You never like to preface your work with a disclaimer that it’s dumb and unimportant, but sometimes the surrounding context and cultural conversation gives you no choice. This piece, in which I’ve gone to great lengths to examine each NBA team and find its analogue in the Disney library, was a bit ridiculous when I first set out to write it. After the momentous real life events of the past week, it feels laughably absurd.
When the Milwaukee Bucks decided to forfeit Game 5 of their first round series against Orlando in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, they could not have known how far the echoes of their protest would ring. The other four teams scheduled to play that day quickly opted out of their games as well, as did teams playing for the WNBA, MLS, MLB, and even tennis player Naomi Osaka. The NHL, as usual, arrived a day late and a dollop of sincerity short. But the message was clear. Athletes were unwilling to be a source of distraction while the Black community continued to face an emergency that showed no sign of getting better.
For a few hours it seemed like “The Bubble” really had burst, and the season might once again be over. Then the players made the collective, if reportedly contentious, decision to return to play. They were able to earn a few more action-oriented concessions from the league and the team owners, but the real goal was always to bring awareness to the systemic, international issue of racism. To keep the volume turned up on a conversation that only finally became mainstream this past June.
The fact that NBA players were the leaders here is unsurprising. While helmeted sports like hockey and football stifle the individuality of their athletes, reducing them to just another body on a rink or a field, basketball players are uniquely empowered both by how visible their faces are and the outsized impact one superstar can have on any given game. We get to appreciate not just their otherworldly talents but their personalities, their charisma, the kind of people they are.
In 2020 the NBA’s cast of characters is a more vibrant tapestry than ever: we’ve got the regal authority of LeBron James, Jimmy Butler’s ultimate alpha energy, the Mr. Congeniality duo of Tacko Fall and Marcus Smart. There are players with something to prove, players with legacies to cement, teams full of young underdogs, teams comprised entirely of wiley veterans. Watching the first few weeks of games played in the Disney Bubble, it wasn’t difficult for my brain, shaped as it was in my formative years through repetitively watching Disney movies, to search for correlations between all of these real life narratives and the classic tales upon which the Bubble’s Magic Kingdom backdrop was built: the Cinderella story, the boy who never grew up, the hero trying to prove he belongs up on Mount Olympus.
It was a fun thought exercise, but real world events quickly disabused me of the notion that life could ever be anything like a Disney movie; that good would always conquer evil, that there would even always be clearly visible lines between the two. Life doesn’t take place in any kind of bubble. Its actual circumstances are often much darker, more cynical.
But what the NBA Players accomplished last week signalled that it’s still possible, in 2020, to let your conscience be your guide. As a group, they were willing to walk away from significant sums of money, from a chance at personal glory, in order to advocate for Black rights. Ultimately they chose to stay and play, to be a symbol of Black strength.
The playoffs have since resumed, and sports media is once again churning out their regular opinion pieces, analyzing stats, and predicting winners. I don’t have the knowledge or skill to do any of those things, but I can recognize a good story, and the NBA is brimming with them.
“I do not make films primarily for children,” Walt Disney himself once said. “I make them for the child in all of us, whether we be six or sixty. Call the child ‘innocence.’ The worst of us is not without innocence, although buried deeply it might be. In my work I try to reach and speak to that innocence, showing it the fun and joy of living; showing it that laughter is healthy; showing it that the human species… is still reaching for the stars.”
Gone, But Not Forgotten
Brooklyn Nets = Sleeping Beauty
childless years drafts in which all of their top picks went to Boston, King Stefan and Queen Leah The Brooklyn Nets welcomed a daughter marquee free agents, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.”
The Nets were swept out of the playoffs by the Toronto Raptors in the first round, and rather unceremoniously at that. Considering they spent the season without either of their biggest signings from last summer, they had already exceeded expectations just by making it to the dance. Both Irving and Durant sustained injuries that were slightly more serious than a brush with a spinning wheel but thankfully their prognosis is also less daunting than “eternal sleep”. If both stars are able to return to form and actually play next year, and new hire Steve Nash is able to have even half the impact as a head coach as he did during his Hall of Fame playing career, the Nets will be a potent force in the East, and the Kingdom of Brooklyn just might live happily ever after.
Philadelphia 76ers = WALL-E
Look away 76ers fans, because I’m calling your team– another first round sweep victim– a planet of trash. “The Process” (the team’s recent rebuilding effort that basically amounted to tanking for draft picks) may have seemed like an advanced 29th century way of running a basketball team but rampant losing created a wasteland culture akin to the one that the titular adorable emotive robot spent multiple lifetimes cleaning up. The emergence of talent like Ben Simmons and Joel Embid may have seemed like an indication of life but this latest loss proved that the team has a long way to go before their environment can be considered hospitable to playoff life.
Indiana Pacers = Peter Pan
Five seasons in a row without progressing past the first round of the playoffs (and being swept three of those times) makes Indiana The Boy who Never Grew Up. Certainly health has been a factor, especially where their stars are concerned, and they had the misfortune of running into the LeBron James Cavaliers more than once. But if they want to live somewhere other than Neverland, they’re going to need something stronger than pixie dust.
