Most of the time, life doesn't make much sense. The people with endless wealth and fame don't necessarily deserve it. They have the most money and the hottest girlfriends, and then they get on TV and act like self-absorbed idiots. They treat people like crap. They make a mockery of traditions that the rest of us hold sacred. They trample on unwritten rules and have belly laughs at all the "jealous" critics they meet along the way. They drive us crazy, only we can't put our finger and what's most obnoxious.
All we know is we could never root for them, and watching them succeed only makes it worse.
I'm talking about Mark Cuban, of course. Loud, controversial, unapologetic, and sometimes downright ignorant. For years, he's been the most polarizing owner in pro sports, because he understood that no matter what people said, it was good business to be at the center of the conversation. So he was vocal in the media, obnoxious on the sidelines, reckless with his checkbook, and mostly, he overshadowed his team. Any conversation about the Dallas Mavericks began and ended with Cuban.
You may not have hated him, but for the people that did, the central truth driving them crazy had nothing to do with unwritten rules. At the core, people like Mark Cuban make us wonder why we even bother.
Really. Why bother working hard and caring when a stroke of good luck and good timing lets some arrogant fool leapfrog the rest of the deserving, solid people that've waited their turn? Or to put it a different way: What's the point of not being an arrogant fool if some arrogant fool is going to wind up being the most successful, anyway? That's why so many people hated LeBron James and the Miami Heat this year.
It wasn't jealousy, bitterness, or racism. Failure builds character, success isn't supposed to come easy, and the Miami Heat were the team that was going to disprove those old wives' tales. There was no moral of the story unfolding when they beat the Bulls and Celtics in the East. Except that maybe, morality didn't count as much as we'd all hoped. The sort of lesson that breeds cynicism.
Then the NBA Finals happened, and everyone got a reality check.
SOMETIME LAST WEEK a reporter asked Dirk Nowitzki whether he considers himself a brand. His response: "The thing is this, I always wanted to be a basketball player, nothing more. Nothing less."
Then he elaborated, saying "It would be weird if I had 15 different things to endorse. I enjoy my summers and my freetime and have never been interested in spending my offseason going on publicity tours." His stance on branding is kind of ironic now, because if you made a bunch of t-shirts with just the word "DIRK" on them, they'd fly off the racks this week. His "brand" is hotter than ever. We all need a Dirk Nowitzki jersey.
Because what Dirk represents today--his "brand", in Maverick Carter parlance--is nothing more and nothing less than a basketball player who never quit, never complained, never shied away from criticism when his team failed, and never really asked for credit when they won. A basketball player who gave us one of the most badass star turns in NBA history when we least expected it. I don't have a degree in marketing and haven't checked his Q rating, but that's something people want to identify with.
"If you're in this league for 13 years," he said after Game 6, "Just battling and playoffs last basically ten years, 11 years, and always coming up a little short. That's why this is extra special. If I would have won one early in my career, maybe I would have never put all the work and the time in that I have over the last 13 years. So this feels amazing."
That's also why it's so amazing to the rest of us. Dirk's not the same guy who crumbled in the 2006 Finals. Back then, it was a war, and he lost. Dwyane Wade was the better player, and Dirk had to choke on that truth for the next five years. His team collapsed when nobody expected, and after they got bounced from the playoffs in 2007, most thought they'd never recover.
Fast forward to last summer, when Dirk was a free agent. I wanted him to go to Chicago, mostly because Dirk's always been one of the NBA's good guys, and watching him waste away his final few years in Dallas seemed unfair. The Mavs had a big payroll, but Mark Cuban had spent most of his money on washed-up stars like Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd. Cuban spent $60 million on Jason Terry, for God's sake. They'd never win a title with guys like that.
So, of all the things Dirk did to amaze us during the NBA Playoffs, it's almost perfect that it ended on a night when he didn't have it, and his teammates carried him. He shot 9-27 from the floor in Game 6, and as he admitted afterward, "It was weird. I had so many good looks. I can't even explain it."
But the teammates he put faith in last summer carried him a year later, and the whole time, he kept shooting. By the end, he shot 5-8 in the fourth quarter, laying 10 points on the Heat to put the nail in the coffin. It all happened in the same arena he'd crumbled in five years ago. But this time he wasn't afraid of failure, and if it was a war, he was going to fight.
"It wasn't pretty for me," he told reporters, "But I had to keep plugging and keep fighting."
That doesn't happen in 2006. Maybe Dirk lets himself get psyched out and starts deferring to teammates, and by the fourth quarter, Dallas is looking to JJ Barea and Jason Terry to carry them. But 2006 made him stronger. More desperate and more fearless at the same time. Maybe Dirk had to hit the lowest lows before his "brand" could really blossom.
THE REASON CHARLES BARKLEY DOESN'T LIKE THE MIAMI HEAT has nothing to do with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade teaming up or taking the easy way out.
LeBron personified the Heat this year, and through it all, there was a disconnect from reality, where they walked and talked like the rules didn't apply to them, figuring that in the end, talent and winning would make everything okay. As one writer put it recently, "We don’t hate LeBron because The Decision was a bad idea, we hate LeBron because he didn’t realize that The Decision was a bad idea."
