Thirty-two years ago David Stern recognized the most crucial part of captivating an audience. A good film means you must care about the characters. The problem was the very foundation of American sport was built around the concept of team above individual. In our athletic landscape sacrifice for your teammates is the ultimate building block. Glory comes only via the group.
How many adages and corny slogans do we have to remind us Americans – an inherently self-indulgent nation – to stop thinking only about ourselves? There is no ‘I’ in ‘Team. It’s about the name on the front of the jersey, not the back. TEAM – Together Everyone Achieves More.
But Stern realized the name on the back of the jersey is actually quite important. He made sure Larry and Magic were on nationwide TV as much as possible. He pushed for his video enterprises to develop “Michael Jordan: Come Fly With Me” and “NBA Superstars.” By emphasizing individual players and building stars through the visual mediums the NBA went from a flailing, second-tier operation to a modern sports machine.
Which brings us to this week, where Russell Westbrook’s decision to stay in Oklahoma City unfolded in a morality play. Why? Because the player has become as important as the team he chooses. Russ had been known as a stubborn hot head, a ball-hogging firebrand, aloof and disinterested in helping others succeed. His teammate Kevin Durant was the people pleaser, taking time to gently explain his points in press conferences, having already re-signed once with the Thunder, seemingly content in a small market where strangers say “hello” and “please” and “thank you” and miss green lights without honking. Russ was big city, raised in L.A., forever tinkering with his wardrobe. KD was small town, enjoying the simple offerings.
Then Durant left for a 73-win super team that had ripped his heart out a few weeks earlier in the West Finals. He shocked a city and a state that began burning and shooting his jersey. He apparently had misdirected his teammates by saying he would return, then never alerting them when he decided to leave. They, like the rest of us rubes, read about it on Derek Jeter’s Tumblr page.
So Durant became the villain, a role he has never played. And Russ, forever the selfish brat, became the hero. Westbrook apparently wanted to stay and fight with “his guys.” Enes Kanter tweeted a pic of Russ with the caption: “I ain’t gonna join the enemy. I’m here to compete.” Russ was serenaded by a throng of OKC fans at his afternoon press conference yesterday. When asked whether KD’s departure stung, he responded, “For who?” This led to wild cheers.
The inimitable Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, “Rival players couldn’t recruit (Westbrook) as Draymond Green and the Warriors did with Durant, because Westbrook has never shown an inclination to become buddies with his competitors. He wants to destroy them.”
And so it was complete. Durant had taken the easy way out. Westbrook chose the hard way. And he did so because his relentlessly competitive nature demanded it. Now we have our hero and villain. They just swapped hats.
Six years ago we did this with LeBron, and even to this day, despite championships and MVPs and otherworldly clutch play some still can’t root for him because of “The Decision.” It turned the greatest in the game (and a top 5 player all-time) into a pariah. Forget that he had earned the right to leave. Nevermind the Cavs’ pathetic attempts to surround him with decent teammates. LeBron had turned his back on the city that loved him, had raised him. He was now the enemy.
But today, little more than half a decade later, he is back to hero status. James delivered the one thing he seemingly was put on this Earth to do: relieve Cleveland of its sports pain. Michael Jordan was always a hero. Charles Barkley was always a villain. Until now where they are both somewhat court jesters. Charles for his media missives, Michael because of the Crying Jordan meme. Tim Duncan wore the hero cloak. And so did Kobe for the first half of his career. Then there was the Lakers breakup, the coach sniping at him, a rape trial, and Bryant became a villain. When he dropped 60 in his final game? Well, the hero carousel had come all the way around to pick him up again.
Thirty-five years ago, the NBA didn’t play in this moral sandbox. The players were merely part of a greater whole, they didn’t choose teams. Teams chose them. But through marketing, free agency, and an ever-increasing American need to judge what others are doing, this has been blown to smithereens. The NBA is great theater because we care about the characters, especially when there’s a black cap to be worn. KD, what’s your hat size?
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.