Have Off-Court Politics Changed Cavs-Warriors Rivalry?

Scott Sargent@WFNYScottFeatured Columnist IJanuary 16, 2018

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 25: Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors exchanges a hug with LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers after the game between the two teams on December 25, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — Steph Curry heard the chorus of boos, but he also saw the T-shirts of those emitting sounds of disdain. The gathering at Quicken Loans Arena on Monday night was always going to be pro-Cleveland, especially with the Golden State Warriors in town, but on the chests of the 20,000-plus in attendance was the word "Together."

It was a succinct message that served as a reminder during the Warriors' 118-108 win over the Cavaliers that the lines may be drawn in the sand between the tipoff and final buzzer, but the night itself carried much more of a story than any one basketball game could possibly tell as two of the NBA's marquee teams held court on a day when the country was celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"It's huge to have the opportunity to amplify what sports mean in the greater context of life," Curry told B/R of having the fortune of being the prime-time matchup on MLK Day.

"Bringing people together, spreading love and togetherness. We have people from different backgrounds and all walks of life coming together to enjoy what happens on the floor. I think that's what Dr. King stood for when it come to uniting other people, supporting and encouraging each other, and at the end of the day, that's what it's all about.

"To have the opportunity to play on this day and continue to represent that and do what we can individually to live that out—to be solid human beings—I think that's important."

And solid human beings they were. While the game had its moments when it felt like the night could careen into a barrage of whistles and technical fouls, players on both sides were well-behaved when using previous contests as a benchmark for comparison.

In the two hours and 25 minutes the Cavs and Warriors were battling, nary a technical foul was issued. No mouthguards were thrown. Draymond Green's feet managed to stay on the ground—relatively speaking. What took place instead was a hard-fought game between two teams looking to square off in the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive time.

The first 24 game minutes of Monday night were markedly different than Christmas Day when both Kevin Durant and Green received technical fouls in the first quarter.

At one point midway through the first half, a mic'd up Steve Kerr was heard telling his Warriors team that while he appreciated how calm and collected they were, he could use a little more intensity as the scoreboard was much too close for his liking.

When asked about his composed behavior following the game, Green smiled, signaling he may have had a bit of a talking to before the contest.

On Monday morning, Cavaliers forward LeBron James discussed the importance of Dr. King and how he was using his teachings to help move the conversation forward in today's landscape.

James referred to the battle for racial and social equality as a marathon as compared to a sprint, noting that while he felt racism will always be a part of society, Americans should do everything in their power to keep it from dividing them. The shoes James wore on Monday were inscribed with the date July 13, 2016, paying homage to the night he stood on a stage with NBA brethren Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade in attempt to unite the sports world over the racial and social tensions specific to police brutality and an overarching feeling of distrust.

It was the same James who, just four months earlier, came to Curry's defense after U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that the Warriors were no longer invited to the White House, an annual trip typically reserved for the NBA champions.

Following President Trump's message to Curry and his teammates, James responded to the president by calling him a "bum." Later, fellow NBA greats Kobe Bryant and Paul would add their defense of Curry's beliefs, the latter of whom questioned why President Trump wasn't focused on more important things.

While NBA players compete against each other on a nightly basis, they commonly talk about the "brotherhood" that is being in the league, and no sequence of events depicted such more so than the first half of the 2017-18 NBA season.

"You have so much going on in our country, and so many of these players doing things in their communities, it's good for people to turn on the TV and see something positive going on," Kevin Durant told B/R.

"Sports bring everybody together, and you saw people in the crowd tonight who didn't know each other but came together and enjoyed this game. If we focus on that, we'll be good in the future.

"We [also] know the difference between playing basketball in the NBA and what goes on in the real world. We've all been in this league for so long, we know to separate the two. It makes us compete even harder knowing that we're getting the opportunity to play on such a special day in front of so many people. We want to honor it and do it justice by playing the best way we can play."

Warriors head coach Kerr has been one of the more outspoken coaches in the NBA as it pertains to the current political climate that has been in place since President Trump was elected in November 2016. He has referred to President Trump's words as offensive, saying his use of the term "sons of bitches" in reference to NFL players crushed him, as he told Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated.

On Monday night, it was Kerr who focused more on the positives than the divisive comments made from the highest office in the nation.

"It's a great day for the NBA," Kerr told B/R. "It's a great day for our country to commemorate Dr. King and his service to the country, and it's a great reminder of what we all need to be responsible for. Not necessarily leading a civil rights movement, but taking part as citizens, taking part in good deeds, being nice to people, showing compassion for one another.

"One of the things I'm proud of in terms of being part of the NBA and with our team and players is how much these guys do in their communities and how willing they are to speak out for social justice. It's fantastic.

"Today is a day where I think about those dynamics and the contributions our players have to society. Not comparing them to Dr. King, but understanding that they share in those ideals in their daily existence, just being nice to people and having an effect on people, is inspiring."

Prior to the game, James paid homage to King by tweeting his quote, "Our Lives Begin To End The Day We Become Silent About Things That Matter." His teammate, Channing Frye, added that the legacy and teachings of Dr. King may be just as appropriate today as they were when King was embroiled in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Curry, when discussing the rivalry between his Warriors and Cavaliers, stated the energy is palpable. The fanfare is louder, the headlines are more frequent, and the buzzworthy things that occur from morning shootaround until the final buzzer are the moments he loves. In the historical context, it is a rivalry that will not have the full story written until these windows close. It's one that, while appreciated on a night-to-night basis, will not be able to be fully grasped until there is no more.

For one night, however, while he dropped a casual 23 points on 8-of-15 shooting, Curry was able to straddle the line between being a human being as well as a basketball player—and understand the importance of his being both as a face of the NBA.

"Coach Kerr talked about it before the game," Curry said. "There's a lot of talk about right now and the things that are going on in our society—the racial tension and the social tension that's going on—you could only imagine what it was like when Dr. King was walking the Earth and doing what he was doing.

"This day is a reminder of the progress we've made but will continue to highlight the things that need to change.

"For us, we do our part by how we live our lives, how we carry ourselves and what we stand for. I think that speaks volumes more than how well we put the ball in the basket or who wears our jerseys. It's what we stand for. We talk about it a lot, but we also live it out, not just as human beings, but as basketball players."

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