The rivalry among the NBA’s elite has spilled off the court and into an arena where athletes have historically feared to tread: high fashion. Players show up for games wearing leather pants, lensless glasses, and printed silk shirts—and that’s just Russell Westbrook. GQ’s Steve Marsh spent a week trailing basketball’s biggest names—Kevin Durant, Kobe, D-Wade, LeBron—to ﬁnd out how they’re turning the league into a runway for the world’s tallest peacocks.
Amar’e Stoudemire (forward, Team USA): The Greece game was probably the worst. People were screaming. There were police in the crowd. Carmelo turned to me at one point on the bench and said, “Man, if we don’t win this game, these Greeks are going to tear this place up.”
Once in a great while, everything comes together to create an immortal Olympic memory—lackadaisical NBA stars, bad officiating, anti-Americanism, fat Lithuanians with killer jump shots, and bad luck. Here, the shocking story of the 2004 Dream Team, in their own words.
GQ’s NBA columnist Bethlehem Shoals—who got the outcome he was rooting for all along—on the signature quote from LeBron’s post-title-clincher press conference, and what it means for the haters, the believers, and all of us in between:
“It’s about damn time” was, in a sense, ill-advised, suggesting that it had just been a matter of time. My wife grimaced when he said it. And through a certain lens, sure, it advertised a lack of humility that’s in step with a lot of the least flattering views of LeBron James. You could say the same thing about the Nike ad that aired immediately after the game; James and those invested him figured this was coming. The only question was when. Faith was never challenge, skepticism never entered the picture, and James won in the end because he was always supposed to.
What I heard, though, was that phrase reflected back on himself. When Wade spoke to the crowd, he mentioned the “embarrassment and shame” the team had felt after last year’s Finals. It wasn’t that this team felt they deserved a title or didn’t want to have to work for it. Rather, they came together to win; they were singularly engineered for this purpose. Not being able to follow through was a slap in the face and perhaps a wake-up call. I don’t suggest we feel bad for LeBron James, but he has always been in that Heat-like predicament. The pressure on him from the outset has been RINGS RINGS RINGS. “It’s about damn time.” He never publicly ran from this responsibility, at least not explicitly, and now he has finally gotten out from under a burden he willingly accepted.
This year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the summit of the wonkiest minds in sports, hardly resembled its inaugural event, in 2007, when 175 geeks gathered in classrooms on MIT’s campus to discuss their budding cottage industry. Having expanded recently to two days, and moved to a convention center in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, there were far fewer pocket protectors among the 2,200 attendees than league commissioners, team executives, and even cerebral athletes. The panels with recognizable names took place on elevated stages in spaces as vast as airplane hangars. Everyone in the audience was looking for an edge on the competition, fully aware that the next Moneyball-like, game-changing idea would probably come from someone sitting next to them.
Meanwhile, the heart of the conference still pumped through two smaller rooms at the end of a hallway, adjacent to a game area with a Pop-A-Shot. One room was devoted to research presentations. The other was reserved for a series of talks called Evolution of Sport. The EOS talks were billed as the “opportunity to present a message, an idea or a revolutionary thought that could someday change the face of sport”—TED talks for an audience fluent in ESPN. According to conference organizers, the EOS edicts were to be bold, unique, inventive, analytical, concise, respectful, curious, humorous, honest, and, most of all, inspiring. Over eighty EOS were submitted for consideration; eleven were chosen to inspire.
The only undergraduate in that group was a Stanford University senior named Muthu Alagappan. He was presenting on behalf of Ayasdi, a company run by Stanford mathematicians, whose proprietary software is used by physicians, environmentalists, and the government to understand cancer, diabetes, and oil spills. Muthu had used it to scheme the NBA.
It sure as hell wasn’t just “his night” or “hot shooting.” That level of dominance, or something approaching it, is within his reach whenever he wants it. The question is, how often and for how long, should we expect him to sustain it? How great is he, really? And isn’t he great enough without all this muck-muck?
The real question to ask, then, is what kind of championship was this, anyway? The Mavericks didn’t dominate the playoffs; they surveyed the field, found their rhythm, and simply out-performed as necessary. They consistently played as good, or slightly better, than we expected, but this wasn’t a Cinderella run. Dirk may have had one of the all-time great postseasons, and in the process, once and forever changed the way he (and other white international players who did not attend college in America) are discussed. But, as we’ve said along, Dirk’s always been nearly this good, and all this “soft” and “choking” business is only in the heads of people who need this sort of thought-lozenge to get them through the news-cycle. Maybe something to keep in mind as the vultures descend on the Heat, even if they deserve lashes and murder.
Most importantly, the Mavs were populated by names we recognized, veterans whose All-Star pasts meant that this wasn’t a team of Brian Cardinals. They had guts, but also plenty of skill left. “Veteran” wasn’t a euphemism here, and the names you knew weren’t a part of some dingy, diminished last hurrah. Shawn Marion wasn’t dead yet, just cold enough that we were pleasantly surprised when he made an impact. Rick Carlisle got the team thinking right and executing; he was served well by a roster that was neither resigned to pure grit nor able to count on raw ability. Above all else, the Mavericks solved problems. They came back from cavernous deficits because they had time to. It was the opposite of the Dirk we had been told about; it was also about the most German approach imaginable.
Prior to last week, I hadn’t given a lick of thought to what a Mavs/Heat rematch would mean. I’d said often that the Heat could mess around and win a title, but I never imagined they might do it so respectably—with a smidgen of honor, even? There’s a changing of the guard underway, perhaps, and yet neither the veteran Mavericks, nor the Heat—who haven’t really come into focus yet—really mark that turning point.
This isn’t the NBA in transition, it’s a rupture, a one-way ticket to Rod Serling’s parlor. Miami versus Dallas. What, exactly, hangs in the balance? Dirk could use a ring, but his reputation has already undergone a massive overhaul—and his legacy received a good deal of just recognition—from the run he has had so far. Jason Kidd is a Hall of Famer, and a master of his position, title or no title. Sometimes, the greats don’t get their championships. Sometimes, we hold this against them; sometimes, we don’t. Kidd is in that latter category. There’s a painful irony to Shawn Marion reaching the Finals when Steve Nash never has and likely never will, but that neither elevates Marion nor makes us think less of Nash.