There’s a very good chance your favorite story about the competitiveness of NBA basketball stars has nothing to do with lifting a trophy.
It’s Michael Jordan, one of the few athletes to become a billionaire, running over to collect $500 in a golf course bet with a heckling onlooker. It’s Larry Bird shooting a game left-handed, just to talk trash to the Portland Trail Blazers. It’s Kobe Bryant steamrolling his overmatched high school teammates in one-on-one games played to 100.
What makes the most competitive players compelling is not necessarily the number of championships they’ve won — it’s that they want to win all the time, no matter what stakes are on the line.
So why do we act like NBA championships are the only stakes that matter?
After winning the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament on Saturday, the Los Angeles Lakers announced they would hang a banner to commemorate the victory. The Lakers have 17 championship banners hanging in their arena, but this one will look different: It will be less prominent, and if the Lakers win the IST again, the franchise will add the years they win to the one they’ve already hung.
The reaction was mixed (check out the comments, if you want to wade through the muck). One of the biggest points of pride for Lakers fans, especially sharing an arena with a Clippers franchise that has yet to win a championship, is that they don’t have banners celebrating division titles or conference titles — they only hoist a banner when they win the whole enchilada.
Many fans have shared a Bryant quote to that effect: “It’s a brand thing. The Lakers stand for excellence and stand for winning. We don’t hang division banners.” Some have interpreted these words to mean Bryant, who died in 2020, would disapprove of any signifier of the In-Season Tournament hanging in the arena.
A few pushbacks: First of all, Bryant was a passionate soccer fan, the sport that gave the model for the NBA’s tournament. He was undoubtedly familiar with the concept. Second, do you think if the IST was around when Bryant was a player, he wouldn’t try to win it?
There is no question winning the NBA Finals is the hardest achievement in basketball: An 82-game regular season, then winning 16 of 28 possible games is an endurance trial that pushes teams and their greatest stars to physical and mental limits.
But treating the Larry O’Brien Trophy as some sort of sacrosanct gift handed down from the heavens ignores that until 1970, it was basically a trinket that the Boston Celtics won every year. What has given it meaning is the battles, the dynasties, the great stories of the stars who have hoisted it. No one is saying the IST will ever mean the same as the finals, but winning the IST Cup can mean something important, too — it’s not like the Lakers’ 7-0 record in tournament games was easy, either.
There is a significant political element to what the NBA is trying to achieve, and frankly I respect it. Commissioner Adam Silver has said that his focus this season is to build the NBA brand by bringing the focus back to the game itself, rather than the social media spectacle or off-court drama that tends to dominate NBA conversation (not that those things aren’t entertaining).
While the NBA considers itself the No. 2 sport in the world behind soccer, in this country, it gets pushed around by football, especially on TV ratings (Thursday Night Football has hurt NBA numbers). Like many sports leagues, the NBA is struggling with cord-cutting, and regional networks are either failing or bracing to hold on.
No, the IST’s colorful courts were not popular, but the games sure were. Viewership of IST games were up by 26% compared to last season, according to Sports Media Watch. People are talking about the NBA in a time when football usually dominates. With the biggest brand in the sport, led by its biggest star in LeBron James, winning the tournament, interest has renewed in whether the Lakers can parlay this tournament success into the playoffs next spring. Those are the kinds of conversations the league wants to be happening now, instead of waiting until April to shine.
Of course the NBA is going to have whichever team wins the IST recognize it in a meaningful way. If the league stays with it, and there are enough great games, one day in the future the IST will have its own meaning and its own lore. It would strike a blow at the stubborn traditionalists who seem to think December basketball should simply be a joyless slog with four months to go until the playoffs.
But more to the point: If you’re going to create a new tournament, even one with lower stakes than the finals, the best players are going to want to win it. In that light, it’s no surprise that James, one of the most competitive players who has ever lived, helped spur his team to the top of the IST stage, winning $500,000 per player — a paltry sum to his own billionaire bank account, but significant money to many of his teammates.
It’s not only about rings. If you give a player like James a challenge, he’ll try to rise to it.
“Records will be broken,” he said, “but one thing that will never be broken is to be the first to do something. And we’re the first champions of the In-Season Tournament, and no one can ever top that.”
That’s why we love the best players: Bragging rights always matter, no matter how big (or small) the stage is. Why shouldn’t we honor that in a way we can always remember?