I’m not a huge basketball fan, but I am interested in this year’s NBA finals and all the storylines that come with it; LeBron returning to Cleveland, Golden State making it to the finals after declining to outbid Cleveland for Kevin Love, Mark Jackson being forced to watch Steve Kerr coach his old team in the Finals. I am genuinely interested to see if Steph Curry, the league MVP, can outduel the undisputed best player in the world, LeBron James. This is one of those Finals where I would be happy for whichever team wins. The only thing I won’t like about this series is how so many seemingly intelligent sports writers and commentators will insist on calling the winner the “World Champions”.
Just to be clear, the world basketball champion is the United States. They won that title last year when they beat Serbia in the championship game. That tournament actually got quite a bit of media coverage, particularly after Paul George suffered a horrific leg injury during a team scrimmage that generated a lot of conversation about the risks of NBA players participating in international competition. Even though many of the same journalists who cover the NBA Finals also covered the basketball World Cup, they seem to be still confused about the difference between a world championship and a league championship.
A world championship is where countries compete against one another. A league championship can have teams with players from many different countries. Last year’s NBA Finals champions, the San Antonio Spurs, had key players from the United States, the Virgin Islands, France, and Argentina. There are no trades or drafts in world championships. In world championships players don’t decide to come home like LeBron James; you either play for your home country or you don’t play at all. In leagues, players are routinely drafted, traded, released, and signed as free agents. This distinction should be pretty clear but it has proven oddly difficult for many sports journalists.
The justification for calling league champions world champions is usually that there is no other team in the world that could beat the winner, so we should therefore call them world champions. That reasoning is ridiculous on so many levels that I don’t know where to start. First of all, it is the nature of sports that you don’t get a medal or a title simply by being better than your opponent; you have to actually go out and beat the opponent.
The 2004 USA Basketball team was certainly the most talented team in the world, but they were beaten by team Argentina and had to settle for the bronze medal in the Athens Olympics. The Pistons won the NBA Finals in 2004 and I bet that there were plenty of journalists who referred to them as “World Champions” that year. If the twelve best American basketball players couldn’t beat Argentina that year, what chance would the Detroit Pistons have? Why not just go ahead and call this year’s NBA Finals champions the “Olympic Champions”? It would make no less sense than calling them “World Champions”. Most people would say that you can’t call them Olympic Champions because there was no Olympics this year, but there was no World Cup of Basketball either.
Though I am Canadian, I generally hate the intellectually lazy, reflexive USA-bashing that many Canadians frequently engage in. That being said, I can’t help but notice that the most Canadian of the four major sports leagues is the only one where nobody ever refers to the league champion as “World Champion”. In the NHL, the winning team is the Stanley Cup Champion. Winning the Stanley Cup is more than enough; you don’t need to tack anything else on. In all the other leagues the winning team is frequently referred to as world champions. It is as if NBA Champion or Super Bowl champion just doesn’t have enough prestige and the sports journalists need to go out of their way to make sure that everyone knows that the best team in their league is better than any other team in the rest of the world. That may very well be true, but the winner of the NBA Finals will not be a world champion.