hall of Famers. By this measure, only Curry and LeBron James fit the bill, joining world-historic figures like MJ, Bird, Magic, Dr. J, Robertson, Kareem, Kobe, Shaq, Wilt, Russell and Iverson (yup).
But if we want to be more liberal with the definition -- and make no mistake, this is a term used with some regularity -- the current state of superstardom sits something like this:
The Gods: Curry, LeBron
The No-Brainers: Kevin Durant, Westbrook, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin
Borderline: Anthony Davis, Paul George, Harden, Cousins
The Quiet One: Kawhi Leonard
The Outlier: Draymond Green
Next: Damian Lillard
Next Next: Karl-Anthony Towns
Nope: Kyrie Irving
Dying Stars: Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade
Obviously this is highly subjective and warrants discussion, but hopefully, given the criteria above, this at least gives some impression of how the landscape shakes out. We may think we know a superstar when we see one. But when you actually start to break down the category, you might be surprised at who really fits the bill.
Now off to the comments section!
* * *