"It's not show friends, it's show business."—Bob Sugar, Jerry Maguire (1996)
On the court, Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals will answer the questions swirling around the series and expose unforeseen niches as the two sides feel one another out. Whether the Heat's experience or the Thunder's energy wins the day, momentum will be established and a tone will be set.
In a broader context, the zeitgeist surrounding the Heat/Thunder series succinctly encapsulates life in the NBA under commissioner David Stern.
The two teams serve as sharp, obvious contrasts; the Heat, a veritable All-Star team notoriously assembled through free-agency, dead-set on becoming an NBA dynasty in "South Beach," as it's most high-profile signee called it.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, meanwhile, feature a roster chock-full of homegrown (or at least franchise-grown, in the case of Kevin Durant) talent, and play in a city with the passion of three major sports teams packed into one fan base.
While this lends itself to the classic "talent vs. teamwork," debate, it shouldn't be long before this series becomes yet another judgement on one player's character: LeBron James.
First, how Game 1 will set the tone
Naturally, should the Heat drop Game 1, theories will emerge in the media revolving around fatigue left over from their seven-game series against Boston.
Indeed, LeBron James has performed like the most-talented and valuable athlete in team sports that he truly is with his team's back against the wall and the aging Celtics fighting for their very lives in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The imposition of his will on a mere Eastern Conference playoff game has become a well-honed skill for Mr. James, with six playoff appearances and two No. 1 seeds under his belt.
With Chris Bosh shooting three point shots like Boobie Gibson, James, Wade and the Heat made coming back from a 3-2 deficit look like ordering a pizza.
Meanwhile, the Thunder roared back from a 2-0 hole to give themselves a vacation after defeating the gamely San Antonio Spurs with a game to spare.
But the most telling playoff storyline: the Oklahoma City Thunder last surrendered a loss on their home court last April.
If the Heat overcome their emotional and physical hangover from the Celtics series to usurp Game 1 from the Thunder, the series could be a five or six game walk for Miami.
Should the Thunder continue to take care of business on the home front, a tired Miami squad could find themselves in six-game quicksand. Additionally, an injury to any of Miami's big-three would prove detrimental to their efforts to claim their first NBA title as an ensemble.
But if the Heat do manage to win the first stanza, doubts must matriculate in the heads of the Oklahoma City Thunder, "last time we lost at home in the playoffs, we lost 4-1 to Dallas." Meanwhile though, without a title to his name, LeBron James has faced every doubt in the book and has the capacity to seize the series from the start.
If the Thunder win, the LeBron hate-parade resumes and if the Heat win, the Google search term, "LeBron James Redemption," will continue to approach and surely exceed 1.5 million hits. The guy's the several-time reigning MVP and in the finals for the third time at age 27, yet in the eyes of America he needs to redeem himself.
Yet, while "how-this-series-fits-into-the-LeBron-James-biography" storyline will certainly monopolize media coverage, it's match-ups like Kendrick Perkins vs. Udonis Haslem and role players like Shane Battier and Serge Ibaka who could shape the series.
The Eastern Conference Finals whittled down not only to LeBron's ability to close, but Haslem's offensive rebounding, Mario Chalmers' shooting and Bosh's newfound three-point shot.
In the WCF's Segre Ibaka's lock-down defense stole the show against the very accomplished San Antonio Spurs.
With a media and PR complex fixated on the individual narratives, the playoffs serve as an annual reminder of the importance of decidedly un-sexy contributions like shot-blocking and rebounding.
Yet these very "role-playing," responsibilities will establish the pace, energy and complexion of a series featuring two of the league's most vibrant franchises.
Miami's chief liability since the assembly of their dream team has been their lack of a true offensive center. Dispatching the gritty 36-year-old Kevin Garnett proved a challenge for the Heat, which Miami met with long-rage shooting ability.
So why does this series embody the NBA under David Stern?
It's been no secret the NBA likes its heroes, and in the wake of Michael Jordan's departure from the Chicago Bulls, the league tried on the likes of Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal on for size as the Jordan-esque "face-of-the-league."
Michael Jordan's image as the unquestioned, untarnished champion and figurehead of the sport created an unprecedented marketing icon, one the NBA continues to struggle to replicate.
Mr. James stepped into the void left by Kobe Bryant's sexual assault allegations with a compelling narrative of a hometown hero from a rough neighborhood becoming a savior for his athletically-obsessed, but tortured northeast Ohio home.
You can bet your bottom dollar "Cleveland Thundaliers," t-shirts are on sale outside LeBron's old home at Quicken Loans Arena, across from which LeBron's iconic, nauseatingly Christ-like image once hung in a shameful chapter of Cleveland's history of sports-driven civic myopia.
After hijacking ESPN coverage at an exponential rate for nearly a quarter of a decade, James famously returned the love in a nationally televised drawing and quartering of a city with little more emotional capacity for disappointment and ridicule.
Watch as the ESPN SportsNation polls demonstrate that (surprise!) two-thirds of the country will root against LeBron and the Heat.
America and those Clevelanders especially, will root against James, undoubtedly citing one of the popular lines-of-support: "LeBron didn't do it like Jordan. He did it the wrong way. You've got to beat the best to be the best, not join them. The Thunder are a real team, their fans are real fans." The most deliciously ironic:"what he did to that city and those fans was terrible."
Yet, the Cleveland Cavaliers enjoy the sound, passionate, engaged, if emotionally erratic ownership of Dan Gilbert and stand poised for renaissance under the leadership of coach Byron Scott and reigning NBA Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving.
But their fans and NBA fans casual and die-hard across America will root for the Thunder, only a few years removed from their historic Seattle home.
The nation continues to loathe James, who the Orlando Sentinel reported was more unpopular in the wake of "the Decision," than Ben Roethlisberger was in the aftermath of sexual assault charges, to the degree that they completely ignore the fact that while Cleveland lost its hometown hero, Seattle lost its entire franchise.
Most ironically of all, one would think Clevelanders or America-at-large might be able to step back and sympathize when they consider this conundrum...
So, LeBron plays for the Heat and we don't want him to win a championship...but the Oklahoma City Thunder are essentially the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, minus the middle-linebacker-allegedly-involved-in-a-murder-thing, and their victory would cause the same exact kind of excruciating pain in Seattle that we know all-too-well here in Cleveland. Heck, my Uncle Ed went catatonic when he saw Art Modell holding up the Lombardi Trophy...and we got the Browns back. Well, the uniforms at least. What do those poor Seattlers...ites...ians? Well, what do those Sonics fans get? Bupkis?
A city loses their entire team and everyone forgets in a few years, yet one guy makes a jerk of himself for an hour on national television and becomes a national villain?
Thankfully, the good fans of Oklahoma City (begrudgingly, I admit...) and Baltimore embraced their new franchises with open arms and provided the league with ideal models for successful re-location.
This NBA Finals, no matter who wins, will once again fit within the public record as another chapter in the LeBron James saga, thus far a tragedy in spite of Mr. James' numerous professional and personal achievements.
28 players, two major metropolitan areas and an entire country—but all we're going to hear about is whether LeBron James won or lost this final.
Even if the Heat win, the attention will soon turn to when LeBron will measure up to Michael Jordan's massive shadow. Should the Thunder triumph, Mr. James may risk losing his status as NBA poster boy to the up-and-coming Kevin Durant.
Personal narratives, associating marquee players with franchises, as opposed to team narratives connecting franchises with fan bases.
C'est la Vie in David Stern's America.
You can follow me on Twitter: @StepanekButton
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