What’s In An Asterisk?
Updated: Jun 18
Despite alarming COVID numbers in Florida, valid concerns from the NBPA, and other barriers, it appears professional basketball will make its return this summer. Adam Silver and the NBA seem determined to conclude the 2019-20 season and postseason, come hell or infectious high water.
Praying for full health for everyone involved and assuming the season is able to safely conclude, however, fans and the collective NBA intelligentsia have already begun discussing whether or not the eventual champions of the 2019-20 campaign will forever be tarred by a dreaded asterisk.
But what does that even mean?
The vague sense that the 2020 NBA Championship should come with an asterisk isn’t necessarily a new idea. Because the conclusion of the season would look so different, suddenly we would need to somehow enshrine that atypical ending for all of eternity.
By some measures, we’ve been here before, and any sort of asterisk fades away. The ‘99 San Antonio Spurs are one of the league’s most cherished champions, despite playing just 50 regular season games. Now that the dust has settled, I don’t think anyone is willing to waste their breath trying to assert an asterisk on the title.
The same is true of 2012, when the Heatles won their first Finals together. Debates around LeBron’s “legacy” often invite the worst of NBA discourse, but even in this forum you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would argue the 2012 championship is somehow less-than.
Banners aren’t raised with footnotes, they don’t wheel out a JV version of the Larry OB if a season concludes differently than others.
Why this season is different
At the end of the day, players, coaches, and staff will all be subjected to the same weirdness and adversity that playing in the Disney Bubble brings. Including 22 teams in that bubble was almost certainly a business decision, but it also means fringe playoff teams will have an honest shot at qualifying for the postseason.
All told it will be a decided level playing field, but unfortunately one that looks categorically different. Therein lies the possibility for a metaphorical asterisk to actually attach itself to the eventual NBA champion. Let’s address these head-on.
First, there’s the very real possibility that an All-Star player misses extended time or even Finals games due to a COVID infection. This is not grounds for any asterisk. Outside of Golden State, I don’t think much shine came off of Kawhi Leonard’s apple when Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson were sidelined with injury. Even LeBron’s phantom hand injury the year before didn’t make much of a ripple in the league’s admiration for its champion. COVID should be no different.
Second, the actual winning of the championship will very likely be an awkward, anticlimactic moment. Perhaps the league and its television partners will be able to come up with something, but raising a trophy to a cardboard crowd with piped in cheering will be pennies on the dollar for players and fans alike. There could even be stoppages in play due to COVID during the postseason that further derail momentum.
It is going to be weird. We need to identify our distaste for that moment and not let it ruin the mythology of the eventual champion.
The final issue is perhaps the most specious argument but one worth addressing nonetheless. This year’s crop of contenders contains a number of highly controversial players, many of whom are the subject of intense, emotional, illogical conversation. (See: LeBron’s legacy.)
James Harden and LeBron James in particular seem like the most likely victims of the dreaded asterisk, simply by virtue of being polarizing characters. There are a few other characters on this list. Their stans could pull the same shenanigans - if James doesn’t win a title, the overly-exuberant Lakers fans might immediately dismiss the champion outright.
There’s a world where LeBron wins a title against a Bucks team riddled with COVID in a tiny gym, full of cardboard fans after a two week break between games four and five. That is still no excuse for an asterisk.
The country is at an incredible inflection point in its history. It’s attempting a long-overdue existential crisis about race relations in our society while battling an on-going pandemic. Some have suggested the return of professional sports could be a healing moment. Others believe it would be a disingenuous distraction. It’s possible both things could be true at once, and surely we all have our own opinions here.
When tragedy strikes, we often elevate professional athletes to play the role of hero. Whether it was the Yankees following 9/11, the Hornets eventual return to New Orleans after two years in Oklahoma City, or the Red Sox in the wake of the Boston Marathon Bombing, we’ve seen plenty of times where a city is said to rally around its sports to regain a sense of community and normalcy. Again, the reality here is probably a complicated shade of gray.
The asterisk conversation needs to include the above, and for that reason is inherently flawed. Yes, the postseason and Finals will look very different and contain variables we’ve never seen. But that means it will also include incredible new pressures for all players involved.
Somewhere along the way, however, we critically dehumanize professional athletes. Like everyone else in this country, players and their families are fighting through the horrors of the COVID crisis while grappling with the same questions about policing and racism in America.
Make no mistake, NBA players have long been heroes in this country, but not because of what they can do with a basketball. Let’s keep in mind the average age of a player is just 26 years old.
Assigning an asterisk to the 2020 Finals misses the point entirely. The eventual NBA champions are going to be challenged in a way we’ve never seen before. And they should be celebrated as such.