This is a piece I wrote for NBC last week, that I've updated and I feel fits on a slow news day with the Mavs being crowned champs.
Unlike years past, I've been fascinated by this NBA season.
Usually, hockey fans try and shun our winter sport compatriot. But you couldn't help pay attention this year. With "The Decision," and the Bulls' spectacular and entertaining play, a lot of us got swept up. And most of this was stormed up, if that's even a term, by LeBron James heading to Miami. Whether you were on board, disgusted, didn't care, you had to see how it would turn out, and how the Bulls would respond to being shunned. It's been wonderful television.
I'm sure most hockey fans were turned off by the bombast of James's free agency. That's what a lot of hockey fans get turned off by in basketball. Some will tell you that comes with an undercurrent of racism, and I don't doubt for a small, knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing minority that's probably true. But for a lot of us, the appeal of hockey is the "complete team" aspect. That is, every player takes his shift and then must leave the ice and leave it to his teammates to take theirs. Everyone is involved.
Basketball is the complete opposite. Basketball fans love to see a guy want to and become "The Man." It has become far more ingrained in the sport the past few years. They love to point to Michael Jordan, the irony being that MJ didn't become the champion he is today until he got way above average teammates (including the second best player in the league in Scottie Pippen) and learned to defer to them at times, to trust them at times. But in the NBA, a championship always seems to be a validation of one star's career, be it MJ, Kobe, Shaq, and now either Dirk Nowitzki and Lebron James. Whereas a Stanley Cup is a validation of a team. It wasn't Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane winning last year, it was the Hawks. Neither one is wrong, it's just a delineation.
I don't know where it springs from, perhaps the difference from a hip-hop culture and a....well, whatever they listen to in the Canadian hinterlands (I pray it's a lot of Rush, but probably more country than I want to admit). A lot of hip-hop music and culture is the glorification in oneself. Again, nothing wrong with that, I love a lot of hip-hop. You've seen it creep into the NBA game itself, with far more isolation plays, the celebrations, the building of teams around "a star". It's also partly how the league has been marketed for decades now.
While the style of Lebron's fleeing to Miami was distasteful, the actual logistics of it are something we hockey fans have seen for a while now. Recent hockey history is littered with players who sacrificed numbers and glory to win a championship, which is at least the claim Lebron made (though I'm sure those South Beach nightclubs played some part, and if I were a chiseled 6-8, 275 with more millions than I knew what to do with, I doubt I'd resist the siren song either). Detroit for years before the lockout benefited from star players coming merely to fit in. Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne tried this in Colorado, though it didn't work. Hawks fans will tell you that they look forward to a multitude of players giving up some dollars and stats to play with the core here that could give them a chance to win. We see no problem with this.
The uproar about James's disappearance these past two games, though I get it, is probably something that would never happen in hockey, or not to this extent. After all, Jonathan Toews won a Conn Smythe, and he didn't score a goal after the second round. You ever hear about that? What if the Heat had taken the last two and won the title, with Lebron just playing his all around game that's "merely" a triple-double? Do you doubt for a second that some, if not a lot, would claim it's not a "true" title for him? Yet nary a word was said about Toews (not that it should have been, he played well during the Final, just didn't score). And if the Canucks were to go on and win, but the Sedins remain off with Harvey the Rabbit, will anyone other than else claim it's "tainted"? Unlikely.
Again, neither approach is wrong. But this individual confirmation of greatness and team confirmation is one of the big differences between the sports and those who follow it. We'll always find it a little odd.