• VSabatel

Put Some Respect on My Name

Decency. It’s a simple enough concept, and it’s been at the crux of many conversations in these harrowing times. These conversations extend to NBA fandom. Language matters. In this era of social media and 24-hour sports coverage, the relationship between the players and fans has morphed into something increasingly more intimate and volatile. Today we’re going to examine instances when NBA players were publicly vilified and how long-standing notions on player-team dynamics influence public perception.

Kevin Durant will go down as the most prolific scorer of his generation, he’s a 1x MVP, 2x NBA Finals MVP, and has two NBA championships along with a Gold medal under his belt. Durant has become one of the more polarizing figures in basketball in recent years. While some criticism can be attributed to some high profile public miscues, most of the negative press derives from his move from Oklahoma City to Golden State in 2016. Critics labeled Durant’s move as “weak” and questioned the 4x scoring champion competitiveness after he decided to join his conference rival. 

LeBron James received criticism for “The Decision”, a 75-minute TV special in which LBJ sat down with reporter Jim Gray to reveal his plans for free agency. The phrase “taking my talents to South Beach” has become a rallying cry for LBJ’s critics, many of whom view “The Decision” as the single most self-aggrandizing moment in basketball history. Almost as equally offensive in some basketball purists’ eyes was his decision to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. Some viewed his decision to leave Cleveland to join Wade’s Heat as a concession, the self-proclaimed “King” had abandoned his kingdom for greener pastures.

Kawhi Leonard was supposed to be the new face of the Spurs, The former 15th pick in the 2011 NBA draft quietly elevated his game, transforming from team’s perimeter stopper to one of the NBA’s top two-way talents. All seemed to be well in San Antonio until Kawhi injured his quadriceps, Kawhi and his representation questioned the Spurs medical staff choice of treatment and timetable for recovery. After an injury-plagued 2017-2018 season, Kawhi asked for a trade out of San Antonio. Critics lambasted Kawhi, called him “a diva” for the handling of his injury and recovery, his situation seemed to draw the ire of his coaches and teammates who publicly commented on his recovery.

This may seem like an oversimplification of 3 very unique circumstances but the common thread connecting these narratives is the player’s sense of agency, athletes being unafraid of disrupting the natural order, using whatever leverage they have at their disposal to achieve their end goal. Kevin Durant and LeBron James were ready to leave their respective franchises. James and Durant entered the league as teenagers and spent the better part of a decade leading their clubs to unprecedented success. Cleveland and OKC were small-market clubs who saw a meteoric rise in popularity, ticket sales, and team merchandise during their tenures. Both players were catalysts in generating hundreds of millions of dollars for both their teams and respective cities. 

I can understand the frustration that comes with watching your favorite player move on, but what I can’t understand is the vitriol. It’s ok to have an opinion on “The Decision,” the event was ill-conceived and lacked self-awareness, but self-promotion has become “par for the course” in the post-MJ basketball universe. Branding is everything; players recognize the scope of their influence and the value that it brings. As unsettling as “The Decision” was, what I found even more disturbing was Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s scathing letter, in which he referred to LeBron’s actions as “cowardly” and his choice to leave Cleveland “a betrayal.” Gilbert’s angst was about more than the “The Decision”, it’s a reaction to a player mercilessly wielding his influence, something organizations and ownership have done for years.

Blake Griffin and the Clippers came to terms on a 5-yr 175 million dollar extension only for the Clippers to trade Griffin to Detroit months later. Loyalty is a figment of the imagination, a virtue reserved for a rare few in NBA circles. ESPN’s “The Last Dance” showed just how complicated it could be to maintain amicable relationships between players and organizations. Player agency played a significant role in the demise of the Chicago Bulls dynasty, The NBA has and will always be a business first.

If pundits criticized LeBron James for his presentation, fans bastardized Durant for his destination. The way the narrative goes is after losing 3-1 lead to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, KD cowardly abandoned his team and joined the bandwagon of his rivals. It’s the old “if you can’t beat them, join them” schtick. When players sign their contracts, they are not just picking a team; they’re committing to a way of life. Players uproot their families, leaving behind friends and loved ones in the process. Imagine being a programmer for Facebook getting an opportunity to work for Apple. You’d be receiving a sizable change in salary and title; you’ve met the team and are beyond excited about the opportunity. Why should a player shun personal happiness for the sake of constructed narratives on loyalty and competitiveness?

Players like Kevin Garnett toiled in mediocrity for years playing under half-hearted ownership with poorly constructed teams; he was on his way to basketball martyrdom before his trade to the Celtics. Boston, Miami, Golden State weren’t the first superteams, superteams have been around since the beginning of basketball. Celtics,Lakers, and Pistons dominated the ’80s. The Bulls dominated the 90s. You see the plotting and planning in high school, AAU, and ultimately college. The idea that superteams started in the 2000s is a lie perpetuated for far too long.

Kawhi Leonard requested a trade and was shipped to Toronto. While his single season in Toronto wasn’t without setbacks in his recovery, he was able to lead the Raptors to their first NBA championship. What I found to be telling afterward was an interview with former Spur Danny Green, who discussed having a misdiagnosed injury. There is nothing more valuable to a player than his body; it’s their moneymaker. Players feel the pressure to play through injury; many wear it as a badge of honor. Few remember the athletes who’ve lost it all on account of “pushing through.” Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill have spoken at length about coming back too soon from injuries and how it derailed their careers.

Kawhi received a ton of criticism for how he left San Antonio, most notably from former ESPN analyst Michelle Beadle.

Beadle called his behavior “diva like,” she even commented that his refusal to broach the topic in public was a reflection of some sort of personal defect. Much has been made of Kawhi’s Uncle Dennis but the players need people willing to advocate for their best interest even if it leads to contentious dialogue.

Athletes are people. Fans far too often look at players as cogs in the wheel. Gaudy contracts should not disqualify players from advocacy, and they don’t give fans and pundits license to assassinate one’s character publicly. The incomparable Mike Tyson eloquently said, “social media made yall way too comfortable with disrespecting people and not getting punched in the face for it”. As we begin to see this shift toward accountability, let’s continue to keep our criticisms grounded in basketball and not some diluted preconception of how players are supposed to act.

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