How These Playoffs are the Best in Years, or: Why Lucretius Makes Me Glad My Team Lost LeBron

Arthur Schopenhauer always claimed that you couldn’t understand The World as Will and Representation without having read On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. I don’t know if that’s true, because I’ve never met anyone who understands Schopenhauer or has read On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. But everyone who has taken a history of German philosophy class knows the summary of Schopenhauer, you’re going to be disappointed, what you have is never as good as what you wanted. If you’re a fan of the Heat, were a fan of the Cavs, or just a casual fan of LeBron James, he’s right.

The problem is he is the best player in basketball. No one on the court today can close a game like Lebron closed the series against the Celtics. It wasn’t the points, it wasn’t the steals, it wasn’t the defense, it was simply the fact that the game was tied and LBJ went one on five against the reigning Eastern Conference champions and won. He played a perfect sequence and everyone else just looked like regular basketball players. It is his first moment with the Heat like his Game 5 against Detroit when he was with the Cavaliers. His play can be as perfect as anything in sport, and that leads to the hope of the perfect moment and the perfect victory, which just as Schopenhauer says, is always the next one and never the current one.

If he wins six titles over his career with the Heat, there’s no reason he shouldn’t have won seven, or eight or nine. He took the worst team in the league to the Finals in a few years, captured conference titles, played the best basketball Cleveland had ever seen, but even when he played perfectly, he never stayed perfect. It will be the same in Miami, even when he plays perfect, he won’t stay perfect. Dwayne Wade is an amazing partner, and Bosh’s cycling transubstantiations from star to immaterial phantom of a player will never take five guys on a court into some platonic realm of the perfect pick and roll, or as an LBJ detractor would say, the perfect iso. But they will always be good enough to constantly hint at it, they will constantly remind Heat fans even in victory that they can be better than they are. They could have been perfect.

I’m glad he’s gone. As a Cavs fan it is now Lucretius instead of Schopenhauer. "Nor by prolonging life, one single second do we deduct from the long years of death." If you’re not going to get what you want, you might as well just not want it. That was the way out of Schopenhauer’s dilemma. A dilemma posed by Lucretius himself, but answered by determining what it is that we all want more than anything else and proving we can’t have it, won’t get it, and if we did, it wouldn’t matter anyhow. Even comically low expectations of the Cavaliers' first year after LeBron turned out to be too high. It was almost inconceivable how bad the Cavs would play. But the complete collapse of hope of victory made the few that did come so much sweeter. Seeing the Cavs beat Boston was better than any of the LBJ-led playoff victories I sat in the Q for over the past years. Everyone knew the future was just going to get worse, so only then could we enjoy the present. Each victory over Orlando, Boston, or L.A. in previous years was just a small unappreciated step on the way to a championship we’d never see. Just like championship #1 in Miami will be an unappreciated step to a perfect dynasty that will never exist.

Giving up on winning and perfection has made the playoffs so much better. I can appreciate Z-Bo and the Grizzlies in a way that I can’t even remember in past playoffs. Each game other than Cavaliers games was just a glimpse into who the Cavs would have to beat. There was no great play from other teams, just mental notes on matchups. There was no underdog to celebrate, just the relentless march of a number one seed. It was an unwinnable situation, it was going to end in disappointment no matter what, and it obviously did. This year, I cannot be disappointed by the playoffs: it just is not possible. So to all the Heat fans out there just remember LeBron will disappoint you, we’re all going to die, and try to enjoy tomorrow’s game 7. I know I will, and probably will more than you.

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Liberated Fandom in the NBA-Free Quarters

When recently joking about going to an “NBA bar” in Pittsburgh (there is no such thing, even in the fantastical neighborhood of Fairywood), I made a fictional list of the limited groups of pro basketball fans in the Steel City:
  • University of Pittsburgh and CMU students who moved here from “Philly” (actually Doylestown) that pretend Evan Turner is way better than he really is
  • African American bus drivers old enough to remember Connie Hawkins’ Pittsburgh Rens and Pipers career
  • Pittsburgh Public school students between the ages of 16 and 16.5
I would added "backpacker hip hop fans" but I think most of them are stuck in a nostalgia rut for when Ronnie Fields was on the cover of Slam, Rawkus records comps were popular, and Ron Artest and James Posey were second team All-Rookie.

I don’t know if my list is 100% factually correct (I don’t fall under any of those three groups) but the point is: NBA fandom is limited in Pittsburgh.

