Narratives and the Culture of Impropriety

David Stern

This was supposed to be it. This was supposed to be that moment of brilliance. Finally, at long last, the Bobcats would have some hope for the future. This was a team that was genuinely gaining momentum each year of its existence, suffered a few setbacks, and was poised to finally start anew with a once-in-a-decade talent. This was not only going to be our return to NBA relevance, but also garner a renewed passion in Charlotte's other sports team. Basketball fever would be back in the Queen City. This was our reset button to the 1990s.

The Charlotte Bobcats endured a season unlike almost any other. Setting a new low for winning percentage, the frustrated fans of a frustrating team needed some hope for the future. There was a lot of talk before the draft about which team needed now Hornet-elect Anthony Davis; even a discussion of who deserved him the most. When it comes down to talent, or lack thereof, Charlotte is truly without equal. We needed him the most- that was clear. But the question of whether we deserved him was slightly more complex.

The idea that a franchise must atone for past transgressions, or be rewarded for prior strife, is a popular one amongst NBA fans in particular. It seemed fitting that the Cavaliers won the 2011 NBA Draft lottery because they had just lost the NBA's greatest contemporary talent to free agency. The pick that won the lottery, coincidentally, was the one received from the Clippers in the Mo Williams trade. The narrative was there: the continually beat-down Cavaliers finally got something in their favor, at the expense of one of the league's most despicable owners. Was it rigged? Possibly. But the Clips had to pay, and the Cavs deserved goodwill.

So, what does it say when the New Orleans Hornets beat out the Charlotte Bobcats for the first overall pick? Why does it seem so improper? Within minutes of the lottery announcement, #basketballreasons was trending on twitter. "David Stern" trended. It all seemed so obvious: the fix was in. All in all, there were really two dominant narratives that germinated in those post-lotto minutes, and only time will tell which one will win out. The first, that Stern and his cronies rigged the lottery to give the team he owns the first overall pick, is certainly the most popular. The team was sold to Tom Benson, sure, but the league still holds the deed for another month or so, and the pick could have been an under-the-table clause from Stern. This time, the loss of a superstar and the drafting of one to replace him were secondary to the immorality of the league. In my mind, this will be the dominant story heading forward, and the one we'll all remember.

But a second narrative began last night too- one more sympathetic to the Hornets. This is the one I find more disingenuous. In some corners of the internet, this was karmic reward for the Hornets. They were dealt a crap hand, yet persevered in the face of unrelenting struggle. They overachieved, played hard, and didn't embarrass themselves or their fans. The Bobcats, on the other hand, were being punished for an epic tank job. The regularly started Byron Mullens and gave Gana Diop rotation minutes. They traded Stephen Jackson. They let Tyson Chandler leave and didn't acquire any significant free agents. Obviously, they wanted to suck, and boy, did they suck! Competitive drive should win out over the exploitation of a flawed system, and this time it did.

Never mind that Stephen Jackson was dramatically overpaid. Never mind that Larry Brown's fascination with quirky role players led to a team full of Diaws and Carrolls and Diops and Feltons. Never mind that Tyson Chandler wasn't actually Tyson Chandler when we let him go. Never mind that a team of Felton, Jackson, Wallace, Thomas, and Chandler has a pretty low celling. Never mind that shedding salaries and keeping cap space is exactly what other teams did this offseason, including the defending champs (who ALSO let Tyson Chandler leave) and yet none of them were lambasted for tanking. A poor championship defense, sure, but never the t-word. Never mind that of the 11 players to win the Finals MVP since 1990, only two of them weren't drafted by the team they won it with. The Bobcats clearly tanked, and they deserved to be punished.

Seeking order from chaos is what humans do best. When we're presented with a field of data, we try to reason with it. This is how sports narratives form. LeBron missed a game-winning basket: he's not clutch. Jeremy Lin punks Kobe: he's the new Nash. The Spurs win 20 games in a row: this is their best team of all time. The narrative is what people remember, not the chaos. When it comes to the draft lottery, we encounter more randomness and chaos then at any other time in sports. By design it is unpredictable, and yet we allow our emotions and inherent need for order to try and explain it. On ESPN's NBA Countdown, the analysts even went around the table, each making their prediction on who was going to be the ultimate victor. After the lottery was over, we all sighed, said "I KNEW it," and proceeded to think about what to do with the second overall pick.

We'll never know if the draft lottery is rigged. In reality, it is an impossible and unnecessary question to answer. What should trouble the league is the universal acceptance of impropriety, and the assumption that it would regularly and continually apply administrative pressure to affect athletic results, or reinforce certain didactic narratives. How much longer can a league with no perceived integrity continue to rake in revenue? At what point does the crowd say this is too much? The league has done nothing to change this perception- even willfully embracing it by not airing the lottery live on television. With David Stern in charge, it appears that belligerent and stubborn grandstanding will always trump rational and ordered transparency. The Bobcats may have lost the lottery, but the League clearly has lost its credibility. The only question left is which group will right themselves first? I, for one, think the Bobcat's odds of winning that one are a lot better than 25%.

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