THE DALLAS MAVERICKS and the Boston Celtics locked horns in game 1 of the best of seven NBA Finals series on Friday (Australian time). By the time you read this, the first two instalments of what should be an enthralling match-up will have been decided. But as I sit here, an hour out from tip-off in game 1, I have no idea who will prevail in the series. To me, and millions of sporting fans like me, that is a delicious prospect. In fact, it is precisely why we watch.

The Celtics are the favourites with Vegas bookmakers. The team won 64 games in the regular season. It has two of the best two-way wings in the NBA in Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown, features stout, reliable guards in Derek White and Jrue Holiday, as well a 7’ 3” Latvian by the name of Kristaps Porziņģis, whose rim protection and ability to space the floor as a knockdown three-point shooter, gives opposing coaches migraines – at least, when he’s healthy.

The Celtics also hold home-court advantage, though that has become a less decisive variable in recent years. They’ve also been to the finals before, back in 2022, where they lost to a flame-throwing Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. They have taken their lumps, in other words.

Dallas, on the other hand, have Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving, otherworldly offensive talents, whose ability to control the game in the clutch just saw them despatch the highly regarded Minnesota Timberwolves and their ascendant star, Anthony Edwards, in five games.

Dončić, of course, is the understudy to Nikola Jokić as the best player in the world and, should the Mavericks win, will likely be anointed with that title. At just 25, it is perhaps he (rather than Ant) who is the worthiest candidate to be crowned ‘the next Michael Jordan’ and new face of the league, though, to be honest, his game resembles a less athletic LeBron James’, with better three-point shooting.

Next to Dončić is Kyrie Irving, owner of the best handle in NBA history and a player who’s repeatedly proved himself in clutch situations. Yet while Irving and Dončić could emerge as heroes for Mavs supporters, they possess plenty of characteristics that will make them Vader-level villains for Celtics fans. Dončić talks trash and importantly, backs it up – very Jordan-esque. He also bitches and moans to the refs for the full 48 minutes he’s on the court. He has the capacity to infuriate Celtics fans before cutting open their hearts when it counts.

Irving, who once played for Boston, has been one of the most enigmatic and polarising players in the league the last few years and his performance in these play-offs has made for a heart-warming redemption story – at least for Dallas fans. After famously stomping on the Celtics’ logo and flipping multiple birds at the crowd during the Nets/Celtics first round play-off series back in 2022, Boston’s notoriously rabid fans will let him have it from the first whistle and keep it up throughout the series.

So, while the Celtics are the better team on paper, Dallas possesses the best player (in Dončić), which history indicates, can be decisive. Either way, I sometimes find it astonishing that in two weeks’ time legacies will have been burnished or destroyed; deeds will become legend; facts will override opinion.

And yet as I’m writing, that is all before us. The stage is set – the operative word being ‘stage’, for while sport often invites martial metaphors from overzealous sports writers (guilty as charged), I think the better analogy is with entertainment, specifically reality TV.

In an era in which myriad streaming channels compete for our subscription dollars, live sport and reality TV series are perhaps the only ‘genres’ still capable of capturing a mass audience – yes, the mythical ones that huddle around increasingly non-existent office water coolers. Over the next seven games, narratives will unfold, heroes will be anointed and villains digitally decapitated in memes. And similar to the strategic cunning required to prevail in many reality shows – Survivor, for example both the Celtics and the Mavs’ coaching staffs will be flat out making game-to-game tactical adjustments in an ongoing chess match.

That sports are now being repackaged into reality shows, like Drive to Survive, Breaking Point or Netflix’s upcoming NBA docuseries, adds another layer that is both ironic and in the case of the hoops version, possibly cannibalistic. It will be interesting to see if it works. While the format was wildly successful in Formula One, allowing viewers to discover the personalities lurking beneath those helmets, the NBA already offers players an ample platform to showcase their personas – indeed, the league is frequently referred to by many fans and pundits as a ‘reality show’, one possessing Real Housewives levels of drama. You have to wonder if it actually needs the docuseries treatment.

Crucially, an NBA reality series won’t be live, meaning the drama, in that case, will be largely confected as we’ll already know the results. As was the case with Drive to Survive, I suspect the format will appeal to casuals (who often don’t know or, at the outset, care about the results), while hardcore fans will eye it with suspicion.

Therein lies a crucial distinction between the burgeoning genre of reality sports shows and live sports: editing. While sports play out in real time, reality TV is generally filmed and edited within an inch of its life. The heroes and villains that emerge are often as much a creation of editors and producers as they are the ‘stars’ (often previously nobodies) themselves.

It’s the live element that’s the real secret sauce behind sports’ mass appeal, something Netflix seems keen to explore in other genres – see The Roast of Tom Brady. That evening carried an edgy energy you just can’t find in the editing suite, though the premise was somewhat undermined by the decision to cut out the booing of Kim K – boo Netflix for that.

And it’s the live, ‘real’ drama offered by sports that are making them increasingly valuable entertainment properties, and why streaming channels are keen to have ‘skin in the game’ – again, see Netflix’s upcoming Jake Paul v Mike Tyson fight.

In the meantime, the NBA is closing in on media rights deals with NBC, ESPN, and that would generate around $76 billion in media revenue over 11 years, The Wall Street Journal reported this week.

As many analysts have pointed out, that is a ridiculous sum of money to pay for a sport that many people, even fans like myself, don’t always watch live, but rather keep up with through podcasts, online coverage and social media clips. Ratings for the NBA have never approached the highs of the Jordan era, when in 1998, in a pre-streaming, pre-social media age, over 35 million viewers tuned into the finals. And yet, the sport is seemingly more popular than ever. I suspect these conglomerates fear that if they don’t shell out for the rights, somebody else will.

If the value of sports lies in its unforeseeable nature, it is no wonder then, that we’re so disappointed when we hear about betting scandals, match-fixing sagas and players taking bribes to throw games, that threaten that dynamic. It undermines both the premise and the promise of live sports: that we don’t know the outcome. Side note: knowing the outcome, for some sport fans, is akin to finding out there’s no Santa Claus; I have a former colleague who banned the very mention of games in the office, as he planned to watch them ‘live’ in the evening.

That the outcome can sometimes be a disappointment doesn’t seem to affect sports fans’ enjoyment. The Celtics, as you probably know by now, went on to win game 1 by 18, fuelled by a Kristaps Porziņģis first quarter onslaught of threes. They then narrowly held off the Mavs in Game 2. Not many teams come back from 2-0 down in the NBA finals. The series threatens to be a fizzer.

And yet, Dončić could reach another legacy-defining level back on home court in Dallas in game 3. Or Irving and the rest of the Mavs’ supporting cast could wake up to make a fist of things. Or it could be a sweep. We just don’t know, and until it actually happens, we don’t care to know. That’s the glorious reality.


Michael Jordan’s shadow continues to loom large

Men who swear at GOATs: the relentless debate over sporting greats