Lance Stephenson and the façade of sports fandom

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Sports fans are strange. We’re drawn to organized competition that takes skill, strategy and execution to decide who is the best. But sports fans aren’t interested in skill, strategy and execution. Instead it is the reality TV moments that get the most attention. We care more about calling out floppers and deciding what is the right way to build a team rather than the Spurs’ perfect pocket posses and vision through traps. And that’s weird.

There are plenty of reasons to watch sports. You can follow a favorite player or a hometown team. You have an emotional investment in a player or team. You can root against a player or team – nothing brings people together like a common hatred. Sports can bring you a sense of belonging.

But I enjoy figuring out the why in sports. What makes the Pacers defense so good, or where does it struggle? Why does the Spurs offense seem crafted to specifically beat the Heat’s high-pressure defense?

Hell when I watch tennis I find myself paying attention to second serve positioning and how frequently players hit to the opponent’s backhand.

That’s what I love about sports. How and why plays happen. The skill, strategy and execution – or lack thereof – leading to victory. That’s why I am confused by the amount of attention all the extracurricular stuff gets. (Is LeBron James really an all-time great if he cramps up in the Finals, instead of how the Spurs dominated once LeBron left the game.)

All of that brings me to Lance Stephenson. Who the hell cares if he blows in LeBron James’ ear? It is hilarious, a made-for-Twitter moment. But somehow that was a top story. And don’t go blaming ESPN for blowing things out of proportion. They give you what you want. ESPN wouldn’t be around if the majority of the sports fan population was disgusted with ESPN’s coverage. (Looking at you hockey-only fans.)

This is what you want. Easy narratives. Black and white characters. Who is the bad guy, the thug? Who is our hero that does things the right way?

Well, life and the NBA aren’t taking place in a Disney movie. There are grey areas. Those same villains on the court have likely given more to charity than those calling them thugs. But that’s all easily ignored because, "LOOK AT HIS SALARY. HE BETTER BE GIVING TO CHARITIES!" We want easy narratives. Anything that complicates them is dismissed.

This has made Stephenson’s free agency a bigger question mark than it should be. Instead of focusing on Stephenson improving his stats in Eastern Conference Finals compared to the regular season – points, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, assists and turnovers all improved. We are worried about his antics. "Don’t give LeBron and Dwyane Wade more motivation by talking trash!"

Does it matter that he is stealing rebounds from teammates in search of a triple double? Who does that bother, his teammates? I hope they aren’t mad at someone going after a rebound with aggressiveness.

Rebounding the ball is a good thing. It doesn’t matter who on the team gets the board. If any Pacer is mad at Stephenson for stealing a rebound then he is just as preoccupied with personal stats as Stephenson.

I’d rather know why Stephenson, despite being lauded as a freight train on the fast break, struggled in transition – 277th most efficient, per Synergy Sports – or why his isolations went from 1.9 per game in the regular season to 4.8 per game in the Eastern Conference Finals. (He was a tad more efficient, .95 PPP vs .97 PPP, in the ECF too.)

But in the end Stephenson isn’t being solely judged on his basketball abilities, which could cost him money and help the Pacers retain him.

So can we talk about what Stephenson does within the game of basketball and not the assumptions that come with the head case label? And for all sports can we talk about what actually leads to winning and losing and not the tru TV-esque non drama?

GIF from this YouTube video of Stephenson's triple-double against OKC,

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