Friday, May 29, 2009

The NBA Playoffs: Where Tragedy Happens

“Show Me a Hero And I’ll Write You A Tragedy”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald

There are 30 franchises in the NBA, 30 in the Major Leagues, 30 in the NHL and 32 teams playing in the NFL. That gives us 122 professional sports teams in this country’s four major sports. Each team has proud veteran players, talented young prospects, struggling journeymen and a legion of loyal fans. Each organization has one goal: a championship. 118 of those teams have failed or will fail in 2009. They will not win a championship. Some will lose small battles with such regularity that their larger failure — not winning a title — will mostly go unnoticed. Others will achieve many miniature milestones and seem perilously close to glory before coming up short. Sort of like the 18-1 Patriots in 2008. Or the Dallas Mavericks in 2007, who steamrolled through the regular season only to be shocked by the Golden State Warriors in the opening round of the playoffs.

Each brand of inadequacy tells a different story and falls into a different genre. The rollicking journey of the Matt Millen-era Detroit Lions is a farce. The heartwarming account of the Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling-led 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks is a romantic comedy. And the taught tale of near misses and squandered opportunity of the 1990s New York Knicks is a tragedy.
Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing is one of the 50 greatest players to tread the boards in an NBA game. He owns nearly every career record in Knicks franchise history. He has two gold medals and an NCAA championship. He has a degree from Georgetown University. He has amassed millions of dollars playing a game that he didn’t learn until middle school. Yet, he is considered a failure by some.

Many retired sports heroes find themselves draped in melancholy rather than championship banners. Their greatest victories always in semifinals and quarterfinal rounds and informed by the season-ending loss lurking just over the horizon. Their defining moments are defeats. These men are tragic figures. Their prodigious talents and Herculean efforts undone by their own incurable flaws or by circumstances that were beyond their control. Or by John Starks’s scene-stealing 2-or-18 monologue in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals. Increasingly encased in ice due to injury and enveloped by a reputation as a guy who couldn’t win the big game, Ewing’s suffering was performed nightly at Madison Square Garden for 15 years. His suffering was for our sake. It was meant to give us pleasure, even though we often ended up suffering right alongside the Big Fella.

For Aristotle, a tragedy had to be concerned with the deeds of great men. Greek tragedies featured kings and persons of divine or royal heritage. It was believed that only the suffering of someone so great could bring catharsis to a mass audience. Some modern tragedians attempted to place the common man at the center of a tragedy. In today’s royal-less world, though, professional athletes are commoners become kings. Perhaps most notably, the 24-year-old Adonis from Akron dubbed "King James" of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The dramas of professional athletes — televised by ESPN, TNT and allegedly VS with a pomp and circumstance befitting monarchs — compose today’s tragic canon. The elegiac accountings of the Boston Red Sox pre-2004 championship drought have replaced King Lear for two generations of Americans as the standard for woe. Entire cities rise and fall with their respective sports franchises just as they once did with their potentates. Local economies are propped up by playoff runs and civic pride is buoyed by banners in the rafters. To watch the fans celebrating the Cavs Game 5 victory at Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday night in Cleveland was surely to witness a mass catharsis. Those Midwesterners were purified by what the Lebronaliers accomplished last night in Cleveland. And, just as completely, they will be devastated if their team is eliminated by the Orlando Magic in Game 6 or 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The feelings of sorrow and angst would be extreme in Cuyahoga County. Past defeats would mingle with future ones in the minds of many.

Likewise, a season-ending defeat for any of the other three teams still competing for the NBA championship would be just as devastating. For the first time in a long time, each of the semifinalists for the Larry O’Brien trophy has a legitimate claim to being the Association's top team. There will be no moral victories this season. No one is happy just to be here. There will be just one happy ending. Three teams and three cities will feel the weight of this loss as heavily as Atlas feels the weight of this world on his shoulders. Television cameras will beam pictures of three sets of tearful fans and despondent hoopsters around the country. Loss will be felt keenly by three cities, who will incorporate the defeats into their self images. It will become a part of who they are. It will become a part of the story that they tell about their lives and the life of their city.

With this in mind, I have paired the Cavaliers, Magic, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets with the piece of tragic literature that best exemplifies the way they are likely to lose and the particular way in which they got to this point. Check back over the next few days as I break down, character by player, the ways in which each of these teams is an uncanny simulacrum for these tragic tales.*

The Cleveland Cavaliers
Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller

The Orlando Magic
Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles

The Los Angeles Lakers
Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

The Denver Nuggets
Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand

*Yes, I know that there is an argument to make that the final scene of Cyrano keeps it from being a tragedy. I disagree. Cyrano never got the girl. He never got over his feelings of inadequacy and never saw himself for the swashbuckling ladies’ man that he could have been. Even if Roxanne puts together the pieces, it is only after Cyrano is nearly dead and after dusk has fallen - meaning that she couldn't see his face. It is sad. And a tragedy. For the sake of the Nuggets write-up you’re just going to have to go along with me. Or not.