The last weekend of August was a banner weekend for track and field sprinter Noah Lyles. He took home gold at the 2023 World Athletics Championship for the 200 m which he won for the third time, as well as the 100 m for the first time. However, he arguably generated as much attention, if not more, for his comments to the press about NBA champions. He ripped players for calling themselves the 'World Champions' after winning the Finals since they're not playing for their country. Lyles' comments unsurprisingly sparked anger from NBA players such as Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Aaron Gordon, who all expressed frustration.
It's understandable to see why such a statement would draw controversy, but I believe it's worth analyzing the whole thing from both sides.
Despite being a big basketball fan, Lyles is somewhat right to a slight degree. NBA teams are not playing for the United States, but rather their team, their city, and their fanbase. When they compete, they're doing so against teams that are also from the United States with the Toronto Raptors being the one exception. Yet even the Raptors aren't representing Canada during the season. When teams win the Finals, they're doing it for the franchise: not their country.
Now with all that being said, Lyles' statements are still pretty ignorant for the most part. The NBA Finals itself is one of the biggest events in all of professional sports. It’s the ultimate goal that all NBA players dream of while playing for the biggest professional league in all of basketball. The teams who always make it have to suit up for 82 games in a regular season for a span of six months. During the playoffs, most championship teams end up playing an average of 22 games to hoist the Larry O'Brian trophy. If you're doing the math, that amounts to 104 total games during the regular season and playoffs. Championship teams like the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers, 2001 Los Angeles Lakers, and 2017 Golden State Warriors who lost only one playoff game, don't come around that often.
Winning the Finals is additionally one of the most challenging titles in sports because anything can happen in a seven game series. For both teams, momentum is so important to preserve. In a best of seven series, there are plenty of things that could change a series. A road team could steal a home court advantage and never relinquish it. Injuries might happen. Maybe a superstar breaks another team's spirit with an unbelievable performance in an elimination game.
Speakers of NBA players, the ones who do participate are some of the best athletes in the world. The Finals is the greatest stage for them to showcase their talents to an audience that has been more global in recent years. Players' legacies in particular, revolve around championships a lot more compared to other athletes. When you look at the game's greats such as LeBron James and Michael Jordan, most of those guys have multiple championships on their resume.
So while it might be a tiny exaggeration for NBA players to call themselves 'World Champions', it makes sense for teams to think of themselves in that way. After all, NFL and MLB teams use this type of language when they win it all and the Finals shouldn't be an exception. For many basketball players, winning the NBA Finals is the pinnacle of all basketball. Hall of Fame coach Rudy Tomjanovich said it best: “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”