When you follow the NBA, few things in the rest of our society can shock you. That’s why this week’s little flareup over the New York Times wedding story about the couple who were married (with children) to other people but fell in love and left their spouses so they could be together had a familiar feel to it.
Sure, it was strange to see the story written with no sense of irony that the featured article in a section called “Vows” was about a couple who broke theirs. But the recurring theme running through the comments reflected this recognizable sentiment:
“It is one thing to leave your partner for another, and we all understand how this can happen, but it is absolutely tasteless to tell the tale in your wedding announcement in the New York Times!”
Now what does that sound like? Yep, “The Decision,” broadcast live on ESPN. As Ray Lokar told Michael Tillery in Tillery’s extensive survey of opinions on why LeBron became the most hated man in the NBA, “The fact [LeBron] essentially broke up with his girlfriend on National TV it turned him into the villain in the general public’s eyes.”
In both cases the medium trumped the action. But the similarity between those two comments made me realize it’s time to change the way I view the NBA. I’ve always considered the competitive aspect, or analyzed the financial side. I’ve even based predictions on which team carried the most anger.
No more. I’ve learned what the NBA really is: a love story.
“The NBA is like a relationship,” said Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves. “It’s a lot of ups and downs. But if you treat the game right, it’ll treat you right.”
I sought Love’s perspective…because he’s the only player in the league named Love. This isn’t very scientific. Nothing about love is. It’s the most irrational thing humans do. In its truest form love entails getting past our own instincts of survival and self-preservation and putting others above us -- except for those who are incapable of loving anything more than themselves.
And the question that has to be asked of the person responsible for the season’s biggest narrative is whether LeBron can love anything more than LeBron. It’s such a meaty topic that Psychology Today had a two-part series on LeBron’s narcissism. Comparing LeBron’s performance in the Christmas game against the Lakers to his re-destruction of Cleveland in his return on Dec. 2 should tell us a lot about him. Does he place a higher value on validating his decision and exacting vengeance on Dan Gilbert than he does on proving himself against the defending champions? We’ll see.
I’ve already seen love conquer the Lakers once this week. There’s no other rationale for the Lakers getting torn apart by Earl Boykins on Tuesday. There’s no other way to even explain what the 5-foot-5 Boykins is still doing in the league.
“I play basketball all year long,” said Boykins, who dropped 22 on the Lakers. “ In the summertime, I play basketball. I never stop playing basketball. I’m a gym rat. I just love basketball.
“Most of the players, when they get done, they don’t know what they’re going to do. I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to go to the rec league, and I’m going to play. Ever since I was young, I’ve loved the game.”
There’s a difference between loving the game and loving the NBA. If you’re in love with the charter flights, luxury hotels, “Cribs”-worthy houses and legions of ladies…you won’t be around very long.
“A lot of guys get caught up in surroundings, what’s going on,” Boykins said. “You can tell the real players as opposed to the players who just play the game. All the players that are successful, they all love basketball. No one’s successful in this league just because they’re tall. That’s what separates the guys that make it and don’t make it.”
My favorite stat of the year, something that sprouted from a random comparison cooked up in a conversation with a friend this summer, is this: Boykins, who entered the league as an undrafted, undersized guard in 1998, has scored over 1,300 points more than Michael Olowokandi, the 7-foot center who was the No. 1 overall pick that same year.
I’ve heard stories of Olowokandi’s time in Minnesota, when general manager Kevin McHale would want to help Olowokandi with his footwork after practice and Olowokandi declined. Taking a pass when one of the men with the best post moves ever wants to give you tips? That’s a sign of no love. That’s why Olowokandi’s no longer in the league.
“What do you do in your off time?” Boykins said. “If you ask a guy what he does in his off time, that will tell you if he loves the game or not.”
You keep hearing those stories from the 2008 Olympic team about other players ready to call it a day while Kobe continued to work out. Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay and the likes watched and learned.
For Boykins to have played 12 NBA seasons when he didn’t inherit a professional basketball player’s body the way Bryant did from his father is the equivalent of Bryant winning five championships. Both got the most out of their ability, because both poured their hearts into it.
And those are the players who reward the devotion fans give to the players. Most forget players forget that aspect. Fan-player relationships are normally as lopsided as parent-infant. All the love flows one way.
But with Twitter we’ve seen players react to fans, respond to fans and reward fans (with tickets) more than ever before. And we’ve also seen them put their thoughts on dating and relationships out for the world to see.
“Ladies what's the difference between dating a "regular guy" and basketball player?” Kevin Durant (@kdthunderup) asked on Twitter this week.
“What I'm saying is that women say ‘I'd rather date a regular guy than a basketball player’ what's the difference?
When one follower replied that players can’t “keep the ball in their own court” Durant replied, “regular dude never cheated before?”
Brandon Jennings launched a stream of tweets on the topic of love from his @BLKICE3 account:
“Love is love Y’all
“I really do #Love you…
“Let me teach you how to #Love…”
“I #love My Friends…”
“I #love My Teammates….”
“I #Love Everything about the game of Basketball….”
“You can’t see #Love but you can feel #Love….”
I disagree with that last one. You can see it, especially if you view the game as I now do, through the prism of love.
“All you need to watch is the last five minutes of the game,” Earl Boykins said, “and you will tell who loves the game and who doesn’t.”