January 29, 2017

GUEST ROOM | A Donald Trump is Coming for Pro Basketball

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The NBA, like America, is on an unsustainable course of growth and excess. The league is taking more and more three-pointers every year, and playing at a faster and faster pace — and just two teams, the top one percent of the league, have a near monopoly on elite players. The Warriors and Cavs will likely face each other in this year’s championship for the third consecutive time. A backlash is coming.

America, too, has experienced a backlash: in this case, to the accelerated pace of global finance, demographic change and widening inequality. That movement is led by Donald Trump, who dominated the culture with authoritarianism and xenophobia — and by successfully branding himself as the enemy of the hated elites. Soon, a parallel figure will arise in the NBA.

The NBA’s Trump figure will ascend after the league office decides that the three-point shot has gotten out of control. Last year Stephen Curry, the back-to-back MVP, shattered his own record for threes made in a season. He’d set it the previous year. The Houston Rockets recently topped their own record for threes attempted in a game; they’d set it one month ago. The league as a whole has broken the record for total threes attempted for the last six years in a row. This year, they will surely break it again.

A game that revolves around the long-range shot rewards small, quick shooters like Steph. That high-speed style has made basketball faster and more explosive every year. In America, meanwhile, the financial sector continues to grow even despite global crisis, and wealth continues to concentrate in the hands of a select few. The Warriors and Cavs together represent the established liberal order of New York City, Silicon Valley, and Washington, D.C. circa 2015 — technologically savvy, analytically minded, aesthetically beautiful, a little smug, wealthy and still rising. The Warriors just added former MVP and three-point assassin Kevin Durant; the rich get richer.

The NBA’s Trump figure will be the kind of player that is out of place in today’s league: a huge, physically imposing center in the tradition of the great centers of the past. As Trump is a postmodern variant on Ronald Reagan, he will be a variant on Shaquille O’Neal. His rise is only possible once the league institutes some sort of rule to make the long-range shot less valuable — moving the line back, making the shot worth fewer points, maybe eliminating the juicy corner three. After that happens, the game will swing back the other way, and favor big men once again.

The NBA’s Trump figure will have a game that old-school purists love and modern analytics progressives hate. He will play with brute force. He will be strong. He will be yuuuge. He will post up, throw down huge dunks, run the floor and smack lay-ups back into the third row. He will not shoot threes. Like Shaq, Kareem and Wilt before him, he will probably play for the Lakers.

Stephen Curry, the avatar of today’s NBA, has a game which is a pure expression of human joy. Watch him dance, laugh, and skip around out there. He fucking loves hitting threes. It’s like even he can’t believe they keep going in. The NBA’s Trump figure, on the other hand, will be mean. He will be nasty. He will be hypermasculine. His game will not be refined, beautiful, or joyful.

Steph is the NBA’s Barack Obama: a revolutionary figure, a family man, technically perfect, media-savvy, balanced on the line between confident and cocky, subtly flawed. Obama was reelected, but his legacy lost; Trump now stands to undo much of it. Likewise, it’s not Steph, but the guy after Steph, who will be the Hillary Clinton to the NBA’s Trump. (Obama, by the way, said he’s having more fun watching Steph than he has since Jordan.) The NBA’s Trump figure won’t destroy Steph himself, but he will play a style that undoes the changes Steph has helped bring to the game.

Donald Trump himself is a hopelessly overweight guy with stubby fingers and goofy hair. The NBA’s Trump figure, on the other hand, will be a titanically muscular guy with comically large hands and a no-nonsense buzzcut. This is one way that they differ.

The NBA’s Trump figure will be at least seven-foot-two and over three hundred pounds. He will, like Trump, be focused overwhelmingly on himself; he’ll be a shameless ball hog and unwilling passer who clashes with his coaches. He will lead the league in blocks and rebounds. He will be an awful free throw shooter. He will, like Trump, attract sycophantic figures who help cover up his weaknesses. Where Trump has Mike Pence and Kellyanne Conway, the NBA’s Trump figure will have a deferential, pass-first point guard who gets him the ball down low and doesn’t care about the spotlight.

He’s coming. He’s in a gym somewhere right now. He’s not working on his jump shot; he won’t need one. He’s lifting weights, eating meat, building himself up. He wants to make basketball great again. Someday, the league will be his.


Max Van Zile is an Arts & Entertainment columnist and can be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester.