Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Observations Concerning Games I Don't Care About"

They’re going on right now.

The National Basketball Association Finals: Miami versus Dallas.

The National Hockey League Finals: Vancouver versus Boston.

I have no investment in any of those teams. They’re not my teams – “my teams” being teams from Toronto or Los Angeles. Which means my rooting interest in these games’ outcomes is hovering around zero. I’m curious. But I don’t care.

The good thing about having no rooting interest is that it increases my objectivity, and as a result, my insight into the game. Because I don’t care, I can see things more clearly than I would if I were intensely identified with one team, in which case, I’d be watching the proceedings with the prejudiced perspective of a partisan fan.

As Dr. M once revealed, concerning a debate in which her point of view was being represented, “In situations such as these, I want one side to win, and the other side to die.”

A little harsh, perhaps, but to a passionate supporter, not entirely disgusting.

Do I watch the entire game when I have no driving interest in the outcome? Do I tune in and out, periodically checking on the progress? Do I just watch the end of the games? Do I only watch the game summaries on post mortem wrap-up shows? The answer to Question One: No. Questions Two, Three and four: Mostly yes.

I’m aware what happened. But I don’t see it all.

And again, since the outcomes mean nothing to me, I find my observations becoming more sharply honed. I notice things that, if I had a dog in the fight, I would, in the heat of the battle, almost certainly have missed.

And what I noticed here was this:

Announcers and commentators are adept at discussing game strategy, and overall performance. What they do not adequately cover – because they are not equipped to do so – is the emotional undercurrents bubbling beneath the surface. (Where all good undercurrents belong.)

To me, by ignoring, or at least undervaluing, the emotional component of the game, these announcers and commentators are missing the entire thing. Okay, maybe not the entire thing – that’s an exaggeration to juice up the worthiness of this post – but they’re missing a lot.

I’m not talking about individual player emotion, though that’s interesting as well. I recently checked the list of winners of the World Series’ Most Valuable Player Award. (I have a lot of time on my hands.) What I find noteworthy about that list is, over the years, how many journeyman, considerably less than superstar players have been accorded this prestigious award.

Bobby Richardson. Bucky Dent. Pat Borders. David Eckstein.

Players who have no chance of ever being enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. But one time, when it was all on the line, these middling performers came up hotter than their more recognized, and more talented, teammates.



The process works both ways. The superstars, weighed down by the onerous responsibility of coming through when it matters, often succumb to the pressure, and fail. Meanwhile, their looser, “just happy to be here” compadres, come up huge in the clutch, shining like the proverbial diamonds no one ever considered them to be. Except maybe their families.

What caught my eye in the current NBA and NHL finals series, however, was the unmistakable effect of team emotion. And in every case, that requisite emotion – or, more accurately, the absence therefore – cost the team the game.

Game Two of the NBA Finals. Miami is ahead by fifteen points with less than seven minutes to go. They lose.

Why? An emotional letdown at the end. Generating a what’s-the-smallest-thing- there-is and yet crucial decline in focus and intensity.

“We got this thing won. We’re going to be up two games to nothing. I wonder if any team every came back from a two game deficit. We’ll just play a little defense, milk the clock and…

“What the heck! We lost!”

These thoughts may not have arisen in their conscious brain, but that’s exactly how they played. Leaving a miniscule opening for the other team to beat them. And they did.

Game One of the NHL Finals.

It’s a zero-zero tie, the opposing teams having been playing their hearts out for three grueling periods. Less than thirty seconds are left in Regulation Time. “Sudden Death” Overtime (the first one to score, wins) seems inevitable.

You can sense the Boston players letting down the tiniest amount.

“There’s less than twenty seconds left. Good. We’ll take a a break after the Third Period, and we’ll come back and…

“What they heck! They scored!”

Vancouver wins, one-nothing, the goal coming seventeen seconds before the end of “Regulation.”

In Game Two, it happened again. This time, they’re beginning Overtime, the game ending tied after “Regulation.” You can detect the Boston mindset.

“This could go a while. We better pace ourselves, not push too hard…

“What the heck! They scored!”

Vancouver wins, scoring eleven second into Overtime.

The teams playing in the Championship Finals are good – duh! – and, generally, evenly matched. An eye-blink of a letdown, and it’s “Katie, bar the door!” (That means it’s over.)

Those are the kinds of things you notice when your favorite teams are out of contention, things like minutely perceptible lapses in emotion. I enjoy being able to pick up the subtle nuances of the game. It’s almost worth the Leafs and Lakers not being out there.

Who are I kidding? It’s not even close!


Anonymous said...

I'd have to say that you are correct here. I'm rooting for Vancouver and I've watched other playoffs with a more discerning eye than I do these games. But it's also considerably more fun to have an emotional investment in the outcome. Go Canucks!

Anonymous said...

"I wonder if any team every came back from a two game deficit"

Well, probably not this specific thought.

Because even if they weren't on the Heat at the time, it's surely come up a few times heading into these Finals that a few years ago, the Mavs were up 2-0 on the Heat in the NBA Finals and the Heat ultimately came back and won the series.

Zaraya said...

"Katie bar the door!" is that something folks from Toronto say? I live in California now, I say this from time to time and the people around me look at me as if I'm from Mars!

Oh, and about the sports thing being fired up by emotion is as much a game changer as being exhausted by it. You're right on the money, Mr. Pomerantz. Emotion fueled adrenaline, it's a Hell of a drug.