Sunday, April 20, 2008

Politics Versus the Playoffs

The Democratic primary race lingers into April like a bad hangover, and each day's changes only taunt us with the prospect of its conclusion. We emerge this week from the doldrums with the Pennsylvania primary - a lull lasting for weeks until April 22, when the political winds came to a stop and the candidates were left without a primary or caucus to billow their sails. With no horse race to be won, the system created its own to be followed. The graph of Gallup's national head-to-head poll became inescapable (but what question does it ask? and what ones does it answer?) and each superdelegate added to a tally became a notable gain. To control one is to preclude your opponent from doing so. All moves are part of a grander strategy, and there are no events, only processes. It is not as simple as a Machiavellian conspiracy to control the demos: the candidates, the press corp, the "media," and the consumers coordinate, cooperate, create a relationship of supply and demand where the creation of "irrelevant news as commodity" is inevitable.

Shortly after Super Tuesday, the media narrative had evolved to contain the thread of similarity. That for all the differences willed into being, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were by and large the same. Though this narrative had the potential to evolve in any number of ways, conflict plays better than compromise. Rather than establish the points at which ground is shared between the two candidates, the media set to work in justifying the conflict that it would help perpetuate. If they are the same (and they are) the conflict is, on-face, incoherent. So, we construct difference - Obama as New Politics/Inspirational Leader/social change versus Clinton as Old Politics/Executive Leader/political change. But we could instead turn our attentions to how a campaign develops and maintains an absurdly skewed self-perception. How despite being confronted with near mathematical impossibility, and a chance of victory that depends entirely on tearing the party apart, the Clinton campaign persists by falling into the groupthink and narcissism that can become the heart of even the best political campaigns. The epitaphs were being written on the headstone of the Clinton campaign weeks ago, yet here we are.

In writing about the NBA, I am both gifted with and hindered by a complete lack of historical perspective. While I can't speak to "what it was like in the day," perhaps this is for the best. If the world has lost its sense of historicity, then the NBA is one of the locations in which the loss is most clearly evident. The NBA, as it falls increasingly behind the NFL and MLB despite their well publicized problems with video-cameras and steroids, is judged less by the League as it exists today, than by the cultural narratives that portray it. Past the halcyon days of Jordan. Players as Thugs. Less hustle than March Madness. It doesn't matter if these are true, it matters that they are taken as true. We've lost the need for authenticity in our historical representations, and so we are happy to accept those with which we are presented. If we challenge them, we will do so functionally - to prove a point - and recreate a competing narrative based not in historical authenticity, but in counterpoint to the dominant narrative. Faithful representations of the past, insomuch as they are possible, are worthless.

And even though the post-industrial/late-capitalist world is perhaps the best equipped to allow investigations into history, we simply don't. The expansion of the digital age has provided access to data, analysis, and commentary that allows us to look not just into events, but into portrayals thereof, and the way in which attitude and focus shifts over time. The Internet's democratization of information doesn't just solve for market inefficiencies, the short-term, capital-contextual utility of the sea-change, but drowns us in information from which we are to construct narratives for whatever morality lesson the story-tellers would have us learn.

Going back to the start of the season, there are signs of stories that still persist: Kevin Garnett as Messiah. Knicks as farce. Spurs as Playoff Machines. The Hawks accomplishing something. Which is perhaps not setting their bar too high for success, but no matter. These are all far less interesting than what is done with other, less comfortable storylines. Yi Jianlian had all but disappeared from discussion by the All-Star Break. A story abandoned and never recovered to be rewritten or even resolved. The "Shaq trade as failure" disappeared, but it less morphed from that story into a new one, than evaporated to be immediately supplanted by an altered version of the "Suns as Prospective Champions" narrative from the early season.

