This year’s NBA Finals match-up has enough back stories to fill out a season of The Sopranos. It has the potential to be one of the most exciting American professional sports events of the last ten years. Gone from this year’s finals are the old, reliable Lakers and Celtics. They have been vanquished, nay, trounced, by the two teams that will be slugging it out in a best of seven series inside their glitzy sunbelt city arenas, the Dallas Mavericks (Western Conference) and the Miami Heat (Eastern Conference). Those two teams have met in the Finals before, in 2006, with Miami winning four games in a row after losing the first two. So the Mavs, still featuring many of the same players from the earlier series, will have revenge on their minds, without question. But this season even that little slice of drama must take a back seat to the bigger saga that will unfold. Call this one The Legacy Series.
The two teams each have a player who has simply risen above the numerous other great stars who have played throughout this post season, so much so that each has looked like the proverbial Man on a Mission. And, indeed, both are. Lebron James and Dirk Nowitski are two of the best players ever to lace up, just coming short of belonging in the same conversation as such greats as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, et al. But, like the diploma-less Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, they both lack something those other players all have – a championship ring (actually, multiple ones). Naturally, only one is going to come away with that this year, and since neither wants to retire with the unenviable epithet of Greatest Player To Have Never Won A Championship, we fans can look forward to two warriors playing their hearts, guts, spleens and toenails out in order to be the last man standing. Let the battle begin!
Rust Belt Warrior vs. Bavarian Giant
It is hard to imagine a more picturesque city than the medieval fortress town of Wurzburg, Germany, nor one less so than grimy Akron, Ohio. These cities, similar in population sizes, but very little else, are the hometowns of the two main protagonists in the drama that is about to unfold. Dirk, the seven foot giant from Wurzburg, has a sports pedigree as stately and impressive as the town he hails from. His mother was a professional basketball player,while his father was a handball player who represented Germany at the highest level. His sister is a former track and field star/basketball player who now works for the NBA’s International TV division. Conversely, Lebron’s background matches his town’s tough, hard scrabble condition. The only child of an unwed teenage mother, if it weren’t for his phenomenal athletic abilities (he could probably start in the NFL if he chose to), it’s doubtful he would have risen above the hard knocks of his upbringing to be anything more than just another struggling nobody in a region plagued by one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Instead, he’s one of the world’s best known athletes, with more money than God. Only in America, as they say.
What a Ring Means to Dirk:
Dirk (32, 13th year in the NBA) is widely considered to be the best European basketball player to ever play in the NBA, if not the greatest European baller of all time. His career in the league, all with the Mavs, has been stellar. His individual stats, as well as the achievements of the team he plays for, are impressive enough to place him alongside the other great stars of his generation, Kobe Bryant (five championships), Tim Duncan (four championships), and Kevin Garnett (one championship). So why no ring? The answer to that gets to the heart of the nastiest dragon that our Bavarian giant is out to slay this year, the perception that he is soft, especially when it counts the most. That his teams fold in the playoffs, that he as an individual can’t handle the increased pressure and physicality of playoff style basketball. Going back to that ’06 Finals series with the Heat, Dirk’s Mavs were up by two games, and well on their way to winning Game 3, with a comfortable lead going into the fourth quarter. A 3-0 edge would have been an insurmountable deficit for the Miami squad (led up to that point by Shaq O’Neal), one that no NBA team has ever fought back from. But what happened next is legendary in NBA folklore. The young star, Dwayne Wade, Shaq’s sidekick up until that point, found a new gear, playing at a Jordanesque level from that point onward, never looking back as the Heat came back to win that one, and the next three as well. Wade, almost overnight, became the biggest star in the NBA, and Dirk became a mere footnote to the younger star’s ascension.
Wade is still playing for the Heat, who are now supercharged with the added talent of James, and Chris Bosh, all three of whom entered the league in 2003. It is Wade, more so than Lebron, who Dirk undoubtedly feels the need to vanquish. A championship will give him what he needs to move into the conversation as an all time great, and the chance to win it over the very same thorn in his side who kept it from him last time around would have a taste more satisfying than the most robust Bavarian beer. As for Wade, his career after that championship has dipped a bit, and in a sort of payback the Mavs have pretty much owned the Heat in the regular season ever since their humiliation in ’06. Wade would love to prove himself once more on the sport’s biggest stage. But there is someone else on his team who wants redemption so much more…..
