The fluttering song of the monk parakeet and the resounding thud of Flip Saunders being thrown under the bus can signal only one thing: Summer has officially arrived, and the NBA finals are upon us. This postseason, as any good sports postseason should, has provided an endless supply of narrative intrigue, for which we should feel thankful. The league’s most precious babe, DeSagana Diop, stared into the funhouse mirror and saw himself as a full-grown man. LeBron James affirmed his presence under the playoffs’ brightest lights, leaving us all with the MacArthurian promise that he would return. Raja Bell and Kobe Bryant, following with precision the script of the latest Lindsay Lohan/Chris Pine vehicle, Just My Luck, exchanged fortunes upon colliding with each other during the Suns-Lakers series. And, as is the case every year, the unlikeliest and most loathsome players (see: the majority of the Miami Heat) have been cast as heroes, key components to playoff prosperity.
Since Michael Jordan’s retirement, conventional NBA punditry—in attempts to establish a new model for what constitutes a champion—has tried to feed us a load of tripe about the pure souls of championship-caliber teams. The champs of the past two years, the 2004 Detroit Pistons and the 2005 San Antonio Spurs, for the most part fit this purity stereotype well. These teams were driven by superordinate collective-oriented goals rather than individual ones, they focused on defense rather than the flash and pomp of offense, and they earned their titles through good old-fashioned hard work, not through merely relying on a couple of players to carry the team, or winning by default as a result of weak opposition. A new day is upon us, however, one in which the despicables triumph, while America either joins them in vileness or gawks in horror.
The current “despicables,” I should note, differ distinctly from your standard Dennis Rodman-Vernon Maxwell-Bill Laimbeer-variety thugs of the ‘80s and ’90s. The Rodman/Maxwell/Laimbeer types were also respected throughout the league—they were tough defenders, team players, and gave 100 percent effort, despite being assholish, overly dramatic, and crazy as fuck. The despicables of today, frustratingly enough, are potential stars, minus 40 percent of any real “star” talent, minus any heart, minus the will to play defense, plus ridiculously bloated contracts (many of which were signed before the hard NBA salary-cap rules were instated), multiplied by the two or three organizations they’ve tortured or contaminated while playing for them. Just plain bad guys. And every year in the playoffs, a select few of these despicables are bestowed redemption.
The most obvious case, of course, is Tim Thomas, a player who, until the Mavericks eliminated his Suns last week, had all of Milwaukee shaking in their collective Harley-Davidson boots. Thomas, a former Milwaukee Buck, tormented Bucks fans during his tenure there, outright refusing to play up to his potential and wasting his talent while committed to a hefty contract. On the Suns, he has been reborn as a playoff savior, and to watch Thomas advance to the finals (as he nearly did) would have been vomit-inducing for Milwaukee fans. As my friend Gregg, a Bucks lifer, recounts, “In a 2001 game against the Blazers, he hit eight 3-pointers in the second half on his way to 39 points; the next night, he scored 4 points and was ejected for arguing a foul call. So he goes.” Thomas’s own take on his reputation as a lazy, play-when-I-want-to guy? “It’s like somebody says you was gay. What can you do? It’s just a rumor.”
To see Thomas enter the circle of champions would not have been the same as Twins fans watching Chuck Knoblauch win a ring with the Yankees or Red Sox fans watching Wade Boggs do the same for Boston. Knoblauch and Boggs served quality time for their former clubs, whereas Thomas threatened to destroy his. Not exactly the most sportsmanlike guy, either, Thomas once put a hit out on the entire New Jersey Nets team after being dealt a hard foul by Nets center Jason Collins in the playoffs two years ago: “My goal is just to get back out there on the court and go hit somebody,” Thomas said. “That’s it. That’s all I’m looking forward to do. What’s been done to me is going to be done to them.” Recently, Thomas again proved himself a master of public shit-talking by slamming former Knicks colleague Stephon Marbury as the “worst teammate [he’s] ever had.” Perhaps not only for Milwaukee but also for all the world, Thomas’s playoff success has been difficult to stomach.
If Thomas is the case study, then the Miami Heat are the full-blown phenomenon. And they are here, in the finals, knocking on the door of a championship. They hide behind the popularity of Dwyane Wade, the NBA’s most adored star. Wade is the face of the Heat franchise, in addition to being the league goody-goody, one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful, and Commissioner Stern’s favorite role model, who does and says all the right things. Wade claims to have read Pride and Prejudice more than once, is one of the few professional players to have completed all four years of college, not only married his childhood sweetheart but married her while she was still fat, and named his son Zaire. It gets no more straight and narrow; and behind the guise of a smiling Wade, wickedness lurks.
