KD and the Age of BoredomJun 13, 2017
Imagine what would have happened if Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) had convinced the Felix Legions to rally to his side instead of following Commodus at the beginning of “Gladiator.” There would have been no intrigue, no betrayals, no tormented gladiator battling his way to a satisfying resolution in that grand Roman arena. Or what if Gandalf, Frodo, and the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring had managed to somehow convince the Saruman along with the orcs and goblins to side with them instead of Sauron. The Lord of the Rings would have been a yawn of a march to Mount Doom to drop the One ring into the lava. Boom. End of story.
How about Indiana Jones deciding to switch sides and work for the Nazi’s (no Indy on a horse vs Nazis in trucks, tanks, and submarines)? Or Bruce Willis choosing to team up with Hans Gruber and take the cash (no “Yippee-ki-yay, M&*(#& F&*(#^*>”)? What if every single one of The Avengers agreed to sign the Sokovia Accords (no tag-team airport battle with a Spiderman cameo)? Non-sports illustrations to obscure for you? Then picture Jimmy Chitwood abandoning Hickory to play for Terhune in “Hoosiers” (no picket fence plays) or Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez walking away from the Sandlot boys to play for the Tigers with their snappy uniforms (no “You play baseball like a girl!” insults).
I believe sports fans look to our athletic heroes in the same way that many look to the great novels and movies, as a means of temporary escape from the everyday concerns of this world. It sure is fun if your team is the Golden State Warriors and you can revel in the excitement of a championship. But there’s something important that’s missing.
That something is the drama and uncertainty of competition, especially at the highest levels of athletic skill. Kevin Durant is a really nice guy and he did wonderful things during his time in Oklahoma City. But his decision to bail on the team he began his professional career with in order to start collecting championship rings essentially sucked all of the drama out of this year’s playoffs and helped solidify a troubling precedent set by LeBron James when he took his talents to Miami.
I grew up watching NBA games with my father back in the age of black-and-white television sets with rabbit ear antenna. There were times when one of us would have to stand next to the glowing box, holding the antenna just right so that the picture would come in clearly. And don’t get me started on the frustration of trying to adjust the vertical and horizontal roll. (The high-def, digital cable, DVR-devouring current generation probably won’t understand that last reference. Just trust me. It was as aggravating as rain and satellite TV.)
My earliest memories of the NBA playoffs date back to the mid-60’s. The great “Havlicek stole the ball!” moment in game 7 of the 1965 finals between the Celtics and the 76er’s. The 1969 7-game thriller between the Lakers and the Celtics with Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, and Elgin Baylor squaring off against Bill Russell, Sam Jones, and John Havlicek. It was a seven-game battle clinched by the aging Celts in a 108-106 nail-biter that is still considered one of the great upsets in NBA history.
In the years that followed, I couldn’t wait for the NBA playoffs to begin. Those teams fought breathtaking full-court battles as the television images changed from black-and-white to full color. So many memorable moments. Willis Reed, limping to center court to tip-off Game 7 of the 1970 Knicks-Lakers war. Magic Johnson at center in place of an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, scoring 42 points and grabbing 15 rebounds as the Lakers blew out the Julius Erving-led 76er’s and kicking off the “Showtime Era” in Los Angeles. Reggie Miller’s “8 points in 9 seconds” performance during the the 1995 Pacers-Knicks series.
So many epic playoff series. The Lakers, led by Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem versus the Celtics, led by Larry Bird, Robert Parrish, and Kevin McHale. The Bulls with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Steve Kerr versus the Bad Boys of Detroit, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, and Bill Laimbeer. Brutal seven-game series with heart-stopping finish after heart-stopping finish.
There’s no arguing the skill level of today’s NBA athletes. They’re elite and fantastic to see in action. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love are all marvels in motion to behold. They obviously love the game and that passion is reflected in their play.
But Kevin Durant’s decision to bolt from Oklahoma City to help create this Golden State juggernaut is like a dagger in the drama that the world’s greatest athletes generate on the court or field of play. Imagine Magic Johnson, after losing to the Celtics in an incredibly heated seven-game 1984 Finals, decided to free agent himself over to the Celtics. The 1985 Finals likely would look very much like this year’s Warriors-Cavaliers affair. Boring blow-out after blow-out. Instead, the Lakers and the Celtics resumed their Finals rivalry the following year with the Lakers winning the championship in 6 dramatic games.
It’s at this point that you’re most likely embracing the idea of tagging me with the "bitter OKC Thunder fan" label. You have every right to do that because it's partially true. But there are bigger issues than Durant at play here.
KD was just following the trail blazed by LeBron James with his leap from Cleveland to Miami, all for the sake of a couple of rings. But don't get me wrong. Kevin Durant and every other NBA player are free to do as they please. Frankly, given the current state of contracts and management strategies, it makes sense for any NBA player to look out for himself.
But that whole “looking out for yourself,” be it players or GM’s, is what’s killing the drama in the NBA. And as likeable a guy as Durant is, his OKC Thunder legacy has been forever tainted with the image of a guy who took the easy road to a championship. Golden State didn’t need Durant to win championships. They needed Kevin Durant to not play for the Thunder.
There will be those that will argue that there is still a lot of drama to be found in the David-and-Goliath storylines that may play out as the rest of the league scrambles to come up with a line-up that can knock off the Warriors. But look at the reality of what is happened this year: a great Cleveland team that lost just one playoff game is getting blown out by the Warriors, a team that was unbeaten in the playoffs with a 17-points per game margin of victory. Is this the championship template of the future — players deciding to bond together to create super teams so they can stock up on championship rings? The rest of the league battling to reach the championship series where they’re chewed up by a cherry-picked team?
In truth, I’m writing this commentary without having watched a single regular season or playoff game this year. Other than looking at the final scores, I’ve read nothing written about the season or playoffs. I’ve lost all interest in the NBA. For that reason, you could argue that my non-participation denies me any voice in this discussion. But my lack of participation is precisely my point. Just a few years ago I was as rabid a basketball fan as there was on the planet. That joy is now gone, snuffed out by players who want to acquire titles more than they want to be challenged.
Sure, the Golden State Warriors got a championship, and Kevin Durant got a ring. If they stay together, they’ll probably get more. You can even make an argument that this Golden State team is one of the greatest teams of all time.
But let's be honest here. Not a single one of Golden State’s 2017 playoff series would make a “Top 50 Best Series” list.
I dare you to let that sink in for a minute and ask yourself this question: What magical moment do you remember about the Golden State Warriors 2017 championship run? What “Havlicek stole the ball!” call defines the character and determination of this team?
Golden State fans might enjoy this championship season. The rest of the basketball-lovin’ world is yawning.
This championship doesn’t feel earned.
It feels cheap.