If “Hollywood is high school with money,” in the famous assertion of actor Martin Mull, then the NBA is even-higher school: high school with height (and, of course, money). Everyone’s too tall to be stuffed in a locker, the couture backpacks are too tiny to hold books, and the hair buns aren’t just for the lunch ladies. But the league is still unmistakably high school, with its cliques, feuds and frenemies, all of it amplified on Instagram.
And so the student body returns this month to what we might call, with apologies to the Ramones, Pick-and-Roll High School. The kids can look back on a long Summer of Subtweeting, of public passive-aggression on social media, of epic breakups and intensifying BFFs. The NBA offseason is now nearly as entertaining as the NBA onseason. Anyone in the halls asking “How was your summer?” is in for an earful.
Did you hear, for instance, that just after All-Star forward Gordon Hayward left the Jazz to sign with the Celtics, one of his jilted teammates in Utah, Rudy Gobert, posted video of himself on Instagram nodding along to “Loyal” by Chris Brown (of all people)? The song laments the lack of, shall we say, fidelity in a relationship. Gobert never mentioned Hayward by name, but he didn’t have to. At 7'1", with a 7'9" wingspan, Gobert can throw shade simply by standing in the sun—though in this case he was sitting in a car, presumably while doing donuts in the student parking lot.
Meanwhile, the homecoming King, LeBron James, was down in the weight room, posting his own workout video, getting swole and dancing to a Meek Mill track. Shortly after Stephen Curry appeared in another viral video, this one shot in the waning hours of the wedding reception for former teammate Harrison Barnes. Toasts completed, ties abandoned, dance floor teeming, Curry impersonated and gently mocked LeBron’s moves while other wedding guests looked on in delight. Curry’s Warriors had just defeated LeBron’s Cavs in the Finals, and so the wedding was also a kind of NBA senior prom, whose theme—given the presence of Kyrie Irving, James’s soon-to-be-ex-teammate in -Cleveland—might have been: Disenchantment Under the Sea.
Except that Irving is now happily ensconced in Boston, a Flat-Earther plying his trade in what Oliver Wendell Holmes called “the hub of the solar system.” (The science teacher would like to see both men after class.) Intriguingly, Irving is now paired in the Hub with Gobert’s ex, the wayward Gordon Hayward.
We should say, in light of our school’s social media and bullying policies, that almost all of this is in good fun. On important matters, players are publicly supportive of one another for the most part, as when LeBron tweeted his solidarity with Steph after Donald Trump withdrew a White House invitation that the Dubs were disinclined to accept in the first place.
As in other high schools, everyone has returned in the fall with new kicks. Kevin Durant comes back in the latest iteration of his signature shoe, the KD X, which feature a “red velvet” color scheme on the uppers and cream-frosting soles. As the Nike press kit proclaimed, “At the end of the day, winning is all that matters, and anything else is just icing on the cake.” It sounds like the banal quotation on a senior’s yearbook page but is in fact a reference—like the shoes themselves—to KD’s long-running beef with his former Thunder teammate, Russell Westbrook, who once called Durant a cupcake.
Or seemed to. Left to their own mobile devices, players never address anyone directly by name. You’ll recall that Westbrook, the 2017 MVP, Instagrammed a photo of a three-tiered tower of cupcakes on the Fourth of July in ’16, when Durant left Russ for the Warriors—cupcake being Oklahoma City locker room slang for a soft player. Durant won a title in his first season with Golden State, and was even named MVP of the Finals, after which he wore a custom-made cupcake hat to teammate JaVale McGee’s celebrity softball game. The cherry on top of the cupcake had been replaced by a golden ring. (Oh no he didn’t, you might say, but—O-M-Double-G—in fact he did.)
And that wasn’t even the end of the summer’s Cupcake Wars. To a Twitter user who asked him why he left OKC, Durant replied in the third person that he didn’t like coach Billy Donovan, the Thunder organization or the team’s lack of depth. This tweet was sent from Durant’s official Twitter account, but evidently was meant to be sent from an anonymous “burner account,” one Durant presumably uses to defend himself on social media.
To his credit, KD quickly and sincerely apologized, saying he felt terrible about the tweets. But that did not stop Joel Embiid, the Sixers’ star and joyful Twitter troll, from posting in the third person, as if making a similar mistake: “joel embiid is better than mj ever was. #facts#BurnerTwitter”.
Elsewhere, All-Star shooting guard Jimmy Butler was not referring to a Jason Bourne–like burner phone when he gave his cell number to fans and haters alike in a live press conference to tout his arrival with the Timberwolves from the Bulls. So hit him up, students, if anything is going on this Friday night, lest Butler suffer the FOMO that is so pervasive at Pick-and-Roll High, where cliques are forming and reforming every day. Ask LeBron, joined now in Cleveland by BFFs old (Dwyane Wade) and new (Isaiah Thomas).
Will all this drama play out face-to-face now, or fade into the ether? We’ll find out as the lunchroom is cleared of the cafeteria tables, revealing—at last—the gym floor, which is once again ready for its primary purpose: basketball.