Tomorrow's game may be the last game you see all year. Come this offseason there will be a different battle over the game's financial future, as owners and players mud-wrestle for their share of the profits. Yet that is very much a concern of the moment; once all the legal i's are dotted and p's and q's minded, the league will go on. The game will go on. For the average fan, what will transpire in these NBA Finals is something far more permanent, even if its impact is far less expansive. In these Finals, legacies will be being forged. Hearts will be questioned. The soul of basketball may not be at stake, but it certainly feels that way.
In a parallel world, the Miami Heat are heroes. They are the X-Men, the Beatles, Robert and Hulk Hogan. They are labor, challenging the bourgeois notion that management controls where and with whom you play. They are revolutionaries, a merging of speed and power, reinventing the game on both ends of the floor. They are an aerial show, as garish and American a spectacle as the Blue Angels. Yet they are not perfect and thus never boring. Their flaws stick out like thorns on a rose(1). At times, these Miami Heat look tired. Nervous. They are as heroic as they are tragic, flying through the air only to get run over by a passing JET. Ultimately, however, heroism wins out. Talent wins out. Tragedy is revealed to be merely the birth pangs of adversity. In the end, the good guys always win. The Miami Heat always win.
In our world, the Miami Heat can still win the championship, but not as heroes. Heroes are impossibly humble(2), and the perception that clings to the Heat is one of vanity and arrogance. These are villain traits. Only villains are vain and arrogant enough to come up with convoluted death traps, like lowering a helpless damsel into an acid pool while noxious gas is pumped in and sharks are shot out of cannons. The Decision was a death trap. The Welcome Party was a death trap. All Cleveland fans wanted was a shot in the head.
The death trap, however, didn't end with the decision. It was an intricate and torturous machine, lowered slowly and excruciatingly over the course of the season, eventuating with a Miami Heat championship. The audience could only sit and watch, hoping in the back of their minds that this death trap, like all death traps, was doomed to fail. In the end, the hero would come to save the girl.
On the surface, a team featuring an imposing German, a domestically violent point guard and a trash-talking goon would not be cast as the protagonists in a sports movie. In fact, that's pretty much the recipe for every movie villain in the 80s. The Mavericks, however, are very much America's Team, mostly because what happened to Cleveland could very well happen to us, but also because of how antithetical they are to their opponent.
Unlike the microwave insta-contender that is the Heat, management built this team from the ground up through draft guile and savvy free agent acquisitions. When their star was given the chance to bolt for greener pastures, he stayed. While the Heat and LeBron James are not ethically more duplicitous than their Maverick counterparts, it certainly feels that way to those of us reared on concepts like loyalty(3) and hard work.
Then there is the sense of entitlement. The notion that this team, by virtue of its roster, is slated for 70 win seasons and at least 8 Larry O'Brien trophies. At the time of their preseason firework fiesta, the Miami Heat felt like kings without crowns, sitting on a throne that they assumed was theirs by birthright, proudly wearing the emperor's new and invisible ring. The Mavericks, on the other hand, are a rags to riches story, Horatio Algers in jerseys and shorts. Not only are they castoffs and underdogs, but underdogs to the very franchise of scum, hair product and well-tanned villainy that cheated them out of the title in 2006. In an age where opponents are often friends off the court, where rooting for a team doesn't preclude ill-will toward another, there is genuine vitriol between these players, real hate and loathing between America and Heat fans. So polarizing are these teams that the word rooting doesn't suffice. When it comes to the outcome of the 2011 Finals, people have an actual stake. And it is very, very easy to have a stake in the Dallas Mavericks. They are the heroes. They are the likable bunch and the humble servants and the good eggs.
Only on the court, the good eggs can crack. The humble get served. The likable and lovable are losers more often than not. And the good guys, for all their goodness, don't always win.
It wouldn't be a very compelling death trap otherwise. Game 6 and 7 may be in Miami, but I, for one, still hold out hope for a dramatic escape.
1. A rose, by the way, that bandwagoners clutched in earnest and now their hands are bleeding. Ow, my hands, they say.
2. Arguably, anyone who reaches the pinnacle of their profession is probably arrogant. Confidence not just bordering on arrogance, but leaping over it (see Jordan, Michael) is often what separates the great and very good. Humility from athletes is mostly a farce, done for the fans because we have a natural tendency to despise arrogance, even if it's deserved.
3. Again, "loyalty" being kind of a farce, as management often shows no such loyalty to players with little consequence from the fanbase.