NBA Playoffs: One X Factor to Watch in Every First-Round Series

NBA Playoffs Preview

US Presswire, Getty Images David Stern and Vince McMahon

The WWE Guide to the NBA

Before the playoffs heat up and things get serious, we looked at which NBA figures have pro-wrestling counterparts

Back in December, when David Stern vetoed Chris Paul’s trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, I tweeted that if Stern didn’t start using WWE chairman Vince McMahon’s theme song as his entrance music, there was no hope left in the world.1 The song, after an ominous and largely indecipherable first verse, is basically a lengthy repetition of the phrase “You’ve got no chance in hell.” But let me be clear: The song wasn’t fitting only because the chorus was a lyrical version of Stern’s eff-you to New Orleans GM Dell Demps, the Hornets, and the good sense of every cognizant NBA fan. The song matched Stern so well because the nearly inexplicable Paul decision represented the final, complete conversion of Stern into a self-caricature — a swaggering, pro-wrestling-style evil bossman, which is the character McMahon has spent the better part of two decades perfecting. Stern is every bit as diabolical as McMahon, every bit as power-hungry, and every bit as self-satisfied. You can tell he relishes the boos and the vitriol aimed at him, like an actor trying to raise the audience’s ire; that people questioned his decision to revoke the Paul trade seemed only to reinforce its validity in his eyes. In a lot of ways, Stern fits the role more naturally than McMahon does. He doesn’t have Vince’s brawn, or his cartoonish facial expressions, or his movie-villain hairstyle, but that’s because he doesn’t need them. Stern isn’t part of the WWE universe — he’s in a much subtler world. A real one, you might even say.

With the NBA playoffs upon us, the question occurred to me: If David Stern is the league’s Vince McMahon, then who are the NBA equivalents of pro wrestling’s other biggest names? With an assist from some of my stablemates (to deliberately mix metaphors) in the Grantland staff, I’ve put together a rough list.

LeBron James Is John Cena

Hey, basketball fans: You know that illicit charge you feel during every James fourth-quarter meltdown? And how when you see a kid in a no. 6 Heat jersey, you just shake your head and wonder what kind of parents would allow him to root for that idiot? And you know how, no matter how much you hate James, deep down you’re glad that he’s there, just to have somebody to boo? Welcome to pro wrestling fans’ relationship with our flag-bearer, the face of WWE, John Cena.

This is an obvious one, and I’ve received about 100 tweets over the last six months that make the same comparison. No athletes but Cena and James hear such passionate, dueling boos and cheers in every arena they visit or inspire such fervent emotions in their fanatics and detractors. But they have more in common than just their hatability: They’re both famous for a brand of charity work that makes soft-hearted supporters swoon and causes cynics to retch — Cena with the Make-A-Wish Foundation (which provides WWE with an excuse not to turn Cena into a bad guy) and LeBron with the Boys & Girls Club (which gave him a flimsy excuse for airing The Decision on national television). They’re both proud of their hometowns — LeBron of Akron, Ohio, and Cena of West Newbury, Massachusetts (but, if crowd reaction is any indication, they also are roundly despised there). Both guys are of, shall we say, suspicious stature, which caused many people to accuse LeBron of being older than 18 when he came into the league, and led many to accuse Cena of consuming something more than standard-issue protein shakes. To be honest, they’re both probably the most dependable top-tier performers in their respective fields, even if their swarms of haters choose to think otherwise. Finally — and this is most perplexing — both are essentially indecipherable, even to the respective online intelligentsias of basketball and wrestling. No consensus has ever been reached about whether James and Cena have “it,” despite their unmatched skill and celebrity.

Dwyane Wade Is CM Punk

Since Punk and Cena have been the twin towers of fan response over the past nine months, it’s only right that Wade be aligned with his frenemy teammate. Both Wade and Punk are famously from Chicago, both started off in humble beginnings — Wade was only recruited by three colleges and Punk was overlooked by the major promotions during his independent wrestling days. Both guys have mouths that get them in trouble — Wade most recently with his comments about Olympians getting paid and Punk with his truth-to-power worked shoots last summer. Both are notorious ladies’ men — Wade is alleged to have cheated on his wife and with subsequent ladyfriend Gabrielle Union, and Punk is rumored to have dated half the female wrestlers who have crossed his path. Both guys are proselytizers for their respective lifestyles — Punk about his straight-edge code and Wade with his newfound commitment to healthy eating. Both exist in the shadow of their more famous but arguably less deserving co-stars. Most significantly, both guys are among the best in their respective sports at pretending to get the shit beat out of them — Punk is one of the best “sellers” in wrestling, and Wade is on a never-ending quest to get foul calls every time he drives to the basket.

