LEBRON JAMES grew up cheering for the Cowboys and the Yankees, so he understands the appeal of the target. That is his role in these NBA playoffs as James and the Heat gun for their third straight championship and everyone else tries to stop them. You might not like the big dogs of sports, but you need them in your life. We all need them.
Sports executives like to brag about parity in their leagues. For a group of millionaires and billionaires, they sound awfully socialist. They want us to think that their teams, like the children in Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon, are all above average.
But there is a place in the sports world for the bully. Heavyweight boxing was more compelling when Mike Tyson was at his peak. The Lakers, Celtics and Patriots raised the profiles of their rivals even as they beat them. The best teams set a standard of play, and they give championships meaning, because they remind us how hard it is to win one. They also create story lines that are more interesting than whether the Thunder can stop the pick-and-roll. Without Goliath, David was just a dude throwing stones without a concealed-weapons permit.
That's why, before the Bobcats faced the Heat in this year's first round, Charlotte assistant coach Mark Price told his players they had an amazing opportunity: Here was their chance to knock off the champs. O.K., the Bobcats didn't win the series—or, if you want to get picky, even one game. But they had their shot. "People like talking about parity," Price says, "but there is something about being able to knock off this great team or this great player—the opportunity."
Price knows this as well as anybody. Three times his Cavaliers won at least 54 games, only to lose in the playoffs to Michael Jordan and his fellow Bulls. But there was virtue in trying to topple the best. "I definitely wouldn't trade it," Price says. "I watch some of those games and keep waiting for the ending to be different, and that would have been nice. But to have been in the middle of it all—we had some really good battles. Our teams were pretty even. The difference maker was obviously Jordan. Those are memories that I cherish."
Jordan is Price's boss now, and perhaps the biggest upset of all is that the trash-talking Jordan does not show Price his six championship rings every morning. Price sees the Heat as a current version of the old Bulls: "When Miami comes to town, there is a different vibe."
Alas, in the age of hard salary caps, superpowers may seem like a dying breed. Let's hope not. We need them more than ever. With 30 or so teams in each league, most fan bases must accept that their season is likely to end without a title. But they can still be emotionally invested if they have somebody to root against.
This has been the problem with the best NBA franchise of the last 15 years, San Antonio: People say the Spurs are unlikable, but the real issue is that they are unhateable. They are a small-market team with quiet, fundamentally sound players; the closest they come to controversy is when coach Gregg Popovich says nothing to sideline reporters.
We don't need dominant, star-laden teams to win all the time. We just need them to exist. Spectator sports, at their best, reflect the society we wish we had. People get along regardless of ethnic or economic background. They get what they earn, not what they are given. In real life, we look at growing economic inequality in America and wonder if anything can be done. Then we flip on the TV, see Miami trailing by 10 in the second quarter and think, "Hey, there's a chance...."
Price says that when his Georgia Tech team won the ACC regular-season and tournament titles in 1985, the feat meant more because the Yellow Jackets beat North Carolina three times. That is the role of the Tar Heels, Patriots, Heat and Yankees. There is a place in sports for those who are way, way above average.
This has been the problem in the NBA. People say the Spurs are unlikable, but the problem is that they are unhateable.
Cup of Gold
Faces in the Crowd
The Case for
Stan Van Gundy
Pitches thrown by DYLAN FOSNACHT of Rochester (Wash.) High on May 13. Fosnacht, a 5'7" senior, pitched into the 15th inning and struck out 17 in the Warriors' 17-inning win.
Triple plays turned by Penn State in a 4--2 loss last Friday to Michigan State. It was only the second time that had happened in NCAA history. It has happened once in the majors, on July 17, 1990, when the Twins turned a pair of 5-4-3 triple plays against the Red Sox.
Distance, in yards, of the walk-off hole in one made by Case Cochran to qualify for the last spot in the Byron Nelson Classic, his first PGA Tour event. Cochran had missed a five-foot birdie putt on the previous hole that would have clinched the spot.
Years since at least three of the NHL's Original Six franchises reached the conference finals in the Stanley Cup playoffs: The Canadiens, Rangers and Blackhawks are all there this year.
Yearly salary of the new contract reportedly agreed to by Lionel Messi with FC Barcelona. Only one player in the four major North American team sports is paid more per year: Kobe Bryant, who made $30 million with the Lakers this season.
ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO
PETE CASTER/THE CHRONICLE/AP (FOSNACHT)
VINCENT GIORDANO/TRITOOTH/FOTOLIA.COM (BALL)
LEW ROBERTSON/BRAND X PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES (BINOCULARS)
ANDRES KUDACKI/AP (MESSI)