Can't Find No Comfort, Don't Need No Relief


Some great talk in the comments about the contrast between the steeped-in-history Celtics-Lakers (at least as the league's trying to construct it) and the looming LeBron-lead master plan from without (within? no idea.) I know, the history thing isn't working so well with this year's teams, and James himself isn't explicitly leading the charge. But it's hard not to notice: on the one hand, we have the past glomming onto the now in ways reactionary and haunting (role of the Simmons book?). And on the other, the future that, even if you're cool with it, still stands to put players on top and give them their choice of colors.

Is it too much to suggest that the NBA/ESPN/ABC are in fact trying to push back against whatever radicalism comes to pass this summer? They have spent so long trying to get out from under Jordan's shadow, and now a new crop of stars seemed poised to do so. Except then they went and decided to undermine the very notion of tradition-through-sublimation. It had been coming for some time, post-Jordan, and been the popular fear, post-Jordan. Here's the thing, though: Jordan didn't do it, and no one else before the Class of 2003-based crew had the relevance to make it happen. They seemed headed in the right direction, whatever that means, and now they've really gone and realized exactly what the league always feared Allen Iverson would spread. It's apt, if accidental, that we're being treated to LeBron James's all-out blitz during the Finals. These Finals, and that players, of all things.

Let's face it, James doesn't need history like Kobe Bryant does. Kobe sits with film, and has become—in his age and relative wholesomeness—a reliable lodestar for old-meets-new. I've joked that LeBron should hire Kobe for reasons of growth. The difference between them, though, continues to grow this summer. Bryant is not only visibly older, he's also more readily absorbed now into not the post-Jordan morass, but a broader picture of How They Played the Game. His Nike ad involves siphoning in images from the last twenty years, including past campaigns that weren't about him (in the sense that Kobe is a single historical fact), plus a collapsing of Andre 3000/The Beatles that suggests not just cross-generational dialogue, but the importance of rejecting that rift. James, thought, reveals in his Larry King interview that he's a Jordan guy, which makes no sense considering his body and skills. However, while others have sought to imitate MJ (including Young Kobe), James simply adopts him in spirit, as the world-shatterer he entered the league as. This is the end of history.

In 2008, Lakers-Celtics screamed "bring the past back", except there was one kink. Both of those squads had been assembled that season. The Celtics invented the template for mercenary action that will be referenced many times this summer; the Lakers saw Andrew Bynum come into his own, then falter, and then soared only because of Pau Gasol's arrival—still incomplete at the time of the Finals. Maybe these two fit the Lakers-Celtics stereotypes well, in some rudimentary sense. However, this wasn't embracing the possibility of history, of an unbroken link to the past. That was all equivocation. Really, 2008 set the stage for what's coming after the Finals wind down. The Celtics now much more resemble a classic, categorized unit of the Russell years, maybe Bird's time if you think Paul Pierce is that ace. Lakers flow and spire, even as Ron Artest remains so key to altering the complexion of all that happens on the court without even making a sound (I'll say it again: NEW BATTIER).


James is not as crass as, say, so-and-so jumping teams for cash in the nineties. There are sound business reasons to work the mini-max, the Super Summit, and the shadowy plan to customize his destination as much as makes sense. This isn't pure self-interest. While it affects a limited number of players, this is somewhat earth-shaking, changing the way that not only the team and individual sync up when it comes to loyalty and such, but also the very question of who owns who. Who is accountable. Earning the right to a star, as opposed to simply danging cash in front of his face and expecting him to jump, alone, on to the next one. But—and here's the problematic one—history in sports has always been the history of institutions, or at least individuals against the backdrop of institutions (i.e. franchises). After Jordan, we worried it might devolve into Mad Max. Instead, though, we've gotten something more rational and, if done with tact, hard to argue with. In James, we have a player who has positioned himself against all history.

That raises another odd detail of this series. As I highlighted in an earlier post, and was also raised in the comments, Rajon Rondo aggressively rejects the past. He claims to have sprung, fully-formed, from some combination of other sports and Rondo's natural aptitude. Hence, an idiosyncrasy wholly distinct from LeBron's all-consuming template. Except, oddly, he's the one on this throwback Celtics. Would have made more sense if he'd been dominant in 2008, as opposed to playing a role. The recurring theory is that he's Cousy reborn, but even Cousy was referencing other styles. Rondo might be lying through his teeth or at least bending those teeth a little. Though doesn't seem self-conscious like that. Regardless, look at his game ... does this strike you as a man useful to anyone's agenda?

