Image via TheStartingFive.net.
Image via TheStartingFive.net.
A friend of mine, now a lawyer in his hometown of New Orleans, worked himself sick in New York City as a radio engineer. He was on the boards for the opioid-grandiose Rush Limbaugh, for a weirdly kind Glenn Beck in his relatively obscure pre-Gabbo phase. On location, he was locked, without apology, out of Reggie Jackson's house, by Reggie Jackson. But the story of his that I remember best involves him engineering for Skip Bayless, who was not yet in his leatherette baroque period. Bayless, on the radio, told a story that—as I recall it, at least—involved him approaching a woman at the gym who was wearing an Ohio State t-shirt, during the (presumably heady) days after the team won its Maurice Clarett-powered national championship. Skip, being Skip, and the woman being a stranger in a t-shirt, he said something to her about "the LUCKeyes." She didn't know what he was talking about. The gist of the story, naturally, was not that Bayless had discovered a new and hilariously ineffective approach to sports-negging, but that he simply couldn't believe how anyone could be such an airhead as this woman was. They went to commercial break.
And, as my friend tells it, Bayless kept talking. "Can you believe," he said, off the air now, in the voice that as it turns out is actually his real voice, all the time, "can you believe she hadn't even heard 'Luckeyes?'" He was exasperated, or maybe scandalized, but either way genuinely aghast. He was still talking about it when they came back from the break.
That is who Skip Bayless really is, and how he really is. And because Bayless and his fellow defective, perpetually pop-eyed monsters of misprioritization are the loudest presence in the mainstream sports discourse—and because LeBron James is good copy for these turds, if maybe marginally less good copy now that he has won the first of his predestined NBA titles—the relentless, tabloidal shout/counter-shout conversation about LeBron James may not be quite as dead as Kevin Arnovitz and Our Own Shoals hope for it to be.
We should, of course, all wish for peace with honor in this long and dumb and violent rhetorical stalemate; the sooner the idiot trench warfare surrounding questions of LeBron's Grit or Lack Thereof, Champion's Heart or Absence Thereof, Place or Non-Place in the Celestial Firmament of Champions ends, the better—and quieter—things will be. Skip Bayless will never be finished, he will always, always simply not believe some idiot thing or other, and that's Skip's cross to bear. But the rest of us can move on from all that to whatever comes next.
But as champions, the Heat are a problem, at least for me. They still, fundamentally, represent the same problem for me—the liquor with no life in it, the victory feast that just opens new trapdoors of bleak hunger—that they did before they were champions, when they were merely a great team oscillating between punctilious and prissy aristo-fussiness as losers and grandiose bully-boy superiority as winners. I will probably not ever really like the Heat, for reasons having to do with them, but mostly having to do with me.
To see LeBron and the rest melted down to size by their joy after their win, though, was to be reminded of something valuable, if also hard to know, about their essential human-scale dimensions. Yes, the Heat are more machinery than poetry; they embody the things they embody—but they were never probably quite as big as their place at the center of that loud, awful, Bayless-ed conversation suggested. They're a team with a bunch of great basketball players on it, and those players are capable of acting like awful petulant millionaire teenagers and playing like superhumans at the same time. But they're just a team, or just a great team.
Which looks wrong, "merely great." But we've seen teams like this before. We have not seen the centerpiece stars of those teams perform onstage with LMFAO while wearing t-shirts emblazoned with their own vampiric image, but perhaps the only reason for that is that we weren't yet quite ridiculous enough as a culture to even have a LMFAO to deal with the last time we saw an ascendant dynasty like this. LMFAO is as Fu-Schnickenishly goofy and anodyne as any previous paradigmatic NBA star's musical collaborators, but also come the fuck on, clowns.
So, sure, take a bow. The Heat's job is complete, for the season—built to win, to affirm their own assertions, they have won, and affirmed. A celebratory guest shot on backing vocals on that one LMFAO song about "the weiner dance"—there may be more than one, I don't know—are richly deserved in that context, I suppose. Like, if that's a good thing to him, I suppose LeBron is welcome to it. Anyway, they will get back at it next year, and it seems likely that they'll have a chance at doing all this again. As it should be, or as they wanted it to be. Relief is brief, and mostly for later. They'll sleep when they're dead, and the idea is to win and win again until then. It will never be enough for Skip Bayless, just as surely as no woman will ever be like "ha ha, yes LUCKEYES, very piquant point," to him at the gym. But it is, finally, Skip's game that they are playing, and for the moment winning.
And while the Heat were a lot more fun to watch when Mike Miller was shooting like Reggie Miller, they're also not really my type of team: static ref-beseeching, with intermittent bursts of dominance and feats of strengths, I mean. The dominance, though, is the thing. I fear—because it was never enough for me with Michael Jordan, whose transcendent brilliance may yet be out-transcended by LeBron—that this is just not my sort of thing. The Heat demand awe, and seek to earn it. I aspire, as a fan, to be able to give it to them—to be able to watch them on their own terms and, if not quite enjoy the spectacle of one player simply being stronger and faster and more majestic than another, to at least appreciate the strength and speed and majesty. I don't expect to love it, and I don't expect ever to find myself capable of resisting the impulse to identify with the Heat's opponents, mustering and marshaling what smaller things they can to tip over this colossus.
To hate the Heat for being what they are and will be is silly, and futile besides; it seems fair to wish for more joyful or generous champions, but the Heat may yet be that with this particular burden now cut loose. But to love the Heat for being the force they are is, for me, too much; I can't really love something too implacable and powerful for me to identify with, which is my own smallness, I suppose, either properly recognized or improperly turned into grievance. But to watch that struggle, between other teams and that, back and forth over the next not-four, not-five, not-six years—I'm up for that, whatever team wins. The winning is for the players, anyway. The rest of it's for the rest of us. The rest of it is the fun part, and what matters.