(Editor's Note: This post was conceived before Game 1 of the NBA playoffs and written before Game 2.)
A couple years ago, I met my family in upstate New York for a weekend trip. My two brothers, 15 and 17, were joined by their friend, a German foreign exchange student named Malo.
Malo was different than your average teen. There was something calm about him, an easy style inherent to a dude with nothing to prove. He watched the aggression of his friends with a kind of amused half interest, but though he never participated, he still had their respect.
In essence, he seemed emotionally mature in a way that’s foreign to most teenagers. That relaxed quality manifested in almost every situation. He, my brothers and I were driving once, headed out to lunch, when the song “Take On Me” came on the radio. When Malo put his falsetto to use, I watched my brother’s face in the rearview mirror. First, the instinctual laugh, the pleasure of watching something fun. Second, the urge to participate, to let himself loose for a moment. And third, the stifling, corrective barriers of being a cool American teen.
There were times when I forgot that Malo was almost a decade younger than me. The reason I enjoyed him, mind you, was because I was older. My teenage days were not free of the humming angst I saw in my brothers, and if I met Malo as a 17-year-old, who can guess which of my neuroses would have interfered? I could relate only because we’d finished a maturing process at different points in life.
Anyway, Malo was a very good high school basketball player who wanted to become a professional, and his hero was Dirk Nowitzki. So when I see Dirk, I think of Malo.
And that’s convenient, because the contrast between my brothers and their German friend is playing out in the NBA finals. Dirk is the graceful, free-flowing entity that seems almost literally fluid in his movements. He’s elegant. He’s majestic. He’s almost wispy. He could have played one of the elves from Lord of the Rings, if he was into that kind of thing. If these were the 1960s, he’d be an inadvertent counterculture icon, like Bill Walton without the arrogance.
LeBron, meanwhile, basically lacks subtlety. He’s the bull-headed, relentless emblem of stubborn America, all muscle and rage. He wears his masculinity proudly, and we can witness the effortful assertion of self at every moment. While Dirk seems to exist in sync with his soul, LeBron is a striver. The machismo comes with its attendant egocentrism, which became embarrassingly evident during ‘The Decision.’
This is elegance versus power. Am I generalizing? Probably. Plus, rumor has it that the finals are being contested by two teams with full, functioning rosters of a dozen professionals.
Still and all, the NBA is constructed around individual battles. Two men will write the central narrative of this series, and the unabridged manuscript of the Finals will resonate with their disparate voices.
This is not the first time elegance has confronted power in professional sports. Far, far from it.
The first chronological example that comes to my mind is a little arcane; the 1954 World Cup Final. A team from Hungary, of all places, had recently revolutionized soccer. They were called the “Magnificent Magyars,” and they came into the World Cup unbeaten in 32 matches. They routed West Germany 8-3 in the group stages and outscored all opponents 25-7 on their way to the final. There, they met West Germany again, who switched things up by playing a slower, plodding game with an emphasis on punishing defense. With the help of the weather and a few questionable calls, they beat the Hungarians 3-2 and killed a strange, wonderful dream.
The Magyars played an attacking style that was a forerunner to the “total football” of the 1974 Dutch team, who some consider the greatest and most beautiful side of all time. Led by Johan Cruyff, they made the World Cup finals by outscoring opponents 14-1 in six matches. There, they met (who else?) West Germany, a so-so squad who had lost in the group stages to an East German team that presumably practiced with a ball made of old scarves knitted into a lumpy sphere. Despite that, the West Germans prevailed 2-1 against the Dutch, playing a practical style and negating the legendary offense.
(If it makes anyone feel better, the situation was reversed on Germany in the last World Cup when they played the most engaging style throughout the tournament but were beaten by the steadfast, defensive-minded Spaniards in the semis.)
Every sport has its examples. In professional basketball, the quintessential case study is Spurs-Suns, 2007. The Nash-led Phoenix team embodied the ideal of fast, sophisticated basketball. The Spurs were so stolid and ruthless as to be almost cynical, and this particular clash of styles turned on a cheap trick by Robert Horry.
In NFL football, Bill Belichick has been involved in destroying two of the greatest, most explosive offenses in history. In 1991, he had his Giants defense ‘accidentally’ kick the ball after the whistle to slow down the Buffalo no-huddle attack, and that tactic, among others, led to a hard-earned championship. In 2002, he may have illegally videotaped St. Louis’ ‘greatest show on turf’ to gain a defensive advantage before the Patriots’ eventual victory. In both cases, a stalwart defense and a competent, controlling offense took the air out of their spectacular foes.
In college football, last year’s national championship was just the latest example of an exciting, unique offense falling prey to a physically superior SEC team.
Baseball is harder to pinpoint, but what about the 1993 Phillies? There was a team of scruffy, oddball players who captured a kind of bizarre chemistry until the uber-corporate* Toronto Blue Jays beat downed them in 6 games in the World Series.
*This is probably an unfair adjective, but come on, baseball in Toronto?
You’re probably starting to see a pattern. In the cases I’ve presented- and, I would argue, in the broader history of sports, with notable exceptions- we routinely see the exquisite teams brought crashing back to reality by the efficient tough guys.
There are two ways to look at this. The first is to see it as a recurring tragedy, like an endlessly streaming YouTube video of Gandhi losing a fistfight to Sean Hannity. The rarity of the mystic geniuses actually winning makes them, I realize, more appealing. There’s an exciting, revolutionary flair that naturally attracts you to their side. As such, it can seem pretty shattering when they lose, like some kind of flat signal from the earth that nothing is divine.
But I’m here to tell you there’s another way to frame this phenomenon: you can appreciate it. The prosperity of the power game can be, believe it or not, a celebration of humanity. It can be the final hard-fought emergence of a resilient group who won by finding an absolute unity.
It can be, dare I say, a triumph of the will.
(Crap, I promised myself I wouldn’t accidentally use that phrase again.)
David Foster Wallace, a better writer than I, visited this contrast back in 2006. His famous essay about tennis for the Times treats Roger Federer as a sporting deity. The title of the piece, in fact, is “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” In it, he discusses Fed’s “kinesthetic virtuosity” and capitalizes what he calls the “Federer Moment.”
The last line of the article is this:
“Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”
This was after Wimbledon 2006, when Federer defeated Rafael Nadal in the final. The “power and aggression” belong to Nadal himself, a subject of subtle mockery, or perhaps just philosophical dislike, throughout the piece. Wallace describes Rafa as “mesomorphic and totally martial,” cites his “passionate machismo” in contrast to Federer’s artistry, and notes that his style of dress makes it so that you “have to look at his muscles right away.” He makes note of how Nadal tugs at his shorts, and “his way of always cutting his eyes warily from side to side as he walks the baseline, like a convict expecting to be shanked.”
It served Wallace’s purpose well, but not long after that final, history took a different turn. The next year, in 2007, the two men met again in the Wimbledon final. This time, Rafa took Roger to a fifth set. The intensity affected both men, but particularly Federer, who seemed suddenly petulant and asked that the video review system be turned off because he thought it was malfunctioning. Still, Federer withstood the scare and won again. Then came 2008, and the greatest match ever played, when Nadal finally triumphed on the English grass and began the process of usurping Federer’s title as the world’s best player.
Full disclosure: Rafael Nadal is my favorite athlete. Period. I can get a little boring when I sing his praises, the way an obsessive person prattles on about trains or politics or lovers or babies, so I’ll try to keep this to a sentence: His work ethic, individuality, and humility are the three (clichéd, I admit) qualities that make him, for me, a transcendent athlete.
Like many of my peers, I feel ensconced in a lifetime battle for fulfillment and success that seems, so often, unwinnable. Maybe I see the small story of my struggle reflected in Nadal’s quest to beat Federer; the sheer, disgusting impossibility of the thing, the way you understand the amount of work required and the absence of any guarantee that your work will be rewarded, but do it anyway because that’s the fucking drill.
David Foster Wallace was, without a doubt, a genius. He became renowned, albeit in a kind of niche way, at a very young age. So did Federer. It would be too simplistic (and, in fact, wrong) to say that they achieved their fame without work. But Wallace’s gift with words was somewhat like Federer’s native brilliance, and though he would probably never admit it, he surely saw himself in the grace and ability of the Swiss star. He could understand the magic because he had a bit of his own. Though his facility with the language and his prodigious memory weren’t coupled with the prosaic elegance of a Fitzgerald or Nabokov, his style nevertheless reflected a congenital sort of luminosity.