From the manifesto that begins the FreeDarko collective's The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac:
In an age less advanced, man's allegiance was determined by proximity alone. Tribalism and peer pressure conspired to make the fan see only "us" and "them," no matter what genius wore the color of the enemy. We believe that these are the ways of provincials and fascists, and in this brave century man must stand on his own and open his fandom to new possibilities.
Putting aside the hyperbole of “fascists”, I would say that Pittsburghers have been “liberated” from a geographic rooting base for professional basketball for my entire life (no offense to the Xplosion, et al.) Other than the rare person like my dad -- who drove us to Cleveland to root for Dr. J's Sixers against the Cavs -- there is no real geographical way to relate to regular season or playoff pro basketball here. And going to the occasional pre-season game isn't that interesting of a proposition for me.

Perhaps because it is an allegedly “provincial” city to begin with (used here both in the political sense and in it's traditional Black and Gold/geographic and diaspora allegiance to its sports teams, especially the Steelers), the NBA just doesn't have a natural fan base here outside of a few small subcultures. And just when I was getting ready to -- in a contradictory move -- both defend Pittsburgh against charges of provincialism AND talk about the positive aspects of it’s populist appeal, I read another story that confirms my worst fears of this region.

So I hate and love southwestern Pennsylvania. Usually I think there is no place else I'd rather live. But on the other hand, it is where I was raised, so how typical is that? And so I hate and love our lack of an NBA basketball team.

The upside to being an NBA fan here is almost total freedom. I have watched well over 50% of these playoff games when friends I have in other cities who have a geographic rooting interest in an NBA team have watched a lot less than that because they have a hard time getting inspired by a first round Hawks game, despite them being team based upon a uniquely half court version of Chaos Theory. I will be able to root for any of the Western Conference teams against a villain-Heat (a Heat team that I think has been good for the game) with more vigour than a disgruntled Spurs fan might be able to muster. In an era of League Pass, what excuse could one have as a basketball fan NOT to watch NBA games despite location?

But the downside is I don't get to share in the joy of going to a bar and seeing 100 people jumping up and down for a game winning basket by "the home team" like I do with the Pitt Panthers. And I don't get the experience of going to the game to wear the matching t-shirts that every other playoff fan willing and able to shell out money for playoff tickets can. I don't get to talk about the "game last night" on my bus ride to work, unless I luck out and get a certain bus driver.

Is the lack of pro basketball interest an entirely geographical lack-of-team issue or is it a more complicated issue of a region of Dewey Burton’s?

Considering an NBA team is unlikely to move to Pittsburgh in the foreseeable future, we may never know. But until then, I embrace my lifetime of liberated fandom! The 2002 Kings were robbed! Iverson showed us the possibilities and limits of one man heroics! "We Believe" in the Warriors! Bring on Alcindor! And go Condors Hawks?!

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Going Back to Our Roots

When Negative Dunkalectics was first conceived under a specific rubric of elitism and tradition (with some of the neoliberal era's top basketball blogging talent), the idea was to cross an Iverson crossover with an Adorno aphorism.

This might have been an odd thing for me to be excited by considering my previous armchair study of anti-humanist/anti-Frankfurt school thought pace Althusser, Balibar, or even in his own Lacanian way, Zizek. Or, frankly, my confounding foray into coaching football, as opposed to God’s game of hoops, which I was raised to love as my favorite. Regardless, a brief almost non-discussion of Darrell Griffith transforming into a Dr. Crunkenstein Monster for a new NBA era (taking over the torch from Kevin Duckworth?) as fictional passage in Negative Dialectics took on a life of its own – not unlike the original Dr. Frankenstein monster!

Since I’ve made zero entries til now, I can’t take any credit for the the blog's success. But I'll credit the blog for reigniting my love for the NBA in a way previously done only by the "We Believe" Warriors and other on-court flashes of brilliance.

In the days when ND was but a concept, I did a Google search for “Theodor Adorno basketball” and found one result: A Whole New Ball Game: An Interpretation of American Sports by Allen Guttmann, who I had never heard of before. We'll return to this!

Since then, Negative Dunkalectics has taken off even though my posts never came to pass. I envisioned a lot more “Where is Brad Lohaus?” type entries (funny, irreverent, but still awesome) and less “interviewing the greatest gambler in basketball” (authentically among the most interesting sports writing around right now). I can’t compete with the latter, so I won’t try.

