FreeDarko's Bethlehem Shoals, co-author of The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History (visit the FreeDarko store, too!) and our erstwhile Heat Strokes diarist, picks up his pen again on the occasion of tonight's Most Important Basketball Game Ever, Lakers-Heat.
In the immortal words of Ced Gee, it's me. I'm back again. And I am here to tell you that I have failed you, Heat Strokes failed you, the Miami Heat failed you, and JFK conned your mom. Listed, of course, in order of importance.
Flipping back to last summer is proof that, at its best, sports either makes dream come true (barf) or forces us to dream harder than ever. Ranting, raving, and building bunkers with upside-down crosses on them is just dreaming at its most unseemly; nightmares, as you should have learned from Wes Craven or Freud, belong to us, not them. Last July was a time of tremendous ugliness and immorality — yes, probably on all sides — but boy did we ever shoot for the stars. We had entered an age of super-teams that would destroy, once and for all, any illusion of parity in the NBA, renders owners and coaches helpless pawns, and distort the stakes of the next CBA well past the point of nonsense. Good and evil were in there, as were our almost-unconscious responses to race. Sports clichés rose and fell like forest fires, and some even challenged us to think hard about economics and power. The Heat would blot out the sun like no team since Jordan's Bulls; they would crash and burn in a way that, somehow, would indict the AAU, the entire post-Wooden bulge of amateurism, and ACORN.
There were ridiculous claims that James and Wade were the same player; frenzied calls for a new kind of Triangle; the bizarre narrative that Chris Bosh's entire career had been an illusion. Also, a bunch of mob jokes, owing largely to Pat Riley's hairdo, his capos around the league (and on his own team's bench), and almost innate gift for frightful hovering. LeBron James made a Nike ad that beat back criticism harder than a thousand political spots, putting us in his shoes while telling us to get the fuck out of his shoes, son. Armies amassed in the valley; in parallel, writers, reporters, and loose-lipped prophets took their place on the sidelines. This was a matrix proper, and we were stuck in the middle.
And then, more than halfway through the season, I've slunk back to tell you it all was a lie. The Heat, who made us wait months, who gave us so many uncertain fits and starts, whose coach has been brilliant at one end and positively feckless at the other, are just another basketball team with three good players. I did a bunch of radio interviews lately; one older host told me that, as someone who grew up with great teams, he had been excited at the possibility of another contender arriving on the scene.
The Heat are that, and nothing more. Derrick Rose looms large in the MVP race because he has given the Bulls direction. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have, if not made each other worse, certainly reduced each other to almost rote displays of brilliance. It is, after all the shouting, a marriage of convenience that has diluted both men while neither diminishing them nor forcing us to reconsider their meaning. Bosh has been most transformed, and for all the jokes last summer about folks having never seen the former Raptor play, it's embarrassing what an easy target he has become.
But most of all, this season, which was meant to pick up speed and come into focus, has taken on drag and given us less and less. There was that one stretch of mastery, where it really looked like James had taken the reins, and Wade had figured out how to fit in around The King. Was this WHO WILL TAKE THE LAST SHOT? No, it was about the ebb and flow of possessions. But if James didn't deliver that death blow in the third or fourth, or Wade didn't get off early, there was no reset button. And by then, it was too late. And by the time it was too late, a basketball game had been completed. Maybe they had won. Maybe they had lost. Regardless, the Heat were — to their detractors, more predictably then they could have hoped — narcissistic in the extreme. The Heat didn't just compete against expectations; they competed against what they had done two days, or five minutes, ago. We could have let them play out whole quarters without opposition, since, after all, there was no rhyme or reason to when they fell flat and let other teams storm in. We could have judged the whole thing on numbers, like a math-proof contest. It might have felt more like an exercise in real basketball.
The Heat play the Lakers tonight. It's a battle between two teams that could win a title. That's it. LeBron, his ego, and his legend, are wholly disengaged. Wade will get his, and it may or may not matter in context. Bosh waits. The Heat supporting cast is just so many cats stuck in a tree. Meanwhile, the Lakers, oldest team in the league, have gotten their bearings while surrendering none of their kooky grandeur. The difference is, Kobe right now isn't trying to surpass himself; he's just reminding us that he never left. Gasol, Artest, Odom — all of these are known quantities recapturing their pride for a title run. They're an advanced machine, to be sure, but one at peace with its blueprint. The Sixers are on the rise exactly because they have found a way to cast off the squeaky wheels. And again, ladies and gentlemen, there are those feisty Bulls. The Heat remain forever suspended in mid-air, waiting for their own arrival. A lot of the time, it works. Other times, it doesn't. They aren't indifferent, but certainly have lost touch with that initial promise to be best friends and help along some little guys. They show up and are great on occasion. The Lakers want to prove they still work. There's a difference there.
If the Heat beat the Lakers, their losing streak will be over, but nothing will have been proved, much less discovered. If they lose, at this point, we will shrug. The Heat, far from being mainstream, have become nearly generic. I've had friends swear that Weeping-gate isn't about THERE IS NO CRYING IN BASKETBALL, but the delight they feel at seeing the Heat humiliated.