Like most of us, JR Smith has a few group texts with his close friends. While he’s playing basketball, they keep an eye out for the Internet memes of the day or viral video clips, especially if they involve their unorthodox friend.
After Game 2 of the NBA Finals, they, like many others on various social media outlets, buzzed about a video showing the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Smith, teammate LeBron James and two fans who were fighting. The fracas was occurring as the two players neared the exit, and Smith pushed James away from it, placing his body between James and the fans.
“Yeah, I can’t let nobody get close to the King,” Smith said. “I’m one of his knights; that’s what I’m here for.”
So far, the NBA Finals haven’t offered much drama on the court. The Golden State Warriors won the first game by 22 points and the second game by 19. But there are moments within each game that capture the imagination of those watching. Some moments have celebrated spectacular plays, some have ridiculed poor ones, and some have taken advantage of very visible celebrities. Before the game ends, they’re clipped and shared thousands of times, perhaps paired with a witty comment. Then their subjects do their best to ignore them.
“If you let something as silly as social media affect you anyway, you’re mentally weak and it doesn’t really matter,” Smith said.
The first viral moment of these Finals involved pop star Rihanna and Warriors star forward Kevin Durant. The singer heckled Durant during the game, and Durant seemed to stare in her direction after scoring. At one point, Rihanna stood up from her courtside seat and bowed to LeBron James. After the Cavaliers’ loss, she walked by a crowd of media and declared James was “still the King” in a moment captured on videos that then went viral.
Curry was also involved in a much-shared video clip. In the third quarter he showed off his ballhandling skills, causing James to have to chase him around the court before finishing at the rim to score. That clip became a signature image from the game, ignoring the fact that James played so well he notched his eighth career Finals triple-double that night.
Eventually, the Internet circle closed with sites dissecting the play frame by frame and discovering Curry might have committed a double dribble that was not called during the play.
“We’ve become a world of ‘What have you done for me lately?’” Cavaliers forward Kevin Love said. “People will hang on one play or a couple plays and think it’s the end of the world. We’re grown men. It’s something that’s become, the good thing is good or bad, it’s on there. But at least as far as the negative stuff, it’s what we love to do. We love to tear people down.”
That isn’t limited to athletes. After Game 2, a reporter asked James if he needed to defend home court. James responded by asking the reporter, “Are you a smart guy?” Video and photos of that transcript also went viral.
Of course, if the Cavaliers don’t defend their home court during Games 3 and 4, they’ll be swept out of the Finals.
The public’s fascination with images that seem to embarrass or elevate people isn’t new, whether or not they say anything about the game. The image of Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson stepping over Lakers guard Tyronn Lue became the symbol of the Lakers’ Game 1 loss to the 76ers in the 2001 Finals. Never mind that Lue’s defense on Iverson severely limited the Hall of Fame guard once the Lakers switched Lue onto him.
Nor are feuds between celebrity fans and players anything new. In 1994, Reggie Miller famously made a choking sign at Knicks superfan Spike Lee after scoring 39 points in an Indiana Pacers win over New York.
But the ability of social media to spread an image thousands of times in mere minutes turns those moments into bigger deals than they’ve ever been.
“The Internet’s amazing,” Warriors center JaVale McGee said. “Of course, the Internet’s undefeated when it comes to memes and things like that. They’ll find anything — a missed layup, the way you were posing in the air, they’ll freeze-frame it and make you dance with the stars. It’s crazy. I mean people have a lot of time on their hands.”
Rihanna’s interactions with Durant caused several shareable moments, some begetting others. Right after the game ended, Durant was asked if he intentionally stared at Rihanna after scoring.
“I don’t even remember doing that,” Durant said.
Told social media were buzzing about it, he said, “Really?”
Sitting next to him, Curry shook his head and smirked.
“Don’t get into that trap,” he said.
“Yeah, I won’t get into that,” Durant said. “I’m cool. Have fun with that.”
Within minutes, NBA.com published the video of that exchange, prominently on its homepage.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli