The world would be a much nicer place to live in if sports were just sports instead of multilayered contests where our values about everything from race to economics are on display. But America—let alone the NBA—never promised us nice, which is why tonight’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals is rife with sociocultural narratives. Will a Cavaliers victory validate LeBron and revitalize Cleveland? Are the Golden State Warriors the best team in NBA history? Would a Cavaliers loss help Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in Ohio? Is light-skinned privilege to blame for why so many people like Steph Curry? (Yes, this discussion actually happened, more than once.)
The problem is that all of these narratives miss the point. None of these various think pieces and hot takes will be proved or disproved by what happens in the NBA Finals.
Especially since we already know that the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to lose.
I am now, and always have been, a very political sports fan. I used to root for NFL teams based on who had a black coach or a black quarterback. I laid out half a dozen reasons for rooting against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals because the team owner’s politics are deplorable. I root for LeBron James because I am happy whenever I see an African-American athlete take control of his or her body and career.
However, as much as I eat, sleep and breathe to imbue extra meaning into every single aspect of a sport, I can’t escape one harsh reality: No matter how compelling the racial or cultural narrative, the better team usually wins.
The Golden State Warriors broke the NBA record for most wins in a regular season. They have the two-time reigning MVP Steph Curry on their team. They’re playing with home-court advantage, and the entire squad has experience from winning the NBA championship against the Cleveland Cavaliers last season.
The Cavaliers have a rookie coach, who has literally not coached an entire NBA season yet. The team is depending on two guys to help James: Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, who were either out with injuries or nonfactors in last year’s finals.
To make matters worse, the Cleveland Cavaliers play a style of defense so porous, Donald Trump offered to build a wall for them at half-court. Just about every statistical analysis of the series calls for a Golden State Warriors win, and the NBA Finals are the least upset-prone of any of the four major American sports. So if the winner and loser of the NBA Finals is pretty much set, where does that leave the plethora of think pieces that will come flowing from this series?
Unfortunately, the armchair-culture-critic sports hot-take machine will continue even if the finals results are a foregone conclusion. Why? Because sports and political hot takes give heft and cover to otherwise insipid ideas. Remember how Peyton Manning’s victory over Cam Newton in this year’s Super Bowl showed that black “swagger” couldn’t win the big game? Or how the Saints’ Super Bowl win “healed” New Orleans after Katrina? Those are sexier stories than one saying that the Carolina Panthers got outcoached, or a story that contrasts the speed and efficiency of municipal sports funding for stadiums in New Orleans with the federal disaster aid for actual residents.
LeBron James has played in the NBA 13 years, and in seven of those years, he’s been in the NBA Finals. When you spend half your career playing in championship games, your legacy is pretty much set. A Cavaliers win will do no more for Clinton or Trump in Ohio than a Golden State loss would keep Kamala Harris out of the Senate.
And as for skin-color privilege—that is likely the most contrived NBA discussion I’ve seen since the debate over African Americans and sports analytics. Curry is loved because he comfortably hits baskets from distances we’ve never seen before. Like 30 feet away. Or the opposing team’s locker room. Or outside the arena parking lot. You get the idea.
He’s also loved because he’s so slight in frame and presence that Curry really does look as if he should be behind a desk selling life insurance. I’m not saying that his being light-skinned doesn’t play a role in Curry’s popularity among some groups of people, but let’s not overstate it. You could line up the #TeamLightSkinned NBA All-Stars from the last 20 years (team Capt. Reggie Miller, point guard Jason Kidd, and Joakim Noah, Mike Bibby, Klay Thompson and Rick Fox coming off the bench), and not one of them has broken through the way Curry has.
In the end, this series will come down to who plays better basketball and who has the better team—not who wants it more (both sides want it equally) or who represents some larger cultural meaning (both James and Curry carry a certain symbolism) or which “community” needs it more (both Oakland, Calif., and Cleveland have unemployment rates below 5 percent). All of the social issues represented by these two teams and players will exist and persist no matter who wins. Even if we already know that’s going to be the Warriors. Dubs in 6.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.