Come Take A Ride In My Zeppelin
I was reading over Shoals' post outlining his feelings over not being a basketball "expert," and I realized just how glorious it is that FD is, until recently, almost entirely bereft of predictions.
A little while back, during the great Hollinger/Berri statistical formula debate, some dutiful citizen suggested that Hollinger and Berri test out their systems with a cowboy-style throwing of the gauntlet: Each statistician would use his formula to predict how many games each team would win the next year, with the one who got the closest being declared the winner. Berri copped out, saying something to the effect of "If I told you what would happen next year, than it wouldn't be any fun to watch, and I wouldn't want to spoil that for all of you."
Of course, that statement probably meant something more along the lines of "I honestly have no idea if my system can actually predict things rather than award credit for things that have already happened to players who rebound a lot, and if I was proven wrong, I wouldn't get to write smug missives daily about how everybody is dumber than I am. Regression Analysis something something." Even so, Berri did stumble upon some nugget of truth in his haste to wuss out; the institution of prediction can indeed ruin the game we love.
It used to be that we got our predictions from only a few sources; at the beginning of the year, an esteemed analyst on TV or in a newspaper would tell you what he thought would happen, we'd consequently tell our friends what we thought would happen, and then the season would happen, most of us would invariably be wrong, and our prior predictions would quickly be swept into the dustbin as we made new ones and collectively pretended that the old ones never existed.
Nowadays, things are different; studio shows are dutiful about recording the predictions their pundits make and delight in replaying them when the broadcasters are proven wrong; hence, Charles Barkley was held accountable
However accountability of predictions has affected the way we view sportswriters, it's far more important how it affects us as fans. This year, I picked up fantasy basketball for the first time in a few years, and what is fantasy basketball but a measure of how good the average fan is at predicting what is to come in the season ahead? Because of my fantasy team, I'm rooting for the Jazz, who knocked my beloved Warriors out of the playoffs and feature Carlos Boozer, the man who may have cost LeBron his legacy, in a prominent role, because Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko, who I believe now only feels loyalty to his fantasy owners, are prominent members of my team. The league isn't even for money; it's just a casual Yahoo! league between a few amateur internet basketball writers. Even so, the need to have my predictions validated trumps all of my previous hard-won loyalties.
The compulsion to be right about my predictions and thus be recognized as some sort of authority on this game has even ruined what should be one of the year's best storylines for me. The first real exposure I got writing about basketball, indeed the first time I got my name mentioned by this site, was over a piece I wrote saying how Kevin Durant would disappoint us all. When I originally wrote the post, I made sure to mention that I hoped I would be wrong, and that Durant would shine as bright as we all hoped he would; in retrospect, I wasn't being truthful with my readers or myself. Maybe it was all the commenters who called me an idiot for doubting KD, but more likely it was my own arrogance; in any case, while I hate myself for doing it, I'm rooting against Durant.
I'd like to say that LeBron's my favorite athlete because he really does redefine what we think it's possible for a basketball player to do, making jaw-dropping plays regularly and emulating Jordan's dominance with none of his subtlety; where Jordan had beautiful change of direction ability and quickness, an unstoppable mid-range jumper, and the intensity to make sure his team would always come out on top, LeBron simply is a different kind of athlete than everyone else on the floor with him, combining size, speed, strength, and skill in a way that has never been fathomed before. Again, that's why I tell people LeBron's my favorite player; in reality, it's probably because when LeBron dominates, the lines all seem to finally fit between what I thought would happen and what's actually happening, validating the 14-year old sports fanatic in me's wildest dreams.
Likewise, I'd like to say that I've never quite embraced Dwayne Wade because of his style of play, which is a calculated assault to draw fouls instead of LeBron's glorious improvised spurts of the impossible, and the free pass he's gotten from the media since day one, never encountering the kind of scrutiny for a shaky outside jumper or an inability to stay on the court that LeBron has gotten for wearing the wrong hat. In reality, Wade threatens the order of my LeBron-centric universe, and I can only really appreciate players who aren't in direct competition with LeBron for the heir to the Jordan throne, which is why I've come to love Carmelo, Gilbert, and Amare so much in recent years while remaining lukewarm about Kobe and Wade.
This could be what lies at the media's fascination, and our fascination as fans in general, with phenoms like LeBron: we all make predictions, many of them positive, about guys who have hype built up around them as soon as they come into the league, so we magnify their triumphs and faults because at some level it's a reflection of whatever thoughts we formed about them. Despite our professed love for the underdog, we really only have a passing interest in them; as much as we love Jamario Moon, Earl Boykins, and those of their ilk we'll never be as attached to their successes and failures the way we are to LeBron's, Oden's, or even Kwame Brown's-we celebrate their achievements on a muted level (has Jemario gotten nearly as much attention as Kevin Durant, despite the fact that he's exceeded every possible expectation of him while Durant has failed to live up to his?), while accepting his failures wholeheartedly, because he's not playing with our money.
Carlos Boozer could well be playing better basketball than Dwight Howard and Yao Ming right now, and he's certainly physically dominating enough to grab our attention, but his 2nd-round pedigree and injury-plagued early prime years have relegated him to being interesting mostly as LeBron's lost companion, while Ming and Howard are the shining hopes for big men in this league. It's not impossible for those who went under the radar early to blow up into superstars, but they generally have to do something spectacular, such as win two MVP awards, emerge as a franchise player as a teenager, or be Gilbert Arenas for us to put the kind of investment into them that we put into phenoms.
Liberated fandom, is, in some ways, a scary thing; there's safety in sticking with your childhood team through thick and thin, as it's really not a reflection of you as a fan how well your anoited team does from year to year. By picking our favorite players and teams instead of having them handed to us, we accept more responsibility for how they do, which puts a pressure on us, driven by our need for confirmation of our beliefs, that was previously non-existent. It's natural to need to be right, but basketball is one of those rare areas where we should set aside our personal prejudices and vendettas and just allow the joy of the game to wash over us; such is the glory of liberated fandom, and that is what I shall continue to preach during my time at Free Darko while trying to cure myself of my own prejudices. After all, it's all about Love. (Not Kevin Love, mind you; he's not athletic enough to succeed in the NBA, and NBA defenders are fast enough to cut off his outlet-passing game.)