There is a new television ad that all NBA fans are now familiar with. They have been familiar with it for just over one week, but because of its repetition—because of how embedded the league’s broadcast partners make new player-branded #content in their telecasts—it feels as though we have never lived without the ad. Single frame shots of it are instantly recognizable, splayed across Twitter like they were pulled from a program we all grew up watching.
The protagonist of this commercial is Gordon Hayward. A 28-year-old forward for the Boston Celtics, Hayward played in one All-Star game through seven years with the Utah Jazz. After leaving Utah for the Celtics, Hayward suffered a season-ending injury in his first game with his new team in October of 2017. Flash forward to October of 2018 and Hayward’s recovery from his fractured tibia and dislocated ankle is romantically transformed into a gritty, self-serious cartoon ad. An animated Hayward falling to his injury is cut concurrently with a cartoon of a super-charged fight between two magical purple beasts with swords.
All of this has something to do with the attached product, a video game called “League of Legends,” which Hayward personally enjoys and which the person writing this column refuses to learn anything more about. As the slain purple warrior rises from a devastating blow, though, so does Hayward. Anime Hayward is shown transitioning from his hospital bed—on which he listens to sportscasters speak words of doubt about him—to sit at his desk and focus on his video game, clicking through his digital contests with strategic reverence as his leg heals. Then, just as the favored purple warrior boldly initiates his counter-attack, Hayward is seen to be walking again. He dribbles a ball solemnly, into a spotlight on an otherwise darkened court. When he shoots the ball, the video game’s logo takes over the screen, and the ad is over.
If it sounds like a bit much, that’s because it is. While a year-long injury is certainly a setback that inspires pathos when it happens, and relief when it’s over, it does not seem uncommon enough to be the stuff of such bombastic, epic-poetry-aspiring material. Especially not when the subject is Hayward, a fringe All-Star who is arguably the fifth best player on his (admittedly quite deep) roster. Even apart from the disassociating weirdness of seeing Hayward cast as an Anime character, there is plenty going on in the ad that inspires confusion.
Most plainly, the dumbfounded state of the audience is given voice by two words: Who cares? Granting Hayward’s return this level of enchantment is like pretending that a brief coffee date was a developed romantic bond. It is uncomfortable to watch such little yarn spun so aggressively for this ad, and to know how many well-paid people signed off on and contributed work to it. But while it may be the most absurd example that comes to mind—and while it may be especially outlying for just how extremely cockamamie its very existence is—the Anime Hayward ad is hardly a rare document in the cancerous spread of increasingly empty #content about the NBA.
When a whole big industry of storytellers has stockholders, owners, and bored viewers to please, the surest result is a deluge of puffed-up crap. Previews for the 18-19 season have included multi-writer roundtables about whether third-year players can add a few points to their per-game average, and paywalled articles about whether a second-year man has slightly toggled his jumper form. For all its stupidity, Anime Hayward is at least a red-blooded attempt at The Humanities, distinct in this way from Hedge Fund NBA #content, that endless flood of savage, overwrought, speculative quantifications of the most mundane on-court details.
All of it, though—from Anime Hayward to some wonky and untrustworthy new metric about lineup efficiency—speaks to how cravenly we’re all harvesting this sport. Capitalism demands the stream of summary, prediction, and aggrandizement to persist enough to addle any functional brain into submission; if an alien were to visit our culture and study the library of secondary sources we’ve made from this sport, they may conclude that it was an alternate, infinitely retconned universe constructed so forcefully because those who partake in it are incapable of living in the actual world.
In 2018, of course, such a conclusion would not be too far off. In an over-wired society experiencing a mudslide of bad news due to a newfound, growing transparency of political power structures, everything is splitting at its ideological seams, and retreat into entertainment has rarely been more appealing. Anime Hayward, in other words, is a fiction borne from a culture so over-producing and so neurotic about what it is, and who it is, that his stenciled visage feels all but inevitable. The NBA season is back at last, and its fans are thirsty enough to latch onto just about anything. The coalition of brands is here to provide #content that tests the bounds of that thirst.