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Issue 17 Out Now

"Ring Culture"

Kevin Durant celebrating his first NBA Championship in June of 2017. (Photo by: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Championships in the sport of NBA basketball have become quite toxic. The entire dialogue and culture surrounding the sport predates the modern era but now more than ever, it’s as if any superstar player that doesn’t win a championship, is a failure.

Charles Barkley is a prime example of how “Rings Culture’’ has sucked the life of what it means to have had a successful NBA career. At six feet four inches tall Barkley was undersized for his position but thrived in an era where front court players at his position ranged anywhere between six feet ten inches to seven feet tall and above. For a career, Barkley averaged 22.1 points per game while grabbing 11.7 rebounds. The Phoenix Suns haven’t reached an NBA Finals berth since Barkley last laced them up for the franchise before they ultimately fell to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls like most superstars of the 90s era. Barkley never got back to the finals after the 1993 season, His job now is to analyze NBA games on TNT Inside the NBA along with Shaquille O’Neil, a four-time champion who isn’t shy to let Barkley know he never won anything whenever they disagree on a topic, so that makes him disqualified to comment.

In today’s game pundits and critics surrounding the sport is at an all-time high. Debate shows like ESPN First Take that features the biggest media personality on the planet in Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman, and Molly Querim-Rose. Their weekday morning competitors at Fox sports Undisputed personalities are Skip Bayless who’s maybe the creator of the genre dating back to his ESPN days, and former NFL legend and Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe, a man that spent his career giving a seminar on the art of trash talking. Each show takes turns holding superstar players to inconceivable expectations. Holding them to unreasonable standards.

Smith and Bayless are good friends, former co-workers, the flip side of the same coin. In their world championships are the only thing that truly defines a career. Bayless has targeted LeBron James for years, placing blame for playoff losses solely on the shoulder of a man since his first stint in Cleveland. Sports fans that watch the show become influenced by the very same rhetoric and in return players are left with very few choices. James heard how he would never be viewed as great as Michael Jordan while having similar if not better numbers until he captured a championship. James kick-started the player empowerment movement in the NBA I’m 2010 when he elected to head to Miami and team up with star player Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.

James’ decision was met with harsh pushback from former players, critics, and fans that burned his jersey claiming he took the easy way out. Six years later Kevin Durant did one even better when he joined the very same team that beat him in the conference finals, the Golden State Warriors. At the time Smith called Durant’s decision, “ the weakest move he has ever seen from a superstar. Max Kellerman has religiously called James Harden a choke artist for failing to get the Rockets to the NBA Finals, despite him leaving it all on the floor during the regular season in an era where superstars like to take games off for rest. For four of Harden prime years, he fell short to the greatest team of that era in the Warriors who had several star players on their roster, meanwhile by the end of the rival series between the two teams, one can see that Harden was the lone star going up against a juggernaut. Like Kellerman, fans are often quick to use the “choke” label on stars.

The very same fans and pundits who criticize players for coming up short and “choking”, are the first people to complain when the star players take their careers into their own hands by teaming up. As if Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and so on won those championships alone. For every Magic Johnson there was a Kareem Abdul -Jabbar, for every Larry Bird there was a Kevin Mchale and Robert Parrish, for every Michael Jordan there was a Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. There has never been a superstar player other than possibly, Hakeem Olajuwon and Dirk Nowitzki who has ever been the lone star on a championship team.

Besides, why does winning a championship validate a career? I’m pretty sure when most of the players or even amateurs picked up a ball their focus wasn’t primarily on winning a championship. It was just the pure love of the game. That’s where their adoration stemmed from. For some players making it out of their circumstances to the NBA, while giving back to their community is their NBA championship.

Recently Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook put up video game numbers on the court against the Indiana Pacers when he registered 35 points, 21 assists, and 14 rebounds. Not even 24 hours later Stephen Smith is on the airwaves stating “Westbrook’s numbers last night mean absolutely nothing to me because, even though that’s great numbers, that’s what Westbrook can do. Smith proceeded to mention how when it mattered most Westbrook hasn’t delivered and is ringless.

If you’ve followed Westbrook throughout his 13-year career then you’ll know he’s never one to stay quiet. He responded to Smith’s criticism. “A championship doesn’t change my life. I’m happy. I was a champion once I made it to the NBA. I grew up in the streets. I’m a champion. I don’t have to be an NBA champion. I know many people that got NBA championships that are miserable, haven’t done anything for their community, haven’t done nothing for the people in our world. And for me, man, my legacy, as I mentioned before, is not based on what I do on this court. I’m not gonna play basketball my whole life. My legacy is what I do off the floor, how many people I’m able to impact and inspire along my journey, man. That’s how I keep my head down and keep pushing because it’s very important that you don’t let the negativity seep in because it’s been like that my whole career, honestly. There’s no other player that kinda takes the heat that I take constantly.

You see the thing about “Rings Culture” is that it’s created by media critics, pundits, and fans that have no idea what it takes to even reach the level of some of the very same players they’re constantly criticizing. Their standard for what makes someone a champion is outdated and needs revision. The players are in a lose-lose situation. Either they take a chance and stick with an organization that’s not so great or aren’t a great market to attract better players to win but rides it out like so many players have done in the past that never win, or they leave taking their careers in the own hands to create “Super-Teams”.

The unrealistic expectations set upon players are ridiculous why not look towards the billionaire owners and multi-million dollar front office who put the team together. Rings Culture has become toxic for sports because not everyone views success the same. It’s about time we get back to enjoying the pure artistry of the game instead of putting expectations that fans and media never reached in their own lives, on players.

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