Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and the NBA’s banana boat.

It’s Your Duty as an NBA Fan to Obsess Over Whether Players Are Friends

It’s Your Duty as an NBA Fan to Obsess Over Whether Players Are Friends

The stadium scene.
Aug. 7 2017 5:55 AM

The NBA Is One Big Banana Boat

It’s your duty as a basketball fan to obsess over whether players are friends.

Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23
Kyrie Irving and LeBron James look pretty chummy here, but that was before Irving laughed at Steph Curry’s LeBron impression.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The most recent viral Steph Curry video features nary a basketball. The footage was filmed at the wedding of Curry’s former Golden State teammate Harrison Barnes, and it shows the Warriors guard on the dance floor executing a spot-on impersonation of LeBron James’ post–head-shaving workout video (which James posted right after Curry and the Warriors knocked him out of the NBA Finals). To make this tasty morsel of hot goss even more delicious, Kyrie Irving can be seen standing next to Curry, and the Cavaliers star is absolutely reveling in the mockery of his teammate.

For lovers of NBA drama, this was like watching Neil Armstrong bounce down from the lunar module. Not since Shaquille O’Neal’s “Kobe, Tell Me How My Ass Tastes” freestyle has there been such crystal-clear evidence of superstar teammate discord. Kyrie had just requested a trade away from Cleveland. LeBron tweeted to deny reports that he wanted to “beat [Kyrie’s] ass.” Kyrie apparently unfollowed @kingjames on Instagram.

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While this may all seem like frivolous high school drama, there’s good reason for fans to obsess over these cafeteria-table social dynamics. With modern NBA stars now having the power to eject themselves from one franchise and catapult into another, friendships have become the astral maps we use to navigate the league’s near future. We now sift through Instagram likes like frenzied Old West prospectors, searching for clues as to who’s friendly with whom.

When LeBron set off for Miami in 2010, he left Cleveland in part because he wanted to play with his friends. When Kevin Durant departed Oklahoma City for Golden State in 2016, he obliterated his friendship with Russell Westbrook—or maybe, heaven forbid, they were never really friends at all. And before it became public that Irving wanted off the Cavaliers, the point guard reportedly tried to provoke a trade between the Bulls and Cavs so he could join his buddy Jimmy Butler in Chicago. Before that could happen, the Bulls traded Butler to the Timberwolves, and now Butler is in a position to lobby Minnesota’s front office to make a move for Irving. From one perspective, these are multimillionaires deciding the futures of teams worth billions of dollars. From another, this is, “Can Kyrie come over and play?”

Cross-team friendships used to be a touchy subject. Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas were once so close that they kissed each other on the cheek before Game 1 of the 1988 Finals. (Had Twitter been around for that event, the ensuing memes would have been so beautiful and consequential that our finest museums would be fighting for the right to display them in their respective modern wings.) It was a rare public show of camaraderie, one that infuriated and disgusted Lakers coach Pat Riley. Riley pulled his star player aside and told him he had to prove to his teammates that he wasn’t soft. Early in Game 2, Magic dutifully shoved Isiah to the ground.

Their friendship began to fracture during that series, post-kiss. In 1991, after Magic announced he’d been diagnosed with HIV, the Lakers star caught wind that Thomas had allegedly been spreading rumors around the NBA that he was gay. While league insiders knew all about this saga, it wasn’t made public until 2009, when Magic detailed the ups and downs of his relationship with Isiah in the book When the Game Was Ours.

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Back then, concealing these kinds of personal dramas wasn’t that hard. Social media didn’t exist, and the papers mostly stuck to covering the games themselves. With our eyes focused between the lines, we mostly bought the illusion Riley and others were selling us—that every player on every team hated everyone who wore a different uniform. Michael Jordan went still further: He was such a fierce competitor that he wasn’t satisfied with merely being mean to opponents—he had to harangue and punch his teammates as well.

Kobe Bryant, forever the Donovan to Jordan’s Bob Dylan, took this act to its extreme endpoint. Bryant, who once called Derek Fisher his “all-time favorite teammate,” didn’t invite Fisher (or any of his other teammates) to his wedding. Kobe relished the fact that he had no friends on the Lakers or any other team. In the introduction to Caron Butler’s book, Bryant proudly wrote that Butler was one of only four players he so much as “got along with” during his decadeslong career.

The Mamba, though, is a modern-day exception. When Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City to join the Warriors, the scandal was that he’d broken up his partnership with Russell Westbrook via text. When Westbrook wore a photographer’s neon press bib before a game—a shot at Durant, who is a photography hobbyist—basketball Twitter came down with a gnarly case of the vapors. The two remained estranged until the 2017 All-Star Game, when both were selected to represent the Western Conference. The weekend was awkward and tense—they practiced on opposite sides of the gym—but when it came time to ball, the two hooked up for a sweet alley-oop, which they followed with a friendly dap. It sent the crowd and the bench into a giddy frenzy, and it proved to be the only memorable thing from that exhibition game. According to a former teammate, Westbrook and Durant are now buddies once more.

Had all this happened 20 years ago, long before the days when cupcake photos were sharable on social media, fans would have had no idea about the Ballad of KD and Russ—perhaps we wouldn’t have even thought to care about it in the first place. Thanks to Instagram vacation photos and Snapchat updates from offseason weddings, we now have access into players’ daily lives, and that access has changed how we think about the NBA. And to be sure, star athletes are surely friendlier with each other now than they were in the ’80s and ’90s. Today’s NBA All-Stars came up playing with and against each other on elite Amateur Athletic Union teams. Stars also share agents, play together on Team USA, and go to China on joint trips to promote their shoe brands. The world gets pretty small, pretty fast when you’re one of the best 50 basketball players alive.

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In the era of the superteam, these relationships are more important than ever. It seems like ages ago, but when LeBron went to South Beach, he received a bunch of criticism for wanting to play basketball with a bunch of dudes he enjoyed spending time with. Years of lone-wolf fetishization had programmed us to think this was a sin. (Ironically, one of the people who benefited most from LeBron’s dedication to his buddies was Pat Riley, president of the Heat.) But Miami’s success, coupled with the daily photographic evidence that NBA friendships are ubiquitous and normal, rewired our brains. We all chortled at the famous 2015 photo of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul straddling a fruit-shaped watercraft while on vacation in the Bahamas. And then, two seconds after we stopped laughing about the banana boat, and we started doing the frenzied cap space calculus to figure out which teams could realistically sign all those guys at once. (This number-crunching is still going on, by the way.

The NBA is a small fraternity of very talented, very wealthy young men who share odd work hours and frenetic travel itineraries. Kudos to them for finding the time to spend time together, be they on oddly-proportioned-yet-seaworthy vessels or on dry land. While Charles Oakley may choke me out for saying so, these friendships add a human dimension to the sport. As anyone who has ever had a work friend can tell you, work friends make life better, and studies show they make you better at your job. Why shouldn’t NBA players get to enjoy the simple pleasure of playing on the same teams as their buddies? The “no friends” thing was always performative bullshit, anyway. 

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check out Harrison Barnes’ Instagram to see if Kyrie has liked any of his honeymoon photos.

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Nick Greene is a Chicago-born writer who currently lives in Oakland, California. Follow him on Twitter.