Rumor has it that at the Nass, there is a gap in the otherwise omniscient knowledge of the staff, and that that gap is called “sports.” Not so, ladies and gentlemen. Let me tell you a thing or two about layin’ up the three-pointer ball and slammin’ in the dunkin’.
My first point is directed to the fresh-faced among you who were recently swept up in the national phenomenon sensationally titled “March Madness,” a truly primitive sporting event long adored by a certain cultish subset of the population, but of no interest whatsoever to reflective persons. As reflective persons are aware, reflective persons prefer to watch _real_ basketball—which brings me to my next point.
The present time, my friends, is one of those magical, glorious times when something incredibly great is about to happen; the likes of which will never, ever happen again. Thus this article, which is devoted to the sole end of hyping up this seemingly unoverhypeable, fantastically amazing, absolutely extraordinary, and at this point, to be perfectly honest, perhaps already overhyped event: this year’s NBA Finals, featuring the Cleveland Cavaliers and the laky (or “lake-like”) Los Angeles Lakers.
Now, those of you who both follow basketball and are insolent by nature are probably thinking to yourselves, “Bro, wait a second—the playoffs haven’t even started yet, yo—what makes you so sure it’ll be L.A. and Cleveland? What about Denver, yo, or Boston? Isn’t this the Magic’s year? What about D. Wade, yo? Yo yo yo? Yo-yo?” And I sympathize, insolent fanboy. Hailing from central Florida, I, too, like to imagine that this will finally be the Magic’s year. But then I remember two terrible, formidable names: Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, easily the NBA’s biggest stars.
Around this time last year, Cleveland and L.A. were at more or less the same place in the NBA standings as they are now: on top. Once the playoffs started, as they began rolling through the early rounds, commercials started popping up featuring LeBron and Kobe as puppets, chatting competitively—this in addition, of course, to the zillions of ads featuring them separately, to the zillions of debates over who should win MVP, etc. The LeBron and Kobe puppets weren’t as recognizable as they should’ve been, but the implicit message was obvious and everyone was already thinking it: these guys are going to meet in the Finals and it’s going to be awesome.
But then there was a freak accident: picnic, lightning, _Dwight Howard_. And LeBron couldn’t carry his whole team and the Magic eliminated the Cavs and the Kobe/LeBron commercials stopped being aired and David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA who looks more Jewish every time you see him, wept in complete silence for 40 days, after which he was said to have cried out, “Hear me, fanboys around the nation: _strings shall be pulled!_” In the end, the 2009 season was like some grotesque production of the Trojan War in which Hector never actually ends up fighting Brad Pitt, and the incomparably beautiful Diane Kruger is nowhere to be seen.
In other words, last year was a tragic, disgusting fluke, and with the exception of a handful of desperately loyal yo-yo slinging Magic fans, nobody is going to let the same thing happen again. LeBron’s team is significantly improved, Kobe is still impossible to guard, and it is clearly as inevitable that they will meet in the Finals in 2010 as it is inevitable that Sarah Palin will be elected president in 2012. (Incidentally, the former is distinguishable from the latter by the fact that it is exciting in a _good_ way.) In perfect truth, it is no exaggeration to say that this year’s Finals will be a clash of heroes more epic than that yawn of a “poem” about Achilles. It will be the historic culmination of a rivalry itself rivaled in intensity and interestingness only by the intensely interesting Nadal-Federer rivalry.
If he were still with us, David Foster Wallace would probably argue that the Nadal-Federer rivalry (or, as Federer would have it, the Federer-Nadal rivalry) is in fact the more interesting of the two. But although DFW was a great writer, a great appreciator of sports, and a great, great man, he had, alas, a _flaw_: his thinking about sports was warped by his bias in favor of tennis.
Verily, there is something surpassingly elegant about the two Nike-clothed bodies on opposite sides of the net responding so perfectly to one another they seem somehow to be connected, every tiniest movement necessarily precise, both men lost in a deep and almost meditative concentration. But this extraordinary harmony of movement can only come at the expense of the layers of complexity found in sports with more than two people involved—and something very interesting indeed is added when coordination and cooperation become vital components of the game. DFW reveals his bias, his blindness to the beauty of _the team_, in the central thesis of his 1994 essay, “How Tracy Austin Broke my Heart” (which is nevertheless a classic little work of sports appreciation):
“Those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it – and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.”
The context of the quote reveals that DFW’s primary meaning is that great athletes are capable of a transcendent, utterly incomprehensible _focus_, and that this is what makes them great. They are able to “shut off the Iago-like voice of the self” in a way that “ungreat” athletes simply cannot. DFW’s argument applies wonderfully to a sport like tennis, where the competition itself involves nothing but pure bodily focus; or, better, to most events in the Olympics, when the key is simply to silence self-awareness and _perform_. But it isn’t universally applicable, to say the least; certainly, it doesn’t do justice to the much more complex form of athletic genius we are all going to witness in April.
Because basketball, my friends, is a very different ball of wax—especially when the teams involved are led by players universally acknowledged to be _superstars_. Everyone, even _painfully_ unreflective persons, understands that the team strategy revolves around the superstar. And we know from his interviews, which (thank God) are not at all heartbreaking in DFW’s sense, that Kobe understands the subtleties of his role, perhaps better than anyone else: to win games, he must be a general, an organizer, a motivator, and of course, an incredible athlete, at every moment. His mind is the official on-court locus of the constantly-revised team strategy, his expression the absolute flag of the team’s emotional state; the other players literally look to Kobe to see whether they should be angry, serene, or laughing. And Kobe flickers from one of these emotions to another in an instant—always conscious, always present, always _performing_—all for the sake of the win.
Now, Kobe is undoubtedly capable of the level of focus that DFW presents as the gold standard of greatness—LeBron, less so—and that, incidentally, is the reason that the Lakers will win the series. When Kobe faces LeBron in this year’s Finals, shit’s gonna get superb.
In the end, my friends, you need only understand that the world of basketball is coming to a head… the perfect store is brewing… the stars of the NBA are liter- ally—well, not literally, still figuratively, but _differently_no figuratively— aligning. How much persuasion do you require? I fear if I use one image too few, you won’t tune in to the greatest sporting event of all time. That in itself is no tragedy, of course—it would simply be “your loss,” as they say. No, my fear is much more dire: namely, that if I’ve chosen the wrong metaphors, _no one at all_ will tune in come April, I’ll be the only one watching, ratings will plummet to zero, and the NBA will be forced to file for bankruptcy, calling off the Finals just as they’ve begun. This may strike you as an unfounded worry, but I assure you: most of my worries are unfounded. In this case, I imagine myself carrying the great burden that one would be carrying if the American masses really made their entertainment decisions based on articles in the _Nass_.