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2021 NBA Playoffs and the Memes It’s Wrought

by Wyatt Camery

Features editor

[originally published June 2021]


It’s been over a year since the now three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert shut down the league, and while play has recently pushed closer to normal, this year’s NBA Playoffs have been quite a strange one. The playoffs started with a Play-In Tournament, four games that would determine the 7th and 8th seeds in the Eastern and Western Conferences. The NBA implemented the Play-In Tournament (after approval from the Board of Governors, who voted unanimously in favor of it) this year due to the COVID-shortened season, to add more basketball action. The tournament was ultimately met with some backlash from players such LeBron James of the LA Lakers and Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks, whose teams faced being damned to the purgatory of the Play-In games, which are categorized neither as regular season or playoff games. James’ Lakers did end up playing in a Play-In game, beating Stephen Curry and the Warriors 103-100, meaning they’d play the 2nd seeded Phoenix Suns in the playoffs. For the first time in 30 years, the 7th seed (LA) was favored over the 2nd seed (Phoenix). Alas, the Suns took the series four games to two. This meant the first first-round exit for James, making him 15-1 all-time in the first round (pretty damn good) and providing fodder for his haters and Jordan stans. With James, Curry, and their respective teams’ elimination, the 2021 Finals “will [...] be the first Finals since 1998 to not feature either the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, or San Antonio Spurs; and the first since 1998 to not feature either LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, or Kobe Bryant,” according to Wikipedia. It “will [also] be the first since 2014 to not include Andre Iguodala, who played in the past six finals with the Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat.”Finally, the Lakers and Miami Heat, both 2020 NBA finalists, were eliminated in the first round, which is the third time overall and the first since 2007 that this has happened.

Along with the journey into post-pandemic territory, this year marks a significant shift in the feeling of the NBA. I will never declare James’ career dead or even dying, but for my entire life, he has been the most dominant figure, along with Curry, Duncan, O’Neal, and Bryant. A new era is dawning on the NBA: not only would one of the final four franchises (Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks, the Suns, and LA Clippers) have ended droughts of epic proportions, but one of four major star players would have won their first career ring, Chris Paul (and Devin Booker) of the Suns, Paul George of the Clippers, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks, and Trae Young (not yet a major star, but certainly a quickly rising one) of the Hawks. The Bucks haven’t won in 50 years, the Hawks haven’t in 63 years, which was back when they were in St. Louis, the Suns haven’t ever won but were last in finals in 1993, and Clips have never been this far in the playoffs. With the Bucks and Suns battling it out in the Finals, Paul and Antetokounmpo have the chance to add some serious hardware to their shelves (and fingers) and help bring the first championship of the century to their respective franchises.

Other goings-ons in the playoffs? The New York Knicks (my New York Knicks) finished 4th in the East, making their first playoff appearance since 2013, which is when I was in 7th grade. I could write the rest of the article about this, but I’m going to do my best to exhibit self-control (plus, we lost in the first-round to the Hawks, who kept rolling until the Bucks threw their brakes on.) The Philadelphia 76ers finished 1st in the East, en route to completing the fabled “process” that their center Joel Embiid implored us to have trust in, oh, so many years ago. Sadly for Philly, they lost in the second round to, you guessed it, the Atlanta Hawks in seven games. On the other side of the country, the Utah Jazz sat comfortably atop the Western Conference as the winningest team in the NBA. The Jazz, in my eyes, are a fairly likeable, homegrown team in a non-major market city, whose season ended prematurely as they lost in six games to the Clippers in the second round. Also in the Rocky Mountains, this season’s MVP, Nikola Jokić, couldn’t lead his 3rd seeded Denver Nuggets past the seemingly unstoppable force of Suns, who completely swept them in the Conference Semifinals. Moving back to the East, the Brooklyn Nets assembled arguably the greatest superteam, or a team with the most star power, of all-time, lead by Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving (with former all-star reserves including Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan). The Nets lost to the Bucks in seven games in the Conference Semifinals (despite Durant’s playoff-record setting 48-point Game 7 and all-time performance in Game 5), largely due to injuries, although I think a team with this level of talent should do no less than win the championship.

