Read Everything That Dunks Must Converge

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For Modernity's Sake: Round One of the NBA Playoffs

April 24, 2010

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 
--F. Scott Fitzgerald                                                                                       

I have a hard time letting go of the past, especially the last decade, which is why the San Antonio versus Dallas series moves me to slouch into bed after midnight and crawl into school the next morning pushed forward by Yeats' gyres and, at most, five hours of sleep.  Relegated to the first round, for the second year in a row, this series is less than it once was, yet it feels more like the Playoffs than any other series being played this postseason, at least for someone who still refuses to fully embrace a new age of basketball with all of its new laws and forces, which just like the old laws and forces, leave a fan ignorant to do anything but applaud through the night and yawn through the day.  I'm tired.  I'm refreshed.  My existence is a tightrope through the tides of TNT.


Every other series in this year's Playoffs is about tomorrow, while the Spurs and Mavericks battle over a war that's already been decided, like Birth of a Nation and its clumsy efforts to revert America back into the Antebellum South, an agrarian society founded on racist farming principles, Spurs-Mavericks is all at once titillating and frightening.  While Birth of a Nation demoted President Lincoln and all African-Americans to cruel apes and promoted the KKK to knights of the round table, enough Americans believed in this preposterous propaganda piece to make it the highest grossing film in history until Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Americans can be shown the freight train, the automobile, and the Dynamo, and still long for the blacksmiths and horses that wrought the violence of a bloody Civil War, the frustrations of a long Reconstruction, and too many bodies to count hanging from tree branches.  Time and time again, our inability to let go and change can make a mess of the present as much as it did the past, and the NBA is no different.

The NBA's Nunc Age is here.  All the League's Dynamos are suited up and playing: Dwight, Amar'e, 'Melo, Durant, Dwyane, and LeBron, yet the two biggest story lines this postseason appear to be the battle brewing between Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki and the suspension of KG.  Did these three players not build Chartres?  Did Tim Duncan not inspire a cathedral to be erected in San Antonio?  Does Dirk not arouse Mark Cuban to speak in tongues?  These are three men noted for their loyalty, continuity, and form.  In contrast, all the League's Dynamos who look to replace the old guard, if in name only, are noted for the impending chaos that they will bring to the summer of 2010, when several of the League's young guard might be on the move as if they were electrons, making them not the actual force that inspires but the reaction to inspiration.  In other words, this offseason could be the summer that the NBA explodes into the Modern Age; an event that appears even more likely when one ponders the waste land in the form of a Lockout that may await such a flurry of movement.

Everyone gives, has a breaking point, expands to a point of collapse.  Duncan, KG, and to a lesser extent Dirk are always intertwined in my mind.  They are the three best power forwards of the past decade, and all deserve consideration on anyone's all-time list, making them a natural source for juxtaposition, even more so now that their individual careers do not appear to be following a united trajectory, and each offers a strong lesson on how to either combat or accept the dark coils of the universe.

Kevin Garnett was never a college boy.  In my mind, he sprang up out of nowhere, an unknown name whispered on draft day, like a breeze through the Georgia pines I climbed in summer's dusk.  I didn't recognize it, and I had no game to place with it.  Then the Kid began to leap from off gossiping tongues, gathering momentum like a locomotive.  I specifically remember an NBA ad that lobbied to basketball fans that they watch a Minnesota game just to judge for themselves whether this lanky Midwest kid deserved to hang out in elite basketball  circles.  And he did.  He was the Big Ticket--the reason people flocked to Minnesota, driven like sled dogs to the twin cities by an invisible whip.  And it was Garnett's game that inspired Glen Taylor to turn on a light bulb in the dark of the Arctic Circle, to attract Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell north.  For a while, KG was all force, all drive, an inspiration.  But no championship ever came.  No matter how hard the man sweated, he was left standing with "his arms toward the dark water. . . trembling" (Fitzgerald), and the light at the end of the dock Garnett desired was nothing more than Celtic green; and that only the gravitational pull of Boston's tradition could pull this Midwest son east to become a man, proving that the true forces of the NBA are not individual players but the franchises for whom they play.

