Monday, June 13, 2011

BDT -- A Finals for the Ages (June 13)

I may or may not have cried a little last night...
Rarely in life do actual events live up to their lofty expectations. You receive bag after bag of ugly sweaters for your birthday, your first car ends up being a crappy 1997 Saturn SC-1 that needs an engine replacement within a month, and your first girlfriend is…well, let’s just agree to nod grimly and move on, okay? Good. This is true not only in the “real” world, but also in the sports world. The Super Bowl has given us such gems as Bucs-Raiders, Giants-Ravens, Kerry Collins throwing 37 interceptions during Giants-Ravens, and Kerry Collins playing in the Super Bowl to begin with. (Honorable mention goes to Rex Grossman ever throwing a single pass in his life) The World Series has given us major disappointments such as steroids and baseball in general. And the NBA has given us such clunkers as the WNBA (wait, forget that one…I forgot I was talking about things with lofty expectations) and the late ‘90’s.

All joking aside, it’s far too common for the biggest and brightest sporting events to fall well short of their lofty billing. Super Bowls end in blowouts, big fights end in second round knockouts, and the U.S. Open is won by Louis Oosthuizen (you know it’s disappointing when I have to Google a list of U.S. Open winners to figure out how to spell the guys name!) And really, it’s not surprising! Considering the non-stop 24/7 media coverage, the painfully forced plotlines, and the way-too-smart-for-their-own-good analysts, it’s a wonder any event lives up to expectations.

Into the midst of this ever present media feeding frenzy strode the 2011 NBA Finals with the Miami Heat circus and their three high profile ringleaders leading from the front. Perhaps it was the chance to see all time greats cement their legacies or perhaps it was the chance to see a certain ringleader (Lebron) get his head bitten off by Siegfried & Roy’s white tiger; either way, the 2011 NBA Finals was as hyped up as any sporting event in recent memory. The best part is, it lived up to it…and then some!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was “THE BEST FINALS EVER,” as I’m sure many clowns are doing at this very moment. Just off the top of my head, I can think of at least three Finals matchups I wouldn’t hesitate to rank above this year’s Dallas-Miami duel. Still, it’s not about being “THE BEST FINALS EVER.” There’s no need to attach an overstated label to it. In our culture of constant hype and hyperbole, we often lose the ability to find joy in taking things for what they are. What Dallas-Miami was, was a great matchup, a great series, and a great ending. As Dirk Nowitzki held aloft his long awaited Larry O’Brien championship trophy, his emotions flooding to the surface, I couldn’t help but feel emotional myself; not just because of who didn’t win, but because of who did win.

In the smaller picture, it was a victory for several long overdue veterans and a long overdue franchise. First and foremost on that list is Dirk Nowitzki. I’ll fondly remember many things from this series, but none more so than watching Dirk sprint to the locker room as the final buzzer sounded. Thirteen years of hard work, criticism, and heartbreak brought him to that final moment last night and it was an incredibly refreshing experience to see such a “real” moment from an athlete of Dirk’s caliber. For every fan who laments the arrogant and aloof nature of today’s stars, Dirk’s Dash is a moment to relish and Dirk is a superstar to cherish. Unlike his flashy series counterparts, Dirk does no talking and takes nothing for granted. The work he has put in on his game over the years is highly evident, as is his transformation as a leader. Unlike 2006 and 2007, Dirk was ready for this opportunity and he simply would not allow his team to fall short. I don’t know Dirk personally, and I’ll likely never get an opportunity to speak with him, but I feel a huge sense of satisfaction in his success. Simply seeing him hoist the trophy last night was more than enough for me to qualify this series as a success.

Beyond Dirk’s triumph stood several other feel good success stories. Jason Kidd, after 16 fruitless seasons, came through with several ‘dagger’ three pointers through the series to win his first championship. The 38 year old Kidd, who’s lost a lot of quickness over the years, ably guarded Lebron James through a large portion of the series and was a key factor in Dallas’ epic comebacks.

Jason Terry, after also going through the 2006 heartbreak, talked a very big and very dangerous game to Lebron…and backed it up by torching him in Games 4-6. Turns out, ‘The Jet’ was so confident in his team’s title chances that he tattooed the Larry O’Brien trophy on his bicep before the season and promised to have it painfully removed if they didn’t bring it home. Move aside Joe Namath!  

