The NBA Finals promise to be sublime. I can tell you that because last year's were sublime, and most of the people in last year's Finals are in this one, in pretty much the same combinations. This series will be wonderful for all the self-evident right reasons, but it will be just as wonderful for all the wrong ones. If you view them right, the NBA Finals are a keg stand of Haterade, a glorious overindulgence of bathing (or stewing) in our most shameful motives. It isn't just about who you're rooting for. It's also about who -- and what -- you're rooting against.
As with anything illogical, hatred is a style. Figure out what looks good on you, and just own it. Half the trick of pulling off a look is believing that you're pulling it off.
The first figure you have to reckon with is LeBron. Do you hate the impediments other players and teams throw up before his historic talent? Do you loathe seeing his acrobatics inhibited? If yes, then screw the Spurs. Conversely, do you nurture an insuperable resentment at the leaden cast of your uncooperative body -- at the way you could never escape the implacable gravity of your meager talents and earthbound hops? Then LeBron can, frankly, eat a bag of hell. There's a reason why we all understand Salieri in Amadeus. Sure, LeBron works hard; Mozart worked hard, too. But we empathize more with dedication and struggle when it overcomes clumsiness or ineptitude, a heck of a lot more than when it's tacked onto talent that looks like the guy's just taking dictation from God.
You could go either way on the other stars, too, depending on your perspective. Chris Bosh is either a delight or a nuisance, with his ability to make you forget him for just a few minutes before he does something great or frustrating. If you're rooting for Dwayne Wade, he's the still-savvy superstar, delivering supremely gifted rescues when the game is close. If you're rooting against him, it's hard not to notice how peevish Wade seems pretty much all the time, with the impatience of a man a decade younger. He seems to take it as an affront when the other team refuses to stop playing defense against him. When he shoots an annoyed glance at a ref, he looks like someone who knows that -- somewhere, somehow -- his bottle of Sancerre was just decanted too early and from too great a height.
The Spurs require less projecting and fewer rationalizations. It's still easy (though wrong) to be bored by them, with their dad-like commitment to fundamentals. Tim Duncan embodies this; he's either perfectly or maddeningly reliable. While Tony Parker's play seems both gifted and modest, it's easy to sour on the sight of him pinballing into the paint, knowing the result is just as likely a whistle as a great layup. Manu Ginobili exhibits inspired lunacy, spastic gyrating, opera at its best and worst -- either the soaring note of a great shot or a soprano on the ground with eyes rolling, on the verge of death.
In terms of personal style, it's no contest. LeBron, Bosh and Wade all look like dudes who know how to spend money. They probably throw the kind of parties that, even you have to admit, you have no business attending. If the bouncer said, "I'm sorry, sir, you're not on the list," you'd just nod soberly and say, "Oh, sure, of course not."
The Spurs might also have trouble getting into that party, based on the way they dress. Manu is a dead ringer for that guy I met at the Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club who smoked unfiltered cigarettes and had pinhole burns in his linen pants. Parker seems like an affable guy, sometimes too sweet. On a tour of his house, he might show you an antique teddy bear collection, or he might show you into a room full of ceramic urns and say, "These are my canopic jars, stolen from countless Egyptian excavations. All of them are filled with preserved organs." Which is weird, but probably still not as off-putting as French rap, which he records.
The Onion has been running pitch-perfect stories about Duncan for years, but one story they've overlooked is about Duncan in a parallel universe where he's not a basketball player. He's the guy who turned down a bigger salary managing a Ralph Lauren outlet to stay at the Dockers outlet, because his employee discount is five percent larger there, and they still stock khakis with pleats.
No coach in the NBA is more boned than Erik Spoelstra. By almost all accounts, he's a good coach -- not just technically, but perhaps especially in managing egos. It's tough to take three stars and get them to cooperate, let alone take a bench filled with decidedly subordinate talents and make them feel okay with their limitations.
