Friday, May 13, 2011

Must See TV

*Editor's Note: I'm posting this after watching the Celtics lose to the Heat in five games last night. That series was easily a seven game series fit inside of five competitive, exciting and hard fought games that featured excellent defense without slogging play. I hope this is not the end of this Celtics team as we've known them. Even though I have wanted the Heat to win the title all year out of curiosity for their great experiment and what they could possibly achieve if they ever figured it out, I love this Boston Celtics team. I've loved them for the past four seasons. There is something right about the team, from their mixture of talent and chemistry right down to their love of each other and their toughness. Now that they are out of the playoffs, it feels like I have finished a novel where I loved the characters so much that I didn't want to see them go. However, I had to because there was still another story to keep reading and that story may just be the more compelling one than the novel with the characters I loved so much.

It’s no secret that I watch a lot of sports. However, as much as I watch sports, I read about them ten times that amount. I love finding out what all the sportswriters thought about the action of the night before; what meaning they ascribed to a shot or facial expression or the dynamics between players on a specific play.  Sports are rife with symbolism, and signs and symbols are what lie at the heart of our conversations and at the root of our thought.

Despite the amount of sports I watch, I perhaps have only one or two friends who truly love sports, the act of watching a game, the meaning to be gained from a sporting event and the warmth of story and of history wrapping and unfolding around you as the action plays on the screen. My childhood friend Jeff is the main person I talk to about sports. We text during basketball games, football games and even huge golf or tennis events. Hell, one of my favorite sports memories was watching Smarty Jones lose at the Belmont back in 2004 while we ate steaks and drank beer at his old house on the Long Island Sound as the sun set in May and we prepared for our first college summer. I talk to Jeff about sports because I know he understands the moment. My brain retains stats and history better than his (sorry, Jeff, its true) but we both understand the moment and what it means. Plus he has more channels on his TV in the house he lives in now so he gets to watch more games than me.

This past weekend, on Mother’s Day, I happened to be texting with another friend of mine who is starting to love basketball.  He was watching the Lakers implode and lash out against the Mavericks as they lost in disgrace in the Western Conference Semifinals. He texted me about some of Phil Jackson’s funny and off-the-cuff remarks during his press conference about taking peyote. I was immediately itchy and jealous because I wanted to be watching Phil speak, but I was out to dinner with my family.  I pictured Phil at the podium or press table, that slow grin on his face that’s stuck there after any loss because he’s won so much in his career. I could hear his gravelly voice. And I imagined the weight of the moment sinking in. Far off reporter’s voices would sound their muffled questions and Phil would answer. The room would be warm with stale May air and the stadium smell of popcorn, while outside, people in Dallas sunk into the rest of their Sunday afternoon. “This might have been Phil Jackson’s last game as a coach in the NBA.”

I texted my friend: I hate family and I hate girls. They take me away from sports. Of course I was joking—maybe.

The NBA Playoffs have been fantastic, but I’m ashamed to say that I have missed two defining games of these playoffs and also maybe in NBA lore: The Roy Time Machine Game and the Rondo Elbow Game. These are two performances that make it known immediately that History is happening and making itself clearly known to you.  History occurs every day in every small aspect of our lives—we are most definitely History, the culmination of History and Myth—but it is only in those rare instances where History actually makes itself completely visible and graspable and many of those instances occur in sports.

Earlier in the season, they said that Brandon Roy was done. Roy has been the face of the Portland Trailblazers since 2006 when he was drafted into the league.  He has helped reclaim the Portland franchise from being known as the Jailblazers and restored them to the Blazers of Bill Walton’s day—a roster of hard working, team-oriented players. However, like Walton, Roy’s knees have been an issue from Day 1.  And this year it was reported that Roy had no meniscus in his knee, no cartilage to absorb the impact that comes with playing the game of basketball at the highest level, which is what Roy has done since he entered the league. Then, on Saturday, April 23, 2011 Brandon Roy and History crossed paths. The Blazers were down to the Mavericks by 23 points in the third quarter and then trailed by 16 entering the fourth quarter.  That is when Brandon Roy took over. He started driving into the lane, using his unique blend of size and off-speed movement and laying in floaters. He spilled to the baseline as the normally fervent Rose Garden crowd took their pitch to another level, bodies exploding up with raised hands after each basket. Barely anyone was sitting as you could almost feel them trying to figure out if they were in 2008 or in 2011.  Roy tied the game at 82-82 with a little over a minute remaining by converting a four-point play. It seemed like the crowd’s collective head was going to explode. Then, with under a minute to go, Roy hit a bank shot to put the Blazers up 84-82. It was as if the knee problems, the rumors of his career being over, never happened. And when Jason Terry missed a last second three that had a chance to go, the crowd erupted even more than they had before. Seeing everyone pump their fists and jump up and down as a dejected Dirk Nowitzki walked off the floor gave me goose bumps.  And I didn’t even see any of this live. It just gave me goose bumps as I watched the recap on mute on my computer at work.  That’s when you know a game was great. But I missed out on the jaw dropping phenomenon of watching a game like that live, when your skin crawls the entire time and the power of the moment spreads to you, the viewer at home, and you feel like you could take on the world, just like Brandon Roy did on April 23, 2011.  Where was I at the time? I was on a miserable ride home on the LIRR, tracking the game on my iPhone.

