What an ending. Your favorite NBA team just won a championship. The superstar, drenched in sweat, fulfilled his hero’s journey. The players are exhausted but jubilant. Some of them are crying.
Out comes a shiny trophy, the coveted prize that gives meaning to the grueling season, and it’s obvious who will lift it first: the billionaire who owns the team.
At least that’s the attitude in the NBA and many other sports leagues in the United States, where franchise owners, rather than the players, are often the first to touch and hoist the glittering trophies awarded in the emotional aftermath of championship victories.
It is a tradition that goes back to the American amateur athletic associations in the 1800s, and which today highlights the idiosyncrasies of the American leagues on the global sports stage.
It also drives a lot of people crazy.
“Nobody wants to see these guys,” said Graeme Ivory, a former sports broadcaster for Canadian network TSN, echoing the complaints of dozens of fans who tune in to the NBA and WNBA Finals, Super Bowl and World Series each year. “It’s such a huge emotional drop-off from ‘Oh my God, we’ve just won the trophy’ to ‘Oh wait, a guy in a suit has it’.”
LeBron James sobbed as he laid his hands on the trophy in 2016, after leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA title. It was a sensational scene — a local star ending the city’s 52-year championship drought in major sports — but it was slow because Dan Gilbert, the billionaire founder of Rocket Mortgage, had to lift the trophy first.
Last year, Stephen Curry started crying even before the final buzzer sealed his fourth title with the Golden State Warriors. Like James, Curry and his teammates waited their turn to hoist the trophy. When they finally did, they were ecstatic and fans might have enjoyed watching it. But the cameras cut to billionaire venture capitalist Joe Lacob, who had already enjoyed his moment with the trophy, for a live interview.
“What does it mean to you to be presented with that trophy again?” Lacob was asked as the players celebrated somewhere off-screen.
Even Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban believes the athletes deserve more of the spotlight in these moments. Cuban hoisted the trophy when the team won the title in 2011, but said in a recent interview that he was eager to get it to Dirk Nowitzki, the Most Valuable Player in those Finals, because he knew Nowitzki’s moment of joy would be the lasting image of the season.
“I wanted that moment to belong to the players,” Cuban said. “And as it turned out, Dirk holding the trophy above his head has been iconic. No chance of that happening if it’s my ugly mug holding it up there.”
(Cuban did tweet at dawn the day after the title was won, that the trophy was with him in bed.)
The exhibitions are therefore seen as buzz-kills that inhibit the emotional flow to celebrate the influence of money.
At least they’re craving bad television.
“I don’t think it’s as gratifying a moment as it could be for the players,” said Julian Gressel, a midfielder for the U.S. men’s soccer team. He had to wait for Arthur Blank, the co-founder of Home Depot, to hoist the MLS trophy (Blank himself got his own confetti cannon shower), when Atlanta United won the title in 2018.
Gressel, who was born in Germany and now plays for the Vancouver Whitecaps in MLS, noted how much more straightforward and satisfying these presentations are in European soccer: The team gathers around the trophy. The captain picks it up. The players and the fans all go crazy.
After all, the athletes are the avatars of fans’ hopes and dreams. People form emotional connections to star point guards, rugged quarterbacks and lackluster quarterbacks. Who root for a managing director or managing partner?
It’s a record-breaking moment that experts say is so very American.
The franchise model gives American team owners collective decision-making power in their leagues, ensuring they are “infinitely more powerful than anything comparable in Europe,” said Andrei Markovits, a University of Michigan professor who studies sports culture.
John Henry, the billionaire investor, owns the Boston Red Sox, the English soccer club Liverpool and the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. After the Red Sox won their most recent World Series, in 2018, Henry stood beaming next to Commissioner Rob Manfred to accept baseball’s glittering trophy. When Liverpool won the Champions League in 2019 and the Premier League in 2020, Henry was nowhere to be seen as the players danced euphorically with the sparkling hardware.
The American tradition of presenting trophies to club owners dates back to the 1800s, when sports were still an amateur pursuit, said Joe Horrigan, a senior adviser to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The oldest NFL trophy in the Hall’s possession, he said, is from 1924 and inscribed with the name of Sam Deutsch, a prominent jeweler and owner of the Cleveland Bulldogs.
“It’s basically been the same since the game began,” Horrigan said.
John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, joked that the practice of honoring team owners — who technically also own the trophies — had the feel of a “pagan sacrifice or fertility ritual,” with a commissioner “serving for the pleasure” of the 30 club owners.
“They don’t actually have to be the recipient of the trophy, but that’s not the way egos work,” Thorn said. “It may be illustrative of a larger phenomenon, such as capitalism being America’s religion. But surely the owners should get something in addition to profit or loss?
Some players, perhaps aware of who is signing the checks, said they understood the Army’s moment for team owners.
“At the end of the day, the ownership put the team together,” said Udonis Haslem, a reserve forward and three-time champion with the Miami Heat, who face the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals.
As if to emphasize the power dynamic, Leslie Alexander, the former owner of the Houston Rockets, retained the team’s 1994 and ’95 championship trophies — he literally just took them home — when he sold the franchise for $2.2 billion in 2017. The Rockets now display replicas in their offices.
There are noble outliers. The NHL generally gives its trophy, the Stanley Cup, directly to the winning team’s captain, after which each player takes a turn skating with it. The National Women’s Soccer League also presents trophies to team captains.
Athletes are practically conditioned to covet the shiny objects. Teams hang pictures of trophies around their facilities as motivation. Finally, they are imbued with almost mystical qualities. In hockey, it is considered bad luck for a player to touch the Stanley Cup before winning it.
“They’ve reached the top of the mountain and when they touch the Cup for the first time, their faces are unbelievable,” said Phil Pritchard, who in his role as curator of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto serves as caretaker. kind of for the trophy. “It’s powerful. It’s emotional. It’s grown men crying.”
That sentiment is why Geoffrey Hayes, the vice president of special events for MLS from 1998 to 2010, insisted that the league’s trophy go to the winning team’s captain. (“I was adamant — headstrong!”) But the league changed course shortly after Hayes’ departure, and commissioner Don Garber has since presented the winning team owner with the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy — named for a Kansas billionaire who once owned six MLS teams simultaneously.
In the NBA, there has been at least one instance of a player touching the trophy before an owner. At the end of the 2019-20 season — completed in a so-called bubble near Orlando, Fla., during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic — came an unusual ceremony in which Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss suggested the players pick up price from his lonely perch.
“You guys, come get the trophy!” said Buss, who had been to several title ceremonies at the time.
The players looked around awkwardly before JR Smith (who else) slid to the front of the pack and scooped it up.
It was a moment for the players to cherish because the owners seem unlikely to relinquish the privilege anytime soon.