Friday, June 11, 2004

They're Playing Basketball

It is once again NBA Finals time. And once again, the LA Lakers and Phil Jackson are looking for another title. But something seems to be happening on the road to the coronation of Phil and his boys. Someone forgot to tell the Detroit Pistons that they were just supposed to roll over and play dead, and they now lead the series two game to one (and really ought to be up three-zero and on the brink of sweeping).

This series, more than many others, is full of backstories and drama. Let's set aside Kobe's little Eagle County problem, as I think we are all tired of hearing about it. The Lakers were able to persuade Gary Payton and Karl Malone to go to LA at a huge discount in order to realize their dreams of an NBA Championship. And at the beginning of the season when the Lakers were 18-3 that certainly seemed to be the right decision. But LA barely made it past the Spurs and the T-wolves to reach these Finals.

Aside from the usual Kobe-Shaq feuds, the Lakers have also had to deal with a disgruntled Gary Payton, who felt as though he was not used appropriately in Phil Jackson's scheme. Payton was not available after Game 2, nor for the media availability on the day after. One can see the look of disgust on the Glove's face as he watches his Finals dream slip through his grasp. But Payton needs to own up to a couple of things- one is that he went to LA with the full knowledge of the triangle offense run by Jackson and its impact on his scoring chances; second, age has caught up to Payton as evidenced by Chauncey Billups eating his lunch in all three games thus far.

And poor Karl Malone who had never gone on the DL once in his career, was injured and missed forty games during the regular season and has spent the playoffs hobbled by a sore knee. Due to his injury, he simply cannot be the force on the court we have come to expect from the Mailman. But he is a gamer and no one has heard Malone make an excuse or complain about a thing this year.

Taken together, Malone and Payton are probably two of the better liked players in the NBA and both contribute significantly off the court. And for that reason, I do feel sorry that they will likely miss an opportunity to raise the trophy. But did they really think the drama that has surrounded the Lakers for the past couple of seasons would subside enough for a taste of Championship glory?

But a bigger point here is that the Lakers are being beaten by that all too rare entity in modern sports- a team. The Detroit pistons are very similar to my own New England Patriots in that they play as a group, no matter who is on the court at any particular moment. These guys genuinely love each other and their coach. They give credit to one another and their coach for their successes, rather than accepting the accolades heaped on them. Rip Hamilton has been masterful throughout the playoffs and yet every time he is asked about his performance he credits his coach.

The Detroit Pistons are the sort of ball club and players that all young athletes should be forced to watch. This is how sports are supposed to be played. The work ethic of this team is legendary, from Big Ben Wallace down to (bench warmer) Darko Milicic. It is so refreshing to see them have success, just as it was to watch the Patriots win two of the last three Super Bowls. (Both teams in the Stanley Cup Finals played the same sort of team game, as did last year's World Series winning Marlins.)

I think that we may be on the verge of a trend here and it feels good. After years of the me, me, me glory seeking athletes who cared more about their paychecks and their personal glory than team success, we now are seeing a resurgence of the team concept. This bodes well not just for sports, but also for society at large as this sort of sea change in priorities is infectious.


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