Last night I went to see LeBron vs. D-Wade, also known as the Cavs vs. the Heat... I have to admit, life is good when you can walk out of your building, cross a drawbridge with Biscayne Bay on both sides, and enjoy the warm breeze while you walk a mile or so to the arena to see a game like this. Maybe - given my recent "road rage" posts - that's the key to truly enjoying Miami: walk everywhere. This is only a 3-4 month solution, since most of the year you'd be sweating within three seconds of walking out your door, but right now it's perfect walking weather.
Decent crowd at American Airlines last night... LeBron definitely brings people out. It was a packed house and the celebrities literally "held court" in the courtside seats. But I find Miami fans notoriously fickle. Usually, that arena would get about 8,000 for a Thursday night game. It's just not one of those places where die-hard fans seem to exist. There are some, but clearly not as many as in cold weather climates, where people must revel in the wintertime distraction that pro sports provides. That's no knock on South Florida, and I think similar problems are well documented in places like San Diego. There is simply too much competition, in terms of weather and water, in Miami for your typical Green Bay cheesehead, Staten Island puckhead, or NY Jets knucklehead to maintain a truly insane (as required by the die-hards) level of interest. What that means - to me at least - is that when you do actually get a big game, and get some buzz, it falls relatively flat relatively quickly. The Miami "packed house" feels somewhat disingenuous. It just doesn't work - the buzz feels artificial and the electricity doesn't just hover over the field or court like it does elsewhere. It just so happens to be the hot ticket for the night in Miami, which may have been some wine & cheese opening on the beach the prior night. In my minds-eye I picture this vapid crowd of trendy Miamians, skipping around from event to event as if following some Pied Piper tune. Sometimes, that crowd descends on the Heat, and when they do, they just aren't real fans, so the whole thing appears transparent. Eh, it's hard to explain. It's just different somehow...
Anyway, back to the game. Some simple observations. First, big props to Miami's arena for having better food than most. Yeah, you can get a dog and some fries, just like elsewhere, but where else can you get a legit (albeit pricey) order of soft tacos with grilled chicken? The food definitely blows away the weak chicken finger and fries staple in places like Madison Square Garden, and I was happy to eat "healthier" at a ball game for a change. (Although, if I am being completely honest I have to admit I was kinda missing the chicken finger/ranch dressing combo from the MSG Club seats...) Second, LeBron in person? Wow... He was old-school in the sense that television doesn't come close to capturing how fast and explosive this guy is. I think it's a matter of perspective. Watching a horse race on TV, or watching a car race, every entrant looks fast. But in person you can probably better distinguish those truly accelerating at higher speeds. That's how it felt to watch LeBron. That under-the-basket camera that shows him coming at your screen for a steal-and-monster-dunk on ESPN SportsCenter is not the right perspective to appreciate his "ability to separate" (to borrow from wide receiver lingo). But from a slightly higher perspective, when your eye can also take in the other players and their acceleration alongside his, the difference becomes clear, and it's shocking. (Either that, or when LeBron gets a steal everyone else starts jogging so as not to get dunked on, so that's a cynical possibility too...) Third, D-Wade is impressive, as always, especially when you consider his true height is something closer to 6'3". He has similar acceleration, but it's different somehow. Less explosive and more gazelle-like, if that makes any sense. I have shared a basketball court with both D-Wade and Terrell Owens (Wade at the NYAC run in New York and T.O. at the rec center in Aventura, FL and at our Saturday morning run in Kendall, just outside Miami) and they actually remind me of one another physically. It's more of a glide, long strides, and a necessity to take a few steps to build up true world-class speed. Think "cheetah." Whereas LeBron has an eye-popping burst that belies insane power. I think he's physically less elegant than a D-Wade or T.O., but much more explosive.
