A little more than a week ago White Sox play-by-play man/living cartoon Hawk Harrelson went on the MLB Network for a chat with Brian Kenny. Kenny, one of MLBN’s anchors and an adherent of advanced metrics, wanted to speak directly with Harrelson about comments Harrelson had made recently during a Sox broadcast, in which Hawk dismissed sabrmetrics as evaluative and predictive tools and embraced with his usual orotund vanity some less mathematically-oriented metrics: Grit, Leadership, Heart, so on. In person, Kenny’s arguments, including one that used Sabrmetrics to demonstrate that Harrelson’s 1967 season was even better than standard numbers indicate, went unheeded. Harrelson refused to listen, let alone budge. His view of the game remained a strange hybrid of the empirical and the spiritual. Stats are numbers alone, intuitions are not a hoax currency, what can be felt does matter, and the whole thing is zero sum: believe a number, kill a feeling.
What Harrelson reduced things to, and what essentially every anti-Sabrmetrician uses as his loadstar, was sentiment. Here was the game as gauzy, twilit mystery rather than the result of fully calculable phenomena. Harrelson even made up his own jokey metric, its acronym a clumsy echo of some of the rather unwieldy names of the new breed of baseball stats. TWTW, he called it. The Will To Win. If only Hawk had been talking about Jerry Reinsdorf’s other sports property, then he may have been onto something. While both standard and advanced stats fully support the idea that the Bulls deserved to beat the Heat Monday night, watching the game it was impossible not to feel that there was something unquantifiable at work; that the Bulls simply had a higher percentage of that weird, vague TWTW. There was a ghost in the building.
Pause for a moment and think about this: the Bulls beat the defending champion Miami Heat in a playoff game, in Miami, and with a fourth quarter lineup of Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Joakim Noah.
Kirk Hinrich and Derrick Rose looked very nice in their suits on the bench. Luol Deng tweeted a celebratory photo of himself in a bland and sadly lit hospital bed. The replicant sitting in for Rip Hamilton was nicely behaved on the sidelines. Carlos Boozer doesn’t even merit mentioning. Which leaves Nate Robinson, Marco Bellinelli, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Joakim Noah. I don’t get it either.
The Bulls are still going to lose this series. But that was evident before the playoffs even began. A sweep wasn’t out of the question, though the Bulls stealing a win – say, game four in Chicago to avoid getting shut out – seemed reasonable enough. What didn’t seem reasonable was the possibility that the Bulls would win Game 1 on the road. Not after their seven-game Passchendaele reenactment against the robustly meh Nets, and not after the Heat skipped breezily by, who was it, the LaCrosse Catbirds or something. Winning Game 1 was somehow more than unreasonable. The Bulls – what’s left of them, anyway – are a zombie corps and gleefully dragged the Heat into slow, murky zombie play. Remember in Dawn of the Dead, that zombie fairy tale, when the mall zombies, who have gone from menace to afterthought to ultimately object of pity, take their revenge with hands and teeth on Tom Savini and the other bikers who’ve been tormenting them. It’s a staggering emotional transposition George Romero pulls off, getting you not only to feel badly for the zombies but to actually cheer for them as they disembowel and gut-munch. Rooting for the zombified Bulls isn’t quite as conflicted, this wasn’t nearly as violent, but also there it all is.
Even if they hadn’t won, the way that Tom Thibodeau’s defense desecrated and sabotaged the Heat’s James-Wade Machine would have been a sufficient victory. But the Bulls did win. It was a triumph of illogic and the inexplicable. It was a strike against the inevitable, a victory for sentiment. A good basketball game, too, but also and inescapably that.
In 2011 the Bulls also won game one against Miami and look at how that ended. This Heat team is better than before, the Bulls are worse. There will probably be reprisal-style blowouts – Miami’s dismantling of the Bulls in their first game after the Bulls ended Miami’s 27-game winning streak in March was particularly brutal. One thing LeBron James has gotten frighteningly good at in the past few years is playing angry. Michael Jordan at his antagonized worst was a glorious asshole, someone who knew he was better than everybody else and, when that fact was in danger of being forgotten or at least ignored, would go supernova screaming his own supremacy: the guy in a BMW doing 110 on the shoulder because he thinks a Honda Fit has cut him off.
James, on the other hand, simply goes hunting when he feels he’s been bested. This transcends the truism about playing with a grudge, almost elevates it. James is more like someone who feels he needs to restore moral order to the universe. This was evident in a minor way last night. After being harassed into the margins of the first half by Jimmy Butler’s near-perfect defense, James sought revenge in the second. He scored points, but it wasn’t how much he scored; it was how he scored. On one especially ominous fastbreak in the fourth quarter Butler got both arms around James but James just kept moving through Butler’s grasp for the three-point play. On the Heat’s next possession he blew by Butler for another layup and foul.
The urge to narrativize sports is a strong one. Whether as part of a wider arc of a season or in the particular rhythms and pivotings of a single game, the need to find context for a game within the structure of a story speaks to our need to make sense of what we’re watching and interpret it in sensible linear fashion. And as with any kind of story – literature or films or television – when you’ve seen enough sports you begin to be able to recognize tropes and patterns, either borne out of creative laziness or because you’ve simply trained yourself to spot these things.
The most visible iteration of this in sports seems to be with comebacks, particularly when it’s one’s own rooting interest giving back the lead. The plot twist looms, vast and unmissable; you feel the other team’s run coming. This comparison is in every way false – nobody is sitting down and plotting out the course of games – but the sense of dread that hangs over every growing point deficit is the same dread you feel when Harry Dean Stanton goes looking for the kitty on the Nostromo or, maybe overstating a bit here but still, the bodies pile up in Santa Teresa.
Funny thing, though: those layups were James’s last made field goals of the night. The last one he attempted was an airball with the Bulls up four and thirty seconds to play. Butler’s last shot, a few moments prior to that, was a made three.
In other words, the narrative just broke. The expectation had already failed and then the narrative broke. Thus Nate Robinson, standing at the top of the key as the game and shot clocks wind down, frantically waving off a screen by Joakim Noah so he can speed by the bollard-like Ray Allen and finger-roll the ball in; Robinson, with ten stitches in his mouth, courtesy of James’s MVP elbow; Robinson, who had talked and misshot his way out of three cities in two years before signing a minimum contract to anchor the end of the Bulls’ bench, did away with whatever shreds of predictable or sensible were left Monday night. It was beautiful nonsense, significant-seeming on the surface and silly underneath. If this manifest chaos has to be named or said to reflect anything, The Will To Win works as well as anything else.