Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The NBA: Where Shakespeare Happens

The raucous crowd at the Ford Center in downtown Oklahoma City on Friday night didn't miss a beat in the moments after Lakers power forward animal Pau Gasol put back a Kobe Bryant miss to eliminate the StolenSonics from the 2010 NBA playoffs. Rather than hang their heads and lose their voice, the crowd applauded their team, a youthful squad led by emergent hero Kevin Durant. They applauded the effort spread over six games in the group's maiden run into the NBA playoffs. They applauded the victorious Lakers. They applauded themselves. And perhaps most of all, they applauded the theater of the moment.

From the inspirational entrance of Willis Reed in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals to Lebron's James' inability to congratulate those who'd vanquished him in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, the cauldron of the playoffs brings out the best and the worst in those who play the game.

It raises middling players who hit mammoth shots to great heights and humbles all-time greats like Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley who can't raise the trophy. The NBA Playoffs have given us the burlesque of the Heat-Knicks battle in 1998 and the thrilling battle between Bird and Nique in '88, all while Bill Russell and Michael Jordan have taken turns in the role of Oberon.

With every back-door cut and fastbreak, each jump stop and half-court shot, and all of those television timeouts and cutaway shots of Mark Cuban fuming in the first row during a rousing victory by an underdog squad over the higher-seeded Dallas Mavericks, the playoffs are stocked with classical drama and enough subplots and weighty themes to warrant addition to the great cannon of Theater. The Impossibility of Certainty. Authority versus Chaos. Betrayal. Justice. The Illusion of Justice. Jealousy. Competition. Avarice. The difficulty of distinguishing “Men” from “Monsters.” The difficulty of distinguishing “Monsters” from “Men.” Oh, and basketball.

Bearing in mind that even Shakespeare’s plays were constituted as popular entertainments before they were deconstructed as works of art a series of uncanny connections emerged. Heroes on the page found their equal on the hardwood and villains, from the usurping schemers to the disingenuous flatterers, found company as well.

The teams who have already stamped their seasons as successes simply by virtue of reaching the NBA's postseason tournament (Milwaukee, I'm looking your way) aligned themselves with Shakespeare's comedies because regardless of the twists in turns in Act. IV each will have a happy ending. On the other side of the folio, the world-weary and world-famous Shakespearean tragedies matched themselves with those title contenders for whom any defeat will be a tragic outcome.

And, if the rivers didn't boil and the heavens didn’t fall after the debut of the made-for-television Runaway Robots! Romie-O and Julie-8 a cartoon in which two young robots experience a forbidden awakening in their circuit boards, or when Home Improvement's Jonathan Taylor Thomas gave voice to a young lion cub with a lot in common with Hamlet, or at the precise moment in 2002 that the projector started rolling during the premier of a Midsummer Night’s Rave (with the slogan "Get Pucked Up") then it should be quite acceptable to draw parallels between Kevin Garnett and Lady Macbeth, Stephen Jackson and Caliban or John Salmons and Viola in Twelfth Night.

In this world Marv Albert Jeff Van Gundy enters stage right at the Globe Theater (which really just looked like an Elizabethan Madison Square Garden) resplendent in a tight-fitting tunic and armed to teeth as warlike Prologue to set the scene for those wilding crowds:

"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players."
--As You Like It

Stay tuned to this space over the next week (or two) to find out how each NBA playoff team mirrors a play by Shakespeare. Here's a sneak-peak at the pairings.

Cleveland Cavaliers as King Lear
Like Lear, Lebron is a king whose undoing may be his desire to see which franchise loves him the most.

Orland Magic as Romeo and Juliet
The 2009-2010 Magic campaign has been about the unlikely affair between lovers from two long discordant NBA factions: Vince Carter of the haughty Primadiva clan and Stan Van Gundy of the short-limbed and shorter tempered Benchaparte line. This play is a tragedy and anything less than a return to the Finals for Orlando will be viewed thusly by the hoops punditry. Yet I don't see the woe ranking on a scale with Hamlet or a loss by the Cavaliers so I've paired Orlando with this teenaged tragedy rather than any of the more "mature" ones.

