Friday, May 16, 2014

The Majesty in the Malaise

Today marks my first day off since April 15. I’ve worked every day of the 2014 NBA playoffs and watched every second of every game — many of them multiple times. For many people, this would be a dream, and in many ways for me it is, but admittedly there was a point last week when I was feeling burnt out on basketball. There was no joy in watching the games, even as we were experiencing the greatest first round in NBA history. My reaction to Damian Lillard’s classic buzzer-beater to win Game 6 against the Houston Rockets and send the Portland Trail Blazers to the second round was less “holy crap that was awesome” and more “oh thank the goddess one less Game 7 to worry about.”

Then last Saturday I received a package. In it was a piece of art I’d commissioned from J.O. Applegate, but he’d also included a bonus for me, this print of LeBron James’ block of Tiago Splitter in Game 2 of the 2013 NBA Finals. I immediately hung it up next to my desk at home, where it reminds me why I fell in love with basketball in the first place.

Basketball, at its core, is a sport of grace and beauty. The late Dr. Jack Ramsay described the game as “a ballet, a graceful sweep and flow of patterned movement, counterpointed by daring and imaginative flights of solitary brilliance,” and — games like Pacers-Wizards Game 3 aside — it usually fits that description when played at its highest levels. But basketball, in its ability to captivate us, can be something else too.

Look at the words in that description and try to apply them to the James block on Splitter. It isn’t particularly “graceful”, nor is there much of a “sweep and flow”. There’s certainly imaginative flight, but the block isn’t brilliance… it’s violence. I don’t mean the kind of violence you’d see in a melee that would lead to suspensions, the kind of violence that nearly ruined the sport at multiple points in history (most recently in the ‘90s and early-to-mid ‘00s). It’s an unexpected visceral violence, the kind that shocks an observer in its suddenness, temporarily shattering the graceful flow of the ballet of basketball and turning into unadulterated power.

It was those kind of moments that drew me to the sport in the first place. Yes, you can that kind of sudden collision of power in football, but it happens so frequently as to dull the senses. In basketball, it’s a jolt, a surge of energy that in one moment is collected and unleashed, like an on-court nuclear explosion. It’s why as a young fan I was more drawn to Dominique Wilkins than Michael Jordan, it’s why no player in the early ‘90s captivated me more than Shawn Kemp, it’s why we get immeasurably more excited when Blake Griffin dunks on someone in a game than we would for anything he’d do in a choreographed dunk contest, and it’s why I was drawn back to the sport in 2002 by LeBron James, after having drifted as a fan in the post-Jordan years.

There is no denying that Ray Allen’s shot to tie Game 6 will be the most unforgettable moment from the 2013 finals, the one that endures throughout the years. But for me, my favorite moment will always be James’s block in Game 2. It was great to be reminded of it exactly when I needed it most. After a few days to recharge, and a few more re-viewings of that play, I’ll be ready to watch the rest of the postseason with fresh eyes, waiting for the next explosive moment.