An NBA champion will be crowned this fall under the most unique circumstances in league history, assuming everything goes right in this ambitious plan by Adam Silver and Co. In October, he’ll grab a microphone and address a crowd that doesn’t exist, awarding a Larry O’Brien Trophy that won’t have a physical asterisk on it, but it’ll be there.
Not the level of asterisk that some believe accompany baseball records or the ones that Phil Jackson assigned to title-winning teams when he wasn’t coaching, but there will be a symbolic one at the end of this odyssey.
The asterisk will only be there to mark this time and place in history, not as a claim that the champion didn’t earn its honor.
It’s difficult to imagine the celebration that’ll ensue following the team that reaches 16 wins (or even 17 if a ninth seed does the unthinkable). It won’t feature Raptors president Masai Ujiri fighting through an overzealous officer to get to the floor to salute his team, nor will a reporter have to choose between getting a quote from then-Raptors assistant coach Phil Handy or getting sprayed with Champagne by Raptors staffer Patrick Mutombo.
“You wanna keep talking to him? Because in three seconds … ” Mutombo said.
Exit, stage left.
Will social distancing have to be observed in the throes of triumph? Will natural emotion be curbed for fear of an invisible virus still making its way through buildings and people?
The myth-making that’s been built around certain circumstances will be confirmed or debunked, like home-court advantage and the element of travel in a playoff series.
Role players performing better at home might be viewed as a statistical anomaly because non-stars don’t perform as consistently regardless of setting.
It’ll feel more like March Madness than the traditional roads of April, May and June. It’ll feel like a team can get hot and ride something special into an improbable run rather than geography breaking up rhythm.
The details will make this memorable and different, but the competition, we can assume, will be pure.
In his closing remarks at the 1998 NBA Finals following Michael Jordan’s final stamp on his GOAT argument, NBC's Bob Costas said this:
“Take all the money, all the adulation, all the TV cameras away and put Michael Jordan in a gym somewhere with [Bill] Russell and Oscar [Robertson], [Jerry] West and the Doctor [Julius Erving], and he’d be just as genuine and as much in his element as any of them.”
Well, the money won’t be gone and the TV cameras will be there to document the moment, but the energy of a crowd will not. It’ll be the closest thing to an empty gym as any of us have ever seen, but by October, the unusual will feel normal.
Just as wearing a mask in public felt foreign in January but a necessity today, a new normal will be established and these exclusive worlds will merge. Giannis Antetokounmpo will mean-mug to no one in particular, LeBron James will flex his pythons after an and-one, Pat Beverley will yell to a crowd that doesn’t exist and Kawhi Leonard will … Kawhi through it all.
We’ve been so disconnected from the rhythm of sport, it feels like everything is starting over, but it’ll merely take a little time to reacquaint ourselves with the storylines that paused in March.
And because so many are searching for normalcy, we’ll dive into what feels familiar: a Lakers-Clippers series we were all salivating for, along with the question of how far the Bucks can go in the playoffs and how it affects Antetokounmpo’s future.
By the time the playoffs come around in September, the echoing sound of sneakers, basketballs bouncing and interpersonal communication on the floor will feel commonplace. And while it’ll feel different, it won’t feel inauthentic — so long as LeBron, Giannis and Kawhi stay coronavirus-free.
Those three names — those three alone — validate this process. The icon, the MVP, the champion.
If one of the three goes down to injury that doesn’t have “he missed four months of basketball” written all over it, it’ll be easier to swallow because no postseason has perfect health.
If one comes down with COVID-19 and has to miss the remainder or even a significant portion of this, Silver has a greater problem on his hands than a mere asterisk that will mark history. He’ll be faced with convincing everyone that this process is legitimate and that he was right to restart the season.
This is an inflection point in our nation’s history and in sport — and the NBA helped chart the course to recognize the severity of this pandemic by being the first big business in the country to shut down.
Time won’t allow us to forget the circumstances that brought us to this point. The pandemic, and the social reckoning after George Floyd’s death. The pandemic, and the suspension of sports, which led to the NBA coming up with this bubble, er, campus plan. The social reckoning, and athletes becoming far more involved and visible in the movement for social justice, fighting racism and embracing accountability.
There’ll be an asterisk because for the first time, one world won’t be separate from the other. The sanitized phrases the NBA allowed on the back of players’ jerseys aren’t as raw as they could’ve been, but it also brings exclusive ecosystems far closer than they’d ever been before — without having to use the dreaded word “distraction.”
It’ll be special for whichever team wins the NBA title, because they’ll still go through four rounds of grueling basketball that will challenge them physically and mentally, in addition to the unusual circumstances.
And because there’s no guarantee on the NBA returning to its version of normal by year’s end or even ensuring there isn’t a work stoppage, a completion will be viewed as a success no matter the winner.
It’ll be different, which makes the asterisk applicable.
The title won’t be worth more, but it won’t be worth less, either.
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