On the Degredation of Sport, Competition, and Role Models

I’ve been mad for a long time now, and while it didn’t start with Kevin Durant leaving his team that took a 3-1 lead on the NBA’s winningest team in history (they would go on to lose 3 straight and thus the series) in order to join the team that beat him, that was a tipping point for me. It was at that point that I truly realised how marginalized the ideas of sport, competition and good role models have become. It was this statement from Durant, one which valued a ring above all else, that made me realise how truly gone the previous three ideas now are. And now, as I watch the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors go head-to-head, as I watch Durant and Draymond Green act like petulant children on the court, as I watch the Jazz play well enough to beat the normal Warriors team before they went and added one of the world’s top three players to a team that already possessed another of the top three, now my feeling of despair has only seen itself capitulated a thousand times over.

My entire childhood was filled with basketball. I loved the sport and I still do. Whether it be watching the game, stepping on the court as a player, or standing on the sidelines as a coach, basketball has unquestionably had an enormous impact on my life and it has consumed a vast amount of my time here on Earth. As a young player I often found myself on the outside, working and battling every day to earn respect. I never had a great relationship with the coach of our High School basketball team; this was, at first, the result of my playing the same position as the coach’s son, but it turned into more than that. Being cut from the team in favor of players whom outside eyes knew were not on the skill level as me was the inevitable result I saw coming from the time I was in 6th grade. Despite having the knowledge that my chances to make the high school team were invariably slim, I kept battling. I kept competing. My friends and I built a team each and every year in order to allow us to play. We didn’t win a lot, but we competed, we practiced, we gave it our all, and we improved as players and as human beings as a result of tireless journey. For us, it became much less about winning and more about playing the game of basketball. Basketball was about being given the opportunity to compete.

I immediately texted my friends that same night that I walked to the door of the high school building to inevitably find that my name was not among the selected team members. Once again, we formed our own team. We battled. We competed. We weren’t in it for the glory; we weren’t intertwined with basketball because we longed for the admiration of fans and peers. what was important to us was that we competed. That we learned and that we grew and that we never gave in. I had a former teammate — one who made the high school team — ask me during my senior year why I still played so much after being cut. I looked him in the eye and told him as honestly as I could: “I love this game, and that’s all that really matters.”

That used to be all that really mattered for others too. Love of the game. Love of the sport. Love of the competition. When Karl Malone and John Stockton got knocked down by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, they went into the off-season with the intention of bettering themselves, and preparing themselves to come back fighting, to battle, to compete again whether they were to win or to lose, they were determined to never quit the fight. When Larry Bird would lose to Magic Johnson, or Magic Johnson to Larry Bird, they would each regroup, and come out to battle again because the competition was the sport and they loved the game. They could not bring themselves to join the team that beat them. They didn’t go off looking for the closest available superstar to jump ship with so that they could win. To do that, most people used to understand, was to disrespect the integrity of the game and the meaning of competition.

Kevin Durant is not Karl Malone. He’s not John Stockton, or Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. He’s not Michael Jordan. Kevin Durant is a coward who has fallen slave to the capitalistic impulse that establishes winning as the preeminent goal in all things, that which supersedes anything and everything. And here’s the thing KD. No one cares if you win — not in the way that you have gone about it. If you don’t win this year, it’s an embarrassment. You left a highly competitive team to join the team you almost beat and establish a team that on paper ought to be impossible to beat. You made the statement that the game itself does not matter, that its integrity and devotion to competition is subordinate to winning.

But then I’m wrong, because the media doesn’t seem to care, nor do the millions of bandwagoning fans. And that’s just it, isn’t it? Winning is all that matters anymore. We have a president that spouts it every day: we have to win again and thus make losers of the billions of other people in the world. We turn a blind eye to the filth that spews from the mouths of both Green and Durant when they’re on the court, laud them as terrific players and role models because they win, no matter how they degregate the integrity of the sport they are winning in. The media celebrates those who win while disgracing those who do anything less.

Shawn Johnson, a former United States gymnastics world champion, often reiterates that, although she has been crowned the all-around champion (the highest individual achievement in gymnastics) in most of the events that she has competed in, the silver medal that she took home from the Olympics meant more to her than the gold, or the countless all-around crowns. She recalls being asked by media members how it felt to “lose” and all she could think was that she took second place in the world, on the biggest stage imaginable. That was an achievement, not a failure, and I have got to think she loves the sport more as a result of that achievement. Despite the media trying to turn her enormous accomplishment into a disappointment, Johnson served as a real role model by understanding that the sport has less to do with winning and more to do with fighting the battles and clearing the hurdles we find within ourselves.

Broadly speaking, I want for the integrity of sports and competition to once more be important to fans, the media, and the players. I want the players to be role models again, people who understand that reaching the highest peak of a mountain means nothing if you do not seek to labor, battle, and combat the elements that would prevent you from getting there. You can take tools to help you on your way, but the man who flies to the top is not deserving of the admiration of those who braved the war. The journey taken is often more memorable and admirable than the end result.

In my senior year of highschool, my team and I were undefeated in the league we played in. We endured hardships together for so many years, including seasons where we did not win a single game. But at last, on the floor of the main gym at our high school, we capped off an undefeated season after years of hard work. I don’t remember very well what it felt like when the final horn actually went off, but I remember all the individual hurdles we had to pass to reach that final buzzer. I remember the game where three of our players were sick and hardly able to play, and another stepped up to score 34 points and lead us back from a double-digit deficit to win at the horn. The countless times we’d get behind and, with a learned patience, continue to battle until we eventually reached our goal. I recall the pain I went through, having badly injured my back lifting weights, and how I could hardly sit in my desk at school, or how I couldn’t practice much during the week so that I could at least give what I had to our games. I remember how often we looked at each other and said “We’ve got this” despite not knowing whether we did or didn’t, and then I remember going out and giving everything we had to the sport we loved. I remember the journey far better than I do the reward.

On a smaller level, I just want the NBA back. I want to split the Warriors apart and erase Durant’s decision to leave Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. And while I am admittedly a major Jazz fan, it is not losing this series that bothers me: I want to be able to witness the brilliance of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson again, brilliance that has been diminished by, and that has taken a backseat to the obsession for winning. I want to put an end to James Harden cheating the sport by playing a game of fouls rather than a game of basketball, again, in the name of winning. I want to get rid of the wild, gesticulating flops, and on that note, I want to get rid of the Draymond Green testicle-kick, and maybe even Green altogether. Stop the incessant complaining to the refs and let me see the love for basketball, the love that understands refs to be a part of the game and another of the hurdles one must conquer. Give me real role models, and give me back the competition that is imperative to the integrity of the sport. He wasn’t the start, he won’t be the end, but Durant has helped to ruin the NBA. He’s perpetuated the degradation of the sport, of competition, and of the role model, and I cannot and will not forgive him for it. And no, David Locke, this isn’t because the Jazz have lost. It’s because I used to be a huge fan of Curry and Thompson. It’s because I used to be a huge fan of Durant. It’s because Curry and Thompson hardly have to play anymore; they come out to blitz people then sit back and coast for the rest of the game, and that’s assuming Thompson even gets to show much of anything. Durant has changed drastically since leaving OKC. He’s not the humble, kind, good person superstar he used to be. And maybe things like the below will help you to see that: