There’s a refrain common among those critical of the National Basketball Association’s leaden pacing: “I’m waiting for the games that really matter.” The playoffs, notorious for swallowing alive the early goings of the warmer season, most certainly matter. Win or go home, produce or go fishing, results and only results measure the worth of a man in these months. If the greatness of a player is measured by his ability to collect championships, the lesser pro’s right to life depends solely on showing up down this crucial stretch.
We are in the midst of an embarrassingly one-sided finals, one that might prove to be the historical judge, jury, and executioner of several wayward players on the Miami Heat. As my colleague DLIC pointed out last week, fading veterans Gary Payton, Alonzo Mourning, and to some extent Shaq himself can appeal to past good acts. But the strange, sad cases of Antoine Walker and Jason Williams, two twisted souls who have bounced around the Association in search of redemption, are an altogether more serious matter. Their respective talents have never been questioned, but if they fail to channel justice on this most ironclad of stages, their legacies will turn to puddles of crap.
I, for one, would prefer that they had stayed hidden in the thickets, tucked away in the folds of time as baubles immune to summary judgment. As basketball warriors, Walker and Williams are most certainly botched experiments; to expect of them an appropriate turn as finals contestants is like asking the wacky uncle to make the wedding toast. No, these two quirky characters reached their greatest heights when allowed to succeed in a fleeting niche, the dinner-theater role of a lifetime. For it is in these manufactured scenarios that the most personal ties are forged, whether it be between player and fan or between sports and the world around them.
A man who charts his life’s course according to dynastic cravings and commemorative purchases is one wholly subservient to sports’ power. If such a soul does exist, I would presume him to be found one day stewing in tomatoes and his own blood, devoid of humor and severe to the point of self-inflicted accident. Anyone who has the slightest margin of casualness left in their appreciation of the games that fill our days, however, can forge an equally meaningful attachment to imperfect mongrels, or to events characterized not by their results but by their ambiance. Antoine Walker’s brief window of mock heroism in Boston was a sham from start to finish, making it all the more easy to glom onto in memory as “the slightly noteworthy basketball that, out of necessity, played a semi-important role in my regular activity during a very specific time in my life.”
Antoine Walker’s career has been, by most available yardsticks, a disappointment. Blessed with a colossal surplus of natural talent, apex versatility, and a prodigious feel for the game, he was brought in to salvage a Celtics franchise that had gone from counting trophies to tallying a body count of “what if” stars. The proud days of Bird et al. seemed an empire ago, and the unspeakably injurious deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis had landed the organization a peg below “rebuilding.” Fairly or unfairly, Walker was by default expected to revive the nation’s most decorated professional team—which he did, in a way, after the Celtics brought in the non-demonic Paul Pierce to furnish some ballast and the Eastern Conference devolved into a scrappy, silent bush league. Toine, though, never quite shed his mystifying habits, and had to endure inconclusive stints in Dallas, Atlanta, and Boston again before settling down in Miami.
Likewise, I will forever equate Heat point guard Jason Williams with the Sacramento Kings team of the early 21st century, the one that preceded their breathless plunge into contenderdom. Williams, who could pass as well as anyone who’s ever touched a basketball, was the wholly ambivalent essence of this team’s unexpected, untamed renaissance. For, while it boasted All-Star Chris Webber, rising genie Peja Stojakovic, role-player divine Vlade Divac, and super sub Bobby Jackson, what made that team such a mercurial thrill was Williams. At once its greatest instigator and primary undoer, Williams was shipped out of town at the same time Sacramento decided it wanted stability and security down the stretch. With Miami now, though, he has practically come half-circle, supposedly embodying the rocklike presence Sacramento decided he never could be.
That Kings team was anything but disposable. Raining down upon the NBA’s consciousness like so much weighty lightning, they were granted an emergency surplus of magazine and television coverage so that their fast-break gospel might reach as many hearts as possible. Still, Jason Williams’s time with them was ultimately a mere transition, as the Bibby-led editions were the ones that consistently threatened the Lakers when no one else could. Williams got exiled to Memphis, where, under a series of hard-nosed coaches, he was whipped into proper point-guard shape. This once vital font of improvisatory might could provide a beacon for all those looking to spot eternal youth in the NBA; instead, his odyssey, so much less likely than that of a faculty brat getting an advanced degree, shames me into acknowledging that basketball is always a metaphor for work as well as play.
Perhaps you have tired of hearing me suggest that there is an alternative to strict definitions of winning and losing. Perhaps, like the mysterious author of the blog “The English Revolution, by SilverBird5000,” you believe that the mark of greatness is the degree to which it can allow for personalization, such that the weak can find their own private teat ‘neath the belly of the strong. Yet, undeniably, certain provident scraps move us, times when the awful hath prevailed on its own terms and demanded of us nothing but appreciation. To be able to do this, to create light where none shall otherwise be seen, requires not a passive audience that lowers its standards but an audience willing to cheekily embrace the wretched and celebrate its chance to wear its very own crown. This ability, like that of a family to dote upon its ugly, stupid child, marks the boundary between history’s fortified port and the swirling seas of memory.