Thursday, June 30, 2016

Overlapping Champions

June is an interesting month. Two of the four major sports in the United States have their playoffs at the same time. Exactly the same time. Sometimes on back to back nights. Two of the Big Four sports (interestingly, the two whose conferences are split by region) pit the best team in the West against the best in the East. The best team in the sport emerges. In football, the Super Bowl is one of the biggest events on television, far separated from the other sports. The MLB playoffs have their own month, maybe even their own calendar season1. Even college sports are unique in that they have specialized championship times--Bowl season and the ubiquitous March Madness. So why do professional basketball and professional hockey have to share the time in the spotlight?

The NBA Finals are long and arduous. Eight teams from each conference qualify, making for more than half of the league in the postseason2. Many fans would probably be just fine dropping the first round. Nothing much interesting happens, and the teams who are supposed to win almost always do just that. Lower seeded teams in the first round have already been essentially eliminated by the end of the regular season. Meanwhile, the NHL, ostensibly one of the four most popular sports in the US, is just as draining of a two-month process, with similar results. The proverbial cream rises to the proverbial top3. And they are almost completely concurrent. Correct: they start within three days of each other and happened to end one night apart.

Is the overlap of fans really that small? Is it that inconceivable to think hockey fans might want to watch basketball too, and vice versa? Much to the detriment of hockey, it seems like the NHL schedule is inextricably linked with that of the NBA. Even the drafts are a few nights apart. And while everyone, myself included, is tuning into ESPN to watch the NBA Draft, most people, myself included, don’t know a single fact about who was taken first in the NHL Draft.

Maybe it’s just part of a larger, unfortunate problem: American sports fans just can’t be bothered to care about professional hockey. I’ll admit it, I’m part of the problem. Given the choice of watching the Detroit Red Wings or the Detroit Pistons, as they (often) play on the same night, I choose the Red Wings. But by the time the post-season rolls around, if neither of my teams are involved, it is a totally different story. I try not to miss a quarter of the NBA Finals, and I’m satisfied merely reading the scores of the Stanley Cup games.

This is troublesome to me, and I can't quite understand why. I proudly and passionately support the Red Wings, and I care equally about the Pistons. I could happily watch either one, any night they were on. But when it comes to the overall sport, basketball just has a different air of excitement. Storylines seem to develop that just don't in hockey (or many other sports, for that matter). Something about the fast-paced lead changes makes for a sense of drama that is unique to the sport of basketball. It's almost a fictionalized quality.

Take this season, for example. We have a team who won 73 games in the regular season trying to cap off what was arguably the greatest NBA season, at least from a historical and statistical standpoint. On the other hand, a team from a city who had not won a championship of any kind in over 150 combined seasons. Either way, the outcome guarantees an historic champion. How can hockey hope to compete with that?

I don't know. I wish hockey had more respect in the broader community other than passionate pockets of fans here and there. I understand the hypocrisy when I myself admitted that I choose to not follow the Stanley Cup finals. But I do think it is unfortunate that the two sports are so closely related. It's also unavoidable.

In 2016, we have the last game in the each respective series only a few nights apart. Just a week after the Pittsburgh Penguins skated around the ice with the Stanley Cup in hand, the Cleveland Cavaliers lifted their own memorable championship trophy. Could we please get some separation? For anyone who appreciates both sports, it's not double the excitement; it's too much to follow. One sport usually gets pushed to the side.

1 It's tough to deny that baseball owns the fall. Or at least October.
2 By contrast, only a quarter of MLB teams get to play a full postseason series, not counting the one-and-done Wild Card teams.
3 The proverbial wheat separates from the proverbial chaff.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

On the Golden State Warriors

In the nascent stages of my appreciation for professional basketball, I was just old enough to be aware of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. I knew the major players and how obviously dominant they were, but not much more than that. It really wasn't until the 2004 Finals-winning Pistons that I really developed my interest in the National Basketball Association. I've gone back and consumed books and documentaries about the 1989/90 Pistons to the point where it feels like I was there for it. I watched some consistently solid Lakers, Spurs, and Heat teams over the years. But the fact remains, for someone like me born in the early 90s, there has not been an NBA franchise as exciting as this year.

All year long, the Golden State Warriors have captivated my attention and that of millions of other people around the globe. Since winning the championship in 2015, the Bay Area fan base has noisily grown to an enormous level. It's actually difficult to not like them. They're not my favorite NBA team, of course, but I'm continually interested in their success. Can it be considered a bandwagon if they are simply fun to watch? When I watch the Warriors, I'm not necessarily excited for them as a team, I'm excited for the sport of basketball itself.

Next to the Pistons, there was no other team I watched more this year than the Warriors. Like many people, it started with last year's Finals. I knew the names--Curry, Thompson, Green--but I hadn't seriously watched them until the playoffs. In fact, I knew more about Draymond Green from watching him at Michigan State. I actually watched the 2015 Finals with more of a vested interest in the Cleveland Cavaliers. My attention shifted sides the more I watched.

Starting with the 2016 season, there were a lot of questions about the Warriors. They were very slight favorites to win the Finals, and indeed, several outlets didn’t even pick them to repeat. They responded by winning the first 24 games in the season. It was the first time I experienced an actual “can’t miss” NBA team, where I was seeking out every game on TV. I’m still kicking myself for not acting more quickly on getting tickets when they played the Pacers in December. Even after they lost, I don’t remember being more excited to watch a team that wasn’t my own. On the last day of the 2015-16 season (competing for attention against Kobe Bryant’s last game), the Golden State Warriors won their 73rd game of the season, breaking the Bulls’ record for most wins in a season. It will go down as a classic game in NBA history, and I’m glad to have watched it live.

The first two rounds in the West were uneventful. The Houston Rockets had no business being in the tournament, and Steph Curry rested much of the series against the Blazers. The Western Conference finals was the series to watch. Since the All-Star break and maybe even before then, this series was highly anticipated, perhaps even more so than the Finals themselves. For most of the season, three of the four best teams in the league were in the West, and it looked very likely that the Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs would meet in the conference finals. Not so. The Oklahoma City Thunder surprised the Spurs with their youth, speed, and size. Now, instead of the Spurs, the Warriors had to face the streaking Thunder, where they promptly lost three of the first four games, including the opener in Oakland. Did I think they would come back and beat the Thunder? It's easy to say in retrospect, but after the Oklahoma could not close out the series at home, I thought Golden State would ride the momentum. A drive that has only grown stronger after the win and now carries them into the Finals.

In a sport where stories seem can seem too good to be true, how incredible is it that we get the same teams in the Finals two years in a row? Time and again, sports prove to us that real life can be just as good as storytelling. As I said earlier, I’m not concerned with who wins, I just want to see some good basketball. On one hand, we have LeBron's Cavaliers, whose troublesome past includes zero championships and a very public and probably very regrettable departure. On the other, an historic Warriors team winning an almost untouchable 73 games in the regular season. As for predictions, both teams are so good, that I’m really not sure. I will say that I was nervous about Cleveland’s chances going into the series; now that the Warriors have had to face elimination for three games, the Cavs are going to have to defend against a new determination. Whatever the outcome, the 2016 Finals will be a memorable one.