The NBA sure has taken a philosophical turn lately. It started with Isiah Thomas quoting Immanuel Kant and has spread to the point where we can’t even enjoy someone getting dunked on without the Protectors Of The Game wondering if we’ve lost our collective way by ascribing Great Meaning to such inconsequential plays.
Bob Ryan and I have had a mutually respectful relationship for more than two decades, but that didn’t keep us from a heated debate about the significance of LeBron James’ dunk on Jason Terry Monday night. I believe it was the standout moment of a fantastic game. Bob, uh, thinks otherwise.
That’s why I was so encouraged to hear LeBron’s comments to reporters in Cleveland on Wednesday, when he confirmed that dunk did matter. A lot.
"The fact that it happened to J.T. made it even that much sweeter," LeBron said, twisting the knife by using Terry’s initials rather than the moniker "JET." "Because I think we all know what J.T., and he talks too much sometimes, and I'm glad it happened to him."
So yes, with a history dating back to the 2011 NBA Finals, there was an added meaning to the play. As if you couldn’t tell when LeBron stood over the fallen Terry and glared at him, drawing a technical foul.
Dunking is the best form of legalized aggression the game has. The NHL allows its players to settle their differences with fisticuffs. In the NBA you have to be more creative, find ways to assert your manhood within the context of the game, or risk suspension. No better way to do that than to dunk. (I still believe this Kobe Bryant dunk over Steve Nash was a belated statement of Kobe’s feelings about the 2006 Most Valuable Player voting.
No, I don’t deduct points for the height difference between James and Terry, just as the discrepancy between DeAndre Jordan and Brandon Knight doesn’t diminish the impact of that dunk. We chastise big men for bringing the ball down low where smaller players can swipe it; it’s fair game to go after guards when they step in where they don’t belong.
I understand that dunks don’t provide the answer to the essential question that frames any decision, transaction or development in the NBA, which is, "Can it help a team win playoff games?" I still enjoy them. I like home runs in baseball and kickoff return touchdowns in football; that doesn’t mean I think they’re more important than pitching and defense.
There are moments that resonate with us, when athletes show off their talent and skills and remind us why we pay to see them play the same sports we can watch in the park for free. What was Bo Jackson’s professional career if not a collection of those highlights? His demolition of Brian Bosworth was his version of an in-your-face jam. Bo hit .250 with 141 home runs in baseball and rushed for 2,782 yards and 16 touchdowns in football. Yet he’s still the subject of reverential documentaries.
The entire premise of sports is absurd, to borrow an existentialist phrase. Making a big deal out of dunk is no different than building massive stadiums where athletes play for millions of dollars. In that context, no amount of hyperbole can be considered excessive.
I’ll close with this rhetorical -- perhaps philosophical -- question: If a LeBron dunk in a game that counts doesn’t matter, then why do so many people clamor for him to compete in a dunk contest exhibition?