And before you wrestling fans argue that Punk and Cena feuded last summer (something Wade and James have avoided, at least in public) and that they’re not teammates, allow me to argue that neither point disqualifies the Punk-Wade comparison. Cena and Punk now coexist uneasily, about as uneasily as LeBron and Wade do. Punk and Cena seem almost to exist in separate WWE universes, and they’re at their best when the other is far away, locked in another feud; likewise, LeBron and Wade each look their best when the other is stowed away on the bench. In this overextended metaphor, Alberto Del Rio is Chris Bosh — the troika’s third man who looked really incredible when his supporting cast was weak, but who has since become slightly more than an afterthought or an occasional punch line.

Dwight Howard Is Mark Henry

I know, I know. You’re going to say I’m saddling Dwight with Henry’s mediocre career. But that’s the point — especially with Dwight’s recent “back issues,” coach-killing, and flip-flopping about his future in Orlando, the first word that comes to mind with either of them has to be “disappointment,” right? And really, as much as the NBA hype machine has aided Dwight’s career, imagine if ESPN covered WWE like they do the NBA. You can bet Skip Bayless would have been arguing about Henry, the 500-pound Olympic weightlifter, every morning for the past 10 years. And look at their similarities: Both Dwight and Henry are big, monstrous, force-of-nature performers. Both have dominant but inadequate repertoires, limited to forceful versions of very basic moves, like Dwight’s dunks and Henry’s body slams. Dwight tried to get his coach fired; Henry got suspended for attacking Smackdown GM Teddy Long. And, despite their brutish physiques, both men are wannabe artistes — Dwight wants to be an actor, while Henry has always fancied himself a poet.

Carmelo Anthony Is Triple H

Both guys jumped from smaller markets to be the biggest star on the biggest stage. Along the way, both guys seemed to think they deserved more glory than they were getting. Both guys married public figures (Melo wed LaLa and Triple H said his vows to Stephanie McMahon). They each have reputations for being selfish and egotistic, and for holding others (like Lin and Chris Jericho) down to maintain their place at the top of the food chain. Because of this, they’re both hated by a huge swath of the fan base, to the point that it clouds how great they actually are. Melo and Triple H can do many things better than almost all their peers, which is why it’s so frustrating that their “characters” are all people talk about. Eventually, they’ll both go into the Hall of Fame, and we’ll probably forget how they were so unpopular that they were underrated for the second halves of their careers. Hey, you know who else is hated? He’s coming up next.

Kobe Bryant Is “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair

Above all else, both Kobe and Flair are the most despised stars of their generation. (And as much as people love Flair now, I’m sure we’ll all be hypnotized by history into loving Kobe about a decade after he retires.) They’re both old-timers who keep plugging away at a relatively high level with incredible longevity, seemingly at odds with Father Time. Both of them are famously self-centered and picky about deferring to other stars — Kobe to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, most recently, and Flair to up-and-comers like Lex Luger. They both have a significant injury history — Kobe has had shoulder reconstruction, sprained ankles, back injuries, a bad knee, dislocated fingers, a torn wrist ligament, etc. Flair broke his back in a plane crash and has lost gallons of blood in the ring over the years. They both have lost a huge chunk of their fortunes to divorce settlements — Kobe’s ex got $75 million and three homes; Flair’s three broken marriages have bled him dry, leading to an array of questionable financial decisions. And both men, of course, abide by Flair’s famous self-description: “limousine riding, jet flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin’ dealin’ son of a gun,” with special emphasis on the “kiss-stealing.”

