I've never watched basketball for the stats. I don't watch to see my hometown team make good. I watch—maybe we all watch—because if I watch long enough, carefully enough, eventually a storm will rumble and crash into my living room. Eventually, I'll be in the presence of The Perfect Storm.
The Storm is pieces that add up to something greater than their sum. The Storm turns real time into slow motion. It thunders seasons to a close in high school gyms where every last spectator holds in a gasp.
The Perfect Storm is part transcendent freshman, part veteran with X-ray vision.
It's in the perfect arc of a long inbounds pass. It's a behind-the-back pass as the point guard looks into the stands—and beyond, as if to the horizon where a monsoon waits. It's the defensive shut-down when each defender finds his place on the court and battens down the hatches for a long and wild ride.
Sometimes it's the guy who can't control his temper. Sometimes he's the tornado. The wind tunnel knowledge that you'll die trying to win.
But most of all, I watch basketball because the Perfect Storm emerges out of unpredictability. Numbers fill the stats boxes, but chance is the stuff of legend.
The Duke Blue Devils, 1990-92
I've been chasing The Perfect Storm since I was 14. Back then, it was the Duke Blue Devils. You almost couldn't see it coming—after their 30-point massacre-loss to the Runnin' Rebels in 1990.
But the Perfect Storm was part revenge scenario. It was part Coach K. understanding the physics of a high-velocity winds, the biological properties of a team working as a single organism.
Bobby Hurley running circles around guys and chucking assists all over the place: Steve Nash before Steve Nash lightning-flashed into Phoenix. Hail Marys, inexplicable and inexcusable to Duke's enemies—like Laettner's 1992 buzzer beater three-pointer against Pitino's Kentucky to win the East Regional Final. Grant Hill, the upstart freshman who threw a party in the clouds when he slammed an off-kilter Hurley pass. Grant Hill making himself known, fitting into the rotation like a key into a lock.
But it was chance, just the right atmospheric elements crashing together over warm waters, that handed these Devils back-to-back national championships.
The Detroit Pistons, 2003-04
The Pistons were a tidal wave nobody saw coming. Their Perfect Storm was holding five teams in a row under 70 points.
This was an unlikely group of guys locking teams down, making the Lakers' powerhouse offense look like a boatful of bumbling rookies in the Finals. And their defense gave them room to play—Chauncey eyeing the court like a pirate, Rip blowing off screens and hitting that diagonal jumper, Tayshaun swishing a sweet little jumper from the wings, Ben acting like storm shutters, and Rasheed blocking, Rasheed hitting threes, Rasheed getting tossed.
The Perfect Storm was a creation of Joe Dumars in the front office who made a historic team from scratch, no matter what he did before or after. He was the mad scientist building lightning storms in the basement.
But the Pistons didn't really build into a Perfect Storm until Rasheed Wallace showed up in February of 2004. The guy who seemed to be all mouth and swagger and trouble turned out to be a galvanizer with a storm spot of gray on his head. He was the chance element that brought the Pistons together.
The Boston Celtics, 2007-08
And even later, living on a distant coast, I chased the Celtics. The Celtics who walked back into our lives, like sailors thought dead for years, to make the biggest single-season turnaround in history.
The Perfect Storm was an amalgamation of the mind of a guy named Doc, the steady-as-he-goes Ray-Ray, the up-and-comer Rondo. The Truth Show.
It was The Big Ticket on whose shoulders The Perfect Storm rests. The man who needed to win as badly as he needed to breathe, the Bill Russell of the Nike era. You've probably seen it before, but you should watch it again:
Bill Russell said to Garnett, "You can't drag 'em. You have to put your arms around them and take them with you." Maybe that's true of all the great teams. Maybe the Perfect Storm is ignited by one guy: one Jordan, one Bird, one Magic, one Russell, one Garnett.
But the Storm is more than one man. It's a collective. For every Jordan and Kobe, there is a Phil Jackson on the sidelines, a Rodman rebounding, an all-around Pippen who never needs the limelight, an Horry or a Fisher sneaking in a game-winner.
It's what happens when one last piece tips the scales.
Then again, sometimes even when the pieces are there, the constituent parts of the Storm might not line up.
Remember the 2001-02 Kings, the season Bibby got traded and led the Kings to the Western Conference Finals? It was the addition of Bibby that propelled the team, but something didn't quite mesh: a confluence of players met in the eye of an almost-Perfect Storm.
Or the 2006-07 Warriors, who chanted "We believe" and chased the Storm with a finally healthy Davis at the helm, however brief the run-and-gun. For a few games, part of a season, everyone thought maybe they were riding the magic cloud.
In 2001, the Sixers made it to the finals, and this was arguably single-handedly Iverson's doing. As amazed as we all were by AI's quickness, agility, and natural talent, he wasn't the piece that ignited the Storm.
Looking ahead, I wonder about guys like LeBron. Will a Perfect Storm ever converge around him? Will it be his fault if it doesn't—many people would like to pin failure to his headband. Or will Orlando find the Storm raging above its head with Superman force? Or Atlanta? Maybe I shouldn't wonder. After all, doesn't some of the beauty of this game lie in the fact that the Storm is left to chance?
The Perfect Storm might be just a sky full of superstitions, but it's also the way five guys weave themselves into the fabric of something greater. And the energy of a crowd that feeds the soul of a team. It's a coach who looks at a playbook and sees a Holy Bible. It has to be all those things, and more—always that one thing you can't explain.
After the Bill Russell-Kevin Garnett interview clip aired on ESPN, Stuart Scott said, "if you don't have chills bumps right now, you don't get it." He was talking about the conversation between two passionate men.
Let's extend Scott's comments to the game itself, to the reason we watch the game. The unpredictable intensity of the Perfect Storm. If that doesn't cause chill bumps, I don't know what will.