The magic of the NBA doesn’t reside within the innumerable amount of Hall of Famers who’ve graced 94 feet of hardwood. It doesn’t lay in the last second heroics of sideline generals, nor in the raucous galvanization of some 20,000 voices cheering and jeering the 10 guys on the court.
Ok, maybe some of that’s important.
But in this timeline date stamped “2017,” the magic of the NBA is found in the storylines, those crafted in a boiling cauldron of PR representatives, social media and good, old fashioned personality quirks.
Few players occupied the 24-hour sports news cycle more voraciously this last year than Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Sure, Russell Westbrook had his moments, and Lonzo, erm, LaVar Ball soaked up the airwaves, but KD and Kyrie contributed to the ever expanding tradition of narrative construction in one of the fastest growing and most recognizable sports the world over.
When Kyrie Irving shocked fans and the media with “the Earth is flat” claims over the All-Star break he was single handedly fueling a machine rivaled only by the force generated by Jarrius Robertson, a brave young fan battling biliary atresia (a liver disease).
The video interview that saw Kyrie attempt to sum up his perspective in a verbal landslide that applied his logic and beliefs (or lack thereof) to continuing a conversation of a “social phenomena” would be the first of many media outings that began to paint a picture of Kyrie’s off-court persona.
Skip to September 2017, and Kyrie’s appearance on ESPN fueled similar conversations, this time not about the spherical nature of the planet, but about his decision to blaze a trail out of Cleveland. In what was most accurately described by ESPN’s Will Cain as an appearance by, “…some kind of philosopher king who can weave word salads around every question asked,” Kyrie did just that, again brandishing his non-crossover step-back three related persona in an attempt to explain a personal value to the media.
The viral nature (“very much woke” is a top 5 quotable of the year) of Kyrie’s interview is apparent, but the real gem lay buried in the undying craving by basketball fans for storylines to latch onto. Sure, part of the infatuation with non-basketball narratives is due to there being so few players on an active roster at any time, just twelve 12 compared the NFL’s 53, or MLB’s 25. Recognizability is certainly a factor.
More importantly though, infatuation with players off the court stems from the inquisitive need to formulate hypotheses around player behavior. Where advanced metrics satisfy the number junkies and projection crazed on the court, off the court, half-baked theory-crafting builds platforms for players to respond (or not) to all the non-roundball matters that may tangentially relate to the missed basket with 1:24 left in the third.
In 2008, when TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal, then of the Phoenix Suns, brandished a mic on stage to rap, “Tell me how my ass taste,” in reference to Kobe Bryant, the quote instantaneously became an iconic basketball moment, though it only tangentially relates to any one on court occurrence. In the tirade, Shaq spat ill-fitting bars about Kobe instigating his divorce and how Bryant couldn’t recreate championship success sans the Diesel. Instead of influencing Shaq’s on-court career, the rapfest drove home the narrative that he and former teammate Kobe Bryant (and now sort of friend?) had an irreparable beef that could only be solved by anally related disrespect.
And while Shaq continued to recreate himself as the Big Shamrock and Big Aristotle when his age and physical impediments set in, Kobe shook the stigma that the Diesel was a requisite for winning titles, throwing together a pair of victories without the giant.
Again, the underlying narrative is of most importance. Fans of Shaq saw a less than graceful fall from stardom, one that was unraveling since he left Miami (and arguably before if you count training camp issues in Los Angeles). On the other hand, the storyline following Kobe lauded his mental fortitude and unparalleled work ethic to the point that his characterization rivaled that of basketball God Michael Jordan. As a fan, being able to track the indirect impact Shaq’s comments had on one of the league’s greatest 2-guards is mere speculation. Kobe responded to Shaq, saying “I didn’t take it any kind of way whatsoever,” continuing the plot in which Kobe is a basketball crazed automaton that spares an insignificant amount of his mental resources caring about players beyond a 94 foot stretch of maple wood.
To an extent, the “Mamba Mentality” both drives fan understanding of players like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, just as it shapes how guys like Kevin Durant are viewed. Over the summer KD had a number of slip ups, ranging from poorly worded comments about India, to blatant (and completely understandable) disrespect of teammate Steph Curry’s shoe deal with Under Armor, to the most recent Twitter rant that was mistakenly sent from his main, verified account instead of his “troll accounts.” Amidst the hubbub fans and analysts alike followed KD’s every word, engaging the question of why one of the world’s greatest basketball players makes time to respond to trivial matters in any less-than-professional fashion.
Regardless of how well he saves face following each misstep, the narrative surrounding KD is one defined more by descriptors like “insecurity” than it is by terms like “dominance.” Few can argue with KD’s ability to out maneuver nigh anyone on the hardwood, but concerns about his legacy have been tested since ditching OKC for a championship caliber team in Oakland.
In the long run, these narratives are just that: storylines that pepper the airwaves in the absence of a filled stadium and the blare of the shot clock. Kyrie will still be the guy that saved Cleveland’s 2016 championship, just as KD will be remembered for the dagger in game 3 to shift the momentum towards Golden State’s second title in three years. When another soul as unwavering as Jordan or Bryant comes along, fans will jump on him too, just as there will always be guys finding ways to apply underwater basket weaving to the game of basketball.