First Great Britain voted to leave the European Union. Now Kevin Durant is leaving the Oklahoma city Thunder. Call it K-Dexit.
I’m not going to pretend that I’m some kind of OKC super fan. Sure, I grew up in Tulsa, just 90 miles away, but that was before the OKC Thunder existed; I haven’t actually lived in Oklahoma for 9 years, and I’ve barely followed the NBA in the 5 years I’ve been in Africa (hard to catch a game over here).
Still, I liked the Thunder, not least because of their likable and rock solid core of Russell Westbrook and of course Kevin Durant. It wasn’t just that they were good – REALLY good – but also that their blue collar humbleness in their devotion to the team and the state showed them to be that rarest of things in professional sports: genuinely good guys.
See, Oklahoma is a nice state, but it’s not exactly bright lights big city. And for two mid-twenties celebrity millionaires at the height of fame, you could forgive them for yearning for the glamorous lifestyle and flashy clubs of new York, Miami, or LA.
Instead, they made Oklahoma home, and stuck to building a team in a place that people on the coasts call “flyover country.” Here was a state that has never had an NBA team – and they made the new one great, basically from scratch (with apologies to Sonics fans). KD and Westbrook started to really become a part of the Oklahoma community that the whole state rallied around. When tornadoes struck, Kevin Durant was out helping victims; he even donated $1 million to the Red Cross for relief efforts. Whenever a game was on, even though I couldn’t watch it in Africa, my Facebook feed lit up with dozens of comments from friends back home. Thunder fans quickly became some of the NBA’s most diehard. The Flaming Lips (also from Oklahoma) even adapted one of their most awesome rock anthems for the Thunder.
Oklahoma City was once in a decline:Home of the workin’ man,But he was losin’.But heard off in the distance came a roar out of the sky:Thunder came thunderin’,So determined.Theirs is to win – we win with them.They’ll keep fighting for Oklahoma!Thunder up!
These were good guys building a good team in a place that really loved them.
So when I read that Kevin Durant was leaving Oklahoma City to form a super team with Steph Curry, I didn’t feel pissed so much as .. abandoned. Let down. Sort of gutted and empty, like an old factory whose boss has just announced it will be closing and shipping its jobs to China – and I’m not even a true fan! The reactions on Facebook from real fans were far more depressing.
And it’s not just that he’s leaving, it’s where he’s leaving from, and where he’s going to: from a small Midwestern flyover state that nonetheless gave him loyalty and devotion, to the beating heart of the nation’s biggest and richest state, on a team coming off the best regular season in history, that nearly repeated as champions.
The rich get richer, and the not-rich-enough can up and join them.
It’s the same reason I think there was so much vitriol toward LeBron 6 years ago when he announced his move to Miami. Do you think people would have reacted the same way if instead of leaving Cleveland, a hurting industrial town that hadn’t won a championship in 46 years (and his hometown at that), he’d been coming off a championship run with, say, the Lakers? Or what if instead of joining an already star studded team in a city known more for flashy clubs and plastic surgery than making things, he’d gone to try and build a struggling team in Memphis or Milwaukee? People might have said WTF, but they wouldn’t have cared: no one would have begrudged him the right to go build something elsewhere, especially if he’d already finished what he’d started in Cleveland – and especially if he avoided the phrase “South Beach.”
Where people do have a problem is when you leave something you’ve been building to join something that’s already great: you become less of a hero and more of a mercenary.
But it’s not just the impact on our perception of the individual. When we see these super teams forming, players taking pay cuts to go wherever they have the best shot of winning a championship, we wonder, what kind of league are we making? As a friend posted on Facebook:
Bill Self left TU. Pujols left the Cardinals. OU was unbelievably bad for 10 years. Sometimes bad things happen in sports, but sometimes it turns out fine in the end. My only complaint is that I don’t like these “super teams” and think the NBA should do something to stop players manipulating the results.
