Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
—The Odyssey, opening, Fagles translation
The Trojan war lasted nine years, not counting pre-war skirmishes, trade negotiations at Grecian Menelaus’ palace, or the kidnap of Menelaus’ wife Helen by the Trojan prince Paris. The Trojans and the Greeks had a long history. Epic hero Odysseus wandered among the magic isles of the Mediterranean for ten years. Still older Sumerian tales of Gilgamesh spanned decades while the Indian classic epic Mahabharata lasted for generations. So it may seem impudent to talk of a four-year basketball rivalry in the same terms. Yet many parallels lie between sporting events today and the stories of old, and a contest that now covers an unprecedented four meetings could be described in the language of the epic.
Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom–
—The Iliad, opening, Fitzgerald translation
Sports as Stories
People have always sought stories to help them forget their poor harvest or fear of the darkness. They still look to sports and playful entertainment today to avoid thinking about their credit card balances or their aching feet. Peasants need circuses. It may be no accident that basketball, populated by players who arise from some of the poorest sections in the country, has the longest playing season with playoffs that last for months. Semi-pro lacrosse, a sport played by and for the affluent, only has a 17-game season.
I was brought up thinking that sports were—and ought to be—about the game and the athletic endeavors on the field. I used to bristle at the massive entertainment complex that has grown up around sport: the chat shows which obsess about statistical minutiae, player fashions, and off-field antics or who said what about when. But I have come to see how at least some of this is part of the story if you consider it as a story, as an epic.
After all, the stories told around campfires of great battles weren’t only about the battles, but also about the personalities, the trash-talking, prior meetings, and in-tribe squabbles. In that sense, the more interactions between the same characters, the better. The pre-game fashion choices or post-game tantrum could compare with shots made or missed, just as how Odysseus spied on the Trojans was as important as how Ajax nearly slew Hector.
Sing to me, Nike, of the battles you spawned
Of mighty Lebron challenging wily Draymond from the Golden West
Of KD, the leaper, who could fly without wings,
And especially of Steph, the Trickster, who could throw without looking or behind his back to direct the magic elastic orb
Wherever he desired–
—NBA Finals Epic 2018, by kajmeister
Once Upon a Time in the West
There was a mighty King of the court who was the greatest of his time, some said of all time (certainly he did). He was extraordinary in his youth and won many contests but was lured away from his home to help another city win the crown of champions. He achieved feats that none could rival; no one could beat him in single combat. Yet he yearned for home and, after years of wandering, returned to the town that embraced him, prodigal that he had been. They Believed—he Believed—that the King would gain the crown of champions that they had never attained.
Meanwhile, in a golden land far to the west, another Town thirsted to be champions. After years of languishing in the shadows, they assembled a new group with ideas that some called sorcery. Borrowing play from circuses and Globetrotters, they were led by a sage who had played with other champions, even with the legendary Jordan. He fashioned a style which involved Flow and a little-used technique called the three-pointer. The Town brought in two exceptional Warriors who were princes of basketball, sons of former players, each with unique skills. One was small, the other quiet, both close enough to be termed brothers.
The first was the trickster called Steph. Overlooked because of his small size, he had learned to bespell the ball to do his bidding with heaves from afar, behind the rim, or looking backwards. After a clever shot, he would dance across the court with joy while children and their parents clapped with glee.
The other brother, Klay, could also shoot from long distances or weave a spell of cloaking that let him slide in to score or slap away a lob that seemed sure to go in. They were soon joined by the wily Draymond, a braggart and agitator, who seemed to sprout extra hands to block shots or to pass with eerie timing to teammates who appeared out of nowhere under the rim.
The Golden Town took the crown in their first season, though not without struggle. King Lebron pouted and lamented for his people who did not gain what they thought was their due. Like Achilles in that other ancient tale, Lebron the One-Man Force, was both unstoppable and petulant. Lauded to be a superstar before he was even bearded, he still considered himself to be playing “against the odds since he was five years old.” Even after years of adulation, he called himself underdog and was as famous for crying as he was for trampling opponents on his way to record-scoring games.
