Monday, June 08, 2015

Sports as Narrative: The NeverEnding Story

The crack of a bat smacking at a hanging curve, the swoosh of a three dropping out of the air like a diving pelican, the thump of a passing shot nipping the outside of the line, the wonder of a running backs cutting back against the grain, the aerial wonderment of an acrobatic backflip – these are but a few of the sublime moment sports so often offer us. The trials and tribulations, the vanquisher and vanquished, the struggle again the heartless passing of time, mind crushing the limitations of the body, the underdog overcoming the long odds, the favorite crushing the hope of the upstart – all of these define the spiritual journey of the sportsman and woman. For every elated fan there is another jumping up and down in fury at a missed call, a missed shot or a punch that failed to land its target. For every winner there is, of course, a loser. For every deep smile a deeper frown, tears of joy washed aside by tears of sorrow only to prepare for the next chance at glory or vexation. And within it all lies the true glory of sport, the ability to elevate the mundane to the triumphant, to win and lose alongside strangers we call our own and to become so immersed in the narrative we forget our own troubles, if only for an hour or three.

Sports at its heart is really a story without end that passes from one chapter to the next without clear lines of demarcation or plot structure. Just looking at the past weekend, we see so many narratives merge into one of the best sports weekends in history. Juve drew even with the clearly superior Barcelona in the second half of the Champions League final against the run of play, only to lose 3-1 and give one of the all time greats, Xavi, a rare treble to complete his illustrious career. Serena Williams is cruising to her 20th grand slam title in Paris, only four behind the all-time leader Margaret Court, when Lucie Safarova (who?) goes on a run and builds a two-nil lead in the third set. But Williams won’t be denied and wins her 20th final in 24 attempts. A little later on Saturday the long wait for a Triple Crown winner that stretched back to 1978 finally comes to an end in anti-climactic fashion as American Pharoah (sic) wins the Belmont Stakes by five and a half lengths. Tampa Bay faced a 2-0 deficit in the NHL Finals, blowing leads of 2-1 and 3-2, but score on a third period power play and hold on to win with a substitute goalkeeping rookie, leveling the Stanley Cup Finals at one apiece. On Sunday morning, Djokovic goes into the French Open final as a huge favorite to become only the eighth man ever to win the “career slam,” having already beaten the red clay master Nadal and Big Four compatriot Andy Murray in the last two rounds. He wins the first set and the coronation is set, except Stan Wawrinka, that other guy from Switzerland who has won only one Slam (and only as the result of an injury to Nadal in the final) and who has lost 17 of his previous 20 to Djokovic, forgot to read the script and suddenly starts hitting winner after winner on the road to upsetting the world’s #1 in four sets. After the match, the Paris crowd gives the loser, now 0 for 11 in his quest to win a French Open, an seemingly endless standing ovation that leaves him in tears. And then Cleveland, minus two of their three stars, tries to hold off a Golden State team that led the league in both offense and defense throughout the season, three days after LeBron almost single-handedly beat them but for a missed last second shot and a poor Cavs OT. They hold MVP Steph Curry to 3 for 10 and 10 points with less than six to play and build an 11-point lead, see that lead cut to five in about 30 seconds, then miss a last second shot from the best player in the league for a second time in two games (this time missing a contested layup). They are ahead in OT, fall behind and watch the MVP throw up an air ball for a chance at the lead before LeBron misses a free throw and then win 95-93 anyway. Only two days in 365, with three grand slams, three majors in golf, the World Series, the rest of the NBA Finals, the NFL regular season, the College Football regular season, the women’s World Cup, the Tour de France and a host of other events to come.

Statistics have become one of the biggest narrative tools leading the world of sports today, with advanced metrics defining players in ways the average fan struggles to even understand and statistical geniuses like Nate Silver using their abilities to quantify the world of sports and entertainment the way great writers of the past from Nabokov, Wallace, Irving and Delillo to Mailer and Plimpton qualified it. But as Cleveland and Wawrinka demonstrated Sunday, all the statistics in the world cannot decide a game or match before it is played. Sometimes the greats flounder, sometimes a player or team rises above expectations, sometimes a ball curls around the cylinder before falling woefully out and sometimes the MVP throws up an air ball like a kid on the back lot dreaming of that chance. Statistics have long been at the epicenter of baseball, a sport so obsessed with numbers that hours can be cast away debating their significance in a bar with the same furor of a politician pounding against the tides of change. Yet statistics can only tell us about the past; they do not perfectly predict or define the future. They allow us to compare players and teams from one era to the next and to predict the likely winner of a match or series or at bat. What they can’t do is take into account the will to win and the ways sports so often test not only the limits of our bodies but the composition of our souls.

At the deeper level, the narratives revolve around the indomitable human spirit, rising above the quotidian world and finding a sublime moment in the surrounding sea of mediocrity. The inchoate star looking for their breakthrough, the perennial choker finally overcoming their demons, the aging star looking to rediscover past glory. So many stories build around a narrative from Phil Mickelson surprising the world with a breathtaking final round to win the British Open less than a year after yet another U.S. Open heartbreak, Andre Agassi going from an enfant terrible to a beloved veteran, the Patriots needing a last second interception to finally give Tom Brady his fourth NFL ring, Jack Nicklaus giving us an unforgettable final Masters in 1986 while Tiger Woods struggles through an 85 on the shrinking road to the goal that seemed firmly in his grasp a few short years ago. There are those rare moments of perfection as with Arsenal in 2003-04, the Dolphins in 1976, Nadia Comaneci at the 1972 Olympics or Torvill and Dean in 1984. There are the dynasties of an era like the Yankees, Celtics or Lakers, teams that go from title winners to playoff bystanders like the LA Kings, players recovering from cancer to again reach the acme of their sports (in some cases to become disgraced years later like Lance Armstrong), legacies at stake (ala LeBron) and the stories so compelling an entire country, or even globe, follows along with bated breath. America love the Cinderella story, Brazil and Spain playing with style, Italians winning at any cost, the English mettle and physicality, Russia and Germany the precision of near perfection. The quintessential American moment was the upset of the greatest hockey team in history at the 1980 Olympics, for Brazil, Italy, Spain and Germany arguably their World Cup victories, for England the 66 win may be their greatest moment but Bradley Wiggins finally winning a Tour de France stands close alongside their impressive Summer Olympics of 2012 and Russia that same hockey team going on to again dominate world hockey for eight years, or so many other moments of Olympic glory against their Cold War rivals. Within a single playoffs, a single series, a single game or even a single pitch, so much can be written in, so many subplots coalescing into a story that can be told with infinite variation.

Stories have always defined civilization, providing an account of what a culture sees as right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, just and unjust, true and false, sublime and sacrosanct. It gives us an indicator of our value, beliefs and deeply held shibboleths and a vision of the past that can guide us toward a better future. With sports the stakes might be lower, but they feel just as powerful to not only the players on the field but those of us cheering on from the stands, the pub or our living rooms. Let the next story begin …

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