I watched exactly one half of an NBA game this year: LeBron James' much hyped return to Cleveland. And, since it was on opposite either an Eagles game or Phillies playoff game(can't remember which), I didn't even watch all that much of it. Still, that's more then I'd watched over the last several years, certainly during the regular season. Basketball, particularly the NBA version, just doesn't do it for me as a spectator sport. I find the game tedious, the league and its' players unlikable. Even during the Jordan Era, when I cut my teeth as a sports fan, I was never particularly swayed by the charms of the NBA.
So it's curious that I found myself invested in these just-concluded NBA playoffs without actually watching any of the games (until last night, when I caught the fourth quarter of Game 6 of the finals). Part of that interest is because the NBA had, this year, achieved a weird equilibrium between being wide open and dominated by a handful of teams. A distinctive class system emerged: you had the elite teams, six or eight stacked superteams that all looked like they could go all the way; the middle class, the decent teams with dreams of filling out the playoff field and not much else; and the rest. Never, in my lifetime at least, have you seen a sport quite so top-heavy as the NBA this year.
Of course, interest in the NBA was driven largely this year by the emergence of a new villain: the Miami Heat. And I, certainly, was just as interested in anybody in watching them fall. What's curious about the Heat (and, specifically, LeBron James) is that they don't relish the role of villain the way others have. Most teams, and players, that have engendered such negative feelings have relished their black hat, but the Heat haven't quite gotten things figured out. LeBron might not have figured out how to be Michael Jordan, but he sure as hell doesn't have a clue how to be Dennis Rodman.
What's really interesting about these finals is the team cast in the role of National Last Hope: the Dallas Mavericks. I think we'd all relegated them into the category of perpetual bridesmaid, that weird subclass of elite teams that, year after year, somehow come up short. In the NBA, you've always had an abnormally large group. I think we all just assumed that Dirk Nowitski's Mavs would join Reggie Miller's Pacers, Pat Ewing's Knicks, Karl Malone's Jazz, Chris Webber's Kings, and Allen Iverson's Sixers as fondly remembered, but ultimately fruitless, teams of unfulfilled greatness. Suddenly, there's hope for every team that's been so close, but yet so far. Yes, in the Mavericks' victory I somehow find an omen for the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles.
People want to look at the Mavericks defeat of the Heat as a triumph of good versus evil; I don't, if only because, in my experience, evil wins more often then not in the NBA (exibit A: how many rings does Kobe Bryant have?). But that's certainly a compelling storyline, so I guess we'll stick with that.