Fandom is such a weird concept. As I've alluded to before in a post, it's an indictment of the rationality of the human psyche that any of us could possible give a good goddamn as to what happens in any sporting event beyond the level of one's own kid playing little league. Who are these folks that we cheer for? How is it that a Michael Bishop fumble with a minute to go in the 1998 Big 12 Championship game that cost my Kansas State Wildcats a shot at the national title still--still--periodically haunst my dreams over a decade later? How could I not really regret a divorce and a friend's suicide in quite the way that I do the ground ball rolling through Leon Durham's legs that doomed the "84 Cubs?
Basically, it makes no sense. What is the source of our loyalty? The "team" is in the city in which we live? Works for some of us, but I haven't lived near Detroit since 1988 and am now about 9,000 miles away. (And it's not like more than a handful of the local friends have ever had any contact with any of the players aside from getting an autograph or gawking during a chance encounter at a restaurant.) The ownership? Frankly, I see little reason to cheer ecstatically for the success of a multi-billionaire. (Did anyone without investments or a tied-in pension fund find themselves sobbing over the failure of Ken Lay's Enron venture?) The players? Yeah, kinda. But not really. We loved Big Ben until 2005, but most of us were at least privately happy to see him fail as a Bull and a Cav. (Oh, but overjoyed at his Benaissance...) I doubt if this site has more than a handful of posters who have not screamed for the team to dump Rip and/or Tay.
Yes, none of this is rational. Yet, many of us devote as nearly much passion to our preferred sports team as we do to our work, our families, to anything else in our lives.
In an effort to justify it, we play the "decent guy" card. Virtually every Piston's fan takes it for granted that, man-for-man, our guys are just plain better folk than the guys in the other uniforms. Chauncey and McDyess were consummate professionals and even better human beings. LeBron and KG are, to appropriate the most commonly used moniker in these parts, "douches". And hell--perhaps Chauncey and Dyess are better people. But I'll wager that none of us really cares about that, even if we might believe it to be true.
During the couple of glory years, not a single one of us would have ever, EVER even whispered a disparaging word about 'Sheed. Meanwhile in Portland and other parts of the NBA, he was regularly denounced as being selfish, immature, destructive, and an overall creep. "Misunderstood...underappreciated..the consummate team mate..." was our standard response. (After three years of truly douchebag behavior in Detroit and another of being a self-serving turd in Boston, most defenses of him at DBB are decidedly more muted.) And I enjoyed the AI bashing as much as anyone. Truly, this is a miserable human being and one who has been a destructive influence wherever he's gone. But say, just say, that he'd somehow been the tonic the Pistons needed. (Yeah, he was overrated to begin with and over-the-hill by last year, so this is purely a hypothetical exercise). Say he had provided a spark and transformed the Pistons in a way that led to an improbable run back to the Finals, (as Joe Dumars somehow hoped he might). Not a one of us would have anything but praise for Iverson, professionally or personally.
(CollegeFootballNews.com's Pete Fiutak put it best: "In the harsh reality of the NFL, your favorite team has at least three guys worthy of consideration for People Magazine’s Most Miserable Human Being Alive, but it doesn’t matter if they’re really good at playing football. You take the high character try-hards, I’ll take the Hitler Youth with the elite skills, and you’ll be reading a My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student bumper sticker as you look up at the truck that made you a speed bump").
No, our guys aren't better people or more worthy than theirs. And if they seem to be, we are either blinded by our desires to love them, or the have better PR skills and/or handlers. (The world raves about Kevin Durrant's humble decency. He may be all that. Or for all we know, the guy sexually assault's puppies, but either he or his handlers know the right things to say and how to keep the evil under wraps. But even if this ugly and unlikely scenario happened to be true, we'd all love to have him as a Piston, and we'd be honored to have him housesit the baby schnauzers we just bought our daughters...)
All of this came to the surface of my mind, as I turned my attention to who to root for in this Piston-free playoffs. As is true with many of us, Denver and San Antonio topped my list, mostly because Chauncey, Spellcheck, and Dyess are a cut of humanity that made Jesus look like a lazy, self-indulgent jerk, and Duncan either is or his handlers make him seem to be a pretty damned good guy. But mostly...mostly, it's all about hate.
I didn't want the Thunder to win; I wanted the bastard Lakers (and their uber-bastard Kobe) to lose. I don't like Pat Riley, Miami, or Dwayne Wade; but god, I hate the Celtics--especially KG, Pierce, and 'Sheed more. Do any of us have any love for the Bulls as a franchise or for such a poorly functioning team that seems destined to underachieve and sneak into the 8th seed for the next decade to come? But do we hate the Pure Evil that is LeBron James far more? You bet your sweet memories of 2004 we do. (And to state the obvious--if any one of these players were to start playing in a godawful suburb about an hour from Detroit--where I lived during the Carter-Reagan years--we would love, love, love each of every one of these reviled douches, and greet every criticism of them with a mixture of incredulity and hostility.)
