"So say goodnight to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you."
— Tony Montana, Scarface
Let's face facts. We love villains. Be it Tony Montana, Michael Corleone, Don Draper, Magneto, Daniel Plainview, Darth Vader, or Travis Bickle, we love the heel.
Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, hell even The Bachelor and now the NBA all have something in common: sensational anti-heros, as likeable on one hand as they are reviled on the other.
A good villain helps to provide a fundamental social construct: good versus evil, and right versus wrong. It's one of the most simplistic elements of human nature to pull for the good guy and hate the bad guy. Still, one of the more convoluted reasons we love a good villain is that often he/she acts as a one-way mirror for us to identify with our far darker, less publicly portrayed personality traits. Without the villain there can't be a hero, and without a hero you simply have a far less compelling storyline.
In recent sports history, has there been a team that fits the role of the villain to any extent like the Miami Heat? Maybe the Bad Boy Pistons of the late 80s? The late 90s Yankees? The 2007 Patriots might be the best example, yet how many Cowboys or Eagles fans were sitting in front of their TVs hoping the Giants would be the ones hoisting the Lombardi Trophy? Cowboys fans might have hated the Pats, but come on it’s the Giants.
Before the start of the Eastern Conference Finals I received an email from a buddy in L.A. whose love affair with the Lakers runs so deep he is contemplating naming his first-born Kobe. The email simply read, "Dude I'm all in on Pierce and this C's team." A Lakers fan telling a Celtics fan that he's "all in" on Boston is the equivalent of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr saying "Sure we're mortal enemies, but this asshole Jefferson has to go." It's not logical, but that's what the Heat — and most notably cover boy LeBron James — have done. They’ve turned even the most casual of sports fans into two very clear categories: those who like LeBron and those who hate1 LeBron.
The NBA hasn't been this ingrained into the social conversation since 1996, when Jordan’s Bulls began their second three-peat run. These Finals averaged a 10.9 Nielson Rating, which while not quite the 16.7 that the Bulls and Sonics drew in '96, is still a pretty good start.2
The NBA and its product are in their best place in quite some time. Merchandise sales are up, viewership is up, and most importantly, the league has something it hasn't had since the 97-98 Chicago Bulls: a team that fills the arena no matter which city they’re playing in.
No sport, not even the NFL, can boast about having such a polarizing team. What, is the NFL going to push the Jets as their big bad villain? Please. The Heat are Hollywood as hell, and we are infatuated because nothing sells quite like a good old fashion heel.
I was recently at a wedding3 filled with contingencies of Philly, New York, and New England fans, and the most prevalent topic of conversation (aside from the bride, the groom, the food and the ceremony, of course) was the Heat. No Obama, no Romney, no Yankees, no Red Sox, just the Heat and how pissed people were that the bad guys won.
Last season after the Mavericks completed their most unexpected of title runs, Mark Cuban said he received more emails saying "thank you" than anything else. Thank you emails to an NBA owner? That's like Skip Bayless actually capitulating to sound and reasonable logic. Owners never get "thank you" emails, especially ones as bombastic as Mark Cuban. Yet after the Mavericks beat the big bad Heat, Cuban received emails titled thank you, rather than the traditional congratulations. What does that tell you?
In New York, Indiana, Boston, and Oklahoma City he set his jaw, pinned his ears back, and essentially planted a flag at center court that said "LeBron's House.”
Look, the only people who aren't in on the NBA right now are people who don't like basketball for mostly reasons that have nothing to do with basketball. The league's product is getting back to where it was in the mid-90s. Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose (and coming soon Ricky Rubio, Kryie Irving and Anthony Davis) lead a group of young, likable stars who the mainstream accept as pitchmen on and off the court. They, along with superstars like Chris Paul, LeBron, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and even Dwight Howard, are dragging the league out of obscurity and back into prominence.
Still, that's not what is making people tune in. Everyone is a pitchperson these days, yet there has to be something more, something derisive, something dramatic. And rest assured, that something is LeBron James and the Heat, and frankly I love it.
LeBron just completed one of the best statistical postseasons EVER. A cumulative PER of 30.3, and game averages 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and my two favorite stats — .500 FG% and 42.7 MPG. That's not just spectacular, that's inhuman. For a point of comparison, Jordan's best statistical postseason was in 1993 with a PER of 30.1. Larry Legend's apex was in '84 (26.3), Magic's was in '85 (25.6), and Kobe hit his in 2009 (26.8).
It's unfair to compare James to said players because, quite frankly, he hasn't fully earned it…yet. However, what we saw this postseason was that while LeBron might not be a stone cold assassin, he might be more sadistic than I originally believed.
In New York, Indiana, Boston, and Oklahoma City he was public enemy number one. And in each of those cities, during the most pivotal points in the each of those series, he set his jaw, pinned his ears back, and essentially planted a flag at center court that said "LeBron's House.” Isn't that what they ultimate villain does — assert his will, making the other characters sympathetic? And who did that more this postseason than LeBron James?
We could argue the semantics of three superstars in the primes of their careers manipulating the system to win not one, not two, not three, etc. championships. Whether any of the multiple titles this group wins should be considered bought, or frankly whether it set off an arms race in the NBA, is irrelevant. The unassailable argument is this: James and the Heat (as much as it pains every Celtic-loving bone in my body) are spectacular for the NBA. In the end all the best theater boils down to the fray between a well-crafted villain and a well-liked hero, and right now no one’s got a better dichotomy than the NBA.
1 We are going to use the preference of sports hate, not real-I-wish-his-house-burns-down-with-him-inside-hate
2 Besides, I'm pretty sure it would be safe to suggest that the Nielson rating system is a little obsolete, as how many of you under the age of 40 still make your calls through a landline?
3 In a completely separate wedding, how many brides do you know of who would be that cool with sharing the attention on her big day like the recently betrothed Jamie Kolnick was?
Fan Hub Action
Michael T Carr May 16th
Another good article, Craig Lowell.
Charlie Lobosco May 1st
This is a very compelling story because Mr. Collins is a very passionate, tough, intelligent, athelete taking on some additional responsibliity to help others as…
Scott Cohen May 1st
Charlie.. very well said.. he does have guts
Scott Cohen May 1st
but it shouldn’t require guts. .like you said it’s nobody’s business but his own
Hisham Zameeth April 30th
best player ever…..
Kareem Musa Mayowa April 29th
We don’t need to be hopeless about the situation bryant his. Because even david villa situation also up to the level of his own to…
Maritess Lim April 28th
I still believe in KOBE’s power…… He is still the best…… He will make it possible no matter what……
mimi_aragon84 April 28th
I feel no pity for him. First of all, it is EAGLE, COLORADO, not Eagleton, secondly he enjoyed success and adulation from fans from 2003…
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