In fact, the main story this year, other than all these up and coming teams making it deep in the playoffs, has been injuries. A record 10 All-Stars (plus one of last year’s All-Stars, Trae Young) have missed a game due to injury this playoffs. Many are discussing whether there should be an asterisk next to the name of the team who wins this year’s Finals, which will absolutely not happen, but the general understanding is that, as the New York Times recently said, “The [Larry O’Brien Championship] trophy may go to the healthiest team — as opposed to the best.” Indeed, many aspects of this season have been more than atypical, which has surely taken a toll on both the players’ and staff’s physical and mental health. The season, condensed to 72 (as opposed to 82) games into just under five months (as opposed to the usual six months), began only 72 days after the Lakers won the 2020 Championship in the Bubble, which marked the end of another taxing season. Most arenas did not have spectators until vaccine rollout picked up in February and March, and many games had to be rescheduled due to COVID protocol. I don’t think there will be an asterisk because if the NBA didn’t put an asterisk next to the Lakers name last year, they certainly wouldn’t do that to the champions of this more normal season (besides, I agree with LeBron James’ assertion that playing in last year’s bubble was in fact more difficult than a typical NBA season.)

So, who will reach the mountaintop at the end of this “tainted” season? The Suns are a pretty promising pick, considering they’re up two games to one against the Bucks at the time of writing this article. Lead by core three of Devin Booker, a rising all time scoring threat, Chris Paul, easily one of the greatest point guards of all-time, only missing a ring to his name, and DeAndre Ayton, the 2018 first overall pick in the NBA draft and up and coming star big man, the Suns finished last in the Western Conference for three consecutive seasons from 2016-2019. The Bucks have been Finals hopefuls for the past three seasons and finally have the opportunity to prove they are truly the best in the league. Either way, no player on either team has won a championship before, which is the first time since 1971 when the Bucks won their last championship, and as you read this, you probably know the outcome of the Finals. Most notably, the 37-year streak (dating back to 1984!) of one of Shaquille O’Neal’s teammates being in the Finals has come to an end. It’s a new era in the NBA.

Look, I’ll be honest, I have a hard time following sports very closely while I’m at Oberlin. Typically I’d be tuning in to many of these games, but I’ve mainly caught highlights from some of them (don’t worry, I watched all the Knicks games), including the end of Hawks-Bucks Game 1 on my friend’s phone at Long Island Night. The main way I manage to keep up with professional sports is through the many pages I follow on Facebook and have followed since I was in middle school. These pages include ESPN, Bleacher Report, the official NBA page, as well as a couple New York sports outlets (plus the occasional New York Times post). The pages I follow also include meme pages and lesser known sports sites, such as NBA Memes and Basketball Forever. I have noticed the birth and rise to popularity of a meme that satirizes the relationship between the NBA and CBA, the Chinese Basketball Association. Such memes have targeted players who underperform, particularly in big moments like the playoffs. This year, the meme blew up after Ben Simmons’ poor shooting performance in the second round against the Hawks. Other players who have fallen victim to the meme include Joe Harris of the Nets, Kyle Kuzma and Dennis Schröder of the Lakers, Rudy Gobert of the Jazz, and Kristaps Porzingis of the Mavericks, and even my beloved Julius Randle of the Knicks. The memes take many forms, most notably altered Wikipedia pages that show these players on team rosters of the Shanghai Sharks or Beijing Ducks. The memes also frequently predict dominant careers for these current players in the CBA, portraying them as all-time greats, such as Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.

