What they did last summer: The benchwarmers learned a difficult lesson about the economy, outsourcing their labor to distant lands and figuring out how to pronounce “Besiktas”; the stars recalled that the easiest way to relate to the common people is to mingle among them without sunglasses on. As the NBA lockout dragged on, the league’s most bankable names took to the road, showing up at some of the country’s most legendary gyms, outdoor courts, and local tournaments, like the star-branding equivalent of a pop-up store. These games usually weren’t televised, nor were they staged in massive arenas where everyone could hope to get in. Instead, there were these shaky, gloriously non-HD clips of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and others at their level among thirsty nobodies, the most ferocious rebounder east of Broadway, former prep superstars and young throne hopefuls.
There was a genuine glee to these clips, a sense that basketball should be no more than an exhaustive exploration of the different on-court permutations of one-on-one. But I was always drawn to the fact that the crowds were so unknowable. Their delight was unrestrained and bodily, the very definition of awe. There were no glum, bespoke-tailored teammates striking Thinker poses on the bench, and no courtside movie stars or industrialists engaged in epic contests of who could seem the most impassive. Instead, they were people who had gotten to the gym early, exploding at the sight of a windmill dunk or a humiliating crossover. At the final whistle: our returned-to-Earth heroes, swallowed by a crowd of welcoming-back arms and displaced dreams.
These were heartwarming scenes, the possibility that we might all go home again. But it only cast into relief the extent to which the NBA’s entertainment value has only partly to do with the basketball on offer. It’s difficult to think of many other contexts where the chasm between amateur and professional status is so wide; where you have made it when you trade in the Cameron Crazies or engineering students allowing themselves a weekly reprieve of revival tent madness for the NBA’s pristine, calm courtside. This isn’t to say that NBA games are boring, or simply to accuse the league of pricing out the fans who might cheer loudest. There’s more to watch. The product and experience of the modern NBA, for better or worse, has just as much to do with the physical feats on the court as it does all that exquisite furniture that surrounds it: Watching the courtside 0.1 percenters, analyzing the bench-bound second-round draft picks glumly wondering where it all went wrong, hearing the new Lil Wayne cut blaring through the PA.
To find employment in the NBA is to join one of American sports’ most exclusive clubs, and to become a star — not just one who nabs a shoe deal on swagger alone — is to become instantly world-famous. I suppose I’m most excited for the restoration of these other players’ storylines, for they are always watching along with us. Basketball is one of the only televised sports in which the substitutes, the coaches, and the trainers are never off-camera — so close yet so far from the action. Those trying to work their way off the bench always fascinate me; the league is small enough to learn all their names. Peer over the huddle, where the last-gasp play is being diagrammed, and see the onetime high school prodigy, now overweight and in his mid-20s, staring off into the crowd. Elsewhere, the ex-Naismith finalist is the first one off the bench to welcome back his colleagues, as though his violent towel-waving alone might will his team to a vaguely inconsequential victory on this February evening. There is so much aspiration out there, some of it craven, some of it dwindling. To make it this far, they were all once stars.
Hua Hsu teaches at Vassar College. He is finishing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.
Previously from Hua Hsu:
Highbro/Lowbro: On Harold & Kumar
Harbaugh vs. Schwartz: Coach Fight!
Waiting for Radiohead
Varieties of Disturbance
When They Were Kings: Paid in Full to Tha Carter IV
Never Been in a Riot
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