The lament, however, is foolish. The Cavaliers need to face off against the Warriors like Rocky needed Ivan Drago, like Prince needed Michael Jackson, like Daniel LaRusso needed Cobra Kai’s Johnny Lawrence. The Warriors, soon to move to a state-of-the-art waterfront facility in San Francisco, play with a phlegmatic tech-guru elan and appetite for disruption. The Cavaliers, out of blue-collar Cleveland, look proudly backward at an unfashionable Jordan-era brand of superstar-centric basketball and wear uniforms with the Goodyear logo emblazoned on their shoulders. The two teams define not only their sport, but our national character. The matchup is nothing less than a clash between America’s two halves.
Once, the NBA was defined by a different rivalry. Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers represented the 1980s’ headlong rush into post-modernity and the colonization of public life by entertainment. Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics, their diametric opposite, played in an arena that opened its doors in the final days of the Coolidge administration. Their fans’ “Celtic Pride” slogan implicitly drew on the working-class spirit of both Boston and Bird’s native French Lick, Indiana.
An adjacent duality lies at the core of American life-and professional basketball-today. “I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, ‘Make America Great Again,’ was looking backwards.” With this gaffe, Hillary Clinton was talking about more than just the 2016 presidential campaign. She was talking about the Warriors-the team of California, the team of the tech world, the team of China. And she was implicitly rebuking the Cavaliers, owned by the mercurial, Donald Trump-supporting mortgage billionaire Dan Gilbert and, in red-state fashion, dependent on a single benefactor for their viability.
But it’s too pat to say that the Warriors and the Cavaliers represent Clintonites and Trumpians, or even just blue and red America. The divide between the teams transcends our degraded partisan politics. At any rate, it’s a given that nearly everyone in the NBA opposes Trump himself-the Warriors declined to visit the White House after the 2017 championship, and LeBron James just today stated the obvious, saying "I know no matter who wins this series, no one wants an invite anyway." The difference is more philosophical: Warriors People are Hamiltonians, or Whigs. The Warriors are the team of the city, the future, the brass ring and the green light at the end of the dock. Cavaliers People are Jeffersonian Democrats of the first vintage: staunch individualists, loyal to home and hearth, resolute in their belief that a lone act of heroism can triumph over the abstract forces of economics and technology that are reshaping the globe. There are Warriors People and Cavaliers People who have never seen a game of basketball. There are Warriors People and Cavaliers People who, through circumstance, root for the opposite team.
Americans should embrace the opportunity to pit these two spirits against each other in healthy, harmless competition-and we should be aware of the rare value in such a dichotomy. In other sports, championship matchups are little more than provincial squabbles. This isn’t New England and Philadelphia, or Las Vegas and Washington, or even Pusha T and Drake. The difference between the Cavaliers and the Warriors isn’t on a jersey, or on the scoreboard. It’s in our nation’s soul.
“The truth is, we’re not really a basketball team. In this day and age, we’re much more than that. We’re a sports, media, and technology entity.”
So said Warriors owner and venture capitalist Joe Lacob, as quoted by Erik Malinowski in the 2017 book Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History, which details how the team integrated itself with the tech world on its path to dominance. The quote is an almost too-perfect example of the Silicon Valley era’s vaguely monopolistic mission creep-the imperative for films to become franchises, for websites to become media networks, for your personal life to become a brand.
And in Lacob’s case, it worked. Malinowski recounts the painstaking amounts of research the Warriors organization conducted in order to prepare the team to “ship,” in tech parlance, right down to rebuilding the players’ sleep schedules. Lacob boasted about the team being “light years ahead” of its competition in a 2016 New York Times Magazine profile that tempted fate (and the derision of his fellow owners).
The Warriors’ cross-pollination with the tech world isn’t limited to just ownership and management. Durant, the team’s star forward, has invested in a handful of Silicon Valley startups under the mentorship of angel investor Ron Conway, following the lead of his teammates in Curry and Tesla investor Andre Iguodala. Durant’s investment company has $50 million invested in Lime, the scooter rental company that has colonized the sidewalks of urban America over the past few months. The Warriors, in short, are winners: blessed by talent, and the sagacity of their ownership, and their proximity to America’s futurist oligarchs.
Cleveland, for its charms, is not a city where those oligarchs’ dreams are hatched. Durant, who signed with the Warriors for the 2016-17 season after failing to win a championship in Oklahoma City, was enticed to the Bay Area by both the team’s dynastic potential and the chance to position himself as a mogul. In the 1990s, during the age of Netscape Navigator, Shaquille O’Neal signed with the Los Angeles Lakers to become a Hollywood movie star and a rapper, not just a basketball player. Twenty years later, the internet has transformed the dreams of the NBA’s strivers. Now they want to be venture capitalists.