So, it's all about hate, baby. And the incidental portion of (equally irrational) affection I have for Dyess and Chauncey notwithstanding, 90% of my interest in this year's (and any year's playoffs) is about wishing for the demise of those I've decided I'd most hate to see happy. Thus, I began this post-season with the following wishes:
The Wistful Dreams of a "Tragic" Plan Crash Teams
The Lakers--Kobe (whether he really raped a woman or not), Hollywood celebs, and Ron Artest (who is basically a more selfish version of 'Sheed, but who doesn't--yet--have a title to bolster his self-satisfied ego)
The Celtics--I find it hard to dislike Ray Allen (http://www.theonion.com/articles/pro-athlete-lauded-for-being-decent-human-being,1477/) and Massachusetts is one of the most reliable Blue States around (oh, one's own political views and the foolish belief that this should have any bearing at all on who you cheer for is certainly a valid component of this circus of irrational attachment) are mitigators. But KG, Paul "The Whiny Thug" Pierce, and now Rasheed "Morgana" Wallace? Despicable.
The Cavs--You know, I've tended to be sympathetic with Cleveland. I mean, hell, their river caught on fire a few years back. (http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=1642) And I like Dennis Kucinich. And it's been a hard-luck sports town with loyal fans. But LeBron, LeBron, LeBron. May the search for the black box begin...
The "Okay, a Plane Crash is a Bit Harsh...Probably the Ball Boys and the Traveling Secretary Aren't Necessarily Evil" Teams
The Magic--Oh, these guys come close. I mean, they are owned by AmWay, as savagely a right-wing, evangelical Christian dominated quasi-cult type of a corporation as you're likely to find. (Again, a reminder that my irrational hatreds based on matters irrelevant to sports are based on my value system. If you spent the 80's bemoaning Reagan's softness on communism, spend your free time outing Pat Robertson's secret pro-gay agenda, and are convinced that Dick Cheney is a closet Muslim, this may be your team). But add to this the (to me--reread the disclaimer of the last sentence) fundamentalist Christianity of Dwight Howard, the grotesque amount of money thrown at Rashad Lewis, and the it's-all-about-me ball hogdom of Vince Carter, and you've got a contender for maximal vitriolic spewing.
The Heat--Pat Riley. City of Miami. Growing sense that D Wade may be a bit of a sleezeball. And the way that the entire team is essentially useless outside of Wade. And I'm still pissed that the Pistons let this team beat them a few years back.
The Bobcats--Okay, these guys will escape this second most odious category next year, should they return to the playoffs. In fact, they're not necessarily all that far away from being likable. (Despite his $13 million a year to be a bad player, is it really worth wishing ill to Larry Hughes, seeing as he was acquired for salary cap reasons?) If anything, this is a team of no-names that had a nice run this year. But Larry Brown...Larry Fucking Brown.
I am continually amazed that he is not one of the more reviled forces in the League. For one thing, I've never fully bought into his reputation as a great amount greats coach. Yes, he's knowledgeable and generally makes franchises better. But he also cuts and runs so often and then leaves the said franchises in free-fall. For all his genius, he's won a single title (in a year in which he was admittedly great) and made it to two other finals. But that's not "great". That's not Popovich or Phil Jackson, or even Chuck Daly.
What brings him from the category of merely overrated and into the realm of contemptible is not just his lack of "loyalty". (Generally, I see loyalty as one of the great myths of the sporting world; we bemoaned Big Ben's lack of loyalty in "05, but have been collectively working on voodoo spells to dump Rip and Tay.) But Larry Brown transcends mere disloyalty with his utterly selfish lack of professionalism. He wanted to leave the Pistons for the Cavs after the "05 season? All power to him. But to basically announce this during the playoffs? I'm one of the many that believed that this distraction cost the Pistons that championship. And now he pulls the same thing with the Bobcats, and the team hobbles out with a lifeless four game sweep? What a selfish, arrogant prick. Smacks to me of the husband who financially provides for his husband, is generous at Christmas, and is widely recognized as a pillar of his community, but who conducts serial affairs, and then cuts off contact with the teenage child who develops a drug problem and starts to struggle in school. I have a personal dislike of Larry Brown that exceeds that of anyone else in this extended rant. But the general likability of the team makes them a grudging inclusion in this second deepest level of hell.
