For sports fans, there is no such thing as a bad season. Certainly, invested spectators would prefer victory for those they love, but loss also imbues their lives with higher meaning. And omnivorous “lovers of the game” simply crave evidence their sport is, was, and will continue to be itself; to expect colossal achievement at all times would be like a weatherman interested only in international destruction, or a topographer not fond of salt flats.
Me, I’ve always considered myself a story-line guy. Depending on whom you ask, the narrative skeins that wind through a season are either proof of resonance with man’s most basic struggles, or a canny broadcasting ploy that aims to render each and every game watchable. Either way, they give meaning to the whole and unite it with an even greater whole, making it so it seemed I could never, ever make a value judgment about a given season. Until fairly recently, I’d always firmly believed that, come rain or scraggly hell, any eight months of the National Basketball Association’s continuing saga would be welcome in my life.
Alas, then came 2005-2006. Or, rather, then came the season that followed 2004-2005, which unfolded as if flowing from the pens of an army of hypnotically aware monkeys. Steve Nash’s upstart, improvisatory Suns taking the world by storm; the 2003-draft class of LeBron, Wade, Melo, and Bosh once and for all declaring themselves the face of the NBA; the Washington Wizards tasting the promised land, propelled there by the death-defying and life-affirming Arenas/Hughes backcourt; the brawl at Auburn Hills and its sociocultural shock waves; Amare Stoudemire maturing into an absolutely unstoppable force of nature; weird teams like the Sonics suddenly getting their run on; Kobe struggling to define his legacy; George Karl’s heart-stopping return to coaching; Ben Gordon’s near-legendary fourth-quarter heroics; Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady reclaiming the mantle of high-flying dominance … By anyone’s criteria, 2004-2005 brought with it enough in the way of plot and character dynamics to have the makings of not just an exciting basketball campaign but of a dramatic construct of the highest order.
To me, thus far ‘05-’06 has been eminence put out to pasture. The title will go to one of the three teams legitimately constructed to win championships (Detroit, San Antonio, Miami) with two runners-up in the egregious-professionalism department (Dallas, Phoenix) posing the very slightest threat. Kobe, Iverson, LeBron, and Gilbert Arenas are scoring at a truly historic clip, but with that many players regularly cracking 30 and strangers like Joey Johnson and Jason Richardson on occasion dropping 40, it’s begun to feel a little like basketball’s answer to baseball’s steroid era. Phil and Kobe damn well should be able to make the playoffs, and the Larry/Isiah era has become like sitting next to a deformed face on the bus. About the most interesting thing I can point to is the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets’ surprise bid for the postseason, and Chris Paul’s emergence as the second or third best pure point in the entire Association. Unfortunately, only those devoted enough to spring for NBA League Pass would have the slightest idea that this has been happening in any real sense, and even then, is watching most-improved player David West really been worth all that scrilla?
I say this not to praise the game, or myself, but to get to the utter malaise I find myself suffering through at this very moment. You see, 2004-2005 set an unreasonable precedent; it was so perfectly, inventively devised that I have come to want not merely a season and whatever substance it may bring but one that I can measure critically against the one just past. And yes, my relationship with 2004-2005 burns so brightly that I almost want this season to fail, meaning that even if there were a fucking thing there, I might not see it. It’s quite natural for a man to lash out at the newest work by his author, musician, or artist of preference. After all, with each step these figures take, they run the risk of becoming less yours, of becoming more and more a generic property. I am reminded of that humorless animal the panda, which has been known to start batting about and chewing up its newborn out of nothing less than this same anxiety. Such should not be the case, however, when it comes to welcoming a new season of Great Sport in America. If anything, the attitude is the exact opposite; no matter what last season hath wrought, millions of hungry little mouths angrily cry, “Just bring it!”
Perhaps I am being uncharitable, unfair, even outright destructive, when I should be draping up the living room. But that’s exactly what awes and dismays me so about my feelings on the Association this season—not only did I turn ‘04-’05 into a work of art, I turned it into my favorite of all time. And so, even if I could find the worthy story lines in this one and possibly be shown that it had every bit as much cohesive intrigue and reason to believe beyond the mere production of sports action, chances are I would thumb my nose and say that its first album was better. It’s more than a little likely that this is the latest manifestation of the so-called “aesthetic turn” in basketball consumption, which has, if nothing else, made it possible for legions of otherwise uninterested girls to watch ball with their male partners. That this could overwhelm one of the most faithfully held tenets of fandom—demanding of sports a disjunction usually reserved for less patriotic deeds—should be a sign to us all that this, and the Slam Dunk Contest, should be cut off at the throat.