Wednesday, June 18, 2008

KG, positively certified

I'm glad I wasn't the only one totally flummoxed (yet also somehow moved) by Kevin Garnett's unhinged post-game interview with Michele Tafoya. Unabashedly joyous and at the same time nutty and replete with "ghetto-speak", watching KG (my favorite NBA player) just completely losing it was a weird experience. It's hard to know how to feel. Am I embarrassed for him as he's sputtering a bunch of semi-comprehensible shout-outs? Or am I happy to see a multi-million dollar basketball player reduced to a blubbering babe? The Slate Sportsnut crew has the play-by-play recap, including this recount of perhaps the strangest moment in sports interview history:
1:14: Garnett screams into the camera, "I made it ma! Top of the world! TOP OF THE WORLD!" That's exactly what James Cagney's maniacal, cackling gangster character says at the end of White Heat as he dies in a fiery explosion atop a gigantic gas tank. This explains a lot about KG's self-image.
Here's the video:

If the Celtics choked away this series, you get the sense that KG would either start flipping over cards in a Hulk-like rampage, or curl in a fetal position on the parquet floor and not move for two months straight. No one looked like they wanted to win as badly as KG did in this series. And though I was rooting for the Lakers (old habits die hard), the Celts were the better team by a good margin, and KG's moment made it worthwhile to sit though this dog of a close-out game. It's easier to accept this championship squad, which, unlike the 80s vintage (and the present-day Lakers), are actually a likeable bunch. Also with Cal great Leon Powe playing a significant part in their series victory, it was kind of difficult to not actively root for them.

While on the subject of sports, sometimes folks ask me why I'm a sports nut. In my didactic moments, I'll talk about my love Homeric epics and the notion of heroes revealing their character through action under pressure. Sports are where Homer's notion of virtuous action lives on. The greats hit that double-clutch jumper at the last second. The chokers swing right through that belt high fastball with the game on the line. There are dangers to this kind of mythologizing. In the wrong hands, it becomes a willful blindness, a lazy shortcut that omits valuable information in order to reinforce established narratives: Derek Jeter is always "clutch", except the hundred times he grounded out weakly to second in the ninth down by one-run. John Elway couldn't win the big one, until he did. It makes for bad analysis. But these kinds of narratives drives the drama of sports, and even the most hardened and analytical among us cannot be gratified when the underdog triumphs or the choker or long-suffering loser is redeemed. Yesterday, KG, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen found themselves the stars of the NBA's prime time redemption saga, the league's best story in years.

And the day prior, we were treated to especially potent example of another category of sports narrative. To behold an athlete at the peak of his powers, excelling and prevailing against all comers and in spite all obstacles is perhaps a less joyous, but no less gratifying experience for a fan. And in the last ten years, there's one athelete who's the Achilles and Odysseus of sports. On Sunday, when the U.S. Open was on the line, no one watching had any doubt that Tiger Woods would sink his birdie putt to force a playoff. The guy just flat gets it done under pressure. And sometimes, the most compelling experience in sports is to "just know" that the guy will deliver in the clutch, and watches as he proceeds to do just that. In these cases, when confronted with greatness, the only suitable reaction is genuflection. I've learned my lesson. A few years ago, disgusted with the Nike-hype and that Cardinal red shirt he wears, I would tune in just to root for Tiger to lose. But as one learns more about just how challenging the game can be, it's hard not to be awed by Woods' otherworldly powers of concentration and focus (which is especially inspiring for perpeptually distracted fellows like your truly).

Anyway, here's Thomas Boswell with a nice little piece of mythology. And here's David Brooks with an interesting take on Woods' almost "corporate-like" mental toughness.