Thursday, June 17, 2010

"There is no relationship that isn't a Celtics-Lakers relationship."

Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs has an entire essay devoted to a literary and pop culture exploration of the NBA and the peak of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry in the 1980s. When I first read the book about five years ago I remember reading that chapter and just thinking, wow - this? This is genius. Not only did I connect with the book, and this chapter in particular, but I think Klosterman's writing style has had a large impact on my own writing - both in style and subject matter.

In honor of tonight's Game 7, the final match-up between the Celtics and the Lakers for the 2010 series, I'm including below some of my favorite quotes/segments from that very essay, titled "8 33 0:97" (or, check out almost the entire chapter here).

To say the 1980s rivalry between the Celtics and the Lakers represents America’s racial anguish is actually a short-sighted understatement. As I have grown older, it’s become clear that the Lakers-Celtics rivalry represents absolutely everything: race, religion, politics, mathematics, the reason I’m still not married, the Challenger explosion, Man vs. Beast, and everything else. There is no relationship that isn’t a Celtics-Lakers relationship. It emerges from nothingness to design nature, just as Gerald Henderson emerged from nothingness to steal James Worthy’s errant inbound pass in game two of the 1983 finals. Do you realize that the distance between Henderson and Worthy at the start of that play – and the distance between them at the point of interception – works out to a ratio of 1.618, the same digits of Leonardo da Vinci’s so called “golden ratio” that inexplicably explains the mathematical construction of the universe? Do not act surprised. It would be more surprising if the ratio did not.

This is what sets the NBA apart from every other team sport in North America: Everyone who loves pro basketball assumes it's a little fixed. We all think the annual draft lottery is probably rigged, we all accept that the league aggressively wants big market teams to advance deep into the playoffs, and we all concede that certain marquee players are going to get preferential treatment for no valid reason. The outcomes of games aren't predetermined or scripted, but there are definitely dark forces who play with our reality. There are faceless puppet masters who pull strings and manipulate the purity of justice. It's not necessarily a full-on conspiracy, but it's certainly not fair. And that's why the NBA remains the only game that matters: Pro basketball is exactly like life.

"We had to get over the psychological element of the Celtic mystique," Lakers coach Pat Riley insisted. "After we choked in '84, I had to teach my guys exactly who the Celtics were in a historical sense. I mean, the Celts were a cult who did sinister things in secret places. That's where I took it. I had to teach them who their opponent was originally, because that's exactly who they were playing in 1987. I don't know if the Celtic players knew about Celt history, but that's how those guys played."

This is probably true, although a bit comical (I like to imagine Riley handing out scouting reports that included such insights as, "Dennis Johnson: no range beyond twenty-one feet, initiates contact on drives to the hole, may have aspirations to sack Iberia"). But it proves that Riley understood that sport (or at least transcendent moments of sport) has almost nothing to do with the concept of a game. Scrabble is a game. Popomatic Trouble is a game. Major League Baseball is a game. But any situation where Bird is boxing out Magic for a rebound that matters is not. That is a conflict that dwarfs Dante. That is the crouching tiger and and the hidden dragon.

On the NBA today:

Guys like Allen Iverson and Vince Carter are mechanically awesome, but they don't represent anything beyond themselves. They're nothing more than good basketball players, and that's depressing. Watching modern pro basketball reminds me of watching my roommate play Nintendo in college. In order to remedy this aesthetic decline, the league decided to let teams play zone defense, which has got to be the least logical step ever taken to increase excitement. This is like trying to combat teen pregnancy by lowering the drinking age.

And finally:
I am a Celtic Person. That’s my identity, and I’m never going to try to pretend I’m some sort of eclectic iconoclast. This does not mean I’m always right and you’re always wrong, nor does it mean I subconsciously need other people to feel the same way I do about anything. You need to side with the Boston Celtics to be a good person. But you should definitely side with somebody. Either you’re with us or you’re against us, and both of those options is better than living without a soul.

Klosterman provided a funny update in 2008; read that here.
Quotes pulled from here and here.
Buy the book here.

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