Aside from the fawned-upon Wade, and of course Shaquille O’Neal, whose public Santa Claus-like persona is a front for recent pettiness (see: publicly carrying on the Kobe Bryant beef ad nauseam; pointlessly and repeatedly dissing Erick Dampier), the Heat are a team of hateful individuals. This is a collective that turned the formerly saltine-bland James Posey into a flagrant foul-committing drama machine during these playoffs. The hometown workhorse, Udonis Haslem, has become a mouthpiece-throwing malcontent. Even Pat Riley, one of the most honored individuals in NBA history, has taken on somewhat of a villain role for essentially forcing out former Heat coach Stan Van Gundy at the beginning of the season, then taking over for Van Gundy, the man who restored Miami Heat basketball to championship caliber.
The team houses no less than two league certifiable “cancers,” Jason Williams and Antoine Walker, and two ornery, Hall of Fame-bound, ring-chasing veterans, Gary Payton and Alonzo Mourning, who in their later years have also had adverse effects on teams they have played for. Williams is a flashy honky who, during his final year with the Sacramento Kings, was suspended both for violating the league drug policy and for making derogatory remarks to fans about homosexuals and Asians during a game in Oakland. Walker is a notorious ball hog who, when asked why he takes so many 3-pointers, responded, “Because they don’t make 4-pointers.” Mourning is a guy who forced a trade from the New Jersey Nets once they fell out of contention, even after the Nets supported him unconditionally and refused to seek out a contract settlement when Mourning experienced a kidney failure and looked as though he would never play again. And Payton, former franchise player with Seattle, has seen his esteem diminish drastically since beginning his pursuit of a championship in old age. And, in my opinion, Payton is single-handedly responsible for the 2004 Lakers—for which he helmed the starting-point-guard role— not winning a championship.
Furthermore, the Heat appear to lack all of the qualities that supposedly “make a champion”: selflessness (after all these years, Shaq still complains after losses about not getting enough touches), defense (Walker and Williams in particular are notoriously poor defenders), consistent night-in/night-out effort (the team seemingly coasted through the regular season, only to “turn it on” during the playoffs), and chemistry (as recently as three weeks ago, Wade and Payton engaged in ugly on-court squabbling). So how have they gotten this far? Throw your rigid analyses out the window; we need not complicate things: The Heat win because they are playing with one of the top five players ever, Shaquille O’Neal. Casual/non-NBA fans should note that entire teams, over the past 10 years, have been constructed with the sole purpose of stopping Shaq in the playoffs. For more rigorous NBA followers, this translates into: Ervin Johnson, Cliff Robinson, and Dale Davis still breathe that good oxygen thanks to Shaq’s presence.
Thanks to Shaq (and, OK, fine, thanks also to Dwyane Wade, who is playing the Shaq-sidekick role, like Penny Hardaway and Kobe Bryant before him), the Heat will win the finals in a week or two. This means that bad individuals—people who, in their greed, egocentrism, laziness, and/or ignorance, have parasitically destroyed other teams and anguished the fans of those teams—will be crowned champions of the National Basketball Association. Although this is nothing new in sports, for “nice guys to finish last” and for the Jose Cansecos and Leonard Littles of the world to win championships, the NBA in particular seems firmly in denial over this truth. (In fact, in other sports, bad-guy teams like the 1986 New York Mets and the 1976 Oakland Raiders are thoroughly celebrated in the annals of champions.)
This denial is due in part to—and, yes, I’ve walked this road before (cf. screaming on the dress code, the age limit, the Artest suspension, the kibosh on Iverson’s rap album, etc.)—the NBA’s increasing shift over the past few years toward becoming a moralizing institution, one that, in the face of consistent disconfirming evidence, tries to convince us that what a champion looks like is the exact opposite of Antoine Walker and Jason Williams. But Walker and Williams will win their rings, just like the tumorous Glenn Robinson the year before. And this will not be an issue of whether or not justice has been served or whether or not moral offenses have gone unreprimanded. For every new postseason, an entire field of seeds is sown, of which only the determined rise up from the ground. So few players truly matter, and those who do, like Shaquille O’Neal, do just enough to keep the pesticides from killing the fruit along with the insects.