Justified: Making Sense of The NBA’s Overshadowing of Sports’ most Historic Event

Photo by Darron Cummings/AP, taken from NPR.

Names are fun. For example, once Michael Jordan stepped into sports stardom he started to build a legacy; now it seems like naming your child Michael Jordan is comparative to naming your son Jesus Christ – people just don’t do such a thing. Even if your name is Michael Jordan, you would probably add a middle initial so that you could separate yourself from all the hype: i.e. Michael B. Jordan. A name like Michael is pretty common: per Social Security, the most common name 44 of the last 100 years, to be exact. “Jordan” isn’t as common, but it’s not special either. Somehow though, the two names form an imagery that is as inescapable from the human mind as Abraham Lincoln or Elvis Presley. We hear “Michael Jordan,” and we think “shoes” or “dunks” or “rings.” Maybe we think of the names that are intrinsically associated with “Michael Jordan”: “Ehlo” or “Bad Boys” or “Pippen.” Other sports stars have the same effect of imagery. Michael Phelps has the same first name as MJ and a not-uncommon last name, yet “Michael Phelps” doesn’t make us think of “Average Joe.” “Michael Phelps” makes us think “swim” or “gold” or “fish.” Names start popping into our heads immediately afterward: “Greece” and “London” and, most importantly, “Beijing.” Names, however, are only labels for people. No one thinks “Michael Jordan” and says, “I wonder why his mother named him that.” Michael Jordan could be named Joseph Lawrence and we’d still think highly of the high flying super-scorer. Horses, however, are the exact opposite. In the name of horses, names are everything.

I want you to read these names like your job depended on it. (Just pretend you’re the voice-over for a fragrance company and its sexy-time.)

Secretariat. Seabiscuit. Big Brown. American Pharoah. California Chrome. This list of horse names was not picked because they sound like fragrances. They were picked because they’re greats. The correlation is 100% coincidental. (Also, if you buy a fragrance called “Big Brown,” I think you’re in for a surprise.) Nonetheless, this is a sexy list of names. These horses took America by the hand and serenaded its minds through its TV’s, showcasing races of unimaginable magnificence by waltzing with those minds, nay, tangoing with them until they grew mouths and great lungs, searching for the source of their first sounds, scanning all of the human lexica for the perfect word until it settled on an awe-driven “Bravo.” (Dibs on naming my first racing horse “Unimaginable Magnificence.”)

When I was eight years old, on a dry, colorful Colorado spring afternoon, my mother called the family to the living room to watch the 132nd running of the Kentucky Derby. Mom had always been a lover of the horses – she took after my grandmother. The beauty of the beasts took their breath away. Humans can only “ooh” and “ahh” at the human body until hints of jealousy start to form. “I wish I looked like that.” The shape of a racing horse, however – a true, Churchill Downs worthy racing horse – can be gawked at without the taint of envy. Man can stare at horse and simply be overcome with beauty. This is what my mom loved, and this is what she wanted to pass down to her children.

Mom always rooted for the #8 posted horse and still does to this day. If you’re a true fan of the sport, you know that this post carries the prettiest of colors: pink. Mom loved pink, loves pink, and will always love pink. Names of color are also everything: the name is the color. Hearing “pink,” many think “happy” or “bright” or “girly.” Such a color would only heighten the beauty of a stallion so salient on the highest stage and animal could ever be placed. A horse’s hair highlighted by a brightness of this color creates an aesthetic so wonderful, that the horse’s muscles appear to be cut even more dramatically by the complementary sharpness of the pink. The perfect color for a Derby horse to race in, it is. So, no matter the odds, whether they be 50-1 or 6-1, Mama Skerj rooted for her #8 posted pink pony. The year of our Lord 2006 was no exception.

This is the year of which I remember as my first viewing of the Kentucky Derby. My only hearing of the word “derby” was in boy scouts when we all raced pinewood cars down a ramp. As an 8-year-old, I was very confused by the placement of the flowers in the area. Most weren’t in the ground, but instead on the tops of heads. Business suits were worn by men, but business colors were nowhere. The entire population of the stands united in song as a choir with lyrics of the old sweet southland of Kentucky. Fun, frivolous and flamboyant was Churchill Downs. My expectations were not high, nor were they low. I just sat on the ground crisscross style, listening to my mom talk about the glamor of all the horses. Especially the #8 posted stallion, Barbaro.

 

My mother may have been right that year, with those 6-1 odds placed on the head of the star-crossed champion, and in 2011 with those 50-1 odds on Mine that Bird, but neither the heart-brokenness of 2006 nor the unexpected glory of the underdog ever wavered her fandom of the Derby and its horses. Years go by, riders saddle up, and bets are made all around the table, but nothing changes through my mother’s eyes. Quite frankly, nothing changes through my eyes either. After that first Derby, I was hooked. Today, I still love the Derby, and I still love the horses. I may not always pick the same posted horse – when I pick my winner, I follow the odds and the trainers and the jockeys more than my mother – but I always stop my Saturday to watch the greatest two minutes in sports.

There is a problem with the Kentucky Derby, however. While I sat in the living room of my Midwest college apartment in a land so different than that of the Colorado lands I grew up in, my apartment was quiet. Aside from my screams rooting for the odds-on favorite Justify, (I don’t always pick the favorite – I actually usually don’t), my living room was silent. My phone was silent. My Twitter page was overcome with noise. It wasn’t noise from Churchill Downs, though. The noise came from somewhere else.

