The 2012 NBA finals presents more than a match-up of two young, exciting, athletic teams. They present a rooting litmus test. In one corner, we have the Miami Heat, a team scorned for being built around a hastily assembled group of free-agent all-stars Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the great LeBron James. No player in NBA history has been scrutinized, picked apart and even despised quite like James. The three-time MVP’s unforgivable crime, now two years old, was neither a felony nor misdemeanor nor even a bad attitude. It was his awkwardly managed departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers and “taking [his] talents to South Beach.” He also earns arrows of anger for his alleged inability to step up his game when the game is on the line. In addition, his patchwork Miami team in the eyes of many is as plastic, superficial and empty as the city they call home.
In the other corner, we have the Oklahoma City Thunder, a small market franchise beloved by the sports media and fans for “doing it the right way.” They drafted beautifully and evolved organically toward greatness. They are also led by Kevin Durant, the NBA’s most endearing superstar. The “Durantula” is only 23 but already has three scoring titles, and he absolutely lusts for the big moment. He also, unlike LeBron, signed a long-term contract to stay in a small market because he wanted to take the team that drafted him to a title.
With such seemingly opposite teams and stars, the media are already writing the 2012 finals script of “good vs. evil.” It’s an easy, by-the-numbers narrative. It’s also bizarro world bullshit. This is one case where good is evil and the evil in question resides in shadows where fans choose not to look
I would argue that how we choose to see the Heat and Thunder is a litmus test. It’s a litmus test that reveals how the sports radio obsession with villainizing twenty-first-century athletes blinds us to the swelling number of villains who inhabit the owner’s box. And in Oklahoma City, we have the kinds of sports owners whose villainy should never be forgotten.
Strip away the drama and the Heat are called “evil” because their star players exercised free agency and—agree or disagree with their decision—took control of their own careers. The Thunder are praised for doing it the “right way,” but no franchise is more caked in original sin than the team from Oklahoma City. Their owners, Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon, with an assist from NBA Commissioner David Stern, stole their team with the naked audacity of Frank and Jesse James from the people of Seattle.
For non-NBA fans, as recently as 2008 the OKC Thunder were the Seattle Supersonics, a team of great tradition, flare and fan support. They were Slick Watts’s headband, Jack Sikma’s perm and Gary Payton’s scowl. They were a beloved team in a basketball town. Then the people of Seattle committed an unpardonable offense in the eyes of David Stern. They loved their team but refused to pay for a new taxpayer funded $300 million arena. Seattle’s citizens voted down referendums, organized meetings and held rallies with the goal of keeping the team housed in a perfectly good building called the KeyArena. Despite a whirlwind of threats, the people of Seattle wouldn’t budge, so Stern made an example of them. Along with Supersonics team owner and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz—who could have paid for his own new arena with latte profits alone—Stern recruited two Oklahoma City–based billionaires, Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon, to buy the team and manipulate their forcible extraction from Seattle to OKC.