Only on a Street Corner in New York
Last night I watched the Dallas-Golden State game through the window of a trendy Manhattan sports bar beside a guy named Mike. I hadn’t intended to watch the game that way, but after I got to talking to Mike I figured it was as good a place as any to watch the Warriors work out on the Mavericks. Mike was fresh off of a three-day stint in jail after being picked up for a warrant on Monday. In the process he’d lost his job and what little bit of money he had to his name. Mike’s last two bucks in the world had gone to buy the 40 oz. he was sipping on. As a gesture of kindness, he offered to share it with me; I declined. It’s been nearly a decade since I tasted my last 40 oz. of Crazy Horse, but my taste buds still haven’t entirely recovered.
Since Mike and I didn’t have any audio outside, we created our own running commentary. We shot the shit about who the MVP should be, why Phil Jackson isn’t winning anymore, the agony of the Knicks missing the playoffs yet again, and, of course, the Warriors. When Golden State started pulling away, Mike and I started slapping skin like long lost friends. After every Stephen Jackson three, Mike would do a little circle dance. When Baron Davis powered his way to the rack, Mike repeatedly cried out, “I tell you what, that Byron (yes, Byron) Davis is the TRUTH!” It wasn’t long before I got in on the act myself, started dancing a little street corner jig whenever the Warriors made a big play.
For the record, I could have gone inside the bar, found a seat at the bar, handed the tender my card and enjoyed the game front and center on the plasma screen with a stream of beers in tow. But after a while Mike and I had our own thing happening outside that felt a whole lot more genuine than what was happening inside. I didn’t care about the chill. It didn’t matter that a cop car kept swirling the block in hopes of catching Mike with the bottle to his lips. What mattered was that we were two absolute strangers enjoying the game through a glass window.
The Starting Five is typically a place where you can find sports commentary steeped in serious questions about race and society. At turns we are watchdogs, commentators, agitators and innovators. But beneath all of the spirited discussion lies a group of sports junkies who live for the games we watch and write about. For us, sports aren’t just entertainment, nor X’s and O’s, nor an arena in which to act our gripes with the world. Ultimately, we watch to be wowed by the unexpected. We tune in to see an athlete or team of athletes rise to the occasion and perform remarkable feats—exactly what Golden State did last night. Spectactor sports allow any and all of us to transcend ourselves, to become a part of a larger whole, if only for a couple of hours. Golden State’s fans are prime example of what I mean. As the lead swelled and time expired they seemed coalesce into a single wave of collegesque excitement. Make no mistake about it, the players on the court won game 6. But they could not have done so in such convincing fashion without those fans. What I saw in that arena was a movement infused with such raw hunger and indomitable will that the Mavericks simply could not win. The best they could have hoped for was a Warriors let-down.
Given the Mavericks record-setting regular season record and playoff history in recent years, this has to be seen as one of the greatest upsets in the history of the NBA Playoffs, if not professional sports. Certainly people will say they called the series from the beginning, but very few would have been willing to put money behind that prophecy. Even going into last night’s game no one honestly believed Dallas was finished, not if they recalled the ’06 playoffs when Phoenix was down 3-1 against the Lakers and managed to win three straight to take the series. With Dirk finally breaking out in game 5, the unspoken sentiment was that Golden State’s chances in game 6 were sharply reduced, and were next to nil in a game 7 situation. That the Warriors not only showed up but won in convincing fashion indicates something special is going on out in the Bay, and that we would do well to realize that this Golden State team was built for these playoffs, not next year’s. Unlike with Denver, there are no missing pieces, no obvious holes that need filling. This is the team Nellie wanted all year long and with San Antonio and Phoenix set to slug it out in what’s sure to be a brutal and exhausting series, there’s just no telling how far they can go.
I’m not glad that Golden State won the series because of a personal vendetta I have against Dallas, Mark Cuban or the Dirk Lovers Society. I’m glad because upsets are necessary. They preserve the idea of the game. They give fans of perennial losers like the Warriors a chance to release years of frustration on a favored opponent. They give fans of other perennial losers a reason to hold out a little bit longer. They remind us that the league is supposedly filled with the best basketball players in the world, and that on any given night anyone should be able to defeat anyone. They shake up what can begin to feel like a mere formality or forgone conclusion. They send a message to other dominant teams that they too can go down if they aren’t careful. Most of all, though, they allow people like Mike and me to come together in one of those brief wrinkles in time to share in the wonder of the unexpected.