Players, Fans, The Human Element, And The NBA Playoffs

It can be easy to forget that NBA players are also fans, in all the irrational, overexuberant, delirious, and human ways that can be defined. In the playoffs, that's unmistakable.
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NBA players are fans like the rest of us, if not quite just like us. They are emotionally invested in players throughout the league, and carry the same baggage that comes with those emotions. Fans know this part well: the irrational disdain spawned from rivalries, feelings clouding logic unto total howling ignorance, jealousy and pettiness. We want to think the players care about this, too—it’s why a team that seems without joy or hunger rankles the way it does—and mostly they do. They’re human. A bigger, faster, stronger kind of human than the average fan, sure. But human, and so imperfect and malleable; that’s what makes this fun. In the playoffs, we’re all in this together, and all of us exactly as happily lost.

***

“I hated Lu for a long time. I think I just started liking him like two months ago.”

Those were the words of Dwyane Wade after Game 1 of the Miami Heat’s rout of the Charlotte Hornets. It could just have easily been any Heat fan. Wade was talking about his former rival and current teammate Luol Deng, who had just scored 31 points on 13 shots. The comment was meant to be tongue-in-cheek—anyway, the “just started liking him part” was—but there’s a truth rooted in every joke, and this one is not hard to find. If Wade didn’t start to like Deng until two months ago, Miami’s fans felt the same way.

Deng signed with the Heat after LeBron James left, and though the ire of those past Heat-Bulls playoff series had subsided, it was hard to escape the feeling that Deng wasn’t completely embraced until just after the All-Star break, when he moved to power forward to make up for the loss of the ailing Chris Bosh. In two seasons, Deng slid into the role previously held by two franchise cornerstones. That was when he captured the hearts of the Heat players and fans. After all those years, it took that much.

***

NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, in February, felt compelled to call ESPN’s The Mike & Mike Show in an attempt to qualify the brilliance of Stephen Curry’s historic season. Rather than credit Curry for mastering the three-point shot, Robertson blamed 29 other defenses and coaches for letting him get away with an analytics-driven heist of some of basketball’s greatest records. The rant had a certain get-off-my-lawn tang, with sour notes of bitterness and some not-so-faint jealousy on the nose.

It’s been a minute since Robertson has been in the spotlight, but his über-physical style of basketball had thrived for 50 years when he retired in 1974. It took Robertson 10 years to win his first championship; Curry won his in half that time. Curry threatened not only to make Robertson feel old, but appear antique. When you build a Hall of Fame career without 30-foot shots and SportsVU cameras, it can be hard to wrap your head around the newfangled thing that used to be your sport. It’s a reminder that the game can make even a basketball revolutionary sound like a fool.

***

For the first time in a long time, James isn’t the sun around which the NBA orbits. It’s the Golden State Warriors and Curry’s league now, even and maybe especially with Curry on the sidelines with his second injury of the playoffs. The coos are for Curry and, only a year after returning to Cleveland and coming within two games of his third championship, James is old news. It should not be surprising that he hasn’t taken this very well.

It’s not enough to tweet “Kyrie, bro, learn to pass the ball,” although James has done everything shy of that with perplexing regularity. Tweet something that direct, and the First Take conversation becomes about Kyrie Irving and whether he’s the right point guard for the Cavaliers. But a cryptic tweet in high-handed Kobe Jargon? That brings the conversation back to LeBron. James is a basketball historian and a once-in-a-lifetime talent with a fearsome basketball supercomputer in his head, but even he falls into the fickle jealousies of puny humans.

More recently, the Cavaliers swept the Detroit Pistons in the first round; in Game 3 Kyrie Irving hit a three-pointer and the earnest joy that James will sometimes show surfaced in a feel-good celebration. Irving had embraced his place in the playoffs, and James was ecstatic. Winning helps.

***

I was in the Heat’s locker room after a game against the Sacramento Kings late this season. Miami’s game had just ended—they won, but it doesn’t really matter—and they were hanging around a flat screen TV mounted against the wall. The Warriors were playing the Boston Celtics in a game that came down to the last possession. The Warriors inbounded and Draymond Green went to set a pick. Everyone in the room, reporters scattered among the players, was turned to the TV. It seemed as if the Warriors might lose, which was total-eclipse rare this season, and everyone was invested in the outcome. So Green set the screen and, by that, I mean tackled a Celtics player.

The Heat players yipped and hollered in excitement. How do you not call a foul on that? Hassan Whiteside jumped up and ran from the other side of the room toward the TV until his face was within inches of the screen, jaw on the floor. Curry took the shot and missed and the Heat players laughed not out of contempt but in the happy come down of a wild ride. I did, too, and so did every other reporter in the room.

***

We tend to see athletes in the abstract, because of the multiple mediated ways in which we see them—on our televisions or from our seats, through the distorting prisms of fandom and the astonishing things they do as a matter of course. This makes it that much more jarring and essential when the human flesh and blood of the whole enterprise reveals itself. The season’s last and most meaningful games have a way of bringing it out of them, and us, and as these NBA playoffs march wherever they’re going, it seems worth remembering that we are all in them together.


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