The 2012 NBA Finals Ended With A Hug

My friend Clay writes from Washington about how the Olympics are one place we seem to be able to play nicely with one another . . . I love that.

The 2012 NBA Finals ended with a hug.

In the final moments of Game 5, LeBron James, only seconds away from capturing the title that had eluded him in his first eight seasons, left his bench and walked in the direction of the Oklahoma City Thunder. At midcourt, just in front of the scorer’s table, a triumphant LeBron embraced a despondent Kevin Durant. Though the embrace was not necessarily unexpected – James and Durant are known to be friends off the court – it was probably a jarring moment for sports fans nationwide. Over the course of the NBA Playoffs, the two superstars had come to represent opposite poles: James, the leader of a super-team whose cocky demeanor made that team public enemy number one; Durant, the driving force and singular embodiment of the young, fun-loving, crowd-pleasing Thunder. Where the Heat was a contrived collaboration of stars, the Thunder was an organic collection of young talent. Even casual sports fans were roped into choosing between the Hero and the Villain.

The NBA Finals, then, was the final scene of this dramatic movie, the climactic clash of Good and Evil. The enduring image of James consoling Durant defied that chasm, reconciling two irreconcilable forces. As irresoluble as it may seem, sports fans need to embrace The Embrace. Why? James and Durant are teammates on USA’s Olympic basketball team. The very thing that brings them together now – victory – is the same force that drove them apart before. And that gold medal is not just something that they want, but something that the entire country of sports fans wants.

Sports are a zero-sum game. In order for there to be a winner, there must be a loser. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat create a perpetual divide among the population of American sports fans. A fan of one team wants his or her team to defeat all opponents and be the very best in its respective sport, meaning that for the sake of their joy, they must necessarily hope for the disappointment of the fans of all other teams. This fosters a culture of opposition that divides rather than unites sports fans across the country. The woman who cheers for the Yankees cannot marry the man who grew up a Red Sox fan. The dad who went to UNC tells his son he will not pay for tuition at Duke University. And the kid wearing the Kevin Durant jersey hopes that LeBron James has a bad game. Though those first two examples may be hyperbolic (sort of – my Tar Heel father really would not let me look at Duke), the point is the same: as much as sports bring us together, they also push us apart.

The Olympics, however, offer a unique opportunity for the American population of sports fans to transcend polarizing partisanship. I was fortunate enough to get to attend the Team USA tune-up exhibition game against Brazil in Washington, D.C. With an election on the horizon, D.C. is the home and hotbed of division, where strict allegiance to party lines has created political paralysis. But instead of opposition, this night in the capital was defined by unity. Visually, the scene was discordant: many of those in the crowd wore basketball jerseys representing their respective cities. But audibly, it was undeniably American: U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

The Olympic Games are underway. Until August 12 when they conclude, pride in one’s city has been replaced by pride in one’s nation; millions of opposing cheers have become one united voice, and team colors play second fiddle to the red, white, and blue blood that runs in us all. That is something every sports lover, LeBron James and Kevin Durant fans alike, can root for.

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