It seems as if every year, the Championship is unfair. Every year a team gets lucky and wins. Every year we get an undeserving champion. It seems as if every year, we do not get the basketball promised. The NBA is not fun anymore; it is not exciting anymore. Asterisk is no longer a way to denote tainted accomplishment. It has become a way to voice our dissatisfaction and disappointment.
After being down 2 games, the Milwaukee Bucks clawed back to win the 2021 NBA Championship. While Bucks fans celebrate, the reaction towards the Championship is not all positive. After a playoff filled with injuries, an asterisk has fallen upon the 2021 Champions. This is not something new. Asterisks appear throughout sports history to denote "undeserved" accomplishments.
Virtually all major sports have an asterisk in their record books, used to denote accomplishments that became tainted in some way. Barry Bonds’ single-season home run record serves as a great example in the light of his well-documented PED use.Rick Thomas, 2020
A common pattern
In recent years, NBA Champions are getting an asterisk more and more often. Last year's Champions, the Los Angeles Lakers, are the prime example. With the pandemic, the NBA bubble, a short season, and deemed a superteam, the Lakers' got an asterisk. The 2019 Championship is also up for the asterisk debate. Many point to injuries to the Golden State Warriors as the reason the Raptors won it all. It is also noted Kawhi's game 7 buzzer-beater against the 76ers was a missed travel call.
The Bucks faced similar criticism. The biggest point of debate comes from the series against the Brooklyn Nets. Many credits the Bucks win to the injuries to the Nets' big three, even accusing of Giannis being dirty. In the Finals, the Bucks beat the Phoenix Suns, whose Finals run was also much discredited. Every opponent the Suns played in their conference had major injuries. The Bucks beat injured teams and beat a team who beat injured teams. If everyone were healthy, the Bucks would not have won it all. Asterisk.
Another year, another Championship asterisk.
In the example above, Barry Bonds’ single-season home run record claimed an asterisk. This is due to him abusing substances, which gave him an edge to perform better. In this case, an asterisk discredits an outstanding performance due to unfair advantages. The record did not represent how many games Barry won; it only represented how well he played. He played well because he had an unfair edge. This is very different from our championship asterisk. When giving out asterisks, the performance of that team rarely gets mentioned. We discredit the Bucks with injuries but ignore how well they played in the Finals.
Take Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Finals MVP, for example. In-game 6 of the Finals, he dropped 50 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 blocks, the second 50-point game in the Finals. In the most important series of his basketball career, he averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, and 5 assists. He had one of the greatest Finals performances in history, but that seems not to matter. The Nets' injuries seem to outshine Giannis' spectacular performance. Despite witnessing greatness unfold, we choose to ignore it.
Although Irving's injury was due to falling on Giannis' foot, it was an unintentional play. The Bucks had no control over their opponent; what they had in control was how they place. So they played well. They played the game fair-and-square, and they won because the players on the court played well. As sports fans, we seem to be losing interest in the athletic performances in front of us. We would rather go down the rabbit hole of who should win in an ideal situation.
Desire and desperation
Ironically, we care more about the stories than the actual athlete performance. Narratives are essential in competition; it is what makes these superhumans relatable. But when the narrative overpowers great performances, something is wrong. When we ignore top-level basketball because the narrative does not fit us, we are no longer fans of the game. We are not watching basketball because we want to watch good basketball; we want to hear cool stories.
It was not always this way. When the Houston Rockets 2-peated, they got their credit. With Jordan gone, the Rockets rose to the top and won it all in 1994. Of course, it is often debated whether they would have won if Jordan had not left to play baseball. Of course, people argued if Jordan would have 8-peated. But people could distinguish between narrative and athletic showcase. Yes, Jordan could beat them. That could be true, and Olajuwon could still be an all-time great with his finals performance. When you can divide reality and fantasy, you can appreciate what you are watching. Hakeem Olajuwon dominated the finals because he was legendary, not because Jordan left.
What changed? Time changed. Basketball has evolved throughout the years. With improvement to technology and training systems, players will only get better. When everyone is becoming better, the standard for a player gets higher. The bar for being "average" has never been so high. Things that blow us away in the past seem normal nowadays. Every day we see a new poster, a new game-winner, a new ankle breaker. It is like we have seen it all. Russell Westbrook and his triple-doubles. Warriors winning with a jump shot team. Cleaveland coming back from 3-1 in the finals. So many "impossible" things have become possible, and we fear everything is possible. We want something new; we want something never seen before.
The desire to see something never seen before. As such, we could only imagine. Even though we do not know what to expect, we know that heroes rise in desperate times. We want the best team to clash with the best team to see the highest quality of basketball. So when the "best teams" lose due to unfortunate reasons, we get upset. Our dreams are destroyed; the basketball we desire is no more. We turn our disappointment to the teams that beat them. We despise these teams. They won, but they are not as good. They can never reach the quality we want. That is not peak basketball.
This is why saying a healthy Nets would beat the Bucks is so important to many. That statement shows how desperate we are to watch "good basketball." Our generation wants the best basketball, but they do not even know what that is. They fail to realize the best basketball is right in front of their eyes. In reality, healthy Nets do not exist.
Such is the same for the Suns. They beat a Kawhi-less Clippers to win the Eastern Conference Finals. We complain because Clippers was not at full strength. Once again, we lost peak basketball and discredited the Suns' victory. We fail to recognize how intense and close the series is actually. Suns did not dismantle the Clippers; they won in 6. The Clippers won by double digits twice. But it does not matter. All that matters is if Kawhi were there, the series would have been better. We do not care about the actual games because they are not what we wanted.
All these links back to narratives. Think of every championship not given an asterisk. Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks defeating the villain Heat. Kobe getting his revenge against the Celtics. Jordan's two three-peats prove he is the greatest of all time. We link great basketball to great storylines.
Now, look at this year. The Suns and Bucks both defeated injured teams to reach the Finals. There was no story. No villain team, no rivalry, no-repeat champions. "Two teams met in the Finals because they got lucky." With no storyline, there are no expectations and no hype. Sure Chris Paul could win his first ring, but he would never be a player in the GOAT conversation. We wanted him to win because we felt he deserves one. Giannis could win his first ring, but it was against a Suns' team who got lucky. It was the Suns' championship to lose. There was nothing at stake, or at least nothing that we cared about. Despite how the finals being a thriller with brilliant performances, we do not care.
Basketball has evolved, so has the way we view the game. The game has grown so much that you can watch it with the old mindset. Basketball is so much more than a ball into a hoop; that is only the end goal. Once you realize how hard the end goal is at the highest level, you'll appreciate it. But of course, most casual viewers will not spend so much time on basketball. Most want to watch basketball for the high. Such is the irony of basketball nowadays. It has evolved so much that it is harder to appreciate it. Growth is good for the game, but it also makes it complicated.
There is no solution. Cynicism has infiltrated basketball culture. Our way of life has affected how we view the game. We have been so crushed by the reality that we view everything with unrealistic ideals. We throw asterisks around like children throwing tantrums. Begging for something to go in our way, we are stuck in coping with disappointment. When it does not, we refused to receive the outcome, no matter the quality. We are sick of consolation prizes; life gives us so much of those anyways. We are losing the ability to love, even basketball. We are a lost, desperate generation.