A Better Playground Metaphor

The NBA finals is now a best of 3 series. Heat in 3.

Everytime I go to write my “I believe in the Heat” post, they’ve gone on a winning streak. I thank the Mavs for tieing the series up and giving me the space to speak. It is not that I desire to be contrarian, to distance myself from the pack of doubters for the sake of distance alone.  I’m more interested in expressing my faith when many, although never all, begin to doubt for two reasons. When people think Miami won’t ever lose a game, they simply don’t need another hype man. Second, there is a sense in which supporting/defending the Heat is precisely about distancing. However, it is not about being cool and taking a controversial position. It is about distancing myself from the attitudes, assumptions, and orientations that motivate the hatred of the Heat – most of which I find erroneous, misleading and often quite ugly.

I’m not pretending:

If you want to root for the Miami Heat and Lebron James, go right ahead. If you want to pretend that a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars who receives untold adulation and material compensation beyond the wildest dreams of Craesus because of his affinity for putting an inflated bit of leather through a metal hoop is somehow worthy of pitying, party on.

I wouldn’t say I pity James since that is a loaded word, but I feel bad for him. And perhaps, as white person, I shouldn’t feel bad when someone calls James a “big-nosed, big-lipped bug eyed [n-word],” but, you know what, I do. I really do! I’m not pretending. I do not think Lebron James has yet been paid enough millions for racism directed at him to be ok, because there is no such thing as “enough millions.” I’d also point out that Lebron James does not make money because he can play basketball. He makes money because he makes even more money for the people who pay them. My ideal world does not have athletes making millions, but in a second-best world I’m glad athletes get some of the income they generate for their almost exclusively white employers.

Now, this is not to say all criticism of James is racist. Some of it is directly. Some of it relies on racialized narratives and stereotypes (James as athletic but lazy and unappreciative recipient of millions of dollars of welfare from Cleveland). Some of it relies on racial-generational ignorance (attempting to psychoanalyze James from a distance based on tattoos and nicknames without contextualizing them in the culture of a young black man). Some of it might not be racist at all, but still wrong. Where does white Boston sports radio obsessing over how “stupid and ugly” Chris Bosh looks like go (I think he is good looking and fairly thoughtful but its not like I know the guy)? You can categorize that yourself.

In what is otherwise a defense of James, Rick Reilly borrows the Simmons’ playground metaphor:

I get being angry at him for that. I get being torqued at him for ganging up with two of the other top-10 players in the league and crushing all the uncoordinated kids on the playground.

Not racist, but wrong and misleading. This is a bad metaphor. The idea is that it is just bad sportsmanship for the best players to get together. It is an unfair advantage and just not cool. But it has nothing to do with this situation. Here is a more appropriate playground metaphor.

Every day at the playground James, Wade, and Bosh ended up on crappy teams. Sometimes they ended up playing well enough to make up for it, but at the end of the day, a better team always won. This was fine for them. They’ll keep trying. They’re having fun competing. But there was one thing that annoyed them. The individuals with the luck to be on better teams became heroes. It didn’t matter who they were a year ago. It didn’t matter if they played terrible. All that mattered is that the people on the teams that won were deemed special! They did not just win through a combination of individual effort, skill, team effort and skill, and some luck. They were “winners.” This story impressed everyone, except James, Wade, and Bosh who knew it was kinda bullshit. They didn’t see a bunch of uncoordinated kids on the NBA playground. They saw lots of other really good trash-talking players, who lucked out to be on good teams, and were then turned into mystical winners, and their response was – “ok, m*th*rf****S!” You might not like this, but picking on Pierce-Allen-Garnett-Rondo is not liking picking on little kids.

In the end I like the Heat because I like their players. The new and the old. I like how they play. But obviously, I also dislike many reasons they are disliked. Even if others have pointed it out, it is truly remarkable that the James, Wade, and Bosh might be the three most underrated players in the NBA right now (Wade is only rated correctly when people are attempting to underrate James. Bosh is both a terrible player, but also so good it is unfair for him to be on the same team as James/Wade. Hatred isn’t always rational!). That is remarkable, so I remark. As for the Heat’s fanbase. If this can happen in the stadium of the “best” fans in the universe, I can excuse Miami for just about anything.

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