Atlanta Hawks as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
The Hawks will be paired with this tragicomedy by Tom Stoppard based on two minor characters from Hamlet because the team's position just beneath the contenders yet wholly separate from the happy-to-be-theres gives them a unique place in the NBA cannon. They are contenders but you don't get the impression that it will a major problem for anyone involved if they bow they out before the Finals. Like R&S are Dead, the Hawks seem to have too many supporting A- stars rather than one transcendent protagonist to put them over the top. In other words, no Hamlet.

Boston Celtics as Macbeth
With Bill Simmons, Bob Ryan and Dan Shaugnessy taking star turns as those three witches claiming to know everything that can and should ever happen to local athletes this one very nearly writes itself.

Miami Heat as Timon of Athens
Like the titular noble Athenian of this tragedy, Dwyane Wade will give everything that he has to his false friends until he has nothing left. And Michael Beasley and and Jermaine O'Neal will be happy to dip their bread in his blood until the Heat have been banished from the postseason. Just as that which made Timon beloved led to his undoing, so may Wade's reckless abandon and unmatched physical exertion prematurely end his own career.

Milwaukee Bucks as Twelfth Night
John Salmons washing up on the shores of Milwaukee has been just as important a plot point as Viola making it to Illyria.

Charlotte Bobcats as The Tempest
With Larry Brown as Prospero pulling the strings of his top servant Caliban, being played with menace and depth by Stephen Jackson, visiting teams have been in trouble when they've found themselves marooned in Charlotte.

Chicago Bulls as As You Like It
As the playoffs were getting underway, the Bulls front office was bedeviled with rumors of a wrestling match between two former players: general manager Scott Paxson and erstwhile head coach Vinny Del Negro. The dispute was the long-haired and potentially fragile Joakim Noah. In the comedy that best encapsulates the drama of the Bulls, two brothers are pitted against one another and wrestling match figures prominently.

Los Angeles Lakers as Hamlet
What hoops player has a more publicly dissected inner life than Kobe? Who care so much about how he is viewed? And who has tried more different personas? Is he trying to be a good teammate? The Black Mamba? Or a comic puppet pitchman? Does he have street cred? Or is he safe for soccer moms? From the neurotic way that he so readily tries to affect the manner in which others view of him with his "Look I'm not selfish!" moments of pass-first play to the manner in which he has to tried to hold the affections of Phil Jackson (undoubtedly the Gertrude to Kobe's prince Hamlet) there is little doubt that Kobe is endlessly self-examining. One can only imagine the soliloquies during his trips to the Staples Center in his Ferrari, at least on the trips when he doesn't have Rick Reilly riding shotgun to pen a puff piece meant to affect the way we view him. And, obviously, Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The Dallas Mavericks as Othello
In the predominantly black world of the NBA it would make sense that blond German guy would be cast as the un-Moorish Othello. And, yes, that means that Mark Cuban is standing in for Iago. A famous and much-staged tragedy, Othello consistently rates just below the best of the best in part because of its lack of compelling subplots and perhaps even due to the race of the main character.

The Phoenix Suns as Troilus and Cressida
This somewhat problematic play contains elements of comedy and tragedy. And for this reason can be dissonant and hard to quantify. Like the Suns, it is hard to tell if the play is coming or going? Is this a team built to win a title or one that would be happy just to advance to the second round?

The Denver Nuggets as Cymbeline
In the First Folio, Cymbeline was listed with the tragedies just as the Nuggets were ranked among the contenders into the All-Star break. But eventually the play lost favor with critics and came to be considered a "romance." With the illness of George Karl, the Nuggets took a similar tumble in public esteem. They've gone from darkhorse title contender to a sympathetic human interest feature.

The Utah Jazz as The Merchant of Venice:
Presumptions about the racism in Salt Lake City will abound just as the anti-semitic subtext of this play distracts from the action (and even from other more sympathetic reads on Shylock), but there is no doubting that both have key places in their respective canons. Merchant's ending makes it a comedy despite the fact that other issues give it a weightier reputation. What will the ending of the Jazz say about them?

The Portland Trailblazers as The Two Gentleman of Verona
Shakespeare highlights the foolish behavior of those in love in this early comedy. Many NBA analysts and pundits have expounded in a great detail about the foolish decision—first made by Brandon Roy and then backed by the Trailblazers’ medical staff, coaching staff and front office—to let team’s best player appear in the first round against the Suns despite his recent knee surgery. Few things drive men to foolish behavior like love and the postseason.

