LeBron, Tiger, and the Power of Narrative

(published June 23, 2011)

In sports, it’s all about the story.

We love sports because we love the drama – and drama requires characters, narrative, and arc.   The seasons provide the arc.  The players provide the characters.  The fans infer the narrative.

Consider the 2011 NBA Finals.

For twelve months, the Miami Heat played the role of preening overdog, a collection of glittering stars in a glamorous locale.  Put together two of the three best players in basketball, add a third player ranked among the top fifteen (perhaps a stretch, but that’s how the story was presented), and surely the championships would follow.

But the stars did not align.  In crunch time, facing an opponent that knew how to play like a team, those two alpha dogs couldn’t figure out how to rise to greatness together.  They proved to be less than the sum of their parts, and have raised questions of whether the players were really as great as we believed, and if the whole chemistry experiment should be scrapped.

And those Mavericks?  They featured an unselfish superstar, underappreciated through the years, who faced a crisis of confidence after repeated failures in the clutch and learned from the experience to emerge with fresh resolve.  The players around him included veterans who had been there before – a Hall of Fame point guard who reinvented himself as a spot-up shooter; a flashy instant-offense machine who launched corner threes without fear or conscience – and a gritty little spark plug who embodied the team’s willingness to take chances on some unlikely performers.

Really?  Is that really what was going on?

Miami won games one and three, and had fourth-quarter leads of fifteen and nine in the second and fourth games respectively.

What if Dirk Nowitzki’s end-of-game-two layup had been a fraction short, and any of the Heat’s misses by Udonis Haslem or Chris Bosh had gone in?  In Game 4, what if a Mike Miller three went in and Tyson Chandler missed another free throw?

Then Miami wins in a sweep.  The Heat prove that pro basketball is a game of stars.  It may not always have been pretty, but LeBron James and Dwyane Wade figured out well enough how to share the spotlight, involve each other and the rest of their teammates, and deliver the first of their promised titles.  Nowitzki and the Mavericks took advantage of a Western Conference filled with teams that weren’t quite ready to win, but came up small again when it mattered; the front office brought in an over-the-hill Jason Kidd who simply couldn’t get it done, and a team that gives significant minutes to J.J. Barea simply can’t expect to compete with the league’s elite.

A bounce here, a lucky roll there, and the story passes through the looking glass.  Our understanding of the characters involved is radically redefined.

Such a slight difference in events.  Such a huge difference in the narrative.

The narrative of Rory McIlroy’s win at the U.S. Open is highlighted by the personality differences between him and Tiger Woods.  He was humble, humorous, generous with the media.  Not like the cursing, club-throwing, terse and cutting Woods.

Of course, that wasn’t the narrative we indulged in when Tiger was Rory’s age.  Then he was dazzling, charismatic, comfortable with the demands of greatness.  Today, he’s the guy we don’t want McIlroy to become, a player who’s unfit to fill the classy shoes of Jack Nicklaus.

(This conveniently ignores the narrative of the Young Nicklaus, the fat, crew-cut, country-club kid nobody liked because he was trying to dethrone the humble greenkeeper’s son from Latrobe, Pa., Arnold Palmer.)

Sports happen in the present, as athletes understand very well.  The only game that matters to them is the next one.  What do they care about Harry Frazee’s sale of Babe Ruth, or the ejection of a goat from Wrigley Field?   They have to face Justin Verlander’s fastball, guard Kevin Durant, tackle Arian Foster, skate past Zdeno Chara.  That’s plenty to focus on.

But without narrative, the games are just a bunch of guys with sticks or balls or pucks or racquets.

If you’ve ever rooted for or against the lordly Yankees, the plucky Giants, the unlucky Clippers, the efficient Spurs, the dashing Canadiens, the arrogant Blue Devils, the tough Steelers, or the flashy Lakers, you’ve attributed personal characteristics to a shifting group of individuals based on a perception of their role in a story.

Like myths, legends, troubadour songs and serial novels, the world of sports provides fodder for conversation, understanding, analysis, and playful association and antagonism.  It’s what makes it so much fun to follow: The stories are compelling, and the stakes couldn’t be smaller.

What happened didn’t have to happen.  It’s just more interesting to think of it that way.

The games and athletes are real.  Our narratives aren’t.  We base our judgments on events that could just as easily have gone another way.

It’s not fair to the athletes, perhaps, but that’s what we pay them for: to give us stories to tell each other.







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