Dear Miami Heat:
You were hateful. Everyone thought you would win it all, and you didn’t even have the grace to act like winning wasn’t your due. In interview after interview, you said you “could” win, that you “would” win, and never did you acknowledge that some other team in the NBA might have something to say about it. Your losses were inevitably self-inflicted, and you were so ungracious you treated even your victories like defeats. The 20-point margin should have been 30; the 30 should have been 40. “We let them score that one time in the first quarter,” LeBron might lament in a postgame interview. “We’ve got to work on that.” Or Wade might say: “I thought we’d lost a little intensity at the end of the third quarter, when I realized that one of the other team’s wives hadn’t started crying yet.”
Our Knicks had braggadocio too, but that seemed different. They were so bad, and then they were so good, and then they were so bad again, and then they were so good. Unearned conviction was the only anchor they had in this tempest of a season. The coaching change, the team’s unsettled chemistry, the giving out of their bodies. Baron, Melo, Lin, Tyson, Shump, Stat, Melo again, Baron again – by the second week of the playoffs, they were one turned ankle away from Walt Frazier running point. What could the team do other than psych itself up, try to will one more fighting quarter out of the tired bench, the one-armed forward, the malfunctioning superstar? This was not the time to be humble. The summer would be full of humility, and it would begin very soon.
Their chutzpah was likable, in other words. Yours was not. The Knicks weren’t exactly the Little Engine That Could – more like the Rather Large Engine That Should But Can’t But’s Trying – but you were just an engine, Borgish, and unrelenting. My partner and I hadn’t seen you play this season ’til you crushed the Knicks before the All Star Break, and you were terrifying. Not because of your athleticism (which was legendary), your defenses (impregnable), or your scoring (metronomic), but rather because we’d never seen such a joyless basketball team. You were at work, grinding out victory like it came from an assembly line. If basketball were music, the Knicks were a frenetic little bebop combo that hadn’t been together very long (and was perhaps overburdened with one too many trumpets). You were the Beyreuth Festival.
My partner and I were two of the thousands of frightened Knicks fans begging Mike Woodson to throw a game so the Knicks might face the Bulls in the post-season. And when it was clear that he wouldn’t, we studied the stat sheets of the Magic and the Bobcats, hoping an upset there might propel our team to sixth seed. But there were no upsets, and Woodson finished out the season with the Knicks in a queasy equilibrium – win two, lose one, win two, lose one – that made movement up or down the rankings impossible. For your part, you seemed perfectly content at second seed, on a collision course with Manhattan. The matchup favored you.
I’m not going to rehash the awful series that eventuated. Five games and out. The losses are too grizzly to remember, and somehow the win is, too. (Baron’s mangled knee is one of the ugliest things my television’s ever shown me.) If there was an upside to it for the Knick fans in our depressed little house, it was this: Somewhere around the end of game four, my partner and I began to like you.
There was an admirable work ethic evident in your frowny-faced invasions of the court: a grim, almost proletarian determination to live to fight another day. You looked, I realized, rather like my partner and I look when we’re on deadline and can’t afford not to be awesome. We do not smile naughty little-boy smiles like Carmelo Anthony, or yell like Tyson Chandler, or punch things like Amare, or begin wildly throwing balls about the office like J.R. Smith. No. In those moments, we look like paler, flabbier Dwyane Wades. Heads high, jaws locked, lips puckered, eyes aware. Wade is a man who intends to put the goddamned ball in the goddamned basket because he’s paid goddamned well to do so. It’s a feeling with which we can sympathize.
And we found it difficult not to like Chris Bosh, who chews on his mouthpiece in moments of repose, face covered in sweat, seemingly worried that his fantastic playing isn’t quite fantastic enough. And LeBron – the lone Heat player who looks capable of on-court goofiness, who occasionally becomes enraged with a ref, but who breathes, fills his face with a look of resigned, good-humored bemusement, and proceeds to destroy the other team. When life hands LeBron lemons, LeBron hands life blowouts.
My own, private transition to full-fledged Heat fandom occurred just afte game four, when a journalist asked Shane Battier about guarding Carmelo Anthony. Battier responded: “… it’s a game of errors. As long as you give the effort, understand what you did right and what you did poorly, you don’t play the results. You play the process and you live with it.”
How philosophical! How modest! Truly, Battier is an articulate and likable man. All of you Heatfolk are likable, once I get past the fact that you’re ruthless barbarian conquerors who never smile. And though I desperately wanted you to lose this series, right up until the stale end of game five, I do hope you’ll win the championship, and not just because it’s less painful to lose to eventual champions than to eventual also-rans. It’s also your inspiring work ethic. And it’s also that I worry what should happen if any team so grimly obsessed with victory were to lose. Would LeBron’s head explode? Will Dwyane’s head collapse into a puckerlipped black hole? Will Chris Bosh go on a shameful televised crying jag? America doesn’t need to know.
And also – you guys really do deserve at least one championship, and I’m pretty sure you won’t get one next year. This year, our Knicks got one playoff game out of you even though we were down three guards; even though we had something like 23 different starting lineups this season; even though we had a mid-season coaching change; even though Amare and Melo still have their chemistry problems; even though we’re playing too much iso; even though we entered the series with a flu and left it with a broken patella. Next year, assuming nobody gets hurt, our guys will have learned to play together, and they’ll have a star point guard. Next year, you won’t be meeting the Knicks in the first round. And when you do meet them, it’ll be ugly.
Best of luck ’til then. Go Heat, etc. Make Miami proud. Whatever you do, don’t laugh.