In the landscape of modern entertainment, professional sports is a huge black sheep. It doesn't look anything like cinema, television, literature, music, etc. and yet it's so popular. It's the manifestation of competitive nature in mankind. Sports used to keep the soldiers in shape in between wars. In Ancient Greece, there was wrestling, pancrase, boxing, track and field, disc throwing. Every discipline had for goal to keep the soldiers sharp for the next chapter of history they would write. If sports survived so well and kept a such a dominant place in the cultural landscape, it's because they have more in common with other forms of entertainment than they seem to have. Professional sports are at their best whenever they have great storylines. If you identify with your team as much as you identify with your favorite characters, you will tune in.
Let me give you an example. Last year, I renewed with one of my muses, basket-ball. I played in my high school team and I used to be the biggest fan of the Orlando Magic. Those were the years where Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway were owning the courts like Starsky and Hutch. The big, sympathetic lug was bullying the smaller built adversaries under the rim and Penny was his dream accomplice. He was smart, quick and drove the defensive completely mad. But Shaq had to sign with the Lakers and break my heart. He chose money and the fame of Los Angeles over the boys. "Business decision" Shaq said. Of course, it was a business decision to let your army without its general. He became a traitor to me. After he left, the Magic were never the same. They had a decent core of players with Penny, Darrell Armstrong and Rony Seikaly, but they missed the center piece of their offense. The big, sympathetic lug under the rim. He was gone looking for his shadow in Los Angeles.
They took years to get over Shaq's desertion. When you had glory, it's difficult to go back to square one. They signed free agents like Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill, but both to very little success. McGrady was a good scorer but not a leader and Hill spent most of his Magic tenure on the injured list. It's not before 2004, when they drafted Dwight Howard with the first pick overall that they found a suitable replacement for Shaq. He was smaller, but strong and more versatile. Howard is a gentle leader. He's a man of faith and a very respectful player on the court. He lead the Magic to respectability again, but like during the Shaq era, they were missing that special something that would transform them into a championship winning team. They kept high hopes in guys like Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis, who are gifted enough, but loved to look at themselves playing the game rather than to just play the game.
But I am very enthusiastic for next season. 2010-2011 was a bit of a scramble, but it's looking bright for the future. They made two transaction last year, during mid-season and despite being a long shot, I think they got things right. They booted Vince Carter to Phoenix and reacquired Turkish forward Hedo Turkoglu, who's a quiet player, at his best when he doesn't have to take the center stage. He's an enigmatic player, but give him enough shadow to creep in and he'll start being efficient again. The true genius move though is that they traded Rashard Lewis to the Washington Wizards, for the wild and emotional Gilbert Arenas. I love the guy. He is a madman on the court and he loves to play ball. Washington had to get rid of him after a firearm scandal (don't worry, he didn't shoot anyone), but he was a fan favorite there. He was a dangerous player, but like one of my friends said in an NBA conversation, he never learned to be a winning scorer.
That's where I think the sport will get great and go beyond the court. Arenas is crazy and for the longest time, he was his own man in Washington. But now, things are different. He got support and he's pinched in between two incredible, more cool headed players in Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu. They will take time to know and trust each other on the court, but if they can get to know each other enough, Arenas might fuel Howard and Turkoglu's fire and those two might just give him enough focus to transform him into the inspirational player the Magic so badly needs. How's that for a storyline? I don't know about you, but I could write a whole novel about this story. And it's just one team. A lot has already been said about LeBron James' glorious choking in the NBA finals (Nathan Bransford wrote a great article on this) and on Dirk Nowitzki's improbable rise to the occasion. The NBA is the best breeding ground for storylines right now. That's how you need to watch sports. With your mind, but with your heart also. Because sometimes it is better than fiction.