Monday, June 23, 2014

Living the Game

By Corrie Trouw

Earlier this month, ESPN's Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein broke news that the Miami Heat were discussing adding Carmelo Anthony to their roster through free agency this summer while keeping current stars Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and LeBron James.

With the league's salary cap and luxury tax designed to dissuade star-hoarding, the move would require Miami's three current stars to opt out of their existing contracts and sign reduced (and carefully orchestrated) new ones.

For many, the knee-jerk reaction to the story was disgust. Just four years removed from the Heat sweeping up an entire free agent class of stars, the prospect of adding Anthony to the roster rekindled much of the same disdain. But why?

In 2004, the Lakers were a year removed from a three-peat. That summer, Gary Payton and Karl Malone each left their original NBA organizations after more than a decade, accepting sharp pay-cuts to play with Kobe and Shaq as well as under Phil Jackson. For both veterans, the move seemed a clear grab for a championship ring.

The construction of that 2004 Laker roster was met with some handwringing, but it seemed typical "rich get richer" griping that meets every Yankee or Patriot roster move. But somehow just half a decade later, the Heat faced, and now continue to face, a much different attitude.

To be fair, there are superficial differences. To my recollection, Malone and Payton did not make their first appearance in Los Angeles in a hyped pep rally where they predicted championships by the bushel. And, of course, neither Malone nor Payton chose to inform his original organization of his decision through an ESPN infomercial. But even accounting for the tone-deaf missteps of 2010 doesn't explain the reaction to this month's Anthony rumor.

Instead, the biggest difference between L.A.'s 2004 and Miami's two key offseasons is the appearance of predetermination. NBA rules clearly forbid organizations and players discussing future contracts before the free agent window. And yet, Miami largely gutted its 2009-10 roster to make room for three near-max contracts, a decision that would have looked reckless and foolish in any scenario where Wade, Bosh, and James didn't fill that open salary cap space. When you throw in the trio's time together on the 2008 Olympic team and the fact that Wade's place on the Miami roster made him a motivated conduit to the Heat front office, it doesn't take many leaps of imagination to connect the dots.

But this still doesn't get to the heart of the question: why do fans find this so off-putting? Even if Wade, Bosh, and James had a triple-secret pact to join up in 2010, it would not have impacted previous seasons. Whether they came to this agreement years or days in advance seems irrelevant to the final product fans enjoy, the games. So why do we care?

To even further muddy the question, think about modern NBA front office strategy. Teams have increasingly embraced tanking as the best method for rapid improvement, a tactic employed most obviously by the 76ers in the previous season. As media and fans have become more comfortable with this reality, a clear mandate of roster construction has emerged: Collect superstars by any means necessary.

The double standard held over the Heat stars versus NBA GMs is striking. Organizations are making trades and sitting players with losing games as the secondary, if not primary, goal. This violates the most basic demand every fan has in exchange for his support: If nothing else, try your best!

So clearly, player-constructed superteams are not unpopular because they undermine the league's integrity. Many have suggested disdain for NBA superteams reflects attitudes about labor practices in the United States, but this feels like a self-projected red herring. Most fans seem unlikely to consciously identify the parallels between typical union industries like manufacturing and education with world-class athletes, then equate their beliefs to the issue. No, the opposition to superteams is not a political one; I believe it is one of theater.

Consider the WWE. Like the NBA and other professional sports, it features well-trained athletes completing impressive physical feats within a framework that encourages taking sides. There are big games/matches, championships, referees, and media personalities. And while the outcomes of professional wrestling are understood to be scripted, they are about as unknown to the viewing public as the outcomes of non-scripted sports. Sure, John Cena probably isn't going to lose on Monday Night RAW in the middle of February, but you could say the same about the Spurs hosting Orlando on a random Monday night in February, too.

The obvious difference between the two — predetermined outcomes — is significant, and it explains why the public abhors Miami's collection of stars. Americans faithfully believe in a system where hard work and dedication eventually pay off. This principle shows up in attitudes about social mobility and narratives about our politicians. Think about it: how many stories have you heard about political candidates with humble beginnings either personally or professionally? We value (or at least think we value) a world in which the future is undecided.

In July 2010, and possibly again in July 2014, the Heat stars threatened that premise as it relates to the NBA in two ways. Stephen A. Smith famously reported weeks ahead of the official news that Wade, Bosh, and James going to Miami was a "done deal." The prospect of such an agreement suggested a tangled web of schemes for future partnerships dating who-knows-how-far back. How much of the NBA's future is already decided?

But even more so, this affects the way we consume the NBA. You probably have heard sports business analysts describe televised games as the only "DVR-proof" content around today. There is something about the real-time experience, not merely of the games themselves, but of the off-season as well that we love. Think about the last time your favorite team or player had a major news event like the firing of a coach or commitment of a big recruit. You probably were flooded with text messages from friends or your Twitter or Facebook feed updates aligned to the same topic.

In a way, today's sports are like the premise of the 1997 Michael Douglas movie, "The Game." In the movie, Douglas' character, a successful but jaded businessman, receives a series of instructions and has to endure seemingly dangerous and terrifying events within his life, all of which turn out to be part of a game bought for him by his brother to force Douglas to enjoy life.

Our interest in sports today is similarly integrated into our lives. Any time of day, we can see what players are posting on their social media accounts, and no matter how much free time you have, you can't exhaust the supply of content written and aired about these leagues. Good or bad, we live sports fandom in a different way than fans of other forms of entertainment.

And that is exactly why fans react to superteams like a toddler biting into her first lemon wedge. Even the least sophisticated fan doesn't believe that rosters like Miami's are built during one free agent period. Salary cap space is cleared years in advance, and I don't think it takes a conspiracy theorist to believe informal feeling-out discussions happen months in advance, tampering rules be damned.

Unlike going to the movie theater, following sports happens at all times and during all facets of our daily lives. At some point, the distinction gets blurred and sports become part of our lives.

At the end of "The Game," Douglas' character is driven to suicide by jumping off of a building, through a glass roof, and onto an airbag, safely in the middle of a party with his friends and family. After quickly getting over the initial shock and confusion, he relaxes and enjoys the party, apparently happy to have learned his lesson.

If Miami once again constructs its dream roster this summer by adding a fourth star, fans will not calm down quite so quickly. We've been watching the game too long to accept that it is not real.

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