Durant’s and James’ dueling visions of the Good Life, at least as far as their most recent free agency decisions are concerned, are equally valid. In joining the Warriors, Durant not only realized his own ambition to reign as NBA champion, but he also played the key role in creating a team that some say has “broken basketball.” The Warriors’ greatness has forced rival players and managers to rethink the sport itself. To gaze on that reinvention triumphantly is the reward for risking it all and leaving one’s past in the hope of remaking the world. When LeBron, in contrast, returned to the then-cellar-dwelling Cavaliers in 2014, he made the announcement with a heartfelt (if ghostwritten) Sports Illustrated essay in which he recounted his Akron childhood and his desire to raise his family in his hometown. James’ goal wasn’t the reinvention of an entire sport, or even of himself. It was to reconnect with what gave him his character in the first place, and to bring a long-starved-for championship home.
James, of course, had to return only because he had already left. His much-derided, excessively publicized and televised “Decision” in 2010 to abandon his hometown Cavaliers-and their People-and form a pioneering superteam in Miami with fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh brought him more than his share of criticism. It also brought him two out of his three NBA championships. Even so, LeBron’s Miami interregnum was different from Durant’s defection to the Warriors. The new “Big Three” in Miami were creating something out of whole cloth, a superteam where none had existed.
Durant, on the other hand, joined a championship squad that had just vanquished his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, in a pitched seven-game series. Basketball traditionalists reacted as if Durant had committed light treason.
But it’s well-understood that millennials in the workplace are a more collaborative generation than any before them. It was only sensible from Durant’s perspective to pool his resources with his most talented peers, if only to better the odds of disrupting the field in the way the Warriors undoubtedly have. Durant’s alliance with the Warriors represents, depending on your point of view, either the meritocratic assignment of resources or the inevitable creep of the oligarchy.
Although to watch him you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, LeBron James is 33 years old. That qualifies him as a millennial, too, but in sensibility he’s something different. He prefers to surround himself with veterans like Kevin Love and Kyle Korver-players experienced enough to know their role and stay out of the King’s way. The Cavaliers’ style is markedly different from the Warriors’ crisp, fluid barrage of off-ball cuts and wide-open threes. It’s the LeBron James show. Any pretense of egalitarianism slipped for a moment after the Cavaliers’ emotional Game 1 loss last week, when James expressed his continued faith in “my players,” before quickly correcting to “teammates.” He’s a Master of the Universe with a corner office, not a corporate “team member” in a flat organization.
That’s part of what makes the underdog/overdog relationship between the two teams slippery and difficult to parse. The Warriors entered the league in their current incarnation as a Silicon Valley garage-or Harvard dorm room-startup: Curry, the undervalued hero from a nowhere school, Klay Thompson, the sharpshooting odd duck seemingly always on the verge of a trade, and Draymond Green, the mercurial avatar of basketball’s positionless future. Compared with such innovation, the Cavaliers with their reliance on James appear stodgy, the representatives of a bygone era in which do-it-all, would-be heroes like Allen Iverson dominated not only other teams, but their own.
Yet when the Warriors added Durant on their way up the NBA’s escalator they sacrificed their reputation as scrappy disrupters and, like so many of their Silicon Valley colleagues before them, transformed into oppressive monopolists. Suddenly, the David-and-Goliath story of American ingenuity turned into another tale as old as time: that of the rich getting richer, and the utopian dreams of tomorrow morphing into the nightmares of today. The reloaded Warriors represent the power of capital to lure young talent, enticing Durant to sacrifice his beloved status in Oklahoma and sublimate himself to an already-great coastal monolith.
To compare the Cavaliers with such a phenomenon, then, is to automatically invite sympathy. The Warriors are the meritocracy par excellence, forcing basketball fans to question baseline assumptions about the nature of competition, but in Cleveland we can seize on one figure in his agony and ecstasy. LeBron James, it’s fair to say, really has Made Basketball Great Again through his Olympian struggle to an eighth consecutive Finals appearance. And he’s doing it for, you might say, the forgotten fan.
The recurring Celtics/Lakers matchup meant something profound about the America of the 1980s. The rivalry between the Warriors and Cavaliers means something equally if not moreso about today. Our national allegiance to the underdog may mean that few are willing to proudly admit their spiritual allegiance as Warriors People, but they are out there, and they are as necessary to our collective welfare as their hardscrabble brethren. Warriors People built the space program, MTV, the personal computer. Cavaliers people keep our nation’s infrastructure running, feed its hungry mouths, and teach its schoolkids about Sister Carrie and Tom Joad alike. We need each other as sure as the day needs the night, or as Klay Thompson needs his chocolate milk.
It’s been difficult for the past several years, to say the least, for America’s warring political tribes to see each other as anything more than a caricature-“complicit” at best, treasonous at worst. That’s why we need a symbolic conflict like the Warriors/Cavs rivalry. It’s a lot easier to understand why Durant would want to go from Seat Pleasant, Maryland, to Silicon Valley, or why James, looking down from the vertiginous peak of his celebrity, would want to get back in touch with his roots, than it is to understand why our neighbors vote the way they do. And understanding the value system that motivates our neighbors is the first step toward understanding the actions they take.
So if we end up in this same place next June, think before you complain. We may gaze into a LeBron and Curry-shaped abyss for the better part of a decade, but it gazes back. And to meet that gaze could be more useful than you think, as part of the messy, communal process of learning to live with-if not necessarily to love-the Warrior or the Cavalier in your, and the nation’s, life.