Optimism And The Winding Path Of The NBA Lockout

Photo by DieselDemon on Flickr

Hope looms.

I firmly believe an end to the lockout is coming soon, though the circumstantial evidence supporting my opinion could disappear in an instant (it would only take one Paul Allen phone call). This expectation leaves me wondering what I’ll remember about the months of straining and emotional valleys that encompassed the lockout. What significance exists in a helpless community watching its greatest source of entertainment be hijacked by slow-moving bureaucracy?

The 2010 offseason was monumental in scope. Take away the movement of numerous high-profile agents, and you’re still left with the cultural catastrophe of LeBron’s “The Decision”. The Decision represented a shift in the state of NBA basketball and the narrative that possessed the 2011 season. Everything became focused around the mythology that became LeBron James’s messy exodus from Cleveland and the formation of the 2011 Miami Heat. The chances of every contender immediately became juxtaposed against what the Heat would be and what they might be. Before LeBron made his choice, the NBA was defined by questions. After the choice was made, the NBA was defined by the Heat.

I doubt it’ll be as easy to define the nature of the NBA pre and post-lockout. I’m not sure what can be learned about the NBA’s future by constantly waiting and watching and sighing. It’s an endless cycle. Tension builds up, everyone waits expectedly, and then…”We talked, some progress, no significant progress, we may or may not meet tomorrow!”

The one facet of the NBA game fans have been forced to learn about during this lockout is predictably unenjoyable: The existent business philosophy in the NBA. If you ever wondered how Robert Sarver’s ownership qualities might translate to a set of negotiations, this is the lockout for you. This is your “Michael Jordan’s final shot” of NBA sagas. But it’s more likely that you prefer actual basketball and all 0f its nuances. Even if you enjoy the seeming “drama” that goes along with high-profile negotiations, you still stand to learn very little. Negotiations like this are secret and drawn out by nature. Unless you’re in the room staring at a placid Derek Fisher, you’ll be following along blindly (until leaked reports and press conferences allow some small insight into the dilapidated process) along with the majority.

But over the last two days, dreary immovability has begun to fall away from these negotiations. Moment by moment, tweet by tweet, it’s marched towards something basketball fans have sought to avoid during the lockout: Optimism. Believing a deal would get done was far from a wise or realistic choice until the last two weeks, and even then the trope of “guarded optimism that isn’t really optimism” seemed preferable. Recent meetings, especially today’s, are starting to erode that guardedness.

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/KBergCBS/status/129737009857175552″]

Everything that was said tonight during both the NBA and NBPA press conferences quietly whispered, “Maybe we’re finally coming to the end.” Not only did the tone of these press conferences signify a complete 180-degree turn from only a week ago, in which Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher openly took shots at the NBA’s portrayal of negotiations, but it also defines how ready fans are to give into hope. I saw adamantly pessimistic NBA fans send out quietly hopeful, even expectant, tweets. It’s far easier to embrace the welcome splash of “Even we’re claiming we can do this now!” than the slow decline in enthusiasm that’s occurred over the past few months.

Basketball is inherently a game of hope, more so than any other sport. So much of basketball lies in combined individual expression, the ability to overcome both external and internal factors to portray some kind of meaningful collective success. Only recently did NBA fans begin to realize the revitalizing era of basketball we’re living in today. It’s a period of brilliant stars striving after a fall from grace, the rise of new flash, and the graceful, determined struggle of long-yearning veterans. To be in the “modern rebirth of basketball” after the last great period of the NBA (the late 90s) is something to celebrate and question while still possible. It’s rare to see a merger of three eras, superstar personality and talent, and an overall rise in the popularity of the game occur in synchronization, but that’s what 2011 could provide. There is so very much potential in 2011; it could be anything and everything for the NBA fan. The idea that such a moment could be cast asunder by the lockout strikes me as crippling, comparable to missing your favorite band as it plays one final show in the house next door. It was a slow fall off this cliff of recognition before the hand of optimism reached out and caught me, just before I hit the jagged rocks below.

In this saving hand lies what can be gleaned from this lockout and our own optimism. In truth, what did we learn about the owners and players? Very little. In many ways, their roles in labor negotiations have been self-fulfilling, similar to countless other similar negotiations.

No, the true lesson of this lockout lies in the saga of the fan. Many pundits claimed that no one cared about the NBA season in fall, that only apathy would be felt by many fans with the NFL and college basketball available as distractions. But the enthused NBA fan is a particular type of breed, one that doesn’t easily walk away from the game. Distractions aren’t very distracting because they simply aren’t the NBA. Fan outlook has been grim, sure, but it’s also been desperately attached. This attachment may delve into morose waters (and reasonably so) for any extended period of time, but it ultimately searches for a positive awakening.

That awakening has begun. Whether it’ll last is debatable; negotiations could “fall apart” in an instant, and every moment of optimism would become a lie. “We were foolish to hope. We should have seen this coming,” people will say. But they’ll be wrong. Optimism in the NBA isn’t foolish today, nor will it ever be. A positive result is within reach, and whether it’s corralled is ultimately insignificant. What matters infinitely more is that NBA fans will always be willing to make the reach.

Seth Carstens