The NBA is hard to encapsulate. It’s a league comprised of the best professional basketball players in the world. It’s a corporation operating on a large scale trying to sell a high-value product to the largest possible customer base at the best possible price with the highest imaginable mark-up. It’s a conglomeration of similarly run large business enterprises fighting against one another while at the same time colluding (or at least cooperating) to provide the illusion of true and honest competition.
And it’s within this framework that, every now and then, something happens, and some of the façade gets wiped away. This can be something as innocuous as a heaved 25-footer right as the buzzer sounds, a shot that did nothing to determine the outcome of the game being played and had no real impact whatsoever except to provide its shooter (in this specific case Nicolas Batum) with a triple-double and his team a double digit margin of victory.
The NBA is a league built on competition. It is also a league built on respect.
Competition is the element that's sold directly to the fans. Come to an NBA game any night of the week, and you’ll be rewarded with two elite teams battling each other for 48 minutes, as if nothing in the world is more important than ending on the winning side.
Respect is sold to fans, too, but not in the way many NBA players practice it within their highly elite fraternal order. These men are competitors, but they’re also friends. And in a very real sense they are also coworkers.
That’s why, following the Blazers’ victory over the defending Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs in the home opener at the Moda Center last Sunday, Nicolas Batum found himself sitting at his corner locker apologizing profusely—to the Spurs organization, to the Spurs as a team, to the city of San Antonio and probably even the state of Texas—for basically doing his job: scoring a basket.
It’s not so much that what Batum did was incorrect. (Following the game, one of the guys breaking down the action on the radio said it wasn’t like the final outcome was decided by Nic’s 25-foot bomb, which makes absolutely no sense because if Batum had launched a three that gave him a triple-double and his team the the win by one or two points, he would have been carried off the court on the shoulders of his teammates and maybe given the key to the city.) It's because, in the complicated ethics of the NBA, what he did was unethical.
For the purpose of clarity, NBA players are supposed to play as hard as they possibly can when the outcome of the game is in question. As soon as that outcome has been decided, they are supposed to stop. As soon as the white flag has been raised, be it by the trailing team’s coach pulling his main guys and sending in the scrubs or by the players on the floor making the decision to not foul a ball handler in the final seconds, the team with the lead has to stop trying.
Not following this protocol can get you a stern talking to. Purposely flouting this protocol for the purpose of padding your individual statistics can turn you into a laughing stock and a recurring NBA punch line—see Ricky Davis and, to a lesser extent, JaVale McGee.
Nic accidentally screwed up, which is why his apology was so adamant. And it’s really to avoid the ignominious company of Ricky Davis that he was apologizing at all.
What’s crazy is that Nic’s apology was not only expected: It was considered the exact way to deal with the situation. Even though Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, the NBA’s resident mountaintop yogi, said he didn’t care about Batum’s late three, calling the Frenchman “a good kid,” the consensus around the Blazer locker room was that contrition was the right way to go.
“He knows that was a mistake,” said newly acquired Blazer and nine-year vet Dorell Wright, “especially against a team like the Spurs, somebody that’s a well-coached, first-class organization. I played for Miami a long time so I understand respecting the game and your opponents as well.”
And that’s really the rub here: It’s not OK to disrespect your opponent, and it’s a capital crime to disrespect the San Antonio Spurs. The Miami Heat may be the two-time defending NBA Champs, but the Spurs are the best NBA team of the last decade-plus. They’re the team to beat, and the organization to emulate.
By hoisting a meaningless three, thereby giving the impression that his individual stats mattered more than allowing one of the best teams in NBA history to be dignified in defeat, Nicolas Batum was breaking one of the league’s most sacred ethical rules.
It didn’t matter that Nic’s last second three was a pretty sweet capper to a better-than-decent home opener, or that it elicited a throaty cheer from the Moda Center faithful—the same fans that would bail early only a few nights later as the kind-of-good, kind-of-bad start for the 2013-14 Blazers took a turn for the very bad against the Houston Rockets—who stuck around for the full 48 minutes of game time expecting to get the best value out of their hard-earned American dollars. What he did was wrong, and he should know never to do it again.
It probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, coming down on a guy for a momentary lapse in judgment while accidentally achieving a pretty remarkable stat line, all the while helping his team to an important victory against a good opponent. But the NBA is a weird place.