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 limp.
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. Few, if any, understand the ways in which black athletes can become targets by jealous criminal elements in the cities in which they play. Simmons’ analogy is wholly insensitive to these issues, much less the fact that many athletes of color are all too familiar with the rampant gun violence that plagues certain communities. We should NOT be shocked that too many of our greatest athletes (Allen Iverson, Michael Vick, and too many others to name/list here) struggle with the very same challenges that affect the communities from which many of these athletes come.
When Chris Paul and the Clippers suit up to play against the Lakers on NBA TV tonight, please keep a few things in mind. The Clippers didn’t rob or shoot the Lakers, not even in any sort of metaphorical or analogical sense. The NBA locked out its players to shore up their well-lined pockets and to assert their hegemonic vision of human resource (I.e. players) distribution across as many markets (i.e. owners) as possible.
I’m a firm believer that professional athletes should be paid what they are worth, according to their market values. Since the owners and the NBA have strategically decided to force human resource parity throughout the League, players must (as many commentators have noted) seek to attain their market value by, well by being in larger more lucrative markets where non-BRI endorsement opportunities abound.
So don’t feel sorry for Paul; he still get’s what many super star players want—their actual market value. Drive-bys are violent, usually unsolvable crimes that take lives but also leave communities in anguish and collective fear. To deploy this phenomenon as a sports analogy is surely in poor taste, but accuracy should be a bare minimum requirement for literary license. The only metaphorical drive-bys happening in the NBA have been executed by the League’s owners and commissioner.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs at No Tsuris. Follow him on Twitter @DR_DJL.
James Braxton Peterson is Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University and the author of the forthcoming Major Figures: Critical Essays on Hip Hop Music (Mississippi University Press). Follow him at @DrJamesPeterson.