The Debacle of 3-1; the King Crowned at Last
The year after they took the first crown, the Golden Warriors grew boastful and puffed with pride. They won their next hundred battles with the fewest losses ever, with a Flow that seemed untouchable. They had the crown nearly won again, up 3-1 in the Finals. But Steph grew reckless and sloppy, frustrated by extra guards set by the Cavaliers. Lebron and teammate Uncle Drew took turns scoring in a crucial fifth game. When Mighty Lebron knocked over Draymond, and stepped disdainfully over his prone body, Dray punched out in a way deemed foul by the demigods. Draymond was sent to the Underworld and the Golden team lost their Flow. The One-Man Force hurled a mighty shot that led to Victory in the last seconds of the ultimate game.
As Lebron and his city cried with joy, some said Draymond had been unfairly cursed by the demigods. Others pointed to another game where he had Kicked another opponent. His supporters countered that Draymond was good to his mother and only agitated because he had been thrown in playground trash cans in his youth. His detractors responded by mentioning his barfights and display of naughty pictures. Draymond put on sackcloth and lamented his shame and said that he had learned much on what it means to be a man.
A Visit to the Hamptons
The Golden team, determined to remedy the loss of their crown, reviewed the book of spells and learned about Mighty Lebron’s own powers used in free agency. Another contender, KD the Leaper, who had himself nearly defeated the Warriors in that record-setting year, also sought glory through free agency. Many traveled to KD’s palace in the Hamptons with promises of riches and fame, including the men from the West. When they arrived with sackfuls of money and dazzling presentations, the four strongest warriors told their sages and wizards to take away the shiny objects, while they simply talked. Steph, the smallest warrior hero, persuaded KD that he would share the spotlight and never compete over shoes. Thus did KD from the Thunder join the western team, though other teams cried foul. His former teammate, Russell the first Lord of Thunder, complained bitterly because KD did not call him personally and this caused that Lord to play so ferociously that he was named Most Valuable, even on his losing Thunder team.
KD in the Golden Town played fair and true, with agility and grace and humility that won the hearts of most who watched. Others also helped regain the Flow—Andre the Wise Old Man of the Dunk, Swaggy Pete, Zaza the Almost Allstar, Javale the Redeemed Fool, and the strong man coincidentally also named West. The crown returned to Golden State and, this time, KD cried with relief and joy in his mother’s arms.
The Fourth Battle: A Costly Mistake for the Horsemen
Although both teams had become weary of the fighting, whispers of new legacy titles—Dynasty (for the Golden Town) or the Greatest Ever (for the Mighty Lebron)—filled their thoughts. In winter skirmishes, while they struggled against opponents who had learned the magic three-pointer and how to guard the One-Man force, the combatants seemed vulnerable. Yet, once more, they rose to conquer others and meet again in the Finals. The first battle (only a week ago) has already added to the legend.
In the Warrior’s Town, Mighty Lebron scored 51 points, a majestic effort leading his weaker teammates. But then came a demigod ruling that he deemed unfair and a missed Cavalier free throw, and the score was tied. That led to the a moment when teammate J.R. Smith, whose name will likely be forever written in infamy in Cleveland, grabbed the ball, but dribbled away the time instead of passing or scoring. While the King gestured wildly, Smith appeared mistaken about the score, although he claimed he was not. The Warriors went on to finish their hoodwinkery with an ultimate overtime win, while punches flew, fouls were assessed, and further insults were hurled.
[Lebron] just tried to finish the game out here, made a great block. He started talking some trash so I talked some trash back. After that, it’s just a load of nonsense that had nothing to do with the game.
–Steph Curry after finals Game 1
Of course, the load of nonsense was a part of the game, as much as this picture will go down in basketball history. And I haven’t even mentioned Lebron getting his coach fired or teammates replaced, both coaches returning from serious illnesses, Draymond’s mother’s massive Twitter audience, or Khloe Khardasian’s baby daddy.
Basketball as Artwork as Epic
Now, perhaps none of this has persuaded you to become more interested in watching basketball. I hope it makes the point that there is little difference now between sport and story. Further evidence of this comes from artwork that has flourished, melding these players with other big epics of today–the Marvel Universe and Star Wars, in particular.
Lebron has been pictured both as Thanos and Darth Vader. Episode III was parodied as “Revenge of the Steph,” while Episode IV fan posters featured Steph as Skywalker and KD as Han Solo (in a previous year’s Steph’s daughter Riley was pictured as R2D2).
Fans are making the case that these fantasy tales and sporting narratives are interchangeable. Whether fantasy or sport, the stories do help those long winter nights fly by.
Daily Post: playful