For the sake of the song
“. . . locked in a battle for the hearts and minds of an utterly polarized basketball universe.”
That stands as the second best thing Bill Walton has graced us with so far this season (see below for the victor). I’ve always been of the mind that Walton’s greatest moments are the ones he clearly thought up in advance, and had ample time to fine-tune before trotting them out on the air; as immortal as gems like “the finest outlet pass in the history of Western civilization” they can be chalked up to spur-of-the-moment enthusiasm. We can all relate to this kind of outburst, an endearing, robustly human feature of the sports fan experience. Walton, though, towers over us all as an inhuman, infinitely off-putting titan of awkwardness and irreproachable spite. I want my Walton delivered from on high, with all the back-handed grace of a burning sundae. No sundae burns without cause, and no truly foundational Walton-ism would be complete without the musty hew of unsightly intention.
Fittingly enough, in its initial context, this grandstanding made little to no sense. ‘Twas spoken on the day that some of you call Christmas, in reference to the Kobe/Shaq schism (which, as far as I can tell, jumped the shark that very day, as did anti-Kobe sentiment in general). I am not entirely sure how it is that the fate of basketball came to rest on this single spate of prolonged bitchery, but I do know that neither Kobe nor the Big Creator is any position to rule the new NBA, and that harping on their feud is of interest chiefly to L.A., a sports city that thinks walks a fine line between elitism and provinciality.
This line did rush into my brain, however, as I sat down for roughly five hours of worthwhile NBA action last night. As much as I can pretend to care about Heat/Pacers—without Artest, Indiana’s just not that interesting to watch, and the Heat is only as entertaining as Wade is dominant—I soon found myself stuck on The Omen and getting strangely pissed off about Suns/Spurs. Phoenix has been such a blessing from above this season that to say so is played-out (not that anything’s really changed. . .); the Spurs, on the other hand, were until the brawl tied with Detroit for “team most likely to take the air out of their own gym.” Then, in one magical night, the Pistons managed to gain an edge and lose some of their composure, a damaged war vet liable to either cry or bite your arm. Factor in Larry Brown’s increasingly bizarre lamentations, proof positive that he is truly basketball’s answers to the prophetic tradition of his Hebrew ancestors, and the Pistons are no longer the lump of the league.
This leaves only the Spurs, multi-hued enemies of sight and frenzy who seem to have been put on this earth solely to please grandparents and make late games unwatchable. As I flipped back to Heat/Pacers in time to see Tinsley catch fire and force overtime (at what point does this guy realize he could be one of the league’s better point guards?), I came up with a proposal that would save my soul and ensure the long-term safety of the league’s integrity and forthright purpose. By the time the telecast switched over to the West Coast, I was ready to speed-dial Stern and lay it all on the line.
Give the Spurs the title. They’re the odds-on favorites to take it anyway, since they have no discernible weakness and seem genetically incapable of losing. With them out of the picture, upstart dynamos like Phoenix have a legitimate shot at a title—and the chance to set the tenor for the entire post-season. The Suns are like Dallas with style, or the 2002 Clippers fuelled by competence. In short, they’re an entirely credible, solid running team, whose sole weakness lays in their vulnerability to a spoiler squad like the Spurs. The whole league would play for second-best status, but it would be such a blast for them, and us, that they probably wouldn’t mind all that much. This may be the same kind of lopsided thinking that makes me not believe in shooting percentage, yet the face-value appeal of it is undeniable. Most commentary during a Suns game involves repeated mentions of how much fun the players are having, what a gas it is to call their games, and the occasional acknowledgement of the crowd’s near-ecstatic roar. Victory may count for something, but in a sport where style nearly tops substance, it’s not out of the question that we could have a title for each of these two guiding principles of basketball. Or, rather, there’s no reason to believe that the Suns and the Spurs don’t exist in a “totally polarized basketball universe,” so that we not be forced to acknowledge that efficiency is the root of good basketball, or that defense can indeed overcome even the most florid offense. That’s football talk, not hoops.
Turns out I put way too much stock in the two teams’ prior meeting, and forgot that Argentine enigmas always have something up their sleeves. Anyone who cares enough to have read this far knows that the game was fast-paced, close, featured a thrilling comeback by the Spurs (yes, that’s “thrilling” and “Spurs” in the same sentence), and only really looked like a trademark San Antonio victory when they clamped down (or Phoenix went careening out of control) in overtime. More importantly, I was treated to the single most incandescent performance in the wiry, intoxicating career of Manu, who single-handedly beat the Suns at their own game. “Manu moments”—which almost invariably result in a shot of Pops grousing on the sidelines—are the one pure, good thing about watching San Antonio. If Pops is willing to let the masked man from South America’s wealthiest nation do his thing on a regular basis, I just might feel comfortable with them being a part of the playoffs—hell, a man like me, all speckles, fog, and hog-tied excellence—might even find it in his heart to watch them, something that even all the Walton-isms in the world could never have inspired me to do prior to Friday night.
But I am left to wonder: is it insensitive to use the “matador” cliché to describe Manu?