Predictably, reaction to the end of the NBA lockout has been couched in the either/or terms of fan elation (or revulsion). Sports is always writing its own history; even the most feckless season ends up in the record books. But for it to register as truly historic, we have to resort to the language of winning and losing—the preferred metaphor for all recall of past events.
The lockout did irrevocable damage to the league's brand and bruised up David Stern’s legacy. Or, this abrupt resolution, at nearly the exact point where yearning curdles into resentment, was perfectly timed to cash in on pent-up enthusiasm. Half-empty: the NBA made a fool of its fans; half-full, we got a chance to appreciate what we were missing. The more realistic response, though, is one of ambivalence. We got our basketball back, but on a granular level, something has changed. For every life-affirming play, there's a tug in the opposite direction. Blake Griffin dunks; Donald Sterling harbors a thought that would be better suited to running a chop shop. We’re in for a post-lockout season—it’s blessedly over, but we’re not truly rid of it. Just like the war it was.
We spent all of 2009-10 troubling ourselves about LeBron's future. Much of 2010-11 had Melo as its subtext, when really, the CBA should have been that ever-present concern (it would have been, if the Heat had performed as some expected them to). Those were far-off possibilities, always staved off by a good game. The enmity on display these last few weeks has exposed us to the ugly truth about the NBA: There's a shadow world of stupid, arrogant owners who have a zero-sum view of what it means to run an NBA franchise.
No shit, basketball has always been a business, but at least David Stern understood the concept of branding and tending to the big picture. Even his war on two fronts—Oklahoma City gets the Thunder as a means to legitimacy, China gobbles down the league whole—was a strategy. The owners, his bosses, are short-sighted and sore; they control the league, and the small market teams who can least afford their own incompetence far outnumber the cities who can afford to screw things up. When the Heat came together last summer, there was no shortage of “inmates running the asylum” blather. We learned these last few months that the NBA, for all its grandeur, is always just a few rabid jerks away from the edge. The court is sacred. The walls around it, not so much so.
That’s the NBA we will get in December: One where every bit of action is, for the viewer, shot through with ambivalence. We will love it like never before, while wondering if, just maybe, no one’s having quite as much fun as they once did. We could be projecting, but ultimately, most of what we see in athletes is an attempt to come to terms with what we need them to be. We love this game and yet now we—or the players, or folks paying them—kind of hate everyone. Including ourselves.
In The Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum's character juggles love and hate as part of his snake-tongued preacher's con. When love triumphs, the irony is nearly suffocating—Harry Powell is a sociopath who spends half the film chasing kiddies through a dreamworld. But this little parable, insincere as it is, provides the moral of the story. Bad things are a necessity; bad guys themselves always prove disposable. Spike Lee revisited the scene in Do The Right Thing, Powell's proto-krust knuckle tats replaced by the five-finger rings of Radio Raheem. Radio Raheem, the kind of gruffly placid character bound to end up a symbol, gets choked out by a cop. This time, the martyr is caught in a lie; his monologue is guilty of either false optimism, or underestimating just what a metaphysical casualty amounts to in real life.
It’s all too easy to cast the owners as Powell, their false moralization serving as the road to their own undoing. Hate is never vanquished, but Powell’s arrest—like the owners being forced to slow their roll and compromise—allows love to occupy the upper register. Hate buoys every Kevin Durant three-pointer from somewhere back in the next time zone, and we’re all the stronger for it.
Or maybe, as much as we enjoy this season, basketball will always be firmly placed in perspective. Dudes like Robert Sarver always wanted to be photographed courtside, but now, they will have wormed their way into every play. We got basketball back, but with a CBA that all but killed the mini-max, that enlightened three-year contract meant to put pressure on front offices to do their jobs and keep superstars interested. The mini-max also brought us the Miami Heat, whose sensationalism obscured what they said about players taking charge of their own fate. The cost of getting to watch Chris Paul again? Knowing that the owners have made it impossible for him to hold them accountable. Paul or Dwight Howard will have to force a trade, as Melo did last year, and come off as selfish pricks for it. That’s exactly the way the owners want it, because a player with a bad reputation has been dragged down to their level. In 2011-12, Rajon Rondo sulking imperiously after every off-kilter skip-pass may be the last refuge of protest. Playing like they mean it may have become the ultimate fuck you.