Present-day Kobe is roughly equivalent to mid-’90s Flair. And just like it often pained wrestling fans to watch Flair cling to his career for another decade — not that there weren’t great moments, but still — I hope all of you basketball fans are ready for 10 more years of Kobe Bryant Still Playing Basketball. Seriously, in what situation does he formally retire? If he broke his spine tomorrow, do you think there’s any chance at all he won’t rehab to come back from it? He’d be trying to make it back in time for Game 1 of the Finals. The only way I can imagine Kobe retiring is if the Lakers win another ring in the next few years and then give Kobe a huge on-court retirement party basically against his will. But even if they pull that off, it will only take a season or two for him to reemerge as the starting two-guard for the Sacramento Kings. Which is, you know, exactly what happened to Flair, more or less.

The Celtics Are The nWo

Here’s the scene: Two borderline superstars (Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the NBA; Kevin Nash and Scott Hall in WCW) moved to a new team and joined up with an existing icon (Paul Pierce; Hulk Hogan) to make the new team competitive, embrace their inner a-holes, and shoot for a place in the history books. With his height, creaky knees, and general dickishness, Garnett is Nash; as an underrated star with psychological issues, Allen (borderline obsessive-compulsive disorder) is Hall (drug and alcohol addiction). Both groups made it to the top, and both groups fell into a mess of outsized egotism and internal squabbling after their peak. Both squads relied on a smaller, unorthodox, younger, and more athletic performer — Rajon Rondo and X-Pac, respectively — to do the grunt work on their way to the top. When their dominance petered out, they both looked to other, less-entrenched stars to pick up the slack. (I like to think that Rasheed Wallace is the Celtics’ Scott Steiner. And since he was only brought back as part of an elaborate prank on Boston fans, Jermaine O’Neal is Virgil.) Both groups put together another run when everybody thought they were done — the nWo in WWE and the Celtics this season.

(I know, I know — the real hiccup here is the Pierce-Hogan parallel, though I’m sure the Celtics diehards will endorse it. But they’ll like this just as much: I see Hogan as a better match for Larry Bird. They’re both supreme champions of a bygone era who abandoned big markets to run the show at small-time, small-market operations (TNA Wrestling for Hogan and the Indiana Pacers for Bird). Both have famous mustaches and an unnerving history of hip and foot injuries. Each is a demigod in his sport, and like all good mythic figures, neither has much of a personality outside his in-ring/on-court character.)

Tim Duncan Is The Undertaker

“In this corner, hailing from Texas, standing at 6-foot-11, wearing black and staring ominously at his opponent …. ” You get the point. Each of them is a stonefaced stoic, basically the last big man standing of his generation, and each is revered within the fraternity of his sport. Even if people say they’re washed-up — Undertaker only wrestles once a year at this point, more or less; looking at the Spurs’ box scores on some nights, you’d be excused for thinking that Duncan had retired — how many washed-up guys are the defensive anchor for a no. 1 seed, and how many washed-up guys performed in the best match of WrestleMania? They’re both good for one big run every year, and they’re mature enough to know that in the end, the big stage — the playoffs for Duncan and WrestleMania for ‘Taker — is what really matters.

(Oh, and Undertaker is basically a zombie, while the way Duncan keeps chugging along is almost supernatural. I’m not saying Duncan is actually a high-functioning zombie, but would you really be surprised to find out he was?)

Steve Nash Is Bret Hart

Well, I mean, obviously. Two of the biggest Canadian superstars ever (minus Justin Bieber, sketch comedians, and Barenaked Ladies) have to go together, right? And these guys are no run-of-the-mill Canadians. Both are national icons because they’ve conquered the United States. Nash carried the torch during the opening ceremony for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and Hart carried the proverbial torch for his country during his run in the 1990s as the leader of a militia-esque posse of Canadian-supremacist wrestlers. Each guy is known for his fundamentals and for his traditionalism — Bret as a graduate of his father Stu’s famous “Dungeon” of pro wrestling training, and Nash as a pass-first point guard. They make everyone around them better, even though they both spent years surrounded by lousy supporting casts — Nash with the post-Amar’e Suns and Bret in the pre–Attitude Era WWF. And they both have sketchy, stringy, long dark hair that you couldn’t describe without a lot of uncomfortable pauses or without saying, “You’ll just have to see it.”

