Friday, May 22, 2009

The shot heard round the world

Our society is becoming more cynical and jaded all the time. Nothing is pure any more. You can't enjoy food without thinking about its calories and trans fats, you can't wholeheartedly support any political party when you're aware of their scandals and betrayals, and you can't even buy a coffee or a shirt without thinking about where it came from and who made it for you. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; after all, it tends to allow us to see the shades of grey I'm so big on and consider the consequences of our actions. Still, it makes it tough to feel sheer elation and exhilaration about anything.

This transition from a shining ideological paradise to the dirty and grubby world of realpolitik has also happened in sports. Perhaps the best example is baseball's steroid era and the resulting Mitchell Report, the final illusion-shattering document I wrote about here. It's why people were so incensed about steroid use in baseball but willing to tolerate it to a greater degree in leagues like the NFL; baseball always sold itself as something more, something pure, a nostalgic slice of the good old days before corruption and taint, even if that wasn't always true (see Sox, Black). Gary Smith's fantastic Sports Illustrated article is a great look at this view of the sport and how steroids altered it.

It's not just baseball, though. Scandals have rocked other sports with similar results. In The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro, Joe McGinniss describes how an encounter with the seamy underbelly of Italian soccer (and the match-fixing that went hand-in-hand with said underworld) had a terrible effect on his view of the world. A similar malaise struck many basketball fans during the Tim Donaghy scandal. Beyond those scandals involving entire leagues, there have been plenty of exposés demonstrating that our athletic idols are not the heroes we had imagined, but perhaps more like the ancient Greek gods they're sometimes compared to; extremely powerful, but often greedy, capricious and self-centred. Other adventures with franchises and relocations such as the ongoing fight over the Phoenix Coyotes have dragged muddy aspects of the worlds of business, politics and nationalism into the once-shining realm of sport. With all this, it's rare to find a moment in sports that can be unashamedly embraced.

However, LeBron James' game-winning three-pointer against the Orlando Magic with no time left on the clock last night may be such a moment. Orlando had battled hard all game, rallying from a 23-point deficit in the second quarter to take the lead with only one second left in the game on a drive and jumper from Hedo Turkoglu. James made a great move on Turkoglu and broke out to the top of the key. With Turkoglu desperately lunging at him, he gets up a contested three-ball as the last seconds tick off the clock.

At this point, sensible minds had to think Cleveland was all but doomed. One second on the clock to inbound the ball and get up a contested shot? Maybe heroes or gods could pull that off, but in the mortal realms, the expected happens 99 per cent of the time. Moreover, James was the NBA's MVP this year, but he's renowned for his dominant inside game more than his shooting from long range or his clutch heroics. There's a good reason many NBA observers will still tell you that James may be the best player in the game, but they'd prefer having Kobe Bryant on the floor to launch a final buzzer-beater, especially if it's from downtown.

Letting James bomb away from three-point range with a hand in his face and without time to get properly set? That's a likely recipe for disaster, and a disaster that could have doomed Cleveland's title hopes. Going into Orlando down 2-0 against a Magic team that excelled on home court this year wouldn't have been at all promising. Thanks for coming, guys; hope you enjoyed your playoff run.

In millions of universes, perhaps that's how it ends. James' final effort bangs off the rim. Turkoglu and Dwight Howard jump in celebration; Stan Van Gundy celebrates on the bench. A disappointed and dejected crowd of Clevelanders that had pinned so many of their struggling city's hopes on this team, as excellently described by Joe Posnanski in this week's Sports Illustrated, file out of Quicken Loans Arena into the dark. Their hopes and expectations have been crushed yet again. Reality has set in, and so has the famous SI jinx that led Posnanski's friends to encourage him not to write the piece. The Cavaliers win the next game, but can't recover from a 2-0 deficit and fall to the Magic in six. The Magic go on to the Finals and fall to the Western Conference champions. The Cavaliers are torn by disappointment and infighting in the 2009-2010 season and fall in the conference semi-finals. James leaves for the bright lights of New York in the summer, and yet another of Cleveland's golden dreams has gone down in flames.

However, this universe is different. Maybe a few molecules of air are rearranged, or James releases his shot at a slightly different angle. The result is that James' incredible shot swishes its way through the basket, giving the Cavs a win that few could have expected only a second earlier and all the momentum in the series. James answers the critics in fine form and stuns us all, and in a way that no amount of cynicism or realism can taint. It was a pure sporting moment, untainted by business, politics or anything else. The NBA's commercials always promise us that the playoffs are "Where Amazing Happens"; last night, they were right.

The story isn't over yet. There's still a chance of the Magic bouncing back, of an implosion by the Cavs, of an upset in the Finals. If so, this will still be remembered as a great moment, but not a defining one. But if they go on to the title and if this shot proves to be the timing point, it will mark the coronation of King James in a more effective way than any sword-removal or dragon-slaying. Cleveland has its desperately-needed hero, and if he leads them to a glorious triumph, his deeds will be long remembered.

This moment goes beyond Cleveland, however. The NBA is a global game these days with fans all over the world. Regardless of which team they support, a feat of athleticism like the one James provided is an incredible display that can be appreciated by anyone. It transcends our highlight-saturated culture and our partisan divisions for just a brief moment, allowing us to go beyond the surface of sport and delve down to the pure core. For that moment, we can forget about court cases and relocation rumours. We can abandon griping about the refs, blasting players' off-court habits and complaining about high ticket prices. In that moment, we can see a reminder of what pure sport is.

That doesn't mean that idealism is back for good, though. There will certainly be plenty of ugly fouls, off-court drama and intrusions of business and politics over the rest of the playoffs. Bad calls will be made and endlessly debated. Cynicism and realism will return in force, and the sports world will revert to its normal shades of grey. But for one solitary moment with an exceptional feat, James brought an unsoiled flash of inspiration. He peeled back the curtain and allowed us to enjoy a pure sports moment in a way we rarely can any more.

1 comment:

  1. Lebron is KING. I couldn't believe he hit it.