Undercover Bosses

The Heat could've been so beautiful. Instead, they're a team for their time.
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The present moment, with protestors in the streets and people out of work, seems like a strange time for a concerted and proudly aggrieved rich person's rights campaign. That said, it's tough to imagine any moment, public or maybe even private, in which anyone besides other very powerful people would want to spend time pondering how difficult it is to be rich and powerful. And yet here we are, all of us, in that moment and being dunked, over and over again, into that lukewarm ponderful pity-pool by the richest people in our culture; people who, it turns out, are both our most coddled and most aggrieved. It is of course easier for a rich person who feels attacked—because President Obama said "fat cat bankers" twice three years ago; because the bad guy in Jason Segel's Muppets reboot was a swaggy oilman; because on principle you shouldn't have to apologize for achievement in America—to get a hearing for his beef than it is for a poor person who resents being portrayed as a "taker" or a deadbeat or an avatar/victim of The Toxic Entitlement Culture. But it is easy for most of us to recognize what we're dealing with when presented with a weepy moneybags expressing his (and no gender-pronouno, I do mean "his") concern about the Decline Of Civility and the Disturbing Class War Rhetoric being used to describe those who relentlessly and publicly leverage their wealth and influence to protect and enhance their wealth and influence.

What we are dealing with, if you're feeling generous, is someone so distant from the world as it exists as to believe that a rich person's right to feel uniquely comfortable and valued is 1) a thing and 2) an issue that belongs on the discursive docket. Or, if you are feeling even more generous, we are perhaps dealing with someone who can't hear what he's saying because he grew up in a culture that moralizes success (that is, wealth) in the silliest and most glib way, reverse-engineering valor out of wealth, no matter whence or how that wealth came to be. If you are not feeling generous at all, the recognition is blunt, instant and sure: you, we, are dealing in that case with an asshole, a vainglory case who has mistaken his 150,000-thread-count blinders for super-powered spectacles. We all quite reasonably aspire to comfort and security and maybe a cabin on a lake somewhere quiet, and we should; we work hard in that pursuit, and we should. But who aspires to be this person—this prickly, entitled, self-enamored swell, so secure and yet so heroically insecure, forever puffing up over how self-made he is and constantly on rabbit-eared guard against anyone who would so much as suggest otherwise. Who would want, in other words, to be the human version of the Miami Heat?

Paradoxically oblivious self-regard is of course not limited to very wealthy or successful people. The NBA has its share of mopey, conflicted Drake types—which sometimes is ridiculous, but feels a bit more interesting than the cop-ish flat affect of baseball or the brutal but oddly pompous bumpkinry of football. But the Heat are not that, and not just because Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are older and better than your neurotic, thwarted JaVale McGees or Andrew Bynums. They are older and better, but they also reside much further up the food chain. More to the point, they're just bigger—the relationship between the true hoops elite on the Heat and the neurotic goofiness of (say) the Nuggets is roughly that between the Rockefellers and Soulja Boy's Stacks On Deck Money Gang. That is, it exists in the same corner of the same universe, but is so remote as virtually not to be a relationship at all.

The struggle for the Heat during their brief, grumpy non-dynasty has been how to wear that elite status. As a basketball team, the Heat are awfully good, even with almost every non-Eddy Curry member of the frontcourt injured or suspended. They are dazzling at their best, with LeBron at his most implacable and telepathic and unconscious and Dwyane Wade making those thunderous, intricate moves to the rim. And even when they win at the foul line as they did on Wednesday night, in a dull display of their influence and efficiency, there's an impressive element of inevitability to it. But as the more-than-a-team thing they clearly aspired to be—that "not three, not four, not five" thing, the for-us-by-us super-entity—they fall dishearteningly short. Where they should be great, they are small; where they should be transcendent, they're as mundane as an issue of Forbes. And where they could have ushered in a new era—remember the way in which The Decision's sudden inversion of the traditional owner-player power dynamic raised the stakes in the lockout; remember how thoroughly and shitlessly scared those tinhorn owner's suite aristos were in its wake—they have instead exemplified the petty, inward vanity of this one. They could've been beautiful. Instead they are, for better but mostly for worse, the most perfectly, poignantly representative sports-heels of their era.

***

That the Heat are very often no fun to watch is a bummer in some ways, but also inevitable insofar as it was never realistic for them to win games simply by scoring 133 points every night. Sometimes they win with the awe-inspiring stuff—the raw power that is having James and Wade and Chris Bosh playing at the same time—and sometimes they win with determination and defense (which can be awe-inspiring in its own right), and sometimes they get to play the Nets or something and win just because LeBron James and/or Dwyane Wade is on the floor. They also lose on occasion. But never, in any of these scenarios, do the Heat seem to be having much fun, or transcending anything in particular. Which is fine as far as it goes, since this game is their work. It isn't, and shouldn't be, their obligation to transcend anything, at least to the extent that it conflicts with winning as many basketball games as possible, which is more strictly their job. But it's tough, in watching them struggle with themselves against various inferior non-peers in the Eastern Conference, not to think of what might have or could have or should have been.

