I gave up trying to sort out what happened on the court. Let me just try to organize my own thoughts.
“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou’s words often ring true in life, and I think I will find them to be a fitting summation of my experience of the 2014 NBA Finals.
I love the Spurs. They’re about as close to a “favorite team” as I have in the NBA. Manu Ginobili is probably my favorite basketball player. Everything that people said about them over the last week and a half is true: they play basketball the “right” way, they are great teammates, it’s a great story, a classy team and organization, a roster built the right way, Pop is an outstanding coach, these are all-time great players, they are a ton of fun to watch, and they’re the best basketball team in the world. I love all those things. It’s almost as if the Spurs were made to be a team for the SneakyGoodSportsGuy.
But I was cheering for the Heat.
I’ll almost feel guilty wearing my Spurs snapback and my Ginobili shirt because I wanted Miami to win that series. Did I pick them before the season and the series to win and may that have clouded my judgement? Maybe. Do my hoopster tendencies make me somewhat of an antagonist who picks against the masses? Sure. Do I inwardly fume when I hear people hate on the Heat and especially LeBron James? Most certainly. Would I like to see Skip Bayless eat humble pie with a side of crow? Yes.
But set all that aside. I was cheering for the Heat no matter what.
Sports are kind of a big deal to me. Basketball is my favorite one. And it is to basketball that my allegiance goes first before the NBA. I care dearly for the well-being of both, but if I can only have one I’ll take the game itself over its premier association. Surely, surely, the Spurs must be the team that does more for both. And the way the Heat were set up and the way they play may even be slightly compromising to the integrity of both. And the Heat play in Miami for some of the weakest fans in the NBA.
But something in me made me want to see the Heat win, perhaps against my better judgements. So I had to contain my awe of the Spurs’ ball movement. I had to at least slightly suppress my joy when seeing Manu Ginobili do his thing. I had to ignore how crushing a second straight Finals defeat would be for such a likable group of guys. I had to put off being a fan of the Spurs and the way they do things until after the series was over.
And that created a weird feeling in me. The incongruity of my sports personality and the Miami organization, my Spurs-fandom-on-hold, and the surprising way the series unfolded made the entire five games a strange sports watching experience, and a similar feeling sits with me now as I try to piece things together. The emptiness I feel is probably due to the fact that this was supposed to be an epic 6 or 7 game series, but there is more to this than a slight feeling of an unsatisfactory sports conclusion.
There are three reasons I’m finding that made me want to see the Heat win. The first is that, ironically, the praise of the Spurs’ unselfish play made me defensive about the NBA. Most times when someone would talk about the Spurs playing the “right” way, I knew that comment was barbed with criticism for the other 29 teams in the Association. I knew it was a jab at the way teams play basketball. And, in some cases, it was surely a misguided plug for the “quality” of college basketball. I love what San Antonio’s style does for basketball as a game (because team play is a concept lost on so many young ballers), but as I have lamented before so much criticism of the NBA is misguided and uninformed. I felt like San Antonio’s success and the praises that followed ultimately diluted the analysis of the NBA. Perhaps some people will try a few extra passes in their pickup games, but I doubt we’ll see an increase in support for the best basketball in the world.
To take this first reason in a slightly different direction, I felt like the Heat were the keepers of my generation of sports and sportswriting. I’m not saying I love this generation and what it stands for (in basketball or culturally) but it’s still mine, and hopefully my voice can one day contribute to shaping it. Yes, the Miami Heat are a representation of the lazy instant gratification-seeking silly young people of this day and age, but they’re also a representation of the creativity and vibrancy that I think our culture might move towards if we can move past racism, xenophobia, close-minded conservatives and annoying liberals (that sentence got weird in a hurry. I hope you at least glean something from it). Bottomline, if I want the generation that I am begrudgingly a part of to succeed, then I might as well support this generation’s representatives while emphasizing its strengths and working to fix its weaknesses.
The second reason is because I wanted to see an all-time great team. I’m not a front-runner, but I wanted the Miami Heat to validate themselves as one of the four best teams in the post-Russell era (80’s Lakers and Celtics, 90’s Bulls). Now we can have the discussion if they’re even at the level of the Shaq and Kobe Lakers (probably not). Especially after being so close to losing last year too, the Heat needed to win this year to move up the ladder of great teams. We can’t call the Big Three a failure (and they may not be done yet, either) but going 2-2 kind of seems a little ho-hum. I didn’t want ho-hum. I wanted all-time great. (Ironically, I got the all-time great with the Spurs winning this one. Funny how that works out).
The third reason is LeBron James. If you want to understand more fully, after you’re done reading this go ahead and read this. I’m running right alongside LeBron in that “Training Day” commercial. I thought we had finally reached a place where the criticisms of him could stop and we could just enjoy watching him be the best, but we’re clearly not there, especially after his team just lost in 5 games. Call it front-running, call it Walter White Syndrome, I’ll call it appreciating the greatest. I want to watch him play and I find it impossible to want to see him fail. Maybe in the long term this will be good for him. Maybe, in the same way the loss to Dallas in 2011 made him stronger, this loss will improve him as well. Maybe he will get next level mad and unleash something never seen before on the NBA. Maybe he will win the next five championships.
Or maybe his body will wear down far more quickly than we expected. Maybe he will leave for another team and get crushed by the criticism he receives. Maybe Carmelo Anthony joins the team and makes a mess of everything. Maybe we never see LeBron James play at an MVP level. So yeah, this might make him better, but I was willing to play it safe and just have him win again this year.
But now the Finals is done and over and I can let my Heat supporting subside for a while. While I still wish the series had been more epic, I can appreciate it more. We got some moments from LeBron, the Spurs were magnificent, Kawhi Leonard became the man, Ginobili was being Ginobili and there were a number of fantastic plays. Time will move on, and the summer will be full of great sports and sports stories, with the World Cup, NBA Draft, free agency, and X Games. This series will be a critical chapter that marks a lifetime event for the Spurs but a catalyst for the next five years for the Heat. There will be more stuff to talk about. Sports will move on. Life will move on.
As Dr. Angelou’s quote suggests, I’ll probably end up forgetting a lot about this series. I’ll forget specific plays and strategies. The important thing will be the way it made me feel watching it, which, as I’ve just explained, was a pretty complicated feeling.
There is however, one thing from this series that, above all else (well, maybe not Ginobili’s dunk) I will remember. Not just the way it made me feel, but what specifically happened. During a timeout in Game 4, when the Spurs’ victory was no longer in doubt, Gregg Popovich pulled his young star, Kawhi Leonard, aside and talked to him. “I couldn’t be more proud of you…. You made some shots, and you played good D. But you competed – 50/50 balls, being active, the whole deal.” All the while, Leonard avoided eye contact, shaking his head slightly, appearing to be almost on the verge of tears. After a miserable first two games, Leonard responded by dominating the next three and winning the Finals MVP award. And in that small moment on a big stage, the gruff and demanding coach gave his quiet, talented young player a simple yet deeply meaningful measure of praise. That’s not “just basketball.” That’s a humble young man receiving praise from a legendary coach for committing to his craft, working hard, and stepping up when called upon. It’s about achieving what he wasn’t supposed to achieve. It’s about winning the Finals on Father’s Day when your father was shot and killed in Compton 6 years earlier. It’s about that coach being like your father and saying, “I’m proud of you son.” In that moment, everything about basketball was so right and so perfect. Everything good about basketball shines through in a coach doing his job and praising a player for stepping up and doing his. That’s something I won’t forget.
In a Finals where I had a lot of confused feelings, that’s a feeling I will hold on to.
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Soli Deo Gloria