Dirk Nowitzki Is The Miz

As much as it pains me as a Mavericks fan to acknowledge this — and as much as I’ve truly enjoyed the Miz at times in the past couple of years — it’s true. I was watching a Mavs game in a bar in January and a guy next to me literally asked his friend who won the NBA title last year. With Dirk Nowitzki on the screen in front of him. This, sadly, seems to be Dirk’s legacy — that his championship run was almost immediately forgotten (or tossed aside as an anomaly). Same thing with The Miz’s WWE championship run last year. No matter how many times he reminds us that he headlined WrestleMania in 2011, it won’t make it feel any more real.

Both guys are endlessly entertaining, but they’ve been saddled with crappy roles by their respective owners this year. Dirk has suffered because the irritatingly smart Mark Cuban read the new collective bargaining agreement and determined that re-signing Dirk’s championship teammates was impossible. The Miz has been overshadowed by the return of The Rock and the unplanned ascendance of CM Punk. Both Dirk and the Miz are occasionally in the doghouse with Stern/McMahon — Dirk because of Cuban’s anti-establishmentarian ravings and Miz because of his own various ineptitudes. And yet with both guys, there’s a feeling that, with a little help — if Miz gets put into the right program, or if Dirk gets the right supporting cast — they’ll be back in the spotlight next year.

Deron Williams Is Kurt Angle

There’s a moment, every once in a while, when NBA fans are flipping channels through their NBA Season Pass and they hit a Nets game and see Deron going off for 30 points, and they say, “Oh, god, I totally forgot about him!” That’s how wrestling fans feel when they stumble upon a Thursday-night TNA wrestling show and see Angle — who was basically put out to pasture by WWE — competing in a four-star classic match in a tiny arena. They’re both toiling in near-anonymity while the rest of the world goes on as if they don’t exist. Both of them are old-school talents — D-Will with his wide-hipped old-man pick-and-roll game and Angle with his Olympic wrestling background — who are well-liked despite being notorious backstage power players (D-Will got Jerry Sloan fired; Angle feuded with Jeff Jarrett after Jarrett started a relationship with Angle’s ex-wife, Karen). And both guys will be starting for the Dallas Mavericks next year.

What’s that? Oh, okay. Sorry, Kurt.

Jeremy Lin Is Daniel Bryan

Okay, maybe this one is too obvious because their respective moments in the spotlight nearly overlapped. Both guys are walking metaphors for the underrated everyman, underdogs no one expected to succeed who, when they were finally given a chance, became hugely, unimaginably popular. For a week or two, anyway. Both have creeds central to their personas — Lin’s Christianity and Bryan’s veganism. Both guys toiled in the minors before they made it to the big time — Lin in the D-League and as 12th or 13th man on the Warriors and Rockets, and Bryan on the independent wrestling circuit.

Metta World Peace Is “Macho Man” Randy Savage

They both have wonderfully fake names, terrible rap albums, and famous elbows. Stern and McMahon hate both of them, Stern because of Artest’s role in the Malice at the Palace, and McMahon because (among other reasons) Savage was rumored to have deflowered Stephanie McMahon. As such, both will probably be blacklisted from their respective Halls of Fame.

Blake Griffin Is Dolph Ziggler

Both guys are immensely talented, absurdly muscled, bounce around like flubber, and will probably be the most hated guys in their respective sports within three years. Ziggler will be “hated” for being the best heel in the biz; Blake will just be hated. I’m not quite sure how Chris Paul fits in as Ziggler’s partner Jack Swagger, but Vinny Del Negro as their exasperating manager Vickie Guerrero? The jokes practically write themselves. If you can’t imagine Del Negro trying to get everyone’s attention in a team meeting by yelling, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” only to be drowned out by boos, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Jason Kidd Is Shawn Michaels

They’re both all-time greats despite obvious limitations — Kidd’s lack of a jumper and Michaels’s small frame. They both had famously overbearing women in their lives with whom they engaged in abusive relationships — Michaels was managed by Sensational Sherri and Kidd had ex-wife Joumana. And no matter how many times you think they’re done, both men keep hanging around. Michaels has retired twice now, and he wrestled well into his 40s. Kidd found a second life as a sharp-shooting sidekick on the 2011 championship Mavs at the age of 38.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook Are The Rockers

I know I just used Shawn Michaels, but if you can think of a better hyperdynamic tag-team relationship that will inevitably end up with one of the guys tossing the other through a plate glass window, let me know.