What a Ring Means to Lebron:
We all make bad decisions from time to time. But while the rest of us merely make decisions, Lebron James (26, 8th year in the NBA), disastrously, made “The Decision”. Sticking a dagger into the heart of the very region he hails from, Lebron announced, on a shamelessly self aggrandizing hour-long ESPN TV special, that he was leaving the team he had played for ever since entering the league, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in order to “take his talents” to Miami, to hook up with buddies and fellow greats Wade and Bosh, in search of, in his own words, “multiple championships”. Rarely has a star’s popularity fallen so spectacularly as Lebron’s did with that one decision, and how he went about announcing it. He instantly went from being one of the most liked players in the league to easily the most reviled. He left the Cavs without ever getting them the trophy they badly needed, not only for the team, but for the entire city. Cleveland, Ohio, among all professional sports loving American cities, is famously “cursed”, and neither its Browns, Indians nor Cavs have been able to win a national championship since all the way back in 1948, though they came close many times (most recently when Lebron led his ragtag bunch of non-star teammates all the way to the Finals in 2008, where they were summarily swept by the vastly superior Tim Duncan-led San Antonio Spurs). Unfairly, the hopes of an entire sports loving city were placed on one young man’s shoulders. If he had managed to deliver the goods, he would have become a city hero like no other, worshipped for decades. Instead, he made The Decision. He made it clear to his fans that he just didn’t see a championship happening there, not without a better supporting cast. He had lobbied buddy Wade to leave Miami and join him in Cleveland. But. Nobody leaves Miami to go to Cleveland. Lebron did what he felt he had to do, on a personal level, and a city’s dream died.
He couldn’t possibly have imagined how big the hit to his reputation would be. He was booed in every arena he played in, each time he touched the ball. It was not that suddenly everybody fell in love with the city of Cleveland. It just more or less became a de rigeur thing to do, to boo Lebron James, a reverse form of Beatlemania. The purpose of all the scorn was to show him how arrogant and cocky the folks in the stands perceived him to be. To let him know how unfair they felt it was to the rest of the league for such an All Star team to assemble. Wade and Bosh got some of it too, but Lebron, who always seems to court a brighter spotlight, received the lion’s share. When the Heat started out badly, people were all too delighted to see him struggle, as if he were being zapped by karma. When they got it together and showed the greatness that was more or less assumed of them, people hastened to call him a “quitter” who couldn’t win without help. He was suddenly Robin to Wade’s Batman (although this was never the case on the court, where both players have played equally well). Jordan and Magic, two of the top five all time players by any standard, took turns announcing that they would never have done such a thing, and tut tutted about how this new generation of stars just don’t seem to have the same competitive instinct they did. One can only guess, but the criticism of those two elites probably stung Lebron more than all the booing of the mere mortals in the stands. It seemed that they were preempting Lebron from ever entering their club, no matter how many championships he may end up winning before hanging up his sneakers.
Ascending Mt. Redemption
Although both the Mavs and the Heat looked impressive enough in the regular season, as did Dirk and Lebron, it wasn’t until the second round of the playoffs that their hunger began to show. For Dirk, that meant facing off against a man whose shadow he has lived under nearly his entire career. Kobe Bryant has already placed himself in the conversation for All Time Top Ten, by virtue of the five championships his Los Angeles Lakers have won during his tenure. A title this year would have made him the equal of the man he is often compared to, Michael Jordan, in at least one respect. Not only would it have been his sixth title, the same number as Jordan, it would have been his second three-peat, three consecutive titles in a row, exactly the same way Jordan won his six rings. Going into his series against the Mavs, it was widely thought that it was Kobe, not Dirk, who was the man on the mission to place his name indelibly among the immortals. What happened instead sent shock waves throughout the basketball hierarchy. Not only did Kobe not play magnificently, thereby demonstrating that he understood the significance of what he was aiming for, rather he turned in an anticlimactic performance that has basketball fans all over the world convinced that he’ll never be another Jordan. Meanwhile, Dirk was dominant. He was the best player on the court throughout so much of the series that the Lakers appeared unable to defend against him. The result: a four game sweep of the two time defending champions. Basketball fans quickly took note; Dirk wants it this year.
Lebron was on a parallel mission. He needed to do with his new team what he hadn’t been able to as a Cavalier: vanquish the Boston Celtics. The C’s had actually created the template for multiple superstars-led teams that the Heat simply took to its logical conclusion. In 2008, perennial All Stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined the great Paul Pierce in Boston to form a team capable of what no one of them had been able to do so far in their careers, hoist a Finals trophy. Once they got together, they did that in their very first season, beating James’ Cavs on the way. Just as they did in James’ last playoff series as a Cav (before losing to the Lakers in the ’10 Finals). The C’s both played the role of spoiler to Lebron’s ascension, and made it clear to him what he needed to do to get past them – hook up with his own All Star buddies. It was a smart move. While the Mavs were busy sweeping the champs, the Heat’s fearsome threesome was having its way with the league’s original Big Three. Lebron & Co. made the other guys look old, slow, and human. The Heat were never meaningfully challenged, and the series lasted a mere five games.
