Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Matter of Degrees

I’ve been feeling strange ever since the Miami Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals. I’ve been feeling strange because as the Playoffs and Finals went on, I realized how attached I had gotten to the 2011 Miami Heat.  When the Heat played, I found myself yelling and throwing things if they were behind; I sent frantic texts to friends and ignored their calls to rehash the game if the Heat lost. This is behavior that I usually reserve for the Philadelphia Eagles, Philadelphia Phillies, Rafael Nadal and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Each of those sports entities represent a sort of workingman’s or humble approach to their respective sport (the Tar Heels have been wildly successful over the years, but they retain some sort of farmhouse/schoolroom charm due to Dean Smith’s legacy). The Miami Heat are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. They are “hollywood,” as Joakim Noah said. Or so that is what we have been told over the past eleven months.

When the Mavericks beat the Heat, I tweeted that the Mavericks and Dirk winning were a feel good story, but that the Heat winning would have been much more culturally relevant. What does that mean exactly? It means we would have had to ask ourselves more questions about what we believe in and what is actually acceptable. If the Heat won, all sports fans would have had to look themselves in the mirror and ask, “Is this what it has come to? Is this what sports will be like from now on?” They would have had to accept the fact that three great talents (two especially transcendent talents) came together to win a championship with a cobbled together roster. They would have had to watch this video, nod their heads and say, “Welp, they were right.” However, that is not the reality we live in. Now sports pundits and former athletes can remain in their holier than thou stances and say, “I was right. I knew it wouldn’t work.” Now the world can take solace that there is an “order” to things and that there is a certain way things are done.

What baffles me is that normally I would love the Dallas Mavericks. Dirk is an all-time great with a ridiculous shot and secret training exercises that make his game so unique. He was hounded and tortured by the media for years and deserved a chance to prove how great he has been once and for all. Kidd is a Hall of Famer who deserves everything good (basketball-wise, how he is as a person is up for debate) to happen to him. Chandler started out as a young player who got a lot of money and hype during a bad time for the league, was given up on and who has now reinvented himself as a poor-man’s Kevin Garnett—which is a high compliment for anyone. And Shawn Marion is a likeable glue guy. This was a team of veterans who had seen all the in’s and outs of the NBA, played very well together and deserved a championship. Yet, I couldn’t embrace them. I even began to hate them as the Finals went on. There was just something in me that wanted to see the Heat win. If I hated the 2007 Patriots, then why did I love the 2011 Miami Heat?

For some reason this Miami Heat team represented something different to me than they did to the rest of the world. Even after the Decision, when Wade, LeBron and Bosh all came together, I thought, “This is great. These guys will have to figure out how to co-exist. They will have to find their roles and work together. Plus they’re taking less money. What an experiment! What a risk!” Of course I realized that the Decision itself was awful and that their welcome celebration was something straight out of the WWE (O, lost! O, WWF!) Perhaps it is some fault in my character, but those things didn’t matter to me. I took them at face value as stupid mistakes and moved on. I tend to do that in the world: take actions and situations as they are and try to move on. This may be some sort of coping mechanism that might lead to my undoing, but maybe not. To me, something happens and then something else happens and you react accordingly in a continuing succession proceeding on until death. So, I never dwelled in what the Miami Heat were perceived to be in a hyper-critical, hyper-informed and hyper-intelligent culture. I saw three guys playing together. Maybe they were scared of some kind of spotlight, but maybe they were truly concerned with winning championships and were very willing to figure out the right way to play in order to do that. I could be an optimist.

As the season wore on and the hatred against the Heat began to build to levels that had not been seen in years or perhaps ever, I was further drawn to them. I defended them against people I talked to; I defended them (in my head) against the pundits who were so eager to state the bottom line about the Heat at each stage of the season. I have always loved sports for the narrative, and to me the 2011 Miami Heat were the very definition of narrative. They were drama in its original form. There was a fall from grace; there was a journey to seek redemption; there was a search for some kind of truth, some essence and in this case it was basketball. How would they run offense? How would they use their athleticism to play excellent defense? Even though they didn’t have their entire healthy roster until the Playoffs, I still wondered how they would use the diversity of their roster to trot out a lineup that not many teams in NBA history had ever used: Wade, Miller, LeBron, Haslem, Bosh; a lineup with no point guard that they finally used in the Playoffs but only sparingly because Miller’s thumbs didn’t work. The Miami Heat and all of their questions made me pay much closer attention to basketball than I ever had. I ignored the hard stats, but paid attention to how frequently they ran lineups. I watched the game “off the ball” or the action away from the ball more than I ever had. I wanted these guys to figure it out, because if they could figure it out then there was a promise that the most beautiful basketball would be played—that the essence of basketball itself would be presented. The Mavericks played excellent offense in the Playoffs and the Finals. They moved the ball with precision and speed. They made extra passes and played off each other with ease. However, there was never the same promise that came with the Heat starting from nothing and slowly learning how to play the most beautiful basketball of all-time.  I never had a chance to watch the 1986 Celtics, widely considered the most fluent (in the language of basketball) and fluid basketball team of all-time. I saw the 1996 Bulls, but they were based more on the freakishness of Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and Harper and their length (as well as the force of Jordan’s fire) than they were on an essence of basketball. The Heat held the promise of something spiritual.

