Tuesday, June 14, 2011

America’s (New) Team Beats the Heat

by Van Walker

The following was written by a life-long Chicago Bulls fan, hoping that German-born Dirk Nowitzki(notes) can explain schadenfreude to LeBron James(notes).)

As the season unofficially began with a certain player's gaudy, televised announcement that he was taking his talents to South Beach, it is somehow only fitting that the season also ends in South Beach.

As it turns out, the Dallas Mavericks took their talents to South Beach on Sunday, and left with the Larry O'Brien trophy.

Hindsight being what it is, certain judgments are bound to follow.

For example: I think we can all just file Scottie Pippen's comments about LeBron James possibly eclipsing Michael Jordan in the "stupid" drawer and move on. For all that James might have in physical advantages over Jordan at the same age, the things that he quite obviously lacks are the Spaldings big enough to master the moment. We've seen this before, mind you. There was the infamous Game 5 shut down versus the Boston Celtics when he was carrying the Cleveland Cavaliers. There was the Olympic panic attack, where he froze in terror as Spain made a late charge in the gold medal game. There was Game 4 in this series, when none other than DeShawn Stevenson(notes) called him out for being gutless.

Whatever else Michael Jordan might have been, he was never afraid of losing. He hated losing, hated it worse than homemade sin, but he was never afraid of it. He took losses as a personal affront and he refused to rest until he'd set things right. He was at his very best when things around him were at their very worst, and he always rose above the moment to deliver the goods, time and time again. Michael Jordan won championships because he personally assumed responsibility for leading his team to them.

Until he wins an NBA championship or seven, all LeBron James will be known for is that ridiculous infomercial of his during his free agency flirtation.

But hey, noooo time for loooosers (thanks, Freddy). How 'bout them Mavericks!

Just look at the list of veterans who now get to call themselves NBA champions. There's Dirk Nowitzki, of course, arguably the Steve Young of the NBA, because there was never any question about his talent, but he always bore the brunt of the criticism whenever his Mavericks didn't win the title. If that was the case, then we'd better man up and give him the brunt of the praise, because there was not a better player for the Mavs in this entire playoff run. Nowitzki utterly ruined the Los Angeles Lakers and destroyed the Oklahoma City Thunder, and showed the kind of heart and determination in this championship series that many previously thought he'd lacked. I, for one, am genuinely happy for him.

I'm also very happy for a number of other veterans, good players all, that have logged a lot of minutes in this man's league without having any championship success. Congratulations to Jason Kidd(notes), Jason Terry(notes), Shawn Marion(notes), and Peja Stojakovic(notes). These gentlemen have been through a lot in their careers, and it showed. Where the Heat were indecisive, the Mavericks were certain. Where the Heat were slow, the Mavericks were urgent.

And oh, didn't this team play with veteran urgency. It is not a stretch to suggest that Dallas' championship window is closer to closing than to opening, largely because, like the current Celtics or current Spurs, the guys that they have counted on for this kind of success are all on the wrong side of 30, and nobody beats the clock. These men appreciated the rare opportunity before them (not to belabor the point, but these Mavericks represent only the tenth franchise to win the NBA title since 1979), and they did not squander it.

By the way, am I the only one old enough to remember Pete Rozelle grudgingly giving the Lombardi Trophy to Al Davis back in the day? I only mention that because I can't imagine an owner that David Stern hates more than Mark Cuban, and passing Cuban the Larry O'Brien trophy just had to sting a little.

So, the Dallas Mavericks will return to Big D, finally able to add a championship to the cabinet that had mostly belonged to the Dallas Cowboys (with Lord Stanley's Cup off to one side). While certain questions are inevitable (Can they repeat? Will there be a league for them to repeat in next season?), at least they will be known as champions.

Meanwhile, the scorn getting heaped on the Miami Heat right about now is piling up so fast, you'd need wings to stay above it…but this is what happens when you talk the talk but don't walk the walk. We remember, for example, Joe Namath's legendary poolside guarantee (and really, what else was the guy going to say, that his team would lose? come on…), the Super Bowl Shufflin' Bears, and Moses Malone's iconic and abrupt "fo', fo', fo'," primarily because their teams went on to win.

As Reggie Jackson once said, it's not bragging when you back it up.

This, however, is where we find the Miami Heat, all braggart, no back-up. They will endure an off-season of bile and uncertainty; after all, if (er, when) David Stern has his way, the NBA will either be drastically re-figured or blown up and drastically re-figured, which will only make it more difficult for them to bring in the kind of help that they most certainly need to get over the hump. Everyone in this mess will wear goat horns, from Pat Riley to Erik Spoelstra, from the not-so-Big Three to that porous bench, but no one more than LeBron James, and no one more deservedly. He was the game's best player on its biggest stage and he coughed up a furball. This was supposed to be his validation, not Dirk Nowitzki's, his way of saying that he was right all along to leave Cleveland for the championship rings of Miami.

Now Nowitzki (No-Quit-ski?) is the one finishing off a Hall-of-Fame resume; championship bling always impresses the selection committee. Now Nowitzki is the one validated, the one whose shoulders no longer slump with the burden of yet another season without visiting the mountaintop. One senses that, even through the criticism he has endured, the game is still fun for him, and likely that much more fun now that he led a team to the ultimate victory. That said, if he chose to walk away right now, with all of his health and a ring to call it quits on, no one would blame him. We tend to forget that the man is a trailblazer, after all; how many other 7-footers have we known that can play on the perimeter like he does? This is mainly where the "soft" label came from, the misguided idea that he shied away from banging in the post and chose to launch jumpers because he was scared. Now we are (finally) used to the idea of a man taller than Bill Russell pulling up from 25 feet away and burying the shot.

Nowitzki's legacy, that of the big man who played like a guard, is now forever intact, and only Springfield awaits.

LeBron James' legacy?

Had he stayed in Cleveland, almost no one would have blamed him for this loss because, well, look at the rest of that roster. His legacy would have been intact, he'd have had the undying love of all of Ohio, and he'd have had a much bigger pile of cash on which to cry himself to sleep.

Now, not only does he remain ring-less, not only is he an utter failure as a global marketing icon (it's telling that MJ still sells more shoes than King James, and there are kids who've never seen MJ play, but I digress), but he gave up money that he'll never see again because David Stern will institute a hard salary cap, period, and he will pile the bodies of the NBA Players' Association in heaps to do it.

Now he looks like a dupe that Riles short-changed into being Dwayne Wade's caddy, and, worse, the one that takes all the heat (get it? heat?) when they lose.

We were all witnesses (gigglesnort).

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