SLAM ONLINE | » The Dribble Drive-By in the New NBA

The Dribble Drive-By in the New NBA

The misguided obsession with rivalries.

by James B. Peterson and David J. Leonard

Since the announced trade of Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers (yes, L.A. has two basketball teams), the NBA punditry has been abuzz, focusing almost exclusively on the trade as it relates to the future of the Lakers. Asking if the Clippers are now better than the Lakers, if Los Angeles is a Clippers city, and otherwise playing up the rivalry, media outlets have turned the Chris Paul trade into a source of conflict between the Clippers and the Lakers. SLAM’s Dave Zirin captured the essence of a media narrative that portrayed the trade as a Clipper victory over the Lakers:

The morning buzz in sports is about the greatest point guard of our generation, Chris Paul, joining the Los Angeles Clippers. It’s a dizzying thought, but the Clippers, the much-mocked baby brother to the mighty Lakers in L.A., now have the city’s better basketball team. This is a day for Frank Stallone, for Billy Carter, for Roger Clinton…. the day that your little bro with the runny nose and the toilet paper stuck to his shoe inherited the earth.

The near obsession of manufacturing a rivalry between these two teams is emblematic of the League’s direction. Concerned about a future where superstars join forces in a few select locations, owners sought to reconfigure the League so that rivalries and teams sell the game to the future fans. A league whose motto was once “Where Amazing Happens” is being transformed to one where the motto might as well be “Where Rivalries Happen.”

The efforts to build-up other franchises—and now play-up the Lakers-Clippers feud—reflect this trend, despite their absurdity. The Clippers didn’t trade for Chris Paul to “punk” the Lakers; they didn’t do it to beat L.A. or become the best team in Los Angeles. They did it to make money and win games (which will lead them to make more money). If anything, it elevates the Clippers into contention for the Western Conference title.

At the core of the media coverage has been the idea that the Clippers will dominate the Lakers because, in the battle for Chris Paul, they won. Imagined as David defeating Goliath, the sports punditry is celebrating the trade as a victory for the “little guy.” Yet, the Chris Paul trade has everything and nothing to do with the Lakers. The Clippers didn’t defeat the Lakers. David Stern and the League’s owners defeated the Lakers, with the Clippers ultimately benefiting. The celebration of the Clippers as victors embodies a fallacious belief in free markets and neoliberal capitalism.

The celebration of the trade, establishment of a binary between the Lakers and Clippers, erasure of David Stern and the League itself, and the overemphasis placed on one team is on full display in Bill Simmons’ post-trade column. Despite previously lamenting David Stern’s decision, Simmons used this column to play up the rivalry. In an article about the Lakers and Clippers, Chris Paul and the future of both franchises, Bill Simmons invoked the following analogy:

Yesterday, the Lakers were hanging out in front of the Staples Center, twiddling their thumbs and coming to the depressing realization that Josh McRoberts was their fourth-best player, when suddenly the Clippers did a drive-by shooting, popped them in the leg and sent them limping away. It wasn’t a fatal blow, but the Lakers definitely lost a ton of blood. And they might spend the next few years walking with a lif

Simmons’ comparison is off by more than a few coordinates. First, if one insists on this analogy, it’s the NBA doing the drive-by and Stern is the trigger man. This simply would not have taken place if the NBA/New Orleans Hornets had not flexed their hegemonic muscle to derail L.A.’s bid to bring Chris Paul into the purple and gold fold. The Lakers’ “limp” was initiated by the move to send Lamar Odom to Dallas for future picks—a move made in anticipation of acquiring Superman, which is now about as likely as the owners exposing their earnings/holdings. Funny how the super-rich understand resource equality when it’s about divvying up resources among the 1 percent.

But the Simmons analogy is off in other ways as well. It reflects an abiding disregard for professional athletes and a pervasive misunderstanding of their success and status in (and out) of black/brown/urban communities. Most sports commentators believe(d) that Plaxico Burress was a fool for carrying a loaded gun with him on a night out in New York City.

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