JERUSALEM — For two weeks, I was waking up about half the mornings at 4 o’clock or so — not exactly intentionally, but it kept working out that way — to watch the live NBA finals on the Israeli sports channel. Rooting for San Antonio, basically because I predicted to a friend that they’d win, I was well rewarded by their triumph in the seventh game.
Since we have a lot to occupy us here, including an upcoming disengagement with an ominous potential for strife, and a reviving terror war that’s taking a toll in lives, I could ask why it was worth it to get up in the middle of the night and watch some millionaires play basketball halfway around the globe. The answer that comes to mind is — fun, diversion; except that there’s a lingering sense of more than that.
There’s a sense, instead, of having viewed a rich human drama, full of emotional highs and lows, ultimately edifying.
There was, probably most memorably over the long term, the heroism of Robert Horry in the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 5 when he personally saved the Spurs with an incredible performance of clutch outside shooting and other great plays. Again, one could ask what’s “heroic” about a man playing a game well for which he’s compensated in seven figures. But anyone who has ever felt pressure when the stakes are high, felt it corrode his confidence and resolve, can only be amazed at Horry’s apparent total equanimity amid the late-game tension and mayhem, his eagerness to be passed the ball for do-or-die three-pointers with a few seconds left on the clock.
There was, too, the persistence of his teammate Tim Duncan, who had to struggle for seven hard nights against the remorseless defense of Detroit’s Rasheed, Ben Wallace, and Antonio McDyess. Duncan, sometimes rendered silent and ineffectual, sometimes reduced to long strings of forced, missed shots, could easily have got rattled and lashed out at the refs, his teammates, or the defenders. But the only one he ever chastised was himself, his face sometimes blazing with fury and disappointment at Tim Duncan; while out on the floor he stolidly kept at it, riding out the peaks and troughs, till finally prevailing with a stellar seventh game when it was most needed.
Indeed, considering the level of “physicality” in the games, the wide latitude for scuffling and shoving allowed by the refs, it’s a wonder that nothing worse ever erupted than some glares and warnings in the fierce Bruce Bowen-Rip Hamilton match-up. Anyone who has ever been to an NBA game, in particular, knows that this sport is almost like football without the protective gear, the combat under the basket especially brutal, and all the more so in a close, hard-fought championship series.
Yet the dominant mood was of sportsmanship and mutual respect between the teams, as expressed most vividly by the heartfelt round of handshakes and hugs at the end of the last game, including the embrace between the two coaches, the defeated mentor Larry Brown and victorious pupil Gregg Popovich. The fans, too, in a world where sports matches not infrequently degenerate into sprees of bigotry and violence, generally showed class and decency, enthusiasm without frenzy, partisanship without venom.
In an NBA that has become uneven in quality and professionalism, it was a great series, particularly in the last three games when both teams did well by themselves and it took, finally, the special brilliance of San Antonio’s great stars Duncan and Manu Ginobili to finally tip the scales. I feel a little stronger for having watched it.