I was sitting on the couch with my dad and brother, taking part in the yearly tradition of avidly watching the NBA playoffs, when I was hit by a wave of deja vu. It was game five of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and the Cavaliers, and LeBron James was en route to score 35 points.
But as James took over the game, I couldn’t help but feel like I was back in high school, watching Jahlil Okafor and Whitney Young High School walk all over teams composed of guys whose careers would end after graduation.
I realize that for most people not from Chicago, the connection is a little confusing, so let me back up.
When I was in fifth grade, my 5th/6th grade girls basketball team made it to the city championship for the first time in school history. We, a ragtag team whose tallest player stood at a demonstrable 5’7”, had triumphed over larger and more experienced foes and reached the pinnacle of competition.
Unfortunately, the game wasn’t quite up to championship caliber, finishing with a score of about 30-6, not in favor of my Bell Blaze. The team we played was horrifyingly talented for their age — their post players were measuring in at 5’9” and their guards were completely adept at dribbling with both of their hands (a true skill at the age of 11). Honestly, thinking back on it, I’m surprised that the score wasn’t worse.
In that game we played the Beasley Academic Center, a school that went on to win all four elementary school championships that year. For reference, it’s where Derrick Rose began his illustrious Chicago basketball career.
That game was, for me, the beginning of my exposure to elite basketball at Chicago public schools, and as I got older, I began to realize more and more the disparities between the top tier and everyone else.
Chicago high school basketball has produced a sizable amount of NBA talent — from Rose to Okafor to Kevin Garnett to Anthony Davis — and many of them attended high schools like Simeon, Whitney Young, Farragut, Curie and Orr that routinely win state championships. When I was in high school, Whitney Young was the unbeatable titan of Chicago basketball, consistently beating lesser teams by margins of at least 15 points.
That type of basketball was fun to watch for a little while when I was younger, mostly because I knew I was watching peers who would later go on to play in the NBA, but when I turn on the NBA playoffs, I expect more.
I think that most of us knew that this year’s Finals would be between the Cavs and Warriors, but I expected their routes to be at least a bit more climactic. Instead of seven-game series and buzzer-beater finishes, this year’s playoffs were rife with double-digit victories and shortened series. And quite frankly, it’s simply not fun to watch LeBron and the star-studded cast of the Cavs decimate the lesser-known starters of the Celtics.
While the NBA is supposed to be the apex of skill in the world of basketball with entertaining and challenging competition between all teams, today it looks more like the mismatched teams that I watched in my younger days.
The league is undoubtedly a collection of the most talented players, but the imbalances between the conglomerations of talents on each team are undeniable. Seeing LeBron embarrass the Celtics’ defenders made me feel like I was watching a 17-year-old NBA-bound Okafor square up against guys who wouldn’t even go on to play in college.
Obviously there is no clear solution to this — throughout the history of the league there has been teams of superstars and teams of not-so-superstars. But I can’t help but think that these disparities have reached a peak.
We watch the NBA because we want to see the heightened skill and competition between the best basketball players in the world, but I can’t help but think that the rivalries that we watch it for are no longer what they used to be. If the NBA playoffs have turned into another game between Whitney Young and a school of mere mortals, are they even worth watching anymore?
Sophie Goethals covers women’s basketball. Contact her at [email protected]