It’s cliché to say something is more than just a game. Or in this case, more than just a series. But for the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals, it is truly more than simply the sum of its parts.
At the most basic level, this best-of-seven rematch from last year’s finals will determine the NBA champion. And by all accounts, it matches the leagues two best teams, even if Miami technically only had the second best record in the Eastern Conference. It represents a chance for San Antonio to revenge a brutal championship loss last year, when the Heat stole victory from the jaws of defeat on the back of a miracle 3-point shot by Ray Allen at the end of regulation of game six, when arena officials were already chilling champagne in San Antonio’s locker room. It’s a remarkably compelling series this year, matching the league’s most dominant player against the league’s most complete franchise. If you’re not into this year’s finals, you’re really just not that in to professional basketball.
But it’s far more than that, this year’s finals. LeBron James will be playing in his fourth consecutive and fifth overall NBA title series. And he won the last two. Three in a row would put him in an elite club, where only people like Michael Jordan and Bill Russell are offered membership. It’s like skull and bones for basketball. A Heat title would also fully validate Miami’s three headed monster, acquiring James and Chris Bosh to join Dwayne Wade in forming sports’ version of the Traveling Wilburys – a supergroup, that is. Not that there should be much doubt, but even those remaining cynics would have to concede to the grandeur of Miami’s trophy case.
On the other hand, a San Antonio title would give them their fifth of this generation, a delineation marked by Tim Duncan’s presence and stretching all the way from David Robinson to Tony Parker. Gregg Popovich would certainly be one of history’s finest coaches, and San Antonio would be a true dynasty, despite the fact America seems largely disinterested. They could potentially label last year’s Miami win as a fluke more than a trend, one great shot instead of destiny at play. And they could be credited with breaking up Miami’s franchise, something that is much more likely to happen with a loss in the Finals.
That’s all that’s at stake this year. Just the narrative of professional basketball history. It’s not likely lost on the players themselves, who are far more self-aware than they’d ever pretend to be. For athletes of their caliber, life is a scoreboard, one that’s relatively void of nuance. So for all the accomplishment of making an NBA final, it’s a whole lot like missing the lottery by one number. You don’t get the reward.
In many regards, that construct is created by an endless array of outside forces. It’s sports writers, networks, and the barrage of fans that make the sports world a binomial. Either you win, or you lose, process be damned. It’s the exact opposite of what we supposedly say sports is good for, teaching kids the value of effort and expertise. Whether pro sports are a cause or an effect of our prioritization is hard to say, but it’s certainly a reality.
But some of this comes not from outside forces, but rather from within. We all have an individual self-concept – essentially, who we think we are. We form it in different ways and based on different experiences. And we all value different parts of that self-concept with divergent weight. For example, some people view their parenting as essential to who they are. For others, it’s how they do in school, or what college they get into.
For LeBron James and Tim Duncan, this aforementioned legacy, this title, is essential to that. And not just now, but forever more. Twenty years later, they will know themselves by what happens over the course of this fortnight, an odd construct given their well-documented success. For either the Heat or the Spurs, this championship will always be the one that got away, the one that defined who they in fact are.
Enjoy this NBA championship series. It’s a great one. But for those involved, it’s a whole lot more than a game.