The San Antonio Spurs as Julius Caesar
Et tu Manu?

The Oklahoma City Thunder as A Midsummer Night’s Dream
It’s a no-brainer to pair the most entertaining young team in the NBA with the comedy most enjoyed on the stage. In his Introduction to a recent edition of the play, Stanley Wells recounts something he overheard while attending a performance of one of Shakespeare’s other plays. He heard a schoolboy lament “I wish it was A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I think that I'll be watching a lot of teams over the next few seasons and find myself wishing they were Kevin Durant and the StolenSonics.

DISCLAIMER: As in many earlier adaptations of the works of William Shakespeare these comparisons do not always maintain the strictest of fidelity to the source material. Certain characters and subplots will be brought to the fore will others may be excised altogether. Future editions may improve upon such deficiencies if David Stern relaxes restrictions on roster size, allowing for as many players per team as there were players in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. For these reasons, and many more, readers are always urged to refer back to the Folio text when using this in an academic setting.

Pau Should Get A Hand ... At Least One?

Late in the second quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinal between the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers and the No. 5 Utah Jazz there was a fleeting but possibly revealing moment involving L.A. power forward Pau Gasol.

With less than a minute to play in the second quarter and the Jazz at the line, Phil Jackson sent reserve big Josh Powell in for Pau, who would get an early start on his halftime rest. As Powell was introduced, TNT announcer Dick Stockton noted that "Pau Gasol should get a hand as he leaves the game."

Stockton noted this because the Spaniard had scored 9 of the Lakers' previous 11 points and assisted on the other made bucket. He'd also grabbed a passel of offensive rebounds and been every bit the player that had previously inspired heretofore unheard phrasings from the ABC/ESPN announcing crew of Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson and Mike Breen earlier in the playoffs. Much to Jackson's bemusement, Van Gundy had described Pau as "ridiculously multi-faceted." Van Gundy had also marveled at the long-limbed Gasol's ability to make passes that "most point guards can't make."

Stockton and his play-by-play partner Mike Fratello had been generous, albeit less creative than JVG, in their praise through nearly two quarters of Game 2. In other words, nearly all the men assigned to cover the Lakers-Jazz games had been abuzz with praise for Gasol and just beside themselves with admiration. Lakers fans, though, are not nearly as impressed. To Stockton's surprise, there was barely any audible recognition that Pau was coming out of the game.

Stockton quickly covered for the fans at the Staples Center, claiming that they would voice their appreciation for Pau later in the night. But it seems quite clear that those on the outside looking in are far more enamored with Pau than those paying for purple and gold foam fingers. For them, it's still Kobe and Ko-company.

And not only does Pau not get much applause from Lakers fans as he comes off the floor, but he seems to have to pressure the guy sitting adjacent to the bench (who I think is Kobe's dad) to even give him a fist bump. So, I guess in one regard, Stockton was right. Pau got a hand when he left the game. He got one hand from one reluctant dude for a fist bump.

No. 24 may be the closer on the Lakers (even though Pau actually closed out the first round series). He may be the best closer in the game. Possibly the best since Michael Jordan. But he's not the player that makes this iteration of the Lakers the best since the Batman and Robin salad days of the early 2000s. Nope. It's Pau.

According to the statisticians at Basketball-Reference, Pau has 1.6 Win Shares during this postseason. Kobe has 0.8 Win Shares. It's a complicated stat that accounts for how many wins a particular player is actually worth to a team. This postseason, Pau has doubled up Kobe. And he's been the fourth best in all the postseason by this measure after Lebron, Jason Richardson and Jameer Nelson.

He is, as JVG said, ridiculously multi-faceted. He scores better than 18 a game, grabs more than 13 boards, hands out more than 3 assists and blocks at least one shot nearly every game. He runs out on the break. He chases back on defense. And he takes far too many glares from Kobe each and every game. He's hit his free throws at nearly 80 percent and making more than 50% of his field goal attempts. He's up near the top of the leaderboards in offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds. He wants the ball but he doesn't need plays called for him to score game-winning buckets.