Portland Trailblazers = Cinderella
Referring to any team as “a Cinderella story” is one of the biggest clichés in sports, but, you know, if the shoe fits. (I personally try to buy my clichés in bulk.) After securing the 8th seed in the West, Portland seemed poised for a real fairytale run. Their star Damian Lillard had reached spectacular new heights, averaging nearly 40 points in his first ten games in the Bubble. Carmelo Anthony was playing exactly like some fairy godmother had waved her wand at him and transformed him from a player who couldn’t find a team that wanted him anywhere to a dependable scoring option. After they defeated the Lakers in Game 1 of their playoff series, Charles Barkley theatrically took out a broom on national TV and predicted a sweep. This declaration soon proved hilariously premature. The clock struck midnight and the Blazers proceeded to lose four games straight, turning into a pumpkin once again.
Orlando Magic = Aladdin
Already an eighth seed and missing most of their best players to injury (Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Issac, Michael Carter Williams, Mo Bamba) going into the playoffs the Magic certainly looked like the basketball equivalent of a street urchin. That they were able to show up in game one of the first round and beat the reigning MVP by a convincing 12 points was clearly the work of a powerful genie. Spoiler alert, but Aladdin’s prince persona was eventually exposed as fraudulent, and Orlando ultimately was as well, despite a valiant effort from Nicola Vucevic and a surprising step forward from Markelle Fultz. Hopefully they’ve held on to their magic lamp and can still make future wishes.
Oklahoma City Thunder = Toy Story
He’ll probably never say this, but when Chris Paul was traded by the Rockets to the Thunder last year along with two first round draft picks and two future pick swaps, he for sure felt like poor Woody did on Andy’s birthday, when a flashy new toy all but replaced him. (It doesn’t help that Russell Westbrook, the Buzz Lightyear in this scenario, absolutely believes that he is an actual superhero capable of flight, but that is a metaphor for another time.) 14 months ago it looked like OKC was in total tear-down mode, and Chris Paul was destined for the donation box. But after duelling the team that supposedly had all the laser simulations and karate chop action that they lacked, and Chris Paul got to show everyone that even if he’s an old-fashioned toy, he can certainly still play ball.
Dallas Mavericks = The Sword In The Stone
When Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas’ most legendary player, began the precipitous decline that awaits all professional athletes and which ended with his 2019 retirement, it looked like the franchise might be left in the Dark Ages. Then Luka Doncic announced his arrival, albeit with a string of triple-doubles in lieu of a theatrical removal of a sword from a stone, and Dallas knew they’d found their rightful king.
Utah Jazz = Cars
Donovan Mitchell is Lightning McQueen, that’s just an inarguable fact. Even if he’s two years removed from being a true “rookie sensation” he shares the anthropomorphic stock car’s signature bursts of speed and brashness. And he definitely also shares McQueen’s ambition to get out of his small market and make it to LA. Will he ever learn to slow down and appreciate the simpler things in life, like his animated counterpart did when he accidentally detoured to the sleepy town Radiator Springs? Honestly probably not, but that’s fine, because the lesson of Cars is very sweet but a bit impractical for a human professional athlete who likely does value actual victories over moral ones.
Still In This
Denver Nuggets = Monsters University
Much like Mike and Sulley, who once dreamed of being “scarers” only to be denied opportunities by the gatekeepers in their industry, up until these playoffs Denver’s Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic were rarely acknowledged as the superstars they so obviously had the potential to be. In fact, before his performance in game five against Utah, critics might have literally cited Murray’s “lack of scariness” as a reason to pick against the Nuggets, and Jokic’s notoriously lazy defence belongs to exactly the kind of character who gets voiced by John Goodman. Both players have a lot of work to do before they can hope to make it to Monsters Inc / beat the Clippers in the second round.
Houston Rockets = The Fox and the Hound 2
Full disclosure that I have in fact never seen The Fox and the Hound 2, released as it was directly to DVD during my teenage years, when I considered myself well above any movie that involved hand-drawn animals. But I’m going to insist that this fits, because for the previous seven years Russell Westbrook and James Harden were basically living out the first movie: two best friends forced to consider themselves natural enemies after Oklahoma City traded Harden to Houston in one of the most transcendently terrible trades in NBA history. This season though, they’ve been reunited, and while Wikipedia tells me that the plot of The Fox and the Hound 2 involves– a troop of singing dogs? Who somehow perform in front of a talent scout from the Grand Ole Oprey? Truly, this movie sounds insane– still, the ultimate lesson about the importance of playing in harmony applies perfectly to this team.
