Tonight at 9:30pm, the Celtics and Lakers begin competition for the NBA championship. For those who don’t know, this is a renaissance of basketball, one that hearkens back some two decades to the glory days of the NBA, when Larry Bird worked his Hoosier magic and Magic Johnson (an overrated player–but then again, I am from Maine, and thus a diehard Celtics fan) roamed the court.
(Side note: one of the funniest things about sports is the ridiculous concept of “history.” History, for sports and the sports marketing machine, extends about fifty years back. That which is truly ancient, occurring in realms almost inconceivable to the modern mind, happened between 60-100 years ago. Much of what drives this truncated view of history is the fact that modern sports are closely linked with television. Television is notorious for developing an undernourished version of history–History Channel excluded, of course–in which events barely two decades old are seen as almost comically passe. History, friends, is the realm of things that stretch back centuries, millenia, not merely decades! But alas, I am a wannabe historian, and these things irk me.
Side note continued: If you think I’m on a jag here, just consider my words after you’ve watched the hundredth commercial or halftime spot recalling the “glory days” of twenty years past, replete with slow motion footage and mystical voiceover. This little side note won’t change anything, of course. However, it may free one watcher, one lonely viewer, from the absolutely hilarious conception of history common to television, marketers, and those for the twain meets. Histrionics concluded.)
Okay, with all that said, if you’re interested in the game, read this hilarious Bill Simmons column on it. Bill Simmons writes for ESPN, he’s not a Christian to my knowledge, he can be irreverent, but he’s quite insightful on the game and frequently witty in the extreme. If you’re going to follow the series, he’ll give you a good briefing on the match-up.
For my part, I am ready for the NBA finals. Really–I’ve been preparing. Meditation, balancing exercises, that sort of thing. Why? Because the NBA finals offer a level of over-heated, self-serving entertainment of the kind rarely glimpsed in the mortal realm. NBA athletes are far and away the best in the world. They possess a collection of skill, dexterity, strength, size, and grace that is unmatched by any other class of sportsmen. However, with this burden of talent comes a burden of ego. There is no one like the NBA superstar. The world exists to drool over him, throw money at him, applaud him til all palms are red, all while he preens and pouts and whines and machinates and ruminates before television commercials about his barely comprehensible greatness. There are a (very) few exceptions to this rule, but most of the NBA superstars and stars and even normal role players one watches are highly skilled not only in the art of basketball, but the discipline of relentless, unimpedable narcissistic self-obsession.
When overseas recently, I watched some rugby, which was quite fun. Rugby players are talented athletes, and they play before thousands, and they have their own brand of machinations, but theirs come nowhere near those of NBA players. Rugby players work hard, work together, and when they succeed, they briefly celebrate with their teammates and then move on. As one who admittedly loves the grace and skill of the NBA, it was a pleasure to watch the character and team-oriented play of the rugby players. There was no Lebron James out there, no player who seemed to have become a demigod in his eyes and the eyes of those who follow him. The rugby game was sport as it should be: competitive, fun, skillful, and team-oriented, not individual-exalting.
With all of this bluster, I confess that I still love to watch the NBA. I can’t help myself. At its best, played at its highest level by its best players, it is a forceful ballet, an athletic drama. Its top stars, most of them outfitted with extraordinary coordination, 36-inch verticals, and fine-tuned ability, lead their teams in coordinated attack and defense. The best teams exist together in a kind of physical harmony, the players sharing a common mind and will. For these reasons, I try hard to overlook the lack of character displayed by many players and to enjoy the gift of graceful competition. Reminds one that Christians really have an opportunity to shine in the realm of sports. When one plays hard but fairly, skillfully but not self-servingly, one can really stand out. We should not abandon sports, but should season them. That includes the NBA and other levels of basketball and even local gyms and rec leagues. The world is sin-infested, and we can’t just turn our backs on it–we need to be salt in places that smell, leaven in realms of dullness and decay.
Of course, if the Celtics win this series, that would be just fine with this New Englander. If some team full of narcissistic athletes has to win, I’ll take the New England team every time.