The DEFEND Cleveland Show

The NBA Lockout and Why it Didn’t Matter


I’ve been meaning to weigh in on the NBA lockout (and its resolution?) for months now, but I’ve struggled to make enough sense of it to say anything valuable. Luckily, my former classmate and erstwhile lawyer Mike Wu has done it for me.

I think he’s right, for the most part, particularly about the importance of thriving rivalries and the allocation of “psychic energy” between teams and communities. I think at its heart, that’s precisely what was at stake in all that CBA jibber-jabber, and I think that this new agreement has preserved the NBA model’s precarious balance for at least a few more years.

But a precarious balance between what and what? What exactly is at stake in all this, besides millions of dollars and the difference between a Pepper Pike McMansion and a South Beach condo? We didn’t have professional basketball for awhile; now we will. But what does all this say about us, about what we want from our sports?

An unlikely answer came from Brian Phillips in March, before the lockout started, in an article about La Liga, the Spanish soccer league.

“For American fans raised on revenue sharing and luxury taxes and the idea that the least successful teams should get the first crack at new talent—all mechanisms designed to keep the little guy in the race—it can be startling to realize that many soccer leagues are out to crush the little guy under a boulder…The old joke about soccer and American sports is that mild, single-payer Europe somehow gave birth to ruthlessly capitalist sports leagues, while laissez-faire America coughed up socialist ones. In light of the systemic inequalities facing soccer clubs, it might be more apt to say that European leagues are feudal aristocracies—a free-for-all for the lords, not so free for the peasants. American leagues include built-in social mobility: The NFC has sent 10 different teams to the Super Bowl in the last 10 years. Even the Yankees and the Red Sox, the most European-style franchises in American sports, have their dominance checked by Major League Baseball—imagine how mangled they might have left the rest of the league without the luxury tax and the last-place-team-picks-first MLB draft.”

The lockout was not about millionaires vs. billionaires, nor was it about labor vs. management nor blacks vs. whites. Ultimately the lockout was about parity vs. greatness, and what we want out of sports in America.

When the Yankees eat up all the best talent by doubling their salaries anywhere else, then (predictably) crashes through pennant races, it offends our democratic sensibilities. A lot of people hate the Yankees for it. Others blame the MLB, for establishing a system in which such inequality can take hold. But there’s a third group, and I’d wager that it’s bigger than you think, that loves the Yankees because it’s packed with superstars and mutant talent. They love the Yankees because they love winners. And though it offends our democratic sensibility, it’s difficult to call that impulse un-American. America loves winners. We love greatness, and legacies, and dynasties. As Mike Wu says, we love superstars, and as Mike James says, even though we all claim to hate them, ESPN wouldn’t have the Heat Index if people didn’t want to see, to borrow Brian Phillips’s phrase, the game taken to breathtaking new heights.

In Spain, you support whatever second- or third-tier team the Good Lord, by the chance of birth and geography, has given you. But you also self-identify either with Madrid or Barcelona, because otherwise being a soccer fan would be something like having money in a cockfight at the Tyson factory. Sure, you might win, but only until your rooster goes to one of two unstoppable killing machines. You might as well bet that it’ll die in one machine or the other, if anything to distance yourself from the trauma.

There are few American sports that are directly comparable to the savage capitalism of Continental football. The NFL does a great job at preserving parity–my guess is as good as the average Barca fan’s on who will go to any given Superbowl. And even professional baseball, our most savage in terms of focused money and talent, provided some tremendously close and entertaining games last season.

There was a time when Lakers vs. Celtics was all that mattered, but since then the soul of basketball has shifted restlessly several times: to Michael Jordan’s Bulls teams, to the San Antonio Spurs, to the stunning dovetail that rippled across America in the wake of Lebron James as he drove South. The tension building by the opposition of forces, by the two competing ideologies of parity and greatness in American sports, spiked in Lebron James and, it seemed, burst in the lockout. The players want to play with their friends, to form new, goliath rivalries, to turn the Knicks and the Heat into America’s Barca and Madrid. They want to direct their own lives and define basketball with their own terrifying talents. “Cleveland and MIlwaukee and Sacramento be damned–we’re great and we want greatness.” The small teams can fight among themselves, and the Knicks and the Heat will destroy them while preparing to play each other. And when the Heat and the Knicks play, “OHHHHHHH SHIT!” highlights will scoot across ESPN’s conveyer belt like so many chicken parts at the Tyson factory.

But here’s the thing: As much as I understand why Chris Paul wants to play with Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups on the Superknickerbockers, he should want to play against Carmelo Anthony more. As much as I love Barcelona and Lionel Messi and the game of soccer, basketball is not soccer and America is not Europe. I’m interested in parity, in small franchises having a shot at the championship and the ability to keep the talent they’ve raised. But mostly I’m interested in purity. There’s an essential perversion in great players sacrificing half a season because they want to play with other great players instead of against them. The balanced opposition of parity and greatness is what defines our current basketball culture, but it shouldn’t be. Self-direction doesn’t lead to greatness, at least not in basketball. The purity of competition, of wanting to be the best, not just play with the best, is what leads to greatness. And perhaps the sorest tragedy of this whole lockout has been that the veil has been lifted: we saw ourselves trying to force with salary caps and mid-level exceptions and tax codes what can only come from the soul of an athlete, that thing, that thirst, which it feels we haven’t seen in ages. Not parity; purity.


-Will Hollingsworth

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Posted by on Dec 7 2011. Filed under Featured, Meta World Peace. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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