Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Confessions of a Miami Heat Fan

I'm conflicted. The Miami Heat are up 3 games. One game away from a championship. This is the moment they came together for and things are starting to click. And yet I have trouble watching the games. 

I'm from Miami. Okay technically I'm from Unincorporated Dade County, a nether region of sand dunes and drainage canals. For the sake of proximity we either called our neighborhood Opa Locka or Carol City growing up. But outside of South Florida, it's hard to explain to people the logistics of Florida county law and what the heck Unincorporated Dade County actually looks like. Only a few years ago did my town get an official name in Miami Gardens. It's an odd name since we're not near Miami and they're very few parks or gardens, but it sounds nice. To my mind, though, I still think of my home town as Unincorporated Dade. It's like the orphan of South Florida. When I travel anywhere outside of a 50 mile radius of my home town I just say my birthplace is "Miami.' I don't split hairs and explain that I was actually born on Miami Beach and lived in an existential territory of wandering for 20 years that was a mixture of desert and swamp. It was a place of shifting ethereal mirages and muddy marsh. People don't need to know. Just Miami and people think of palm trees and tans. 

I have been a Heat fan since the franchise began. We 'got the team in the 1980s it was cool to get in on the ground floor of a new thing. Most people in big cities just inherit their teams. But for Miami kids of my generation, it was like we were given a plant to water and grow. And now it's become this huge tree that gives fruit and comfort. So I've stuck with them through great times and awful times when they were just getting mercilessly pounded the first 3 or so years of existence. I stuck with them when they were filled with fat, sloppy, lazy dead-end veterans who could barely jog up the court as various coaches took turns. I stuck with them with Riley came to town and created a great but obviously flawed team around Hardaway and Mourning (always just good enough to compete but also clearly lacking) . I stick with them because I saw the franchise grow and it feels like I was -in some small way- a part of the dialogue, arguments, fighting, celebration, tears, and laughter. 

My conflict is this: I don't like the personality of this team. Individually, the superstars are great, the supporting players are funny, Mike Miller is like some sad uncle who keeps falling down the stairs and injuring himself. But as a team, they are -as Sir Chales put it- a whiny bunch.  I thought maybe it would change after a year. Maybe they would grow into their skin, settle down. And there are times when this is true and I almost forget that nagging feeling. But then it all comes back suddenly in a game or series. The Miami Heat turns back into a frustrating team as far as temperament, hustle, and offensive executive. 

Late in the season, they are in sync and they're great. It's fun to watch. They're hustling, playing it cool, and I wonder 'where was this for most of the year?' As individuals I really like the Heat players, but as a team something is just 'off' about them. Maybe they need a slightly more consistent point guard (although Chalmers can be great and he never lacks confidence) to direct flow or a good center to anchor the middle. Maybe it's Wade growing into a crusty old man before our eyes. 

It's like raising a child and going to see them in their first Little League game and discovering 'oh my god, my son is an ASSHOLE.' You still love him, you still care, but you have a hard time liking him.  Everything he does -from yelling at his teammates, taunting opposing team, arguing with the umpire- makes you ashamed and wonder 'how did I raise such a little asshole?' And then you begin to feel guilty because part of you goes 'that's not right. I should love him anyway' and the egalitarian part of you go 'no, but he's an asshole. If that was someone else's kid I would hate them.'

Some times I rooting for the Heat and in the er, um, heat of the moment I'll be cheering and they'll just do something that will make me say 'jesus, some times these guys are such jerks!!'

So I'm root for the Heat. Bad habits and all. I feel like the team is heavily criticized but it's my son, my tree, whatever mixed metaphor you want throw in.  If they don't win this year, the Hate will go through the roof. But if they do win this year...will they be rewarded for their bad habits?  If they win -whining, slacking off on defense, unable to pass the ball- will they then come back next year and be even more entrenched in these bad habits and foul moods. Both options scare me.

So far we have gotten through these playoffs -we, Heat fans at least- by suppressing our annoyance at  our team by having opponents who were even more annoying. For instance, the Knicks sans Jeremy Lin. That's an annoying, sloppy team. Easy. Indiana Pacers. Seemed wholesome but then we were able to focus on Danny Granger's trash talking and technicals. Boston Celtics? Steam flies out of our ears. We remember how much glee they took in laughing on our home court and taunting/trash talking. Now they're trying to play elder statesmen. Nope. But OKC?

