Saturday, May 31, 2008
Back to the Future: A Classic Matchup in Negative
(The following post is adapted (with revisions, elisions, and additions) from a comment I left at the world-famous Commonwealth & Commonwealth. Also, some historical context: as a youngster growing up in suburban Connecticut in the 80's, I always identified with (and rooted for) the fabulous Lakers of that era (Magic, Cooper, Worthy, Kareem, Byron Scott, Rambis, et al.), even though I lived in the heart of Celtics country, with all the kids at school wearing Larry Bird #33 jerseys, "Beat L.A." t-shirts, etc. The Celtics would even play occasional "home" games at the Hartford Civic Center. I could never bring myself to root for the Celtics (or any other Boston team, for that matter). (J.A. Adande at ESPN.com discusses his similar feelings in the 80s.) But this year, even though I now live in (and love) L.A., I am all for the Celtics against the Lakers. Some reasons why below.)
Let's discuss the finals matchup of the Lakers against the Celtics in 2008, twenty-one years after these teams last met in the finals. The Lakers will field Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Pao Gasol, and some combination of Luke Walton, Vladimir Radmanovic, and Sasha Vujacic thrown in. The Celtics will have Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kendric Perkins, and some combination of Sam Cassell, James Posey, Glen Davis, and P.J. Brown. The Lakers are coached by Phil Jackson, and the Celtics are coached by Doc Rivers. As Adande notes in the ESPN article linked above, the Celtics are the only top team (and the only team in either Conference Finals) with an all-black starting five and a black coach.
We can make the laughable claim that race just doesn't matter in the league, and that NBA teams are built solely with regard to talent, with no eye to race and the marketing appeal of "white" players (see, e.g., the Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks of yesteryear, the Boston Celtics of the 1980's, Wally Szczerbiak), etc., but I don't know how seriously we'd be taken. Actually, maybe the current majority on the Supreme Court would take us seriously and affirm us.
In a country flush with basketball talent, does it mean anything that NBA teams will scour the earth (Eastern Europe, Turkey, Baltic states, etc.) for quality "white"- looking players -- even if their names are unpronounceable to the target audience of upper-middle class white fans who buy tickets to the Staples Center and other NBA stadiums -- that young Johnny from Brentwood (or his dad the hedge fund manager) can identify with? Who's to say? I'll make a totally unrelated allusion here to the steely determination with which white American parents will find white or Asian babies in other countries to adopt despite the glut of African-American children in orphanages and foster care here in America. Does that matter? Is it relevant? Is Yao (or Sasha) somehow equivalent to Charlotte's adopted Chinese baby on Sex & the City? Again, who knows?
What's my point? Simply this: in a Lakers-Celtics match-up this year, the current Lakers are the 1980's Celtics, and the current Celtics are the Lakers of the 1980's. Unless we are making claims of "colorblindness," there is no denying that the current Celtics are "blacker" than the current Lakers, and vice-versa (viz., any team that features a player with a Grateful Dead dancing skeletons tattoo is by definition "whiter" than the current Celtics). Does that matter? Do we care? Should we? Maybe. For my part, I think in a league with an overwhelming majority of black players, there should be more black coaches and GMs. I think teams shouldn't shy away from fielding a starting five with no white players, even though team marketers may fear, as others have noted in the past, that white fans won't come out to see ten black guys playing basketball.
Moreover, these Lakers deserve to lose. Why? Because they are largely a team of hopeless pricks. First point: Sasha Vujacic shooting a meaningless three with no one guarding him as the clock ran out in the final game of the San Antonio series. Only one way to describe that: fucking punk move. Second point: as the truly great Jerry West, who represents all that is good about the historical Lakers, was presenting the team the Western Conference trophy, because he is not a dick, he made some gracious remarks about the San Antonio Spurs and what a great run they had had, what great champions they had been. What was the response from the Staples Center crowd? Booing. Tons of loud, derisive booing at the mention of the Spurs -- after the Lakers had just eliminated them from the playoffs.. These are not fans that deserve a championship. This is a crowd made up of narcissistic, screaming, full-body waxed entertainment executives wearing blinking blue phones in their ears, Cameron Diaz and friends pretending to watch the game, and Kobe apologists. I'm no Spurs fan, but that kind of despicable, shameless reaction is exactly what gives L.A. and its fans a bad rep across the country. Third point: Kobe is a black hole of self-absorption. He could give two fucks about his team or teammates. They're just fungible moving parts around him, either getting in his way, or properly framing him. It's all about Kobe, all the time. If you disagree, we can discuss his pre-season demands to be traded. The current Celtics stars, in contrast, seem downright human and humble. I want to see Paul Pierce finally make it, after ten years sticking with his team through ups and downs. I want to see Garnett win the big prize. Do we want to see Sasha Vujacic rewarded for his bullshit? Do we believe Kobe sees his team as "brothers"? Please.
In closing, I'll just note that the great, fantastic historical irony in all of this is that the current Celtics team was brought to you by Danny Ainge.