Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Mavs versus What Sports Fans Want

Oh boy. Eric Neel, if you were hoping to stir up a hornets’ nest of desperately defensive Mavericks fans, this was indeed the way to do it.

While I love my team, it's true that Dirk's not a Jordan or a Bird or a Dr. J. Dirk's game has far more substance than style, not unlike Duncan's (though surely Dirk has a little more style), whereas Jordan and Erving shared a captivating combination of athleticism and grace, and Jordan and Bird had an edge to their attitude. Dirk, on the other hand, comes across as simply hard-working and kind of normal.

It seems to me, though, that style isn't the real reason people like Neel don't care about the Mavericks. After all, Dirk's shot is beautiful, Terry plays with a kind of infectious glee, Howard explodes for big plays often enough to keep you guessing, and Stackhouse had enough attitude to knock Shaquille O'Neal into the stands during last year's finals.

I think, instead, that people don't care because they don't see in Dirk (and thus in the team) what they would call Greatness.

My impression is that there are two totally different reasons for caring about a team, depending on whether it's the home team or another city's team. For home-town fans, the point is participation in the process of growth and development of excellence; home-town fans revel in their team's rise from mediocrity to success, and emotional energy they invest early on leads to a great payoff when their team finally wins it all. This is why Dallas fans are ecstatic, if a little guarded, this season.

But if fans from another city are going to embrace a team, they're not interested in development or perserverance. If a fan looks outside of his own city for a team to love, he's looking for an association not with excellence, but with Greatness.

Neel actually uses the word great to describe the Mavericks, but I think he's really talking about what I would call excellence. Excellence is about success, but Greatness attains a kind of transcendence. Excellence is something you work for over time via trial and error, but Greatness is an eternal quality you either have or don't have. Fans want not just a winner, but a Winner.

There are some stipulations, of course. It's ok if your (lack of) team prevents you from winning a title (Lebron, early MJ), as long as you get one eventually. And it's ok to lose occasionally in the face of another instance of Greatness –– so for example, neither Magic nor Bird could win every title during the 80's, but that was ok because each was facing an equally unstoppable opponent.

And if Dirk had gone for 30/10 every game of the finals last year and had lost a close series (without the opening 2 7/8 game lead), my money says people outside of Dallas would see the Mavericks differently this year.

But to play like a mortal, as Dirk did, is virtually unforgiveable in the minds of most NBA fans. He had his chance to win the hearts of the nation, and he didn't do it. If Dirk (and Dallas) were Great, people assume, they would have won –– or at least not have blown a huge advantage to cough up the series. And if they aren't Great, then most people have other places they'd rather direct their devotion.

The notion of Greatness is why Wade is the darling of the NBA, because his finals performance had a sort of super-human quality that people want to grasp hold of. The notion of Greatness is also why Peyton Manning was so despised before he won the Super Bowl –– and I'll wager a degree of scorn will linger among many for the times he failed.

That leaves the Mavericks with a daunting task, if their fans are ever going to enjoy the adoration of the NBA. Last year's failure will not be quickly forgotten, even if Dallas takes the title this year. Having a chip on their shoulder might be a good way to win, but as long as people remember their failure, there's no mystique to capture the imagination, as Neel puts it. My guess is it will take at least back-to-back titles, maybe even three in five years for the stigma to pass.

In the NBA, it seems, Greatness is an all-or-nothing prospect, and apathy from fans is worth about the same as contempt.


Jeremy said...

Nice analysis.

(Too nice, actually, considering its acknowledgment of this ridiculous bloviating column. Seriously, what is happening to American sports journalism? Note to Eric Neel: there is one Bill Simmons and you're not him.)
Greatness is important, but the media powers must also have their storyline.

micah said...

Anybody else think that Neel's use of the present Pistons was a stretch?

scoots said...

I haven't watched the Pistons at all this year, except when they shut the Mavericks down back in December (Dallas' last home loss). But my suspicion is that Neel cares a lot more about their championship a couple of years back than he does about their actual style or attitude.

Ryan B said...

Greatness or not, if they Mavs end up with one of the top 4 or 5 best records ever in NBA history and win a championship, how can you say they are not a team worth rooting for? Especially when there are some other great teams/players in the league to compete with. The fact that the Suns, Spurs and (I guess) Pistons still have great teams, the Mavs feat is that much more impressive and worth any NBA fan's attention.

Jeremy said...

I wouldn't worry about this too much. If the Mavs keep their loss total under 10 for a few more games, some MSM opinion-maker is going to wake up, look at the standings, and ask what's up with those Mavs.