A spectre is haunting basketball—the spectre of Small Market Energy. Small Market Energy (SME) is a force that knows no history, no economics, that has not read psychology; it is rather, to Freud’s delight, a primordial urge to feel slighted that bucks all categories of human knowledge and progress. Beneath every stride our race has made is a screaming voice inside of everyone who watches sports, a voice that insists on conspiratorial machinations unfairly blocking them from any real chance at glory. Due most likely to an indirect cause (the return of a hegemonically dominant Los Angeles Lakers team, for now) our most recent upturn in SME reared its mangled bodice once word of James Harden’s request for a trade to the Brooklyn Nets was reported. 

Nevermind that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did this in the 70’s, that Charles Barkley did it twice in the 90’s, and that many forgotten others (Scottie Pippen, also in the 90’s) have expressed their desire to be moved to different organizations before, without ruining the game. This time, the SME-inflicted insist, it’s different. This is superstar liberation ran amok, an anti-competitive disease spreading rapidly amongst millionaire athletes, a malady that spits in the face of all honor and tradition. This strain is novel and it’s here to obliterate the league; this is why good things can’t happen, why it’s pointless to root for anyone outside of a major market in this slanted, no-good sport. 

Nevermind that Harden is asking out of a major market, either. And that his main reason does not conform to the prejudices of SME-damaged fans, but is simply a want to flee the decay of the Houston Rockets. And nevermind that Harden probably isn’t going to get traded, anyway, because he’s too locked into his contract to have that kind of leverage. And nevermind that if he were traded, it would likely be to a different team, with a better package on offer than Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris LeVert.

No details like these are part of the calculus of an SME-expressing individual. Their view of things is: I am small because they don’t let me be large. I lose because they don’t let me win. Before I set foot on the landscape, someone more privileged and bigger has already ruined it. I haven’t gotten proper credit, because everything is rigged in favor of someone more structurally advantaged than I. To be sure, this is a mindset endemic to life itself, but that is also quite explicit in a few NBA fanbases—that of the Utah Jazz, to name just one. It is hardly limited, though, to a finite set of fanbases, or even to those of smaller markets. Devoted followers of the Rockets, for instance, stake themselves upon one of the more historically successful and respectable franchises, but have been beset with SME nonetheless—this has happened through a singular triangulation of General Manager worship, their team’s modern commitment to winning by way of maximizing marginalia, and the indignity of three straight spectacular postseason flameouts.

In another recent occurence, this kind of panicked delusion manifested in the form of a perhaps already forgotten episode: that of the Milwaukee Bucks’ prematurely reported sign-and-trade deal for Bogdan Bogdanovic. A ballsy offensive creator who would surely put Milwaukee over the top in the Eastern Conference, Bogdanovic had apparently long privately discussed playing with Bucks two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and so the early news of a deal—completed, it appeared, before paperwork for such a thing could even be initiated in earnest—thus led to seemingly traumatized fans pretending that one of the league’s smaller markets was being given unfair, insurmountable advantages (Bogdanovic is now, it appears, heading to the Atlanta Hawks instead). This reeked of what we saw a year and a half ago, when the New Orleans Pelicans lucking into the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft led some to suggest that top league brass was fixing things in order for Zion Williamson to end up in the bayou.

Conspiracy theories like these are of course for Chicken Little and, more broadly, losers. That those on the wrong side of victory resort to this sort of ahistorical, counterfactual theorizing is clearly evident in how some are handling the most recent American presidential election. The more your expectations morph, over time, into disappointment, the more elaborate your rationalization of how this came to be. To be sure, many people are not like this—although we all have been before, after one loss or another—and possess the adult skill of taking big but simple losses on the chin, and moving on. As a fan of the Chicago Bulls, I (eventually) learned to do this after my team’s title chances were dashed multiple times by LeBron James. After a series of Herculean efforts in the field of cognitive sports dissonance, it ultimately made too much sense to conclude, instead, that LeBron is just too good at basketball for other teams, including mine, to defeat.  

Most can only manically connect so many different exhibits together with yarn before their network of projections falls apart beneath the weight of the truth. Others, terminally cursed with an SME brain, turn to sport for precisely this brand of strained, intricate, underground world-making. Theirs is a storytelling method that, due to human nature, will always be part of the sport, no matter what random ways it actually plays out in. David has always been there, as has Goliath—even if they need to be with us through only pure imagination. There are, in fact, even SME Lakers fans, who feel their team has been repeatedly treated unfairly, schemed against from top-down. Royalty that has insisted it is the martyr, the victim, the true loser and prisoner, if you really think about it, weigh out all the crap and doubt and dirt that they have had to deal with and conquer. This way of thinking is clearly defiant in the face of reality, but because of its intangibility, there isn’t and won’t ever be any cure for SME. It is powerful like the sum of all ghosts, a timeless flavor of mind, forever red-faced in the bleachers of the world.