The most impressive thing about this past weekend’s playoff games wasn’t anything that transpired on the court.
Learning that Game 1 between the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers was the most watched opening weekend playoff game in a decade was.
Speaking objectively, this Spurs and Lakers series isn’t even supposed to be the most competitive (that would be the Clippers and the Grizzlies). It doesn’t provide the juiciest storyline (James Harden is facing his old team). It doesn ‘t showcase an exciting style of basketball (the Warriors and the Nuggets take the cake on that one).
So why the heck did a series that revolves around a cast of superstars who are closer to their twilight than their prime garner so much attention?
Before we can dive into that, it’s important to acknowledge the oligopoly of autonomy the Spurs and the Lakers have shared since the turn of the millennium.
The Western Conference has been represented in the Finals by either Tim Duncan’s Spurs or Kobe Bryant’s Lakers in nine of the last 12 seasons, the exceptions being 2012 (Oklahoma City), 2011 (Dallas) and 2006 (Dallas). In that same time period, the two powerhouses have finished the season with the best record in the Western Conference eight times. Prior to this year’s series, the teams have met five times in the playoffs during the Duncan and Bryant era; whichever team won the series ended up winning the championship all five times.
I guess you can say the teams share a rich, recent history. Success has many parents, or fans in this case, while failure is an orphan.
But past glory doesn’t quantify this year’s matchup as must-see TV, or does it?
Think for a second about why you and I follow the Lakers and professional sports at large. Why do fans become insistent on referring to the team they support as “we” despite not having any affiliation with the team whatsoever?
Now see if you agree with this.
Life is a pretty abstract process. It’s difficult to foresee how the decisions we make today will influence the life we live tomorrow, until it happens. It’s never black or white, who you should befriend and/or trust. It’s also unclear to us which city will provide the most auspicious prospective job market coupled with the best environment to raise our children in.
Professional sports (basketball) answers all these questions for you. By the end of the 48 minute game, you will always know if your team has won or lost. You know who to cheer for because of the jerseys they play in. And you gravitate to who to cheer for based on geography, or so we’re supposed to (I’m a Laker fan from Canada so riddle me that). At its core, cheering for a team provides us with a sense of belonging, and their successes make us feel all gushy on the inside, creating the illusion that their success is our success, hence the “we”.
The Spurs represent consistency, something we all crave to some degree in our personal lives. Their core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been in place since 2002. Their head coach, Gregg Popovich, has been calling the shots since 1996. The only thing that has really changed about them over the years is their role players and those God ugly silver alternate jerseys. Minor changes that revolve around our constants are inevitable. I like to change my laundry detergent once in a while, but I’ll never throw away my favorite sweater; same thing the Spurs are doing but on a larger scale.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are symbolic of the glory we all innately crave or have achieved, the 16 championships banners up at STAPLES speak for themselves. For the most part, being a Lakers fan is pretty enjoyable, with only brief periods of turbulence (think Smush Parker, Kwame Brown and this year), serving as temporary reminders that failure is often a prerequisite to success. Us fans strive to be the Los Angeles Lakers of our workplace or at school, even when they’re doing poorly they remain relevant.
Or perhaps, we judge things for what we want them to be instead of what they actually are; romanticizing the past is something we unconsciously participate in. We’re desperate to give this Spurs and Lakers series meaning because it has meant so much for so long. But then you realize it’s 2013, and the winner of the series is realistically just earning the right to get fed to the Thunder or the Miami Heat in a few weeks’ time.
It’s also plausible that even the most casual NBA fan tuned in to watch the most successful basketball franchise of all-time (sorry Celtics) fight with their backs against the wall as an underdog to overcome a familiar foe.
Or maybe I’m just overthinking all of this, and the reason the game was watched by so many people was in anticipation of Tracy McGrady’s long awaited return to the NBA.
It doesn’t really matter why people watched, it’s more important that people cared enough to watch. The onus is now on the Spurs and the Lakers to keep those eyelids glued to their television sets, starting tonight.
No pressure, Steve Blake.