Competition becomes riveting when opponents complement each other’s strengths and flaws. Two imperfect adversaries can match up and forge something memorable. Ali vs. Frazier. Magic vs. Bird. Navratilova vs. Evert. Tom vs. Jerry. This past week we witnessed a set of battles –in politics and sports – that eerily mirrored one another. In one corner we have Kobe Bryant and Dick Cheney. In the other there is Carmelo Anthony and Barack Obama.
Bryant and Anthony, leaders of their respective basketball teams - the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets - have been locked in a playoff series that has the makings of a classic. The Lakers have a 3-2 series is lead. Through the first two games alone, the cumulative score was 209-208. Bryant scored 72 points in the series and the man they call “Melo” countered with 73. Last Thursday’s heart-thumping game went down to the last play.
Cheney and Obama had their own Thursday battle, delivering back-to-back speeches on national security, torture, and the closing of the prison on Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay. As Cheney sneered at the world and Obama spoke softly, with his eyelids at half-mast, the parallels with their hoops brethren were overpowering.
In one corner, Cheney and his long lost twin Kobe Bryant. In the other, Obama and his brother from another mother, Carmelo Anthony.
The facts speak for themselves:
Cheney and Kobe both live to scowl and a sneer. Their opponents, Obama and Carmelo, have trademark smiles that would shame sunshine, inspiring media and colleagues alike to gush.
Cheney and Kobe give off vibes like they have lived through authentically tough times. Cheney speaks with the rumbling gravity of a scared Marine Corps vet, while Kobe tries to come across like he is a hard case with a short fuse. In reality, Cheney avoided Nam because, as he said infamously, he had “better things to do;” Kobe was raised in Europe by his basketball playing father, becoming fluent in Italian in the process. In contrast, in his youth, Obama and his family relied on food stamps for a time; ‘Melo was raised on the roughest edges of Baltimore. But both are also known for their “mellow” manner, playing it cool, attracting a crowd and making people feel at ease. Cheney and Kobe are more known for making people feel like they were just wedgied. They aren’t there to be your buddy, but to get you to perform through your own discomfort.
There are other similarities as well. Kobe conserves his energy these days, shooting long jumpers and then - before you know it - exploding to the rim and sucking the oxygen out of an arena. Cheney has been largely silent for years, and on a good day had a pulse. But the man known as vice has emerged in recent weeks to control the news cycle by staunchly defending the legality and morality of torture. By contrast, Carmelo plays the whole game at the same pace. He doesn’t explode to the rim. He glides. He would sooner attend a go-go show than overextend himself. What can sometimes be mistaken for lackadaisical play is really Melo just being mellow and lulling opponents into a false sense of security before he takes them to the rack. Obama, for all his oratorical gifts, will more often happily drone on until opponents don’t know how to respond.
We saw this clearly on Thursday. Cheney came out acerbic and brazen but seemed to lose steam as his own 5,500-word speech meandered on. Kobe as well came out strong but didn’t shoot a free throw in the fourth quarter and couldn’t even get the ball on the last play. He looked spent. Also on Thursday, Obama spoke softly and without urgency. But he ended by giving a 6,000-word speech that carefully constructed his every angle. In it he maddened many supporters who long for him to start breathing some fire and find Cheney some handcuffs. Melo as well came out soft in the first quarter, maddening fans with his absence of urgency. He is also a player who has made it difficult for longtime Denver supporters by appearing disinterested in “the fight.” This is the first year in his six-year career that Anthony’s team has made it out of the first round of the playoffs.
In the weeks to come we will no doubt get more drama from Cheney, Bryant, Obama and Anthony. One debate has life or death implications, the other only feels that way. One is a metaphor for life, the other is life itself. The sports contest is exemplary. But on the political side, one thing is certain. We need to be able to blaze a more urgent progressive path, so our choices are not confined to being a passive Melo or a mega Dick.