There's some crazy in the Finals after all
Looks like I finally have the answer to a question that has taunted me since the conference finals, a quest to find the most deranged participant remaining in these playoffs.
Before we get to the answer, we have to go back to the origin, back to a dinner in April when I was invited to join Isiah Thomas and Jason Whitlock at a restaurant on the Sunset Strip. Throughout the evening we kept an eye on a nearby television showing "SportsCenter," and when Tom Brady's face appeared on the screen, Isiah felt compelled to comment.
"That guy," Isiah said with great admiration, "is a killer."
He described the time he met Brady and the sense he got that Brady would do anything to win, even if it meant eternal damnation of his soul. That led to a fraternal bond, for Thomas belongs in that same category, a select group of athletes whom you'd want for the last drive, shot or at-bat, even if you wouldn't necessarily entrust them to watch your children.
To be the best, repeatedly, to sustain greatness and deliver in the clutch again and again, requires an abnormal mind, borderline sociopathic. As Thomas put it, "You have to be willing to go to dark places."
It means excluding friends and family if they are potential distractions. It means choosing your sport over anything else. Pete Sampras often talked about the sacrifice it took to stay atop the tennis rankings for six consecutive years.
"To stay No. 1, it's got to be your life," Sampras once said on "60 Minutes." "It really does."
To smash the competition in the NBA, you have to be the type of person who would make up an insult to create motivation or use his Hall of Fame induction speech to air a list of grievances for everyone who had ever slighted him. Yeah, like Mike.
I credit the HBO documentary "Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals" for revealing the shadowy side of the dueling superstars who lifted the league in the 1980s. Bird retained the anger that came from his father's committing suicide during Bird's college years. He also was perpetually driven to prove that he could triumph as a Caucasian in a sport that had come to be dominated by African-Americans.
Magic, meanwhile, admitted that he was done in by his dichotomy, that the attention-seeking, partying, womanizing "Magic" side of him led to the businesslike, Midwestern-valued "Earvin" side of him contracting HIV as well. Then he said he was OK with that, because without Magic, he wouldn't be a five-time NBA champion.
Think about that. He valued the championships that much.
I thought Tim Duncan was a huge exception to my theory, a four-time champion who always came off as very normal -- normal to the point of being dull. Then Bruce Bowen, Duncan's former San Antonio Spurs teammate and my current ESPN colleague, told me I had it all wrong, that Duncan was as strange as they come because of his psychology degree from Wake Forest.
"Tim's a psychological guy," Bowen said. "They don't see things the same way."
Bowen pointed to a sign with the number 7 on it.
"He might not say that's a 7," Bowen said. "He might say that's an upside-down L."
No doubt Kobe Bryant has that warped type of personality, and it's brought him that type of success. So I sought his opinion on whether an athlete could be both great and normal.
"It depends what you consider normal," Bryant said.
See, Kobe is so far removed from normal that he's constructed a world in his mind in which his mentality is normal. A couple of weeks later, he practically admitted as much after the Lakers fell behind the Mavericks 3-0 in the conference semifinals, yet he still held out hope for a comeback.
"I might be sick in the head or crazy or thrown off or something like that, but I still think we are going to win this series," Bryant said. "I might be nuts."
I truly believe that he truly believed. And don't you have to be nuts to think you can do something no team in NBA history has done?
But after Kobe and the Lakers were eliminated, it left no one of his ilk still standing in the NBA playoffs. The rising stars in the league, guys like Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose, are talented and dedicated and ... nice guys. Too nice, which is why they are home right now.
As hated as LeBron James might be this year, he isn't a dark, evil person. He's someone who wanted to go play with his friends in a sunny city. He broke Cleveland's heart, but if you watched the look on his face and the way he shifted uncomfortably in his chair when he made "The Decision," you could tell it was difficult for him to do. If he truly enjoyed the villain's role, he would have said it with a condescending smile.
The best closers thrive on breaking hearts. They live to silence opposing crowds. There's something anti-social about them.
LeBron's partner Dwyane Wade has delivered in the clutch, but he's also prone to getting injured or missing important free throws. In his thoughtful analysis of the playoffs during a practice-day media session this week, Wade sounded more honest about the pain one goes through in the course of a postseason, not the pain he loves to inflict. He came off as a guy who understands what the playoffs are truly about. He gets it. He just isn't the best at giving it.
What Dirk Nowitzki is doing during these playoffs isn't twisted, it's standard. (Note that I said standard, not average.) If you had to wait five years to redeem yourself after letting your only other chance at a championship slip through your grasp and you had Nowitzki's skill set, you'd be doing exactly what he's doing. Left to his own mentality, Nowitzki couldn't deliver in 2006. With the added ingredient of revenge, he is taking over fourth quarters.
Then there is the guy who has no place alongside names like Nowitzki, Magic, Jordan or Kobe. Yet he's forced himself into the conversation. He's the one, the guy who's warped enough to make a difference. He's Jason Terry.
His altered sense of reality is that he thinks he's better than he really is. He shouldn't anticipate outperforming the taller, more talented LeBron in any manner. The way Terry's shoulders and shorts hang straight down, he looks as though he's constantly losing a battle with gravity. Yet he's winning the fourth-quarter battles with LeBron, often head-to-head, and has outscored him 16-2 during crunch time in the past two games.
In the final minute of Game 5, Terry had the ball with the Mavericks ahead by four points and the shot clock dwindling to its final five seconds. Terry stood some 26 feet from the basket, LeBron giving him space out of disbelief that Terry would actually do anything from that spot. Terry calmly launched a 3-pointer that put the game out of reach. He gleefully provided the lethal injection.
To Terry, it was "just like being out there on the playground back in Seattle. ... Raise up, knock it down."
Would he have taken that shot even if there were more time on the shot clock?
"I definitely would have," Terry said.
"Dirk don't want to hear that. I may have in that situation."
Dirk and JET are constantly battling over Terry's mouth, with Dirk scared that Terry will talk beyond his capability of delivering but also aware that Terry thrives when his mouth is running. Dirk needs to embrace the imbalance.
The general formula for winning NBA championships is you need at least two Hall of Famers. That's the recipe the Heat tried to follow in assembling their team. The Mavericks' method is Dirk living up to his Hall of Fame billing -- and then Terry playing like a Hall of Famer, even if he'll never get called to Springfield. Terry thinks he's that good, regardless.
I told Terry what I planned to write, that the Mavericks are winning this series because he's twisted, with an inflated sense of his ability.
"I like that, though," Terry said.
He's warped enough to like being called warped. That's the level of dementia I'd been seeking.
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