The "Ya know, I'd Almost Like these Guys if it Weren't for..." Teams
The Jazz--It's nothing short of incredibly how Jerry Sloan has kept this small market team at such a near-elite level for so long. We all like Mehmet. Deron Williams is a remarkable, remarkable player, (who may or may not spend his off season torturing Haitian refugees, but that is unknown and/or irrelevant to the world of sports). Millsap is the sort of blue-collar success story we all love. (He's pretty much what we'd hoped to have had in Maxiell.) But then there's AK-47 and his $16 million a year to do very limited things; and you really hate to see a team rewarded for that sort of stupidity. And then there's Boozer, who strikes many of us as the ultimate self-fixated wiener. His double-dealing with Cleveland a few years ago was pretty sleezy, and no player making $13 million per year (FYI, that's about $25 per minute spent playing, practicing, sleeping, watching TV, drinking, or staring lovingly at photographs at himself) and then constantly bitching about how unhappy and unappreciated he his ranks very high in my book...I just don't want to see this guy succeed.
A final bit about the Jazz that sticks in my craw is that social/religious/political status quo in Utah. My bias hinted at above is that I'm deeply a-religious and tend to dislike and distrust overt displays of religiosity, particularly when it strikes me as particularly dogmatic. The missionary work of the LDS creeps me out and I still have a hard time getting over that fact that until 1978, folks of African descent were denied priesthood because of their color. Mind you, this has NOTHING to do with basketball. But given the prevalence of deeply religiously and politically conservative people in the Jazz's fan base, I'll root against them.
(And yes, I'm aware that this is somewhat bigoted. Anti-religiosity was built into the core of my personality and it remains. My gut-level belief is that it's all nonsense, that there is no afterlife or supernatural, and that the tendency for people to devote so much passion and energy to something so unverifiable and quite possibly non-existent leads to more bad than good. But as the years have made me wiser and more mellow, I've also come to realize that I know no more than the Reverend Jerry Falwell did, and that the world is filled with utterly decent and very thoughtful people who are deeply religious. And though a preponderance of my closest friends share my attitudes toward religion, I have many people close to me who are very religious and I respect their different take on the matter. And hell, I lived in Pakistan for two years--where religious sentiment is omnipresent--and still count many very devout Muslims as dear friends. My point in defending myself from possibly legit criticism is that I don't--or try very hard not to--judge individuals by their religious inclinations. But here I'm focusing on basketball fandom and good reason and consistency, as I've tried here to make the point, are irrelevant.)
The Mavericks--I guess I've gotten used to Mark Cuban's "I'm a brash-billionaire-so-everyone-pay-attention-to-meeeeee" routine and I've come to really admire Dirk's consistent brilliance and accountability over the years. I could almost have been a six week fan. But then there's Jason Kidd. Wife-beater. Bullshit. Doesn't matter that she may be an awful person herself. Hitting people sucks, and especially when the beater is a 210 pound powerful athlete and the victim is his wife and mom of his kids. Here's a guy I want to see retire without a career-capping ring.
(Mind you, if Kidd ends up in a Piston's uni next year and somehow leads them to the most inexplicable championship in all of sports' history, expect a follow up essay about "occasional indiscretions" and how "everybody deserves a second chance"...)
The Suns--another essentially likable team. It's hard not to love what Steve Nash brings to the court, (and he was a public opponent of the stupid Iraqi invasion, which wins him points in my home of Lefty Land.) This is a team that has managed to play an unorthodox style of basketball and continue to win and entertain through a succession of coaches. There's just something about Amare Stoudamire's constant media whines and the sense that if his ego isn't placated, he won't play particularly hard. Trade him for Jonas Jerebko and Rodney Stuckey and this could be a team I'd be proud to root for (if necessary) next April.
The Thunder--oh, I love the team. Durrant is a wonder (and maybe doesn't actually sexually assault puppies, which, again, even if he does, would be a minor issue if he were a Piston). But I Iived in Seattle for a bit, and the Sonics were my unofficial second team. Now, if Clay Bennett were a special guest on the plane that flew the Cavs, Celts, or Lakers to their next game, these guys might top my list of non-Piston faves. But I don't want to see that bastard hoist a champagne-soaked trophy over his head. He's a bad, bad man...
The "Meh...Okay. Fine. I'll Deal with It..." Teams
The Bulls--yeah, they got the rivalry with us. Yeah, they stole "Big Ben". And yeah, they seem to chronically underachieve and it's hard to find much moxie (last year's seven-gamer with the Celts aside) in this lot. But Chicago is a great city with some great fans. And there's no one on the roster who particularly vexes me.
The Hawks--I never much cared for what little I knew (basically nothing) about Jamal Crawford, and Josh Smith always seems on the verge of giving definitive evidence of being a first-rate A-hole. But this team was put together in a neat way with lots of deceptively good complimentary players. Love, love, love to see them shock the AmWay Magic.
The Bucks--With another season like this, these guys could jump into exalted "I Don't Really Hate Them at All" category. I just don't know them well enough to endorse them as such yet.
