NBA: Community Teams in an Individual Sport

After the drubbings on ABC yesterday, I figure this is as good a time as any to point out how much we ought to be marveling at both the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder. It is said over and over again that basketball is essentially an individual sport, and I suppose it sort of is. It is the sport in which a team is most likely to be significantly altered by the addition or subtraction of one player. Cleveland was horrible without LeBron, the Magic collapsed when they lost Shaq, and the 94-95 Bulls didn’t win championships without Michael Jordan (but they still won 55 games in ’94 and were pretty high playoff seeds both years). So sure, individuals help make teams great, but remember that teams are communities, and communities, more than anything, help shape the greatness of the individual. I’m not saying the Thunder wouldn’t struggle without Durant or Westbrook, and the Bulls wouldn’t struggle come playoff time without Rose, but what is remarkable is how well these teams connect as a community. They lift each other up, make each other great.

People love to talk about how individuals make the people around them better. This is only somewhat true. Michael Jordan made everyone around him better because he’s the greatest player ever. He had ice-water and snake venom in his veins. He was a terrifying force that couldn’t be reckoned with. But more times than not, as is the case with the Thunder and Bulls, it is the greatness of the collective unit that makes the individuals good enough to make the collective unit better. Following me? I’ll call it holistic teamism.

For several years after the second retirement of Jordan, the NBA was ruined by people who thought they could be him. No one is MJ. What resulted is a bunch of boring, individualistic basketball, steeped in typical American bootstrapity. It was boring because while everyone was infatuated with individual greatness, the game as a whole suffered because very few people cared enough about their team to make anything particularly interesting. The highlight of all this being Allen Iverson’s classic rant on the virtues of “practice”. Meanwhile, the Spurs and Pistons and Lakers are quietly winning championship after championship.

Taken holistically, only teams win championships. As trite as this sounds, I don’t know if collectively we actually believe it. I am certain, in the NBA especially, that the best team always wins. So when we got all crazy last season when the Heat failed to win the championship, we were expecting a group of individuals to beat a team. The Mavericks were absolutely the best team of last years tournament. They exhibited holistic teamism. The Heat have only seldom exhibited themselves as a team. And be reminded that the Heat got blasted Sunday by the Celtics, a group that has demonstrated holistic teamism for years. The Heat have the best collection of players in the NBA (I guess), but they are not the best team, not by a good stretch. And unless they figure out how to become a collective unit, indivisible, they are not going to win this year’s title. I’m not saying they can’t, or they won’t, but its not easy.

As much as basketball has tried to be the most individualistic sport, it has shown tremendous opportunity for communal holism, perhaps more than most other sports, which is why we ought to revel in what the Bulls and Thunder bring us, because this is good basketball. The Thunder and Bulls are constantly showing off their connectivity, which is why they, not the Heat, are the most entertaining teams in basketball. And if other teams can figure this out, the level of competition in the NBA will be so much higher and far more entertaining. There is more to say on this topic, particularly as and how it relates to the the Bulls and Thunder, that I may get into later, but for now, enjoy them. Community will always trump the individual. It is only when the individual gives him or her self to a community that he or she can grow from within and make the community stronger and greater. Take note of it and watch closely, because these teams may have something quite profound to communicate to us.

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