But we’re not all like David Foster Wallace. In fact, I rabidly disagree with that closing line about inspiration. Beauty, to me, has always been merely an enjoyable abstraction- not something with which I could ever identify. But when I saw Rafa crumble to the court in the Wimbledon dusk in 2008, having overcome, at last, his historic obstacle…well, screw kinesthetic virtuosity, because that is when I felt reconciled.
To repeat myself: it’s possible to enjoy the ascension of power, of practicality. More, it’s possible to find it beautiful in a way that might not be initially obvious.
Which brings me back to LeBron. The way he guarded- nay, stifled- Derrick Rose practically gave me goosebumps. Rose was the MVP, the fan favorite, maybe the greatest symbol of dynamism in this year’s NBA. For LeBron to put a cap on that genie lamp seems, on its surface, like an act of great cruelty. We imagine a humorless Chinese soldier finding a Tibetan monk boy singing some gorgeous, lilting song, and responding by smashing him with the butt of his rifle.
And LeBron, as we know, isn’t very sympathetic. Still, if we force ourselves to focus on the court and pretend, like a juror at the trial of a celebrity, that we don’t know the backstory, how can we not be moved by that act of defense? To meet an electric force and render it basically immobile, with everyone in opposition, reflects an unbelievable body awareness and, more to the point, a pressing desire to win. It was by its nature a profound act of defiance.
LeBron is the man who stands in the way. He’s the muscular linebacker who lowers his shoulder and barrels into the lane. He absorbs contact and maintains his forward momentum. On both ends of the floor, his strength grinds, and grinds, until it breaks you down.
That’s what the LeBron style means; breaking the enemy down. It’s what the Germans did, it’s what the Spurs did, it’s what the Belichick defenses did, it’s what the SEC does. It’s what they’re all forced to do in order to win. And there, it seems, is the common thread: champions understand winning, and how it’s not a product of magic or rarified spiritual qualities, but a very practical and brutal act of repetition that becomes ingrained and habitual.
In his article, Wallace gives Nadal a brief moment of credit when he mentions that Federer “may be peculiarly vulnerable to, or psyched out by, that first man.”
This might have been a mere supposition in 2006, but by 2008 it was reality. After the 2007 Wimbledon final, when Nadal lost in five sets, he retreated to the locker room and wept. He wept for the missed opportunity, for the staggering loss, and probably for the idea that despite the endless work and his unwavering spirit, he might never beat Federer.
A year later, everything changed. Federer lost to Nadal in the French Open for the fourth straight time, and this defeat was worse than the others. When Wimbledon came around, he grew irritable and repressed, by turns, as the match wore on. His demeanor after the loss seemed to indicate that he’d been the victim of a horrible fluke, a king brought low by an unworthy serf.
But when they met in the Australian final the following January, the truth had set in. Despite barely surviving an epic 5-hour semifinal match in withering heat the day before, Nadal recovered to defeat Federer in 5 sets. If Wimbledon 2006 was Roger Federer as Religious Experience, Australia 2009 was Rafael Nadal as Iconoclast, sending a God tumbling from Olympus to dry land.
After the match, the two waited on the podium. The full weight began to bear down on Federer. He remembered Nadal’s topspin, and the relentless way the Spaniard sent the leaping shots to his backhand, time and again, hammering at a perceived weakness, and how it produced an unlikely mental and strategic advantage that chipped away, and chipped away, until Federer’s magic was ground into dust. Maybe he saw the future, too, and how Nadal would come to dominate the rivalry.
He stepped up to the microphone. He waved to the crowd. He even smiled. He held the second place silver plate by his side. But as the fans shouted their support, he stopped.
His voice caught. His shoulders shook.
“God,” he said, almost choking on the words. “It’s killing me.”
And then he broke down, weeping in that broken heart way you just can’t fake.
If Dirk Nowitzki leads the Mavericks to an NBA title, it will be glorious. A lot of people will feel vindicated for hating LeBron and the mercenary way he ended up in Miami, and the title will be the jewel in the crown of Dirk’s excellent career.
But the sweep of history tells us that we should expect the Heat to win. When they do, we should do them the favor of realizing that every championship requires a journey, that few of us are blessed by genius, and that in our gritty, imperfect world, most men have to elevate themselves.