There was a photo taken from above the 18th green at East Lake Golf Club late on Sunday afternoon. There had to be 15,000 people on the left side of the green, as the 21st-ranked golfer in the world marched the final steps to a victory that would improve his standing to No. 13.
Tiger Woods, 42, won the Tour Championship in Atlanta for his 80th win on the PGA Tour and his first in five years.
A family member has worked golf tournaments for much of the Tiger Era and she told me: “I have never seen anything like it. Thousands of people started coming under the ropes as Tiger was walking to the green and I seriously feared that he would be trampled. It was insane.’’
The stampede was based both on our enthusiasm for a great comeback story and America’s madness for celebrity in the 21st century. We’ve always taken an interest, but with hundreds of TV networks and the ability to remain connected to information — true or untrue — at all times … we are insane for celebrity.
Tiger brings the perfect exacta to celebrity: At his best, he was the finest golfer the world has ever seen, and while still at his zenith, he was chased down the driveway by his beautiful wife, unhappy with his serial philandering and wielding a golf club in her pursuit.
In the wee hours after Thanksgiving, the grandest of family holidays.
Celebrity 101, right there.
I saw the photo on Tiger’s amazing reception at East Lake on Sunday night, after a weekend of seeing Twitter responses and comments attached to media reports on Jimmy Butler’s demand to be traded from the Timberwolves.
There was a consistent theme to the Minnesota-based comments:
“This is why I can’t stand the NBA.”
“The NBA is unwatchable.”
“The NBA season hasn’t started, and we know Golden State is going to win.’’
“Nobody cares about the NBA; this is the State of Hockey.”
“We’d be better off if the Timberwolves moved to Seattle.’’
And, of course: “Fire Thibs.’’
Meantime, the NBA, with its complete lack of balance and playoff tension, with players holding the power with trade demands, enormous contracts and joining forces to create super teams, with too many threes and not enough traveling calls, with the last two minutes taking 20, and with any other negatives you choose to add, is more prominent on this country’s sports scene than has ever been the case.
Reason? The same thing that motivated 10s of thousands to stampede toward East Lake’s 18th green late on Sunday afternoon: celebrity.
Jimmy Butler might have messed up Tom Thibodeau’s plan for putting together a team that could advance a round (or two?) in the Western Conference playoffs, and Butler might be a divider rather than a leader in a locker room, but he is also at this moment more prominent in the NBA’s pantheon of stars than at any previous time.
Social media now runs the Free World — check @realDonaldTrump for confirmation — and the NBA owns social media in the Sports World. The NFL is No. 1, still, for fandom and TV ratings and amount of smooching up from ESPN (etc.) panels, but when it comes to the more youthful audience with a social media addiction … the NBA has become a machine.
It has been said thousands of times: Basketball is a game made for stars. Ten players in a confined space. You pay to see LeBron James or Kevin Durant or Jimmy Butler, you see him for 38-40 minutes, attacking or defending on more than 100 possessions.
Right there in front of you. Tall guy with bulging arms, mighty legs, tattoos, trash talk and amazing athletic gifts.
You used to be able to say the only player more influential in major league sports than a single basketball player was a starting pitcher. And now we have Gabriel Moya starting games, so you can’t use that qualifier anymore.
NBA stars aren’t under the thumb of The Man. The Man is under the thumb of NBA stars. That might not be appealing to sports traditionalists (such as soon-to-be 73 me), but there’s an appeal in that to the 30-year-olds walking across downtown intersections staring at their phones.
Butler is a rebellious star in a rebellious league, which appeals to younger generations with a rebellious streak.
Go ahead and be annoyed. Go ahead and shout, “Fire Thibs.’’
Jimmy Butler is a bigger celebrity right now than he’s ever been, and celebrity is what has made the NBA a fierce No. 2 and gaining on the NFL in American sports.