OKC is like Obama 2008 where the most annoying things about the product is that 1) everyone seems to love them a BIT too much 2) uniformity of the dull happiness people have toward them. It's 'okay' to like OKC. They're cool, they're young, they got a guy with a crazy beard! They have saucy veterans, some Europeans, and are set in a wholesome Midwest town. They're America's team. Any time some club is dubbed America's team I feel like running in the other direction. "So you're claiming all of America?' With what, your shiny uniforms? Your winning personality? Or your skilled marketing team which have worked the whole milk, momma, flag pin angle? The fact that Durant's mother kisses him after each game and it's a ritual is ridiculous and feels like they're relationship is being used to play up what a 'gee golly' nice wholesome guy Durant is compared to LeBron. The media narrative is cloying and you almost expect their lineup to be announced by Bob Costas with a sepia-tone light as he narrates a stirring, heartwarming bio for each player coming out to the floor.

For Game 4, I actually didn't intend on watching it. And I don't intend on watching game 5 either. At the last second I decided to go to the gym last night. Why not? I had jogged the past few days so I just wanted to go on the elliptical for an hour. When the machine starts the channel is on the game. At first I want to turn it to my beloved gym standard: Food Channel. But then I think, 'why not? The game is right here.' 

Miami is getting beaten up bad. They're down by 10, then 12, then 15. It's the 1st quarter and I'm shaking my head. Then they call a time out and I check the players. They all seem calm. They had that attitude of 'yeah, yeah, okay. Get your points. We're gonna slow you down.' It's one thing to have the attitude, but another to actually play like it. 

The Big 3 are just hanging around, reading the defense, testing out seams, checking the lanes. They're really playing this thing cool and just reading the situation. And then the 3-pt'ers start raining. Well maybe the attitude can be backed up with play. By the time I get off the machine Miami is down by two at half time and I'm thinking 'how the hell did THAT happen?' And LeBron and Wade barely went off on any scoring binge. Bosh was invisible. OKC comes out with some its best play of the year, Westbrook was unstoppable, Durant was doing his thing...and they're up by only 2. 

I was literally drenched in sweat after an hour of working out. I went to the locker room for shower. When I came out of shower, I dressed and changed, careful not to loiter around the TV and get sucked into the game. As I pass by on my way out I see it's toward the end of the 3rd quarter and Miami is up by 2 and everyone has that feeling. 

In 2006, Miami won their championship. It was in the middle of the season and they were at San Antonio for a big Sunday game. Pat Riley was coaching a team that had fallen short in the Conference Finals last year, just fired its coach, and had two moody superstars in Wade and Shaq. And I'm in the Publix Supermarket in Pembroke Pines, Florida buying oatmeal. I pass by the TV and I see the game is on. I watch a few minutes of it and there's this air of confidence. It's like a strong perfume that transmits itself through the TV or a thin veil of energy that covers a team. The Heat are tied, then they're up by 2, then they're up by 4, down by 1, then they're tied, then they're up by 2. It goes on and on like this for a while. They never get too far ahead or behind. And San Antonio is an old pro team too. They're both taking their shots, pacing themselves, choosing their moments, making little runs. It feels like factory work for a group of veterans. Parts are flying down the assembly line, buzzers are screaming, sparks and mini-fires are bursting up, lights flashing, and things are moving so fast and dangerous. But the workers are carrying on a conversation about what they did over the weekend. To an outsider it looks like chaos but then you observe the workers and it's almost calming. They're settled in themselves at just the right amount, alert to the present moment enough to handle crisis but withdrawn enough to see clearly while carrying out their job. 

At that moment in Publix Supermarket in 2006 with my green shopping cart I said aloud 'they can win it.' I wasn't thinking about the game, which they did eventually go on to win by only a few points. By 'it' I meant the championship. They could win it all. They had that demeanor. 

Throughout the last two years Miami goes on these incredible runs. They have so many highlight reels, dazzling plays, tough victories. But most of the time it felt like they were caught up in the moment. They were so chained in their emotions that it was this mad dash of energy and talent, fluster and sweat. And if they met a calmer team that was equally matched with them then they stood a 50/50 chance of losing. 

It was only halfway through this season that something clicked. It was, in fact, when OKC came to Miami for a big showdown. This was the game of the week. OKC is evenly matched in speed and talent with the Heat. They're flying around the court, dunking, high-fiving. I'm watching the Heat players and they're talking like old factory workers. The lights are flashing, smoke is coming off the basketball rim from all the dunks, people are panicking as OKC goes on a run. But the players are standing around talking, chewing on their mouth guard, pointing out potential cuts to make with and without the ball. And I thought 'they appear to have that look.'

The frustrating thing about this year's Heat team is that they look comes and goes so frequently. One minute they're calm and collected and the next minute they're screaming on the sidelines and walking up-court. This has been one of the most inconsistent years for their level of talent. One minute they're reeling off 10 straight wins on the road, including a back-to-back-to-back games, then they're struggling against the Nets. But when the look comes over this team, it's like a veil. It falls over all their faces giving enough clarity to see but just enough of a filter and screen to play 'within themselves.' 

Who knows how this series is going to turn out. But at least they appear to be playing with the championship veil. I hope they can keep playing this way beyond this year. 

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