Michael Jordan Is The Rock

The Rock is the self-professed Great One; Jordan is the widely acknowledged greatest basketball player ever. The Rock makes lousy movies; Jordan makes inane commercials. The continued presence of both guys — Jordan owns the Bobcats, and The Rock has been showing up just often enough to not be forgotten — prevents the next generation of stars from coming into their own.

Shaquille O’Neal Is Andre the Giant

They both were simultaneously frightening and hilarious, they both started their careers as super-athletic giants and ended as almost pitiable fat men, and they both absolutely mangle the English language.

Andrew Bynum Is Brock Lesnar

These guys both have unsettling injury histories that lead fans to worry that their careers could end at any given moment. They both sport enormous, man-child physiques and terrible, childish attitudes. Still, each is younger than everybody thinks (Bynum is 24 and Lesnar is 34, which is fairly young for a wrestler of his renown), each has huge potential to remake the sport in his image, and each has notoriously bullied a much smaller foe: Bynum laid out J.J. Barea in last year’s playoffs, and Lesnar threw a one-legged kid down a flight of stairs. Really, that happened.

JaVale McGee Is The Big Show

These two belong together, if for no other reason than that they’re both dominant physical presences who somehow have a greater capacity for comedy than outperforming their opponents. Both are really tall guys who are incredibly athletic by any standard measure but who can’t help looking wildly uncoordinated at times, and their failures have become the fodder for hilarious blooper videos.

Derrick Rose Is Chris Jericho

Both guys are arguably the best in the business, and they both complain a lot. Rose was the savior of a middling Chicago Bulls franchise, while Jericho has twice departed from WWE and returned as its putative messiah. Jericho has his own metal band and, um, Rose has a rap song (by Yung Berg) about him.

Kevin Love Is Randy Orton

Both guys are part of a family tradition — Love is a second-generation pro, and Orton is a third-generation wrestler — and both are tons better than their fathers were. Both are immensely talented but are still learning how to use their skills to make the people around them better. Both meet the criteria for being megastars, except that, you know, they’re not megastars. Both have sketchy beards.

Magic Johnson Is “Stone Cold” Steve Austin

They were small-town guys who became just about the biggest stars ever in their sports. They redefined their respective games until they were forced to retire by HIV/neck injury, and they’ve both been teasing comebacks ever since.

Greg Oden Is Edge

They both could have been all-time greats, but both suffered injury before they could reach their potential, and I wish they were both active right now, and that’s about it.

Anthony Davis Is Dean Ambrose

Each is the young guy about to make waves in the majors. Basketball fans all know what Davis will be able to do, but for wrestling fans, just trust me on Ambrose.

Marv Albert Is Jim Ross
Both are the best in the world at their jobs if only for the excitement and big-time feel they bring to the games/matches they call. They’re the voices you imagine when you replay a big moment in your head. Both were kicked out of the booth — Albert for sexual-assault charges in 1997 and Ross for not being the sort of announcer McMahon wanted — only to return to incredible acclaim. (Ross was then removed again, but whatever.)

Holger Geschwindner (Dirk Nowitzki’s German coach) Is Every Evil Foreign Manager Ever

Spike Lee Is “The Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart

They both wear glasses and ridiculous outfits. They’re both insufferable loudmouths and irreplaceably hilarious characters that make the overall product that much better.

Worldwide Wes Is Eric Bischoff

This is for no other reason than that they’re both backstage operators, power players with the ear of the top athletes in their sport, and they’re both considered highly suspect because of their influence. They’ve also both had beer thrown at them.

And yes, in this parallel universe, NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver is John Laurinaitis. They’re both tall, gawky, and so uncoordinated you spend the whole time you’re looking at them wondering how they got their jobs. As the likely successor to Stern, it remains to be seen if Silver has the compelling anti-charisma that’s made Laurinaitis such a surprise success so far. I mean, we can only hope so. It’s all about entertainment, right?

Filed Under: David Stern, LeBron James, NBA, People, Sports, WWE

David Shoemaker , also known as “The Masked Man,” is the author of the The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling.

Archive @ AKATheMaskedMan