My love of the Heat could have also stemmed from the fact that I am obsessed with roles. I am obsessed with the roles we fill in our lives and in the lives of others. We are objects that interact with each other and our position to and perception by another object creates a certain role that can be filled at anytime.  We are all capable of anything—history has taught us that, as Michael Corleone said—but there are only the certain few who can recognize a role forming and presenting itself and can play that role to its fullest (see Don Draper). Then there are the even more select few who can play multiple roles to their fullest degree (see Young Hal/Henry V and Bob Dylan). Something about this is tied to history and I’m going to keep trying to figure that out for the rest of my life. I love roles, which is why I love Mad Men since it is all about how we fit into our lives and the lives of others, not only at work but in our personal life. When do you have to admit that you are great at a certain job for a reason and that perhaps that is your role to play to its fullest? When do you give up a delusion for the role you were born to play? This holds true in the NBA. There have been plenty of cases where a great player is bogged down by his want to be something he is not. All it takes is being on the right team to figure out his role and to settle into being the player he was meant to be. It may not have been what he wanted to be, but it is what he was meant to be. Perhaps it was his want that was a delusion after all.

Now, one would say that the Mavericks were more role based than the Heat. There was a clear pecking order with Dirk as the go-to scorer and star, Chandler as the defensive presence, Kidd as the steady hand, Marion as the lanky wing defender and sneaky 15 point scorer, Stojakovic as the three point specialist and Terry and Barea as the bench sparkplugs. Earlier in each of these players’ careers there was a time when they either wanted to be more or had to be more than hey were capable of, but on the 2011 Mavericks, they could play a role that suited them and that contributed to the entire team. The identifying and playing roles is part of “The Secret” as Bill Simmons called it. And the Mavericks exemplified it to perfection. They were hard-working veterans who knew how to play a role and that’s what we want from our athletes and the world.

Yet, the Heat were more compelling. We had the endless debate over who would be the go-to guy, Wade or LeBron. There was the question of whether or not Bosh could demand the ball enough. Who would be the three point specialist, Chalmers, Miller or Jones? Who would do the rebounding work once Haslem was injured? Would Joel Anthony be able coordinate himself to play forceful and utilitarian basketball? Again, there was an element of going from nothing to everything that was inherent in the 2011 Miami Heat. They were under the microscope and had to create an entire world, an entire team existence with every discerning eye in the cultural world turned towards them.

So, maybe in the end it becomes a game of degrees (no pun intended). With the Heat, the degree to which they had to decide their roles was far more interesting to me than the Mavericks falling into line with an established tradition of roles falling into place over time. Instead, the Heat and their stars voluntarily sped-up the process of role-finding and role-playing. They did it in the interest of winning championships. I can appreciate the Mavericks. I know why they are a good team and why they deserved to win a championship. With the Miami Heat, I still don’t know why I am completely fascinated by them and I think when many people look past their initial, unreasoned hate (besides Cleveland fans), they will find the same confusion. Even if the Heat had won the championship this year, we still would have not seen them play their best basketball, which would have been a scary and yet still fascinating thing. We would’ve (hopefully there’s no lockout) headed into the 2011-2012 season with a hated team that won the championship without playing their best. They would have been even more hated as the champions and we would still be wondering what made them tick and what they were possible of. We would’ve wondered why we cared and if perhaps we were merely slaves to an established history of acceptable success. We would’ve continued to question roles, including our own roles as observers of sports and culture.

I suppose we still have some of that, but we don’t have it all.  We have another nice story to add to our collection. But, like I said, I’m a man of degrees. And a deserving Dirk winning a championship took a few degrees of questioning and meaning away. It was a nice story, but there was something more lurking. And perhaps that’s why we have history.

1 comment:

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