Blank Pages


A new story begins, and I am wondering what I’ll be looking for among the bones that the Dinos throw my way as a fan. And as something of a fossil myself, I have to figure out what this old fool will find worthwhile as material to add to the expanding universe of barely useful information.

I like the longview and the minute aspects of seeing the game, but what I really need right now as the old fool that I am, is to find the same love of the game that held me entranced as a little kid. I think that often boils down to the illusive “intangibles”. So, ultimately, I’d like to spend the cooler days of the calendar looking at the big picture and the little details, and trying to rediscover some of the stuff that makes the hard to define parts of the game increase my understanding of why I care about grown men playing around with a ball.

It is the intangibles, and not the stuff of boxscores, that draws me deep into the game, and always has. It was that way for me before I even found basketball interesting. I remember watching Ali taking on Norton six months after losing to him and breaking his jaw in the process. Ali looked as though he might have to hang up the gloves after the first match. He surely would have if he had lost in the rematch. And the challenge was all the more daunting considering that Norton simply had Ali’s number. He had that powerful left that could back Ali up and stop him from floating like a butterfly.

Ali would come out and win the early rounds while still fresh, and cause Norton to have to fight from behind. And here is where I probably first witnessed the intangible elements in sport: Ali would not take the stool. He stood between rounds. He gave a few flourishes of his infamous shuffle. He stood and stared down his opponent, and Norton’s task of fighting from behind became that much more difficult. He would chip away and win some rounds, but there was Ali between rounds refusing to sit. And now Norton stopped looking to methodically break down the former champ as he had six months previous. Now when he got the chance, he tried to destroy Ali in a hurry. He would hurt Ali badly, but he would also miss on some wild swings that left Norton tired and susceptible to counterpunches. Ali would finally sit down, but Norton was needing smelling salts, and he was left to wonder if he would be able to finish him off. Neither would be KO’d, but the overall result in shifting Norton’s emphasis, was that Ali was able to take him off of his game more than the other way around. There were no points awarded for standing between rounds, but the effect on the match was pronounced enough that it allowed a very close, split decision to tilt Ali’s way and take him onward to his legendary exploits in Manilla and beyond. I’m guessing the fights against Kenny Norton had as much to do with Ali’s later diminished brain capabilities as anything else. But they also brought about a stronger understanding of sport in my own brain, and I’m likely not alone. The selfish bastard in me would have a hard time giving those bouts up in return for a healthier Ali in retirement.

It was that sort of thing that I began to find as I watched more and more ball. At first I simply marvelled at the sort of skills demonstrated by the likes of Pete Maravich and Julius Erving. Then I found myself seeing how Larry Bird did more than just exhibit skills. I remember a broadcast in which Brent Musburger noted that Bird had yet again surmounted the 20-point plateau. And as a kid I’m thinking “what’s the big deal about that”? 20 points? That’s ten baskets. That was just a small part of the story. Watching Bird, I was able to see how he could change the gameplan of opposing teams just like Ali had with Norton. He made shots that were worth more than just the two points on the scoreboard. He made shots that would cause opposing teams to leave the perimeter in ensuing possessions, and allow him to pass the ball out for three. Then when those passes were shut down, he’d find McHale or Parrish inside. When he was forced to take a shot he couldn’t make, he’d follow it up and tip in the rebound. When he was on the court it felt like six against five.

As the Celtics faded and the Pistons grew in stature, I learned to see how Joe Dumars could win games with stuff that didn’t get marked down anywhere. He was the personification of intangibles. He always got a little piece of the ball off a dribble or a pass, throwing the Jordans and Coopers and Worthys off their games just enough to make a difference. He would get inside their heads. Meanwhile, he would get any loose ball to the point where the advantage was too hard to overcome. By the time crunch time arrived, the stars on opposing teams would need to think and re-think where they would otherwise just be playing. I can’t see where that Pistons team wins without him, in spite of everything Isiah did on the scoreboard.

This is all the stuff that makes a game more than just a game for a kid. It makes for a running story within each game, and I need to get a handle on the plot once again. Last season watching the Raptors was more like reading the footnotes: once Jose and JO came up lame, and Bosh banged his knee, and November went into the gutter there was nothing left to tell. THE END. That’s a page I never want to see as a fan, even after a championship victory. I just want to see the story carry on. But last season THE END came before most of the games even began. I don’t know if I can survive another season like that. It was as if they knew that a good chunk of games were going to air on a channel that was unavailable to most of us.

So I’m thankful that the team has been altered to the extent where it’s hard to see a carryover. I feel like all the pages from the last two years just got torn away from the binding and thrown into the wind. And now there is a pile of blank white pages with real potential for intangibles. This team has a ton of stories in the waiting, and they all make Bosh’s impending free agency next summer about as interesting as the Black-Eyed Peas being the choice for the introductory music (you know it’s coming, because every night is going to be a goo-ood night, even in the afternoon).

Now I’m looking for Bosh to be able to look at some of those hard to handle “Nortons” a little differently this season, and gain enough of an edge over them to allow his team to succeed. I’m looking for his defense to disrupt to a degree of what Dumars was able to do. And I want to see his understanding of the game approach Bird’s, to the point where he can make decisions that allow for advantages that can be maintained until the buzzer sounds. The opportunity is there. I don’t care what numbers he puts up, if he can touch upon any of that intangible stuff, and the team succeeds, then whether or not he is worth the money is just moot.

That’s where the story starts for now, but I suspect plenty of twists and turns along the way.