The NFL is frequently derided as the "No Fun League", a commentary on its attitude toward any act of play self-expression. But this certainly hasn't hurt its bottom line. In 1969, the Stooges recorded the proto-punk stomper "No Fun", an anthem that proclaimed it okay to think things sucked.
The NBA, on the other hand, is nothing without its fun.
No one enjoyed the NFL lockout, but it was at least a battle we could believe in. The NBA has no bone-crunching sense of risk to it, no such yawning gap between the grunts and the shareholding gods up in their luxury boxes. The lockout isn't a necessary evil; its downright alien.
Wake us up when the season, with its streaking scorers and pinpoint passers, starts up again. See, the NFL could stand a labor battle because it just feels like class warfare. Linemen gnash their teeth in the trenches and give up their bodies. Hard workers getting screwed by The Man. Pro basketball in America is a celebration, even at its most cut-throat and competitive. Without fun, it's hard to remember what exactly both sides are fighting over.
That's why, in a way, this summer of scorched earth ultimatums and idle grandstanding has had at least one upside to it: Some of the league's premier talents have, for lack of a better word, gotten their groove back. There are players—Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett immediately spring to mind—whose enjoyment of the game, and its appeal to us, could only occasionally be described as fun (unless your definition of the word is "sadism"). But for others, it's the lifeblood of their brand.
LeBron James. He could easily have been last season's MVP. Yet the major difference between Cleveland LeBron and much of his 2010-11 campaign was a lack of fun: for him, for us, and for anyone who felt compelled to make him must-watch basketball. Meanwhile, Derrick Rose, whose game was like a non-stop amusement park ride, and whose fresh-faced persona came with precious little baggage, was sitting right there to give fans their fun fix.
Whenever you hear the NBA described as "entertainers", or the league as "entertainment", the reaction need not always be violent backlash. If the players aren't entertaining themselves—and us—it's likely they aren't playing up their peak, feeling it in their bones, and really uncorking all their respective games have to offer. There's no reason that competition and entertainment have to be mutually exclusive. In the NBA, they're often inseparable.
Kevin Durant is the perfect example of this, sometimes to such an extent that he seems to have it both ways. Durant is praised for his Kobe-like intensity, and as a competitor, he's hard to match. However, KD also just loves the game, as his summer tour demonstrated. His summer tour was about honing his craft, but also putting on a show, getting out there and reminding fans what he was all about. Dominant, but sly; bad-assed, but fully aware of what it means to be a performer, not just a producer.
Actually, the heel-like image cultivated by KG or Kobe falls under this same rubric. It's the dark side, while Durant makes us feel that basketball was sent to this planet to make us feel good. Notably, LeBron has been trying to get in on the phone, but his is a far more complicated, and steep, battle.
There are a few other guys who, this summer, have upped their fun quotient at a time when their careers desperately needed it. John Wall, in particular, has been all over the place—maybe as much as anyone save Durant—and in the process, reminded fan why he was seen as a franchise talent coming out of college. The league has plenty of impressive young point guards, but Wall is absurdly gifted, something like an unholy combination of Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, and baking soda and vinegar poured down a running garbage disposal. His woeful Wizards were scarcely noticed last season, garnering the most attention early on as they tried to figure out what to do with Gilbert Arenas.
Wall is a trooper, sure, but he's also a one-man spectacle. That's the game he needs to play to uplift the Wizards, inspire fans, and terrify opponents. That's also true for JaVale McGee, the elastic goofball big man who should be a major part of Wall's insurgent Wiz, and DeMarcus Cousins, his former Kentucky teammate whose exuberance is matched only by his temper.
McGee and Cousins have been highly visible this summer. So has Carmelo Anthony, who before the Knicks, always played with a smile, and Brandon Jennings, the Bucks guard whose dramatic flare and eye-popping game have failed to translate directly to the pros.
The lockout will end, eventually, and fun in basketball form will return. The silver lining of these wicked, wicked months is that, when it does, some of the NBA's most compelling young talents will have reminded us, and themselves, just why they caught our attention to begin with. Feeling like Wall's about to light up the league is one of those things that can keep us contented as the lockout drones on.