Sometimes I use Twitter to help shape my philosophies around sports. It is a good tool to throw stuff out there, see some reaction and push back, and develop theories. It’s just sports, but these things are important to us. Yesterday, Chris Paul got his wish to be traded and his mantra seemed to be about how he wanted to win now. It seems over the last few years, we’ve started to accept that as a premise for professional athletes. We’ve talked ourselves into the fact that that is what they’re supposed to want to do. If they didn’t feel that way, we’d question their manhood and competitiveness. We’d wonder if they had any heart. We’d assume they were just in it for the massive paycheck. Somewhere along the lines, we’ve lost our way as fans though.
I am straddling a line here and I beg you not to take this down the political path further than just this statement, but in politics many voters are scorned if they don’t automatically vote with their self-interest. Right, wrong, or indifferent in politics, I think it is much simpler in sports. Being a fan is pretty much 100% about self interest. I think as fans we’ve tried to become too fair and principled and we’ve stopped being selfish enough. It seems like many among us are more interested in justifying a player’s individual self-interest. But, it is not in our self-interest as sports fans to support ring chasing as some sort of acceptable proof of competitiveness.
Chasing a ring can be a noble venture, but it is not by default. As we’ve seen in the last few years the way some guys go about “competing” turns out to be more insufferable and in extremely poor taste. In many ways their version of “competing” couldn’t be more anti-competitive. Even beyond the NBA doing what it can to help fix their own problems, we must figure out how to carry ourselves as fans going forward with regard to these players who seem to be missing the point.
Championships are complex things. It is a complex achievement in team sports because it relies on so many relationships. It encompasses relationships between players, teams, coaches, owners and most importantly fans. I hate to put fans first as some sort of cheap ploy to get everyone on my side, but it is true. Holding up a trophy is meaningless without a bunch of crazies in the seats screaming their heads off. You can’t get showered with praise in a parade if there aren’t a million fans lined up along the route. We can’t win the championships as fans, but we also shouldn’t sell ourselves short as a part of the equation. NBA players, almost as a rule in this day and age, sure are selling us short.
Chris Paul wants to win. He apparently wants to do that in contrast to all his actual fans that have bought his jerseys over the years in New Orleans. He is thinking solely about his relationship to that end prize while ignoring his relationships to a team, coaches, ownership and fans. Obviously the question of ownership is a tough one for Chris Paul because the New Orleans Hornets currently don’t have an owner. Still, he took the quest for what would have been so meaningful to he and all his fans who have such a rich history together and has traded it for a chance to chase it with new people. And somehow he expects the old people to understand his selfish quest.
It is far too easy to just attack Chris Paul because he didn’t play here. It would also be easy to attack LeBron James for a variety of reasons that are too well documented at this point. Let’s pick something more sacred. If I am going to take this philosophy that simply chasing rings for the selfish and individual glory of it is wrong, then how would I apply that to an example like Zydrunas Ilgauskas?
I did that on Twitter last night and even those who were in agreement with me started to attack the idea that Z wasn’t somehow different. I can’t disagree that there are massive differences between Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ choice last year and what Chris Paul is doing this year, but it is an important exercise anyway. Much of the same ideals that I am talking about hold true.
Let’s pretend that the Miami Heat defeated the Dallas Mavericks last year. Zydrunas would have gotten a ring. He would have attended a parade. He would have held up a trophy. Then what? Professional athletes rely on their history and legacy and their relationships with fans usually far outlast their time playing the sport. Zydrunas Ilgauskas was never going to set up shop as a fixture in Miami. Some Cavs fans might have felt good for Zydrunas, I guess, but there’s no longevity to it. In the end it is a really fleeting feeling.
The important feelings for fans and presumably for athletes are the real relationship-forming feelings. That championship should mean absolutely nothing in the really long run compared to the relationship with a fanbase that stuck by Zydrunas through his injuries as he helped resurrect the franchise alongside LeBron James. For the next 30-50 years as Zydrunas lives out his days as a former professional athlete almost nobody who will matter to him would have actually thought very fondly of his championship run.
That doesn’t mean Z is a bad guy. It doesn’t mean that Z owed us anything more. Z wrote a letter and took out space in the newspaper to thank Cleveland fans. He couldn’t have been any classier. When I talked about this on twitter last night some automatically put it back on me asking me what I would have Z do? The answer is I don’t know. The Cavs really didn’t want him back in all likelihood. I don’t have all the answers on how it should have played out.
I just know that the championship wouldn’t mean anything to me or most Cavs fans. When the relationship with Z and Cavs fans was all that was left of Z’s basketball career, his fleeting dalliance with a championship in Miami would have been not much more than a blip on the radar. And yet, we all pretend like the pursuit of it is some noble thing that supersedes all else. He is free to do what he wants, but I can’t attach any nobility to it.
And that is what I’m left with. It is a really subtle point, but it is something I will carry forward as I raise my son as a sports fan and a Cavaliers fan. Championships are great things. Every championship will be the greatest thing of somebody’s lifetime no matter who wins it. But it won’t be the greatest thing of everybody’s lifetime, even among the winners.
So Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and the rest of these guys can move all over pretending that there is some mysterious competitive drive that justifies their every move, but I’m not buying it. They’re missing the point and don’t deserve the fans who wanted to love them. The fans deserve better and these players would do better for themselves as human beings if they’d realize what the point of it all really is. The relationships aren’t with that trophy or the standings or the box scores anymore than sometimes having money doesn’t make you rich.