It all comes down to intention, and who struck first. LeBron as jerk, I cannot abide. LeBron as smasher of worlds, I have to acknowledge. If the twain meet, I'm not so pompous as to deny #1 if #2 does end up shaping the future—with results, and regardless of whether or not the past is ignore and the present defiled. For now, the past is pushing back hard. Whether this is a deliberate strategy, or just dope scripting, I have no idea. I can say, though, that is makes the present wild, incoherent, fresh, stressful, and subject to hourly reports. And that's ignoring the fact that there's an actual NBA Finals going on.


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At 6/06/2010 3:21 PM, Blogger daniel vincent john said...

after game one, a coworker said i bet you are happy (as i am laker fan) and then he immediately followed with where do you think lebron is going to go? it is hard to find many casual or average nba fans that can discuss the actual games opposed to lebron james.

At 6/06/2010 3:41 PM, Blogger Brendan K said...

Tangential: Is the reason we haven't seen anybody break own and write any "Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ron-Ron" piece because it's too easy a title?

Same with a YouTube compilation of Rajon's 2010 playoffs highlights set to "Blue Rondo A La Turk"?

And did you see the Ramona Shelburne article about Pau and "softness" on ESPN LA? Curious about your thoughts on that, given my own obvious investment in Gasol.

At 6/06/2010 3:53 PM, Blogger Scott said...

I wonder, though, to what extent this striving for a new identity as a superstar-collective without the confines of the traditional NBA aristocracy (Bulls are still neuvo-riche?) is more a matter of pragmatic decision-making. Are the Lakers and Boston out of consideration because they just don't have the cap-space (or are already spoken-for)? That kind of institutional and historical comfort may be at a premium right now, especially - whether perceived or in reality - trying to make things work in historically-barren (fatherless? fatherless?) Cleveland failed on his shoulders alone. MJ may be in Charlotte, but LBJ may prefer to be part of a legacy than as a lone star with no one before him.

And also, who in the bunch is more interested in being the trailblazer? When Wade criticizes Chicago, is he doing that as a representative of Miami - with the notion that LBJ may feel comfortable in Chicago's embrace rather than Miami, which in terms of legacy is still the Wild West? Is Wade interested in a new-NBA order in Miami, or just having a championship factory in his territory?

Finally, in terms of this collusive-summit, to what extent will the players seeking alliance hope to sabotage the decisions of those who wish not to join them? It may be interesting to see who is sitting in the cold in the end of this - who wishes to join neither the USA or USSR post-Yalta. That might be your true trailblazer - not in terms of creating a new dynasty, but in terms of wanting to flee from the new norms.

At 6/07/2010 2:33 AM, Blogger Ben said...

Jordan becoming the first former player to own a franchise is some seriously ripe symbolism.

I wondered to myself why you called out ESPN/TNT as pushing this reactionary appeal to history and not the league itself for being a party to this, but the answer is Jordan. The NBA loves Jordan as an owner as is savvy enough to know that he is the brand, not the Bulls, or the Bobcats, just as Lebron is the brand and not whatever team he chooses this summer. Jordan as owner is evidence the league is embracing the inversion of the traditional player/owner power structure.

At 6/07/2010 3:01 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

I included NBA in there.

At 6/07/2010 3:20 AM, Blogger Ben said...

Woops, yeah you did. Somehow I read that as ABC the first time. I do think, though, that the call to history is almost a purely media driven thing. Maybe I'm crazy and reading too much into it but the league accepting Jordan as an owner seems like a deliberate nod towards the powers players have independent of what franchise they represent. After all, it's not like Jordan owns the Bulls.

At 6/07/2010 7:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Is it too much to suggest that the NBA/ESPN/ABC are in fact trying to push back against whatever radicalism comes to pass this summer?"

Pushing back against it how? By devoting hours of coverage and dozens of columns to it? By covering it so extensively that it is impossible to turn on a TV or scan the ESPN webpage without finding some mention of it?

If by "push back" you mean "cover, analyze, and hype from every possible angle," then yeah, those arch-conservatives at the networks are pushing back hard. LeBron and the rest of these radicals are lucky they have a freedom fighter like yourself to speak up for them.

At 6/08/2010 12:14 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

I can say LeBron et al. are "radical" without taking sides. Remember, maybe, that we're about to publish a book on NBA history.


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