There is an incredible sense of urgency as the sporting year approaches summer. The World Cup, an event that symbolizes world unity and friendly international competition, will take place for the first time on a continent known more for civil wars, disease and colonial racism. We’ll see the baseball trade deadline and push toward the playoffs. The NHL and NBA will crown champions.
And yet, something is missing.
As a fan of sports in general, I suppose it’s silly to maintain preferences. But at the root of things, I find that the NBA playoffs without LeBron James are significantly less exciting. An NHL bereft of recognizable stars (at least of the teams remaining) has to rely on compelling stories over compelling individuals.
And let’s be realistic, the baseball played in May is a small sample size in the overall scheme of a 162-game season. To top all, almost everything of significance in an intense, eventful NFL offseason has been brought to a grinding halt.
Our sports leagues are nothing without star power. Sure, Kobe Bryant is still present in the NBA playoffs, but he is both a polarizing player and clearly second fiddle to LeBron on the news wire and court. From a personal standpoint, I find Kobe to be absolutely vanilla in terms of personality. And from a basketball standpoint, I find that he thinks too much of his own abilities (similar to Allen Iverson, but with more talent).
Dwight Howard is a more interesting character than Bryant, but unimpressive as a player. I say this as someone who was a talented defender in J.V. basketball in high school: playing defense is the easiest part of the game with basketball, especially when you’re taller than everyone else. Howard will impress me defensively when he goes out and defends Rajon Rondo. And keeps up.
Patrick Kane, Simon Gagné and Jaroslav Halak are names that a casual NHL fan might recognize, but the big guns, especially draws like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are out of the picture for almost a week now.
Of the remaining NHL teams, three have significant local fan bases and history in the league, but the San Jose Sharks are lacking as a potential finals team in star power, history and recent success. Additionally, the majority of the NHL playoffs have been played in relative obscurity on the Versus network, well out of the limelight of the network stations or a more accessible cable channel like ESPN.
You might say that if I’m not interested in the NBA and NHL playoffs, I should be able to find something of substance elsewhere in the sports world. I was sick of the LeBron James free agency talk when it picked up again after his Game Five stink bomb.
The kind of hype that is surrounding his free agency reminds me of that which surrounds the NFL Draft, Brett Favre’s annual decision or the latest athlete caught doing steroids. Let me know when he signs a contract and I’ll weigh in on the end result. Beyond that, the endless speculation is tedious and unproductive.
In fact, my wife (who is largely not what you would call a sports fan), turned me on to quite possibly the best athletic achievement of the past week when she recorded Amir Khan’s light welterweight bout against Paulie Malignaggi this past weekend.
I had never heard of Khan before and am only a casual boxing fan. When I got home from work and my wife started playing back her recording of the match, I was in for an unexpected treat. Khan put on an absolute boxing clinic. Malignaggi’s face fell victim to a pummeling similar to what must’ve required all of that surgery on Joan Rivers’ part.
Khan had such hand speed that it looked like he was throwing five-punch combos (and may well have been, given Malignaggi’s apparent disdain for defense). Khan put on a dominating performance and, by my judgment, didn’t lose a single round during the fight en route to his TKO victory.
Now, you wouldn’t think that boxing’s equivalent of a 11-0 blowout would fall under compelling or exceed “LeBron Watch 2010” in terms of headlines, but allow me to explain. Khan dismantled Malignaggi early, and pressed his attack throughout the fight.
But, to my inexperienced eye, it seemed that he was holding back, basically toying with his prey. When one side of Malignaggi’s face looked like raw hamburger, Khan switched his attention to the other. In the 10th round of the fight, his trainer Freddie Roach essentially told him that it was time to finish things. One round later, things were finished.
Watching Khan dominate his opponent to this degree in his first fight in the United States inspired both interest and the beginnings of a fan following in my wife and I. I would imagine the experience was similar for those who watched the fight as well.
It isn’t often that a sports fan gets an opportunity to see the beginnings of potential greatness. I’ve been fortunate to see LeBron James, LaDanian Tomlinson and Sidney Crosby from the beginning. But at times it can be overwhelming to look at the history of sports and know only the names.
So in a contemporary sense, I’ve never seen Ali win a fight. I’ve never seen Hank Aaron hit a home run or watched Jim Brown score a touchdown. I’ve never seen Wilt Chamberlain score 40 points or Bobby Hull score a goal. As I understand it, these things happened plenty of times. The wonderful thing is that I live right now and, at least in the contemporary sense, I will get to discover greatness for myself.
As a sports fan, I am allowed to determine what is compelling or interesting for myself. So you can have your LeBron saga and starless playoff dramas. I’ll be watching for the next big thing to happen.