Kobe Bryant's trade demands, however, are perhaps the most interesting. This story began with world-destroying chaos - the sort from which only 9th ranked teams and apocalypse stories in sacred texts seem to emerge. But then the Lakers heard the call and we saw the ascendance of Kobe's supporting cast. When the Lakers became a contending team, it was perhaps the most compelling story to emerge from the season. Whereas opposed to the Garnett trade, which peaked before it started and was (merely?) flawless execution through the 82 games, we saw the evolution of Kobe and of the Lakers with distinct historicity. First, it was the development of Bynum: brought on by will and effort, but this was taken over by the Gasol trade and the mystique of architecture. And thus, with a team as stacked as the Lakers, we can look toward them as gods and peg their success on the mystical drive of play-off chemistry. We can both root for the most talented team in the NBA, and still look to their success as the triumph of an engine finally firing on all cylinders. They can be both the Golden State Warriors and LeBron James.

There are unquestionable problems with the place of sports stars in popular culture, but if the spotlight on Kobe Bryant has succeeded in one thing, it is that we watch this series fully aware of his context. Sport is interesting as mere contest, but it is altogether more interesting as a battle between wills, systems, and stories. We are gripped by the championship matches in sports movies as much because they are suspenseful games as because they are the final tests of the characters about whom we care. If the quarterback makes the play, it doesn't matter because you love the team. It matters because you need him to succeed.

We think we know Kobe. Whether we like him or not, we feel as though the glimpses we've had of his life are enough to understand him, and from this we pick a side. For all the commentary about his legal transgressions and prima donna whining, these are concerns ancillary to his game. If they do affect it, then it will be proven on the court. If he plays through them, or harnesses them to become something more, it doesn't matter: only the score does.

In the sense that there is only one outcome that matters - the win - the NBA playoffs are a refreshing break from the Democratic primary race. Does Clinton need to win by double digits to walk tall into North Carolina, or can she squeak by and carry through to Indiana on a microscopic delegate gain? How many points will the "bitter" comments cost Obama? Will media backlash cut into Hillary's numbers? Phoenix might have forced Finley and Duncan to make heroic three-pointers to force the first and second overtimes, but it doesn't matter since the Suns lost and the Spurs won. However close it might have been, the Suns lost that game. However much it broke their spirits, they are only back 1 game. In politics, there are no binary outcomes, and those that seem to be are quickly recast into ambiguity and gradient so as to be better spun.

Still, we insist on turning discrete events into systems. 83% of teams that win the first game in Round 1 win the series, the ESPN ticker tells me, but this is meaningless when Round 1 has a disproportionate number of mismatches, and when the home court advantage should privilege the already better team. We can be told that each game will make or break a series, but the field is still filled with possibilities. No one has elevated their game without having someone down the court doing the same thing. Arenas/James. Duncan/Nash. And even though Chris Paul mattered more than Nowitski and Kidd, who combined for 19 boards and 42 points but couldn't shut down the Hornets in the second half, Dallas could quite easily set the series score back to even after the next game.

In theory, politics has the same dynamic. A winner, a loser; a binary outcome. But being part of such an expansive process, we forget its relation to the fights that take place in the run up to the ballot. We focus on the day-to-day with only an eye on how it all relates to the finish line. It's the finish line, however, that's causing us the most problems. In setting our sights on the Pennsylvania primary, we've forgotten that it only matters insomuch as it helps us pick a candidate. And in picking a candidate, we've lost sight of our end goal - winning the general election - as John McCain rebuilds his favorability rating and coalesces support in the right wing. And once we do get to the general election, we look to the fight over the prize - focusing on the electoral math of short term decisions and often ignoring what it means for the policy we eventually hope to implement. We'll keep supporting inefficient bio-fuels and indulging nationalistic saber-rattling security rhetoric to get the drop on the GOP and get the win.

Not that this is the wrong way to run a political campaign. Perhaps it's the only way to run a political campaign that has any chance of winning: if you don't keep a microscope on the here and now, your opponent will win because she is. But today, when the Western Conference playoffs are providing one of the densest fields in the history of sport, and the Democratic primary gets drawn back once more into the fight over whether or not Obama should wear a flag pin, I am keeping a much keener eye on the hardcourt than on the polling numbers. When Hillary steps aside (and she will step aside - the only question being whether she'll win Pennsylvania by enough to justify staying in until North Carolina), I'll be right back on the political bandwagon. Basketball, for all its glory, doesn't last forever, but I'll enjoy it while it's hear. And while it may not resolve into any significance beyond that which it has within itself, it's still pretty fun to watch.