Advancing to the next round, Dirk and Lebron were once again on parallel courses, as they faced off against the league’s two young guns. Dirk outplayed two time scoring leader Kevin Durant (22), and his Oklahoma City Thunder, to earn a Finals berth. Similarly, Lebron outshone, and manhandled, Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls, another 22 year old who snagged the MVP trophy from him this season (Lebron had won it the last two years in a row). Both series lasted only five games. Dirk’s Mavs seemed in control the whole time, and Durant was held well below his scoring averages. Lebron looked terrible in the first game, a loss for the Heat, but afterwards he played spectacularly, and the Bulls never really had a chance from that point onward. By the time both the Mavs and the Heat were up 3-1, the outcome was never really in doubt, and it was clear that Dirk and Lebron were on a collision course, both desperate for something that only one can have.
And In This Corner….
So who needs the ring more? Although Dirk has played stronger all season than his similarly aged counterparts, Kobe, Duncan and Garnett, who this season have all showed signs of slowing down, Dirk’s age is very much a factor in his quest for rings. This is even more so the case of his All Star teammate, Jason Kidd, one of the greatest playmakers the game has ever seen, with by far the greatest number of “triple doubles” (double figures in points, assists and rebounds in a game) of any current player (and one of only three in league history to have more than 100). Kidd is 38, grandfatherly by league standards. He also played on the ’06 Mavs squad that lost to Wade’s Heat. All things considered, this Dallas Mavericks team is the most talented group in the league that boasts not a singer player who has ever played for a championship team. And the clock, as they say, is ticking.
Time is something that Lebron has more of. Still only 26, having come into the league directly from high school, he still has perhaps another five or six prime years left to play. On the other hand, he might not. Players who come into the league directly from high school tend to wear down a bit faster than their counterparts who had some college years. Playing in the NBA is a far more brutal experience to a player’s body, and psyche, than the NCAA, and it extracts a heavy toll on those who take the fast track. None more so than James, in that he had to pretty much be on the floor during every crucial minute of game time while with the Cavs in order for them to have a chance of winning, such was the drop-off from him to the second best player on any of the Cavs’ rosters during his tenure there. Although he still looks and plays like an immortal, a sudden decline is not unthinkable. In fact, it may be one of the most sensible of all the factors that led to his infamous Decision. Having stars alongside him to share the burdens, emotional and physical, just may be the thing that makes it possible for him to keep playing at a level necessary to earn multiple, rather than one, championships.
Meanwhile, however, Durant and Rose are smarting from the schooling they just got at the hands of Dirk and Lebron. These two young stars, born only five days apart, have done amazing work so far, to lead their teams to respective east and west semifinals appearances in only their fourth (Durant) and third (Rose) seasons. They are the new faces of the league, and they aren’t going anywhere. In fact, their defeats this year are certain to motivate them to come back even stronger next season, the taste of blood still fresh in their mouths. The possibility of a Durant/Rose rivalry, similar to the famous one between Laker Magic Johnson and Celtic Larry Bird back in the ’80s (who won eight titles between them), has the potential to give Lebron and Dirk shivers. They could end up as old news no matter which of them ends up with a trophy this year if that happens. But that is next season’s concern, and the seasons to come. Neither Durant nor Rose looked ready to take over from Dirk and Lebron when their chance arose on the big stage. At this rare point in time, when a mere sports event has such a compelling back story, all basketball fans should savor the moment. This is going to be a Clash of Titans.
There is one little extra bit of drama playing out. When Lebron finished up his contract with the Cavs, and announced his free agency, every team in the league was salivating at the prospect of signing him, but none more than the Mavs, and their brash billionaire owner Mark Cuban. It was an open secret just how much Cuban wanted Lebron on his side. We’ll never know exactly what sort of courtship ritual ensued, but it is safe to guess that a megalomaniac like Cuban didn’t take too well to being jilted. He seemed as amused as anyone early in the season when the Heat started off slow and dropped a lot of games they should have won. That was then, as the cliche goes, and this is now. The superstar he once courted is now the rival he wants his own superstar to make mincemeat out of. A few days from now he’ll be the Happiest, or the Saddest, Billionaire.