Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Deliciously Sour Grapes.

Editor's Note: This is the conclusion of the "Series of the Week" feature.

I'd like to discuss two concepts: choosing between "the lesser of two evils", and the relative deliciousness of sour grapes.

Too often in life are we forced to choose between "the lesser of two evils."  This theme presents itself in politics, relationships, jobs, and most life changes, in general.  But regardless of the context, the task for a person is the same: assess two unsavory options, consider the "pros" and the "cons", then decide which option compromises ones values and preferences the least.  It's not a particularly fufilling experience, but in a world where choice oftentimes seems illusionary, it seems part and parcel for the course.

I am having a hard time seeing this NBA finals as anything but a battle between two evils.  The Miami Heat have embodied "evil" in professional sports for the last two years.   The Oklahoma City Thunder, a totalizing and usurping force that came out of nowhere, and who stand poised to dominate the NBA for seasons to come.  Both of these teams have the talent, personell, and experience to win the entire 'Ship.  And for both of these teams -- at least, to a certain extent -- we will have to have to swallow our pride, support a relative evil, and then learn how to enjoy the taste of sour grapes.

I don't need to say too much about the Heat.  For the last two years, the Heat have been cast as super villians.  They are a team that was brazenly manufactured to win as many championships as possible (though, isn't that the goal of all teams?), and driven by the efforts of their three superstar players: LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.  And to our dismay, in each season that they've been playing together, they've nearly accomplished the task.  The Heat have now won the Eastern Conference two seasons in a row -- officially putting the Celtics to sleep in the process -- and look poised to be the East's premier franchise for years to come.  It's not what any of us wanted, but it's what we've gotten.  It seems a bit evil, and in my opinion, justifiably so. 

However, it's my labeling of the Thunder as "evil" that may raise eyebrows.  It is also the labeling of the Thunder that brings the taste of sour grapes to my mouth. What may come as a surprise, however, is that the grapes themselves extend beyond the oft-repeated refrain that Oklahoma City stole Seattle's team.  The Nation's Dave Zirin provided his readers with a brief encapsulation of Clay Bennett's bait-and-switch with Howard Schulz which landed the former SuperSonics in Oklahoma City four seasons ago.  And while that narrative does factor into my designation of the Thunder as an evil, it is not the main reason.  My uneasiness with the Thunder's rise ascent to contention instead focuses on the fact that this team still does not feel that real.  I don't recognize those jerseys.  I don't accept their fans.  While the national media's narrative proudly portrays the Thunder as a homegrown, small-market franchise that has maximized the efficiency of the Draft and Develop model -- and to an extent, that's true -- there is something disingenuous about that statement.  It seems spinster-like; a way to make the sketchiest franchise relocation somehow seem legitimate and in many ways, destined.  

But there is something strange about Seattle these days.  For the last four years, no one has worn Sonics gear.  For awhile, I assumed it was because people didn't care, but it was the exact opposite.  Everyone cared too much.  There was a legitimate sense of trauma within the fanbase.  Their team had been wrenched from their hands, and there was next to nothing they could have done to stop it.  Donning Sonics gear would have been too much, too soon.  But in the past few days, I have seen the green and gold come out strong.  Ray Allen's #34, Gary Payton's #20, Shawn Kemp's #40, and even Nate McMillan's #10 (which was a really awesome jersey) have been well represented.  Sweatshirts and hats have been busted out for the first time since the team left for Oklahoma's pastures, worn by men and women who have a look I've never seen before.  It's a mix of anger and determination: anger that the team they used to call their own is now representing the West in a strange, windswept city, and determination to get another team in this city.

And that's where, in this process of picking the lesser of two evils to support, I am learning to like the taste of sour grapes.  For perhaps this is just the finals series needed to push us longstanding NBA fans out of our comfort zone, and force us, kicking and screaming, into the modern NBA.  You know, an NBA where the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs are no longer relevant, and where young, athletic upstarts like the Heat, Thunder, Grizzlies, and Clippers are hailed as new kings.  An NBA where the new CBA prevents teams like the Mavs or Knicks from reaching their full potential.  An NBA where youth reigns supreme, from now, until when Durant and James' wheels fall off, and their motor fails to start.  It's a brave new NBA, and this is the finals series that will usher in that new reality, whether we're truly ready for it, or not.

Indeed, each side's potential victory will permanently alter the landscape of the NBA.  If the Thunder win, we, as fans, will be rewarded with a champion that, despite their sketchy birth four seasons ago, did everything absolutely the right way.  They never botched a draft pick, never signed a dumb contract, never bowed to the temptation to trade their stalwarts, and never strayed from the front office, coaching staff, and player corps that gave the Lakers fits way back in their first playoff appearance in 2010.  Kevin Durant has been nothing short of transcendent the past few seasons, has tempered his own game to allow for the developments of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, and has allowed himself to be coached by Scotty Brooks and his staff.  They have stuck with that group, and now have as good of a chance as the Heat to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy in a few weeks.  And, if that happens, displaced Sonics fans and city officials here in Seattle will surely get down to work to get an arena built and a team purchased.  The pain will be great, but it will be a motivating pain; a pain that will get the ball rolling, and start the process of renewal and rebirth here in the Pacific Northwest.

But if the Heat win, the LeBron Era will officially begin, and for the rest of the league, it will be lights out.  And it feels like it's time, doesn't it?  It took Jordan one season to figure out how to make the playoffs, and once he did, he never missed them again (while on the Bulls, of course).  Similarly, it took Jordan seven seasons to figure out how to win a championship, and once he did, he never lost a championship series again.  It took failure, after failure, after failure before Jordan finally summited the mountain, and forever looked down on those that could only hope to slow him down a little bit so they would have a chance to catch up.  And, of course, they never did.  Jordan stayed at the top, and prevented scores of worthy players from tasting the champagne of victory.

One gets the sense that that moment of ascension is here for LeBron.  He is phenomenal -- at this point, too phenomenal to hate for the mistakes he made as a young man in his early twenties.  Players like LeBron come around once in a very blue moon; players whose arc of greatness seem to match Jordan.  But once LeBron figured out how to make the playoffs in his third season, he never missed them again.  And once LeBron figured out how to make the finals in 2006, he's made them, or been close to making them, every year since then.  And now, at this moment of judgement, one gets the very real sense that if LeBron wins a championship, having truly figured out everything it takes to be a transcendent player that wins in the games that truly matter, he'll never lose another one ever again.

Hyperbolic?  Perhaps.  Sour grapes will do that to a person.  It's an acquired taste.

Enjoy the finals, everyone.

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