The NBA's Season of Love and Hate

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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.

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There's no doubt in my mind that this season will be uglier than most in recent memory.

That said, we, the die-hard fans, are under basketball's eternal spell. Give it a month, and we'll forget the lockout even happened.

If I were to take a glass-half-full approach, I'd assume that, just LBJ found the mini-max, other players will find provisions of the new CBA that allow them to put pressure on ownership to do better.

But I'm not a glass-half-full type. It was a disappointment during the negotiations that the NBAPA didn't do a better job of making the point that if more than half the teams were losing money, the owners must not be very good at their jobs, and maybe they should consider selling to others who know how to run a business, or at least manage to a very easily calculated budget.

It does occur to me, however, that the owners have made an implicit promise that by getting 50% of BRI and system changes, they've created a more competitive league that will make it possible for smaller markets to attract and retain talent. If that proves untrue, then any player with a decent PR and marketing team around him should be able to sell a forced exit as a broken promise by ownership. And Steve Nash should be free to spend his dwindling days of productivity glaring and swearing at Sarver on the sidelines after every impossible pass or perfectly executed pick and roll. Maybe he can even throw handbags at Sarver during the playoffs.

I'm already back to hating the Heat.

Also, Shaq on TNT... Seriously though, I hope Chris Paul grows a chip on his shoulder from the criticism he'll get when he gets traded this offseason from a team with no owner

I don't think the damage of the lockout is irrevocable from a fan-appeal perspective. To the leverage of players, yes. Maybe I am not well versed enough in the myriad ways that nuances of a CBA affect the final NBA product I see on television, but I can't imagine that I will view the xmas games with anything but unrestrained and childish glee.

I disagree here Shoals. If the Heat started breaking records and doing things like that full court alley-oop every night, then I think we would all start to look back. We define everything by history and I could see the media at large focusing instead on what records they were set to break or to what degree Magic & Michael disagreed with the concept of Superfriendz.

I disagree on one small point here Shoals. If the Heat started breaking records and doing things like that full court alley-oop every night, then I think we would all start to look back. We define everything by history and I could see the media at large focusing instead on what records they were set to break or to what degree Magic & Michael disagreed with the concept of Superfriendz.

I kinda want to do that internet thing where you shout "First" but I fear it may be considered a faux pas.