Monday, May 16, 2011

Musings On A Rodeo

Despite what the title might suggest, this post has nothing to do with Chad Ochocinco's insane (and hilarious) attempt to ride a bull on Saturday night. While I commend the man's innovative PR stunt/lockout-savvy income grab, and the fact that he's always good for a laugh, if you saw the clip, there' not much more you can really say. No, this is about a revelation I had today. Buried among all the hype of the 2011 NBA Playoffs is a good story. Or, at least, a great character in search of a narrative. The phrase "hidden in plain sight" comes strongly to mind.

I am not talking about the Heat attempting to self-fulfill the prophecy they so stridently and indecorously announced before the season started. Nor the Bulls' youngest-ever MVP and the saga his team began living out in earnest Sunday in the House That Jordan Built. Nor those precocious young darlings of the league from OKC, and what may or may not be amiss with their point guard.

I'm talking about the most fascinating team, with the most compelling personality, left standing in these playoffs. I'm talking about the Dallas Mavericks.

"But," you're saying, "they're being talked about plenty!!! Didn't we just spend a million hours talking about that Mavs/Lakers series?" Yes. Yes we did. But you know what? We were talking about the Lakers the whole time. The sweep, the game four massacre, every ounce of rehashing and contemplation was fueled by L.A. What were the implications for the Lakers? What did Dirk and Kidd and Jet and Peja and Tyson do to the Lakers? And what about Kobe? Every article and podcast and TV recap was filled with analysis and invective leveled at the Purple and Gold and what they did wrong. It's understandable, to a degree. There was the shabby ending to Phil Jackson's final season to mourn, and his career to recount. There were questions about Kobe and his quest to match or surpass Jordan's ring total, and whether either will be possible going forward. With all of the delicious Laker-centric stories to hitch a journalistic wagon to, who could blame us for failing to take the Mavs on their own merits?

And we're doing the same thing with the upcoming Western Conference Finals. The tactical analysis is, by necessity, equally mindful of both the Thunder and the Mavs. But everything else is still centered around either OKC's struggles with the Westbrook/Durant dynamic, or confined to the banal and limited old/young cliche. We're still discounting Dallas on their own terms; still failing to place them in the role of the protagonist as we did with the Heat, Bulls, Thunder, Griz, Lakers, and Celtics. We have deprived them of an individualistic context, only discussing them in relative comparison to whatever other entities are convenient to our purposes. Things might be different if Mark Cuban weren't maintaining a strict radio silence with the media. His uncharacteristic (and wise) deviation from his usual outspoken/controversial routine has deprived us of a reliably volatile fuel to throw on the Mavs' flame of discussion. So we settle for cliched tidbits and inane "can they finally shake off the playoff ghosts?" drivel. Even when the discourse becomes wholly oriented towards Dallas, our compass still fails to find a decent jump point. I've been as guilty a party as any. Too much history and too many failures had blinded me to the essential nature of this 2010-2011 incarnation. One man in particular exemplifies my failures of perception.

"Dirk is soft." Isn't that how the line goes? A long while ago, we made a gigantic mistake. And then we failed to correct it. And failed again and again after that. We chose to perceive a man a certain way, because the postseason win-loss record demanded that it be so. And then the myth became self-perpetuating and grew, as the Mavs continued to exit early from the playoffs. We all figured that our initial perceptions were sound, that Dirk "wasn't a winner." I suppose it's an equation based more upon some vague perception of disappointment than on reality. The reality is 25-10. That's Dirk Nowitzki's playoff average for points and rebounds, an elite statistical posting worthy of any and all accolades we can bestow. And yet ...

The "soft" label remains. Since he has entered the league, Dirk's output has cropped him with the best of the best, and yet because of repeated playoff failures, we've continued to write him off. We did the same with Stockton and Barkley and everyone else who, for whatever reason, failed to take home The Hardware at season's end. Why did we do it? Because he's an easy target. The goofy looking German dude who also holds the unofficial title of "Least Graceful Elite Player You've Ever Seen." The silly, quasi-mullet haircuts and awkward fall-away jumper made it easy to dismiss him as something other than what he is: One Bad Motha. For years, we've classified him as someone who simply couldn't lead a team to success. A "best player" guy who couldn't cross over certain borderlines. The truth was much more simple: Dirk didn't have enough heavy artillery around him. Wyatt Earp would have been a dead man if he'd walked into the OK Corral without his brothers and Doc Holiday. Can't we say the same for Nowitzki? Now that he's finally got a supporting cast around him, maybe we can start expounding on his greatness as opposed to languishing in his past.

And that's not to mention the routes the rest of the team has taken to get here. Peja, the Jasons (Terry and Kidd), Tyson Chandler. This team has been through an awful lot to get where it is. It's been painstakingly constructed and tweaked over the past several seasons. They have a billing as "old", but what they are is a miscellaneous grouping assembled to complete a defined task. Whether or not they succeed, it's worth noting the various castoffs and also-rans that have combined to bring a franchise to this juncture. But it's Dirk around which they cohere. He's the catalyst, the combustion engine, the nuclear option. The guy is built to be an assassin. Not the smooth, compact archetype of an MJ or a Kobe, but a stone-cold killer/closer/sniper/LEADER nonetheless.

It's time to define the Mavericks for what they are. Not their labels, not their histories, but their identity as a collective unit. But moreover, it's time to define Dirk for what he is. He's not a loser. Or a failure. Or soft. He's just a damned amazing basketball player who finally has the complimentary pieces around him to make a run at the only thing still eluding him in an otherwise brilliant career. We can talk about any other stories that occur to us, and play the narrative angles howsoever we choose, but let's acknowledge that Dirk Nowitzki is on the precipice of doing something that we long ago decided he was incapable of.

Let's give the man that. At 13 years in the league, this might be his last rodeo, and here's hoping it's a good long ride.

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