You might have been too distracted by the most long-awaited sports story of our lifetime to notice the moment Warriors-Thunder became the most important meaningless matchup in the NBA.
It was the 6 o’clock hour in the Eastern time zone on Nov. 3, 2016, and SportsCenter naturally led with the aftermath of the previous night’s World Series-deciding victory by the Chicago Cubs, an event 108 years in the making. Up next in the same segment, before the first commercial break: a preview of Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors facing Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder for the first time. In the language of television, the fifth regular-season game for both NBA teams was in the same paragraph as a once-in-a-lifetime baseball championship. This was the coronation of the personality-based culture of the NBA, the league’s greatest asset in the crowded sports landscape.
Baseball sells its history. The NBA presents its people. The characters carry the story more than the plot. Normally, all the intrigue from a high-profile sports departure comes from the return to the former city, a process Durant makes for the first time Saturday in Oklahoma City. In this case it only adds to the drama. Fans have scanned social media posts, analyzed seemingly every utterance and even scrutinized choice of attire to ascertain the state of the Durant-Westbrook relationship.
We care what they think about each other.
The first time they squared off more than 3.7 million people watched on TNT, drawing a 2.2 rating that was 120 percent higher than the season average for NBA games on the network. The Thunder fell off their strong start to the season and had dropped to the middle of the Western Conference pack by the rematch on Jan. 18, yet still more than 2.6 million people watched on ESPN, for a 1.6 rating that was 60 percent higher than the season average.
The Warriors won the first two games against the Thunder by a total of 47 points, yet anticipation for Saturday’s game on ABC has increased, not diminished. Now the storyline doesn’t just involve Durant and Westbrook, it also brings in the people of Oklahoma City. There’s a protagonist, an antagonist and a chorus. Yes, it’s helpful to view this in terms of dramatic construct, not athletic competition.
The tension builds even though Durant has gone out of his way to avoid saying anything inflammatory about Westbrook and the Thunder, and Westbrook has declined to address the situation at all since October. (The closest Westbrook came to commenting since then was his decision to wear a photographer’s vest to the Nov. 3 game — a literal fashion statement that called back to Durant taking pictures at Super Bowl 50 from a sideline.)
Durant hates this stuff. All he wants to do is play ball, hang out with his new teammates and call it a day. I’ve had a couple of conversations with him about the nature of the beast, how it’s impossible for it to be so simple, but also how the irrational interest in these subplots is good for the business of the NBA.
“We’re the reality TV stars of sports,” Durant acknowledged, reluctantly.
That means the league is in the perfect place for this society.
The premise of this New York Times Magazine story on Andy Cohen, the creator of “The Real Housewives” television franchise, is that Cohen didn’t drag down America, he understood America. His shows haven’t lowered the tone of the conversation, they’ve reflected it. This passage reveals the key concept Cohen grasped and capitalized on:
“Something Cohen knows, a belief that began to take root in him back when he was watching ‘All My Children’ with his mother, was that people who interacted would always create something interesting.
That’s why he doesn’t understand why anyone would think that ‘Real Housewives’ wasn’t real in some way. Or that it was too crass. Had people been on a subway recently? Had they read an online comments section? If anyone was under the impression that we were still in a Jane Austen novel in terms of national discourse and manners, it wasn’t Cohen’s fault that they were in for a rude awakening. It’s all real. It wouldn’t be compelling to watch if it weren’t.”
The NBA’s social media dominance reflects the mastery of Step 1, creating interest. The five largest Twitter followings among American pro athletes are all NBA-affiliated: LeBron James (34.2 million followers), Durant (15.4 million), Shaquille O’Neal (13.2 million), Kobe Bryant (11 million) and Carmelo Anthony (8.7 million). NFL or college football teams might be more popular, but no individual players matter in America like players in the NBA.
The all-important dramatic element of conflict is organically created. The NBA schedule doesn’t just match up teams jockeying for position in the standings, it forces people to occupy the same space. The “moments,” the kind that make for good commercials and form the basis for these reunion shows, are almost inevitable. In the Jan. 18 Thunder-Warriors game, the action picked up when Westbrook and Durant started exchanging baskets and then started exchanging words as Durant made his way to the free throw line. We had the interaction we wanted to see.
We can’t wait to find out what they do next.