This is an updated version of a piece published in the June 13, 2011 edition of El Pais newspaper.
People like good stories. With so many teams and so many games, the NBA regular season is a hard place to find them. Sure, there is the occasional flare-up because Player Y might have slept with the wife of Player Z, but most nights, it’s Players A-L slogging it out against Players M-X and the story is flatter than an aging rock star the night after his wife left him.
When the season is distilled down to two teams, though, as it is in the NBA Finals, it becomes far easier to find a story.
This year, the Approved NBA Finals Story Lines were: 1. Most people didn’t realize how good Dirk Nowitzki is, possibly because he’s humble, possibly because he’s not American and possibly because he plays in Dallas. 2. In all the hullabaloo surrounding LeBron James, we forgot how much winning means to Dwyane Wade. 3. In all the hullabaloo surrounding LeBron James, we forgot how little LeBron James knows about winning. 4. The 2011 Finals were really fun to watch.
The last of those is, of course, the most important. The last of those also happens to be highly dependent on the first three. Which clues us into the fact that the first three aren’t story lines at all. They’re background for creating the sort of characters that are necessary for a good story.
The characters are considered “good” or “effective” or, if you want to use a fun, big word, “archetypical,” when it is easy to see traces of ourselves in them. We’ve all felt like LeBron James – under pressure and not quite ready for the moment. And we’ve all felt like Dirk Nowitzki – underappreciated and afraid we always will be.
But it’s not enough to create good/archetypical characters. There has to be conflict. In the case of the NBA Finals, it was a ticking clock, a ten-foot hoop, a few million fans, what happened last game, what might happen next game, how Shawn Marion is rotating on defense, whether the ball is slippery, what Zydrunas Ilgauskas looks like in a suit.
And then, when we see how the characters react to that conflict, a story emerges: Dwyane Wade rises to the moment, LeBron James shrinks from it, Dirk Nowitzki makes commentators run out of adjectives, Jason Terry is struck down by the God he thanked in his post-game speech. Or maybe, just maybe, none of those things.
This last part is, of course, why we watch sports in the first place. Because unlike the story lines in the books and movies we’re used to, the story lines we find in sports are completely unpredictable; they might change at any second.
There was no shortage of such changes in the 2011 NBA Finals. There were shots, plays, entire games that might have gone the other way. There were players who reacted like we thought they would, and players who reacted in ways we’d never seen. There were surprises and inconsistencies and events that we never could have predicted.
And then, it was over. But not before the satisfying conclusion – a conclusion that, if written as fiction, might have caused rolling eyes and yawning mouths: the good guys won because they played like a team, and the bad guys lost because they didn’t.
But even if the story had turned another way; even if LeBron James had been wired a little differently, or if Dwyane Wade had been a little less injured, or if Chris Bosh had been a little less Chris Bosh, and the Miami Heat had crushed the hopes of humans who want good to triumph over evil…even then, the 2011 NBA Finals would have given us exactly what any sports fan hopes for when he sits down to watch: a great story.
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