While frantically and excitedly sharing the roller-coaster high from the unbelievable back and forth ending of game 6 on gchat, a curiously novel thing happened. I discovered that both a nerdy friend of mine, as well as one of the 26 and stupid, couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. The fact that many people don’t follow basketball isn’t shocking. But for these two I felt a strange mixture of both sympathy and envy, that they didn’t and might never grasp the magic that just happened, and that they didn’t and might never be enthralled by a sport enough to care.
If I could choose one fleeting occasion to perform a Vulcan mind meld, or grant understanding of the Mass Effect Cipher so a friend could feel or understand the images from a Prothean beacon of this basketball series, or whatever other method best encapsulates the act of transferring understanding and empathy to another person, I would have chosen the last 20 minutes of game 6 for the uninitiated basketball fan. But, since this is real life, I can only write.
So, with the clock ticking down rapidly to game 7, all I can really do to set the stage is give you the characters who will be on stage tonight. The basketball part will take care of itself.
The Miami Heat – seen as the powerful but deplorable embodiment of the “new” NBA: superstar and even rival players conspiring to play together, adding mercenary veterans hungry for championships to make formidably stacked squads that try to “buy” championships. as a result, each struggle or stumble is amplified. their main characters:
Lebron James: the focus of the story, the most polarizing and pressured athlete and maybe HUMAN ever. whenever you hear about child prodigies, it’s usually about how they failed to reach their potential, and it’s part schadenfreude, part warning. Lebron was anointed King James before his teen years were over; his high school games were nationally televised, his face was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, his every move was dissected and analyzed, he inked a $90 million shoe deal from Nike before he ever stepped on an NBA court. and because he met and even exceeded the gargantuan expectations placed upon him, to his detractors the warning story no longer existed…it could only be schadenfreude from here on out. here a man is anointed king, proclaims himself a “Heatle” and stars in pompous ceremonies promising untold success after coldly abandoning his first kingdom of Cleveland to join two other mighty warriors in taking his “talents to South Beach”. all of this, in the age of social media and instant reaction and accessibility where no stone is left unturned and no quote is spared from being turned every which way to squeeze out a story.
by this point, noone disputes any longer that Lebron is the best basketball player in the world. so naturally, the expectations go even higher, and he’s now playing every day, every playoff series to prove or disprove that he’s the best EVER. if you try to climb Mount Jordan, you’re going to be in its shadow for a long, long time. possibly forever. for a man who’s been under the microscope for most of his basketball evolution, his every tendency, attribute, and decision endlessly dissected, it’s just adding another fathom to the unfathomable. i could go crazy trying to figure out how Lebron James stays sane. even his successes become disappointments, reminders that he hasn’t reached the summit from people who don’t think he deserves to and hope he doesn’t. he’s only won one championship, while even Kobe has five to Jordan’s six. the King was also denied the crown in his first two NBA finals series, the first to these very Spurs when he carried an otherwise terrible team to the championship best-of-7 round, the second two seasons ago when he first joined with stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. you’re in Lebron’s world when carrying a vastly overachieving and overmatched team into championship contention is a stain on your record because you couldn’t take them all the way.
Dwyane Wade: the aging, capable but unpredictable and petulant prince. showed his potential by leading Miami to their first championship in 2006, seemingly well on his way to being one of the flagbearers for this generation of NBA greats. one of Lebron’s great rivals before the two decided to play together, Wade is fiery and ruthless where Lebron is sometimes disengaged. over the years, as Wade’s Heat struggled after the departure of Shaquille O’Neal, it became clear that he would need help to return to the pinnacle. Wade’s scandalous marital disintegration, reputation for laziness in offseason workouts, and growing bag of dirty old man tactics have eroded his popularity in recent years, especially as a reckless playstyle and age take their toll and reduce him to an occasionally moody, unreliable right hand man for Lebron
Chris Bosh: the Gimli of Miami’s Big Three, Bosh lacks the flash and appeal of Wade (Legolas), and is unburdened by the responsibility, expectations, and destiny of Aragorn (Lebron). like Gimli, he looks more beast than man and hails from a distant land wracked by constant disgrace and failure (the Toronto Raptors), but is a uniquely skilled and important player who came up HUGE in game 6
Ray Allen: the perfect Barristan Selmy (Game of Thrones). an old veteran still respected for his nearly unmatched shooting (swordsmanship) prowess, Allen was disrespected for his years of loyal service to Boston (Robert/Joffrey Baratheon) when he was consistently dangled to other teams as a mere trade piece, leading to a move to their bitter rivals in Miami. once starred as a young basketball talent named Jesus (with Denzel Washington playing his father) in Spike Lee’s He Got Game, earning religious exaltation from Miami fans with a clutch last-second shot for the ages
The San Antonio Spurs – seen as a homegrown dynasty that has achieved sustained success and competed for championships for nearly two decades because they do things the right way, playing a beautiful brand of unselfish basketball in stark contrast to the league’s me-first stars. but age and attrition have taken their toll, and this might be the last time the trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, who have played together for over a decade and known no other teams, go to battle together.