A microcosm for Garnett's career is the one that suspended him for Game 2 of this year's Boston-Miami series.  Garnett followed the good and loyal impulse to stand by his teammate, Paul Pierce's, side, but, unfortunately, that placed Garnett in the path of Quentin Richardson's chaos, to which Garnett reacted with a swift elbow to Richardson's face.  The incident was like watching a car crash, but the crash did not result in a Boston tragedy because Boston is more than Garnett.  At this point in his career, we can not mistake Garnett any longer as a centrifugal force--he is only a reactionary figure, and how he handles this downsizing will determine whether we view his career as a tragedy or a comedy.

The Spurs-Mavs series offers two players still masquerading as stars.  Dirk Nowitzki is still an MVP-caliber player: he averages 25 ppg, on 48% shooting.  Almost every night the man is unguardable, as he was in Game 1 of this series when he scored 36 points, shooting twelve for fourteen in the process.  Watching such economical production makes it easy for one to insist that Dirk is the force behind the Mavs success, but, without Mark Cuban's wallet, would Dallas not be a southern version of KG's Minnesota?  And isn't the same true for Tim Duncan and San Antonio?  Duncan is often credited as the driving force behind the Spurs' success, but, prior to his arrival in 1998, the team won 55 plus games in three out of the four previous seasons.   Duncan and Nowitzki may be the agents of success, but they are not the cause of success.  Causation occurs somewhere beyond the court, and the strings that pull players hither and push them away are the same strings that do or do not hang banners.

The Spurs-Mavs series offers a case of mistaken identity.  In Nowitzki's 36-point work of art, Duncan went for 27 points and 8 rebounds.  The game was a classic duel.  In game two of the series, Duncan went for 25 and 17, including a spot in the fourth where he scored a critical eight straight points, followed by a game-clinching three by Manu Ginobili.  When Dirk and Duncan play in a series, what the fan receives is a glimpse at Newton's third law of motion: "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction."  The fact that these two exchange blows like Joe Louis versus Rocky Marciano only increases the chances that we view them as forces accelerating toward one another like sports cars, except their acceleration is not constant, not a given.  They will not always remain in motion.  As we speak, Duncan is already slowing down, and, as exemplified by KG, even changes in scenery do not prevent one from giving into time.  However, franchises can endure.  Of the sixteen franchises that possess championship banners, ten possess at least two, but, seeing as how Boston and Los Angeles have won thirty-two of the League's sixty-three titles, one could argue that only two forces truly exist in the NBA, limiting the number of fans with legitimate hope for the future.

While I sit in my apartment staring at my television, my contacts congeal over my eyelids like pudding skin.  The PM empties itself into the AM, and I want to peel the lids from off my pupils and bare the fruit of my eyesight in its natural state: blurry.  I want to see things for what they are.  I grew up believing a lie.  I bought into Michael Jordan's words "that players win championships," and, as I get older, I realize more and more that so many great players, with distinctive styles and rare talents, are turned back from the beaches they storm, shot back into the sea one grain at a time because they were pulled the right way by the wrong force or the wrong way by the right force.  Players do not choose who drafts them, they have little say on their injuries, and they can not choose the era in which they play.  If Patrick Ewing were in high school right now, how great would he be tomorrow with no one but an aging Dwight Howard standing in his way?  These determiners, these causes, are depressing, and it worries me that the game I love so much draws comments from some of my students such as "are the Lakers a baseball team" or when I see hockey pulling at the average fan's heart strings like California during a Dust Bowl.  These threats, these dark unknowns, gather like fog over the bay waters between my shore and the green light I see shining from a basketball hoop across the way, but, in this shroud, I learn to recognize the grace of Manu Ginobili's broken nose and spreading baldness, I understand Kevin Garnett's frustration with men who are beneath him, and I await the rise and inspiration of some human form that in its cockiness and daring might disguise its human flesh as a force of attraction.

I await for some lanky kid to come dribbling out the shadows "to determine what share was his of our local heavens," and whether his name is LeBron or Durant or Kobe, I will cheer for him to claim them all; after all, how else does the game survive?
  

1 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a masterpiece. Only Teach has the ability to fuse literature and basketball successfully.

April 24, 2010 at 10:14 AM

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