The NBA Finals, starting tonight in San Antonio, will pit the kind of basketball America wants to see against the kind of basketball America says it wants to see.
On its own merits, this is a must-see series. But above that, this matchup showcases America's conflicting opinions about what it does and does not like about the NBA.
LeBron James is an individual star with unmistakable magnetism and allure that any viewer can recognize - a marquee name linked to the marquee names that preceded him in the pantheon of the NBA and popular culture. The San Antonio Spurs are a deeper team, fundamentally sound, playing the kind of game a coach would love - and they're led by Tim Duncan, who puts substance before style and has been rewarded for it with two regular-season Most Valuable Player awards and three Finals MVPs.
The league's most vociferous critics, the ones who so often set the agenda for discussion about the NBA and whose opinions seem to dictate the sport's every move, have long made their preference known for the Spurs. The voices are all over the place, in the papers, on television, on the radio shows taking phone calls and making them, and the themes never change: Individual stars have ruined the game; teamwork has been destroyed; fundamentals and discipline have been lost. The Spurs are the palatable exception and should be emulated.
James and all the hype, money and attention surrounding him, the argument continues, represent Everything That's Wrong With the NBA Today. Too young, skipped college, big shoe contract, lots of commercials, a little too hip-hop, too much entitlement. Duncan, meanwhile, played all four years of college, has great footwork, his tattoos are barely visible while in uniform and he keeps any trace of personality away from prying eyes.
The Spurs, thus, are the antidote. Who wouldn't want to support a group like that with your viewership and ad dollars, instead of the megastar and his "supporting cast"?
Lots of people, it turns out.
The TV ratings tell the same story year in and year out, since the heights of Michael Jordan's dominance. Viewers love the magnetic stars, and run and hide from the solid, disciplined, low-wattage masters of chemistry and humility. Get Jordan into the Finals and America stops what it's doing to watch. Get the Lakers, with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, and the same takes place. Now, with King James having elevated himself into that territory, nobody doubts that a lot more eyes will be looking in than otherwise.
On the other hand, get the Spurs involved, and watch the ratings fall off the cliff. This team, which NBA haters say could teach the world a thing or two about real basketball, is postseason TV poison.
The Spurs' three previous title runs are among the five lowest-rated Finals in history, including the lowest, 2003 against the New Jersey Nets. The two West finals games against the Utah Jazz over Memorial Day weekend were the lowest-rated conference finals games ever on network TV, according to the blog Sports Media Watch.
Remember from It's a Wonderful Life, how every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings? Every time Duncan banks in a short jumper in June, a network executive gets an ulcer.
But with the Cavaliers? After James' 48-point explosion against the Detroit Pistons a week ago, after scoring his team's last 25 points, including all of them in both overtimes? This series now has buzz from beginning to end.
The game after that - on a Saturday night, a ratings dungeon - was the night's highest-rated cable show and was TNT's highest-rated game of the year.
The good news is that the Finals have something for everybody, whether you anticipate the ascent of a prodigy as he carves out a unique place in the public's consciousness, or revel in the seamless chemistry and battle-toughness of the team that's going for its fourth title in nine years.
If you just love the NBA, or at least acknowledge that basketball doesn't get any better than this, than you'll be wrapped up in this series from tip-off tonight until the confetti rains down on the champions. (Who, it says here, will be the Spurs in six games.)
Selling this series to the true fans is preaching to the choir. Selling it to the rest of the national viewing audience is easier now than it would have been if James were not playing.
Discussions about the NBA have gotten more shrill with each passing year. Fault lines are all over the place - racial ones, as always, but generational and cultural as well, and no side seems in tune with the other. That's why one audience presents an ugly perception of the game's popularity, while another audience defies that perception.
This year, both sides are right. James has created a portrait of his present and future that is magical. The Spurs are building a legacy that's monumental.
This time, the legacy should win. But feel free to enjoy both sides.
For David Steele's tribute to the late Charles Johnson, go to baltimoresun.com/steelepress.