The Dallas Maverick fans, who are perhaps one of the most dedicated fan bases in all of sports, have suffered through many heartbreaking losses during the Dirk Nowitzki era. Unlike certain fan bases (*cough* New York *cough*), they never turned on their players or their team and they deserved to be rewarded after all their patience.

The Cleveland Cavaliers fans and Rashard Lewis…cmon, did you really think I wouldn’t bring it up?

In the bigger picture, this was a victory for basketball. The Dallas Mavericks, led by one superstar (Dirk…who’s been with Dallas 13 years) and a strong supporting cast, and having valued defense, strong coaching, and teamwork defeated the Miami Heat, a three man team that eschewed the principles of roles and chemistry. In some ways, I’m making way too much out of this storyline. In many ways, this is exactly what the storyline is. While the main lead should be about Dallas’ victory, I would be remiss if I did not give Miami’s failure its appropriate space. After all, from “The Decision,” to “The Celebration,” to the Heat Index, to the Sportscenter highlights; this season has been all about the Miami Heat.

Call me a hater, call me biased, call me whatever you will, but last night was the absolute perfect unhappy ending to the Miami Heat’s season…specifically for Lebron James. In an unbelievable stroke of beautiful irony, the likes of which only come from classic literature, Lebron became that which he despised. For years, Lebron has complained about his lack of help in Cleveland. For years, Lebron has lamented how difficult it is to carry his team alone. Last summer, he took his fate in his own hands and “fixed” all his problems by joining forces with Wade and Bosh. No longer would Lebron have need of help. No longer would Lebron be forced to put mediocrity on his back. Yet, as Wade tirelessly worked to salvage the series, there was no sight of Lebron. He had disappeared, essentially becoming the embodiment of all the Cleveland teammates he so hastily discarded.

We may never know where his mind was during the series or why he disappeared, but we know it happened, and that tells a huge story in and of itself. The former two time MVP, the “Chosen One,” seemingly lost his game and identity overnight. After a hot start to last night’s deciding Game 6, it seemed as if Lebron was finally prepared to meet the challenge and live up to expectations, but like the previous three games, “The King” willingly handed his crown to another.

In a fitting end to the season, Lebron and Wade were forced to conduct their postgame interview just a few feet from where they staged their “way too premature championship celebration”…all while being able to clearly hear the Dallas celebration in the locker room behind them. Did I take a sick, sadistic pleasure in watching this? Absolutely! All in all, this gem of a postgame press conference was like the beautiful red cherry on top of the sundae. Watching Miami melt down in Game 2 was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever watched. Watching Quitness 2.0 in Game 4, all while Dirk battled through illness to make the game winner, was extremely satisfying. Watching Jason Terry and J.J. Barea stick it to Lebron and Co. in Game 5 was stunning. And with every second that ticked off the clock last night I was that much happier; loudly proclaiming “THEY’RE GOING TO DO IT!” as the two minute mark approached. As time ran down, that familiar look of defeat washed back over Miami’s faces and they did what every “champion” does…they quit. They stopped fouling, they stopped doing anything resembling that of a winner…they simply quit. And it was awesome.

Perhaps I shouldn’t take so much pleasure in their failure; perhaps I should cut Lebron some slack. Honestly, I loved the guy when he first came to Cleveland, but that seems so long ago. No, he was never really a humble guy, but he wasn’t the monster that he is now. During his press conference, I was looking for any sign of sadness or remorse, but all I found was arrogance and stupidity.

“All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they have to get back to the real world at some point.” – Lebron James

And there you have it; this is the real Lebron James. This is why I openly root for his failure. Even after the most devastating loss in his career, he simply can’t find any room for humility in his life. Lebron talked of “working hard” and “improving his game,” but there is no evidence he has ever committed to doing either of those things thus far in his career. Eight seasons in and he still has no mid range game. Eight seasons in and he still has no post moves. You’re right Lebron, I’ve gotta go back to the real world today and I’ve got the same problems I had before. The thing is, here in this real world, you’re a quitter and you’re the most hated man in sports.

No doubt, this series lived up to expectations. No, the play wasn’t always at a high level (specifically Games 1-4), but they were close, hard fought affairs. No, the shooting wasn’t always great, but the heroics were stunning. Emotions ran high as unabashed support and menacing hatred ran on both sides. In the end, the better team won and the better superstar prevailed. For once, the storylines didn’t feel so manufactured and the stakes seemed to match the magnitude of the event. In all honesty, as a basketball fan, I feel privileged to have watched the 2011 NBA Finals.

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