But back to ND's roots:

The six founding members (consider them “the dream team,” if you will – or if you won’t since you as a reader don’t have any agency when reading ND entries, especially by those who once so stridently championed a flirtation with structuralism) of DC Comics' Justice League were:

• Superman
• Batman
• Wonder Woman
• Green Lantern
• Flash
• Martian Manhunter

These are generally your top level superheroes, though the amazingly powerful Martian Manhunter remains under appreciated in the same sort of way Charles Barkley’s dominance was in the 1992 Olympics was. Barkley was probably the best overall player in the course of those games, shooting 71%! from the field – though lacking an NBA championship ring the same way J'onn J'onzz generally lacks his own ongoing series in DC, stuck in the limelight behind Superman and the other bigs.

But putting that one exception aside, that superhero team seems basically unstoppable, like the 1992 US Olympic Squad (other than an occasional scare by a newly independent Croatia or Darkseid.) When Cuban national coach Miguel Calderon Gomez said "you can't cover the sun with your finger” after the Dream Team’s debut against his squad, he could have been quoting a frustrated Lex Luthor as much as speaking for his players ability to stop a team with Magic dishing to Michael on the secondary break for an easy bucket.

Indeed, the comic book character come-to-life motif has been a part of the NBA in my lifetime. Whether it’s the Shaq-Steel movie (somehow officially one of the 13 live action DC comic movies since Batman came out in 1988!); Dwight Howard changing into Superman in a phone booth or being defeated by a ridiculously stupid KryptoNate dunk; the Jordan (Superman) / Pippen (Batman) / Rodman (as himself) trio at the Bulls; Ronald “Popeye” Jones; or Xavier “X-Man” McDaniel; there has been a marriage of the bigger than life hero with the bigger than life NBA narrative. But what of the minor heroes that proliferated both in the Justice League and in the NBA? The “never carried a team to a championship but would love to” more minor heroes of the 2011 playoffs?

Elongated Man (Z-Bo – no need to leave his toes to pull down 20 boards!)
Red Tornado (Joe Johnson)
Hawkman! (Josh Smith)
Green Arrow (social conscious – Etan Thomas?)
Blue Beetle (Mike Conley)
Black Lightning (Ty Lawson)
The Human Flame (Joel Anthony -- but he's on team evil)
The Question (Objectivist/Randian version in the spirit of Ditko: Spencer Hawes?)
Birdman (as himself)

Inevitably other blogs apparently have already done the “Which Superhero is your favorite NBA player!” thing and of course there was the ESPN + Marvel comics team up to turn NBA players into Marvel superheroes, but I wanted to give a nod to the lesser appreciated “sixth men” of DC’s universe.

When -- not if! -- I do a WNBA entry, I will try to make sure I include useful comparisons for Black Canary (Sue Bird is too obvious as a pun), the Renee Montoya openly queer version of the Question, Zatanna the Magician/Houdini of the hardwood, etc. in the spirit of Title IX.

Back to A Whole New Ball Game, which is (according to my search engine gods) the most explicitly Adorno-influenced basketball book: the author summarizes some hallmarks of modern sports that separate them from more ancient games such as Afghan buzkashi (credit Guttmann, pp. 5-6, available on Google Books):
• secularism: despite their tendency to become more ritualized and to arouse the deepest passions, modern sports are not related – as primitive and ancient sports are – to some transcendent realm of the sacred;
• equality: modern sports require, at least in theory, that everyone be admitted to the game on the basis of his or her personal ability and the rules be the same for all contestants [unless you’re Derrick Rose];
• bureaucratization: local, regional, national, and international bureaucracies now administer every level of modern sports from the Little Leagues to the Olympic Games;
• specialization: many modern sports (rugby, soccer, and American football) have evolved from earlier, less differentiated games, and many (baseball, cricket, and football) have a gamut of specialized roles and playing positions;
• rationalization: the rules of modern sports are constantly scrutinized and frequently revised from a means-ends point of view; athletes train scientifically, employ technologically advanced equipment, and strive for the most efficient use of their skills;
• quantification: in modern sports, as in almost every other aspect of our lives, we live in a world of numbers;
• the obsession with records: the unsurpassed quantified achievement, which by what we mean “record” in this uniquely modern usage, is a constant challenge to all who hope to surpass it.”
This was published in 1988, perhaps written even earlier, but could have been written yesterday specifically about the NBA and I’d still consider it timely.

I hope Negative Dunkalectics will continue to explore the values of modern sport: secularism, equality, bureaucratization, specialization, rationalization, quantification, and the obsession with records until we reach a new paradigm and sublate Iverson and Adorno once and for all. The Obama presidency, for all its ups and downs, brought us our best basketball player in the oval office since Gerald Ford. Maybe our best ever! To paraphrase the Justice League's Hawkman, the Kennedy moon speech, or even the great David Thompson:

The sky is no limit.

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