Or as Barkley said, himself: "It bothered me when they started talking about winning five or six or seven championships. Like, dude. It's not that easy. And these guys get together one day and they say they gon' win seven championships. Like, hey dude. You don't think we were bustin our ass out there tryin' to win one? And you guys gon' get together in one day and win six or seven? C'mon man."
For a second there, it looked like LeBron would make a fool out of critics like Barkley. Against Boston and Chicago, it was that easy. He pulled up from all over the court, and every swish seemed more effortless than the last, and more backbreaking than any big shots since Michael Jordan. This was the next in line to wear the NBA crown, stepping over legends and MVPs on his way to the throne.
Then in this Dallas series, it all stopped falling for LeBron. The jumpers that seemed effortless suddenly seemed impossible, and he couldn't handle the setbacks. So where Dirk Nowitzki could start slow like he did in Game 6 and keep fighting, LeBron sort of surrendered.
He didn't find other ways to be effective, he didn't put his legacy on the line and the Heat on his back. He swung the ball to guys like Mario Chalmers, or drove the lane and kicked to Chris Bosh. Once the shots stopped falling for him, LeBron pretty much stopped taking them.
So when he failed, we cheered, because it proved what we'd hoped all along; that there was a price for everything coming free. The character you don't build by bathing in failure is character you don't have once you start to fail all over again. But LeBron still doesn't get it.
"I pretty much don't listen to what everybody has to say," he told a roomful of reporters after Game 6. "About me, or my game, or what I've done." First of all, that's not true, considering the way he responded after his nightmarish Game 4. But second, if he'd listen to his critics more often, maybe he'd spend his summers working on his post game, instead of, say, learning Mandarin to broaden his marketing appeal in China.
"At the end of the day, they gotta wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had," he says of critics like Barkley. "Same personal problems that they had. And I'm going to continue to live the way that I want to live." Here's what he really doesn't get: his critics were right.
Not jealous, not bitter, not a bunch of pathetic people with pathetic personal lives who only draw validation from another human being's failures. Mostly, we just didn't think LeBron had it in him, and if he didn't, then it'd be painful to watch basketball bow down to a false prophet.
The Finals saved us from that fate. Today, a LeBron James jersey represents what it should. A guy who grew up in Ohio rooting for the Yankees and Cowboys, and then forged his own evil empire in Miami, but didn't have what it takes to make his dreams reality. (It makes you wonder: Would LeBron James be caught dead in a LeBron James jersey right now?) But mostly, a LeBron James jersey represents a fraud.
A self-anointed King that wasn't willing to fight for the throne. Not by himself in Cleveland, and not with friends in Miami. If you're wearing a LeBron jersey today, you must have missed the NBA Finals.
BUT PEOPLE CAN CHANGE. Just look at Mark Cuban. While his Mavericks won America's heart and pulled off a string of upsets that'll rank right up there with anything that's ever happened in the NBA Playoffs, Cuban was content to play the background this time.
Five years ago, he'd have been blogging and barking with each Mavs win over the Lakers. Or even before that, back when George Karl said his Nuggets wanted to play the Mavs in the first round. Or when 75 percent of the experts picked Dallas to lose in the first round. All of it was a classic chance for Cuban to inject himself into the conversation, but he held back.
Then, as the Mavs started to make their run, Cuban stayed quiet. So instead an overbearing owner barking about his team and how nobody believed in them, we got to enjoy the Mavericks as a basketball team, not a tattooed, jump-shooting extension of Mark Cuban's ego and wallet.
And as a basketball team, this Mavs team was as good a foil to the Miami Heat's hubris as America could have asked for. Guys like Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, and JJ Barea came through in all the spots where LeBron and Chris Bosh couldn't. They were fun, fearless, and absolutely relentless. Even when things weren't going well, the Mavs never doubted themselves, and like Dirk said, they just kept fighting. Now Dirk's got a ring, Jason Terry's tattoo makes him look like Nostradamus, and Deshawn Stevenson gets to visit the White House.
And because he was humble enough to let his players own the spotlight, Mark Cuban won our hearts, too. He's learned, and changed, and watching him celebrate on Sunday night was part of what made the spectacle so special. He finally seemed like a guy we could embrace.
There's still room for that type of growth with LeBron, too. He's young enough and talented enough to make 2011 look like a learning experience that changed him for the better. Whether he gets there, or the message ever gets through, is a whole different question. But it's possible.
For now, though, the Heat loss is a victory for the rest of us. All that entitlement, all those predictions, that stupid celebration before the season and the equally ridiculous show after beating the Celtics... Playing the villains one second and then whining about America rooting against them... It all just sucked, and it would have sucked a lot more if we had to watch them celebrate in South Beach this week.
LeBron's still right, of course. The haters will wake up tomorrow, their sad little life will go on, and even after failing in the most spectacular way possible on the biggest stage of his life, he'll still be LeBron James, rich and famous beyond our imagination. Life doesn't always make sense.
But when LeBron James wakes up Monday morning, Dirk Nowitzki will have the trophy that's been earmarked for his trophy case since he took his talents to South Beach.
Because sometimes the guys that don't get it don't get what they want. Sometimes, it goes to the guy that struggled more and wants it the most. Sometimes a guy's most painful failures lay the foundation for his greatest success, and he closes it out right back where the story first turned.
Sometimes when you step back and think about the way life happens, it all seems kinda perfect.