Players used to go to whichever team paid them the most. We never liked it, but at least greed was a sort of leveler (at least in sports with a salary cap): a bad team could always lure a star with dollars in the hopes of turning things around. But if superstars opt to ignore money and instead chase wins by joining other superstars (after all, when you’re already rich, a few million more starts to have less value than a championship), you start to worry that the league will be less of a competitive field where everybody’s got a shot, and more of an elite club for a few dominant superteams to go around destroying everyone else.
And that just sucks.
That bitter taste that Oklahoma City fans (and NBA fans in general) are feeling right now is pretty much the same one leaving so many people frustrated with the way the global economy is working.
KD leaving isn’t just about a loss of talent on someone’s favorite team. It’s the loss of an institution. “Wait, Kevin Durant left? How can he leave Oklahoma City? He was Oklahoma City! How can there be an Oklahoma City Thunder without KD?” That feeling must be similar (though of course smaller and less consequential) to the alienation and dislocation people are feeling with job losses and factory closures. When a long standing factory suddenly announces it is closing or moving overseas, it’s not just the calculable economic hurt of loss of income that stings – it’s the loss of permanence. Here was an institution that was part of the community, where everyone worked, that gave back, and just like that they decided to up and leave? What went wrong? And if they can do it, what’s stopping anyone else?
For individuals too, movement isn’t always good. Players used to spend their entire careers with one team, maybe two. Nowadays though, players jump around for more money, get traded, and may end up playing for four, five, or six different clubs during their career. And even though there’s no real reason why one situation is better, most of us just feel that it’s more honorable to play for one team.
But there is a reason, and it’s that most humans value belonging just as much as, if not more than, individual achievement. We want to be part of a family and community, but nonetheless feel pressure to move to wherever we can find the best job and make the most money, leaving friends and family behind. So instead of lifelong friends, we have happy hours with people we may know for 4-5 years, then leave. Instead of extended family to take care of the kids, we have daycare. Then we wonder why despite the fact that we’re richer as a country than ever, we don’t feel much happier, and instead just feel busy.
The other thing the rise of these hated superteams shows us is that equality matters a lot more than we think. Neoliberalism, as a caricature, tells us that constant growth, innovation, and achievement are the highest ends of any society. Apply neoliberalism to basketball, and you might get a philosophy like this:
The market for talent in basketball should not be restrained; the dynamism created by free movement of capital and players allows some teams to reach new heights of greatness, allowing fans to consume ever more amazing feats of basketball prowess, which is the most important thing the League is meant to achieve.
But we all know that’s not the most important thing in basketball. We all know that it’s a more fulfilling, entertaining, and fun league when everyone has a chance to win – if not this year, maybe next year – than one where we get to see ever more amazing, dynamic basketball performances.
For 50 years economists have favored a “superteam” theory of economics: as long as the total size of the pie is growing, it doesn’t matter how the slices are distributed, because in the long run, everyone will get richer. And if you are 5% richer, isn’t it irrational to be mad just because someone else got 500% richer? You’re still better off!
That’s a little like saying that 76ers fans should be happy with their 10-win 2016 team because those players are still vastly more skilled than players from 50 years ago. But of course it doesn’t matter if the 2016 76ers could beat the 1966 Celtics. What matters is if you’re winning now, or have a chance to win in the near future. In the same way, it doesn’t matter if my income has increased 5% over the last 30 years, when the guys at the top have increased 500% – I still feel like I’m losing.
I know it’s great that we have a dynamic economy that produces so many wonderful things to buy, so much faster than it used to. But all that dynamism and growth has cost us a lot: less leisure and family time, more fragmented communities, and a lot of people who have been left behind.
Maybe it’s worth it in the NBA to put some restrictions on stars’ ability to move around and form superteams; the great teams may not be as great, but more people would get a chance to win. Likewise, maybe it’s worth sacrificing some of the dynamism (a meaningless word anyway to anyone who’s ever read a resume/CV) and high-growth upside of the global economy to get back some of what we’ve lost: time, community, and a shot for everyone to do meaningful work.
The only thing is I’m not sure there’s actually a way to do either one. And I’m betting Kevin Durant’s Golden State Warriors will be getting some of the highest TV ratings ever.