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There’s Only One Basketball

The superteam platitude you’re about to hate

Getty Images
Getty Images

In the eight days since Kevin Durant announced that he was signing with the Warriors to form a superteam by the Bay, crush any/all prospective challengers, make Oklahoma babes cry, etc., we have learned a lot of things: about the Thunder, about undeniability, and about the ripple effect in the NBA. Add to this an earth-shattering revelation about the sport from James Harden: There’s only one basketball.

“Obviously the Warriors are a really good team,” Harden explained to reporters this week, “… but there’s only one basketball.”

Only one basketball? I’m confused. Like, just one? Not two? Can anyone tell me more?

“I love the idea that this move might make the Warriors the best team ever,” writes Mike Lupica, for Sports On Earth, about the new Golden State lineup. “Well, yeah, but only if they change the rules about playing with just one basketball.”

Or there’s this, from Cleveland.com, on how the new-look Dubs will compare to LeBron James’s Cavaliers: “You can tell yourself — as some Cavs fans have done in the last 24 hours — that there’s only one basketball.”

Hmm. This all seems pretty complex. Still not sure I get it, vis-à-vis the quantity of basketballs in play.

“And how Kevin Durant fits into that — how he’s accepted by the two-time MVP Steph Curry and his whole crew — is going to be absolutely fascinating,” says Andrea Kremer, on NPR, of the people who are going to play the sport of basketball, which traditionally involves just a single orange ball, “’cause remember, as they say, there’s only one basketball to go around.”

Do they say this? Well: “But it’s only one basketball.”

The expression has been used in reference to Kentucky. The 2001 Lakers. The 2015 Lakers. USA Basketball. The Bulls. The (hypothetical) Knicks.

The idea — and bear with me here; it’s rather complicated — is that on a basketball court, during a basketball game, there is only one basketball with which to play. So, when you have not one, not two, but several players who would like to touch said basketball, you run into a problem: Only one can do it at a time! In the game of basketball, great players cannot have their own basketballs simply because they are great. They must share the lone basketball available to them — and wrest it from the clammy hands of the opposing basketball team — and do what they can with just the one.

If that seems obvious to you, that’s because, well, it is obvious. In the saying’s defense, it does hint at a slightly more complicated theory: Having extra superstars — e.g. adding Durant to the greatest regular-season team in NBA history — might not actually improve an already great team all that much. The difference between having no superstars and having one superstar is huge. Surely the difference between one star and two is smaller, and the gap between two and three must be more marginal still.

The phrase has been deployed, unsurprisingly, to discuss other so-called superteams: It was used by the Wall Street Journal in analysis of the 2012 Heat, which later won the championship (“[Mario Chalmers] plays with three high-scoring superstars, but there is only one basketball”), and the 2016 Cavaliers (“There’s only one basketball on the floor”), which did the same.

For as long as balls have been dribbled, kicked, punted, thrown, and bounced, we have had clichés to describe them. Now that we have a new kind of team — one that makes most of the superteams of yore look like, I don’t know, the kind of squad that might use two basketballs — it’s only fair that we have a new cliché with which to discuss it.