On the other hand, there's the obvious critique: How much input can you offer if you're coaching LeBron, Wade and Bosh? For the last three years of NBA Finals, the running gag has been that those three are the cool kids from school, and Spoelstra's just the rich kid who buys friends. There he is on TV with his whiteboard, diagramming plays, but what he's really saying is, "My parents are out of town all weekend, and we can have a party at my house. I have $100 for pizza." The Big Three smile and pretend to pay attention, and then then do whatever the hell they want.
But this critique cuts both ways. Gregg Popovich has a lock on a Hall of Fame berth, but coaching Duncan, Parker and Ginobili for most of your career is a pretty sweet gig. Anybody competent should be able to perch on a pretty tall pyramid if that kind of Big Three are its building blocks. Which leaves us with everything else about Pop, chiefly the fact that, with the possible exception of Bill Belichick, no man is a greater hater of cant and uselessness. Even that sells him short. He's not so much a man as some kind of superhuman, eternal force of intransigence.
My dream job is wandering the country with Belichick and Popovich, needlessly withholding information in the face of the incurious or indolent. Some shirker -- some loafer -- approaches us as we make our way across a blighted landscape and says, "Hey, can I ask you a question?" "You just did," says Belichick. The interloper collects himself and says, "May I ask you two more questions?" I reply, yes, and the man says, "Do you know how to get to the Clerk of Court's office?" Popovich looks him up and down and says, "Yes." Then we all walk into the sunset, refusing to communicate.
Again, this is a choice, a matter of personal style. You might rightly think that Pop's unwillingness to engage courtside reporters or indulge vapid or baiting post-game interview questions brutally indicts the press' need to manufacture conflict or talking points or narrative subtext to every game. You might also rightly think that he's just an asshole.
Most fans prefer rooting for underdogs, which usually means allying with youth and inexperience over dynastic allegiances. The Spurs' Big Three are practically ancient, whereas the Heat's Big Three are collectively younger by 15 years. Yet the average age of the Heat is 30.3, while the Spurs clock in at 28.6, the numbers skewed by the youth of the Spurs bench versus the Heat's veterans. While the Spurs' Big Three are going for their fourth title together, it's been seven years for them, while the Heat's seek their third straight. There is no easy answer.
The age narrative muddies further when you factor in wear and tear. The age of 32 connotes something like senior citizen status for any NBA player, and Wade is already pretty worn compared to other 32-year-olds. Given his frequently surly expression, I half expect the camera to pan over to him when he's on the bench and catch him watching Lou Dobbs on an iPhone, shaking an impotent fist at the screen.
Despite using a headband to conceal a receding hairline, LeBron's play still looks like the indomitable will of youth. He appears to accomplish things merely by wishing to do so. It's the young-man ideation of greatness, of independence from scheme, of the magnitude of one man's force. That conception collides with the Spurs' integrative, schematic success, the planning that creates opportunities for genius, rather than relying on genius to improvise art out of happenstance.
Celebrating the Spurs thus carries with it a subtle, older dynamic, prioritizing "fundamentals" over "stars." When you hear commentators this week talk about a showdown between the Spurs' passing offense and LeBron's ability to "lift everyone else up through his will," you are hearing an echo of every suburban dad coaching a team of elementary school kids. Hot-dogging is bad! Nobody shoots until you've completed five passes! This, of course, overlooks the fact that Tim Duncan is easily one of the 10 greatest players of all time (to say nothing of Parker's six All-Star selections and Ginobili's storied international career). You're also hearing an older brain rationalizing a more interdependent playing style, based on the older body's shortcomings.
This, then, is the bargain I have made with hating the 2014 NBA Finals. You reasonably could choose either side based on the stars and coaches. You could choose an all-time great or a historic scheme. All of the above is style or shade, easily affected, easily thrown away, not anything you're likely to go to bed still carrying. But for me, Duncan represents the last time I will see a Hall of Fame starter in the NBA Finals who is older than I am, and telling mortality to piss up a rope is just too good and too immediate of an interest to forego.
Either outcome from this series is bound to be beautiful, but I will root for the Spurs as one last check against age and infirmity. Because death is the direst hater of all.