Rajon Rondo is currently one of my favorite players in the NBA. He may not be as dependable or offensively skilled as a scorer like Derrick Rose is, but he is a playmaking freak and force of nature. Rondo’s ability to control the basketball, to make freakish layups with his alien hands, is unparalleled in the league (well, maybe, Chris Paul can match it). Some of the moves and motions he makes when he drives or moves the ball around the key have never been seen on a basketball court. Rose is a phenomenal player, an MVP, but he is not singular. We do have Russell Westbrook after all.

This past Saturday, the Boston Celtics played the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Heat had taken a 2-0 lead in the series and were clearly acting as the aggressors against an aging Boston team that usually prides itself on its toughness, on being the team that lands the first blow to the face. The Celtics needed Game 3 and they came out like it. I watched in the kitchen of my parents' home as Boston pulled ahead early.  However, Miami came back and took a lead going into halftime, as the Boston Garden crowd grew anxious.

The Celtics came out with aggression in the third quarter and took a lead.  However, during the quarter as Dwyane Wade drove to the basket, he and Rondo got tangled and fell to the floor. I received a text message from my friend Jeff.

Jeff: I just almost threw up seeing that hyperextension on Rondo’s elbow

Me: I missed it

Jeff: Oh man it like bent the way it should but backwards so sickening

Where was I? I was in the basement of my friend’s mom’s house drinking beer and waiting to go the local bar in my hometown.  We didn’t have the TV on because no one likes watching basketball.  I saw the footage after the fact.  How it looked like Wade might have swept Rondo down in the awkward position, but it was really just incidental contact. Then, how Rondo had to leave the court and how the initial rumors from the locker room were that his season might be over due to a dislocated elbow. I watched further as Rondo then came back to a roaring ovation from the crowd and proceeded to fuel the Celtics to a victory running around the court with his left arm looking like dead weight.  He managed to play with one hand and even came up with an amazing steal before swooping in for a patented, slinky Rondo layup. I scanned the crowd as I watched the replays and saw the Boston Garden crowd, which is already one of my favorite crowds in the NBA, going absolutely nuts each time Rondo did something. They exploded with ten times the force of a reaction to a Ray Allen three pointer and that is the single best crowd reaction in the NBA today. I got chills seeing Rondo walk back onto the court and as I watched, I focused on one fan who was just idly clapping as he noticed Rondo entering the game again. The fan pauses for a second and then immediately explodes as the excitement spreads to the rest of the crowd. Rondo was not Rondo for the rest of the game, but he tipped a ball away with his injured hand and put the effort out there and that stood as a symbol to the crowd and the team, that they weren’t going to let History be written without their say, not on that night.  Rondo and History intersected and it was a brief moment where History gleamed bright and apparent.

Basically, this is a literary way of saying that as a sports fan you feel a constant urge to be in front of the TV whenever there is a game on because you might miss that very direct line to seeing History directly. We can move about each day in our own mundane, yet mythically important ways, but its never easier, never more direct than when a great sporting moment arrives.  There are plenty of blowouts and no shows. There are teams that are simply overmatched no matter how much we want them to succeed as the underdog.  However, there are those rare days and nights, those special games where history crosses paths with a specific team or individual and it is loud and clear. History is in the hands of that player or that team and they can mold it. That’s why we sift through the everyday, for that chance to take History by the reins and write what we want. That’s why the sports fan never wants to leave the TV.

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