Because of our culture's complicated—or over-simple, but at any rate fraught—relationship with wealth, it's not just strange but even a little sad to think of wealth as not liberating, but limiting and actively un-fun. At some level—Kanye fuming on Twitter over a poorly fitted monkeyfur jumpsuit he got in Monaco or whatever; the aforementioned butthurt bankers and their aforementioned bitching—that is obviously a textbook cry-me-a-river thing. That applies where the Heat are concerned, to a certain extent. But however tasteless we might have found the ways in which the Big Three—or at least James and Wade; Bosh has always been the least and most loopily likable of them—courted and invited their current antiheroic status, there was also a heady promise to the way they made their team. They wanted to collaborate, and made it so they would. They wanted to play and win together, and figured out a way to do it. It was not, as the contemporary moral philosopher Dan Gilbert had it, that LeBron's decision was selfish; it was calculated and self-serving, but also and in that way very much playing by the rules of Gilbert's super-class. Forty-odd years after Curt Flood, this was maybe a political apotheosis of some sort—the freest free agency yet—and definitely a thing for basketball heads to look forward to: great talents setting themselves to the task of getting great together. It is very easy to forget about this, for the very obvious reason that the Heat have shrunk, rather than grown, during their time together.

The wealth fetishism of the last, low, dishonest decade was grounded in the weird moralism of markets—not just economic might making right, but might inferring and conferring right; the suggestion that whatever was must have been right, because markets are perfect and pick winners perfectly. But it was also, for all its faith in the broader system, the decade that led to the disastrous aesthetics and optics of The Decision—not the decision itself but the pomposity of its expression, the corny pomp that followed, the instant aggrievement at not being Greeted As Liberators in the wake of all that hilarious bullshit—was also about stars. All those CEOs, ebullient and grinning in their shirtsleeves on various magazine covers; all those Fast Company coverboys (LeBron was one himself in 2010) who were bravely, giddily changing your world and Making The Future—these were The New New Moguls, the pioneer heroes of capital and authors of the world to come. All these brave minds, blithely surfing towards a jagged reef: this was who and what LeBron and Wade sought to be. The Heat would of necessity be a collaboration, but it would also be a tribute not just to their unassailable skill as basketball players but to their big-thinking boldness. All the things that could have been with those great players coming together, and they wound up with fucking DreamWorks.

The problem with all this, with the Heat and in general, is that the fundamental vanity of it functions as a hulking, ridiculous Swarovski-showroom glass jaw. Stars are stars, and easy to photograph and put on the cover of a magazine, but systems win and endure. The Heat have an astonishing amount of talent on the floor, even with Chris Bosh on the bench, but the Thunder have a unique (if not yet fully earned) level of self-belief that the Heat don't, and the Spurs appear to be playing with either six or seven players on offense when they're working right. This isn't about coaching or personnel—or only about one or the other, or either or both—so much as it is an affirmation that the game works best when played modestly and positively within a moderated, mediated framework. This is not to say that a paradigm can't get smashed that way: the ultra-polite Spurs do this with every clockwork win, done with the same personnel they used to dominate in the opposite way a decade ago, but at a 180-degree turn. But the Heat, a team of young CEO's mouthing band-of-brothers homilies they've never believed—or never believed as much as they believed that being more talented would somehow lead to being both the best and best-loved—can't do that, or be that. They are still struggling with and within the star system; the stars play much of the time at a great distance from each other, and all of the time at an even greater remove from their teammates.

They were built both in the spirit and during the waning days of an old and viciously wrongheaded triumphalism—the idea that the way progress happens is solely through the bravery and ruthlessness and brilliance of The One Brave Man, who will change the world for the rest of us if only we have the decency to get the hell out of the way. There's something almost inspiring, then, in the way that the Heat have failed to achieve as much, and have instead devolved into whinging ref-working and carping pettiness and grandiose sophistry and self-obsessed neurosis and the other piteous afflictions of the Job Creator class. LeBron James, the greatest talent of his and arguably any generation, plays so many of his minutes with the inward, anxious mania of Howard Hughes weighing a bowel movement and entering the number in a thick ledger. This is sort of a pity, but it's also black comedy the rest of us can believe in.

There are many—a small-minded and extravagantly monied many and an aspiring mass chasing them—who still believe in the old model and vision of success that gave us both this Heat team and Goldman's alpha a-holes. That being the idea that systems and communities and most people/things exist solely to thwart and slow and hinder the change-makers and job-creators and game-winners who would and should achieve and conquer, and that loosing the winners to win would give those deserving a not-one-not-two-but-a-thousand-year dynasty. This, in basketball as everywhere else, is a cruelish but moreover a silly and wrong thing to believe. A more modest and unified Heat could be beautiful; we should hope that they someday are, because that would be great. This one, conceived in the most grandiose smallness, is not great. They're villains, but not in the happy sorry-haters mode they envisioned; in their prickly bigness they're pitiable and loathsome at once, emblematic of all the self-important vanities and self-important vanity cases that have choked the nation's front pages and so much else over the last decade and more.

It would be sweet, symbolically, to see the Heat picked apart by the heroically humble Spurs, or guillotined as decadent aristocrats by the legitimately insurgent Thunder, or even taught a lesson by the Celtics' peevish sages, although Wednesday's outcome did a lot to diminish those chances. But it would be sweeter, still, to see the Heat figure out, together, how to become something bigger and better than the self-certain success-machine they presumed themselves to be in the summer of The Decision. But it may be some time before we get to see that. No lie so appealing, so flattering and simple, as the one that birthed and still defines this Heat team can die easy. But nothing so transparently false and small can live all that long, either.

Illustration by Rachel B. Glaser.


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