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Posted at 06:08 PM ET, 06/21/2012

Heat vs. Thunder: An American Morality Play?

Forget religion and politics. Sports is the only corner of American life that really pulls for the underdog.

Consider the NBA finals. The favored Miami Heat will hold a 3-1 series advantage when it hosts the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 on Thursday night. But according to a recent ESPN poll, 60 percent of fans across the country are rooting for the Thunder.

The perception of the visiting team is that it is down-home and wholesome. Miami, meanwhile, is gaudy and pretentious. But to root against the team from South Beach in this morality play is to ultimately root against ourselves as Americans. If we think about our own consumer habits-- we enjoy collecting the finer things in much the same way Miami is a collection of three of the biggest stars in the NBA--the Heat is who we are in private. The Oklahoma City Thunder is just our public face.

There are certainly real differences between the two franchises and they start with the stars headlining this contest. Heat forward LeBron James is a three-time league Most Valuable Player while Thunder forward Kevin Durant, while only in his fourth year, has led the NBA in scoring in each of the last three seasons. Both are metaphors for the cities they represent and also how we feel about ourselves.

The popular perception is that James is loyal son turned hired gun. He drew fire during the summer of 2010 when he announced that, after seven seasons, he was leaving Cleveland on a TV special infamously known as “The Decision.” He followed that up with “The Celebration,” brazenly joining fellow all-stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh on stage inside Miami’s arena amid an ostentatious smoke-and-lights show while titillating Heat fans with promises of multiple championships.

Meanwhile, Durant, without drawing nearly as much attention to himself, announced on Twitter the day before “The Decision” that he wasn’t taking his talents any place. He was signing a five-year contract extension with the Thunder.

People look at those contrasting styles and love one and hate the other.

“It’s a process that people engage in called projecting,” said Ayana Watkins-Northern, Ph.D., director of Howard University’s counseling center. “Very often if you find yourself really super critical toward something or someone, even though there may be legit things, it has a great deal to do with you being able to see in them that which you would very, very much hate to see in yourself.”

Projecting also works in positive ways. We laud Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti for taking the long view by building a solid franchise through intelligent draft choices and smart free-agency pickups. The idea of being rewarded for doing things the right way excites the pleasure center in our minds and so we go to sports bars and the water cooler at work and we loudly proclaim why the Thunder should win. Meanwhile, we sneer at the Heat, arguing that the team is only on the brink of an NBA title because it took an apparent shortcut to get there.

But in our own lives, do we take the long view or do we take shortcuts? According to a recent Gallup poll, May marked the third straight month in which the daily consumer spending average rose. People are spending more to get what they want, even if they don’t always have it upfront.

Do we stack enough cash to buy that 60-inch high-definition TV outright or do we have to have it now for that Super Bowl party we’re throwing and so we lay down some plastic to get it?

“In terms of consumers, there’s a strong emphasis on present value versus future value,” says Charles Geisst, professor of finance at Manhattan College. “Future value is much more of an investment. Most people will agree that that attitude pretty much defines the American consumer. American consumers want it now.”

Sports have always elicited enormous reactions from fans. The games are very personal and they connect us to our communities and, in a lot of ways, to our values. And while we love a feel-good underdog story, when we analyze our personal choices, we see that we are at our core a nation of frontrunners. We just don’t like to think about it all catching up with us later.

By Carl Little  |  06:08 PM ET, 06/21/2012

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