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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The Layup Line » Nothing to Celebrate: Chris Paul and the NBA Imagination

Nothing to Celebrate: Chris Paul and the NBA Imagination

David J. Leonard

December 16, 2011

I am a Lakers fan so any and all of my criticism should be seen through that window. While Lakers’ haters have rejoiced over the draconian decisions from the league, it’s worth taking a moment to contemplate what exactly they’re celebrating.

For example, Dave Zirin is a brilliant commentator, with an amazing ability to both highlight the political dimensions of sport and use it as a way to elucidate the larger social issues of the day. In his essay, “Sorry, Lakers: Chris Paul and the Clippers Now OCCUPY Los Angeles,” Zirin doesn’t just argue that a sea change is underway in Los Angeles. He also connects the trade to a larger social upheaval inside and outside of the sports world. “These aren’t two NBA teams. They are the two Americas. But in a 2011 where we’ve seen global revolutions from the Middle East to the Mid-West overturn accepted truths in thought and deed, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate way for the SportsWorld to end its year,” writes Zirin.

Zirin then makes his zeitgeist-tapping analogy more plain:

The Lakers have always been the ultimate team of the 1 percent. The Clippers are the also-rans, the afterthoughts, bottom-dwelling 99 percenters of the first order. One trade, and this sacrosanct truth has been turned on its head. To see an exhilarating symbol of the change 2011 has brought and 2012 will bring, you can do worse than remembering the names Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the soon-to-be almighty Clippers.”

David Stern’s decision to reward David Stern with a transcendent player such as Paul given his given his history of racial discrimination is jarring enough. After all we can not forget that journalist Bomani Jones once described Sterling in the following way: “That same man, who gives black men tens of millions of dollars every year, refuses to take a few thousand a month from folks who would like to crash in one of his buildings for a while? … . Sterling may have been a joke, but nothing about this is funny. In fact, it’s frightening and disturbing that classic racism like this might still be in play.” Read in this context, Zirin’s position the Clippers as the 99% represents a troubling reimagination of the 99%. Can this really be the face, symbolic or real, of the 99%?

Yet, beyond defining the 99% as those who are not winning, what concerns me here is the failure to see how the Clippers won (and David Stern, Dan Gilbert, Michael Jordan, Nike and a host of other global corporations won) through the exertion of power and the adjustment of rules to fit the agendas, needs, and financial goals of these ultimate winners. In fact, this entire Paul imbroglio is indicative of current economic policy, where rule -makers adjust games for their own benefit. Zirin’s assessment would have one believe that the Lakers were Lehman, and the Clippers Goldman Sachs, one got bailed out, the other didn’t. But does anyone really believe in the possibility of an NBA landscape in which the Lakers’ aren’t somehow rendered as Goldman Sachs?

This Chris Paul debacle was the first clear sign that, post-lockout, the league’s agenda is to restrict player movement and contain player salaries while maximizing profits. This has been done under the guise of “achieving parity” but just like the “free market” the NBA is supposed to operate in, these are all illusions. The needs of public consumers – in this case, sports fans – clearly are not determining the marketplace. The oligarchs do. Just as Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail while other banks were bailed out, the NBA made a decision to empower the Clippers at the expense of the Lakers, Rockets and others because of the larger effort to make the league more about teams and rivalries rather than stars. In reimagining the NBA apart from stars, the NBA is attempting to rebrand itself thereby limiting the power and financial demands of the players themselves. Josh Martin describes the situation as nothing to celebrate, especially since it’s illustrative of the unjust consequences of power:

Hate David Stern for going Hank Paulson on his league’s marquee franchise, thereby setting a horrendous precedent that he might just do it again and bringing the business of player movement to a screeching halt as a result. . . .

Hate the owners who wanted (and still want) a hard cap AND salary rollbacks AND to prevent superstars from working where they want to, even after putting in years of service in smaller markets.

Hate Gilbert and Sarver and the Maloofs and all those other egomaniacs for screwing up YOUR favorite teams and then blaming their own missteps and bad contracts on their well-payed [sic] employees.

In other words, don’t hate The Player; hate The Game, the very same game that YOUR owners pushed for and that will ultimately cost YOUR teams in their pursuit of big-name free agents and NBA championships.

Clippers fans are right to celebrate CP3’s arrival in Los Angeles, but I’m not sure anyone else has cause for joy. Trading Chris Paul is a testament to the continued oligarchy of the NBA; it is not a triumph of the 99%. Efforts to push Chris Paul to one team over another, the meddling and public statements of owners, are just the beginning of a systemic reconfiguring of the NBA. Is that really worth celebrating?

via The Layup Line » Nothing to Celebrate: Chris Paul and the NBA Imagination.