Steven Simunic said...

I'll die a fiery death before admitting that CP3 and the scrappy David West saving basketball in the nation's most beleaguered city is less interesting than the Lakers.

Brendan K. said...

How about the far more compelling (and, you know, true) story that Paul/West/Chandler will utterly fail in saving ball in NOLA?

I'm not calling all Hornets fans fairweather- I don't blame anybody for getting excited about a return to the playoffs- but that remains a Saints-and-Saints-only fanbase. They've never been able to sustain an NBA fteam, and (barring a Conference Championship run or better) next year you can watch the half-empty stadium in the season's early games and tell me THAT'S not the franchise that should have moved to OKC.

In their 1st full year back in Louisiana, with an MVP-worthy run from a young superstar and two All-Star selections (and Peja! People love Peja!) they still had the 5th lowest attendance in the NBA this season. 9 spots lower than the next West playoff team.

Steven Simunic said...

That's fine. My point was that in a post decrying the political media's artificial construction of a story, Darryl seems to be buying into the one created by the sports media hook, line, and sinker.

Stories off the top of my head that are more interesting that Kobe's man-child fulminations: There's The Hornets story (even if they fail, it's still interesting), the rape of basketball in the Emerald City, the reverse Jail Blazers.

The only reason why the Lakers have gotten so much press is because, well, they're the Lakers (leaving aside their winning ways this year--even in their doldrums they were getting the most press in the league). They play in Los Angeles, the media capitol of the western United States. And if we're going to accept Darryl's claim that he finds them interesting because he feels like he "knows" Kobe to a certain extent, well, how much of that is just because he plays in LA and therefore gets the most exposure?

Darryl said...

The Hornets are an amazing story, but it doesn't negate that the attraction of the Kobe story is as much its nature as its suspense. Not that I (or as I said "we," as a culture saturated by mass media) know Kobe, but that he is the product of a narrative that is distinctly historical. Insomuch as we remain keenly aware of how anyone is progressing, we follow Kobe because the spotlight has been on him unceasingly.

Perhaps NOLA could be like this - in that we are bombarded with the narrative, and it is supported, from not only the sports press, but the media machine en banc. In that sense, it exists with us more closely remembered as a product of historical events than as narratives re-created to explain and situate an occurrence. But the NOLA story's appeal is as much its connection to the political story of the era as it is any aspect of "the story" itself. In the sense that CP3 has been building a relatively quiet MVP run, and the team has yet to take on a publicly digestible persona, they're still unrealized potential, even if there's probably a little part of every person that wants to see them tear it up on behalf of the city.

Brendan K. said...

D's right, the Kobe stofy is more compelling, if for no other reason than the stakes are higher. He's playing for another championship (and damned well a few more in the next few years) as well as pantheon status as not just a great player, but one of only a handful of people to have walked the planet who could concievably go down as G-O-A-T.

Likewise, D's right that the NOLA stuff is inextricably tied to our sense of rooting for New Orleans and the rebuilding. Love me some CP3. I do. But in a sense, Steven, you're rooting as much in spite of G-Dub as you are for the Hornets, who, as a franchise, SUCK at making good basketball decisions.

The Blazers!? Are you kidding me? You consider an important story that Portland is now full of NICE kids who can't make the playoffs? Fuck that. Portland will be a great team soon, but nowhere in spitting distance of the best stories of the lig. Credit to Kevin Pritchard for doing a great job at his job. Why not to Mitch Kupchak?

You can spread all the Nor-Cal-oriented hate you want, it's not just a Lake-Show world- these are interesting times in Los Angeles for roundball. Deal with it.