We have arrived at the trilogy. Three years of Warriors vs. Cavs, LeBron vs. Steph, freewheeling creativity vs. physical dominance. The Warriors overcoming LeBron and a 2-1 deficit. The Cavs overcoming Steph and a 3-1 deficit. The LeBron free agency decision in 2014. The Kevin Durant free agency decision in 2016. It’s the most intense and all-consuming rivalry since the Lakers/Celtics dominated the NBA in the 1980’s. And yet, there is an intense edge of negativity surrounding the finals (see here, here, here, and here). Fans have bemoaned the lack of drama within these playoffs, while journalists and former players have complained that the decision by Kevin Durant to join the Warriors was both a cowardly move, and created less interest in the NBA product and reduced the competitiveness in the league as a whole.
We also see a return to the too-easy narratives of “good” and “bad” from the collective fan bases. LeBron becomes a whiner, Draymond is transformed as a dirty player, the refs are poised to screw over whatever team you are rooting for, Steph is weak, Durant is a coward, Kevin Love is scared, ect. Now, this is not unique to fandom in any sports league and of any team. Sports fandom is based on projections, split off parts of our own aggression and fear, aspects of ourselves we are not allowed to express in normal society. As a Warrior fan, I would be lying if I did not admit to expressing some dark thoughts regarding the Cavs during last year’s finals. So while this is not exculsive to this series, what I find interesting is the decreased appreciation for the beautiful play from both teams, the truly outlandish individual accomplishments of the players in this series, the undeniable dominance by each franchise in these playoffs, and the likelihood of this moment representing an elevated plane of basketball not likely to be matched in this decade and perhaps for several more to come.
Donald Meltzer, a British analyst, has written extensively about the idea of the “aesthetic conflict”, that the lack of capacity to have a authentic, immediate, and powerful interaction with beauty indicates a sign of deeper, more powerful and complicated issues. Here, we have two teams that play beautiful, compelling basketball, and it seems quite difficult for the larger NBA community to not only acknowledge this, but allow itself to be stunned and overwhelmed by this fact. Does our incapacity to be animated by this moment in NBA history say something about our current society? The hyper-critical nature of internet discourse, the ambivalent relationship we have to narratives, a general skepticism towards black athletes making free agency decisions for themselves all likely play important parts. Meltzer might argue that it demonstrates a limitation of thinking, that if we were able to truly take in the beauty of what we’re witnessing, to be stunned by the magnificent play of both teams, that it may open up room for us experience deeper questions within ourselves and in our current culture. It may be safer to avoid such uncomfortable and uncertain terrain, and dismiss this moment with skepticism and cynicism. However, this denies us this moment of beauty, which in turns limits our connection with ourselves and each other.
While I will wish for nothing less then another Warriors championship, I will try to keep in mind the opportunity to witness beauty, to see the genius in LeBron’s passing, Steph’s immense creativity, Kyrie’s gorgeous drives, and to be inspired by Dryamond’s desire. The beauty showcased by both teams does not come about too often. Let’s try to be stunned, and not, as Meltzer writes, “retreat in order to protect oneself from the impact of the beauty of the object” (P.150).
Meltzer, D. (2008) The appreciation of beautify: The role of aesthetic conflict in development, art, and violence. London, Karnac Books