Los Angeles Clippers = Robin Hood
Maybe it’s an overstatement to claim that a team owned by billionaire Steve Balmer is in any way “robbing from the rich to give to the poor” but my interpretation is that their mission involves more of a spiritual theft. Throughout the Clippers’ entire existence they have played second fiddle to the hegemonic LA Lakers. Sharing an arena with one of the most storied franchises in all of professional sports means they are forced to play their home games beneath 16 Lakers championship banners– it has been a life as downtrodden as the poor townsfolk of Nottingham. Now, with the arrival of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George– shooters at least as accurate with the ball as Robin Hood is with a bow & arrow– the Clippers finally have a legitimate chance to overthrow their local tyrants.
Miami Heat = The Incredibles
If I’m remembering this movie that I last saw fifteen years ago correctly, the premise is that public opinion has turned against superheroes, to the point that they are forced to participate in a Superhero Relocation Program. If you’ve been following along with sports media narratives over the past year, I think it’s fair to say that veteran NBA players Jimmy Butler and Andre Igoudala have each experienced their share of public disfavor, and have also “relocated” to Miami. Here, they’ve worked with fellow vets like Goran Dragic and Jae Crowder to establish a winning culture based on discipline and unselfish shooting, which are pretty solid superpowers. I acknowledge that this is a stretch worthy of a reach-in foul. Sorry. It’s the best I could do.
Toronto Raptors = Up
Raptors fans will insist that being abandoned by Kawhi Leonard in free agency last summer did not make them anywhere near as sad as the first ten minutes of Up, but this, friends, is some blatant revisionist history. They were devastated. They were invested to the point of tracking the Raptors’ plane as it moved between Toronto and LA, and stalking the hotel where their GM was holding meetings– these are not the actions of a fanbase that can claim they felt only mild disappointment when their best player chose to defect. And who could blame them for their misery? They had been allowed to celebrate their championship for a measly two weeks when the ESPN talking heads began tossing out predictions that they would finish this season outside the playoffs, that it was time to rebuild. But just like the curmudgeonly Carl learns that life still contains possibilities for adventure even after his beloved Ellie dies, the Raptors have discovered that they’re capable of achieving the second seed in the East and going on extended playoff runs, even without their former superstar (who is, frankly, a bit curmudgeonly himself).
Milwaukee Bucks = Frozen
A supernaturally gifted young person, branded a “freak”, discovers the extent of their powers in a cold northern climate. There might not be as many young girls clamoring to dress up as 6’11” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo for Halloween as there are wishing to be Princess Elsa, but otherwise their life stories are pretty much exactly the same. A Giannis dunk is roughly as chill-inducing as a full-bellied rendition of Let It Go. And presumably, the cold has never bothered either of them, anyway.
Los Angeles Lakers = Hercules
The early days of isolation were tough on all of us, but perhaps uniquely so for LeBron James. Sure, he remained a superfamous, well-connected half-billionaire ensconced with his lovely family in their Brentwood mansion, but every Sunday night for five weeks in the spring he was forced to endure two hours of a propaganda film seeking to cement Michael Jordan’s status as the GOAT and shut down the debate that had begun to swell in recent years over whether LeBron might actually assume the title yet. When The Last Dance was airing, the NBA was still shut down, so LeBron was unable to offer any rebuttal to all of the newly evangelized Jordan supporters who had hours of his highlights fresh in their minds. Now, in the bubble, he faces a Herculean task: to prove that he is no mere mortal with godlike strength, that he deserves his rightful place on Mount Olympus among the gods.
Boston Celtics = The Lion King
Is it a demonstration of unscrupulous bias to pick the most iconic and commercially successful Disney film of all time to represent my favorite team? Probably, but I am unrepentant about it. The Celtic’s 2018/2019 season was bleak. Led by mercurial superstar Kyrie Irving, we were living in a landscape as ravaged as Scar’s Pride Rock. The team didn’t come halfway to meeting its potential, the development of our young stars was brutally stunted, and it often seemed like not a single person was having any fun. No offense to Kyrie, who seems like a decent, thoughtful person off the court, even if he demonstrates atrocious leadership on it, but his departure combined with the arrival of Kemba “Pure Sunshine” Walker (a nickname that has not caught on despite my best efforts) was as transformative for this team as the rain that resolved the drought in the Pridelands. Now Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart can play with a much more Hakuna Matata style. It’s the circle of life. They just can’t wait to be king.
2 thoughts on “The Most Basketball Place On Earth”
I’m reasonably confident I’ve never read as much about basketball in one sitting as I have today and that’s sayin’ something Ainsley. Walt Disney himself as well as every NBA player going would love this piece! And, please no more apologies for melding gravely important issues with bright and hopeful writing. That is precisely what you were despatched to Earth to do and you’re clearly executing your orders with grace and passion. (P.S. Delightful bit of legerdemain with the striked-through phrases.)
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Thank you so much for taking the time to read through this hard hitting piece of sports journalism! That you found it to be bright and hopeful definitely relieves me of some of the doubts I had while writing it. I recently learned that Walt Disney originally intended his EPCOT theme park to be something of a utopian community, in which he would solve all of the problems he saw in urbanization. I don’t know if the NBA bubble is exactly what he pictured, but I like to think he’d be pleased that his vision finally came to fruition.