NBA Finals: Nice Guys Finish First... and Second

It’s a league of trash talking, posterizing and bad blood. In fact, even the league’s official website ran a headline in May of this year saying "Trash Talk, Bad Blood Reign in NBA Playoffs." And indeed, any series involving the perpetually peeved Pacers, Bulls or Grizzlies will inevitably become bloody. And they did.

So it’s pleasantly ironic that the final series, involving two dissimilar teams, constructed by contrasting blueprints from disparate franchises, became a schizophrenic seven-game classic that oozed palpable and mutual respect. And we liked it, which is surprising, as we constantly tell ourselves, for example, that we relish that Tiger and Phil (and now Sergio) really don’t like each other. Hate is celebrated in sports, everywhere from Yankees-Red Sox to Duke-Carolina to Ohio State-Michigan. Michael Jordan’s hatred of--and lack of respect for--his opponents is almost as legendary as his amazing skills.

We are supposed to root for such things, and at times, it is entertaining.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but the Heat and the Spurs don’t hate each other. Quite the opposite in fact. "I have so much respect for them" said Dwayne Wade to the ESPN crew after the game, obviously gushing authentic emotions and not spouting shallow talking points. "We went through that whole series…and a couple of those guys…I still ain’t heard their voices yet. They don’t say anything to you…they just kick your butt."

It was clear that Wade meant what he said, and the postgame interactions between the various players and coaches spoke to that as well. The teams didn’t have an NHL-style post series moving handshake--one of the most astonishing rituals in sports by the way--but the zeitgeist was similar. "It was different, coming out of the Pacers series, and the Chicago series" said Wade of the post-mortem feelings, adding with obvious admiration "they [the Spurs] are just the silent assassins."

Yes, the winners do indeed admire the team they just vanquished, and vice versa. And it was a win for the NBA, a league that about a month ago was fretting over the possibility of a Grizzlies-Pacers Finals, which would have been grizzly indeed. Instead, the NBA got the delicious juxtaposition of the matinee idol Heat and the almost anonymous Spurs, teams the have almost nothing in common.

The Heat, of course, were specifically engineered around the "big three,' unveiled at an embarrassingly obscene pep rally, and orchestrated by dapper high profile general manager Pat Riley. Always with an eye toward culture and image in glitzy Miami, Riley then chose a young first time head coach off the set of CSI Miami--whose job at first was seemingly to look good and stay out of the way of James, Wade and Bosh--and not mess things up. (This has changed.)

San Antonio, meanwhile, had been quietly accumulating pieces of their puzzle to give their ancient big three another shot at a title. Their four actual titles are less well known than the dreams of six or seven potential titles for their opponents. The Spurs' general manager, whose identity is more unknown than that of the middle management of the IRS’ Cincinnati office, allows long-time coach Gregg Popovich to work his magic with a free hand. Pop, perhaps the best coach in the game today and one of the best ever, is 64, and would fit in on the set of The Bucket List. But make no mistake, Pop is the Spurs…and the Spurs are Pop. This is his team, and his players speak about him in reverential terms normally reserved only for 11-time champion coach Phil Jackson. 

The result was what many expected, a 4-3 series win for the Heat. And yet, how we got to 4-3 was anything but predictable. Four of the seven games were routs, but the final two were nail-biters. LeBron James and his Heat have grown in three years, and they have grown on many fans. James seems ten years more mature than he did when he announced he was "taking his talents to South Beach." They are worthy champions, as are the team they beat.  And it’s easy to like them both.

There were no post-title riots, no burning cars, no vandalism even in Miami--a town famous for, among other things, frequent appearances on A&E's murder investigation series "The First 48." The NBA website today has a header about Shane Battier celebrating at Denny’s, and it’s somehow fitting that one of the all-time nice guys emerged from a horrible playoff season with six three pointers--without which the Heat would not have won. But they did, and so did the NBA. 


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