Gregg Popovich – the publicly surly coach and leader of the Spurs doesn’t tolerate tomfoolery. a reporter’s nightmare, an adored hero to those who love no-nonsense coaches who give it to nonsense media, a cheeky troll, a privately demanding but warm and loyal figure who once broke down when one of his favorite players was traded. a big picture innovator and planner, sometimes controversially giving his best players time off so they can stay fresh through the regular season NBA grind to be ready for the games that matter: the playoffs. an organizational mastermind, turning unwanted pieces and unorthodox talents into irreplaceable parts of a humming basketball machine. since the Spurs have had Popovich, other champions have burned bright but flamed out as quickly as their stars, while Pop’s system has always remained stable and relevant.
Tim Duncan – the rock upon which this Spurs team is built. immediately dominant upon entering the league 16 years ago, Duncan is the living paragon of what “oldschool” basketball players revere: fundamentals over flash, attention to detail and consistency over highlight reel explosiveness, stoic humility and quiet fire over social media shenanigans and expressive cockiness. not apparently blessed with otherworldly raw physical tools, Duncan’s brilliance and knack for stepping up to meet the moment has solidified his reputation as the greatest Power Forward of all-time, as the anchor of four championship teams. every time Tim Duncan has made it to the Finals, his Spurs have emerged NBA champions. Including against a younger Lebron years ago.
Tony Parker – perenially underrated like the rest of the Spurs, Parker was overlooked in his draft class, and took years to emerge and evolve from a speedy annoyance to a polished orchestrator with a complete toolkit of skills and moves and a knack for making the right decisions and big plays. with Duncan now 37 years of age, an ancient by NBA standards, Parker has finally become the centerpiece of the team, which has adapted and built around him this season, bringing him the recognition he’s long deserved.
Manu Ginobili – basketball, like any other professional sport, is played by athletes blessed with incredible physical abilities. but every so often comes a player whose skills, instincts, touch, and easy mastery of high-difficulty maneuvers at high speeds trumps any merely physical wow factor. most of us can’t dunk, but even those who can will likely never replicate the amazing ball skills of this “euro” maestro. together with Parker (French) and other stars like Dirk Nowitzki (German), Ginobili is a respected elder of the growth of international basketball, setting a standard for foreign players hoping to play in the world’s best league.
So, I did leave out some people you’ll hear mentioned tonight. Like Pat Riley, the Tywin Lannister mastermind of the Heat who maneuvered to bring this formidable group together in the summer of 2010. Or Kawhi Leonard, the future of the Spurs, a battle-tested young talent in the stoic mold of Duncan, who has made Lebron look somewhat containable. Or Danny Green, a 3-point shooting specialist who has already broken Finals records with his white hot performances through the first five games.
The Spurs seek to bookend a dynasty that began 15 years ago in Tim Duncan’s second season by claiming their fifth championship. They always seem to be a step ahead of the league while taking the long view, doing things their own unconventionally effective way, finding talent in unlikely places, and keeping their alchemical brew potent and fresh.
The Heat hope to begin a dynasty of their own, one that was foretold and expected, one whose premature collapse or failure will permanently damage the legacy of one of the greatest basketball players ever. They won last year’s championship, but when you’re the Miami Heat, only this year counts.