So I left at halftime, and on the walk home I thought about my general lack of enthusiasm for the NBA. I can't put my finger on why I just care less than ever before. Yes, in part it's because I think the game used to be better-played and that the International-style (innovative sets, emphasis on shooting & passing, teamwork) is gaining serious ground on the American-style (one-on-one with emphasis on highlights and dunks...if you don't believe me google "USA+Basketball+Olympics+2004"). I also would rather watch mid-80's NBA highlights than anything the game offers today. [Side note: this conversation actually took place last night... 1987 NBA Champion Lakers vs. 2008 NBA Champion Lakers: who wins? I say '87 in a walk. Just take a look at possible head-to-head matchups: Kareem over Bynum/Gasol, Worthy over Odom, Byron Scott over Derek Fisher, Kobe over Coop but Coop bothers him, Magic over Ariza, toughness of the '87 Bench (Rambis, Mychal Thompson, Brickowski, AC Green) over specialized skills of the '08 Bench (Walton, Sasha, Farmar, Radmanovic)...not to mention Showtime and team play and multiple-passes-per-possession and an always unstoppable end-of-shot-clock weapon (the Sky Hook) over inconsistency, turnovers, and a sometimes unstoppable end-of-shot-clock weapon (Kobe).] Anyway, my lack of interest in the NBA is somehow deeper than that, and it wasn't until I got home that I actually began to understand why.
Once I got back to our apartment, I turned on the TV to catch the 4th quarter of the Cavs-Heat and I was ruminating on the game... what was the reason for my disconnect from the crowd, the players, the game? Age, for sure. At 37, I am certainly feeling older than the people around me. And yes, it stings a little bit to have once mingled with these types of players, and have been within "one degree of separation" from these players, and now to feel multiple degrees removed...to be a "nobody" in the nose bleeds. No longer feeling like an elite athlete definitely has something to do with it. All this became clearer for me when I was flipping around during a commercial and was immediately drawn to NFL Thursday Night Football. It wasn't a great game - I think it ended SF 10, Chi 6 - but it somehow made me feel better than the NBA experience I just had. Why? After all, I have been playing basketball since I was roughly 10 years old...I played in college, and played professionally. Why the NFL "warm fuzzies" when basketball has been my passion all along?
I have no clear cut answer, bit I think there are a combination of possible factors. One, after 27 years of basketball, maybe I'm a little bored with it now. Two, the unknowns of football (I have never played) make it more exciting to me. Three, as I mentioned above, I am old, and basketball - as "my sport" of choice - will always remind me more of my own decline than football will. And four (maybe the light bulb moment for me), the NBA has changed, whereas the NFL has not. Think about it. I went from watching a sport with a team that did not exist until 1988 (the Miami Heat...I was 16) and a team with jerseys that still - in my mind - look like those of a bad expansion team (the Cavs) to watching two teams whose jerseys are essentially identical to what they wore in 1985! Moreover, the fundamental elements of the NFL are not altogether different from what they used to be. Yes, we have more spread offenses and the shotgun is commonplace rather than a third-down-only novelty. But has the game really changed all that much? And isn't this the reason for its massive success, year-after-year, generation-after-generation? On the other hand, the NBA probably pushes for new and younger audiences, its marketing is more youthful, and its game more "And 1 Tour" than not (the death of basketball). And that's a shame. I think the NBA sold out to trends, but - as a game with truly urban roots - it is probably always doomed in some sense to reflect those grassroots trends, be they good or bad for the broader game. The NFL, on the other hand, is a bit different: more staid, more traditional. It doesn't take its cue from hip-hop, or And 1, or any other such movement. It is grander, and in some ways, better, as a result.
I am somewhat ashamed at my inability to be a fan any longer. Last night I looked around and wondered if I would ever care about basketball - as a fan - to the extent that my palms would sweat and I would be glued to the action as I once had. I certainly love the "poetry" of the game - I love the passing angles, and I am constantly enamored by the footwork and balance of the elite players. But I no longer care about any outcome of the game. When did that happen? And why am I slightly jealous of the dude to my right in the Heat jersey high-fiving his boy and pumping his fist over D-Wade's last three? Why can't sports give me that escape any longer? Why can't it make me happy? Is it just age? Or something more? (And it's not as if I scream at the TV during NFL games, or care that much more than I do about basketball... But I can admit that my palms do sweat a little more during football, and even hockey, than hoops... Why is that? What has happened?) Has the NBA failed me or have I changed that much? I am still wondering... what really scares me, though, is that maybe I have not changed that much, but that - for some reason - sports has lost its soul. And it may just be that the NFL is losing its soul slower than the NBA has. Unfortunately, this reasonates true to me as a one-time fan...and if I am right, that would be a shame. We all know that things are different now: the games are about money, marketing & PR, and cross-selling. They used to be about heroes, and hard-work over talent, and - please don't be shocked at my naivety here - genuine effort and goodness. Again, as a mirror of sorts - as a constant in my life - are sports different now, or am I?