The "I Really Don't Hate Them at All..." Teams
The Blazers--First of all, I like Portland. I like the city, I like it's people, I love the small market love for the team. (I even love the weather.) Though they were the Doucheblazers a few years back, (gee, could 'Sheed have played a role in that?), this is a great roster of seemingly stand-up guys. (Insert the already oft-repeated caveat that these guys may all be pure evil beneath the surface...) The management has drafted smart, (despite the tough luck with Oden, who strikes me as a truly sympathetic character), and there's no one on the roster who strikes me as a grossly overpaid knucklehead. Yes, the dream has ended for this year, but barring an Iverson signing in the off-season or a Piston's revival, this could be the team I cheer for next year.
The Nuggets--It starts with Chauncy, of course. And, in a way, ends with Chauncey. He's one of the few pro athletes for whom I almost feel genuine personal affection. He always seemed so honest in front of a microphone, and he handled his dumping by the Pistons with such class. As we look back at "04, it was a team effort, of course. But Chauncey was the indispensable one (with Big Ben as the other candidate, though the team continued to be a top contender after Ben left). Rip was a great scorer. Tay was an x-factor.'Sheed--much as I dislike the guy now--was the acquisition that put them over the top. But watching what happened the moment they let Chauncey go (plus, what his addition meant to the Nuggets), it's clear that he's the guy to whom we owe that six year run. I've also read interviews in which he's not only political aware, but also shares my inclinations. He's the pro athlete I'd most like to randomly meet some day. J.R. Reid, of course, is sort of a jerk-off. And great as he is, I always sense that a big part of Carmelo Anthony's super-star status comes from his unreal NCAA tournament years back. (Perhaps it's always someone else's fault, but last year aside, his teams have always underachieved a bit.) But with Chauncey in tow (and Spellcheck making us a combination of proud, infuriated, and downright confused, I would have been happy to see the Nuggets win it all and am sorry that they went down to a good Jazz team.
(As an added note, I've decided that one of the most admirable trait of Chauncey was his refusal to publicly fault others, even when it was probably more than justifiable to do so. I don't recall him ever dissing Flip, even through body language. And in retrospect, how incredibly frustrating must it have been to have watched 'Sheed display the emotional maturity of a middle schooler and get himself tossed from that final game against the Cavs? Or to look at as 'Sheed realized after a couple of games against the Celtics that he was half the player of KG and also being outplayed by Kendrick Perkins, and thus seeming to spend the final four games throwing up threes and showing the emotion of a lobotomy patient. I used to wonder why Chauncey was so fixated on the "You know, when he plays hard, 'Sheed can be one of the very best players in the world" line, as to me it seemed to be more of a damning commentary than a tribute. But now, I can't help but wonder if Chauncey knew that publicly stating the obvious--that 'Sheed can't handle any situation in which he's not successful without really being accountable--would achieve nothing, so he might as well try another tactic to motivate the guy.)
The Spurs--can it be that I like the Spurs the best of the lot? After what happened in "05? After having already won three titles? Being from Texas, even? Yeah, the Spurs got my nod and are one of the three remaining teams (one more to be eliminated tonight) whose victory wouldn't leave me feeling cranky.
It's Dyess, of course.that is my main source of loyalty. Again, I know it may be all spin. He may be--next to Dave Chappelle's Clayton Bigsby character--the 2nd ever African-American Klansman. He might enjoy traveling to the developing world so that he can kick starving children in the stomach (only to complain that he bruises his toes on their spines. Maybe. But god, you get the impression that he's a stand up guy. And watching him play his ass off while Iverson quit the team and 'Sheed had his contract renegotiated so that he didn't have to ever get within twenty feet of either basket, I came to admire him so greatly, and felt especially badly about him for the near miss of "05.
But it ain't just Dyess. Do we know of a modern superstar with less of an "it's-about-me" attitude than Duncan? (Come to think of it, has San Antonio ever employed a player who has had even the vaguest reputation as a prima donna or a stats-chaser?) And what an incredible front office. Sure, they ping-pong-balled their way to Duncan, but Tony Parker came with the 28th pick and Manu (say what you will about his flopping, he plays his ass off and he does it for his team, and not just for Manu) came well into the second round. Finding George Hill (who has replaced Parker in the starting line up; and extra props to Parker for not bitching) at Indiana-Purdue? Not being dumbasses (like Dumars three times) and realizing that Dejuan Blair (16 and 13 per 36) will be great for at least a few seasons, even if his knees do give out? Geez, I almost like these guys. Admire, even. I'm glad they're alive in their quest for number four.
So, I end here with some love, or at least appreciation. But my basic point stands--I (like most of the folks on this board, based on what I read) watch this game and cast my allegiances based more on who I hate and who I slightly-less-than hate, than who I like. I like the Pistons. I like a few ex-Pistons. I can find reasons to think maybe I could like a few other players. But I want to see the rest of them go down and go down hard, and this is what motivates my continued interest in these play offs.
And none of this makes the slightest bit of rational sense.