When the San Antonio Spurs won the title in the 1999 lockout-shortened season, Phil Jackson cattily referred to them as the “asterisk champions”, implying their championship was tainted because of what was omitted. They only played 50 regular-season games, unlike Phil’s guts and glory Bulls champs who endured 82 regular-season games, exhausted players, and tough matchups on the road. The Spurs were the recipient of labor strife. It gave them an advantage other champions weren’t afforded. So the asterisk was necessary to explain the circumstances. Their championship was unusual.
In 2012, the Miami Heat won the title and no one referred to them as the “asterisk champion” because they only played 66 regular-season games that year. Jackson was strangely silent after the Heat raised the trophy and had a parade because there was nothing more relevant to add to the Heat success other than the season started on Christmas Day.
A retired Phil Jackson is lounging in Montana. He has left the game but the asterisk label is alive and well now that the NBA is restarting. Like the Spurs and their 50 game schedule, the 2020 NBA champ will have survived unusual circumstances which doesn’t mean they are not deserving, or equal to other champions. But this isn’t the same old NBA thang. The 2020 champ will have time off. They won’t have to go to hostile places on the road. They are not exhausted. Calling them the champion will be accurate. But the asterisk tells the rest of the story.
No other champion has had to face such abnormal circumstances. No fans. Separated from family and friends. In a city with a spiraling virus count. As for said virus: it is non-cooperative and perhaps may ruin the season and possibly a career or two. Players will have constant temperature checks. If you leave the bubble, like Gordon Hayward and Mike Conley intend to do for the birth of their children, they will have to quarantine for 10 days before returning to their team. That will impact the Celtics and Jazz tremendously.
The social unrest in the larger world won’t subsist just because NBA players are back at work. They’ll have their loyalties divided. Messages on the jersey aren’t going to mute their emotions. How will they manage their loyalties?
As for the basketball side of things: no homecourt advantage. No cheering fans to lift teams when they are drained of energy.
Players will have to get into basketball shape in such a short period of time before the intensity of the playoffs begin. That too will be a huge challenge for those who were lazy doing the off-period. No one knows how it’s going to look when NBA players take to the court. Will it be a glorified and more dramatic pick-up game? Will it look like the NBA?
The NBA is investing millions in the restart and the players are entering an uncertain environment filled with risk. Nothing is for certain. Except. The bubble will reward the mentally tough and the physically lucky will have an advantage. Whoever can shake off the virus and shake off the isolation and shake off the surreal circumstances is poised to have a story tell about how they beat Covid, and how they beat the Lakers or Bucks or Clippers or Raptors to win a ring in a strangely unpredictable asterisk season.