To say that no one tweeted about the Derby is preposterous. Of course, an event that has stood the test of 144 years will be a big deal, and millennials love dressing up and throwing Derby parties just as much as the older generations do. Instagram always gets the most attention on derby day, hats and drinks and suits and all, but something was a little… off, this year. Quiet-like. Ratings for the Derby this year dropped 13% from last year – the lowest they’ve been since 2012. This year’s winner, Justify, was a horse described as “a physical specimen if there ever was one,” by CBS’s Cody Benjamin, and sports journalists all over the nation compared his dominance last Saturday to that of triple crown winner American Pharoah. So why the downfall in ratings, what happened to the tango with the minds? Did the serenade simply lead to disappointment this year?

More names: Ben Simmons, The Process, LeBron James, Drake. (I refuse to call anyone a nickname they give themselves, so the former mention is in reference to Sam Hinkie’s once infamous plan rather than the ever-so-gifted seven-foot Cameroonian.) The list of names given does not totally embody what it represents, so an explanation is required. Ben Simmons represents one of the most polarizing and game-changing rookies the league has ever seen. The Process represents a year’s worth of build-up and controversy for a playoff contender whose odds were as low as that of a 38-win team. LeBron James represents royalty, greatness, and pure entertainment. Drake might represent his music, but in this case, the name “Drake” refers to Toronto’s biggest fan. The players even wear his uniforms. You might say, “Okay Brennan, this is great, but who cares? What does this have to do with 144 years of greatness?” I’ll tell you why:

Viewership of television shows always run into each other. The only exception may be the Super Bowl, where only one program can say it has trumped its success. So many shows are on at once, and with such a wide market, capitalistic competition is natural. So, one would argue that the Sixers-Celtics game three matchup that was on at the same time of the Derby was only an outlier. After all, 2017’s Derby had tremendous ratings and viewership. Here’s the problem, though. Even if this was an outlier, does that mean it has to remain an outlier? Is this the only time we’re going to see NBA games outweigh the viewers of the Derby? My answer is a straight-forward “no.” The NBA is a smart, adaptive organization, capable of pulling in new viewers and capturing young markets year after year. In 2016, the race ran into the same problem with a matchup between the Raptors and Heat but saw no problems as significant and this year’s ratings drop. However, people change and so does the NBA. Sometimes it may change too much of its game, but overall, the NBA has gotten better and better, much in part to former commissioner David Stern and his ability to televise games. This year was no exception, even with all of the marketing issues the league thought they may run into, such as the Celtics losing their biggest stars, facing an opponent whose most famous player the fans have seen in the playoffs is the sharp-shooting JJ Redick. Nonetheless, the league finds out ways to sell new face after new face after new face. They dramatize the drama and cash in on social media. Overall, this marketing has led to the NBA’s ability to steal ratings from all programs, even if it is such a historic event as the Derby.

Okay, so they took away the derby itself. Who cares? It’s a two-minute event; highlights are easy to find, and I’m sure I’ll see headlines everywhere later on. Good point, hypothetical devil’s advocate. There’s just this one little issue standing in your way. LeBron James. LeBron James LeBron James LeBron James. The Rapt… LeBron James. The King’s performance this year has been off the charts. In his 15th season, at a time in his career where he has officially played more basketball than Michael Jordan ever did in his college and professional career combined, LeBron has been flat-out unstoppable. Rosters for the Chosen One have been changed like a girl changes clothes, and not even Katy Perry’s bi-polar 2008 lover has been more inconsistent. LeBron James is the outlier to the rest of basketball’s history. Somehow, Kobe retired, the always-winning Spurs were naturally broken up, outcomes of NBA series’ and games in general became more predictable than ever, and yet the NBA biggest headlines are still lead by the same man. Bow down, everyone, The King’s reign continues. Not only is Lebron carrying Cleveland on his back, (I’m talking about the entire city, by the way) but LeBron is still pioneering, setting records all over the place. The 2016 NBA Finals game 7 of which his Andre Iguodala block was the feature set an NBA TV record, amassing 30 million viewers.

The name “Kentucky Derby” is one of those words that brings out imagery that might not even be about sports. It is one of the few sports events, alongside maybe The Master’s and The Olympics, that tells stories as you say the words. “Glory” and “fame” and “prominence” are all so profound of words, so uncommon to hear in one’s everyday life. Yet, every year, history is written anew, and memories are created by America’s minds.

So, come late Saturday night, the same day of the 144th running of the hallowed Kentucky Derby, LeBron James hit his second buzzer-beater of the series against Toronto in game three. Fans went crazy. Enemies were at a loss for words. The Raptors couldn’t do anything about him. He was unstoppable, immaculate, and straight-up impeccable. A showing of Sportscenter followed immediately after the game. They covered all things NBA and, especially, all things Cavaliers-Raptors. The coverage went on and on and on. The show aired their Top 10 that night, its famous segment of the day’s top plays. The difference this time?

Every single top play was LeBron’s buzzer beater, shown from ten different camera angles.

And not a single horse was in sight.

Photo Taken from Sport360

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