China has only produced 6 NBA players, the most famous being Yao Ming, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame, who only played eight seasons in the NBA (following five in the CBA) for the Houston Rockets, two more than the next most by a Chinese player. Yao Ming’s unprecedented arrival in the US ignited a wave of basketball fandom in China. Prior to this, former league commissioner David Stern, hailed for his efforts to globalize the NBA, got CCTV to air NBA games in China in the 1980s. Starting in 1994, every NBA Finals series has aired in China. But Yao’s entrance into the league skyrocketed in popularity and today the NBA is China’s most popular sports league. A few games per season are even played in China. Many NBA players have played in the CBA, including stars such as Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Jeremy Lin, Gilbert Arenas, Tracy McGrady, Stephon Marbury, Metta Sandiford-Artest (formerly Metta World Peace, born Ron Artest), Jimmer Fredette, and Michael Beasley (strangely all of whom except for Arenas have played for the Knicks). The NBA objectively has the best crop of basketball talent of any professional league in the world. This means that when foreign born players enter the NBA, they are typically superstars in their country of origin, but may not necessarily be stars in the US, while, on the flip side, NBA players who play overseas are almost destined to thrive. In fact, NBA exports in China experience a basketball “culture clash.” They bring a high scoring, individualistic style of play to the less physical, more team-oriented approach of CBA teams. According to Reuters, “the CBA is ultimately a training ground for players in a state-run sports system focused on increasing China’s success in international competition,” and “selfish” NBA players who come to the CBA to dominate face backlash as they hinder the development of Chinese players.

In October 2019, when he was the GM for the Rockets, a franchise with a particularly close relationship with China due to Yao’s tenure there, current 76ers President Daryl Morey tweeted a logo supporting Hong Kong protestors. This sparked great controversy, as the NBA is seemingly subservient to China as their relationship has developed since Yao’s arrival. LeBron James, Ohio and NBA legend, frequently outspoken about social injustices, shockingly censured Morey’s actions, saying that he “wasn’t educated” and “misinformed.” James and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, whose diplomatic statement on the issue neither supported or admonished Morey, were likely so adamant about shushing Morey because China is a major market for the NBA. The relationship between the NBA, its players, and China is tight. Players have major endorsements and the NBA has massive TV deals there, all of which amounts to billions of dollars.

I would hate to make trouble where there isn’t, but along with the recently strained relationship between the NBA and China, I can’t help but point out the history of animosity between Black Americans and Asian-American people. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Chinese Americans, and members of the AAPI community in general, have experienced an uptick in violent hate crimes committed against them. There certainly have been moments of Black and Asian solidarity in the US, including right now, but historically, in addition to discrimination faced from white people on the outside, members of these two groups have frequently shared hostility for each. Although the NBA was not initially integrated (interestingly, Japanese-American Wataru Misaka became the first non-white player in 1950 for the Knicks), it currently has the highest Black representation, in fanbase (45%) and players (74.2%), of any of the major sports leagues in the US. And with a 54% non-white fanbase, making it the only league with a majority non-white fanbase, the fans creating the memes are more likely to be non-white than white, but are very unlikely to be of Asian descent. Many YouTube users have made humorous videos in the past couple weeks about the “potential” Shanghai Sharks roster, particularly honing in on the question of if they can go “82-0” (an impossible-to-achieve perfect NBA season), using simulations by the NBA 2K video game.

I don’t think these memes are inherently racist, or at least I don’t think people see them as actively racist. The point of them is to make fun of star players for underperforming. The side effect is that they boast the superiority of American players at the sport, which is objectively true based on any basketball metric. But the issue with the memes is not only that they simultaneously poke fun at the skill set of Chinese players, but that the majority of American exports to China are Black, which may just play into a greater context of both real and oft stereotyped Black-Asian contention. Should these memes be “cancelled” then? That is tough. I wish someone with a louder voice than I have in the basketball world would make this point so people become aware of the potentially problematic nature of the memes. If I’m not just speculating, and if they are hurting people or actively perpetuating a culture of hate and division, then I would doubly hope more people would discuss this issue. The basketball world, the most diverse of any sport within the US, has portrayed earnest care for social justice and change, so I am curious why no one has spoken up about these memes. While on the surface, these memes seem innocuous and in good humor, placed in the context of a league that seems to be outspoken against instances of social injustice and general bigotry, they are a small but ripe-for-the-picking an opportunity for the NBA to redeem its stance on the People’s Republic of China.

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