The culture of courtside

In the NBA playoffs, all of the stars come out. LeBron James is turning up the intensity in an attempt to single-handedly will his lethargic team past the scrappy Indiana Pacers. James Harden is toying with defenders, putting up big numbers as he begins to heat up for later playoff rounds. Just when it seemed as though Anthony Davis couldn’t get any better, the big man is playing a new career-best, compiling signature games in a statement first-round sweep. Oh, and then there’s Kevin Hart.

Sitting courtside at the Philadelphia 76ers game last week, the pint-sized celebrity also seemed to be in peak playoff form. Rocking a throwback Sixers warm-up, paired with the traditional courtside flashy watch (you gotta show off when you’re on camera!), Hart was up and active throughout the game. The little guy showed big heart, hanging onto every 76ers play and heckling the visiting Miami Heat. His primary target: good ol’ friend Dwayne Wade.

After hitting a signature step-back jumper, Wade finally caved into the pestitude, directing some trash-talk toward Hart and fellow spectator Allen Iverson. Despite all of Hart’s efforts (and yeah, a near triple-double by Ben Simmons), Wade took the heat in stride to lead the Heat to victory.

“Kevin Hart. Thank Kevin Hart for that,” Wade told sideline reporter Ramona Shelburne when asked what inspired his 28-point performance (Twitter, [at]espn, 04.16.2018).

The “beef” did not end there. When the two carried their verbal sparring over to Twitter, Wade was asked about how he would respond to Hart’s potential appearance at Game 3. “I don’t really care,” Wade said. “We’re not friends right now. We made it very clear we’re not friends now, but we’ll be friends after the playoffs are over with. We’re not friends. I don’t like him” (Miami Herald, “Dwyane Wade on Sixers fan Kevin Hart,” 04.19.2018).

While tempers have been flaring throughout various first-round matchups, it seems that the Wade-Hart conflict is all in good spirit. Hart has formed many public friendships with famous athletes. Just for the pure juxtaposition of it all, there’s something endearing (and also hilarious) about seeing a very tiny man hang out with 6’8” genetic anomalies.

More than any other, Hart has expanded his celebrity through his bombastic and omnipresent sports fandom. He’s been a staple at NBA All-Star Weekend, collecting four Celebrity All-Star Game MVPs, the point to which awarding him the “honor” has become a running trope. Hart’s YouTube series “Cold as Balls” features him asking overtly earnest questions to a notable athlete (or Lavar Ball), whilst sitting in twin ice baths. In what might be his crowning achievement, Hart attended this year’s Super Bowl, decked out in Eagles gear while crushing drinks in his suite box. After the birds proved victorious, the drunk little man naturally gravitated toward the cameras on the field, inviting himself to a post-game panel and attempting to get on stage for the Lombardi presentation.

Although it’s unclear how much this drunkenness was manufactured, it’s undeniable that the stunt worked. Hart has taken his comedy past the movie screen and into the public arena by creating a satire of a character so deeply embedded in American sports culture. Looking back on their glory days, everyone remembers the embarrassment-inducing, heckling dad at AAU games, or that loud coach who took everything way too seriously. In professional sports, Hart, in close company with Lavar Ball, is the embodiment of that character.

Hart’s role as a comedic sideline nuisance is just another example of how celebrities have become a component of the performance art that is NBA basketball. Unlike all other major sports, basketball allows fans to stand on the same floor as the players, placing them close enough to interact with athletes.

From the courtside, celebrities can be an extension of the game, with the ability to craft fascinating subplots. In Toronto, Drake’s fandom has inspired new uniforms and branding for the Raptors. This past week, the typically sensitive rapper was caught out of character, taunting Washington Wizards guard John Wall, who, in turn, told the press that he couldn’t listen to Drake right now (Bleacher Report, “John Wall Says He Can’t Listen To Drake,” 04.23.2018). In last year’s NBA Finals, sideline heckling from LeBron superfan Rihanna is believed to have inspired Kevin Durant’s impec-cable performances. Over in Brooklyn, Jay-Z and Beyonce have sat ceremoniously in their courtside seats, marking some of their rare public sightings in what has been a famously private relationship.

Celebrities are a part of the NBA brand–their constant and visible presence molds pop culture into basketball and attests to the sport’s popularity. For big-market teams like the Knicks (who suffer from a fair-weather faithful), having a “Celebrity Row” in courtside seats is a crucial component of reassuring the strength of their fanbase.

Although famous faces usually visit the Knicks only once a year, the sole consistent is Madison Square Garden dweller Spike Lee. Lee is the undisputed godfather of the NBA superfan, setting the precedent for this new generation of talent, led by the likes of Drake and Hart.

These celebrities have taken the torch in stride, and with it, they have accepted a tremendous responsibility. They have the power to rally a fan-base, create notoriety around their cities and subconsciously push their teams to victory. For the 76ers, Kevin Hart has embraced this role, only topping himself with his latest feat.

On Tuesday, Hart picked up Philly legend Meek Mill from prison and brought him directly to his courtside seats for Game 5 of the Sixers playoff series.

Only naturally, Philadelphia rolled with this newfound energy, taking a decisive win to advance to the next round.

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