Wikipedia Commons

San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker and power forward Tim Duncan, shooting guard Manu Ginobili, and NBA Commissioner David Stern.  Wikipedia Commons

Gregg Popovich doesn’t care what you think about him. The head coach of the San Antonio Spurs is famous for his stony demeanor, relentlessly curt interviews, and impeccable coaching record. In his eighteen years as a head coach (all with the Spurs), he has won the NBA championship five times, garnered three Coach of the Year Awards, and accumulated a winning percentage of 0.686—the third-highest all-time. But there is an air of levity to everything Popovich does. He toys with expectations and challenges the conventional wisdom of the NBA. So it was no surprise that, even before the regular season began a few weeks ago, Coach Pop found himself at the center of yet another controversy.

In a preseason matchup against the Phoenix Suns on October 18, the reigning champions took the court without superstars Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, and role players Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills. Even Coach Popovich didn’t make the trip to Arizona. The Spurs lost 121-90. At the end of the game, the owner of the Suns, Robert Sarver took the public address microphone and apologized for not showing “the game you paid your hard-earned money to watch” and promised to send a gift to each fan who showed up. The event mimicked a November 2012 game, when the Spurs were fined $250,000 for sitting Duncan, Ginobili, and star point guard Tony Parker during a nationally televised game against LeBron James’ Miami Heat. These incidents are emblematic of a larger discussion on the often conflicting roles of entertainment and competition in professional sports. As the regular season gets underway, it is an issue worth addressing.

Popovich was predictably flippant the day after the Phoenix game. He reminded Sarver of the facts of the case: Mills had had a shoulder operation over the summer; Splitter hadn’t played a game all preseason; Leonard was recovering from injury; and Duncan and Ginobili, 38 and 37 respectively, had just returned from a 13-day European trip. From a purely competitive standpoint, each decision was justified. The playoffs are a long ways away, Popovich argued, and the preseason simply doesn’t matter.

Perhaps. But, coupled with the 2012 fine, it’s obvious that something else is going on here. Like the game against Suns, the game was of little long-term consequence, as least for the playoffs. And while neither the preseason nor early regular season may not matter much, Coach Pop’s repeated rejection for basketball-as-spectacle clearly reveals his take on the binary between entertainment and competition.

Theoretically, the binary works like this: on the one hand, where professional sports are purely competitive, each team’s full energies would be solely devoted to winning championships — either this year or somewhere down the line. Basketball would exist independent of its fans and sponsors; in fact, neither would be necessary to the sustenance of the league. On the other end, with sport as pure entertainment, the NBA morphs into an expanded iteration of the Harlem Globetrotters. Fans pay to see basketball games as they would Broadway shows. Scripted narratives make their way into the fabric of each game. Even the result and flow of each game could follow an algorithm for maximum spectator enjoyment. Here, fans are the lifeblood of the league and the exciting unpredictable jungle of free competition ceases to be.

In reality, of course, our relationship to professional athletics falls somewhere in between these two ends. It is impossible to deny the marketization of sports—the extent to which television deals drive matchup schedules, for example, or how much money athletes make in product sponsorship as compared to their team contract. You can’t buy a basketball shoe today that isn’t designed by a Kevin Durant or a Derrick Rose, and it is truly amazing how even the in-game interviews on national television are sponsored by companies like AutoTrader.com and Kia Motors. The burgeoning world of fantasy basketball, with its disintegration of the team as the centerpiece of the athletic experience, is frightening to any fan who knew a time before it. And even a cursory glance at summer free agency—who could forget LeBron’s 2010 The Decision press conference?—reveals a media circus that borders on the absurd. The NBA makes disillusionment easy.

Coach Popovich responds to these worrisome developments. By leaving Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker at home against the Heat and accruing the substantial fine, he signals loud disapproval for the direction the sport has taken, for the exorbitance of the league today and the exaggeration of meaningless games. Technically, he had broken no rules, and the rest of the Spurs team played well, losing by a mere five points. But Commissioner David Stern’s justification of the fine is telling: “The Spurs decided to make four of their top players [swingman Danny Green also sat out] for an early-season game that was the team’s only regular-season visit to Miami. The team also did this without informing the Heat, the media, or the league office in a timely way. Under these circumstances, I have concluded that the Spurs did a disservice to the league and our fans.”

Why was this matchup so important? At the time, the Heat were the defending champions and the Spurs were perennial contenders in the West. Many believed the two teams would contend for the championship in upcoming years (they would—both in 2013 and 2014, the former won by the Heat in 7 games, the latter by the Spurs in 5.) So yes, the game, though early in the season, was a marketing gold mine for the NBA; and Gregg Popovich exposed the league’s taste for prepackaged narratives. Indeed, the concept of “disservice to the league” is odd to think about: After all, shouldn’t the NBA merely be the organizational shell that coordinates the highest level of basketball playing? Even the idea of the league as an entity in and of itself runs counter to the spirit of free competition. Popovich is right to call out the NBA for some of its faults. But while he may aim his crusade against this trend, he regrettably forgets the second part of Commissioner Stern’s rebuke: “disservice to…our fans.”

After all, sports do not and cannot exist in a vacuum. If they did, professional sports teams would play in empty high school gymnasia, and they certainly wouldn’t make as much money as they do today. And there would be nothing wrong with that: it just wouldn’t be very compelling. We follow sports because of the narratives. We welcome the rise and fall of great players, the comeback stories and the villains, the hometown heroes and the noble sidekicks. The legacies of the greats are etched in stone not only for their statistics, but also for their stories: the decades-long Chamberlain/Russell and Magic/Bird rivalries; the Batman and Robin of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen; LeBron James’ dramatic departure from and return to Cleveland. These are the reasons we come back to professional sports year after year—because every game and season seems to walk that impossible line between storybook inevitability and competitive spontaneity. Yes, there are worrisome aspects to modern professional basketball; and Gregg Popovich does everyone a service by bringing those aspects to the forefront of debate. But he might remember that Heat fans did pay their hard-earned money to see Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker take on Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James—for narrative’s sake or otherwise—and they deserve a show.