Premise for a science-fiction movie: Send hundreds of young athletes into the teeth of a pandemic, where they will live inside bubbles, compete in a sport that requires them to sweat and breathe on one another in pursuit of prizes.
What could go wrong with a real-life version of the Hunger Games?
Turns out, nothing.
The strangest basketball season ever is over, and the combatants have returned to a version of normal life that may seem less normal than their recent, cloistered existence.
The 2020 season will be remembered as that time basketball survived the coronavirus, which is accurate but inadequate. In 2020, our professional basketball leagues became the best possible versions of American life.
They inflated their bubbles in Florida, perhaps our worst-run and most infected state, and, through some combination of inspired leadership and personal discipline, thrived.
They performed with class and without complaint. They spoke against racism and institutional brutality, proving for once and ever that athletes dribble just as well when they refuse to shut up.
They provided hours of high-level entertainment and intrigue to those of us who have spent this year stuck on our couches.
So before memories of this strange summer of hoops fade, we should give thanks.
Thanks to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for their good-hearted and on-point leadership. They kept their players safe and encouraged their activism.
Thanks to the athletes for destroying negative stereotypes about basketball players, whether they were racially motivated or a different form of idiocy.
Thanks to WNBA players who shrugged off sexism from those who don’t realize that the women’s league is mimicking the growth of the men’s league, which not too long ago was airing its Finals games late at night on tape-delay.
And thanks to LeBron James, who may or may not be the greatest male basketball player who ever lived, but who is in the process of building a résumé that makes any arguments against him feel like the work of trolls.
Two players rose above all others in the Florida bubbles: Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm and James. Both led their teams to championships. Both could at some point be regarded as the best to ever play the game.
Stewart has played four seasons in the WNBA, missing the 2019 season because of injury. At 26, she has won two league titles, one league MVP award and two Finals MVP awards.
She won four national titles at Connecticut and four tournament Most Outstanding Player awards and three times was named national player of the year. Her résumé resembles Maya Moore’s.
James’ hints at Michael Jordan’s. At 35, if James remains healthy, he likely will become the NBA’s all-time scoring leader. He probably will finish somewhere around No. 3 all time in assists. He has won four titles with three franchises.
He has taken teams to the NBA Finals in nine of the past 10 years, including a few that might have had trouble winning in the G League without him.
And while racists were telling him to “Shut up and dribble,” he used his platform to champion social justice.
I don’t know how to compare athletes from different eras, but I know this much: James is the best possible superstar athlete for the times in which we live.
Jordan avoided activism because it might hurt his shoe sales. James has lived under a microscope since he started high school, and the microscope has revealed him to be a dedicated family man, a workaholic basketball player, and a dominant scorer known for his unselfishness on the court.
His only real flaw is, as a 6-8, 250-pound, fat-free dynamo with immense shooting range and a coach’s brain, he can make the game look too easy — even while leading a new team to a title in a bubble while speaking truth to power.
Appreciate him and Stewart, and their union brothers and sisters, and everyone who helped basketball become our most admirable sport during this strange, cloistered season.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org